We Need a Cure

Commentaries - Old Vices Increased by the Crisis

by Luigino Bruni

published inAvvenire on 10/07/2014

Usura ridParallel with the intensification of the economic crisis, a greater spread of the phenomenon of usury was observed, evidenced by reports of the doubling of suspicious transactions in 2013 over the previous year.” There are documents like this one – just published by the Financial Information Unit of the Bank of Italy – that every responsible and mature citizen should read, meditate on, and then act accordingly. Usury is a typical disease of any monetary society, since it is the visible phenomenon of the power relations and the power that are hidden under the apparent neutrality of money. The existence of money has many benefits, but it also generates high costs that are growing in intensity and importance with the expansion of the area covered by money within society.

Usury grows with the marketing of social relations, and, as the Bank of Italy tells us, it also grows in times of crisis, when the demand for money increases for those on the margins or outside of the official circuits of credit. No social system has produced as much usury as our financial capitalism, where being able to buy almost anything for money, money becomes almost everything, and one is willing to do almost anything to get it. Usury, therefore, is an eloquent and infallible indicator of how much "waste" our capitalism produces and fails to recycle, but also of the inability of banks and good and legal channels of credit to respond to the demand for money that comes from the outskirts of the empire (which then leads "elsewhere"). But it is also a sign of how much pain there is behind the crisis of so many businesses and deceitful promises of easy luxury for the poor.

It would be interesting and extremely useful to "open up" these data and read the stories that lie beneath them. We would find a very diverse humanity there: entrepreneurs in crisis, too many vulnerable people fallen in the vicious circles of gambling, the scratch-and-win, and in the many traps of the easy credit offered by ambiguous agencies that ruin the more vulnerable families by promising unsustainable consumption – the great disease of our system lies as much in legal as in illegal forms of corruption.

We must not, in fact, forget that the victims of usury are the poor: they have always been, but they are even more now. For this reason it is useful to re-read an original translation of the well-known passage from the Gospel of Luke (6:34), written by Antonio Genovesi in his Lessons of Civil Economy: "Lend to those freely who are in need and short of hope and do so without putting them in despair (mutuum date neminem desperare facientes)" (1766). Genovesi, who was an innovator and heir of the great classical view of money, generally accepted lending at interest, but he posed a clear exception: “given that they are not poor.” In fact, though Genovesi could not even imagine it, over the centuries capitalism has become a system that lends on usury primarily, if not solely, to the poor, putting them more and more into despair. It is mainly those who are short of money, but even more those who are short of relations that are captured and then crushed by the octopus of usurers after they have been isolated. But as long as there are friendly people who listen, advise and protect us, we do not end up in the net of usury. Usury first isolates then makes one feel having their back to the wall and with no escape, and finally it destroys one.

What to do? The cure for usury, this disease of monetary economics, never came from private banks and their income seeking. Some treatments have come from institutions which, under the pressure of the citizens, made and improved anti-usury legislation; but radical cures have mainly come from a different type of banks and financial institutions born with a larger goal than gains and profits. The social and supportive tradition of banks flourished in the second half of the fifteenth century, in the middle of the social crisis caused partly by the boom of the markets and usury. The Franciscan Minors (James of the Marches, John of Capistrano, Marco da Montegallo...) invented the Monti di Pietà, one of the largest financial innovations and economic frameworks of Europe. And they did so as an expression of charitas, civil, brotherly love for their people who asked for bread and good credit. In the face of a serious crisis, those Christians and friends of man did not write treatises, nor did they organise conferences: they were able to generate works, institutions, banks. If we want to reduce usury we should continue to act on institutions and request, as citizens, better laws that are more favourable for the most fragile members of society. But most importantly, associations and movements of civil society should give rise to new financial institutions, funds of micro-financing and new banks.

Our economic and financial system is not in a position of a possible self-regeneration, we see it every day. The same Bank of Italy document tells us that the reports of money laundering have increased six-fold since 2007. Too many enterprises founded by ex-craftsmen practicing civil virtues have been passed into the hands of speculators, and many traditional banks are now directed by managers delegated by a proprietor that only aims to maximise gains, led by algorithms that are too far away from people. There is a large and growing need for the works of the common good. There are some positive signs, but we still cannot interpret them, and we are not able to make a choir out of the individual voices.

Unless there are new initiatives for the common good, we will have to continue commenting on reports of usury and corruption, getting depressed, waiting passively and co-responsibly for the next sad report, or deluding ourselves about the “revival” promised by new guessing games. And the poor will continue to be put in despair.

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

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