Roots of the future/2 - Consumerism also betrays the meridian civilization of goods
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 10/09/2022
Giovanni Verga's short story “Property” (“La roba”) offers us insights into the economic system of our time and its sad ending, if we are not able to reverse its course.
The accumulation of things and goods takes place "in the eyes of others" and makes those who pursue it grow in societies where the envy of young people is realized.
«Who does this belong to? - he heard himself being answered: - Di Mazzarò. - And passing by a farm the size of a village: - And this? - Di Mazzarò... Then he saw an olive grove as if it were a forest. They were the olive trees of Mazzarò. All property belonging to Mazzarò». Property (La roba) is one of the most beautiful short stories by Giovanni Verga and in Italian literature. Written in 1880 while he was finishing his masterpiece, I Malavoglia. Capitalism did not exist yet, especially in the Sicilian countryside, perhaps some very first faint flashes of it could be seen; but from the high tower of his poetry, during a very clear morning, Verga managed to glimpse our coming days.
His critique of that proto-capitalism is still alive today because it is anthropological. It is a radical reflection on the effects that the search for wealth produces on people enchanted and chained by the totem of things. In this irresistible and almost religious fascination there is something similar to the «commodity fetishism» of which Marx had spoken a few years earlier; but the Sicilian writer's gaze is poetic, dramatic, crossed by a great pietas for the victims of his stories, for the vanquished who are left behind along the stream of progress. Hence, he reveals the fundamental and general dimensions of the meridian, Mediterranean and Catholic spirit of that new concept that would soon be called capitalism. A spirit different from that found in Northern Europe, but also different from the spirit of the first medieval merchants.
Verga sensed that the winds of modernity were bringing something new under the Alps as well. Mazzarò, in fact, is no longer the aristocratic landowner («with his brilliant mind, he had accumulated all those objects»), but he is not the modern captain of industry. He is not even attracted to money in itself like the misers of all time: «Besides, he did not care about money; he said money was not property, and as soon as he put together a certain sum, he immediately bought a piece of land». Mazzarò does not accumulate money, he accumulates things. In the Southern Catholic civilization of shame, different from the Protestant civilizations of guilt, wealth is valid only if it is seen by others. The eye of the "traveller" who opens the story and asks «Who does this belong to?» is a necessary presence throughout the cycle of the vanquished. Because if no one sees it, wealth is worthless and useless. Things become wealth when seen by others. This visibility is pride, it is social redemption: «Everyone remembered having aimed blows at him behind his back, the same ones who now called him excellent». Or rather: it is an illusion of redemption.
The economic and social miracles of the Italian and meridian twentieth century were also and above all the result of the action of many Mazzarò - of those who remained in agriculture and of the many who emigrated from working the land to small and then larger family-run industries. Wealth invested in farms and factories also to be seen by others, and therefore to be admired, praised, envied. A great industriousness: «He had not let a minute of his life go by that had not been spent doing things». An ethic of saving and almost a mystical of non-waste: «Do you see what I eat? He answered, - bread and onion! And yes, my warehouses are full, and I am the owner of all this stuff».
Those early meridian entrepreneurs were not hedonists, they sought neither pleasure nor entertainment through money. They did not like the consumption that reduces goods, but the investment that increases them and increases the number of people looking on. They developed an almost marital relationship with their goods. It was no coincidence that la roba (i.e. property) was also the name given to a brides' dowry: «He had never born a woman on his shoulders other than his mother». In reality, this relationship of Mazzarò's is more incestuous than spousal, like that of a father who wants his beautiful daughter to be admired and envied, but never actually married away to anyone.
