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Let's Leave the Economy of Flatland Behind to Restart Generating a Future

Time - The Vocabulary of Good Social Life/17

by Luigino Bruni 

published in Avvenire on January 19, 2014


We are living through an eclipse of time. The logic of capitalist economy and its culture that is undisputedly dominating much of social and political life do not know the dimension of time. Their cost-benefit analyses cover just a few days, months or years - in the most generous assumptions. A radical tendency of this capitalism is in fact the progressive shortening of the time period of economic choices, and therefore of the policies that are increasingly driven by the same economistic culture.

First the industrial, then the computer and finally the financial revolution subtracted time with economic choices, until reducing the time needed for some highly speculative operations to the fractions of a second. Yet, as Luigi Einaudi reminds us, "in the Middle Ages one built for eternity"; one acted and thought with an infinite horizon that was always present, directing the concrete choices from honouring contracts up to the point of repentance and death bequests of merchants and bankers. The depth of the time where we come from (history) and where we are bound (the future) is absent from our economic culture and as a result it is also missing from our civic culture, from the training of economists and from the education system.

And so we are free-falling into a world that is just too similar to the one described in Flatland by English author EA E.A. Abbott (1884). In this novella, an inhabitant of the earth of only two dimensions called Flatland enters into contact with a three-dimensional object (a sphere) from Spaceland. The dialogues and reflections of the book are very impressive and up-to-date, including the intuition that in a two-dimensional world where there is no depth or perspective, sociability is very poor, and is characterised by rivalry, position-taking and hierarchy. Women are described by Abbott as straight lines (one-dimensional), thereby giving a strong criticism of the male-dominated society of his time that did not recognise any political or public dimension for women.

If a hypothetical time traveller coming from the Middle Ages was to arrive in our society today, he would have a very similar experience to that of the sphere described in Flatland, because he would be greatly impressed by the absence of the third dimension, that of time.

When a few decades ago we entrusted the design and governance of social life to the logic of the capitalist economy, rejecting the primacy of the civil and the political over the cheap/economical, when the homo economicus with his typical logic gradually became the only inhabitant that counts and controls the halls of power, the progressive and inevitable fall into a new Flatland began. It is a land of only two dimensions: give and take, costs and revenues, profits and losses, here and now, base and height. It is a flat land where all that's left is space.

A first consequence of a flat and timeless culture is mass production based on the ephemeral and not on the duration of things and relationships. Items must be replaced quickly, otherwise the consumption-production-job-growth-GDP machine jams. The people that in other, non-budget-dominated times began to build a cathedral, or those that adorned a square with artwork did not have as their objective the consumer and the rapid deterioration of that work, they did not want "expiry dates" that would necessitate reconstruction soon. If it had not been so, we now would not have the Sistine Chapel, The Magic Flute by Mozart or the Church of Saint Louis of the French in Rome. The purpose of these ancient buildings was magnificence and endurance: they wanted to produce durable things that are not easily consumed. The artists and craftsmen created durable constructions, and the qualification of "job well done" and the reputation of their author were measured first of all based on their endurance. And this is why the old enduring works are still capable of making us live, be happy and of loving us.

All civilizations (at least those that have survived) had three great "keepers of time": families, public institutions and religions.

Families are the clay time uses to give shape to history. A world that has lost the dimension of time does not understand covenants, faithful love, the meaning of "forever", and does not give any value to memory and the future. And so it does not understand and it fights against family, which is all of the above put together.

In the relay race of the generations, when the race is over, it is the institutions that allow for yet another goal to be reached, assuring that the rules of the game are preserved and not degraded, that there is reason to continue running and the passing of time continues to make sense (have direction and meaning). These institutions, even the economic ones had and still have an important role. Banks, for example, have been the driving belt of the transmission of wealth and employment between the generations. They knew how to preserve and increase the value of time. And when the banks go astray, the value of time is forgotten because it is not served any more but speculated upon, and banks tend to act "against nature" and go against the common Good yesterday and today, too.

Finally, religions, faiths and churches. To understand time and build for the future requires a vision of the world that is greater than our individual time horizon, which is why the great works of the past were always deeply related to faith, religion, linking (religo in Latin) the sky with the earth and generations with each other, which gave way to the beginning of a work that its initiator would not see nor enjoy. Religions and faiths are above all the gift of great horizons in the skies of all. The homo economicus without children and without faith who lives in a society of fragile and small families has no good reason to invest his resources in works that go beyond himself. The only rational act for him is to consume all within the last day of his life. But a world of homines oeconomici with perspectives that do not exceed their earthly existence is not able to build great works, nor to accumulate real savings - a behaviour that also has its roots deep in the knowledge that the life of our works and our children should be longer and larger as our own.

It is when the axis of time is missing that the social sin of greed is accomplished on a large scale because the biggest greed is to eliminate tomorrow from the horizon. For this reason, there is no act that could be more irreligious than this type of social and collective avarice.

In the eclipse of time there is a huge, epic, abysmal shortage of future.. Churches, religions and the charismas should return to invest in the greatest works of their time, to sow and build today so that others can harvest tomorrow. Experts of time and infinity must deal with the future of all.

Past generations of Europeans, especially those between the Middle Ages and Modernity, had been able to do this, and so they built magnificent works that still give us identity, beauty, and make us work. And the charismas have generated thousands of works (hospitals, schools, banks...) that still enrich us, heal us and educate us, because those men and women who had them could see horizons larger than ours. What great works are religions, churches, faiths and the charismas building today? Where are their universities, banks and institutions? There are some seeds, but they are too few and the soil in which they have fallen is still not enough fertile and cultivated so that those seeds may one day become big trees and forests to give time and future back to our flat world: "People live poised between each individual moment and the greater, brighter horizon of the utopian future as the final cause which draws us to itself. Here we see a first principle for progress in building a people: time is greater than space." (Evangelii Gaudium).


  Translated by Eszter Kató

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



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