Resisting the Pied Piper

On the borders and beyond/2 - While the individualistic market triumphs and shakes

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 29/01/2017

Su confine e oltre 02 rid"All passions have a phase when they are merely disastrous, when they drag down their victim with the weight of stupidity — and a later, very much later phase when they wed the spirit, when they "spiritualize" themselves."

F. NietzscheTwilight of the Idols (English translation by by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale)

A particularly important form of the "creative destruction" of the capitalism of our time is the one it performs about religion. Market economy has grown and keeps growing with the consumption of the sacred territory, which, deconsecrated and turned into an undifferentiated and anonymous profane space, has become a new area cleared for trading. The merchants are back in the temple, all the temple is becoming a marketplace, even the sancta sanctorum (the holy of holies) was put to produce income.

To destroy a religion, the first step is to undermine communities and isolate people by turning them into individuals. And capitalism has been able to do this very well. Individuals are unrelated to each other, and therefore cannot obtain religio, which is an experience that is only possible for those who share and preserve something important. When the common ground of the community is lacking, religious experience is inexorably put out. Or it becomes a commodity, as it happened to the West, where in the space of two generations the community and religious heritage built over two thousand years has been reduced to rubble, and where the homeless and rootless individuals have become the perfect consumers. We have agreed to be emptied of meaning and filled with things.

This emptying-and-filling represents the maximum development of the first "spirit of capitalism" that read the accumulation of goods as a blessing of God. With a decisive difference, however: what had been an elitist experience of a small number of entrepreneurs and bankers for at least two centuries has become a mass religion in the twentieth century, thanks to the shifting of the ethical centre of the gravity of capitalism from the sphere of production to that of consumption. The "blessed by God" is no longer those who produce, but those who consume (and they are praised and envied because and if they have the means to consume). The predestined ones have become those who can consume the goods, not those who produce them by their work. The more they consume, the more blessing they receive. The sacred figure of the entrepreneur-manufacturer has thus given way to the new priest and messiah of the manager-consumer, and the higher his bonus - and therefore his consumption standards -, the more "blessed" he is.

As a result, work is out of the picture, relegated among the somewhat nostalgic memories of the past and its utopias. It has become a means to increase consumption, thanks to finance becoming increasingly friendly with consumption and the enemy of work, enterprises and the entrepreneur-worker. The old Calvinist spirit of capitalism, centred around production and work, was still an essentially and naturally social type of capitalism. Working and producing are collective actions, cooperation, mutuality. Work is the first brick of human communities. By moving the axis of the economic and social system from labour to consumption, the community has naturally given way to the individual. Consumption has become more and more an act of the individual, gradually losing its social dimension yet being tied to the economic sphere. Until a few decades ago words were also exchanged in the markets. Today online shopping has become the perfect act of consumption, where the product reaches me at home without any other human between me and the object of my desire (possibly not even the postman). That's why the gamble mania of the latest generation is the most fitting image of this capitalism. From the coupon of the football pools or the racecourse races, which were in many cases social experiences, we have moved to the individual-machine relationship, where everyone "plays" alone (so it is not a game), completely focused and sucked in by the object of the game - it is by no accident that many slot machines have a totemic aspect: they are shimmering, colourful and always hungry.

The shift from labour to consumption is also the result of a systematic operation of disesteem for anything that has to do with hard work, sweat and sacrifice. We really like consumption because it is all and only pleasure: no fatigue, no pain, no sacrifice. So no wonder that the new frontier of civil battle is shifting away from "work for all", which was the great ideal of the twentieth century, to "consumption for all", which is becoming the slogan of the twenty-first, perhaps made possible by a guaranteed minimum income letting everyone be introduced in the new temple. More consumption, less work, more blessing. Idolatries are always economies of pure consumption. The totem does not work, and the work of its devotees is only recognised if oriented to consumption: to offering, to sacrifice. The more idolatrous a culture is, the more it despises work and adores consumption and the type of finance that promises a perpetual cult consisting in effortless consumption only.

