Let us violate the big taboo

On the border and beyond/9 - For a market also directed by the "invisible hand": the gift

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 19/03/2017

Sul confine e oltre 09 rid"Even if the world we live in is less violent than any world of the past, this is only one aspect. The other aspect shows exactly the opposite: a frightening increase in violence and in the threat of violence. Our world saves more lives and simultaneously produces more victims than it has ever happened in the past."

René Girard, Violence and the Sacred

Gratuitousness is the main taboo of capitalism. It is feared as the greatest danger, because if it were let to run freely in the territories of capitalism, they would be infected and its "poison" would cause its death, or - and it's the same thing - it would transform it into something substantially different. It is difficult to decipher the taboo of gratuitousness in our economy (and society) because it is covered by another taboo: that of the recognition of its existence. So to understand the profound relationship between gratuitousness and capitalism we must violate this first taboo, by starting to simply talk about it.

According to an important anthropological tradition, the origin of civilization is deeply connected to two words: violence and the sacred. Even the Bible begins human history outside of Eden with Cain's fratricide. The death of the meek and righteous Abel becomes the first price of the foundation of human civilization. Founding myths of other cities (e.g. Rome) narrate similar cases of violence and murder, where sometimes even the gods are accomplices. Communities have had to learn how to manage people's violent impulses, to prevent their own destruction. The creation of taboos must be included among the tools to regulate and control violence in order to prevent it from becoming camouflage, repeated and explosive. Communities have paid a high price for these tools because they were applied on persons and actions that have led to the discrimination and not infrequently the actual persecution of those who were the subject of the taboo (women, lepers, the poor, the sick, entire peoples).

The relationship between a community and its taboos shows a radical ambivalence. On the one hand the taboo is all that you have to avoid, all you cannot touch, against which you should get immunized not to become contaminated and infected by its spirit (the mana). Furthermore, the words associated with the taboos should not be pronounced. The land of the taboo cannot be crossed. Communities have been changed, they have died and been resurrected according to the rhythm of the creation, violation and elimination of taboos. And, even if by completely different modes, the same ancestral rhythm of the earth keeps appearing in our history, too.

At the same time, the content of the taboo exerts a fatal and strong attraction, by developing some invincible traits in people: the taboo cannot be violated, but (and because) we profoundly wish to do so - it is the desire for vengeance on Cain ("whoever finds me will kill me") which produces his "mark" ("lest any who found him should attack him"): Genesis 4,14. His words are banned, but the temptation to want to pronounce them is strong. Based on what, for example, Freud calls "the taboo on the rulers," the kings cannot be touched by their subjects: a ban that aims to counter the deep passion-desire present in members of the community to kill the kings and rulers.

Objects, animals, people considered as taboo also have a dual characteristic: they cannot be touched, but they cannot be eliminated, either. The goal of the use of taboos is not the disappearance of the taboo, because if the taboos were to disappear, the impassable border would also be gone with it, the community would get contaminated and so it would fall exactly into the "sin" that the taboo was meant to avoid. The taboo and its marks must therefore be very visible; everyone must be able to recognize the totems.

We can understand a lot of capitalism, and in general, of economics, if we take its taboos of gratuitousness seriously. The relationship between gratuitousness and the market contains the anthropological traits of the taboo. First we find the original violence. Traditional or pre-commercial communities were based on two original and distinct principles: hierarchy and gift. Hierarchy was the instrument for the management of power, while gift regulated reciprocity in families, clans and communities. The advent of the market takes place after the killing of the gift, which must die in order to create the contract and commercial exchange in its place, which are characterized so as not to be a gift, not to be gratuitousness. Market economy does not question the hierarchy, what's more, it radicalises it - so much so that the capitalist enterprises are also the main location, along with the armies, where hierarchy continues to play a significant and all in all socially accepted role in the age of democracies.

