Some Words for the Hard Times We Are Living

Commentary - The Vocabulary of Good Social Life

by Luigino Bruni 

Published in Avvenire on September 29, 2013 


Some people are convinced that the worst part of the crisis is over by now; others believe that the real "great crisis" has just begun. One thing is for sure: we have to start realising that "crisis" is not any more the proper word to describe our times. Actually, we are living in a long transitional period of a paradigm shift that started well before 2007 and is very likely to last for long. Therefore we have to learn quickly how to live well in the world as is given to us today, including the realm of work, too. We need to learn a new vocabulary of economics that is more suitable for us to first understand this world (not that of yesterday) and which is likely to offer us the instruments to act and maybe improve it, too.

There is a new kind of neediness: we do not manage to understand our own economy any more, we don't understand how we work and how we don't work. If we become aware of this new 'lexical' neediness, and so of this mindset, we will start - or perhaps continue - to write a kind of "Vocabulary of Good Social Life" for ourselves. It is an expression taken from (or given to us) by economist and historian Ludovico Bianchini from Naples who held the same teaching post, only a hundred years later, as Antonio Genovesi. He chose the title On the Science of Good Social Life (Della scienza del ben vivere sociale) for his study in economics(1845). No new word is born out of empty space. A new word always feeds on and develops from old words and makes way for the words of the future. Therefore it is always temporary, partial and necessarily incomplete; it is working material, a toolbox for reasoning and acting.

There are some fundamental words of social life that need to be rethought and some of them even rewritten if we want civil and economic life to be 'good' and, possibly, just, too. Right now we are conducting a very mean economy - also because we are thinking and saying bad things about economic and civil life. There are many words to be rethought and rewritten. Without doubt, the following are among them: richness, poverty, entrepreneur, finance, bank, common good, work, justice, management, income distribution, profit, company's property rights, indignation, Italian model, capitalism, and many more. The new vocabulary is also necessary to understand and so revaluate the specifics of Italian and European economic and civil tradition. In fact, the 21st century is (dangerously) becoming the century of a single socio-economic thought.

We are losing too much biodiversity, anthropological richness, cultural heterogeneity. Not only thousands of living species are disappearing, but also some living forms of enterprises, banks, artisan traditions, visions of the world, entrepreneurial culture, co-operation, professions, know-how's and labour ethics are dying, too. And many of those words that are being born now are very much like those aggressive and parasitic species that speed up the decay of old and good types of plants. There are less and less forms of companies, governing styles, banking types and cultures because they are crushed by the ideology of "business is business". Here, business is only derived from the Anglo-Saxon, and particularly, from the US usage of the term where even banks are all the same: they all gamble with our savings and they all love and serve certain territories, families and companies.

European economy has a long tradition of biodiversity which is a product of its long history, of those many centuries that the type of capitalism that is colonising us right now does not possess. Whoever forgets about this long history and this richness will do enormous and often irreversible harm to society and economics.
The 20th century, however, was a century of the plurality of economic systems and capitalisms. This century that seems far in the past now saw several types or forms of market economy unfold. The German social market economy, collectivist economy, the Italian mixed economy - a "mix" that was fuller than the exclusively private/public relationship -, the Scandinavian, French, English, US, Japanese, Indian, South American model, and, in the last flashes of it, the Chinese hybrid model, too. All this variety of market economies, be them capitalistic or not, were later accompanied by great, sometimes enormous, sites of traditional economy that persisted even in our old European continent. All this biodiversity is disappearing in the 21st century.

It is always diversity that makes the world beautiful; biodiversity of civil and economic forms make it as gorgeous and rich as butterflies and plants. The Italian and European landscape are part of the human heritage not only because of the hills and forests (connected to the great monastic charisma of the mediaeval ages and therefore to spiritual biodiversity). Our squares and city walls were made beautiful not only by the surrounding vineyards and olive gardens but also by the cooperative companies, thousands of regional banks and cooperative banks that were all the same yet all different, savings banks, luthier (makers of stringed instruments) wokshops and mountain stables, the district enterprises, brotherhoods, houses of mercy, Don Bosco's schools and those of the Religious Teachers Filippini (Maestre Pie), the hospitals of the Handmaids of Charity (Ancelle della carità) next to the public and private ones. Every time such an institution dies, maybe because of wrong legislation or unprepared consultants, our country becomes poorer and we become less cultured, less profound and free and we burn down centuries of history and biodiversity. 

Where there is no biodiversity, there is only sterility, incest, dwarfism - these are the illnesses that the financial type of capitalism is experiencing nowadays. In fact, it is unable to produce nice work and good richness, exactly because it is too much flattened out onto a single culture and on a single active principle (the maximisation of profit in short time). This loss of civil and economic (and therefore, human) biodiversity is a very serious illness that questions democracy itself which is and has always been strictly connected to the fates, forms and plurality of the protagonists of market economy.

And this is where new challenges open up that are decisive for the quality of our present and future: up until where do we want to extend the mechanism of pricing to rule our lives in our towns? Are we sure that the way we are directing our companies, especially the large ones, has got a future? Will workers always be left out of the management of companies? Do we want to continue to prey on Africa or can we start a new chapter, one of reciprocity, in our relationship with those distant, yet ever closer peoples? When are we going to stop stealing the future of our grandchildren by getting indebted because of excessive and egoistic consumerism? Is it possible to extend the system of hotel ranking called "trip advisor" to all market goods in order to create a real economic democracy? Do we have anything to say in the name of Europe about market and business? These and other difficult questions and challenges cannot be processed successfully if we do not learn first to think and talk about them using the proper words.

There have been too much of damages in these past years that are not only economic, caused by those who produce "bad things" instead of "goods" in costs and incomes alike, masking vices to look like virtues. These damages are continuously, albeit not always intentionally, produced. We all - citizens, economics, institutions, media, politicians - have to gear up and create a new economic and civil language that can help us give the right name to things in order to love them and improve them. In all of the renaissance type ages words fade very quickly and no other historical age has made words and concepts disappear as quickly as ours. If we really want to re-create work, civil concordance, cooperation and richness, first we need to know how to say them, how to call them. When one would like to pass from 'chaos' to 'cosmos' (order), the first fundamental human deed is to name things, to get to know them, to look after them and nurture them. However, the most important word we need to learn again to recognise and say the right way is the name of the other. For whenever you forget that most important of words, the first name, you don't manage to call to or name yourself or things in general, including some very important ones like economy. Only if we call them by the right name will they start to give response to us.


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


Translated by Eszter Kató


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