The Relationships of the EoC

Without a doubt, one of the EoC´s key words is “relationships”. Relational goods, reciprocity, gratuitousness, communion – these are all words that describe different ways to understand human relationships. In fact, the EoC can also be seen as a different culture of relationships.

The Relationships of the EoC 1

By Luigino Bruni
from "Economy of Communion - a new culture" N. 30 - December 2009

But what stands out about the relationships lived within the EoC in comparison with normal economic relationships?

N30_Luigino_Bruni_ridFrom a certain point of view, all economic life is a network of relationships - one that is always more thick, global and complex. Drinking coffee in the café below your apartment, making a telephone call, buying a book online, sending a letter to a friend – all are possible through the cooperation of hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, and sometimes millions of people. In fact, the cooperative is the most typical kind of economic relationship, especially in the market economy. So our question soon becomes this: what kind of cooperation and, therefore, what kind of relationships?
First of all, we must remember that modern man has fulfilled the most vast and widespread cooperation known to the history of the planet during the evolutionary course of homo sapiens. From a certain point of view, it is undeniable that the market society has exponentially multiplied relationships between people, widening and enriching networks of cooperation.

A Medieval man, who might have lived in the country, would have cooperated with just twenty to one-hundred people in his lifetime – not much more or much less. If he was a serf or a farmer, he would have cooperated within his family (with wife and children), with his master, and in certain times of the year (to slaughter pigs, gather the harvest or the grapes) he would have helped other nearby farmers.

If he enjoyed some freedom of movement, he may have been able to hop over to a fair every once in awhile, to buy a piece of furniture from a carpenter, or pair of shoes from the shoemaker for special occasions. Important moments of cooperation were religious processions, feasts, weddings or funerals, and, in certain cases and in a certain sense, wars. But in that world, the number of “cooperators” was more or less within the range that I indicated, little less or little more.

Besides, pre-modern cooperation was very rarely cooperation between equals. Basic relational structures were, in fact, profoundly heirarchial and asymetric. Then, if we think of the experience of cooperation of a pre-modern woman, the asymetry radical grows (less voluntary cooperation, less freedom and more heirarchy).

The modern market has certainly multiplied relationships, human contacts and cooperation with respect to the pre-modern world, but it has also changed the nature of them. The market is a large Mediator that always more immunizes interpersonal relationships and common life – a change whose ethical judgement is complex and ambivalent.

Perhaps ambivalence is the dimension which most characterizes relationships today in the market. Why? On one hand, the market is a social mechanism that, when it functions correctly, can be read as compensation of useful but scarse human activities to the collectivity. We can also interpret the market as a system for compensating those human activities which are socially virtuous but offered in insufficient quantities, caused by low or inexistant motivations and intrinsic compensation associated with them.

In a hypothetical world without markets, where each person carries out the activities he loves or feels are his vocation and which give him intrinsic joy, we would have an excess (with respect to the social demand) of intrinsically compensating activity (art, literature, games, prayer, sport...) and an insufficient offering of activities which provide little compensation in themselves (garbagemen, doormen, miners...).

The market, then, offers “extrinsic” compensation (money, for example) for activities which we would not do, at least in quantities considered enough for the society, if we only followed the intrinsic joy of the action. The market, through the mechanism of prices, makes it so that the activities compensated are not only those which we do because we like them, but those which are seen as useful by others with whom we interact (and who compensate us for them).

This is why the market is also a mechanism of signals that indicate if the things we like to do also interest  - above all - someone else. For the same reason, the market exchange can be understood as a form of reciprocity and social links. In summary, this allows activities useful to the common good to be carried out freely and with dignity.

For example, if we think about older societies (still present today in some parts of the world) where some activities are assigned to women, who must carry them out because of “vocation” to serve others (normally men) who expect that the vocation of others is to “freely” satisfy their needs.

We can also think of today: who complains because his works (scientific or artistic, for example) are not recognized, and do not have a market. In some cases we certainly are dealing with misunderstood artists or artists who live in areas where the “art market” functions perversely. But many times, we simply find ourselves in front of people who do not accept the idea that normally we are not the ones to judge the beauty and quality of what we create and produce – others do, also by buying our works.

This would be why there is not necessarily an opposition between market, civil virtue, free human cooperation and the common good, as the tradition of civil economy well knew.

But market is not only this. In order to allow market relationships to become universal, and no longer linked to belonging to a certain community, the market logic weakened human relationships from every identifying dimension - from that of the body, to every element that speaks true diversity.

In today´s anonymous markets, I don´t need to be in a personal relationship with anyone in order to potentially exchange with everyone. Comunity relationships, face-to-face, personal, always bring with them the chance of a “wound” caused by human diversity. When I truly meet with the other, I can never completely separate his or her hand which caresses me from that which strikes me.

The market is, instead, a great promise of new relationships without wounds, since by paying a price we can meet without suffering. If, for example, I ask a friend to watch my baby for a weekend, I enter into a relationship of gift with him which makes me vulnerable. The friend could ask me for another gift in exchange, and above all could one day hold it against me. If, instead, I resort to the market and pay a baby-sitter, the price I pay makes me feel free from any form of vulnerability, of gratitude, of wound. But – and here is the big problem of the market today – not risking the wound of the other, I also lose the chance to receive his “blessing” 2.

Market relationships today free us from dependance on the other. They free us from others as masters or bosses (and this is beautiful and human), but they also free us from every “other”. We find ourselves in a world that is always more filled with goods and things, but always poorer of relationships of gratuitousness and gift.

This is why today, as Benedict XVI remembered in his encyclical Caritas in veritate (ch. 3), the experience of the Economy of Communion is very significant.

The typical relationship lived and spread by the EoC represents a great challenge. On one side, the EoC moves within regular market relationships and values their being a form of reciprocity and “mutual assistence”, in the words of Antonio Genovesi. On the other hand, the EoC does not exhibit the idea that, neither outside or inside the business, relationship among people are reduced to mutual indifference out of fear of the wounds that every true human encounter brings with it.

It is in the attempt to remain economy (market) by living the entire human relatioship (communion) that the EoC wagers fidelity to its vocation and to its mission in today´s society.


1 To know more, see my book, The Ethics of Market (B. Mondadori, Milano).

2 The Biblical reference here is to the “battle of Jacob with the angel” (Gen 32), when the Other wounds and blesses Jacob, who then becomes Israel. Every encounter-battle with the true other profoundly changes us.

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