On the border and beyond/8 - Sociability at a good price will run wild and betray us
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 12/03/2017
"To seek, not the fruit of benefits, but the mere doing of them... - this is the mark of a soul that is truly great and good."
Seneca, De Beneficiis
(English translation by John W. Basore)
Sine merito: without merit. This was how the first so-called Mounts of Piety (Monti di pietà) were called from the Middle Ages to Modernity. these were prototypes of the community banks created and promoted by the Franciscan "Observants" (Order of Friars Minor). To emphasize their nature as humanitarian or philanthropic institutions, the presence of merit was denied. A few centuries ago, Bernard of Clairvaux described the passion of Christ as: donum sine pretio, gratia sine merito, charitas sine modo: a gift without a price, grace without merit, love without measure. Saying 'gift' excluded a price, saying love eliminated measuring and saying grace denied merit. Merit, price and measure on the one hand - gift, grace and charity on the other.
These distinctions and oppositions have held up the ethos and spirituality of the West for many centuries, until the capitalist culture, with its new Pelagian - and therefore meritocratic - religion has finally convinced us that all those words were actually on the same side, sisters and allies; that the gift would go along with the price, that merit was a new name for love, that grace/gratuitousness was only useful if present in the 'right' (microscopic) measure, as in vaccines where a tiny dose of the virus is introduced into the body to immunize it from the same.
The greatest human innovations occurred when inside a religion, a philosophy or a wisdom tradition someone broke the retributive-economic relationship with the gods, the idols or the pharaohs and kings, and proclaimed a jubilee of the 'liberation of prisoners'. One of these great anthropological and theological innovations is contained in the Book of Job, the Bible book that fought the retributive-economic logic of faith the most. The book opens with a bet between God-Elohim, and his angel Satan, which is precisely about gratuitousness. Satan, we read in the prologue, has returned from a trip on the earth, and having noticed the uprightness of Job he asks God: “Does Job fear God for no reason? You have blessed the work of his hands... But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face” (Job 1,9-11). It is interesting that the author of the story chooses Satan as an exponent of the "economic" vision of religion and life - a choice that in itself says a lot. Satan challenges Elohim and Job, he challenges God and the man, to test if it is possible that there is at least one man on earth who loves-and-fears God 'for nothing', i.e. freely, without a reward, without being paid for it.
Can we be good and just for the intrinsic value of goodness and justice, or just because we are hoping for some reward? Are we capable of pure love, or, rather, are we only in a commercial register of give and take? It can be understood that the idea of gratuity is deeply tied to that of freedom: what is left of our freedom and that of others if, in fact, in the heart of our actions there is a boss that pays us to do what he wants... Therefore, the first one to be liberated in any greater remuneration religions, past and present, is God himself, who finally steps out from the palaces of kings and emperors, and comes to live among us.
No wonder then that some decisive stages of human history have been marked by debates, schisms and revolutions that had to do with gratuitousness directly. What is it that really saves us? Is it the merits, incentives, the profit or is it something else and precisely because it isn't merit, it isn't incentive, it isn't profit? Do we have value and infinite dignity only because we deserve it, because we are useful to someone, for something, or rather for some other reason that comes before all these? That's where the nature of that dimension we call gratuitousness lies, in its essence. Cultures, religions and philosophies have declined it in many ways, but in its core it has this dimension of the non-profit, non-merit and non-incentive. The constant resistance that civilizations have always showed, until recently, to the affirmation of the logic of the market stemmed from intuition and was formulated in various ways. It says that whenever human relationships assume a mercantile registry, there is an invincible tendency to drive out and destroy just that something vague and difficult to define, that subtle and essential thing called gratuitousness.
The incentive is now the main instrument by which the capitalist cult is eliminating gratuitousness from the world of men - thank God, there will always be plenty of gratuitousness in nature, in the sun, in the sky, in the lives of animals, in the rain and in the snow, in children. Each idolatrous worship tends, in fact, towards the elimination of every intrinsic dimension in our actions. As long as we do something because we believe in it or because we like it, we are still not the prisoners of idols. The ideology of incentive produces the emptying of the intrinsic dimension of the action precisely because by assigning a price to everything and every act, it ends up expelling gratuitousness from the world. The incompatibility between gratuitousness and the ideology of incentive does not lie in the free-paid opposition (there is much generosity in many relationships governed by contracts and regulated by prices, and there are many services provided for free that have no gratuitousness in them). The conflict is more radical, and point precisely at Satan's argument: it is not possible for people to do good things for free, 'without being paid'.
