Something Essential

Relational Goods - The Vocabulary of Good Social Life/4

by Luigino Bruni 

Published in Avvenire on October 20, 2013 


Our interpersonal relationships are the most important good and bad things in our lives - this has always been part of popular wisdom. Myths, literature, stories and traditions do nothing but talk about this for thousands of years, telling how richness can become a great evil in the wrong relationships, and how, in the context of material poverty the little possessed may be multiplied if it is shared in the community.

For some decades now social scientists and even some economists (the first one was Benedetto Gui in 1986) have been realising this, too, and they started using the expression 'relational goods' to indicate the type of goods where it is the relationship between persons that constitutes the good itself.

Relational goods mean a whole lot of things today. Some people use this expression to refer to those personal services the value of which depends mainly on the quality of the relationship between the persons involved. If a night out with friends in a pizzeria should count as an instant of well-being surely depends on the quality and price of the pizza, on the beer offered, but above all (in about 80-90%?) it derives from the quality of relationships that we generate together. It is so much true that if there is an argument on a trivial matter, mighty little of that 'well-being' will be left for us, even if the pizza was perfect. The satisfaction (or the lack of it) that we derive from assistance, curing, but also from visits to the doctor's or from school depends in great part from the quality of human relations and encounters lived in them. It is a 'lot' that later becomes 'all' when it comes to children, long stays in hospital or our relationship with our elderly parents. In relational goodsmotivations and intentions of the persons involved have got a particular role that 'produce' and, simultaneously, 'consume' these goods. The reason for this is decisive. If, for example, the consultant or the insurer asks me for my children and my family 'because' he knows that creating this familiar atmosphere makes the closing of the contract easier (and more advantageous to him), and this motivation is revealed to me, the pre-commercial dialogue does not generate any relational good (but, more probably, a 'relational harm').

 Actually, relational goods are goods of great value that is kept only up to the point when we start attaching a price to them in order to transform them into merchandise and put them up for sale. They die away if they lose the active principle of being gratis, i.e. freely given. Relational goods orientate and condition our choices starting from the smallest, every day ones to the great and decisive choices we make.

It would be enough to think every now and then of how much relational goods (and harms) weigh in the quality of our work, for our staying with or quitting a company. Even after moving houses to live in another neighbourhood, we tend to occasionally go back for breakfast in the good old café, because along with the brioche and cappuccino we also "consume" the goods ​that derive from meetings, jokes, or even the teasing of friends for their favourite football team. Without taking into account the need for this kind of nutrition, we would not be able to understand why many elderly people leave their house several times a day to buy bread, then again to get vegetables and finally milk: with these products they also 'consume' relational goods, and feed on them. If we take away the demand and the need for relational goods from the political horizon, just because it was left out by its engineers and consultants, we fail to understand and love our cities, their true poverty and their real wealth, to understand the real costs and the real revenues of the final balance, for example, the small shops of the city.

However, these relational goods do not exhaust the relational nature of goods. All goods, and not only those that we now call relational, carry in themselves the imprint of persons and human relations that have generated them. The weight, shape and visibility of this imprint varies from good to good, but never disappears completely, and we can see them if we want to. Seen from this point of view, all goods become relational goods. It is easy to understand if we think of handicraft products. In the handcraft culture - which is still well and alive, and has never been completely overgrown by industrial culture - a violin, a piece of furniture, an arch were recognisable way before reading the signature of their maker (which was often omitted because it was simply unnecessary). From the object, the subject was but a step away, from the creation it was an easy move to the 'creator'. But there is also the case where the personal imprint is absolutely visible, so much so that it is not possible any more to distinguish between author and work: this is what happens in artistic creation. An artist never completely 'alienates' his work when they sell it because in that work of art a piece of their life, love and pain is incorporated and will remain so for ever.

In our market society, after decades of domination by nameless and impersonal mass products there is now a strong and growing tendency of re-personalising goods. There is a will to give way to the emergence of those "relations between persons, disguised as the relation between things" (Marx, Capital). In the markets, on the shelves, on the web we see merchandise and services, however, behind these there are invisible but most real types of relations of work, production and human relations of power, love and pain. We need to train our view and sharpen our hearing, so that we should be able to hear voices and see faces not only behind the fruit counters or the cash desk of a store, but also behind refrigerators, shoes, clothes, computers, because they are really there. A coffee consumed in a bar free of slot-machines, maybe sipped in the company of friends, is not the same coffee that I drank some time ago in the bar of the next street, even though it was made ​​with the same mixture and with the same machine. It tastes very different, but you need spiritual and civil glands to taste this difference, glands that are out of use any more and being wasted right now.

We should learn to ask more questions of our goods (and harms, too), to interview them, to enter into a dialogue with them. It is not and it should not be enough anymore to talk about the quality of the merchandise and the prices. We should ask for stories of people and circumstances that should be telling us about justice, respect, rights and reveal to us what is invisible to the eyes but is becoming essential to many of us now. Some of this invisible information is being now revealed by the specific labels on the wrapping of products and by the quality marks on them. But it is not enough because goods contain many more important and decisive stories that we don't know. Those labels do not tell us, or not in enough detail whether the wages paid to workers in the cocoa or blue jeans factory are fair, nor about where the legal seat of the company is. They are silent about whether women and mothers were given the opportunity to work well, and they do not tell us where the profits end up, nor about how many and what contributions by other companies are included and paid from the wallet of the company that sold me the product. The ethical supply chains of the products are still too short, terribly short, and they stop just where the things that matter and will count more and more for democracy start.

Our capitalistic culture is making us attribute growing importance to calories, salts and sugars.  But we cannot and should not forget that there exist social calories, salts of justice and other types of excessive sugars that may cause civil and moral heart attack, obesity and diabetes.  

Goods are symbols, and like all symbols operating by their presence or absence they show us something or somebody that exists and is alive somewhere else. Somebody or something that we may choose to ignore and pretend that they do not exist, deny and forget them. But they do not cease to be alive and real. And they keep talking to us, telling us stories and waiting and hoping for us to listen.


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


Translated by Eszter Kató


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