More time, less Money

Comments – New Normality; the crisis is pushing us to re-evaluate the sharing of goods and services.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire28/10/2012

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The "new normal": is what America calls that part of the ex- middle class which, because of the crisis, is changing its lifestyle, doing things that only a few years ago would have been considered abnormal or typical of poorer classes.  Among these new ‘normal’ behaviours are to be seen not only reductions in consuming goods and services which only a little while ago were considered established and indispensable, but new practices of sharing, rapidly increasing both in American society, as in all the Western world.  Among these is the great development of time Banks, that important innovation (which started well ahead of the crisis), which consists in giving life to a network of exchanges in which currency, meaning a unity of sums and equivalence, is not money, but time: the offer, for example, of an hour of gardening becomes a credit for an hour of another activity of the same duration, based on both direct and indirect rules of reciprocity (where the debit or credit of A towards B can be exchanged also by C).

In true time banks, the economy is brought back to its original nature of meetings among people, where the exchange of goods and services is subsidiary to relational goods, which today, are more than ever polluted by markets that are too anonymous and impersonal.  Time banks are present even on our territory, normally promoted by associations within civil society, almost always internally woven by articulated orders which in certain cases are taking on forms of real and proper systems of exchange and local development, with group networks of solid acquisitions (Gas), cooperatives, longsighted public administrations, territorial banks, many associations, Caritas, etc. 

In many territories, then, a new spring is being lived today, by ancient traditions of civil virtues and of work, with a more significant participation by women and by the elderly.  These are positive signals of the crisis, which, if extended on a larger scale and sustained by good politics, could become once more the ‘normal’ communitarian, supportive processes which founded our western, Christian culture, and which, in the era of opulence and unsustainable waste have been in large part destroyed.  Behind this growing phenomena of time banks we can glimpse a more general and structural process which can offer elements capable of producing changes of great significance inside our capitalistic economic model.

In order to understand the challenge hiding behind these apparently simple and little known experiences, one must look deeper. First of all at the growing inequality, which should be seen from a perspective that is not stressed enough and is, therefore, undervalued.  It is the radical tendency enacted in our capitalistic system of a progressive widening of the area covered by monetary exchanges.  Already considered ‘normal’ in America, (but not only there), is the paying of an extra fee in theatres and museums so as to skip the line; or (fortunately only in America), the habit of paying students to encourage them to do better in school; not to mention the now normal penetration of monetary logic in health, culture and even in the family, where it is normal to motivate children by paying them to do household chores.

Without entering into fundamental ethical questions relative to the wider use of money in these civil areas (are we sure that avoiding a line-up in a theatre or in a hospital or at an airport because one is richer, is compatible with democracy?), there is a direct consequence of all this on the daily lives of people, above all of the new and ancient poor and of the new normal. If money covers ever more necessities, if, that is, I must pay to obtain goods and services which were once offered by communities (care, education, school, health..), one very evident yet tacit consequence is the worsening of living conditions and the social exclusion of those without money or with too little of it.  For this reason, in a world in which, beyond inequality of income, there is also an increase in use of money for an ever increasing number of activities, some very essential for living, the life of the poor becomes tremendously harder.

Here, we understand then, the civil and economic significance of these reciprocity movements, such as time banks and their surroundings.  An effective method to fight lack of income is to reduce the use of money to obtain goods and services.  If we were able to organize our daily lives making the most of the principle of reciprocity, working at optimizing it, we could handle a significant part of health services, of assistance, but also of jobs and competences, without having to resort to a monied system.  Since many of the new ‘normals,’ the women and the elderly, and the young are in the condition of having less money but more time, and often have competences  not required today by the work market, they could still be useful to others.  Why not then, start up in Italy a new season of local systems of exchange based on the principle of reciprocity?  As citizens, we will re-appropriate  important pieces of associated life, of democracy and, therefore, of freedom, and we will put in motion a lot of creativity , innovation, action, work, newfound trust and civil capital which the lack of, is the real poverty of the Italy of today.

It would be a season not unlike the birth of the cooperative movement at the end of the eighteen hundreds, when during a time of deep industrial and rural crisis, Italy was able to give life to a real economic – civil miracle, creating dozens of new businesses over the entire country. We would have need though, of longsighted politics which would not see these transitions as forms of fiscal evasion, for example, but as an expression of the principle of subsidiarity, which many speak of but few concretize.  From this crisis will come a new ‘normality’: we are finding ourselves in front of an epochal fork in the road between a new normality made of misery for many and super privileges for a few, and a new normality of major sharing, democracy and opportunity for all.

We must then operate and hope so that this second direction is taken.

All of Luigino Bruni's comments on Avvenire can be found under Avvenire Editorial.

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