Oikonomia

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Oikonomia/ 11 – This crisis could help us give a new meaning to the economy and to work

 Published in Avvenire 22/03/2020

"The seventh day is a day during which handling money is considered to be a sacrilege. The seventh day is an exodus of tension, the liberation of man from his own mud, his inauguration as ruler of time. This is the Sabbath: the true happiness of the universe".

Abraham J. Heschel, The Sabbath

The lack of space in this new exile that we are experiencing in the days of the pandemic may be the invention of a new era, as was the case with the Jewish Sabbath: the temple of time.

We have now arrived at the end of Oikonomia. We began with the cuckoo metaphor and arrived last Sunday to the sacrifices, stopping by Augustine, Pelagius, monasticism, Francis, the relics, the pilgrimages, the Protestant Nordic spirit of capitalism and the Meridian and Catholic spirit along the way. We started in January, when this mass disease that afflicts us still seemed far away, today we find ourselves in a world and with lives completely changed by the pandemic. We are in the midst of a great collective struggle, in the hopes that this hand-to-hand combat resembles the one between Jacob and the Angel, and that we too will find ourselves with a wound along with a blessing and a new name when dawn comes. The signs that our hopes are not in vain are there.

[fulltext] =>

We are living a civil Lent that is uniting everyone, and, although we have not yet realized it, we find are ourselves in the middle of the greatest collective religious experience since the Second World War. The orderly queues in front of the supermarkets resemble processions, in which rows you can feel a solemnity that makes them similar to the rows of people lining up to receive the Eucharistic bread, a place that they have taken over. Many, while waiting for the outcome of Dad's swab, remember the only long forgotten prayer they knew, and now decades later begin reciting it again. Great crises revive the prayers of childhood, and we finally understand them - «Give us today our daily bread».

Chinese missionaries are not coming to evangelize us, as Fr Lorenzo Milani hoped for more than half a century ago; but when we see Chinese and Cuban doctors and nurses arriving at our shores, we feel that something of that prophecy is coming true: «It was the love of "order" that blinded us... On this threshold of extreme disorder, we send you this last weak apology... We did not hate the poor, as history will say of us. We were just sleeping».

In recent weeks, the economy has once again become oikonomia: housekeeping. It came out of the technical realm of economists to become work, despair and hope. In great crises, while being faced with the impotence and bareness of the experts, people tend to regain possession of the great words and vocabulary of life. We started our journey with questions about the nature and the spirit of capitalism, and episode after episode we came to understood that very little of the Gospel has really become part of our economy. In particular, there is very little Christianity in the idea that wealth is a blessing from God (and that poverty is a curse). Because the image of goods as a blessing, which is present in the Bible, has always been completed, scaled down and corrected by the criticism of wealth that we find beating so strongly in its prophetic and sapiential traditions. No biblical theology of wealth can be correct without the book of Job and without the prophets who, as one single choir of voices, repeat that truth does not coincide with success in any of its forms (wealth, health, fame, victory).

The vision on wealth and poverty of Jesus of Nazareth is a direct inheritance of the prophetic-sapiential line of the Bible. There are no references in his words or those of the New Testament to wealth as a sign of the Father's blessing. Even if someone, from time to time, takes the parable of talents to support the presence of a capitalist ethics within the Gospels. A truly improbable operation, if you think about the fact that in that parable of Matthew, (as in the twin parable by Luke with the "mines"), the use of a monetary language (talents) is purely allegorical. Because the message of the parable is an invitation to spread the Gospel received, addressed to a Church that risked becoming lazy awaiting the return of the Lord. All of this should then be further explored, because it is not obvious how the parallels between metaphor and the messages of the Gospel really operate: identifying that "tough master" who entrusts the talents to his three servants in the figure of the Father or in Jesus is not at all obvious. Furthermore, for those who wish to find meritocracy in this parable, in Matthew's account (Matthew 25,14–30), the talents are assigned by the master according to "the abilities of each one", thus denying the first dogma of all meritocracy, that talent itself is a merit - because "abilities" are mostly a gift, not a merit, just like the personal commitment we put into safeguarding and increasing our skills is also largely a gift.

It is so evident that wealth is not a sign of blessing in the eyes of Jesus of Nazareth, that in the most prophetic page of the whole New Testament, he calls the poor "blessed" while announcing "woes" for the rich. Nothing could be more distant than woes from the concept of ​​blessing, woes that we must interpret in line with the concepts of the eye of the needle and mammon. The economic vision of Jesus is similar to that of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. According to Ezekiel, for example, the myth of Adam's sin is also very much linked to the economy: «You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.

You were in Eden». Until «Till wickedness was found in you. Through your widespread trade, you were filled with violence, and you sinned. So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God... By your many sins and dishonest trade, you have desecrated your sanctuaries» (Ezekiel 28,12–18). The "original sin" was an economic one. Here, neither a woman nor a snake is present: the wrong logos is that of wealth. It was the dishonest trade that "desecrated the sanctuaries".

Only during the exile of Babylon, the financial capital of the time, could Ezekiel write these pages on the economy. As only in that same exile the Second Isaiah, an anonymous prophet brother and companion in Ezekiel's misfortune, could hear and write the wonderful words about man contained in many of his verses. The truly extreme songs are sung only along the rivers of Babylon, in the wards of intensive care, when another man and sometimes another God reveal themselves to us: «A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass» (Isaiah 40,6–7).

Also during that long exile, the people of Israel came to understand the Shabbat in a different way – as the Sabbath. Without it we could not understand biblical humanism. Perhaps Israel already knew and practiced the Shabbat before the deportation, but what is certain is that during that long collective night it learned the value of one of the greatest religious and social innovations in history. In that fasting of space, in a land without a temple and without worship, those deportees learned a different kind of time - something similar, but more radical and extreme, to what happened with the invention of liturgical time in the monasteries, which owes so much to the biblical Shabbat. When they suddenly found themselves without a temple and without a sacred space, a sacred time was born instead, and so they understood the infinite value of stopping, of suspending, of limiting, of equality and cosmic fraternity. Moreover, they also understood the meaning and the place for work, which without stopping during the Shabbat is only slavery, both in the past as well as today.

Not only is capitalism incompatible with the concept of Shabbat: it is directly anti-Shabbat. It does not stop, it does not suspend, it never stops working, and knows no limits. When that empire gave no respite, when it forced people to always work, when every day passed exactly like all other days, right there in that monotonous master of time, the need for a different day, which would set a new rhythm and be the prophecy of all other days, began to flourish in the midst of that ancient people held captive. That single different day rendered all hours, time itself, different. Jews do not have a paradise because the Shabbat is their eternal life, when everything stops and the ruthless clock of death is defeated. It is while finding ourselves in exile that we learn about the Shabbat.

Who knows if this new exile, if this new "deportation" in our history will make us rediscover the biblical sense of the Shabbat. If Christianity decided to include the Old Testament in its Book (and thank God it did!), then the Shabbat is also part of its humanism. What economy could we have had, if we had really saved the culture of the Shabbat? Instead, we have never been able to stop, always working and consuming nonstop and hence too much, and while losing the rhythm of time, nature, and life, we became unbalanced.

Suddenly, now, we had to stop, finding ourselves in the fallow land of capitalism, on a long Holy Saturday. We did not look for it or want it; it just came - like life, like death. It also came to teach us a new meaning to the economy and to work. We must continue, some more some less, to work during this exile; but his blessing will not come if we do not slow down the pace, if we forget the holidays and no longer celebrate them while dressing up (even if we are alone at home), or if we continue the same unbridled work rate as before "online". The other day my friend Silvina, a rabbi in Buenos Aires, reminded me that when Miriam, the sister of Moses, fell ill with leprosy, the people stopped everything: «So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on till she was brought back» (Numbers 12,15). We also find ourselves in a lack and famine of space now: it would be amazing if a new time could be born out of this confined space, if the closure of the sacred spaces opened up a new sacredness of time! Some of the most beautiful and prophetic books in the entire Bible were written during the exile in Babylon. That new time born out of a limited space ended up generating infinite beauty. Jewish scholars proclaimed that Redemption would come when the whole world observed the Shabbat.

***

There is still so much to look for in the halls and dungeons of Oikonomia. In agreement with Marco Tarquinio, director and dear friend, however, I felt that it would be a good idea to end this series and start commenting on the Book of Psalms next Sunday instead. The economy is retreating today to make room for the Bible. The prayers that those ancient men and women raised to the heavens in order to continue to hope and live will become precious companions in this new exile of ours. The Bible is also a gift of words to be able to start praying again, when pain has made us forget all our other words.

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Oikonomia/ 11 – This crisis could help us give a new meaning to the economy and to work

 Published in Avvenire 22/03/2020

"The seventh day is a day during which handling money is considered to be a sacrilege. The seventh day is an exodus of tension, the liberation of man from his own mud, his inauguration as ruler of time. This is the Sabbath: the true happiness of the universe".

Abraham J. Heschel, The Sabbath

The lack of space in this new exile that we are experiencing in the days of the pandemic may be the invention of a new era, as was the case with the Jewish Sabbath: the temple of time.

We have now arrived at the end of Oikonomia. We began with the cuckoo metaphor and arrived last Sunday to the sacrifices, stopping by Augustine, Pelagius, monasticism, Francis, the relics, the pilgrimages, the Protestant Nordic spirit of capitalism and the Meridian and Catholic spirit along the way. We started in January, when this mass disease that afflicts us still seemed far away, today we find ourselves in a world and with lives completely changed by the pandemic. We are in the midst of a great collective struggle, in the hopes that this hand-to-hand combat resembles the one between Jacob and the Angel, and that we too will find ourselves with a wound along with a blessing and a new name when dawn comes. The signs that our hopes are not in vain are there.

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The Sabbath is reborn while in exile

The Sabbath is reborn while in exile

Oikonomia/ 11 – This crisis could help us give a new meaning to the economy and to work  Published in Avvenire 22/03/2020 "The seventh day is a day during which handling money is considered to be a sacrilege. The seventh day is an exodus of tension, the liberation of man from his own mud, his i...
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 Oikonomia/ 10 - The claim to repay God and that veil that does not hide exploitation

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 14/03/2020

 "One of the reasons for killing a god is to preserve him from aging"

R. Money-Kyrle, The meaning of sacrifice

Businesses today are increasingly using the language of sacrifice, while theology instead is abandoning it. A complex word, especially in Christianity, which easily runs the risk of lending itself to manipulation.

Sacrifice is a word associated with religion, with the economy, with every crisis there is. Sacrifices are born or developed during great collective crises - wars, famines, plagues. In the ancient world, when life became harder and evil threatened communities, our ancestors began to think that offering something of value to the divinities could be an essential tool for managing catastrophes and crises. The sacrifice to the gods of animals and, in certain cases, of children and virgins, became a language for binding heaven to earth, the collective hope of being able to act upon invisible enemies. Sacrifices feed on hope and fear, on life and death. It is radically a community experience, which heals, recreates and nourishes the bonds within the community and between the community and its gods.

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Sacrifice is both light and darkness added together. The light is clear. Communities are not born, and do not last, nor grow, without sacrifices - we keep finding this out, but it is never enough. We have learned to practice the gift and generosity during millennia of sacrificial offerings. Each true gift intrinsically carries a dimension of sacrifice (in the most common sense of the word). Those gifts that cost us nothing are also worth nothing - one of the most ancient social laws there is - because a true gift is always the gift of life. We love gifts very much, especially when they come from our loved ones, because they are sacraments of their love for us. These days of pandemic that we are now experiencing, between the winter and spring of 2020, could also prove to be a wonderful time for our children, to learn about the mysterious and definitive relationship between sacrifice, gift, and life.

When it comes to their dark side, sacrifices have an intrinsic vertical and asymmetrical dimension. One does not offer or sacrifice something as an exact equal, but to an entity one sees as being superior. Sacrificial communities are always hierarchical, because the man-god relationship involved immediately becomes a paradigm of political and social relationships, and therefore of power. The community that offers sacrifices and gifts to the gods must also offer sacrifices and gifts to the powerful and the king - who in certain religions is divine in nature as well. The gift given to a king is a gift (regalo from rex: re, king), which is given because you cannot not offer it.

If we then take the same words that we have just used to describe the light side of sacrifices ("they cost", "they are worth", "they are dear"), we immediately find ourselves facing another of their dark aspects, linked to an even greater and more direct extent to the economy. A sacrifice or offering is not an isolated act, but a process that takes place over time. At the beginning, there is generally an expectation of return that far too easily can turn into a claim. The grace, which is the objective of any sacrifice, becomes an object of trade. Typically, we would find sacrifice before grace. Moreover, even when the sacrifice arrives later, when we return to the temple to make another sacrificial offering, we are already well into a commercial relationship with the god in question. It is possible that many communities began the practice of today's sacrifice as a token of gratitude for a gift received yesterday by the gods, and from the second sacrifice onwards, the commercial register prevailed, and the sacrifice became the price paid in advance to gain a new slice of grace. What is lacking (or which is strongly challenged) in sacrifices is precisely the concept of gratuity.

Through the mediation of Christianity, sacrifice entered directly into the medieval economy and then into capitalism, becoming one of its ethical pillars. The economy and sacrifices are both linked to the material dimension of life. When it comes to sacrifices and offerings, it is not enough to offer prayers and psalms of praise: one also has to offer something material, sacrificing objects or lives assimilated to things. The first economic goods in human history were the offerings of animals, the first markets those with the gods, the first trade that between heaven and earth, and the first merchants the priests in the temples.

Today, we find the concept of sacrifice in the many places occupied by capitalism. And not only in the most evident phenomena, such as the increasing sacrifices requested by large companies from their employees, which today often take the form of actual holocausts (with a total destruction of the offer) of their entire lives, because they are often useless for the productivity of the company, but as pure signs of total and unconditional devotion.

However, the most interesting way in which sacrifice is present in capitalism, is the least evident one. In religions, sacrifice does not just want things: it wants living things that die as we offer them. Sacrifices consist precisely in transforming what lives into something that dies because it is alive (only living things can die: objects do not die because they are not alive). Coins, for example, are found in shrines all around the world, but are not used as objects of sacrifice - they are used as a means to buy the animals to be offered, or are left as complementary accessories to the living sacrifice. Those animals or (vegetable) libations, which like all living things would necessarily and naturally eventually be destined to death, paradoxically manage to defeat death, and acquire a dimension that takes them away from the natural rhythm of life, precisely thanks to the sacrifice involved. Because, if on the one hand, the lamb dies prematurely as it is sacrificed while still alive, when it dies on the altar it becomes something different, overcoming the natural laws of the world, entering another order and acquiring a different value. By not dying naturally, in a certain way, it becomes immortal.

