Regenerations/1 - Values are not to be manufactured and challenges should be acknowledged
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 26/07/2015
“Everywhere in the world, human beings want the same thing: to be recognized with dignity for what they are and what they do. Companies like ours are in the unique position to satisfy this desire.”
(Robert H. Chapman)
The culture of big firms is gaining more and more space in our era. Categories, language, values and virtues of the multinationals are creating and offering a universal grammar suited to describe and produce all the ‘winning’ individual and collective stories. This is how the big company that used to be interpreted as the main place of exploitation and alienation became the icon of excellence and human flourishing within just a few decades.
In a time like ours, when collective passions surviving from the twentieth century are the sad ones of fear and insecurity and where the passions of the individual still reign and are mostly left unchallenged, the culture produced and conveyed by global firms is the perfect tool to embody and strengthen the spirit of our time. In fact, nothing is as capable of enhancing and strengthening the values of the individual and his passions as the capitalist company.
This is why the words of ‘business’ and its virtues are becoming the good words and the virtues of the entire social life: politics, health care and education. Merit, efficiency, competition, leadership and innovation are now the only good words of communal life. In the absence of other strong places capable of producing a different culture and values, the virtues of the companies present themselves as the only ones to recognize and cultivate starting from childhood.
Companies often do good things, but cannot and don't have to generate all the social values or the entire common good. To live well we need to create something other than economic value, because there are values that are not those of the companies, and the common good is beyond the common good generated by the economic sphere.
This is something we have always known but are forgetting today. The management of the Greek and European crisis in the past weeks - and the next ones - is an eloquent sign of this. But also what is happening in the areas of health, education, the world of volunteering, in social economy and even in some Catholic movements and Christian churches tells us that the economic virtues are gradually replacing all the others are also because these latter ones are being presented by the global corporate culture as vices (e.g. meekness, mercy ...). Furthermore, we must take note that the 'guilty ones' for this impressive reductionism are not only, and perhaps not even mainly businesses, global consulting firms or business schools that are the main carriers of this mono-culture. Civil society has a great and objective responsibility as it can no longer create sufficient places outside of the economic realm that should be able to generate virtues other than economic ones in young people and in others. School, for example (and along with it, family) should be the main counterweight of the company culture, because it belongs to the school to teach the virtues to children and young people, especially those that are not utilitarian or instrumental, the ones that are valuable even if (or exactly because) they do not have a price. However, what we are seeing around the world is that school is being taken over by the logic and values of the company (merit, incentives, competition...), where directors, teachers and students are evaluated and trained in the values of enterprises. And so we apply efficiency, incentives and merit even in the education of our children and in managing our friends (it is enough to visit the Nordic countries where this process is in a more advanced stage already, and see how they are transforming their community life, human relations and friendship accordingly).
The anthropological deficit experienced in economic and civil life today will not be overcome by filling the void left by the ancient, non-economic virtues with the 'new' economic virtues, but by generating and regenerating old and new virtues beyond the economic and corporate realm, that will allow the full flourishing of the people, inside and outside the world of work.
Economy has always needed virtue, that is, excellence (areté). Until a few decades ago, however, the factories and workplaces used the heritage of virtues and values that had been formed outside them, in civil society, politics, churches, oratories, cooperatives, trade unions, in the shops, on the seas, in the fields, at schools and especially in families. It was in these non-economic places governed by principles and laws other than those of the companies and the market that the character and virtues of the people were formed and reformed. This personal capital then was transformed into productive, entrepreneurial, management and work resources inside businesses. Without forgetting the immense heritage represented by women - mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, nuns, aunts, grandmothers - who formed, loved, looked after, generated and regenerated boys and men every day inside the houses; and these in turn carried some invisible but very real female figures with themselves when they crossed the gates of the places work, who actually offered and performed services of the highest value, even in the economic sense, at zero cost to the company.
In two or three decades, we are running out of this secular stock of ethical, spiritual and civil heritage, without being able to generate new ones as yet. And so the people joining the companies usually come with a poor and fragile moral heritage, and they are not quite equipped with the virtues essential in working life, in team work and especially in the management of human relations, crisis and conflict.
To continue to create wealth and profits, businesses got equipped to create the values and virtues they have a vital need for by themselves. Almost none of these virtues and values are new, because they are nothing but the reworking and adaptation of ancient practices, tools and principles with a new focus (and here is the key point): the goals of the post-modern company.
This opens up some decisive challenges, perhaps the most important ones that have a determining influence on the quality of economic, personal and social development of the coming decades, which will be discussed on the next few Sundays.
Yesterday, today and always, there are virtues that are essential for the formation of a good character in people, who should come before the economic virtues and those of the company. Gentleness, loyalty, humility, mercy, generosity and hospitality are pre-economic virtues; when they are present, they also enable economic virtues to work. You can live without being efficient and particularly competitive, but you live very badly, and often die without generosity, without hope, without docility.
In a world occupied solely by economic virtues, how do we respond to the questions: 'What do we do with the undeserving?', 'Where should the non-excellent go?', 'Where do we put the non-smart ones?'. Not all of us are deserving the same way, not all of us are talented, not all of us are able to 'win' in the competition of life. The market and the economy have their own answers to these questions. Those who are not competitive in the markets have to leave; in the successful companies 'those who do not grow will be out of the group'. But if the economic sphere becomes the entire social life, where else can the losers of the competition exit to, which 'outside' welcomes those who do not grow or those who develop at different rates and in ways that do not count for the indicators of corporate performance? The only possible scenario that remains this way is the building of a 'society of waste'. We remain worthy people even when we are or become unworthy, inefficient and uncompetitive. But this different type of dignity is not recognised by the new culture of the company.
Creating economic and managerial virtues in the workers takes some other virtues that companies are unable to generate. The economic virtues are authentic if and when accompanied and preceded by the virtues that have their active ingredient in gratuitousness.
It is here that the great project of the company culture to create its own virtues needed to achieve the desired goals faces a strict requirement: the virtues, all the virtues, to be created and to flourish have a vital need for freedom and excess of the goals set by the management. We will never be excellent workers if we lose the intrinsic value of things, unless we free ourselves from the servitude of the incentives.
The economic virtues of businesses do not turn into vices if they are left to be humbly accompanied by other virtues that mollify and humanize them. Only by learning to waste time inefficiently with my employees can I hope to become a truly efficient manager. Only by humbly recognizing that the most valuable talents I possess are not fruits of my own merit but pure gifts (charis) can I recognize the true merits in myself and others.
Companies cannot build the good character of their workers, because if they do, they do not generate free and happy people as they say, and maybe as they want, but only sad instruments of production. Companies can only welcome, strengthen and not destroy our virtues. They cannot manufacture them. As with the trees. As with life. This is one of the most beautiful laws of the earth: the virtues flourish if they are larger and freer than our goals, even the most noble and greatest ones.
Here in Vallombrosa, where I am writing these lines, a few months ago a storm knocked down about twenty thousand trees. While working on the removal of fallen trees that were tended for centuries by virtuous monks, the Forest Service is also starting to plant new trees, of many different species, to try and save the biodiversity of the forest that will be reborn.
When forests fall someone must start planting trees. The tree of economy will grow well if it is surrounded by all the other trees of the forest.