Market and Reciprocity. An alliance to be re-founded

Market - The Vocabulary of Good Social Life/11

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on December 8, 2013

Logo nuovo lessico

In the undersoil of our civil and economic culture there are two opposing tendencies growing. The first is the gradual rapprochement between culture and the languages of the capitalist market and social economy. The second, opposing trend is a growing opposition on an ethical evaluation of the market, which leads some to see the capitalist market as the solution to all our economic and civil ills, and others to consider it instead as the fetish of all moral, social and political evil.

The first would like a society that is led and managed only, or mainly by market values and instruments (from the privatization of common goods to the buying and selling of organs), the latter would banish them from almost all morally relevant areas of human life, and keep them in a very tight and controlled channel. With globalization and the financial and economic crisis this ideological juxtaposition which has at least two hundred years of history has entered a new phase.

Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable that books written by economists containing the pros and cons of markets could become best sellers. This new phase, however, does not have the spiritual and communal strength of the ancient forms of popular humanism and their intellectuals because having lost contact with the vital places it does not have the taste of warm bread and the salty smell of sweat. And the opposition, which is very important but neglected by our culture, is becoming one of the biggest brakes in the search for a new phase of concord and unity, however indispensable it would be. This prevents us, among other things, from recognising and fighting the distortions and diseases of specific markets (and not imaginary ones).

The commitment to create this harmony and dialogue is not an easy task because it goes in the opposite direction of the trending approach having an ever stronger flattening and degrading effect on culture.

Traditional companies have learned a "social" language carrying too much rhetoric and little conviction. And the whole of a traditionally non-capitalist movement of economy has been trying to foolishly imitate the language (a fake type of English), culture, consultants and categories of a dominant economic thought in a damaging process of syncretism. It is an imitation that often stems from a cultural inferiority complex.

The new synthesis and the new constructive dialogue that we need are something different, something much more difficult and profound. We should first recognize that the history of the real world showed us the real markets that are much more vital, promiscuous, non-ideological and unexpected than imagined and planned by some theories. The most significant and long-lasting economic experiences, those that have increased the true welfare of the people, democracy and the common good were all hybrid experiences born of the market and society. The real market worked really when it pervaded social places, when it learned to live in and include the suburbs, too. And when it did not, and it does not do so it produces discomfort and becomes an enemy of the people and the poor, in order to make profit even from "the refuse of the wheat". Our best remote and near past are the result of the intertwining of markets and reciprocity. The cooperative movement, industrial districts and family businesses are the offspring of meetings between the language of the market and that of the gift.

Families have always known that businesses are very important and essential for their own good. It is from there that the work and wages come; it is in these promiscuous and hard places that real dreams and real life are nurtured. People have always lived and experienced the real markets as human places, squares and shops populated with people, smells, tastes and words - also, do not forget that for decades the markets have been among the very few places of public life that were marked by the sovereignty and leadership of many of our mothers and grandmothers.

The great and long history of the relationship between markets and civil life is mostly a story of friendship and alliance. Even when there were quarrels and fights in the factories, the better part of the country enrolled in different parties knew that inside those factories good things were being produced for them and for all. They quarrelled and fought inside them, but they knew that the world, theirs and everyone’s, would have been worse without those factories. They fought because they loved their factories. 

Intellectuals and politicians contrasted capital with labour, market with democracy, freedom with equality but people knew with a greater truth that reality was different because that work, albeit hard and sour, was freeing them and their children, and it was moving them away from the feudalism they had departed from. They recited social liturgies, each wore their own mask in the comedy and tragedy of real life, but the relationship between workers, employers and social classes was even more real, which gave real substance to the expression Common Good. Until those old "owners" became, not long ago, the owners of increasingly anonymous, distant and invisible hedge funds. When the critics of capitalism wanted to give life to another economy, they invented cooperatives and rural banks in Europe, but they never thought - or at least not seriously and not in great numbers - that those cooperatives and those banks were the antithesis of the other banks and companies of the country. They were certainly different, but the workers of large companies knew that any co-worker had a very similar experience to theirs, and so they understood each other and fought together; they would also turn to the same savings banks and outlets.

We were able to withstand the extremely harsh post-war times, terrorism, the ideological, radical political and violent conflicts because the real country was living an experience of unity in the factories, in the land, in offices, in cooperatives, and has woven a social bond that has been supporting and sustaining us ever since. We have survived by working together, workers, housewives, trade union members, farmers, entrepreneurs, bankers and politicians alike. We may have been arguing and fighting in the factories and in the streets; but above all we have been working and suffering together - for this reason it is urgent to return to generating new work. And we will survive if we can still find unity in work, economy and civil life.

At the beginning of civilization, gift and exchange for interest were indistinguishable. One gave gifts as a way to exchange, which, one day, became the market. This anthropological fact also tells us much on the reverse link: it reveals that there exists and remains a lot of gift-giving in the market. If it was not so, it would mean mighty little and it would be quite a sad thing to go to work every morning for decades for those who have the "gift" of work, or to donate our best years in a factory or in an office. Just as our projects and work plans would be mighty little and sad, our work relationships would be too poor and the hours of real life lived would be too few. We all know this, we've always known it. But in this phase of weak and superficial economic and social thought we need to remind ourselves of this, and all the others, too.


Further commentaries by Luigino Bruni in Avvenire are available through the Avvenire Editorial

Translated by Eszter Kató


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