A New Beginning Needed for the World - Starting from Women and the "You"

Economics - The Vocabulary of Good Social Life/15

by Luigino Bruni 

published in Avvenire on January 5, 2014

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...(T)he crisis have given many and such denials of what appear strictly to be scientific estimates, advanced by economists. It is no wonder that any layman could believe to be authorized to proclaim the bankruptcy of the political economy... To the voices, some calumny, not a mitigating factor is lacking. In fact, many economists have sinned of immodesty". These are the words of political scientist Robert Michels, author of the first book entitled "Economics and Happiness" (1917). He said this in 1933, but it seems to be written today.

Immodesty, or superiority, is not the sole prerogative of economic science, since it is a well-known universal anthropological tone. At certain times, however, the community of economists has been affected by a particularly stubborn and widespread form of immodesty. Faced with obvious deficiencies and errors of their discipline, instead of giving in to the force of facts and getting into a crisis, and instead of humbly revising ancient facts and dogmas, they stubbornly returned all criticism to the sender. The present is one of those times, and there is an increasingly strong need for a major overhaul of many dogmas and axioms of economic theory and practice.

In its original form, economy was entirely defined by the boundaries of the house (oikos), , distinct and separate from politics (polis). Economy ended when man (male, adult, free, non-manual workers) left the oikos and moved in to the polis. The oikos with its rules of management was the realm of the unequal hierarchy and the reign of women, while politics was that of men and relations between equals. Throughout antiquity and the pre-modern era, oikonomia has retained this domestic, practical, internal, and usually female meaning. Beginning in the eighteenth century, the noun 'economy' started to be accompanied by new adjectives: politics (Smith and Verri), civil (Genovesi and many others), public (Beccaria), social (many authors), national (Ortes). These adjectives were meant to emphasize that economy was no longer the administration of the house, and neither the "oikonomia of salvation" or the "Economic Trinity", the other meaning of oikonomia widely used from the Church Fathers to modern times. The adjective political (and similar ones) has done much to qualify modern economics in relation to the ancient one. By fusing the economic with the political (political economy), two fields that had been separated for thousands of years, some typical categories of politics entered into the economy. But the strongest among all was the influence in the opposite direction, if we think of the force with which the language, rationality and economic logic are migrating from economics to politics, usually with rather dangerous effects. These include a strong tendency to read the whole of public life from the perspective of budgetary constraints, efficiency and economic cost-benefit, producing an unprecedented democratic dumping which is one of the most general and worrying cultural traits of our time.

But there is a second crucial element on which much more collective and political reflection is needed. The contamination between economics and politics has not brought with it a public or political centrality of women which was originally associated with the oikonomia. Instead, we have continued to think of 'home' as the reign of the feminine and domestic economy; while the economy, turning political and public in its theoretical principles and anthropological axioms has been deprived of the woman and her specific view of the world and the living beings - with serious and undervalued consequences.

This (di)vision is theorized very clearly by Philip Wicksteed, a leading British economist of the past century, as well as protestant pastor and translator of Dante. At the heart of his most famous and influential treatise (Commonsense of Political Economy, 1910) there is the analysis of the behaviour of the "housewife". The housewife, as long as she moves inside the home, is moved by the logic of gift and by the love of the "you" that she has in front of herself. But as soon as she leaves domestic economy to go to the market, she disposes of her roles at home and takes on those of political economy, the logic of which must be what Wicksteed coined "non-tuism" (from the Latin 'you'). The housewife, in fact, is permitted (by the economists) to strive for the good of all through the market, except the good of those whom they face in an economic type of encounter: "The economic relationship does not exclude everyone from my mind except myself [selfishness]; and it potentially includes everyone except you [non-tuism ]". This way the economy overcomes selfishness ("everyone except me") but loses the personal relationships within the economic ones ("everyone except you").

The typical tones of the real meeting with the 'you' - gratuitousness, empathy, caring ... - are the ones that the 'housewife' should exercise only in the private sphere, not in public which is all defined by an instrumental register and by the absence of "you" and the presence of and only and lonely 'him’, ‘her’ and ‘them’. And all this because someone has determined a priori that those relational and emotional characteristics that most typically (but not exclusively, of course) are of the woman, were not serious and rational enough things for the serious and rational economic sphere. Too bad, though, that when the face of the "you is missing from the view, which is the only real and actual face in every human environment, all that remains is a faceless and therefore inhuman economy. But above all, we produce an economy that does not see, and therefore does not understand the typical goods that would need categories other than those of non-tuistic logic, among these the category of common goods, relational goods, the logic of plural actions, non-instrumental rationality and much, much, more. Non-tuism is still a pillar of the economic science. And all the times that in the real economy a supplier looks another one in the face, and, moved with compassion, gives him a deferment of payment, or when a worker goes beyond the contract and takes care of a client in difficulty, the "pure" economist considers these exceptions as friction, as incomplete contracts, costs that should be reduced to zero if possible. In fact, the more businesses and banks become large, bureaucratic and rationally managed, the more these 'tuistic' frictions are reduced - but they never disappear completely, and they will not disappear as long as the organizations are inhabited by human beings.

But things are different. We know that 'tuistic' actions are not frictions or simple costs, but they are the ones that compose the invisible but very real oil that helps our organizations not to produce clogs and that turns the complex human gears even in times of crisis when contracts and efficiency are just not enough anymore. Providentially, the real economy goes ahead despite the economic and management theories, but today we must have the cultural courage to stand up against this suffering, which is for the most part preventable, produced by an obsolete anthropology and an economic ideology of a single dimension. Let us not forget that unlike in the past centuries when the public sphere was the monopoly of men (who theorized and occupied it), women today find themselves living in economic and political institutions in which there are, in fact, cultural and theoretical peripheries. The data show that in our businesses and banks it is mainly the women who suffer, because in their workplaces they seem to be conceived, designed and promoted by theories that are missing their "other half' in the world and in economy. To change the economy to shape it to the 'measure of a woman' would mean - I only hint at it - also to review the theory and practice of the management of the home, the economy of the family, raising children, caring for old people. And much more.

The difficulties of the present time also depend on not being able to exploit the immense relational and moral power of women who are still too often guests and outsiders in the productive world of men, and so they cannot give expression of their full potential and talents. The world of economy is also waiting to be enlivened by the female genius.

   Translated by Eszter Kató

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

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