Regenerating Overturned Virtues

A Critical Point - The Vocabulary of Good Social Life/7

by Luigino Bruni 

Published in Avvenire on November 10, 2013


There is a social and economic law which is as important as it is forgotten. It is what Luigi Einaudi called "the theory of the critical point", which he defined as "fundamental in science, both economic and political" (Lessons of Social Policy, 1944), which he attributed to his countryman Emanuele Sella (an economist and poet who also wrote a treatise on "Trinity" economics). The idea is the existence of an invisible but real threshold, of a critical point, after which a positive phenomenon turns negative, changing in sign or nature. Today we could apply the law of the critical point to finance, but also to taxes (if they exceed a threshold and so end up penalizing the honest people who pay them).

Einaudi wrote: "it is reasonable that every family would like to possess a radio. But the radio can become a perfect instrument of mental degradation for mankind. The transition from the radio that entertains and educates and makes one forget the pain to the radio that is the cause of the mental degradation of humanity is gradual". If we change the subject of his idea and instead of 'radio' (which nowadays is one of the most creative and critical instruments of the media) we put 'TV', the logic of his analysis becomes very meaningful and up-to-date, which can also be extended to all comfort goods.

In the early stages of development, the availability of goods that increase the comfort is important for general welfare. The examples are many. Just think of what has been the invention of the washing machine for the welfare of our grandmothers and mothers: this comfort product became an ally for improving the standards of their and everyone's lives. Or the introduction of pay-TV that allowed you to see the football game from your warm and cozy home, without any risks. Something similar happened later with the advent of social media, but also with mobile phones, comfortable cars and big houses. But there are many studies now that tell us that the effects of comfort goods on welfare are changing their sign, or nature, once you get beyond a critical point. Pre-cooked food is very useful when you are late and have twenty minutes to prepare dinner, but if over time this becomes the only food in the fridge, and the joy of preparing a (healthy) meal - maybe together - is lost, it is likely that your life is deteriorating in quality. It is great to spend a bit of time on facebook, especially if you can chat with someone you have already met off-line. But if the daily hours spent surfing the Internet become six or eight, the effect of new media on welfare changes radically. And if the "consumption" of football on the couch at home were to grow to the point of emptying stadiums, the well-being that we gain from watching it on TV becomes very little as it is being played to very few spectators, which would ultimately lead to the end of that sport (and market).

But why - and this is the crucial question - should we fall into such traps, and not stop before passing the 'critical point'? The reasons are many. The first one is presented to us by Einaudi himself: graduality. The turning point is reached and passed bit by bit and unnoticed, or noticed too late. A second explanation is called "salience": there is a strong tendency in us to see the comfort goods better and the others like the relational or civil goods less. When we calculate the relative weight of the different types of goods in our happiness, we tend to overestimate the merchandise type of goods and underestimate the non-market goods. The latter ones are the most ordinary and everyday ones (like family relationships, or democracy) and we see them less, they are less salient (outstanding) - except when we eventually realize their value and price, once we lose them. Finally, there is our capitalist market: there is a whole industry, becoming fiercer and fiercer, which is rationally oriented to sell comfort goods, while no one is paying for adverts that encourage us to invest in relational goods or freedom. In this regard it may be interesting to watch "Spot impossible (Impossible spot)" (on YouTube) by my friend and colleague Stefano Bartolini.

Then there is another area touched upon by Einaudi's writing: "A society of obedient people soon becomes victim of a tyrant or of employees and mandarines. What Saint Benedict, Saint Francis and the other great founders gave to the monastic orders was called the 'Rule'. As long as the convents were poor, only men who were ready to sacrifice entered. So the monastery prospered, and the donations of the faithful flowed in; and many wished to devote themselves, their family and property to it. But wealth gives birth to corruption. ...Everywhere, at a distance of more or less one hundred years after foundation, we are witnessing the same thing happen". Here the passing of the critical point produces the distortion of an element that in time turns into its opposite (subjection, accumulation of wealth...). This is an expression of an ancient golden rule: the vicious behaviours are often nothing more than primitive virtues which have been perverted for wanting to save the form and not the substance that had generated them - this is how prudent savings turn into greediness, or the justly earned profit evolves into parasitic revenue. To take an example: the founder's unconditional and to-the-letter fidelity in cultural or spiritual movements was, in the first generation, vital and essential for the birth and growth of those experiences. But at some point it triggered a self-destructive mechanism that blocked the vital need of renewal and reformers, up to the point that it died away in the name of the ancient virtues (loyalty) that gradually mutated into vices (immobility). The monastic movements, Franciscan or Dominican are still alive after many centuries because they were able to generate many creatively faithful reformers.

There are, in fact, steps to be taken in order to avoid, prevent or at least manage these crises, which sometimes become real 'death because of passing the critical point'. A first basic rule is to raise individual and collective awareness in times that are still happy that the critical point exists and that it can be passed without noticing it. Knowing that you can easily fall into these traps is the first antidote that can save you, especially if it is part of the rules of governance and institutional foresight. But even more important is the presence, or the introduction of a jubilee culture. Among the people of Israel every fifty years all the goods were returned to their original owners and debts were erased. If the movements and communities born of idealism were to return to their initial poverty, demobilizing and putting into circulation their assets accumulated over decades, and if they were to end up back "in the streets", they would find that prophetic power for themselves that they have naturally lost in the meantime; and there, in the suburbs they would meet many others who are in search of the same ideals that are no longer in the places of ordinary life of their times.

Finally, it is not difficult to see that we have already exceeded some critical points in the West, probably without even realizing it, or without listening to those he used to say or shout it out -  also because when the critical point is exceeded, it disappears from the visual horizon of civilization and is left behind. We have passed it, or we are very close to it as regards the natural environment, the spiritual capitals, the use of water, the use of public land, many tissues of community, the use of incentives, controls, competition, or keeping up injustice in the world. We have certainly gone beyond the critical point as regards outer life (consumption, goods, technology), and so our great hunger for and inability of interiority, meditation and prayer in which we have fallen gradually are all seen as normal. The same happened to immunity. The well-known modern conquest of spaces and moments of private life that used to be immune to people of power and bosses has turned into a 'culture of immunity' where there are no more hugs and getting close, which is slowly killing everyone and everything; and a whole lot of loneliness is flooding our cities and our lives. We are getting used to suffering alone, dying alone, growing up alone in closed rooms, with no friendly people but a lot of demons around who rob us of our children.

To talk about these major civilian issues is a first decisive step to become aware of this, and not to exceed other critical points on the horizon. To stop and turn back even: in some rare but glaring cases people have been able to do so.


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

Translated by Eszter Kató

Print   Email