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Break away from creative destruction

On the border and beyond/1 - Between market and gratuitousness, finding new ways

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 22/01/2017

Su confine e oltre 01 rid"We can love nothing but what agrees with us, and we can only follow our taste or our pleasure when we prefer our friends to ourselves; nevertheless it is only by that preference that friendship can be true and perfect."

F. de La RochefoucauldReflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims (English translation: J. W. Willis Bund, M.A. LL.B and J. Hain Friswell)

In our time, loneliness grows along with the desire for community in us which we try to satisfy with methods and tools that end up, too often, increasing it. The market society needs individuals without strong and too deeply rooted ties, and it has the economic and political means to make them more and more so. People with significant interpersonal relationships, with a cultivated inner life are just imperfect consumers who are difficult to manage.

We do not understand the extraordinary success that the capitalist market is having in the past two or three decades unless we pay enough attention to its main device: the destruction of free non-market goods. In fact, these are increasingly replaced by merchandise, which try to respond to the famine of the first type of goods (and in their own way they succeed, too) but continue to fuel it at the same time. The new culture of work and consumption produces individuals with increasingly fragmented relationships. At the same time, large multinational companies offer new forms of communities on the net that while accompanying our solitudes do nothing but increase the number of lonely hours we spend gazing at the screens of our phone, computer or TV. The GDP is growing thanks to our effort of responding to the loneliness generated by the market with the same market - and so the share of income that families spend today on phones, internet refills and fees has exceeded the part spent on food.

The consequences of this new form of 'creative destruction' - which destroys free goods and creates merchandise with a price - are seriously undervalued. Let's just think of social exclusion and poverty. Traditional communities were generally common goods, freely accessible even to the poor, and, in some cases, especially to the poor, who compensated for the less economic goods they had with more relational goods. The poor were often not poor in all: they had community and festive riches which made them less poor. The strong trend of the new poverty of the third millennium is the creation of poor people who are thoroughly poor. When we were children, for example, the social organization of our townships and villages (almost) prevented us from becoming obese: our entire life was made up of natural and necessary movement. Our cities and our social and economic organization are (almost) natural causes of obesity. But then, with the stroke of the most impressive collective genius of our era, capitalism has made it all a business of gyms, swimming pools, fitness clubs and special foods in order to combat the obesity that the market society creates - simply by paying. And so the poorest children (and adults) are often also the most obese, because they cannot access the 'cures' that the market sells.

Growth and profits achieved thanks to the resolution of the damage created in making more profits (and income) – this is the great 'social innovation' of the capitalism of our time. The mechanism of this creative destruction is very radical, and it is applied primarily to the same community. Traditional communities were only minimally elective: we get to chose a wife and some friends but not our parents, brothers and sisters or children, nor our neighbours and the other inhabitants of our village. All these companions of our life were inherited, a matter of fate but above all body, flesh and blood, with all their typical injuries and blessings. Post-modern communities are only elective: we get to choose almost everything, we would like to choose everything. We only like weak ties, disembodied and chosen ones; and so we forget that people are living and real precisely because they are different today from those we chose yesterday. The flowering of a life means staying true to all that has changed, continues to change and that we did not chose in the people we love - every marriage pact is a mutual yes to a faithfulness to what the other will become, an alliance to welcome and love the "not yet" (of ourselves and the other) that we do not know and will not be able to control. (Yet, 'you've changed', 'you are no longer the man I married' are the words we most often say when leaving each other, as if we had not married that 'change' and that 'no longer the same', too).