The economy also lives and grows by transforming things destined for death into goods that acquire value, precisely through this kind of transformation. Every day businesses take living things (raw materials, animals, wheat, cotton, our energy supplies...), destined as living things to eventually die, creating added value by making them "die" and transforming them into goods. That value that is added to things while transforming them is very similar to the value that animals and plants used to acquire while they were offered on an altar.

The interpretation of Jesus' death and resurrection has also often been seen from this perspective: his "sacrifice" defeats the natural order of death and, through the resurrection, makes him immortal. Martyrdom, and later virginity, were also seen in Christianity as an alchemy of death into a different and superior kind of life.

However, the relationship between Christianity and sacrifice is full of misunderstandings. Even if the life and words of Jesus move within an anti-sacrificial logic («I desire Mercy, not Sacrifice» Matthew 9,13), Christianity immediately interpreted the passion and death of Jesus as a sacrifice, as the «Lamb of God» which, with his death, definitively removed all sin from the world. A new and final sacrifice (Hebrews 10), which replaced the ancient and repeated sacrifices of the temple. The sacrifice of Jesus, of the Son, would have been the price paid to God the Father to pay off the enormous debt that humanity had contracted. Jesus, the new high priest, who offers not animals but himself in sacrifice (Hebrews 7).

Sacrificial theology ran across and marked the entire Middle Ages, reaffirmed by the Counter-Reformation, and is still deeply rooted in Christian practice today. The sacrificial idea informs a lot of Christian liturgy, transmitting the hierarchical vision typical of sacrifice to Christianity as well. Throughout the Middle Ages (and beyond) the culture of sacrifice was in fact expressed in social practices of sacrifice and offerings where subjects, children, women, servants, poor people, had to sacrifice themselves for their superiors, for the leaders, for their priests, for their fathers and husbands. Sacrificing and offering to God easily became sacrificing yourself for other men who, like God, were above and beyond those making the sacrifices. The theological context of sacrifices offered asymmetric and feudal power relations a spiritual justification, calling what was simply exploitation, a sacrifice.

The concept of sacrifice is finally leaving more recent theology, (thanks to a more biblical understanding of the mystery of the Passion), but it is increasingly entering and becoming part of the new capitalist religion. In fact, the creative process of living things that die, increasing their value while "dying", has become particularly strong and central in the capitalism of the 21st century, where, unlike in the past, the first living things that acquire value by dying have now become the workers. Marx explained to us that only people are capable of creating added value in economics – machines are not enough. This ancient truth has recently undergone an important transformation. Until a few decades ago, the "sacrifice" required by factories was not excessive, much less complete in its nature: it was merely the one defined in each worker’s employment contract and managed by the unions. The sacrifice of life was reserved only to faith, to the family, to one’s homeland. The religious mutation of capitalism and the eclipse of other "sacrificial" spheres in life meant that large companies have now become our new places for total sacrifice. This capitalism is no longer enough, nor is it interested in consuming our work force. It is the workers, who have to volunteer and offer themselves on the altar. Its worship needs whole people - in every religion, the most welcome offers are those that are whole, young, and spotless. The greater their sacrifice, the more they are worth. For example, the number of single or childless managers in the top positions of large companies is impressive and growing, a number that keeps increasing, especially in the great capitals of capitalism (from Singapore to Milan). A new form of celibacy and vow of chastity, essential to this new religion. And, as in the Middle Ages, that beautiful word sacrifice is now covering that other bad word, exploitation. This capitalism is really manipulating too many words.

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21:22:09 [created_by_alias] => [modified_user_id] => 609 [modified_time] => 2020-08-01 10:35:46 [images] => {"image_intro":"","float_intro":"","image_intro_alt":"","image_intro_caption":"","image_fulltext":"","float_fulltext":"","image_fulltext_alt":"","image_fulltext_caption":""} [urls] => {} [hits] => 47322 [language] => * [version] => 1 [publish_up] => 2015-11-14 20:22:09 [publish_down] => 2015-11-14 20:22:09 ) [1] => stdClass Object ( [tag_id] => 30 [id] => 30 [parent_id] => 1 [lft] => 57 [rgt] => 58 [level] => 1 [path] => oikonomia [title] => Oikonomia [alias] => oikonomia [note] => [description] => [published] => 1 [checked_out] => 0 [checked_out_time] => 2020-08-08 23:30:49 [access] => 1 [params] => {} [metadesc] => [metakey] => [metadata] => {} [created_user_id] => 609 [created_time] => 2020-08-08 23:30:49 [created_by_alias] => [modified_user_id] => 0 [modified_time] => 2020-08-08 23:30:49 [images] => {} [urls] => {} [hits] => 2597 [language] => * [version] => 1 [publish_up] => 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 Oikonomia/ 10 - The claim to repay God and that veil that does not hide exploitation

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 14/03/2020

 "One of the reasons for killing a god is to preserve him from aging"

R. Money-Kyrle, The meaning of sacrifice

Businesses today are increasingly using the language of sacrifice, while theology instead is abandoning it. A complex word, especially in Christianity, which easily runs the risk of lending itself to manipulation.

Sacrifice is a word associated with religion, with the economy, with every crisis there is. Sacrifices are born or developed during great collective crises - wars, famines, plagues. In the ancient world, when life became harder and evil threatened communities, our ancestors began to think that offering something of value to the divinities could be an essential tool for managing catastrophes and crises. The sacrifice to the gods of animals and, in certain cases, of children and virgins, became a language for binding heaven to earth, the collective hope of being able to act upon invisible enemies. Sacrifices feed on hope and fear, on life and death. It is radically a community experience, which heals, recreates and nourishes the bonds within the community and between the community and its gods.

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An ambiguous sacrifice

An ambiguous sacrifice

 Oikonomia/ 10 - The claim to repay God and that veil that does not hide exploitation By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 14/03/2020  "One of the reasons for killing a god is to preserve him from aging" R. Money-Kyrle, The meaning of sacrifice Businesses today are increasingly using the lang...
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    [title] => The good fasting for the eyes
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Oikonomia/ 9 - Life is powerful because it is promiscuous, because it is a mix of both wheat and discord together

Avvenire 08/03/2020

"I look at the icon and say to myself: - It is Her – not a representation, but actually Her. I see the Mother of God as if I was looking through a window, the Mother of God in person, and I pray, face to face with her, not to her representation."

Pavel A. Florenskij, The royal doors: an essay on icons

Pilgrimages, relics and icons are important economic phenomena of the Middle Ages. The Protestant Reformation unwittingly favored the transition from "cult objects" to the "cult of objects" of capitalism.

Medieval pilgrimages are yet another "place" where Christianity met with the economic spirit. A very ancient phenomenon that takes up previous traditions by adding some typical elements of Christianity. Being a pilgrim was a condition that brought together all kinds of people from ecclesiastics and nobles to the poor and insolvent debtors on the run. The pilgrims' routes traced the commercial arteries of the new Europe, lined with inns and hostels around which new villages, cities and fairs were born. Walking along the Via Francigena and Via Lauretana, the pilgrim's journey joined that of the merchants: traders of both different and equal goods and products, with both similar and distant motives, a biodiversity of things and motivations that Europe contributed to generating.

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Europe was born in the footwear of the countless pilgrims who walked and crossed it, dreamed and marked it for a millennium and beyond. Before the creation of the nation states, Christians met on the streets, where they listened to different languages, they practiced the old and new law of hospitality, and they learned that no man is from so far from away that he cannot be a fellow human being. That feeling that still prevails to this day of something familiar while walking from Portugal to Puglia, from Spain to Provence, is what remains of the wandering faith of our ancestors, who were European before being Italian or French. If our emigrant grandparents managed to communicate with Germans, Belgians, and Poles without knowing those languages ​​or English, it is because they had silent but true dialogues buried in the DNA of their souls, created during centuries by the pilgrims and their nomadic faith. It took many centuries of travel, encounters, injuries and blessings to learn how to meet less than a yard away from each other, that short distance which is one of the heritages of humanity – let us not forget this in these days of necessary increased personal distance.

During the first Christian centuries, pilgrimage was an existential condition, which could last for a very long time, in some cases, even a lifetime. It was also an alternative to the monastic ascetic way of life. The pilgrim replied to the stabilitas loci of monasticism with the homo viator. Traveling became the pilgrims' labora – travel, trip and travaglio (labor) indeed all share the same root (-tr).

The medieval pilgrim is a crosser of places. Travel was not yet a way of crossing spaces back then. The journey of the pilgrim was not very different from the journey of Marco Polo, where the speed and reaching one’s destination were less important than the journey itself, as an encounter with different people and places. We are far from the rational space of modern maps, where the specific identities of places are lost in a formless model of a "homogeneous and empty" space (W. Benjamin).

From the seventh century onwards, the penitential pilgrimage, linked to sins and/or crimes, where the journey became the penance to be paid or served, began to develop. Thus, the economic-commercial dimension of the pilgrimage grew, intended as the price to pay in order to pay off a debt, a side-species to the broader kind of "tariff" penances and their highly sophisticated market. Pilgrimage became synonym with sacrifice; and as in any sacrifice, there is a price, a gift, an extinguished debt, and sometimes even a celebration, a communion involved.

Two other important medieval movements were also closely related to pilgrimages: that of relics and that of icons. A pilgrimage was in fact accomplished through the acquisition of a relic or, if too difficult or expensive, of an object, in order to be able to return home with a something, a res. The object was, as in a real contract, a necessary condition for the validity of that complex act. In fact, in the case with pilgrimages to Mecca, the Islamic ban on representing divinity lead to a complete absence of relics, icons, trade, and hence, the spirit of capitalism.

Over the centuries, the trade with relics became one of the most important commercial phenomena in Europe, initially fought by many church fathers then regulated by popes and emperors, the subject of theological disputes over their actual nature and lawfulness. The theological intrigue was not easy to unravel. The Church shared a ban on idolatry with the Hebrew Bible, that is, to worship anything other than the one and only God. Relics were by their nature exposed to the possible sin of idolatry, superstition and paganism. Moreover, these special and theologically dangerous objects were also, although with limitations and constraints, the object of trade and therefore exposed to the sin of simony.

The economic aspect is however a decisive dimension of relics. Coins transformed into relics are well known – one of Judah’s thirty coins is kept in Olivone of Blenio (in the Canton of Ticino, Switzerland), and even a sample of the land purchased with the thirty denarii was kept in in Barzanò on Lake Como until the XVII century - a sign that the sheer symbolic value exceeded the impurity of mammon. The relic acquired its value from its contact with a special body. Relics therefore had a constitutive relationship with corporeality and matter. They were an expression of the sacramental vision of reality, according to which God speaks to men also through matter and things - and we in turn talk to God through things as well: with a gift or with the work and products of our own hands. Relics and the Eucharist are very different, but both transubstantiate matter, things that while they remain what they are become something else, something invisible. The medieval man was in general much poorer than we are, but he lived in a richer world, denser with life. Things spoke more to him, and he often managed to tune into these plural voices and sometimes even managing to understand them.

Relics have something in common with the other great medieval "object", byzantine in particular: the icons. Icons are not simply sacred art. The icon is written, not painted, and has a special relationship with the face - the language of the icon is that of colors, eyes, movements of the mouth, hands and bodies. In the eyes of Orthodox theology, the author of the icon is God himself using the hand of the artist (usually a monk). The definition given by Olivier Clément is very beautiful indeed: «The icon does not belong to the magical order of possession, but to the properly Christian order of communion. It refers to the dimension of relationships, of meeting». He adds, «Looking at an icon is fasting for the eyes». It is fasting for the eyes because the icon is a spiritual exercise in using without possessing, and therefore of chastity. Looking at those beautiful eyes and faces, the most beautiful of all, for free, day by day you become a little like them. Perhaps we did not "consume" all the women and children we have looked at because all the while we carried centuries of these chaste gazes of many women and some men engraved in our souls. We learned that we were truly the "image and likeness of God" not by reading Genesis, but by looking and kissing those wonderful faces and then discovering that they resembled us. Through those "windows”, we saw paradise, and we understood that we too were a piece of heaven.

The Church fought against the cult of icons to a larger extent than that of relics. Between the VIII and IX centuries, there were iconoclastic struggles and ecumenical councils, different currents within the Church destroyed thousands of icons and erased frescoes from churches across Europe, in a quest to protect the purity of worship and combat the sin of idolatry. Partly due to other, political, reasons, not least the identity of Eastern Christianity in relation to Islam, an anti-iconic culture by definition. These champions of the purity of religion - always abundant in all ages - failed to overcome the piety of the people and their faith so different from that of theologians. One thing is certain, faith and magic, truth and deceit (false relics were abundant), religion and superstition, are all intertwined in relics and icons. They intertwine there as they intertwine in every other dimension of life, which is alive because it is promiscuous, because it is both wheat and discord, together. We have left the "enchanted world" (Charles Taylor) however. We stopped kissing icons, dreaming of saints and angels and we became depleted of present, past and future. Of course, we also dreamt of demons, but we always knew that Jesus and Mary were more beautiful and stronger, and would defeat them.

As long as relics and icons, along with cloths and spices, populated the markets, they remained plural populated with a host of different goods. Next to pepper and silk were the faces of Jesus and Mary, relics of saints and martyrs. All inhabitants of the same medieval markets.

The Protestant Reformation reacted strongly to the promiscuity of this aspect of popular faith, calling it idolatry, producing a new iconoclastic struggle, especially in Calvinist circles. As a result, there were even more statues of saints torn down, erased paintings and frescoes, fights against pilgrimages, icons and relics destroyed and even churches. Hence, in the new world now stripped of all these different goods, commodities remained the sole protagonists of the markets. The place of relics and icons was eventually taken over by commodities and their "fetishism", and that of pilgrimages by business trips and tourism with its souvenirs.

Capitalism is a cult, and no cult can exist without objects: «The starting point of culture is worship» (Pavel A. Florenskij). Christianity in the Middle Ages became culture also due to the worship of things, relics, saints, icons, and sanctuaries, while worshiping and eating a God made bread. By eliminating, any good that was not a commodity from the horizon of the modern landscape, the cult of objects was born from the cancellation of the objects of worship. With one big difference: while relics and icons could not be owned but only looked at, they could not be worshiped but only revered, goods and commodities can only be owned and adored. Another paradox and heterogenesis in terms of means to obtain an end: a Reformation born from the anti-idolatrous fight unwittingly created the conditions for capitalism, the greatest cult for adoration of objects in history. The world which they freed from (what they thought were) "idols" was not inhabited by the worship of the only God instead, but by legions of fetish-commodities. The emptiness left in people by the death of the image-presence of God within things, was instead filled with new objects, and their spirit (hau) has become that of capitalism.

