The Market is also a Public Thing

Comments – More Democracy is Necessary

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire on 03/03/2013


A referendum is being held in Switzerland today to put a break on remunerations for managers of societies quoted on the stock market.  This is a good occasion to reopen the topic of the incomes of so-called  ‘top managers’ here in our country as well ,and on that matter and much more importantly, as it lies at the root of the first problem , of economic democracy.  How about in Italy, or in Europe?  A reason for the absence of this type of initiative, or, as we hope, only lateness, is the inability of Europe, and more so of Italy, to propose in past decades a different business and economic culture.

Today business schools are all the same: at Harvard, Nairobi, San Paolo, Berlin, Peking, or Milan, the same things are taught, the same texts are used, at times even the same slides downloaded from the internet.  I have seen courses given on ‘Social Business Responsibility’ in classes where directors of cooperatives were sitting beside managers of speculative investment funds, because, as they explained, “Business is business”.  Therefore, it does not surprise us, but rather, saddens us to see a progressively shorter distance between the culture and the incomes of great cooperatives and those of capitalistic businesses, a resemblance that would certainly cause founders of the cooperative movement to turn over in their graves. They had imagined and brought about different enterprises also because they were able to covert the principles of fraternity and equality into paycheques, and not only to mention them in the premises of their statutes.

Yet, Italy and Europe had, and still have, a bit of another way to do business and society, another ‘capitalistic spirit’, which in Germany is called ‘social economy of the market’, in France ‘social economy’ in Italy ‘civil economy’, and in Spain and Portugal ‘economy of solidarity’.   A social cooperative is not a philanthropic institution (charity), but a matter of reciprocity and of productive inclusion, it is a ‘doing with’ before being a ‘doing for’.   A banking foundation is not   an American foundation, and small to medium family businesses,  as the load-bearing axis of our economy, have neither the culture nor the tools that anonymous corporations have, even if many of these businesses of ours have lost themselves in trying to follow those strange models.  In Italy we also had the glorious tradition of the Enterprise Economy, today on the way towards extinction, which was a happy attempt to convert a communitarian and relational model into organizational culture, where the aim of the enterprise was not the maximization of profit, but the balance between all the components of a company, in which the founding principle was “Satisfaction of human needs” (Gino Zappa, 1927).

The economic crisis is also fruit of a managerial culture that has revealed itself inadequate, certainly because of a mistaken or an insufficient legislation, but also from a form of thinking that begins in universities where economy is taught and it continues on into the masters; a wrong formation which is also at the base of justifications for those superstar salaries.  Current economic curriculums, all over the world, are more and more stripped of all their humanistic and historical dimensions, deluding themselves that by reducing economic thought to numbers, tables, graphics and algorithms (ever more simplified), one can form people capable of thinking and of being creative, of true innovation or of coordinating individuals whose anthropological and spiritual mystery remains such even as they work.  Yet, future jobs will come about, certainly in Italy, arising from culture, art, tourism, relationships, and to do these jobs well it is very useful to know the history of culture or of art, more so than techniques of budget balancing , evaluation and control.

We need then to open public debate on these crucial topics which cannot be left to ‘those in charge’: we have done so these past years, and the results are visible for all to see.  Modern democratic culture has put politics and governing of the state at the centre: great.  But the world has changed a lot and today we know, or should know, that good government passes also, and always more, through good governing of markets, businesses and organizations.  There is one Parliament (in Italy), but the administrative councils of banks and businesses are thousands: the quality of our lives, our dignity and freedoms depend also from these and we cannot continue to ignore this.  Economic democracy will be the challenge of the XXI century, if we wish to avoid reducing the democratic area into ever less relevant sectors of people’s lives, if we wish to feel like kings on election-day and lowly subjects on following days of many non-democratic rulers. The XX century created and maintained confines between areas of action of democracy and those kept by other non-democratic principles.

Amongst non-democratic areas the most important and relevant one was that of capitalistic enterprises.  The new era of common goods is forcing us to profoundly rethink the border of democracy if we don’t wish to lose it, or to smother it into a tiny region, perhaps to become irrelevant one day.  The market and businesses are not a private matter: they never have been, (think about workers’ and business owner’s syndicates).  This crisis however, had told us with great force and clarity that economy, finance and the market are also a truly ‘public matter’, with its delights and its crosses, for which we have the right and the duty to occupy ourselves , not just because it is us who will be paying all the consequences of bad government.  We must then invent new tools of economic democracy which cannot be the same ones used by political democracy.  We must think them on a Global scale.  But we must do it soon, for it is far too important.

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