Verga knows that property cannot keep the promises that it makes. He also knows the liberal economic theories of his time, which after Ferdinando Galiani and Adam Smith, trusted in the «invisible hand» of the positive indirect effects of the deception-illusion of an individual pursuit of wealth. He knows of them, but does not believe in them, because he looks at the discards, the vanquished and is interested in «the weak who are left behind along the road, the feeble who allow themselves to be overtaken by the wave» (Preface to I Malavoglia). The main woodworm of the civilization of property is intrinsic to the property itself. If capitalism can become the reign of quantity and extensiveness, only res extensa, without encountering any limit or restraint: it will soon become unlimited and unrestrained: «Mazzarò wanted to have as much land as the king had». If blessing cannot be found, as the Calvinists thought, through work and vocation ( beruf) but in things, particularly in things that others can see and envy, then the race to outdo one another in quantity and extent will never end: «The vanquished who raise their arms in despair, and bend their heads under the brutal foot of the survivors, the winners of today, who will be overtaken tomorrow, also hurry up, they too are eager to arrive» (Preface). A first surprise, the "spirit" of "winning" (or defeated?) Capitalism in the 21st century is not in which the Calvinist believe of work/beruf; it is, unexpectedly, the meridian spirit of property or things. However, things only meant for consumption, and no longer for the purpose of being invested and accumulated. Consumption, not work, is the protagonist of today's global economy which, not surprisingly, is growing and will grow especially in the community cultures of shame (Asia, Africa), close to the spirit of Mazzarò.
The stroke of genius of Verga's story, however, is found in its splendid and "desperate" conclusion, where the key to reading is found. Mazzarò's defeat is introduced to us through some of the details of the last part of the story: «He had neither children, nor grandchildren, nor relatives; he had nothing but his things». His is an economy of objects with no children and no future. The meridian capitalism of things worked (in part) and generated some civil values and virtues as well, as long as it remained a family capitalism, where the factory was above all the rope that bound generations and classes to each other: the goods were also/above all accumulated for ones’ children. This is why Mazzarò’s economy is also a betrayal of the very meridian spirit of things, which was born as something deeply familiar, communal and intergenerational.
The great illusion-delusion of this (dis) economy is clearly revealed only at the very end of the race. We find it in the final and decisive narrative twist of the novel: «Only one thing hurt him, that he was starting to get old and that he was going to have to leave his land where it was. This is an injustice of God, after having spent your life buying things, when you get them and would like more, you have to leave them!». In this epilogue, there is furthermore a second tremendous and astounding detail: «And if a half-naked boy passed in front of him, bent under the weight he was carrying like a tired donkey, he would throw his stick in between his legs, out of pure envy». This childless economy of things is envious of young people and children. In a culture of life, young people are paradise; in a culture of death, they are hell. This is the tremendous note of Mazzarò's civilization. Tremendous and prophetic, because what Verga, thanks to his artistic genius, glimpsed is now becoming more and more evident. Nevertheless, a nasty envy of young people is neither theorized nor admitted by the protagonists of our development system, which is becoming increasingly similar to Mazzarò's economy. However, there is a place where Mazzarò's envy is now too evident to be denied: land management. Only an economy of death that envies young people, that is, looks at them with crooked eyes, can leave a devastated planet to them, a land wounded by the neurotic, unlimited and unbridled search for things.
This angry envy explodes in all its desperate beauty in the last lines of the novel, which are his masterpiece: «So when they told him it was time to leave his things, to think about the soul, he went out into the courtyard like a madman, staggering, and went about killing his ducks and turkeys with his stick, screaming: "My things, come with me!"». A capitalism of things, childless and without a heaven will kill the last chicken on its last day of life, consume the last cubic meter of oxygen for its last bout on the respirator. The demographic crisis of today is telling us that we have already become Mazzarò's future-less capitalism. Mazzarò's capitalism takes its forests, its seas, its rivers and its glaciers down into the grave with it, because it sees nothing of value to bequeath to the young people it envies and does not love. The objects thus become the land, the earth, used and beaten to death. Mazzarò would become Mastro Don Gesualdo a few years later: «Then, desperate at having to die, [Don Gesualdo] started beating ducks and turkeys, tearing up gems and seeds. He would have liked to destroy all the goods of God that he had accumulated little by little all at once. He wanted his stuff to go with him, desperate just like him».
For several years now, we have been beating ducks and turkeys, and we continue to tear up seeds that should feed the children that we do not have or do not love. Verga knew that this economy is a desperate economy - we just haven’t noticed it yet. We will only be saved by an economy that is able to raise ducks and turkeys, as well as guard and plant seeds, while Mazzarò continues to strike - are we still in time?