Expelled from the enchanted world, we found ourselves among relics and impoverished icons. Modernity, like all revolutions, had to pay its price: the replacement of the enchantment of things with the sheer spell of commodities and goods was perhaps the highest.

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Oikonomia/ 9 - Life is powerful because it is promiscuous, because it is a mix of both wheat and discord together

Avvenire 08/03/2020

"I look at the icon and say to myself: - It is Her – not a representation, but actually Her. I see the Mother of God as if I was looking through a window, the Mother of God in person, and I pray, face to face with her, not to her representation."

Pavel A. Florenskij, The royal doors: an essay on icons

Pilgrimages, relics and icons are important economic phenomena of the Middle Ages. The Protestant Reformation unwittingly favored the transition from "cult objects" to the "cult of objects" of capitalism.

Medieval pilgrimages are yet another "place" where Christianity met with the economic spirit. A very ancient phenomenon that takes up previous traditions by adding some typical elements of Christianity. Being a pilgrim was a condition that brought together all kinds of people from ecclesiastics and nobles to the poor and insolvent debtors on the run. The pilgrims' routes traced the commercial arteries of the new Europe, lined with inns and hostels around which new villages, cities and fairs were born. Walking along the Via Francigena and Via Lauretana, the pilgrim's journey joined that of the merchants: traders of both different and equal goods and products, with both similar and distant motives, a biodiversity of things and motivations that Europe contributed to generating.

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The good fasting for the eyes

The good fasting for the eyes

Oikonomia/ 9 - Life is powerful because it is promiscuous, because it is a mix of both wheat and discord together Avvenire 08/03/2020 "I look at the icon and say to myself: - It is Her – not a representation, but actually Her. I see the Mother of God as if I was looking through a window, the Mo...
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Oikonomia/8 - Small well-deserved salvations attract us more than a great and undeserved one

Published in Avvenire 01/03/2020

"Often the vile work of a servant is more pleasing to God than all the fasts and works of priests and friars"
MartinLuther, The Babylonian captivity of the Church

The management of what is ideal and the trade in penances (what we know as incentives today) are an important part of the spirit of capitalism and big business. Even so, we moved away from the ecclesial "societas perfecta" to a "business community" instead.

Any utopia of a perfect society produces the image of a city of imperfect men and women, living their imperfection with a sense of guilt, which then becomes the main instrument to control and manage the consciences and existences of both individuals and the community as a whole. There is a relationship between the ideal of perfection and the spirit of capitalism. Monasticism, and later Protestant Reformation, both played decisive roles in this as well. The idea that Christian life was a path to perfection began to develop very early, until it became a pillar of medieval humanism, although neither the Bible nor the life and teachings of Jesus were ever centred on the idea of ​​perfection. Biblical tradition, in fact, never placed people who were presented as models of moral perfection or of faith at its centre. Think of Jacob-Israel, his deceptions and lies, David, the most beloved king, who perhaps carries out the most cowardly murder in the Bible, or Solomon, the wisest king, who became corrupt. Salvation history is a history of moral imperfections that YHWH manages to tenaciously direct towards a mysterious salvation.

[fulltext] =>

It is wrong to consider the Gospels as some sort of treatises on morality, let alone ethics of virtues. The beatitudes are not virtues. The message that emerges from the Gospels and from Paul is not that works or fasting will save us, nor does meticulously following the Law make anyone more righteous. Very little is said about perfection in the Gospels, because the message of Jesus is not a proposal for ethical perfection but a journey for women and men to become free from a vain ideal of perfection that only helps to produce neuroses and unhappiness. No moral path puts a scaffold or an empty tomb at its peak - not even those medieval traditions that represent Jesus as voluntarily walking up to the cross. The ethics of merit, the other side of the medal of all ethics of perfection, is in fact as far away as you can get from the original announcement of the Gospel. We are not loved because we are perfect, and nothing can attract the heart of the biblical and Christian God more than a sincere imperfection.

Nonetheless, Greco-Roman ethics of perfection eventually prevailed; and just as in the case with economic ethics, even in terms of perfection, medieval Christian ethics continued the moral ideal that prevailed in the Roman Empire. Partly because human beings find it much more attractive to build up a little well-deserved salvation than to welcome a great one, but as an undeserved gift. The ideal of perfection developed greatly in monasticism. After the age of martyrs, holiness was increasingly seen as moral perfection, and therefore as a means to fight against vices and cultivate virtues. And, as often happens, this humanism of excellence, interpreted as perfection, eventually became the ethics of imperfection and management of faults. Indeed, since imperfection is the empirical fact of life, indicating perfection as an ideal also implicated producing infinite and ineradicable feelings of guilt, the true masters of all ethics of perfection. Any ideal of perfection serves only to generate an endless series of errors and sins, and the numbers increase for every day that goes by. The fruit of any law lived as an ethical ideal is sin. The greatest value in any ethics of perfection does not lie in the ideal itself but in the gap between what is ideal and what is real, an infinite value because the concept of what is ideal is infinite.

Confession and penance then became the tools to manage eternally imperfect people who experienced the gap between their real life and the ideal as an eternal source of guilt. The "Christian" ethics of moral perfection spread throughout Europe starting from the monasteries. With asceticism seen as a universal image of perfection, people increasingly turned to private confession and the consequent penances, first behind their walls and then outside the monasteries. With monasticism, particularly Irish monasticism, confession began to become a private matter between a monk and the priest he was confessing to. With the privatization and individualization of confession (which in the early centuries was a public and community affair) came the privatization of penances as well. These became increasingly detailed and specific, until a very specific punishment with a relative "tariff" corresponded to every single fault or sin - hence the highly indicative name of tariff penances. As we can read in the pages of the “Penitential of Colombanus": «If someone has sinned in thought, that is, he wanted to kill, fornicate, steal, secretly eat, get drunk, beat someone, he shall do penance on bread and water for six months ... If someone has perjured, he shall do penance for seven years».

The passing of time brought a series of innovation and changes, introducing other forms of penance, such as pilgrimages, as well as a more objective aspect of the act of penance, in other words independent of the sinner. Partly because penances, which were additive and often came to dimensions, (in terms of quality and quantity), that were quite impossible to sustain for a single person. Hence the decisive innovation: penance could be performed by any person, not only by the sinner, because ultimately what really mattered was "satisfying" God. Without really asking for His permission, the Christian God thus became an infinite sort of creditor towards men and women eternally indebted to Him for non-extinguishable and continually renegotiated sums of money. The first global and universal stock exchange of the Middle Ages was in fact religion.

The idea that penance could be both exchanged, trafficked and marketed, a phenomenon that was also greatly favoured by the introduction of the monetary medium, began to take hold. Given this objective aspect, penance easily turned into a commodity, saleable and purchasable. Thus, penance was no longer linked to a single person, and the first derivative title in history was born, because penance could now be re-negotiated as an autonomous entity in itself - Gaius sinned and Tiberius made the pilgrimage. The penance market was further facilitated by the extension of penance originally only paid by monks to now also including lay people, gradually invading and taking over all of medieval Christianity. From the 12th century onwards, the combination of perfection-penances created the phenomenon of "switching lists" which allowed a short period of hard fasting, calculated according to precise algorithms, to become a lighter but longer one. The further invention of plenary indulgence associated with pilgrimages and the jubilee (the one launched by Boniface VIII in 1300 was fundamental), the extension of the objectivity and transitivity of penance even to the dead in purgatory, lead to the creation of increasingly perfect and abstract markets. The inequality between the rich and the poor therefore also increased, as those who had more money could easily be exempted from heavy penances.

Hence, we have now arrived at the threshold of Luther and the Reformation, when the economy of salvation and the economy of money were already deeply intertwined. From this point of view, it is true that a first "spirit of capitalism" had already developed in the medieval world, but it did not so much develop among the cloth merchants and banks in the Italian cities of the fourteenth century, as many centuries earlier among the penitent monks and in the markets of penances and merits. We have been able to give life in Europe in modern times to the greatest mercantile experiment in human history, in part because Christians for centuries already had become accustomed to reasoning and negotiating about prices, debts, credits in the most intimate spheres of life, of death, of God. The "subject leap" from religion to economics was quick and easy. A further question arises here as well, the same that we asked ourselves in the case of wealth seen by the Calvinists as a sign of being chosen: where in all this is the Gospel? It is difficult to discern. Instead, we have to say that the penitentiary tariffs were yet another unintended effect, this time entirely Catholic, operated by Christianity in the economic sphere, an effect that had little or nothing to do with the Gospel.

However, there is more, in addition to the abolition of religious orders, so that asceticism and vocation were no longer the privileges of an elite of religious people but became the ordinary life of all, especially in the workplace, Luther and his reformers also abolished confession and the management of penances. Direct expressions of the idea (in their eyes Pelagian) of salvation depending on one’s acts and works. Up to this point, the story is well known. Another side effect is known to a much lesser degree. Work became the new good place of that "bad" asceticism and perfection that had been expelled from the monasteries, and hence the economy became the area where the ideal of ethical perfection developed most in Protestant humanism. If, in fact, the ascetic vision of life as a vocation does not serve to obtain merits from God, asceticism, the ideal of perfection and vocation still have a meaning of their own in the economy. Hence, the meritocracy in Protestant capitalism was born centuries later from the Protestant criticism of the merits in religion, and from its criticism of the ideal of perfection in monasteries, centuries later, modern economy was born as its own kingdom of perfection.

Anglo-Saxon Political Economy and the great capitalist enterprise both form part of the same cult of perfection. Economic science is entirely built on the idea of ​​perfection - perfect competition, perfect rationality, perfect information, and interprets any deviation from perfection as a failure of the markets and perfect rationality. In addition, while economic theory today is slowly reconciling with the concept of limits, the great business enterprises are the ones that continue cultivating the utopia of rational and efficient organization. The name of the moral perfection of capitalism is efficiency, and so the societas perfecta of the Church transitioned becoming part of the business community. The theological battle against salvation understood as moral perfection eventually turned capitalism into a profane place of a good kind of perfection, where job descriptions and incentive schemes occupy the same place tariff penances and penitential books used to have. "Perfectionism" (Antonio Rosmini) is in fact also one of the great pathologies of big business, which interprets any gap between what is ideal and reality as failure, producing the same great feelings of guilt in workers today as it used to do in medieval penitents.

The mechanism behind it is in fact the same: limits experienced as a source of guilt that must be expiated with accurately calculated penances. The incentives are these new penances, codified and objectified in new manuals for confessors. And even if the incentives do not explicitly present themselves as penances but as prizes or awards, in reality they are an expression of the same anthropology that considers human limits as "sins" and sees the gap between what is ideal and reality as failure and a source of guilt for "losers" unable to achieve the high standards set. Just as the medieval monk who, if left to live his natural life, was destined to a life of failure and penance enabled him to hope to be able to reduce the gap, so incentives make the natural and imperfect actions of workers move towards the ideal objectives set by management. The Gospel is good news because it constitutes a liberation from our abstract ideals, in order to be able to meet others and God in the perfect beauty of an imperfect life. It took us ages to understand it. We have almost forgotten this today, and so companies try to make a business of our desire for paradise, almost always sought in the wrong places.

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Oikonomia/8 - Small well-deserved salvations attract us more than a great and undeserved one

Published in Avvenire 01/03/2020

"Often the vile work of a servant is more pleasing to God than all the fasts and works of priests and friars"
MartinLuther, The Babylonian captivity of the Church

The management of what is ideal and the trade in penances (what we know as incentives today) are an important part of the spirit of capitalism and big business. Even so, we moved away from the ecclesial "societas perfecta" to a "business community" instead.

Any utopia of a perfect society produces the image of a city of imperfect men and women, living their imperfection with a sense of guilt, which then becomes the main instrument to control and manage the consciences and existences of both individuals and the community as a whole. There is a relationship between the ideal of perfection and the spirit of capitalism. Monasticism, and later Protestant Reformation, both played decisive roles in this as well. The idea that Christian life was a path to perfection began to develop very early, until it became a pillar of medieval humanism, although neither the Bible nor the life and teachings of Jesus were ever centred on the idea of ​​perfection. Biblical tradition, in fact, never placed people who were presented as models of moral perfection or of faith at its centre. Think of Jacob-Israel, his deceptions and lies, David, the most beloved king, who perhaps carries out the most cowardly murder in the Bible, or Solomon, the wisest king, who became corrupt. Salvation history is a history of moral imperfections that YHWH manages to tenaciously direct towards a mysterious salvation.

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That perfection which deceives us

That perfection which deceives us

Oikonomia/8 - Small well-deserved salvations attract us more than a great and undeserved one Published in Avvenire 01/03/2020 "Often the vile work of a servant is more pleasing to God than all the fasts and works of priests and friars" MartinLuther, The Babylonian captivity of the Church The m...
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Oikonomia/7 - There once was (and there should be) a road along which the poor are not damned

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 23/02/2020

The social consequences of the disparities in our individual starting points tend to be denied. This often translates into a general disapproval of leveling egalitarianism, while defending meritocracy which exalts individuality.

Federico Caffè, The solitude of the reformist

The Catholic spirit of capitalism is different from its Anglo-Saxon spirit. Until recently, when the centrality of consumption also began conquering Mediterranean humanism.

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There is a distinct elective affinity between capitalism and the Protestant world. Of the fifty founding economists of the American Economic Association in 1885, twenty were Protestant pastors. Adam Smith formed his beliefs in Calvinist circles in Scotland, Malthus and Wicksteed, two economists and prominent figures in the history of economic thought, were both Protestant pastors. Alfred Marshall, perhaps the most influential English economist between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, trained as a pastor. Furthermore, Esther Duflo, Nobel laureate in Economics in 2019, said, «Protestantism is part of my family, my education and my social persona». In the Catholic world, however, the situation was very different. As far back in time as the abbot Antonio Genovesi in the eighteenth century, economists who called themselves "Catholic economists" favored an ethical, philosophical or historical approach, they did not however offer any contribution that ended up becoming part of the official tradition of economic science. Other such economists founded cooperatives, rural banks, and banks, or preferred working in a political and institutional sphere.

