CounterEconomy/2 – The Gospel teaches us to multiply loaves and fish, not business schools.
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 12/03/2023
"God is the God of silence, because only God's silence is the condition of risk and freedom."
Andrè Neher, The exile of the word
This principle Is behind and recalls the basic laws of many human relationships, including corporate relationships and the art of consultants, who should act only by the end of a long process of listening.
Some serious errors in the relationship between companies and their consultants have to do with subsidiarity, a word absent in business school manager training courses, and generally also distant from the theory and practice of the various forms of consultancy. Subsidiarity is the first word of every good community and society. It is essentially an indication of the order and priorities of action when more than one intervention is required to manage a problem and the actors are at different distances from the problem that needs to be solved. The recommendation of the principle of subsidiarity is actually simple: the first person who must act and be listened to is the one closest to the problem, and all the other actors must intervene only afterwards to help ("subsidizing") those who are closest to the situation to be managed. The best-known applications of the principle of subsidiarity are the political ones (vertically and horizontally), so well known in fact, that we end up forgetting that subsidiarity has a much wider scope.
The origin of subsidiarity can be found in the philosophies of Aristotle and later in that of Saint Thomas Aquinas. However, subsidiarity can be found as far back as in the Bible, where the first to apply it is God himself in his relationships with men and women. Because he does not replace their responsibility but "helps" (supports) them to realize their vocation, and then steps aside, silently withdraws (Tzimtzum), retires and leaves the scene - this is also the meaning of the "seventh day” of creation and the Shabbat (Genesis 2,2). He is the God of the "second line", of the "last resort", who intervenes only after we have done everything we could on our part to solve our problems. So much so that in some biblical books - from Esther to the Canticle, from Ruth to Ecclesiastes - the direct action of God is almost absent, to make room for those of men and even more so of women. In fact, there is something feminine about subsidiarity. The God of the Bible accompanies us without taking our place, because, unlike idols, he does not abuse his power, he uses it in a subsidiary way.
The Bible also contains many episodes in which subsidiarity is explicit. One such episode concerns the construction of Solomon's temple. At a certain point, the responsibility for the work passes from the priests to the workers, to «the masons and stonecutters», and «the money… was paid to the workers» (2 Kings 12,12-14). The management of the production process was thus taken away from those who were more distant and with fewer skills (the priests) and handed over to the workers, those closest to the work - also reminding us that without subsidiarity we would never have secularism, but only clericalism. Subsidiarity is also present in the Gospels, in particular in the great story of the multiplication of the loaves and fish: «His disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away… But he answered, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?” “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five - and two fish”» (Marc 6,35).
The disciples turn to Jesus to solve the problem, but he responds with a perfect synthesis of subsidiarity: give them something to eat yourselves. The first solution that comes to mind for the disciples is the market (money), but Jesus invites them to "look closely" at each other first: how many loaves do you have? An here come the five loaves and the two fish, which, in John's version, are offered by a boy, a "last one", still in line with the subsidiarity of the Bible which usually starts with the last ones to solve a problem (David, Jacob, Mary…). Jesus therefore intervenes with subsidiarity. That "but" that is often repeated in this Gospel passage says a lot about subsidiarity: it is an order that must be created by "opposing" the spontaneous action of things, because the first reaction is not one of subsidiarity (we tend to turn directly to the most powerful).
This biblical and evangelical kind of subsidiarity contains a real grammar and an ABC. Its first root is a cognitive dimension; it concerns knowledge. Whoever finds himself inside a problem or whoever is closest to him, has the duty-right to make the first move, because he possesses a different knowledge, in a certain sense superior to that of whoever is "outside" the problem or in any case more distant (the distance can take various forms). It is not the only knowledge involved, but it has to come first, if we want to be serious about people. Those who are inside their own problems have a different and necessary access to reality. Because reality has its own force of truth, expressed by a phrase much loved by Pope Francis: «Realities are more important than ideas» (Evangelii gaudium, 233), that is, the idea that one who is far from a reality develops about it. The principle of subsidiarity in education tells us that an educational intervention must start from what the young person (each person) is and already knows. Any action that comes from outside must be subsidiary to the pre-existing reality, because no one is too ignorant to know at least something already and no one is too young to not already be something before being formed or educated. A good synthesis of this is the well-known phrase by Robert Baden Powell: «Ask the boy», start with him-her if you want to solve his or her problem.
