The devouring utility of the futile

On the border and beyond/11 - Rites that consume life and the meaning of work

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 02/04/2017

Sul confine e oltre 11 rid"Generosity, nobility have disappeared, and with them the spectacular counterpart that the rich reciprocated to the miserable."

Georges Bataille, The Notion of Dépense

The many, too many people who work little, badly, or not at all, are not the only symptom of serious disease in the realm of work. Another serious sign of its bad condition, although still barely visible, are those workers who work too much, those who dissipate enormous energies in the new rites of businesses, the new sacrificial victims sacrificed to the new gods.

In ancient civilizations sacrifice was characterized by a fundamental tension between the useful and the useless. However useless it may seem in human terms, sacrifice is a useful gift and pleasing to the gods-idols if it is an expression of a loss of ours. The sacrificial offerings activate the divine economy because they deny the human economy. In the Bible the perfect sacrifice (the olah: "make something rise") consisted in offering the best animals, which were burned and completely consumed by fire, leaving no remains usable by those who made the sacrifice: "And the priest shall burn all of it on the altar, as a burnt offering" (Leviticus 1:9). In order for the act of sacrifice to be completely useful to God it must be completely useless to man, or rather non-usable. The perfect sacrifice is, therefore, associated with a loss, with pure economic waste, with what philosopher Bataille called dépense. This idea is still dominant in the current meaning of the word sacrifice: sacrifying oneself for someone or something leads to a loss that the one who makes the sacrifice suffers for the benefit of the recipient of the sacrifice. It is a loss, a dissipation which acquires, paradoxically, a positive dimension.

It is at this basic level that sacrifice and gift meet. Among the many ancient practices of giving gifts (the so-called potlatch: "consume"), studied by anthropologists in the early years of the twentieth century, those characterized by the destruction of the "gift" in front of the rival are particularly interesting. Among the Tlingit people (living in the area of Canada and Alaska), for example, a chief stepped out in front of another chief and slew a number of slaves. A few days later the rival returned and slaughtered an even greater number of men. In these races, where the dissipative dimension is absolute and archaic, in their brutal transparency we can glimpse an analogous dimension that is spuriously present in our time.

Despite the novelty brought by the message of Christ in the culture of sacrifice, throughout and beyond the Middle Ages these archaic elements of the gift-sacrifice continued to be very much present. We do not understand that world if we don’t consider the magnificence of the rich and powerful, the great unproductive expenses for worship, the wastage of festivities and processions, the fireworks, the real races of dissipating gifts in order to create and maintain ranks and power in the city, and/or to earn some reduction in one's sentence in purgatory - there are still many, too many of the potlatch of the mafia in our countries and in our celebrations.

Later, in Christian spirituality, there evolved the idea that the sacrifice-gift is pleasing to God because it is an expression of our loss, a sacrifice, a fee - and it remained for centuries. The economic analogy for spiritual life necessarily led to the idea of a price, meaning that in order to get something (grace, blessing...) out of a relationship with God it was necessary to pay. And so even consecrated life in virginity was read and experienced as a choice of great spiritual value for a long time exactly because it was a gift-sacrifice of the most valuable part of the person. Saint Ambrose said that the virgin was "the victim of chastity." For Saint Gregory the Great virginity replaced martyrdom: "The time of persecution is over, but our peace has its martyrdom." There is an idea of sacrifice, an expression of a theology of atonement that we find still alive in the twentieth century, where resorting to the image of the holocaust, virgins are encouraged as "those who have made the sacrifice to persevere with constancy, and not take back or claim for themselves even the smallest part of the holocaust they have laid on the altar of God." (Sagra Virginitas, Pius XII, 1954).

The Protestant Reformation marked a turning point also in this culture of the gift-sacrifice. Luther identified the sacrificial mentality still present in the Church and in Christianity as the main reason of estrangement from the authenticity and novelty of the Christian event. And he was not wrong, because the culture of sacrifice-loss was a continuation of the pre-Christian economic and meritocratic theology. For Luther there was no Christian sense in refusing human gain in the hope of a divine gain: those sacrifices of ours are useless because there is no God on the other side who is interested in those losses of ours. The Christian God is not a hungry idol. Heaven is not to be earned by us because it has been already given to us as a gift. Hence also his criticism of convents, monasteries and the value of consecrated life as offered in sacrifice. And also the condemnation of conspicuous waste, the magnificence of worship, pilgrimages, holidays, idleness and luxuries.