This does not mean that there is not a "Catholic" spirit even in modern economic science. Finding it, however, requires going beyond the visible boundaries of the Church and "Catholic" economists, and instead looking for it among economists of all ideological and confessional beliefs, different expressions of a meridian and catholic economy (understood in a non-religious, cultural sense), with a series of common traits although different in their habits and form. Only by limiting ourselves to the twentieth century and Italian economists, do we find, for example, Achille Loria and his criticism of rent and financial income, seen as the great enemy of an entrepreneur's profit and a worker's wages. After the war, Federico Caffè and Sylos Labini began to study inequality, linking it to income distribution and criticism of meritocracy, while Giorgio Fuà concentrated on the criticism of the GDP and on the qualitative dimensions of happiness and well-being. A theme which was also cultivated by Giacomo Becattini, the theorist of the industrial districts and Made in Italy, who placed the "vocation of places" at the center of his scientific research. Talking about places and not about GDP means placing the emphasis on human relationships, institutions and relational goods, another characteristic trait of this tradition. All topics that focus on relationships more than on individuals, on the whole more than on particular details or aspects, on public happiness more than on that of the individual.

If we read and studied these authors, we would immediately notice that there is an objective harmony between their economic theory and the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. In particular, they share a distrust of the founding principle of Anglo-Saxon capitalism: the "invisible hand", an essential concept in Adam Smith's Political economy and in the entire Anglo-Saxon Protestant economic theory. Although it is often downsized by Smith's own heirs, the "invisible hand" expresses a fundamental idea, a direct expression of Nordic anthropology and capitalism. The common good does not need actions intentionally aimed at it, because the only good and effective way to achieve the common good is to create incentives for each individual to seek his or her own private interest: «I have never seen anything good being done by those who pretend to trade for the common good» (A. Smith, 1776). Order and wealth have no need for intentional acts aimed at the common good or for acts for the good of the other party with whom I interact in an economic relationship (contract). Instead, everyone must think about their own personal interest (self-interest), because a sort of secular providence (the invisible hand, in fact) will work to transform that sum of all private interests into a collective well-being and well-being for the other party as well. This theoretical expedient is decisive because it shuts the system of Anglo-Saxon capitalism off, and disconnects social results, from individual intentions. In capitalist society there is no need for any collective action, there is no "we", no relationship, no encounter.

Latin humanism never made this logic its own. The concept and mechanism of the "invisible hand" were evident in Genovesi (and before him in Vico), (the metaphor of the "hand" is also present in the work of Galiani), but only as a secondary and subsidiary mechanism. Because the fundamental economic principle here is instead that of "mutual assistance", where each individual, in addition to his own interest, intentionally wishes for the interests and well-being of the other party as well. Hence, mutual good is part of everyone's intentions. In this humanism, there is no common good without intentionally seeking it out. Intentions have always had a lot of weight under the Alps. The global environmental crisis is also a macroscopic sign of the failure to rely on the "invisible hand" to transform private interests into a common good. The differences in economic theory, however, are an expression of something much deeper, hidden in the roots of the Catholic and meridian tree. Here, the individual is important, but the person is even more important, and the community and intermediate bodies even more so. The community, with its warm relationships, however, is both heaven and hell, freedom and slavery, snare and flight, pain and love. The humanism of the community, unlike that of the individual, is a bumpy, slow, interrupted path, even if on some exceptionally clear days, someone is said to have managed to see a glimpse of paradise along that bumpy road.

A humanism that should not be compared to Protestant humanism in an attempt to decide which is better. They should be compared only to understand their destiny, what they have in common and where they differ. The crisis in Southern Europe is also the result of an insufficient reflection on its economic vocation, both similar and different from the Nordic and Protestant one. Europe will continue to be a wonderful collective dream as long as it remains subsidiary and diversified, as long as there is a dialogue between different spirits, including economic ones. The Catholic world has always seen the birth of capitalism and its growth as something alien. It never felt comfortable with the idea that profits and wealth were a blessing. It experienced a sense of inferiority when looking at the large, rational and scientific companies and banks in the north, while comparing them to its small factories, the rural banks or its cooperatives, where employee and friend were frequently the same person, where the company was also family, where during the day you could fight over a contract, and then play cards together in the parish or in the community center that very same evening. There is also a great sense of inadequacy, disdain, inferiority and shame involved in the economic and social crisis of many Southern regions of the world.

The meridian world has frequently tried to take work seriously; however, the idea and experience that work is above all about fatigue, pain, and labor, was and still continues to be stronger; the idea that it is first and foremost a natural duty and then, perhaps, also a vocation (beruf, berufung). Working was the profession of living, of living a difficult life. The Catholic Church wanted to welcome and enhance a whole world of spirits who lived in the countryside and in the cities long before Christian religion gave them other names. It did not fight these spirits, it did not fight the saints, it did not call them "idols", and it did not condemn farmers and peasants as idolaters. Even after the Middle Ages, it continued to cultivate a religion that grew side by side with the religious aspect and sense of the fields and the harvest, where theology has always been less important than mourning, processions and newsstands in the crossroads of the paths leading to the fields. A Church that over the centuries has had to accompany men and women who were more experts on the saints than on the Trinity, more devout to Mary than to God the Father, who loved the angels and were afraid of demons. Over time, this gave life to a popular culture that later could not bring itself to believe that the new demon-spirit of capitalism from the North, which associated blessings with money and wealth, could be a good spirit, because it was too different from that ancient discipline based of life and land.

To the South, the wealth of the ruling class was also a good thing because it contributed to making churches more impressive and beautiful, even if the rest of us remained poor and ignorant, at least during Sunday Mass we were as beautiful and surrounded by splendid marvel as they were. We did not know how to read, we did not understand Latin, but the frescoes and paintings spoke to us. We dreamed of them at night, hence even in our difficult lives we ​​could still have beautiful dreams, populated by angels and saints, and so when we eventually arrived in paradise, we would be able to recognize them immediately. We did not understand the different music played by the bands on fair days, but we understood that they were beautiful, and as soon as we made two pennies, we sent a nephew to study the accordion. We were almost always poor, but not always, not really, because on holidays we too, at least on that one day, felt rich, on that day we were no longer ashamed of our poverty. We loved many things, but above all, we loved feasts and parties, processions and saints. A certainly imperfect world, full of contradictions and pain, but in which the poor were not considered cursed. They were the children of life, the same life everyone else lead, and for generations their pain flooded hospitals, schools, orphanages, generating a host of saints and, then, our wonderful welfare state.

The wealth that originated from the factories was instead seen as something suspect. This is also why when the first industrialists started building factories almost as large as those in America, the relationship between those (few) capitalists and the territory and its people was different from that of Nordic and Protestant capitalists. They were rich, of course, but their wealth was not considered, by them or by the community, as a blessing, but as destiny, sometimes as a cruel fate. All this humanism, popular and different as it was, was slowly devoured and disappeared almost entirely in a few decades, when we convinced ourselves that the only good spirit was that which came from the North and from overseas; when the idea of wealth as a blessing, shifted from production to consumption. The move from the factory to the shopping center was a decisive one, combined with the development of speculative finance that freed and strengthened that ancient trend-temptation to engage in lotto and gambling, typical of meridian cultures. Meridian humanism was, by its nature, very sensitive to the social and ostentatious dimension of wealth. We have always done it, with lunches, with clothes, with brides, even with funerals. Our competition has always been above all a competition of things, of objects, therefore a showy business. We have never competed in terms of work; it is simply not visible enough. In order to truly let ourselves go in the contest, we need visible things that everyone can see. Hence, the capitalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, founded on factories and work, was not seductive enough to buy our soul. That of the 21st century, however, based entirely on consumption and finance, seduced us to the point that it had no need to buy our soul, we gave it to it freely.

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Oikonomia/7 - There once was (and there should be) a road along which the poor are not damned

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 23/02/2020

The social consequences of the disparities in our individual starting points tend to be denied. This often translates into a general disapproval of leveling egalitarianism, while defending meritocracy which exalts individuality.

Federico Caffè, The solitude of the reformist

The Catholic spirit of capitalism is different from its Anglo-Saxon spirit. Until recently, when the centrality of consumption also began conquering Mediterranean humanism.

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Honor to the southern spirit

Honor to the southern spirit

Oikonomia/7 - There once was (and there should be) a road along which the poor are not damned By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 23/02/2020 “The social consequences of the disparities in our individual starting points tend to be denied. This often translates into a general disapproval of leve...
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Oikonomia/ 6 - If consumption is a mechanism of salvation, the poor are doomed

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  16/02/2020

The birth of capitalist economy is a great paradox. How was it possible for the pursuit of wealth to start out as a vice and eventually become a blessing? And what are the consequences?

“What we know is only this: that one part of humanity will be saved and another will remain damned”.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

The fact that anti-capitalist Europe once helped to generate the "spirit" of capitalism is one of the most mysterious and complex phenomena in history. The "double track" European economy (secular and religious) had developed a critical vision of the search for material wealth in monasteries and cities. Although for different reasons, the search for profit and earnings inside and outside monasteries and convents was neither praised nor encouraged.

Religious men and women took a vow of poverty, in commercial cities avarice was considered one of the main capital vices. Dante's Inferno abounds with misers, subject to the terrible custody of Pluto, pagan deity with the appearance of a wolf (verse VII). In the Middle Ages avarice, that is, transforming wealth from a means to an end, was in fact both a private and public vice, because it led to the moral perdition of both the individual person and entire communities. Like all capital vices, nothing good could come from their practice - we had to wait for modern times to start thinking that "public virtues" could derive from "private vices". How did the ethics of greedy-wolves eventually come to give birth to capitalist ethics? This is where the metaphor of “cuckoo capitalism”, with which we started this series five Sundays ago, comes back into play.

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Historian Amintore Fanfani also had his doubts regarding the spirit of capitalism containing much actual Christian spirit. He criticized Weber while identifying the spirit of early capitalism already among the Italian merchants of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: «If Catholicism has fought capitalist spirit, then and always, how did it come to manifest itself in the age of Catholicism?» (Fanfani, 1934). For Fanfani the emergence of capitalism was in fact an anomaly, an exceptional phenomenon due to equally exceptional circumstances (for example, the development of a class of international merchants), which allowed for the pursuit and accumulation of money, condemned by medieval ethics, to one day become lawful and socially praised. In Fanfani’s opinion those Italian merchants developed a "spirit" no different from that of the Dutch and American Calvinist entrepreneurs and bankers of the eighteenth century described by Weber.

Fanfani, actually misses the fact that the main point of Weber's story was precisely to demonstrate why Calvinist businesses were very different from Italian merchants, a diversity entirely contained in that one word, spirit of capitalism: «The thirst for profit, the aspiration to earn as much money as possible, has nothing in common with capitalism in itself. The same aspiration can be found found among waiters, doctors, artists, soldiers, bandits, in all eras, of all countries on earth» (Weber, 1905). The spirit of capitalism according to Weber is therefore something unprecedented in the history of humanity, being an offspring of Protestant ethics, in particular Calvinist (and of the various traditions influenced by Calvinism: Pietists, Puritans, Baptists, Methodists, even Quakers).

Hence, Weber is also of the opinion that the spirit of capitalism is not in fact a parasite of Christianity (as Walter Benjamin would express it a few years later), but does indeed have a Christian nature, although as a legitimate "child" it will end up growing up with unexpected characteristics not necessarily desired by its "parents" (Luther and Calvin and the other reformers). So where does the nature of the spirit of capitalism lie according to Weber?

There are three main elements in Weber's classic narrative. The first revolves around the word vocation or calling - beruf in German. In the Protestant world the word vocation, very early, also took on an explicit connotation related to work, so much so that beruf has two meanings, vocation and profession. In the Catholic world, however, vocation or calling continued to be an essentially spiritual word, used in particular for monks, nuns and friars. This is the first fundamental step. Luther harshly criticized vocations being consecrated in the Catholic Church ("dictated by the devil", as he said), a criticism that soon led to the (almost) disappearance of monks and friars from the Protestant world. The cancellation of this second "track" of Christian life naturally produced a shift of the concept of vocation from religious to civil life. Expelled from the monasteries, vocation now became the civilian habit of all reformed Christians. That radical "way of life" which in Catholicism was and remained the prerogative of consecrated life only, became a universal civil and secular way of life in the Protestant world. The ora et labora from the monasteries emigrated to the cities, becoming the ordinary rule of Protestant Christianity. Life as a whole became liturgy, and therefore embraced at all times, every day. Work ethics became something sacred, an expression of an officium. We can't really understand Protestant humanism without this worldly asceticism. A different kind of monks living in the midst of towns and cities: «The fulfilment of one's duty in a worldly profession became the highest content that ethics could have» (Weber, 1905).

The second element is the doctrine of predestination. The idea of ​​predestination has a long and complicated history in Christianity, starting, at least, with Augustine. Those who will be saved have been chosen since forever by God, using criteria unknown to us, and therefore no moral sanctity and no act or work can change our predetermined destiny. An uncertain idea from a biblical point of view, anchored in Scripture by the tenuous support of the Letter to the Ephesians: «For he chose us in him before the creation of the world… In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will» (Ephesians 1,4-5). A thesis that led to extreme statements: «God died only for the elect » (Calvin).

The concept of predestination foresees an important and decisive psychological aspect: subjectively, the elect cannot know that they are in fact elect, because are in fact not possible to distinguish from the non-elect. Hence, the profound loneliness of man in the face of his destiny. A Calvinist for instance spends his life in a radical uncertainty which in Weber’s opinion takes the form of anguish, arising from not being able to be certain of his own salvation.

And this is where the third element come in. Calvinist theology accomplished an arduous operation while resuming the traditions and stories of the Old Testament. In conditions of uncertainty and anguish, wealth becomes a sign of having been elected, the most important sign. Because wealth tells you (or at least increases the probability) that you are part of an elected few. Even in the Bible, wealth was seen as a sign of something different, greater and invisible, and therefore sought after and desired. In Calvinist capitalism the invisible becomes paradise. Vocation or calling, predestination and the sign of wealth: here are the three ingredients of the "spirit" of capitalism, wildly different from the medieval commercial spirit.

A whole new class of entrepreneurs thus began to interpret economic success as a blessing, to live their profession as a calling and ascesis, and – an additional and decisive factor - the social approval of that wealth-blessing, no longer seen as a sign of sin but of election, began to grow around the entrepreneurs. The pursuit of profit became ethically accepted and even praised, going from vice to virtue.