Another area is poverty. In a situation of poverty-misery, we must start from what that person or community already knows how to do, from the riches they already possess, and interpret our intervention as subsidiary to whatever they already are, have and know. Here we come to understand, therefore, what the ethical dimension at the root of subsidiarity really is: the esteem for what you already are and not just for what you are yet to be. This esteem is the first step of the solution, because «only you can do it, but you cannot do it alone», I once heard Bishop Giancarlo Bregantini repeat. This is what the biblical God does with us, being subsidiary because he esteems us for what we already are and then calls unto us to become what we are yet to become: he calls to us and tells us to "get up" or "come out" starting from what we already are. Finally, the episode of the loaves and fish tells us something about the subsidiary relationship between the market (the two hundred denarii) and the gift. If you can use a gift to resolve a situation in a community, do not use the market or, in its positive version, the market is good if it helps the gift, but bad when it replaces it.
Thus, we now arrive at the issue of companies and their consultants, with a reasoning that can also be extended to those who play an accompanying role. What does taking subsidiarity seriously really mean here? What should a consultant do, i.e. someone who enters into company relationships and therefore into the management of people's emotions? The first implication of the principle of subsidiarity concerns what happens before the consultant is even called: give away yourself to them to feed upon. Hence, the question: have we already figured out where our few loaves and fish are? Because if these are not found (and they are always present), there is no material (the res) for any external intervention. However, this first step is almost never executed, or we simply stop at the "two hundred denarii", without ever finding the "boy", so when the external consultant arrives the "miracle" does not happen, due to the lack of subsidiarity, not in the consultant, but in those calling him.
After this phase, the logic of subsidiarity prompts the consultant in question to take the reality that needs to be solved very seriously, because that is where the principle of the solution can be found. Therefore he has to devote a lot of time to the narrative aspect essential in any process of discernment (counselling should essentially be an aid to discernment). People must then be put in a position to be able to talk about their life, their problems, their doubts and their dreams. Thus, the consultant must know how to waste time, a lot of time, and even before that, he must train and develop his listening skills, perhaps the most difficult art to learn and to teach in this time so dominated by too much background noise. Listening to people's hearts must become so profound, as to transform both the speaker and the listener. This is why the young Solomon, who before becoming king asks God for only one gift, «a discerning heart» (1 Kings 3,9), is the "protector" or "patron saint" of every consultant.
However, being able to listen to dreams is essential. It requires a rare and essential skill: knowing how to first recognize them as dreams and then interpret them. In fact, as the Bible still teaches us (which is the great code of dreams) dreams need an interpreter who in turn is a dreamer himself: Joseph (Genesis 41) and Daniel (Daniel 2), the two great dreamers, succeed in interpreting the dreams of others because they too knew how to dream. Thus, the most typical errors in consulting, even if reaches far enough to actually listen to the dreams of others, can be divided into categories: (a) those committed by those who do not recognize the "literary genre" of dreams and analyse them with the usual tools of the facts of waking life; (b) those by those who recognize them as dreams but, not being dreamers themselves, misinterpret it. What does being a dreamer mean when being a consultant? He or she must know the language of desires, ideals, passions, of the non-rational and the non-economic, all of which, economic life is also full of. The consultant must know them either because he or she has occasionally experienced them in his or her own life, or because, failing that, he or she has spent a lot of time studying them – this is also one of the reasons why there are no global consultants for all businesses and all problems, because no one knows all dreams. Without this expertise and experience of dreams, the consultant will stop at the envelope of the problems to be solved; only seeing the exterior or their appearance and the box they find themselves in. Thus, a consultant becomes truly excellent at his or her job when he or she manages to bring out the dreams that we have yet to tell anyone.
Hence, we can clearly see that the incompetence regarding dreams, which is always a serious matter, becomes decisive when counselling begins to enter non-profit organizations with an ideal objective and spiritual communities. The long-awaited "miracles" often do not happen because the consultancy tends to stop at a floor too low to see the sky, which is the true place of the greatest dreams. In these realities (to which we will return), failing to understand the dreams of the charism means failing to understand the heart of all problems. After all these initial delicate phases, only at this point and without trying to speed things up, the consultant can offer his or her necessary assistance, but... not even a moment sooner. Counselling is important and necessary, if and when, it comes in the right sequence of actions. And then, at the end of the process, the consultant must know when to leave, leave the scene to avoid transforming the help into constraint and dependence - but we'll talk about this next Sunday.