Anything in civil and religious life that was useless expenditure for people was interpreted by the Reformation as a sacrifice and therefore as a mistaken kind of search for spiritual merit, as a behaviour that is contrary to the true Christianity of sola gratia. The gratuity of sacrifice was seen as a perverse gratuitousness, because if it is true that every gift is a renunciation of something just for the sake of someone else, this scheme does not work in relationship with God because the God of Jesus Christ does not need our sacrifices. In fact, the only good and true sacrifice is what he did for us by giving his life for love, and it’s once and for all, and the only form of reciprocity on our side is gratitude to God and love for our neighbour.

And so the gratuity of a human action was read as the highest form of spiritual non-gratuity. This interpretation of the futility and worldly loss as improper desire for otherworldly gain made the world of reforms to look at outright gratuitousness with suspicion, both in the civil and in the religious spheres, to consider it a bargain made on the wrong floor. These are the deep cultural roots that generated the idea that gratuitousness is something altogether negative. It is either useless or wrong, because it does not find a justification either in human economy (where profit rules), or on the spiritual level. What we find at the heart of capitalism and its "taboo of gratuitousness" is a deep sense of mistrust.

Calvin, later, with his "doctrine of predestination" pushed this revolution to its logical extreme. Since people have no power to change the divine economy, the only good and blessed deeds of ours are those for the human economy and its purposes. That's how work, profession and production take the place that idleness, waste and contemplation used to have in medieval culture, and anything that is not useful or rationally oriented at utility gets condemned. The only good sacrifices are those oriented at earthly and useful goals, and therefore also at work. An economic and work gain that cannot and must not become a merit for the sky, but is the only possible and commendable type of gain on the earth. Uselessness, loss, debt-fault and laziness are the one and only demerit of individuals and peoples. Gain and merit, chased away from paradise, thus become the absolute rulers of the earth.

But that's not all. In recent years of capitalism those dissipating practices, these free acts that are useful precisely and as much as they are useless, are coming back with more and more strength and pervasiveness. A new sacrificial cult - another paradox - was born in those countries where Protestant and Calvinist culture prevailed, criticizing futility and the "free" sacrifices.

The powerful have always used dépense as a tool to say and reaffirm their own power, and so to create a status for themselves, to humiliate their subjects. Endless lines, relevant answers that always come on the last possible day, intentional delays in appointments, useless waiting for "marking" the distance... Asking for and demanding sacrifices from subjects who have no purpose other than to humiliate people and reinforce hierarchies: these are social practices well known to all, today as well as yesterday. This happens in secular circles, but also in the religious ones, where the useless practices for the sole purpose of strengthening distances and powers are particularly dangerous because they are covered by a sacred justification and are often internalized by the victim as necessary and even as something good.

Large companies, however, are pushing very far in these sacrificial dissipating practices. Meetings set on Sunday when they could be held on Monday, at ten in the evening instead of the afternoon, on 24 and not 23 December, work calls even on Easter Sunday. Unnecessary losses of time and life, which have no productive purpose or efficiency. They are a pure dissipation dictated by the cult, a case of dépense where team members end up being self-inflicted, immersed in this new sacrificial culture where the deals are worth more if they are more useless and dissipative. Unsustainable and unnecessarily endless working hours, which often reduce efficiency and quality of work but serve to increase the value of the victim offered as a burnt offering. Business meetings where work problems should be discussed but instead they turn into exhausting and unnecessary rites that are only useful to consolidate roles and hierarchies. And it goes on till the actual sacrifice of the entire private and family life where the potlatch of pure destruction is repeated, a non-usable dépense for the corporate economy but essential for the cult because it is the sign of total and absolute devotion. New holocausts.

"Gifts" that later become instruments of competition and rivalry between workers and companies who compete with each other using their own totally free and unnecessary sacrifices-gifts as their language. This perverted gratuitousness is killing good gratuity and eating up what little was left of the work culture of the past centuries. It is obscuring the real value that some useless actions had and still have, that of being able to shout out a greater freedom.

Mankind took thousands of years to arrive at a concept of God who does not need to eat people or our things to be satiated, appeased or calmed. But people - the mighty - have never stopped wanting to be God. If we do not understand the neo-ancient sacrificial nature of contemporary capitalism, when the day comes in which we realise to have precipitated in a perpetual and absolute worship it will certainly be too late. Chances are that we wake up on a sacrificial altar, and the dances and songs for us will already have begun.

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