Life, lived as a vocation and asceticism, is not a life of comfort or luxury. It is all about commitment, punctuality, severity, without leaving any time or space for fun and celebration. Only medieval monks and capitalists hate and see sloth as the greatest of evils. A Calvinist entrepreneur does not enjoy his profit and earnings, money is not sought after to be consumed but to be re-invested and become even more money. It is the intrinsic value of wealth that makes up that first spirit of capitalism, marking an important difference between the Protestant and Catholic spirit of capitalism, where wealth instead is worth nothing if it is not ostentatious and seen by others. The capitalist described by Weber is indeed a monk, a "consecrated" man who practices a kind of secular vow of poverty even in the midst of a large amount of money. And as the Catholic monk was individually poor but lived in a wealthy monastery, so the Calvinist capitalist is individually poor while his wealth is accumulated in a factory – here too, is an unlikely analogy between the monasteries and modern industry.

It is not difficult to discern some great aporias and paradoxes of capitalism in the fascinating Weberian theory, a system that was born from a secular imitation of the logic in the vocation of monks, which however instead of producing an incentive to "possess nothing", lead to the praising of profit.

A first aporia, Protestantism, was born in the wake of Augustine, from the fierce criticism of Pelagian theology and the idea that salvation was linked to acts and not to mere gratia. Paradoxically, a form of Pelagianism returned as part of Calvinist spirit. Salvation is indeed associated with acts and works, they are however not seen as the means of salvation but only the means of «freeing oneself from the anxiety of salvation» (Weber, 1905). It is in fact a second-order form of Pelagianism, but on a pragmatic level it is very close to the ethics of Pelagius. And so, from this criticism of Pelagius, a form of capitalism was born based on the idea that salvation was linked to works producing the less "heavenly" good present in the Gospels: mammon (material wealth).

But there is more. The image of wealth as a sign of election and blessing inevitably brings with it the twin idea of ​​poverty interpreted as a sign of condemnation and doom. Every theory regarding good wealth is also a theory of bad poverty. And if the "goodness" of the rich is legitimized and consecrated by a religious chrism, the curse of the poor becomes a double curse. More than just a need for money and goods, poverty has always been a lack of blessing, a religious stigma, and therefore a source of guilt and shame as well.

We must never forget that the Bible always viewed the equivalence between wealth and blessing with suspicion, because it knew that this equivalence immediately brought another terrible and dangerous one along with it: poverty = condemnation. This is why, alongside biblical pages speaking of goods as a sign of justice and predilection (Abraham), the Bible has placed many others that say otherwise. These are the pages of the prophets, the wonderful ones of Job, all oriented to dismantle the thesis of the accursed and guilty poor man. Herein lies the true sense of "blessed be the poor", of the eye of the needle and the camel, of Francis and of the many who chose poverty to free those who had not chosen poverty from their curse.

The economy that places wealth at the centre of its strange religion will always be an economy that before calling the rich blessed calls the poor cursed. By identifying wealth with a blessing and a promise, capitalism inevitably produces an infinite group of discarded, cursed and guilty people because they do not wear the seal of election on their foreheads. What if the sign of the elect was the "sign of Cain" instead, who goes on to kill the fragile and poor Abel?! 21st century capitalism, we will soon see, has shifted the sign of blessing from the entrepreneur to the consumer, but continues to be a great (imaginary) mechanism of salvation, and a great ideology for calling the poor cursed, only to forget about them in our slums, kept away well-hidden to convince us that we have finally defeated poverty. Today's capitalism no longer knows anything about Calvin, the Bible and the doctrine of predestination. But continues, in anguish, to seek paradise and blessing in wealth. And poverty continues to be a curse, and the poor to be called cursed. When will we learn to see the sign of Abel?

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Oikonomia/ 6 - If consumption is a mechanism of salvation, the poor are doomed

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  16/02/2020

The birth of capitalist economy is a great paradox. How was it possible for the pursuit of wealth to start out as a vice and eventually become a blessing? And what are the consequences?

“What we know is only this: that one part of humanity will be saved and another will remain damned”.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

The fact that anti-capitalist Europe once helped to generate the "spirit" of capitalism is one of the most mysterious and complex phenomena in history. The "double track" European economy (secular and religious) had developed a critical vision of the search for material wealth in monasteries and cities. Although for different reasons, the search for profit and earnings inside and outside monasteries and convents was neither praised nor encouraged.

Religious men and women took a vow of poverty, in commercial cities avarice was considered one of the main capital vices. Dante's Inferno abounds with misers, subject to the terrible custody of Pluto, pagan deity with the appearance of a wolf (verse VII). In the Middle Ages avarice, that is, transforming wealth from a means to an end, was in fact both a private and public vice, because it led to the moral perdition of both the individual person and entire communities. Like all capital vices, nothing good could come from their practice - we had to wait for modern times to start thinking that "public virtues" could derive from "private vices". How did the ethics of greedy-wolves eventually come to give birth to capitalist ethics? This is where the metaphor of “cuckoo capitalism”, with which we started this series five Sundays ago, comes back into play.

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Bless the sign of Abel

Bless the sign of Abel

Oikonomia/ 6 - If consumption is a mechanism of salvation, the poor are doomed By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire  16/02/2020 The birth of capitalist economy is a great paradox. How was it possible for the pursuit of wealth to start out as a vice and eventually become a blessing? And w...
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Oikonomia/ 5 - We are going back to look for the people hidden behind and within goods of production

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 09/02/2020

"In this seventh age that is now near, the opening of the seals and the effort to display the books of the Old Testament will cease and sabbatical rest will truly be granted to the people of God. At this time there will also be justice and peace aplenty"
Gioacchino da Fiore, The seven seals

Franciscan economy, which did not become the dominant form of the economy of the Middle Ages, could become the economy of the era of common goods.

The Franciscan movement has also played a role in the birth of market economy. Many historians and economists point to that poor man of Assisi as a precursor of market economy, even of capitalism. The Franciscan school of thought was in fact the first to also be oriented towards a medieval economic school of thought, and in the second half of the fifteenth century the Franciscan friars founded the Monti di Pietà, non-profit financial institutions (sine merit), at the very origin of the tradition of Italian and European popular and social finance. A spiritual movement born out of the choice to adhere to "Madonna Poverty" that gave birth to banks and coin treaties has always caused surprise, along with many misunderstandings. In fact, as in the case of monasticism, the relationship between Franciscans and the economy is much more complex than how it’s usually told - and much more interesting.

[fulltext] =>

Francis began his revolution, a revolution which also concerned the economy, choosing only the Gospel as his way of life: only, the novelty of Franciscanism lies entirely in this limiting adverb. We no longer have the qualities required to understand what Francis and later Chiara's poverty really were like. Unlike that of monasteries, it was both an individual poverty and a poverty of the community: not only people, not even convents could possess any goods. As Ugo di Digne liked to say, the only right the Franciscans have is the right to own nothing, to live sine proprio. From the outset, the debate, even from a juridical point of view, took the form of distinguishing between the ownership of goods and their use. Franciscan theologians and jurists tried to convince the Church that it was possible to live without possessing any goods at all, including goods necessary to feed oneself. «Just as the horse has an actual use for but not the ownership of the oats that it eats, so religious man has a simple factual use of bread, wine and clothes» (Bonagrazia da Bergamo). For this purpose, they used extreme juridical strategies, such as equating friars to minors, incapable people and furious mad men, and extending the exceptions of the "state of necessity" to their own ordinary living conditions.

While the Christian Middle Ages followed the moderate economic ethics inherited from the late Roman Empire, Francis, his friars and nuns attempted something completely unexpected that still has the ability to leave us breathless: they went back in the streets, collecting the legacy and original name of the first Christians, "those of the street", from being rich people they became beggars living among the poor. Francis went through the eye of the needle not because he enlarged it, but because he reduced the "camel", until it became paper-thin. "Blessed are the poor" became the motto for their desired and longed-for happiness: «Oh wealth unknown! Oh fertile goodness! Egidio bares his feet, Sylvester his, behind the groom, so pleasing is the bride» (Dante, The Divine Comedy, Paradise, XI, 84). Only Dante could enclose Francis' idea of paradise in one single verse.

The great Franciscan attempt to distinguish the ownership of goods from their use was unsuccessful. In 1322 Pope John XXII corrected the thesis of his predecessor Nicholas III, and established the impossibility of the sole use of goods, attributing the ownership of the goods which they used to the order. The concrete utopia of the Franciscans did not become part of Roman Church law or the economic and juridical legacy of the West. But it is not dead, because it continues to challenge our economy and our legal systems even today.

The story of Francis intersects the theological history of Christian Europe in several places. While his paradoxical brand of oikonomia was taking its first steps in Assisi, the ancient theological principle of opus operatum (or ex opera operato) was reaching its first synthesis in the Roman Church. What is it? And why is it relevant to our story? It concerns the relationship between the dignity, honour and merit of priests and the validity of their actions and words. With the beginning of the second millennium, the Church decreed that it was not the subjective conditions of the men of the Church that determined the validity of their acts, because the merits that gave them efficacy were not those of the actual priests but those of Christ. The sacrament has its own intrinsic efficacy (it is the work itself that acts and operates), which is not affected by the sins of the person who administers it, nor increased by his (or her) merits - a proverb that my grandmother used to repeat, clearly expresses the aspects of that theology that entered people’s collective minds: «Take note of what the priest says, not what the priest does». An unworthy priest still remains a priest, and his liturgies and sacraments remain valid and effective. A debate that would later be made famous and highly relevant by Luther, and the theology of the opus operatum reiterated by the Council of Trent against Protestant criticisms.

Original monasticism and then Franciscanism did not follow the path of opus operatum, however. Being a Franciscan is a way of life (that of the Gospel), therefore an attitude of non-conformity towards life invalidates the substance of being a friar. A friar who does not live like Christ is not a friar, nor is such a nun a real nun. His acts and words cannot be separated from his life. Of course, even friars can be unworthy, make mistakes, commit sins, be inconsistent, but their acts are not protected by any kind of theology connected to opus operatum. This too is a form of extreme poverty.

It is also true that the religious vocation of Franciscanism (and of other charisms) does indeed have a mysterious objectivity of its own that recalls opus operatum (vocation is not a moral, but an ontological matter); however, nothing and nobody can guarantee the friars an objective efficacy to their works and words. The sanctity of the liturgy is vicarious, replacing that of the person. But no one and nothing can promise that the actions and words of Fra Mauro will be effective simply because they take place within the context of a specific way of life, because no way of life is in itself effective ex opera operata - here we also have an explanation to why these movements, monasticism and Franciscanism, which were initially born secular, gradually transformed into male communities almost entirely composed by priests, because opus operatum offers the hope of some solid ground on which to base one's fragile words and life. Your way of life establishes whether you are a friar or not, but does not objectively grow real Franciscan fruits, and an unworthy Franciscan will not find any kind of protective net in liturgy. Friars are not actual priests, even when they become so; this is also the reason why the consecrated life of women in the Catholic Church is essentially being the keepers of this way of life and vocation and its extreme poverty. The mystery of having a vocation lies precisely in this paradoxical mix of strength and weakness, it goes for that of Francis and for that of all others, both religious and civilian.

Every human institution desperately seeks its own opus operatum, because it wishes to separate the objective validity of its acts from the subjective qualities of its people more than anything else, because it knows that this dependence makes it radically vulnerable. We would all like effective hospitals regardless of the qualities of their doctors and nurses, schools that produce culture and education without depending on the commitment and competence of their teachers and professors, parliaments that generate laws immune to the vices of their politicians.

Charisms, however, by their very nature cannot reach this form of paradise, for they are dramatically dependent on the moral quality of their people. They are beggars for the loyalty and love of their people, on whom they depend every day, every minute. A Mass can be valid even if there is no worthy priest left in the parish, but a religious community will die once the last person who is faithful to its way of life is gone.

Modern economy found its opus operatum when, through capitalism, it separated goods from the intentions and moral qualities of its producers. Marx prophetically sensed this with his theory of "fetish goods" and "alienation". Until all through the Middle Ages, the products of any kind of labour carried the signature, even an invisible one, of their author. Goods could not be separated from those who produced them and all objects could be traced back to the original subject. In the medieval world, the belief that the products of human activity reflected the moral qualities of those who created them was essential, the subjective dimension of an item was inseparable from the object itself.

With capitalism, the price and value of a commodity is entirely independent of the objective conditions of those who produce (and consume it). That value becomes ex opera operato, and does not depend on the subjective conditions of the producing agent. The moral characteristics of the person have no effect on the value of goods, to the point that even legally we ended up inventing the limited liability company, an invention aimed to separate the business from the people who are part of and manage it. In the exchange value of goods there is no longer any trace of those people «hidden behind the casing of things» (Capital, K. Marx).

This process of depersonalization is essential to the humanism of capitalism, because if it had kept goods linked to their makers, mass production could not have been born, nor the infinite reproduction of things for their mass consumption.

The opus operatum of capitalism has intensified in recent years. Procedures and protocols, not the characteristics and qualities of people, are increasingly determining the quality of the goods being produced. Anonymous and depersonalized processes (for example: certifications), which do not depend on the subjective ethical qualities of people, but on the objective quality of the procedures involved in the production. Management is also becoming a set of techniques and tools, which in order to be perfect must depend as little as possible on the subjective dimension of people - that ancient idea of ​​magic or (today) of technology as a means of salvation, a wave that is also beginning to touch churches and non-profit communities today.

But this very same capitalism is now steadily overcoming its own opus operatum, and paradoxically getting closer with the economy of the way of life. Especially in certain sectors (the food industry and tourism, for example) we no longer want goods to stay disconnected to people: we are going back to looking for the people hidden behind and within things. We want to know the stories of the farmers, the entrepreneurs, and the cooks, to know their intentions, to understand if they are truly genuine and authentic, as if the language of products is no longer enough. In management as well, there is increasing talk of the charisma of individual managers, and anonymous procedures are giving way to the talent of leaders, the personality and genius of actual people. In times of great crises, objects die off and the nostalgia of the gaze of real women and men grows strong again.

Going back to the prophecy of Joachim of Fiore, the first Franciscans (Peter John Olivi) believed that the seventh age would be that of the extreme poverty of Francis, who for them was the prophet of the seventh age. With the third millennium, we have now entered the era of common goods: if we continue to think and act like we are the owners and masters of the earth, of the environment, of the oceans, we will only end up destroying them. We must learn, and soon, to make use of goods without being their masters, we must quickly learn the art of using and making use of without ownership. Francis' art. What if the economy of sine proprio was that of the era of common goods? Will it be the oikonomia of Francis that will save both us and the earth in the end?