Faith in the incentive is spreading unabated everywhere, because, paradoxically, it comes as an expression of the 'freedom of the modern'.
One of its latest achievements is the so-called sharing economy. The sharing of homes, cars or meals appear today as innovative and more human experiences than those possible in traditional markets and capitalist enterprises. And some of them really are. But, as always, to understand what is happening in this fascinating and varied world of sharing economy, you have to be able to see its non-intentional effects, which are the most important ones.
The essence of sharing economy is to create new markets in areas previously governed by gratuitousness. Until a few years ago, when going on a vacation we had to choose between a friend to host us or a hotel. If we wanted to go out to dinner, the choice was between friends-relatives and a restaurant. If we had to make a trip we could rely either on hitch-hiking or paid transport means. Two distinct worlds ruled by very different logics: gratuitousness and profit. Today a third way is developing: to go on vacation, we can also be hosted by unknown families; to dine out there are people who organize dinners for us; to travel there is also a network that combines the asking for and the offering of lifts by car; and much more… We just have to pay some. The market continues to do its job, providing exchanges of mutual benefit that allow you to meet people that you would never have met without these new 'collaborative' markets, which operate through a combination of sociability and profit. People really like this phenomenon because it seems to add a new opportunity, leaving everything else intact (hotels, friends, restaurants, trains, hitch-hiking ...). It enlarges the set of possible choices, and so it expands the range of freedom for individuals and society.
However, the market and its actors have already realized that the arrival of these new 'low cost products' does not leave the previous markets intact because even here there is a 'creative destruction' in place that is breaking up old balances and returns, and that could create a real revolution in the medium term. And so the protagonists of today's markets are concerned and tend to react, and the most cunning among them seek alliances with these new subjects.
In the second area involved by the sharing economy revolution, in that of gratuitousness or sociability sine merito, all is quiet. The interests of the merchants are focused, clear and strong, and so their reactions are also determined. The 'interests' of non-merchants are variable, less visible and above all, very weak. For gratuitousness there are no dedicated organizations, trade unions, not even politicians to refer to. And so no one moves. And we do not realize that even on the other side of the coin of sharing economy a 'creative destruction' is in course, that, affecting the common goods and having no property rights, happens amidst indifference or applause, and sometimes it's met with the same enthusiasm with which the Aztec emperor Montezuma welcomed the Spanish Cortés, thinking that he was their god (Quetzalcoatl) returning to them. When my neighbour starts organizing dinners at their house for a fee, what happens is the creation, the invisible but very real creation of an 'opportunity cost'. Even if I will not start a home restaurant, creating that price will also have an effect on me. Because when I do my accounts to calculate the cost of a dinner with seven friends, I will not use the market cost of the ingredients but the higher 'opportunity cost' of the neighbours' dinner. And maybe, one day, I will conclude that it costs too much, and say no to this free sociability, or I will begin to ask for a price - or at least a refund of my expenses. Others will continue to invite friends for dinner, with a 50% discount on the price of a similar dinner next door. And we will lend the house to a relative of ours with an 80% discount on the current price of housing in sharing economy. We will feel generous, and they will think they have received a gift. And the poor will be increasingly excluded from the houses, from travel, from meals, marginalized by a culture that wants nothing and nobody sine merito.
Soon these new social markets will be regulated and become like all the other markets. In the meantime, however, we will have further reduced the field of gratuity, and we will always have fewer friends.
In the Book of Job, Satan did not win his bet because Job was able to continue being righteous 'for nothing' in return, for free. His victory has been our victory for more than two thousand years, and we have always been able to invite someone to dinner 'without reimbursement'.
But if tomorrow another angel sets out for another round looking for someone capable of gratuitousness, will it manage to find a new Job in our land of merit, profit and incentive?
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