However, this anthropological, social and sacral structure that has held up capitalism until now is inexorably coming into a crisis. The days of individualistic capitalism seem to be numbered, although it is living its best season (great crises always start at the height of success, and occur with a time delay of a few years). And it is not difficult to notice.

As long as we were within an economy of the scarcity of goods, the things were enough to fill our imagination and satisfy our desires for the market cult. But since much of society has reached and exceeded the threshold of satiety, the capitalist religion must completely rethink itself if it wants to continue to grow and retain its faithful - forgetting, by the way, all those who are not satiated but knocking on the doors of our banquets. And it is exactly by looking at the changes underway in this new phase - the capitalism of post-satiety - that we can see the power of the religious-idolatrous nature of the current system clearly.

Let's just think of the individual vs. community relationship. The smarter components of our economic system are sensing that the capitalist cult needs communities in order to be powerful and lasting. Like every religion, the capitalist one can also only exist as a community. Every religion is an "integral social phenomenon" (Émile Durckheim). And so, from the centre of capitalism something very difficult to imagine began to emerge just a few years ago. Once the process of the individualization of consumption and the consequent zeroing of the community was reaching its apotheosis, that same economic culture has given birth to children who look very much like those of the old religion and the old community that it has opposed and fought so much as its main enemies. The phase of the market growing by offering goods to individuals that replaced the ancient collective cults with the individual idolatry of new totem-objects is gradually giving way to a new phase of community, and therefore more religious consumption. The separate and isolated individual consumer, the worshipper of idols by which he/she is devoured will not be the protagonist of the markets in the coming years. The market of the future will be social and full of stories. We cannot understand, for example, the new season of sharing economy (which could be described as "collaborative consumption"), unless we read it in the framework of this new phase of capitalist religion which is also communal, but in a different way (and we will see that in a future article).

Let's think of the great phenomenon of narrative marketing and the so-called storytelling that are more and more often inserted among the ingredients of successful new businesses. Narratives are a typical element of religions and communities, so much so that they constitute their first capital. Faiths are mainly a legacy of stories received and donated.
There are no faiths without narratives of the beginning, the end, the fathers, the liberations and the encounters with God. Faith is transmitted by telling a story. The new marketing of the post-scarcity era no longer presents the products with their technical and commercial characteristics. It does not bewitch us by describing the properties of the goods: instead, it enchants us by telling stories. Like our grandparents did, like the Bible did and still does. The new advertising is more and more like a creation of stories using the typical language of myths, where the aim is to activate the emotion of the consumer, their symbolic code, desires and dreams - not only and no longer his needs.

And so to sell us their products new businesses make us dream by resorting to the evocative power of myths: just like faiths, like the stories that have shaped our religious and social heritage. With one major difference, though: the stories of faiths and the fairy tales of our grandmothers were greater than us and they were all and only gratuitousness. Their aim was to convey a gift, a promise, a liberation to us, bringing them back to life just for us every time. They did not want to sell us anything, only to transmit an inheritance to us. And instead, the emotional storytelling of the businesses of the capitalism of today and tomorrow wants only and exclusively to sell us something. They have nothing for free and are smaller than us because of that missing gratuitousness that made the other stories great: new businesses tell us stories to increase profits for those who invest a lot of money into the inventing and telling of those stories - which, in the end, are nothing but plagiarism and imitations of the great religious narratives they, too, have received for free and then recycled for profit. The stories of yesterday, the eternal ones, have been able to charm us because they did not want to enchain us. The stories told for profit are, however, all just variants of the fairy tale Pied Piper: if he is not paid for his work, this "merchant" goes back to town, and while we are engaged in our new cults in the new churches, he drives away our children with his charmer flute, forever.

So far the history of civilization has taught us that gratuitousness used without gratuitousness does not last, and soon the bluff is discovered. But perhaps the greatest innovation of the capitalism of tomorrow will be transforming gratuitousness into a commodity, and it will be done so well that we will not be able to distinguish fake generosity from the genuine one. But we can still save ourselves from this tremendous manipulation, which would be the greatest of all, if we keep the great stories of gratuitousness, safeguarded by the faiths. Or if we conserve the seed of gratuitousness in that last space of our soul that we managed to preserve and not to put on sale.

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