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Oikonomia/ 5 - We are going back to look for the people hidden behind and within goods of production

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 09/02/2020

"In this seventh age that is now near, the opening of the seals and the effort to display the books of the Old Testament will cease and sabbatical rest will truly be granted to the people of God. At this time there will also be justice and peace aplenty"
Gioacchino da Fiore, The seven seals

Franciscan economy, which did not become the dominant form of the economy of the Middle Ages, could become the economy of the era of common goods.

The Franciscan movement has also played a role in the birth of market economy. Many historians and economists point to that poor man of Assisi as a precursor of market economy, even of capitalism. The Franciscan school of thought was in fact the first to also be oriented towards a medieval economic school of thought, and in the second half of the fifteenth century the Franciscan friars founded the Monti di Pietà, non-profit financial institutions (sine merit), at the very origin of the tradition of Italian and European popular and social finance. A spiritual movement born out of the choice to adhere to "Madonna Poverty" that gave birth to banks and coin treaties has always caused surprise, along with many misunderstandings. In fact, as in the case of monasticism, the relationship between Franciscans and the economy is much more complex than how it’s usually told - and much more interesting.

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The economy of the seventh age

The economy of the seventh age

Oikonomia/ 5 - We are going back to look for the people hidden behind and within goods of production By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 09/02/2020 "In this seventh age that is now near, the opening of the seals and the effort to display the books of the Old Testament will cease and sabbatical re...
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Oikonomia/ 4 - The monasteries contributed to inventing another sense of time, reconciling manual labour with the mind

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 02/02/2020

"Monasticism carried out a temporal scan of the existence of monks in its cenobies that has perhaps never been equalled by any institution in modern times, not even by the factories of Taylorism

G. Agamben, Homo sacer

Modern businesses would like to imitate ancient monasteries. But, thank God, they still can't

Monasticism is one of the roots of market economy. By abdicating ordinary economic logic, monks and nuns started a series of evangelical experiments that also generated the European economy. Capitalism was not only generated by monasticism, but would not have been born without it. Long before the Protestant Reformation (Max Weber), monasticism was the first major episode of the "heterogenesis of ends" of modern economy. It was an immense, surprising, wonderful movement. It changed Europe, made it more beautiful and richer, increased its cultural, spiritual, artistic, forestry, enogastronomic biodiversity, and then, almost by mistake, it also contributed to inventing another economy. It should not surprise us, then, that by now so many (for example, Pierre Musso and Isabelle Jonveaux) are claiming that the great enterprises of modern times are the secularization of ancient monasteries. A strong thesis, which will be partly criticized here, but which is still a good starting point. In fact, with the exception of very few (and late) experiences, such as the Venetian Arsenal, the cathedrals or the shops of the great artists / artisans, the medieval bourgeois world did not know the vast, stable and rational productive cooperation of entire communities of men (and women). In some Italian and French regions there were hundreds of monasteries, and in the Middle Ages they lasted an average of five centuries.

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Some see a leadership paradigm in the figure of the abbot. In reality, the abbot's "leadership" - an ambiguous word that I don’t have much love for - is mediated, balanced and scaled down by the rule. The rule is the true "leader" of the monastery. Each member of the cenoby follows the rule, including the abbot, who is a model for others in that he is faithful and follows the same rule as everyone else. Unlike the founder of a community, the abbot is therefore a follower (not a leader). The longevity, resilience and sustainability of the monasteries lies precisely in the depersonalization of leadership. The same way that the fragility and short duration of charismatic communities (and businesses) lie in the personalization of the founder, who often become the fundamental basis and spirit of the community. If we picture the spirit of the monastery, it is not the abbot, not even Saint Benedict or Saint Basil, but the rule. So much so that many monasteries were born out of and around a single rule, without having a particular charismatic leader. Leadership based on the rule is as distant as you could possibly imagine from the management of large companies today, even those that claim to be inspired by the rule of Saint Benedict. Then there are other aspects of monasticism, less evident but equally important in relation to the economy and business. First of all regarding work. Ora et labora is the first sentence that comes to mind when thinking about monasticism. Monasteries were introduced from the very beginning as workshops (officina divinae artis). The life of a monk was seen as the learning of an art form, therefore of a profession, a trade, and this is also how it was presented by some ancient founders (Cassiano).

In ancient times slaves were the ones who worked - «Furthermore, all craftsmen exercise a vulgar profession: there is no shadow of nobility in a shop» (Cicero, De Officiis). In monasticism, monks worked too, they were often educated, becoming doctors in theology and other sciences. This alone would be enough to understand what the integration of manual labour with the work of the mind meant for work ethics in general. When a peasant or an illiterate craftsman saw the monks at work, that is, doing the same things they did, they immediately understood that their work was important, it was not merely a matter for servants and slaves. Faith in the Incarnation had taught the monks that touching the matter is not something impure, which therefore only befits a slave. The land, the dust, the food, are a sign and sacrament of life itself. Only those who have used their hands to produce bread and wine know what the Eucharist really is, because they sense that those same goods that change with the effective gestures and words of the priest on the altar, from another true point of view, still remain the same good things born from the vine and the work of man. Without this new ethics of work and matter we would not have had market economy today, and it would not have come about without the monks.

However, it is not easy to understand where the innovation and impact that monasticism had on the world of labour lies exactly. First of all, we need to stop considering the relationship between prayer and work merely as a practical division of time. The monks had to manage the tension between two fundamental biblical words: «Always pray» (Luke 18,1) and «The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat» (2 Thessalonians 3,10). However, they solved it in an absolutely brilliant way. The real anthropological and spiritual stroke of genius of monasticism was to understand and practice prayer and work as moments of the only liturgy of the rule. In a monastery, the time devoted to working does not constitute time taken away from prayer, nor is the time of prayer time taken away from work. We do not pray less because we work, nor do we work less because we pray. To accomplish this very special sort of alchemy, the founders of monasticism did something amazing. While still moving within a quantitative vision of the twelve horae of time, they invented the philosopher's stone of quality-time. While the Horologium of the officium continued to mark the chronology of the day, another clock widened that same time frame until it coincided with infinity. In order to understand it, the rational management of time in monasteries, which seems to have anticipated Smith's "division of labour" and Hayek's "division of knowledge" by many centuries, needs to be read together with its qualitative and liturgical vision, which humanized it while lifting the roof off both libraries and farms. In those small strictly limited spaces fenced by the abbey walls, in that famine of space, the monks invented another sense of time, and learned not to occupy space to activate other (still active) processes. The liturgy of the rule added a dimension to the time of life, and so timeline became a surface.

Thanks to the liturgical vision of time and life, a quantitative part of a day can, qualitatively speaking, become eternity. In fact, the ability to create another sense of time is typical of liturgy: to pierce time-quantity and touch infinity, to enable us to go for a walk, every day, in the gardens of Eden. A great innovation of monasticism was the invention of this other sense of time. An experience that we can all repeat by living for a few days in a monastery: time slows down, becoming denser, and we enter another rhythm of life. Although the lifetime of monks was not, on average, much longer than the lifespan of those who lived outside the monasteries, in reality in monasteries you lived, and still live, much longer and deeper. It is this sort of earthly "eternal life" that has always fascinated and attracted many to monasteries. Such an intoxicating experience that it became the great temptation of monasticism, because sometimes it has lead us to cultivate the desire to be immortal like God (the promise of the snake). If the rule coincides with life and life with the rule, one can become so absorbed in the liturgy that one no longer feels life, and vice versa. It is through this liturgical vision, permitted by the rule, that work and prayer can have the same dignity and not be in conflict with each other. Here work does not need to be spiritualized by praying and reciting psalms or the rosary while working. It is neither necessary nor required: work is an activity of the same value as prayer because it is part of the same liturgy and therefore of the same life, they belong to the same rule.

Hence, this means that work has a value as work, although it is instrumental to life, it has an intrinsic value of its own. This is the paradoxical secularism of the monks. Monasticism knew and knows its crises well, when the hands that harvest wheat and wine were considered less worthy and spiritual than those who said Mass, or when someone (in Cluny) thought that the hours spent saying Mass could replace the ones spent working in the vineyard. But it knows and has known other crises as well, when it attempted to spiritualize work, recommending monks to chant while they were working, and to meditate on the Bible while collecting grapes. These reductionisms diminish the prophecy of monasticism, shorten time, cut its horizons and bring the day back to its 24 hours. Because if I pray while working in the form of prayer, I am taking time away from my day. The prophecy of monasticism was and still is to just work, in its own time and in the form of actual work, and to just pray, in its own time and in the form of prayer; thus each moment serves and regenerates the other, and together they form a great song to the secularism of life, where the sacred is not devoured by the profane, because the profane is also liturgy, and liturgy is nothing but life. In monasteries death is defeated, when, with your feet firmly planted in the mud of the fields, you point at and touch the sky with a finger dirty from work.

It is this qualitative dimension of time that is missing in modern businesses of badges, timing, and bonuses, who would like to control time with increasingly sophisticated horologi, but who do not know the other dimension of time, which when present liberates the workers from incentives and control. A qualitative dimension that is missing because it would undermine the entire structure of companies, which holds up as long as time can be measured and used to incentivize and measure merits. But there is more. If, on the one hand, large modern enterprises are moving away from the humanism of the monasteries, on the other, without knowing it, they are also getting much closer. Unlike the Taylorist factories of the twentieth-century, to which our hands and labour were enough, the enterprises of the 21st century increasingly dream of monk-workers. Management would like workers with a vocation, who freely adhere to the company's mission, who are not guided by external incentives (deemed too weak) but by an inner drive, who do not know the distinction between leisure and work, where work coincides with life itself. Basically they would like monks, who do not work for wages or for profit, but for an intimate sense of loyalty, who in a liturgical vision of life do not stop working even when they sleep, because even sleep is officium. They would like them to be just like the monks described by Augustine: «No one ever works for himself, but all your work tends towards the common good, and with greater commitment and more fervent alacrity than if each and every one just did it for himself" (Regula, 31). But the promise of businesses, unlike that of monasteries, is too small. In order to have monk-workers it would take heaven, another sense of time, other kind of incentives. Businesses don't have them, but they are doing everything to convince us otherwise. Knowing and meditating on the great monastic tradition could become the only true antidote to the false and seductive promises of paradise.

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Oikonomia/ 4 - The monasteries contributed to inventing another sense of time, reconciling manual labour with the mind

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 02/02/2020

"Monasticism carried out a temporal scan of the existence of monks in its cenobies that has perhaps never been equalled by any institution in modern times, not even by the factories of Taylorism

G. Agamben, Homo sacer

Modern businesses would like to imitate ancient monasteries. But, thank God, they still can't

Monasticism is one of the roots of market economy. By abdicating ordinary economic logic, monks and nuns started a series of evangelical experiments that also generated the European economy. Capitalism was not only generated by monasticism, but would not have been born without it. Long before the Protestant Reformation (Max Weber), monasticism was the first major episode of the "heterogenesis of ends" of modern economy. It was an immense, surprising, wonderful movement. It changed Europe, made it more beautiful and richer, increased its cultural, spiritual, artistic, forestry, enogastronomic biodiversity, and then, almost by mistake, it also contributed to inventing another economy. It should not surprise us, then, that by now so many (for example, Pierre Musso and Isabelle Jonveaux) are claiming that the great enterprises of modern times are the secularization of ancient monasteries. A strong thesis, which will be partly criticized here, but which is still a good starting point. In fact, with the exception of very few (and late) experiences, such as the Venetian Arsenal, the cathedrals or the shops of the great artists / artisans, the medieval bourgeois world did not know the vast, stable and rational productive cooperation of entire communities of men (and women). In some Italian and French regions there were hundreds of monasteries, and in the Middle Ages they lasted an average of five centuries.

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The dream of the monk-workers

The dream of the monk-workers

Oikonomia/ 4 - The monasteries contributed to inventing another sense of time, reconciling manual labour with the mind By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 02/02/2020 "Monasticism carried out a temporal scan of the existence of monks in its cenobies that has perhaps never been equalled by any inst...
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Oikonomia/ 3 - Rich and poor: so Christianity has made possible Roman ethics its own

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 26/01/2020

«They believe they possess while in fact they are possessed, not really the masters of money but rather sold to it»

Cipriano, De lapsis

How much of the gospels entered European economic ethics? Not much. And St. Augustine played a decisive role.

Capitalism is doing with Christianity something analogous to what Christianity did with the Roman Empire, when, starting from the fourth century, it slowly replaced its culture and religion while simultaneously feeding on them. So if we, while willingly following Walter Benjamin, say that capitalism grew as a "parasite" feeding of Christianity, we also have to say that many centuries earlier Christianity had done the same, growing off the Roman world, in the sense that we will now see, by effectively laying its eggs in another nest.

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Let's start with a question: what aspects of the economic vision of the Gospels and the New Testament entered and became part of medieval christianitas and therefore of the ethos of the West? Economic ethics in the New Testament are not simple. Because it has never been easy to combine the parable of the talents with that of the workers of the eleventh hour (the workers in the vineyard), placing the ethics of the «good samaritan» next to those of the «shrewd manager» – story in which the word oikonomia makes its only appearance in the Gospels. Jesus called the poor "happy", but he himself wasn’t "technically" a poor man, and did not exclude the rich from his circle (Matthew, Zacchaeus, Joseph of Arimathea ...). A few of his words on goods and wealth immediately take up a special place. The first is the story of the «rich man» (also known as the "rich young man"), where Jesus, in response to the man’s request to "obtain eternal life", points out the "only thing" still missing: «Go sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me». And then, faced with his refusal, he formulates one of his most famous phrases on "economic" matters - the one about the rich man, the camel and the eye of the needle (Mark 10,18-22). A critical vision of wealth, which reconnects to the great biblical prophetic tradition (Amos, Isaiah), to Job and Qohelet. At the same time, we must keep in mind that this criticism of wealth is in contrast with the other school of thought also well present in the Bible, the one that interprets goods as a blessing from God and a sign of justice for people (for example Abraham and the patriarchs).

The other great "economic" passage in the New Testament is the fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles which describes the communion of goods of the Christians of Jerusalem: « All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had» (Acts 4,32). Communion here provides us with a distinction between the use and the ownership of goods, which centuries later would become central in the Franciscan movement.

