Common friends

Publish date 20-05-2024

by Renato Bonomo

Social cohesion is not just an economic fact, but a project of the heart and intelligence, a vision to believe in and to work towards. Because there are no automatic recipes for fighting inequalities and feeling less alone. Rather, a new mentality and approach is needed: that social friendship that can truly represent a revolution. The economist Stefano Zamagni has supported it all his life. Professor at the University of Bologna since 1979, he is considered one of the fathers of civil economy studies. Already president of the Agency for the Third Sector and of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Zamagni has long supported the urgency of change.

You warned of the risks of social hatred...
Yes, a few years ago I talked about aporophobia, fear of the poor and the different which can lead to hatred. For us Italians it is a recent phenomenon, since our culture has always been shaped by compassion. Social hatred is extremely dangerous because it is at the basis of an American phenomenon that will soon come to us: singularism, the extremes of individualism, in some respects its overcoming.

In what sense?
Singularism aims to sever every link between the individual and her context. Everyone has to do it themselves and to assert yourself you have to erase the link with the social context to which you belong: family, school, groups. In short, no form of collaboration or cooperation. Others are just a means of support to achieve your goals. This singularism is the sworn enemy of social friendship and produces devastating effects such as existential loneliness. The data tells us that 52% of Americans suffer from this problem. Thinking you can do it alone leads to frustration and depression. But there are other effects.

Which ones?
This singularist horizon completely rethinks our institutions, starting from school which, since its foundation, has been an experience of growth together with others. Singularism then leads to a loss of productivity: working alone brings negative effects because one plus one equals two but one with one equals three. Finally, singularism does not bring happiness. Alone we cannot be happy, only together. Aristotle already remembered this. When you only have contacts and no relationships, how can you be happy? Precisely this defeat on the topic of happiness may be the key to overcoming singularism. Ultimately, young people want to be happy and they are realizing it.

However, young people continue to suffer the wrong choices of the past. How can they find their place?
The capitalism we know today is the result of the digital revolution and globalization, it is very different from the capitalism of a couple of centuries ago. The biggest difference is that financial capitalism is becoming consumer capitalism. We have moved from the factory to the market: previously value was built through worker exploitation, now capitalism extracts value from consumption. But be careful, consumerism is the degeneration of consumption: it creates continuous needs to expand consumption. This is why influencers were born who are nothing more than manipulators who develop needs that you don't really need. And so singularism is needed to create this model.

How do I get out of it?
Those who care about the ethical dimension of freedom cannot turn a deaf ear. This is precisely freedom: look at how much authoritarianism has spread in recent years... However, I am optimistic: it cannot go on like this. There are signs from some groups – especially young people – that they are waking up and do not accept this logic. We can go back to civilizing our economy: do we want to build a city of stones (urbs) or a civilization of souls (civitas)?

You have to choose. Yet, today it is more difficult. The latest CENSIS report describes our society as a population of sleepwalkers, incapable of dealing with the future. Demographic crisis, stability of the pension and healthcare system, inequalities seem like distant prospects, when in reality they will produce epochal changes. Why do we no longer have the courage to imagine solutions?
The statistics confirm what we said previously. But the problem is upstream. We tend to confuse choice and decision. The choice is the use of a rational procedure that allows us to find the one that is considered best among several options. Young people are better equipped in this than previous generations, thanks to all the information they have at their disposal. The decision instead has to do with perspectives and directions of meaning of which one is not certain. To decide, the criterion of rationality is not enough, orientation is needed. I use an explorer image. For the choice you need the map, for the decision the compass. Do you know what the problem is?

Which one?
For young people the issue is not choosing. In fact they are very good at this. Rather, they have enormous difficulty with decisions. Our generation knew how to decide, but not choose. We must help children understand this distinction: help them set priorities and objectives, rediscover an overall vision.

How is it done?
We must return to the ethics of virtues: the practice of virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance) opens up decision-making, allows us to move despite not having all the relevant knowledge. The school must educate in virtues and not stuff students with sterile knowledge that will be overcome in a short time. If they are educated, young people will have fun and work will chase them and not vice versa. We cannot aim only at education, but education must be at the service of education.

What is the immediate task of the ruling classes? Should they do more on the front of social cohesion and friendship?
Surely. I think of our managerial class which is obsolete, cannot understand the implications of Artificial Intelligence and, above all, does not have the participation of young people as a priority. It is a remnant of Taylorism, of the assembly line that wanted workers to be like cattle, docile and above all obedient. Today it can no longer be like this, humility is needed on the part of managers to give space to young people. You have to trust them, free up your energy and creativity. There is the risk of falling, but it is the only path to growth. I am convinced: all those who work must be able to participate in the life of the company. The advantages are real because people who are recognised, respected and valued work much harder and much better. But there's more.

We don't just need things. One of the most important goods (besides the common ones) is the relational one. Friendship and marriage are relational goods par excellence. Previously only sociologists talked about them, now economists study them too.
We have abundant material goods, but we are becoming very poor in relational terms. Singularism is one of the main causes. There are social experiments that demonstrate that those who take care of the good of others first obtain their own good by reciprocity. Reciprocity is not exchange, it is not a question of quantity: the value is in the intention. The do ut des is valid for private goods, but for the relational good another logic applies. Only in this way will we build more fraternal societies.

Renato Bonomo
photo Renzo Bussio
NP Focus
NP April 2024

To review the meeting with the economist Stefano Zamagni. Meeting recorded at the Arsenale della Pace in Turin on March 25th:

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