At the origin of the market, however, there is a sort of primordial violence on gratuitousness-gift (even if it is neither perceived nor told as such by its protagonists). Even Cain's violence is linked to gift and to the economy. God did not accept his gifts; a denial that generated the violence on Abel, the elimination of the fragile brother who knew how to make gifts. Gratuitousness is as fragile and vulnerable as Abel, it is exposed to abuse, helpless and humble. But Cain is also the patron of the trades and the founder of the first city, which is named after his son (Enoch). And its very name has a strong assonance with the verb qanah: buy. Furthermore, in the Book of Genesis, the word "profit" (bècà) makes its appearance in the scene of Joseph being sold into slavery by, again, his brothers (37,28). The fraternity of the gifts is negated by the appearance of profit. In Rome, numus (currency) was the non-munus (gift). In modernity, at the heart of the founding myth of political economy, "the invisible hand", we find the argument that the engine of the wealth of nations is not the "benevolence" or gratuitousness of the traders, but their personal interests (Adam Smith). The visible hand that contained the gifts was replaced by the invisible hand of the market, which is not the Providence of the ancient times, because its nature is the absence of the gift.

Gratuitousness in the market cannot be profaned either, but must be visible and well in sight. The boundary around its territory coincides with the very limits of the market: the land of what's freely given begins where that of the market, the contract and the incentives ends. Gratuitousness begins beyond the company's gates, after we have done the shopping and go home. Everyone should see it, everyone must understand it without any complicated speeches: it is enough to see its signs and its totems: work place time cards, the duration of lunch breaks, the management of overtime, and especially the language. The words of the taboo cannot be uttered: woe to those who say the word gift or gratuitousness and its synonyms in the ordinary course of business.

But, as happened in some totemic civilizations, here, too, we are some specific times at which the untouchable subject of the taboo can and should be touched, sacrificed, ritually consumed in order to seize its mysterious and terrible force. And so in the business assemblies gift is evoked, pronounced and eaten to be then put back in its inviolable tabernacle the next day. We organize employee volunteer initiatives, social dinners to help the poor, to provide organised and regulated activities within the reassuring confines of the rules, limited to that carefully controlled time. These donuncoli, domesticated gifts, managed and controlled, are the new voodoo dolls, resembling the real person (gift-gratuitousness) with the hope of controlling it and subjecting it to witchcraft.

What are then the deep reasons of fear that gratuitousness causes in capitalist economy, to make it the primary taboo? The first reason lies, again, in its appeal. Even in the case of gratuitousness, like all taboos, the prohibition stems from a deep desire. We wish for nothing more than the gift: we yearn for it, it makes us live, it is our profound vocation. And if the economy is life, the charm of the gift (given and received) feels strong, much too strong in the economic life as well.

But nothing is more outrageous than gift, nothing is free any more. It is everywhere and it is free, but in the economic context its effects would be particularly devastating. Because it would break the rules of the contracts, it would undermine the hierarchy. If the companies accepted and embraced the register of the gift-gratuitousness, they would find themselves with people who are unmanageable, unpredictable and capable of actions that cannot be controlled by hierarchies and incentives, because they would be truly free. They would have to deal with workers who would follow their intrinsic motivation, working beyond the limits of the contract - that are too tight and small to contain the overflowing power of the gift. They would be faced with people who would not fit in the organization charts, the job-descriptions, people who would bring much more life and therefore much more confusion and noise with them - as it happens with living things. And if the managers of the companies recognized this gift as such, if it made them grateful towards their colleagues and employees, that free reciprocity and those strong bonds would be created in businesses that are the typical fruits of the gifts that are recognised, accepted and reciprocated. It would change the hierarchy which would become fraternal and therefore fragile, vulnerable, exposed just like the meek Abel; but fragility and vulnerability are the great enemies of capitalist enterprises and their immune cultures. To avoid the risk of recognizing the gift and the generation of strong ties, business culture and governance respond simply by denying it: this is how the taboo of gratuitousness is reborn and strengthened every day. The companies and the markets will protect themselves from gratuitousness to protect themselves from their own death.

But there is something else to say, too. In recent years, the taboo of gratuitousness has left the economy and the large companies to move progressively and quickly to civil society, to non-profit organizations, associations, movements and communities. The taboo is expanding and the house of gratuitousness on earth is becoming more and more cramped. The techniques and tools of management which until recently belonged exclusively to large companies and banks are now entering in many areas of civil society. The real - almost always invisible albeit very high - price of the entry of capitalist management into civil organizations, movements and communities is the gradual elimination of these places of the free gift. So, paradoxically, the taboo of gratuity is created right in the heart of the realities that were born from and for gratuitousness.

Who will break this taboo of our time? And if some prophet does it for us, will we be able to walk towards the land of free women and men? Or will we, too, cry in the desert, regretting having left the meat and onions behind along with slavery?

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