Not All is Merchandise

Types of Capital - The Vocabulary of Good Social Life/6

by Luigino Bruni 

Published in Avvenire on November 3, 2013

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"Bad" poverty is constantly growing, while "good" poverty is diminishing. We are becoming poor quickly and in a bad way because the deterioration of our civil, educational, relational, spiritual and government capital has passed a tipping point, triggering a chain reaction. We are living through a capital decline. The types of poverty that we can measure are manifested as the lack of flows (jobs, income), but in reality they are the much deeper and more long-term expressions of "capital account" processes that do not really depend on the financial crisis of 2007-2008 or on German politics. These, in fact, form our usual, and now sickly, alibi to cover out the real reasons for the serious things that are happening to us.

By now there are many who are against the view that our decline is caused by the deficit and deterioration of productive, technological, environmental, infrastructural, institutional capital. And this is a sacred truth. At the same time, no-one says that the crisis of these forms of capital crucially important for economic growth originates mainly from having used up some more fundamental forms of capital (moral, civil, spiritual), the ones that had generated economics, industry and civilisation. Industry, and before it, the farming, fishing and handcraft cultures of Europe were generated by a complete history of humanity, a centuries and millennia-long process.

Our economic, and therefore, civil revolutiondoes not come from the void - on the contrary, it was the flowering of a centuries-old tree with deep reaching and fertile roots. We should not forget that our entrepreneurial classes are there as a result of the evolution of tens of thousands of tenants, farmers, craftsmen, all of them already prototypal entrepreneurs who had grown to create a new mode and a wider scale for themselves. We should also not forget that there were other decisive elements for our economic and civil ‘miracles’: compulsory education, internal emigration, enormous and almost infinite consumption, unpaid relational and home jobs for women that did not figure in company costs but of course added to the overall return and profit of the enterprise. Every now and then we should also remember that behind the "issue of the South" (in Italy – the translator) that is still an open question with tragic traits (just consider the data on unemployment or school drop-outs), there are certain political choices made about the types of capital to be invested. It has always been and is still thought that the industrial capital is of crucial importance (cf. Cassa del Mezzogiorno, "Fund for the South" - a public effort by the government of Italy to stimulate economic growth and development in the less developed Southern Italy established in 1950 - the translator); but we never did enough to spread cooperatives or rural saving banks in those regions. To bring factories was undoubtedly a way of civilising (to bring toxic refuses later was not); but together with this capital a great political action would have also been necessary to trigger the development of co-operative culture and practices that would have made the development of civil capital possible. I do not believe that the people of Sicily have different anthropological traits than the people of Trentino (a northern province of Italy – the translator) and that therefore it is for cultural reasons that they are incapable of cooperation (or capable only to co-operate in the wrong way). Instead, I have always thought that while the parish priests, politicians, trade unionists of Trentino launched the rural saving banks, cooperatives and cooperative centres in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, their southern colleagues were busy doing other things (in compliance with national politics) and they made it possible for some great and shiny people (like don Luigi Sturzo – an Italian Catholic priest and politician, born in Caltagirone, Sicily, who is considered one of the fathers of Christian democracy – the translator) to remain as bright stars against the skies of dawn that would not be followed by daylight.

Economic flows are first born as moral and civil capital that then become industrial capital, that is, work, income and wealth. Let us try to imagine what Italy (which, in a certain sense, is Southern Europe) would be like today if the great political parties and national politics of the twentieth century as well as the church itself had done their best also in trying to reach out to the South in the cooperative movement of consumption, credit and agriculture, accompanied by educational programmes and internship possibilities. "If"-s and "but"-s are not very useful when talking about history, but they may be of great help to us at the present. Were we to start over again, incentives should be oriented towards the South where there are great many potentials, economic ones, too, that have not been given expression so far and there are great many civil injuries waiting to be turned into blessings.

There is another form of capital that is also rapidly deteriorating. The market economy of the twentieth century was generated partly by a great spiritual and ethical heritage created by millions of educated men and women who got used to suffering, the fatigue of work, the painful shortages in life, history and war. These people managed to remain strong and resilient against both good and bad types of injuries. There is an immense quantity of spiritual and civil energy that was produced and developed throughout the centuries by a land irrigated by Christian compassion, by the simple but true faith of the people and also by ideologies that were often capable of offering a larger horizon than the roughness of everyday life. Inside our good capitalism there was indeed this community "spirit", too. The spiritual capital of a person, and therefore of families, communities, schools, companies, has always been the first form of wealth for all the nations. A person or a people can survive any crisis without giving in as long as they possess the spiritual capital they can draw upon. They do not die as long as they know how to reach into their own souls and into the world's soul to find something or someone to grip on to be able to make a fresh start. Without personal and community spiritual capital it is impossible to bring about a new enterprise, to find the moral resources for taking up a path that is risky for it and for others, too, and for coping with suspensions, adversities and misfortune which are all parts of an entrepreneur's life. What old and new types of spiritual capital are we passing on or creating for the new generations? Are we providing our youth and ourselves with the spiritual resources for the crucial milestones of existence? When they get down and look inside themselves, do they find anything that makes them lift up their heads? If we cannot find a new-old spiritual foundation for the Western World, depression will become the plague of the 21st century. The signs of the fragility of the present young and adult generation tell a lot about it, if only we listen more carefully.

To manage to start a new phase in the spiritual alphabetization of the masses is, therefore, a primary need for the Common Good. We should use all possible means (including the web) and venues (including markets, squares and companies) to bring it through. There is an immense demand for this "good" which in great part is latent and potential at present. But it is necessary to be able to retrace it inside this lack of spirituality that (seems to) dominate our era - by doing what the shoe factory's owner did as he was presented with a dispiriting report (“Everyone walks barefooted here”) by one of his agents in a far-away land. He stated: "So there is an immense market opening up for us there". We are about to step on a decisive path, and this is indeed an epochal moment: if the demand for spiritual goods does not meet a new "offer" by the great and millennium-old religious traditions in possession of a rich heritage able to produce new spiritual goods that are passed on today using new, lively and clear vocabulary, then the market itself will be the one to create, offer and sell spirituality, transforming it into merchandise (as it is already happening: see the multiplying, shamelessly deceitful for-profit sectarians). And so the cure will be worse than the illness.

We should invest in spiritual and moral capital and do extraordinary maintenance work to save what is left of it for us. Our Antonio Genovesi knew it well; his civil message of hope for Italy and Europe will be celebrated on 14th November at the Institute of Lombardia: "The channels of communication are not only physical, but moral, too. Straight, easy and safe roads: rivers, and ferry routes; utility work machines...these come first. But the moral channels are also required. If the most beautiful, wide, straight roads like the Via Appia or the Via Valeria (in Rome) remain infested by FEAR, SLAVERY, ANGER, INJUSTICE, PENITENCE and MISERY, they will not be travelled at all, not even by wild beasts."

 

Further commentaries by Luigino Bruni in Avvenire are available through the Avvenire Editorial

Translated by Eszter Kató

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