An important place in this argument is occupied by the theme of authenticity. In the twentieth century, authenticity - sincerity, genuineness - was also a feature of the market. Businesses, cooperatives, shops and banks were human affairs through and through, with the same vices and virtues of life. And so they were just like life. Then we started building a corporate culture and an increasingly artificial marketing, to create a commercial where we all know that the goods presented are not the same as what we're going to buy, to sell extremely fake financial products, to form relationships with our colleagues, clients, suppliers and leaders following protocols and incentive schemes. It's a commedia dell'arte where everyone can play their role thanks to the mask that covers their face - and so we no longer see the blush on the cheeks and the tears in the eyes of the other. A certain artificiality and non-sincerity have always been part of the ethos of the market - anyone attending the fairs and markets of yesterday entered into a world of seducer sellers who spoke of the fantastic features of some miraculous products. But we were aware of it: that kind of artificiality was part of the folklore and rituals of that world, of every world. That artificial element was explicit, known to all, and thus it became - paradoxically - authentic and sincere. We all played 'merchants of the fair' to some extent, but we knew it.

At some point, however, that first market culture was amplified, inflated and exaggerated by the large multinational corporations and by the global consulting companies. It has become a proper ideology, and that first good feature of artificiality of market relations has grown a lot, even too much. Gradually, and without realizing it, we forgot the non-authenticity of many practices, and we gave them the consistency of reality. The management of work has become technical, that of the people is now called human resources, marketing is a science developed in neuroscience laboratories. The game has become reality, and that first genuineness has left the scene.

But once again, the market is finding a solution to the evil it created. The search for authenticity in the market is in fact one of the most important and profitable trends of today's capitalism. Consumers seek authenticity in the products and services they buy. We want to find it in food, where everything that we think to be genuine is worth more; when we look for a truly Neapolitan restaurant in Naples, and a truly Lisbon one in Lisbon. Even in 'social' tourism we want to see indigenous people who are authentically indigenous, and poor people who are genuinely poor. Hand-crafted beer and ice cream are preferred because they bring something of that authenticity that we have decided to always look for. A well-prepared chef is not enough, we would like someone who really believes in what they do and say that they do. A farmer doing biological cultivation is not enough: we want to meet him while working in his fields and speaking to us in dialect in order to verify the authenticity of the story that he tells us with his goods.

A first side effect of this interesting new phenomenon is regarding the price of these products. This authenticity is generally associated with a high price, sometimes very high, therefore, again, one that excludes the poor. Furthermore, authenticity is not only a characteristic of the products, it is also a dimension of persons. So if we take a careful look we realize that we are asking the market to provide precisely the gratuitousness that it has expelled from its offices, shops and banks, especially in the past few decades.

In this colourful world of authentic markets some future scenarios open up that are worth paying attention to. One of them concerns the great growth of new market communities, where the consumption of the same product or brand brings people together in new forms of 'tribes'. What we see today as products of identity formation only (in food, in music, in clothing, in cars, motorcycles ...) could become a widespread and generalized phenomenon tomorrow. In these tribes of consumers the object becomes the construction element of the 'community'. That is how archaic forms of a totemic cult come back to life, since the relationship between people is a side effect of each individual's relationship with the thing. The faithful (faith-fidelity is everything here) offer sacrifices of time and energy to something that, by nature, is not at all a free gift - the product has a selling price, it has its profits that do not go to the worshippers but to the owners of the brand who use the free labour and promotion performed by their faithful. There are new idolatries-religions consisting of only worship, filling the earth with fetishes and doing away with gods.

Biblical humanism fought the idolatry of its time also to free man from the original debt that characterized the totemic and pagan cults of the surrounding peoples. The covenant with a God who creates out of an overflow of love was also the liberation from the cults for objects, those of the totems and taboos of the ancient world, where the objects enchanted and chained people with their magic and with their occult powers. Should the disenchantment of the world and the battle against the Jewish-Christian humanism that we are witnessing produce a simple return to new totemic cults of objects in the end, we would be facing the worst failure of western humanism, the destruction of two and a half millennia of human and spiritual development.

But other scenarios are also possible, some different narratives can already be discerned on the horizon of our complicated and beautiful era. To observe and understand them we will place ourselves 'on the border and beyond'. We will set up our lookout post on the dividing line between gratuitousness and market, between communities and people, between the totems and authentic spirituality. Let's expect everything and anything, and - bon voyage.

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