However, an important difference must be noted between the vision of poverty/wealth that emerges from the episode of the young rich man of the Gospel and that which is presented in the Acts. There, the convert donated his goods to the poor and entered the Christian community as a poor man (by choice). In the community of Jerusalem, however, «There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need» (Acts 4,34-35). Here, the goods are not donated to the poor, instead the emphasis is placed on the internal redistribution of wealth within the community. More than poverty itself, it is the intra-community communion that is at the heart of the Church, because the ideal here was: "no needy" among the faithful. Finally, we have Paul's letters, where an important part is dedicated to the "collection" to help "the saints" (beautiful expression) of the Church of Jerusalem. His line of thinking is centred around the concept of equality: «Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality» (2 Corinthians 8,13-14). It is the same line if thought as in the Acts: the central theme is not poverty but the communion of goods. So, with the exception of the (fundamental) pages on the Beatitudes, what is really of interest in the New Testament is the attitude, not so much towards poverty, but towards wealth. Then, if we also look at the literature of the founding Fathers of the Church, we will often find this double-sided teaching towards wealth as well: freeing oneself from goods is a personal pre-condition to start a new life where the real goods are others (it is necessary to clear the barns to accommodate the new harvested wheat), but the same wealth is also necessary to be able to reduce poverty in the community. Clemente Alessandrino wrote: "The Lord approves the use of wealth, so much as to command the communion of goods" (Quis dives salvetur).

With the end of the first, primitive and charismatic phase of the Church, the spreading and propagation of Christianity naturally led to a growing arrival of wealthy people into communities. An episode which took place in Rome between 404 and 405 (Vita S. Melaniae Iunioris/The life of Melania, the younger, Gerontius) was especially significant. Two young Christian spouses, Valerius Pinianus and Melania the Younger, had a great heritage. Attracted by an ascetic way of life, they began to get rid of their enormous wealth to live a life in poverty, first in Sicily, then in Jerusalem, to imitate the humble life of the first Christians. The spouses freed 8,000 slaves, and sold off their properties. The slaves, however, protested and revolted over this choice because suddenly they found themselves without any protection, and many of the lands ended up abandoned. This episode contributed to a great debate on poverty and wealth, which involved many theologians between the 4th and 5th centuries. This was after the Edict of Milan, and Christianity was gradually taking the place of Roman religion among the masses. Something new was needed. And Augustine was the one to offer it.

Back in Africa, Augustine was very interested in the unity of the Christian people and was therefore forced to keep «a certain reticence in his relations with the rich» (Peter Brown), certainly greater than that of Paulinus of Nola, Jerome or Ambrose. With Augustine the moral reading of the parables and of the "economic" episodes of Jesus, already present in the texts of the first Fathers, was accentuated and the riches to be disposed of became sinful passions. Wealth in itself is good, but like all goods it is easily the subject to corruption. Augustine was above all interested in concord, philanthropy, almsgiving, order and Roman Amor civicus for the eternal city. And so he almost completely resumed classical Roman economic ethics, including the idea that the rich were necessary for the management of power and good governance. To complicate things further, there was also the role of Pelagius, a "heretic" against whom Augustine engaged in a very tough theological battle. Although the centre of that great controversy were the subjects of grace and salvation, Pelagius and his followers developed, partly through the influence of Stoic philosophy, a radical negative vision towards wealth, which took root particularly in the Roman elites. As a consequence of the Pelagian theology of salvation linked to one’s acts, the rich had to give up all their possessions (like Pinianus and Melania) to be able to save themselves, and then try to pass through the eye of the needle: «A rich man who remains in possession of his wealth cannot enter the Kingdom "(De divitiis, anonymous/”The Sicilian Briton”). Voluntary renunciation of wealth is the act that will save us. And then, clearly in contrast with Augustine, he adds: «And it cannot help him anything, in assuring him of salvation, using his wealth for alms». The Pelagians also attempted an analysis of the morphology and origin of wealth, arriving at some very strong conclusions: «Wealth can scarcely be purchased without some injustice» (De divitiis, anonymous/”The Sicilian Briton”).

In the end, the theological battle was won by Augustine, and Pelagius’s theology together with his vision of wealth were defeated: « If the rich are virtuous, they can remain calm: when the last day arrives they will find themselves on the Ark» (Dolbeau Sermons, Augustine). And so, the Pelagian motto of - «Get rid the rich and you will find no poor» - was overtaken by the Augustinian one: «Get rid of pride, and riches will do no harm» (Dolbeau Sermons, 39,4). The camel managed to cross to the other side because the eye of the needle was greatly enlarged. Augustine's victory was decisive for the orientation of Europe's economic morality and therefore the history of the West. At this point we must return to the "parasitism" with which we started. What we call the Christian vision of wealth and poverty was largely a legacy that Christianity picked up from the Roman world. Regarding the use of wealth, medieval Christianity left the shape and form of Roman civilization (almost) unchanged. The lack of a real popular doctrine on wealth in the Gospels, (what was there was considered too demanding to become universal), meant that theologians and fathers adopted the pre-existing Roman civic ethics that lent itself well to becoming possible ethics for everyone, both rich and poor. While Christianity brought great news to other dimensions of life and religion, Christian economic ethics arose from a graft on the Roman (and Greek) tree and its private and public ethics. Cicero and Seneca certainly had a much greater influence than the "rich young man" and the "communion of goods". The assistance to the poor, the annona/ yearly state annuities, the donations and the magnanimity of the rich, on which the culture of wealth and poverty was built in the Middle Ages, were in fact already present and operating in the late Roman Empire; the Christians resumed the same practices by changing them only marginally without going into their decisive aspects (for example, the reward for charity was no longer a statue in the forum but in paradise). In order to become possible and accessible to everyone, Christian economic ethics were forced to pay the price of becoming very Roman, and "grow parasitically" on the ethics of the empire that was dissolving.

Finally, there is an additional relevant aspect, which we will return to. Parallel to the affirmation of a possible, conciliatory and moderate ethics of wealth, the great movement of monasticism also had its beginning in those same centuries. During that time, the idea began to take hold that the radicalism required by the Gospels and the Acts regarding the renunciation of wealth and the communion of goods could finally become applicable and concrete practice for monks and monasteries. The laity was offered a possible ethics for everyone; while in the monasteries, on the other hand, the charismatic communities of the early days could be seen again, that ancient communion of the poor, that "one thing" missing to pass through the eye of the needle. And every time that we wish to return to the radicalism of the early days of Christianity, we retrace these same steps and dynamics, and then the "solution" of the double track reappears once again. We cannot understand medieval western economy, the Reformation and then modern capitalist economy without this "double track" followed by economic ethics, which on one hand gave birth to the immense movement of monasticism and its great fruits and rewards reaped by civilization (and economics), but on the other, also meant that the economic ethics - public and private - of Christian Europe were very much, too similar to that which preceded Christianity. How much of Roman ethics and how much of Christian ethics is present then in the modern spirit of capitalism? What kind of Europe would have been born if it had not been Roman ethics but that of the communion of goods that had affirmed itself? How would Western economy have turned out if the camel had not been able to pass through that large needle eye?

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Oikonomia/ 3 - Rich and poor: so Christianity has made possible Roman ethics its own

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 26/01/2020

«They believe they possess while in fact they are possessed, not really the masters of money but rather sold to it»

Cipriano, De lapsis

How much of the gospels entered European economic ethics? Not much. And St. Augustine played a decisive role.

Capitalism is doing with Christianity something analogous to what Christianity did with the Roman Empire, when, starting from the fourth century, it slowly replaced its culture and religion while simultaneously feeding on them. So if we, while willingly following Walter Benjamin, say that capitalism grew as a "parasite" feeding of Christianity, we also have to say that many centuries earlier Christianity had done the same, growing off the Roman world, in the sense that we will now see, by effectively laying its eggs in another nest.

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And the eye of the needle widened

And the eye of the needle widened

Oikonomia/ 3 - Rich and poor: so Christianity has made possible Roman ethics its own By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 26/01/2020 «They believe they possess while in fact they are possessed, not really the masters of money but rather sold to it» Cipriano, De lapsis How much of the gospels ente...
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Oikonomia/2 - Things are not God, but they can contain His signs and messages

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 19/01/2020

«Capitalism is not, in the first place, an economic system of distribution of possessions or wealth, but an overall system of culture and life»

Max Scheler, The future of capitalism

It is not the multiplication of goods that multiplies the value of life and our wealth. Farmers and agriculture have always known this, idolatrous capitalism however has forgotten it.

The economic school of thought of Karl Marx is still an obligatory passage for those who want to investigate the sacred nature of our capitalism. His questions - minus his answers - are still capable of opening deep gashes in the economy of our time, allowing us to glimpse far reaching horizons that still haven’t been explored enough, especially since, about thirty years ago the collapse of real communism was thought to make Marx collapse as well, as if an author did not reach much further that the historical translation of his own thoughts. Both Walter Benjamin and Marx in their analysis of capitalist religion attribute a central role to products: to goods. In the beginning of the "Capital", Marx places the theme of the fetishist nature of goods at the very centre of his reasoning, one of the methodological pillars of his criticism. Fetishist character, that is commodities as a fetish.

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Fetishes are an element of the sacred world, typical of the original and primitive stages of human religiosity. A fetish is an inanimate object, to which communities and individuals attribute magical or supernatural properties. The Portuguese word (feitiço) was used by modern navigators to indicate amulets and totems that they found among African people and tribes, and was later also partially extended to religious objects of a sacred type, to images of supernatural forces. When Marx used this expression to characterize commodities in capitalism, his reference to religion was very explicit and intentional. In fact, he wrote: "To find an analogy, we must fly in the nebulous region of the religious world. Here, the products of the human brain appear as independent figures, endowed with their own lives, who are in relationship with each other and in relationship with men. So, in the world of goods, they make products by the work of human hands. This is what I call the fetishism that attaches itself to the products of work as soon as they are produced with the objective to become commodities, and therefore inseparable from the production of commodities itself". (Capital, Book 1). As he also wrote in a separate note, quoting the Italian economist Ferdinando Galiani, "value is a relationship between people, hidden in the shell of a relationship between goods".

Marx sees goods as fetishes because they are inanimate realities that refer to something that is alive: to relationships between people. In past production systems, the commodity was immediately tied to its producer, but in the capitalist system we attribute an autonomous, almost magical or arcane existence to goods. Here then is the definition of commodity that Marx gives us: «At first glance, a commodity seems trivial, obvious. After analysing it, it turns out that it is a rather complicated thing, full of metaphysical subtlety and theological whims. ... As soon as it presents itself as a commodity, the tableaux changes into a sensibly oversensitive thing. Not only does it stand with its feet on the ground, but, in front of all other goods, it puts himself upside down, and begins to flails from its wooden head a number of crickets, decisively more admirable than if they spontaneously began to dance». The goods therefore acquire an existence of their own with respect to the men and women (and to the machines and robots) who produced them: this is what Marx calls arcane. Furthermore, to Marx, it is evident that this sort of religious power is activated only in capitalism: «As soon as we take refuge in other forms of production, all the mysticism of the world of goods disappears immediately, all the spell and witchcraft that surround products of labour with the fog based on the production of goods ". Mysticism, spells, witchcraft.

Actually, if we were to take this powerful image of commodities as a fetish seriously, we would immediately realize that the most suitable name for capitalism would really be idolatry, since fetishes are the inhabitants of the typical sacred environment of idolizing cults, not of religions, much less the Judeo-Christian one. But what is idolatry? And why has the Bible fought it so vehemently, and the prophets in particular made it their main enemy (along with false prophets)? Because behind their theological battle there is an added anthropological one: every time a man starts to worship an object, he becomes less of a man; because when trying to represent God in objects or images, we will never be able to match the only true and lawful images of God there are on earth: man and woman, created "in his own image". All other images of divinity are really theological and anthropological doodles. Therefore, there is also a great vein of humanism behind this anti-idolatrous battle.

This very same battle led the Bible to radically criticize all "natural" presences of God in the world, even erasing all traces of agricultural religious rites from its stories, such as mourning songs for the last sheaf or for the last bunch of grapes, where the farmers, crying, asked them forgiveness for having to "kill" them, asking them to please "rise" again in the new season. In some cultures the last sheaf was buried, the creed recited and then one waited for it to "rise". We must not forget that human beings learned and had the first intuitions of a life that could continue beyond natural death from the cycle of death and resurrection of the fields. And it is no coincidence that many fathers of the Church and many bishops have continued to recite these natural and agricultural prayers, intertwining them with the purely Christian ones. As in a Middle High-German Paternoster of the thirteenth century, quoted by Ernesto de Martino, where we read that Christ was "sown by the Creator, sprouted, matured, reaped, tied in a sheaf, transported to the farmyard, threshed, sifted, ground, placed in the oven, and finally after three days taken out and eaten like bread». It may not be perfect theology, but this Lord’s Prayer is splendid and as true as our people struggling in the countryside.

I still remember, as a child, hearing my great-grandparents reciting unlikely prayers in Latin mixed with Italian dialect, during harvest times or in mourning. They did not know the Trinitarian dogmas, they had very vague ideas about the ontological difference between Jesus and Our Lady Mary. When they took communion they knew nothing of "substance" and "accidents". But they knew that bread was bread, and therefore it was already sacred because life and death depended on it; and they understood that that bread of the Mass was a different bread, and hence taking communion had a solemnity and a theological density to them that I always pray I too will find, one day, even if it is my last one. Of course, we will always find theologians and scribes capable of fine reasoning with pieces of documents of the magisterium in their hands to support them in condemning the songs of the mourning of the sheaf and the prayers of my grandparents, to separate themselves from that world of ignorance and fetishes. But if there is a paradise - and there must be, and the poor must inhabit it - together with the psalms of the angels, we will also find the songs of the crop and the harvest, because they were made and mixed with real flesh and blood, and therefore truer than many polyphonic songs sung without the poor and without pain.

And that's why the Bible itself, while it vehemently fought the rites and symbols of fertility together with the astral ones, also leaves us with wonderful words about the moon, the stars, the skies "that narrate the glory of God", about the beauty of animals (Job), about eros and life (Canticle) in its poetic and sapiential pages. The biblical man sees God (without seeing him), hears him in the temple, listens to him through the prophets, sees him and hears him in man and woman, but he also sees and hears him in the "cloud", in the "pillar of fire", in the fire of Elijah, "in the light breeze of silence". To affirm its true diversity in a world dominated by a religion based on nature, the Bible had to absolutize its criticism of the religious dimension of things, of nature, of trees, of creation. But it never cancelled it, because it was true. I believe that a biblical prophet would have at the very least understood the phrase that Ishmael says while speaking of his idolatrous companion, Queequeg, in Moby Dick, Melville's (also theological) masterpiece: «How could I then join this idolatrous savage in the adoration of his piece of wood? But what is it to worship? Do you really believe, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth - pagans and everyone included - can ever be jealous of an insignificant piece of black wood? Impossible! So what is worshiping?». No real dialogue with the world of animist religions, or with Hinduism, would be possible if we did not think something similar to what Ishmael says.

It is not by chance or by mistake that Catholicism developed and cultivated a sacramental vision of reality, where "things" can contain signs and messages that say something about God, without actually being God. The incarnation gave spiritual substance to history, and therefore to its things, to human work, to its artefacts. That young tree from the woods of Jerusalem, worked on by a carpenter of gallows, could not have known it but it entered, together with the nails, straight into the heart of the Trinity, forever. If it wasn’t so dramatic, it would merely make you smile, seeing the great defenders of the authentic faith lashing out against idolatry today (see Synod for the Amazon) because of the acts of syncretism that the poor have always done and continue to do, while not being troubled at all by the idolatry of capitalism, which they instead generally applaud. In reality, the idolatry of capitalism is much closer, in spirit, to that fought against by the Bible. Because, unlike the farming rites of our ancestors, who felt the true presence of the same God in the things surrounding them, the same hevel (nothing) of the scarecrow-idols criticized by Jeremiah lies under the goods of our rampant consumerism.

In the world of poverty, you can feel the sacred good held inside things - in the bread, in the wheat, in the wine, in the plants, in the few objects in people’s possession... – also because life and death flowed through those very few things. Our capitalism infinitely multiplies things, but does not multiply their value. If I have only one good dress, one good pen, one bicycle, one toy and these become one, two, three, ten, the value of the first dress and the first pen do not increase but is halved, it decreases more and more until it disappears when the number (denominator) becomes infinite. That one good dress has an infinite value precisely because it is unique. And so I repair it, save it, take care of it, instead of "using and discarding" it. In poverty, things have great value, and the first poverty of abundance is the disappearance of the value in the goods we have, which have all now become commodities. When life takes up all our vital energy to survive and enable our children to live, we often also know how to pray. And when we pray we use only the very few prayers that we remember and love because a parent or grandmother taught them to us, certifying the truth in those words, not with theology but through their donated flesh. In poverty even prayers are few and far between. No Christian prayer exceeds that single unarticulated scream in the immense poverty of Golgotha.

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Oikonomia/2 - Things are not God, but they can contain His signs and messages

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 19/01/2020

«Capitalism is not, in the first place, an economic system of distribution of possessions or wealth, but an overall system of culture and life»

Max Scheler, The future of capitalism

It is not the multiplication of goods that multiplies the value of life and our wealth. Farmers and agriculture have always known this, idolatrous capitalism however has forgotten it.

The economic school of thought of Karl Marx is still an obligatory passage for those who want to investigate the sacred nature of our capitalism. His questions - minus his answers - are still capable of opening deep gashes in the economy of our time, allowing us to glimpse far reaching horizons that still haven’t been explored enough, especially since, about thirty years ago the collapse of real communism was thought to make Marx collapse as well, as if an author did not reach much further that the historical translation of his own thoughts. Both Walter Benjamin and Marx in their analysis of capitalist religion attribute a central role to products: to goods. In the beginning of the "Capital", Marx places the theme of the fetishist nature of goods at the very centre of his reasoning, one of the methodological pillars of his criticism. Fetishist character, that is commodities as a fetish.

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It is what little it is worth

It is what little it is worth

Oikonomia/2 - Things are not God, but they can contain His signs and messages By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 19/01/2020 «Capitalism is not, in the first place, an economic system of distribution of possessions or wealth, but an overall system of culture and life» Max Scheler, The future of c...
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Oikonomia/1 - Evidence and questions regarding the spirit of capitalism and its parasitic relationships

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 12/01/2020

«If we wanted to define human civilization in one meaningful phrase, we could say that it is the formal power and ability to pass what in nature would run towards "death" as "value"»

Ernesto de Martino, Death and ritual tears in the ancient world

We now begin a new series of articles on the relationship between capitalism and religion, between Christianity and oikonomia. How much and which aspects of Christian values ​​have entered current capitalism? And is Christianity only its nest?

The twentieth century left us with a most rich and harsh debate regarding capitalism. It’s been more and different than the usual intellectual or academic debates. It’s been blood and flesh, life and death, heaven and hell. There have always been many critics of capitalism, but capitalism has shown a surprising ability to adapt to changing conditions of context. It knows how to change its shape by absorbing the demands of its critics, and like all great empires it has only been made greater and stronger by the enemies incorporated in their own troops and culture. It has changed to the point that the very word "capitalism" today has lost its power - I keep using it for lack of better words. In the last few years, however, some global, dramatic and sudden changes have complicated the scenarios, but have also greatly reduced and simplified the debates on the ethical evaluation of capitalism. Because it is all too evident that when it comes to some fundamental variables of individual and social life, capitalism has not kept its promises of progress and well-being at all. The health conditions of common goods, relational goods and of the Earth itself are clearly telling us in unison that there is a radical incompatibility between their safeguard and capitalist logic. From this increasingly decisive perspective, neither the wealth of nations nor public happiness is increasing. There is nothing serious left to debate about this. We simply have to change our logic, we need new paradigms, and above all we have to hurry: time has run out, or better yet we and the planet and all human communities find ourselves in full "Cesarini time" (the last minutes of extra time during a football game).

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Capitalism has experienced a vast array of very different assessments within Christian Churches and Catholicism as well. One recurrent subject concerned (and concerns) the alleged Christian nature of the spirit of capitalism. That capitalism should somehow be "Christian" is tautological, being something born and developed in Europe, and until a few decades ago saying Europe essentially meant saying Christian and Christianity. From this perspective, modernity and modern times as well as the Enlightenment were basically "Christians", but so were fascism and communism. But we haven’t really said much by saying this. It does not help much, therefore, to paraphrase Carl Schmitt's famous incipit of "Political Theology" (1922), and say that all the most meaningful concepts of modern economy are secularized theological concepts. The most interesting things start when we try to ask ourselves "second" additional questions: what aspects of Christianity entered and became part of capitalism? What was left out? How did get in? The new series of articles we begin today is an attempt to answer these (and other) questions. But first we should be aware that the history of the relationship between Christianity and the economy is truly complex, probably more complex than those who have written so far on this topic have told us. First of all because the theological categories (Christian and biblical) that modernity has transformed, secularising them, into economic categories, had in turn already been influenced by economic categories. The theology that inspired economics was first inspired by economics itself. While working in recent years on economics, the Bible and theology, we have discovered improbable and unexpected intertwining connections between these areas of life. And with considerable amazement, we repeatedly stated in the beginning that the first homo oeconomicus was really homo religiosus. Before becoming the golden rule of trade, do ut des was the iron cast law of the sacrifices offered to the gods: "Here is my butter: where are your gifts?" we find in the Brahminical ritual of the offerings at the temple. Many elements on which economic science was founded bit by bit in modern times - such as price, exchange, value, debt, credit, merit, order, gift, tribute, prize, the oikonomia itself - were inherited from religion and medieval Jewish-Christian humanism; but if we dig deeper, we realize that those theological-religious elements were in turn created and formed in the constant exchange going on in the economic life of communities. At the roots of ancient societies we find coins in sarcophagi to accompany the dead to pay the price of entry into the afterlife, or the economic vocabulary applied to blame, debts, penances. The Hebrew Bible itself and then the Gospels and Paul make abundant use of economic images and language to speak of faith. We find ourselves within a mutual contamination, where it is not easy to understand who influenced who, nor what the direction of the causal link is.

The most probable thesis is that businesses and religions developed together, with the arrival of the agricultural revolution, and that the marriage between the economy and the sacred took place naturally at the dawn of the great civilizations. The birth and development of the coin system took place around the temples, they were used to measure sacrifices, faults and merits, and from there their use gradually expanded to the more profane economic sphere. The Latin word pecus (flock) from which pecunia derives, primarily indicated the livestock offered in the sacrifices, counted and accounted for in a commercial relationship and exchange with the divine. It was the sacred that offered the necessary context of fait-and-trust to enable the coins to run their course. The first place for valorising "things" - animals and plants - destined by nature to death, was the altar: presenting them as a ritual offering exempted them from the ordinary fate of mortals. So when it comes to the relationship between Christianity and capitalism, we should clearly bear in mind that the economic ethics that informed medieval Christianism about itself was much more similar to the economic culture of the late Roman Empire than to the economic principles of the Gospels. We will then see that the operation that capitalism is carrying out with Christianity today (taking over its role), Christianity had already done since the 4th-5th century to the religion and ethics of the Romans - with the only difference being that in this second replacement there haven’t been centuries of persecution and martyrdom: the Constantine of capitalism was Nero or Herod, because he was enthusiastically received from his first appearance. Now the questions become more complicated however: what Christian economic ethics would then have entered (assuming they did) and become part of modern capitalism? Was it more Cicero or the Gospels that entered, the stoic ethics of virtues or the ethics of the beatitudes?

For the purpose of our research, we will not start from Max Weber nor from Amintore Fanfani or Giuseppe Toniolo, but from a German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, who we have repeatedly encountered and discussed during these years of exploration. In a very short and prophetic text, "Capitalism as Religion" (1921), unlike Schmitt, Benjamin does not speak of capitalism in terms of a "secularization" of theological elements and categories, but of an entirely new religion: «In the West capitalism developed parasitizing on Christianity ... during the Age of the Reformation Christianity did not facilitate the rise of capitalism, but actually turned into capitalism». Here, we get two opposing images or concepts. Because on the one hand Benjamin says that capitalism is a parasite of Christianity; on the other, he says that Christianity, as in a metamorphosis, has effectively become capitalism. Both powerful images, which, although taken only as a first approximation, will still make us turn to exercises that may prove fruitful. Fruitful and partial, fruitful because partial. Indeed, other interesting things could be said starting from the thesis of Weber or of other more "classic" authors. The parasite and metamorphosis are quite extreme images and therefore highly questionable. But, as often (not always) is the case, if used well extreme metaphors can show more generative aspects of reality than more moderate metaphors.

This is why we take Benjamin's thesis very seriously, preferring however the metaphor of the parasite to that of the metamorphosis. From biology we know that metamorphosis consists in the transformation that an insect (or organism) undergoes when passing from the larval to the adult phase. The caterpillar that becomes a butterfly, because the process is part of the insect's life cycle. Parasitism, on the other hand, is a profoundly different phenomenon, which in turn takes many forms. The word was born in Greece to describe some social behaviours, such as enjoying benefits without sustaining the costs involved, such as for example profiteers or freeloaders slipping into public banquets without paying. Parasitism is very different from the mutualism of symbiosis. Symbiosis is a "positive sum game", while parasitism is a "zero sum game", a disharmonious relationship, because the parasite feeds at the expense of the host, without any reciprocity in the advantages. The parasite, then, not only uses the host to feed itself, but uses it as its "ecological niche" to which it entrusts the task of regulating its relations with the outside world (the virus does not possess the apparatus required for reproduction). In certain cases (called parasitoids) the asymmetry is so radical that the relationship ends with the death of the guest. Because parasites lack the intelligence to understand that killing the body that hosts them is against their own interest; but in the course of their evolution some have lengthened their life cycle with the host - killing it more slowly: no intelligent freeloader wants the death of the banquet organizers.

The relationship between capitalism and Christianity contains elements of all these forms of parasitism, including lengthening the life of its host in order to continue feeding on it; as well as other elements not captured by the parasite metaphor - there are aspects of mutualism and even sonship. The parasite metaphor does not show us everything, but allows us to discover something new. Among the many possible forms of parasitism, cuckoo parasitism is very useful as a tool to investigate the nexus between Christianity and capitalism. The cuckoo practices hatching parasitism: it lays its egg in the nest of other birds (the blackcap or the reed, for example), and without knowing it the host bird ends up laying on and hatching it because of the similarity between the foreign egg and its own eggs. Once it hatches, the cuckoo's young one gets rid of the other eggs present in the nest and remains the only occupant. The mother bird feeds the small cuckoo as if it were its own. One of the many mistakes that the law of life uses. Cuckoo capitalism has laid its egg in many Christian nests (Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists ...). It did not lay them in the nests of other religions because they would have most probably been rejected immediately. Christianity raised the capitalist egg because it looked a lot like its own, and this great similarity in the shells deceived the mothers. They hatched and protected it for centuries, during the long period of time when the eggs all looked the same. Until only recently, in the moment of hatching, when a different and bigger bird is starting to throw the other half-siblings out of the nest. But, as in nature, this mother, having found herself only with this one child, continues to feed it unaware of the replacement and cheating. Because life is lager, and transforms what should die into value. It may not be a child of the blackcap, but it is still a child of the same forest.

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Oikonomia/1 - Evidence and questions regarding the spirit of capitalism and its parasitic relationships

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 12/01/2020

«If we wanted to define human civilization in one meaningful phrase, we could say that it is the formal power and ability to pass what in nature would run towards "death" as "value"»

Ernesto de Martino, Death and ritual tears in the ancient world

We now begin a new series of articles on the relationship between capitalism and religion, between Christianity and oikonomia. How much and which aspects of Christian values ​​have entered current capitalism? And is Christianity only its nest?

The twentieth century left us with a most rich and harsh debate regarding capitalism. It’s been more and different than the usual intellectual or academic debates. It’s been blood and flesh, life and death, heaven and hell. There have always been many critics of capitalism, but capitalism has shown a surprising ability to adapt to changing conditions of context. It knows how to change its shape by absorbing the demands of its critics, and like all great empires it has only been made greater and stronger by the enemies incorporated in their own troops and culture. It has changed to the point that the very word "capitalism" today has lost its power - I keep using it for lack of better words. In the last few years, however, some global, dramatic and sudden changes have complicated the scenarios, but have also greatly reduced and simplified the debates on the ethical evaluation of capitalism. Because it is all too evident that when it comes to some fundamental variables of individual and social life, capitalism has not kept its promises of progress and well-being at all. The health conditions of common goods, relational goods and of the Earth itself are clearly telling us in unison that there is a radical incompatibility between their safeguard and capitalist logic. From this increasingly decisive perspective, neither the wealth of nations nor public happiness is increasing. There is nothing serious left to debate about this. We simply have to change our logic, we need new paradigms, and above all we have to hurry: time has run out, or better yet we and the planet and all human communities find ourselves in full "Cesarini time" (the last minutes of extra time during a football game).

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The cuckoo has no siblings

The cuckoo has no siblings

Oikonomia/1 - Evidence and questions regarding the spirit of capitalism and its parasitic relationships By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 12/01/2020 «If we wanted to define human civilization in one meaningful phrase, we could say that it is the formal power and ability to pass what in nature w...