A Review of
The Wound and the Blessing: Economics, Relationships, and Happiness
Reviewed by Joe Davis
Has anyone ever told you, in a harsh, menacing tone: “I mean business”? We use this phrase to remind, or rather warn, others of our serious resolve towards the completion of a goal at any expense we deem necessary, especially our relationships with others. If people “mean business,” they are obsessed by a single-minded pursuit of their objective and it is best not to stand in their way. Consider also the common saying, “Its just business.” We use this phrase when we want to communicate a certain sense of apathy towards an interpersonal relationship. If a relationship is “just business,” there is no room for “love” or “feelings”; the relationship is only the product of or means toward a certain “business” end. Why does “business” hold such a heartless, mechanistic, barely-human meaning for us? In The Wound and the Blessing: Economics, Relationships, and Happiness, Italian economist and scholar Luigino Bruni offers a multi-dimensioned discussion on human relationships through the lens of Italian civil economics. He sheds considerable light on how our “business relationships” became so separate, and less real, than our private relationships. He points to this dichotomy between economic and civil life as a primary cause of the “bleak and lonely drift of modern market societies… [towards] a joyless human condition.” However, Bruni also provides a framework for a way out of this relational crisis: an economics of gratuitousness, which embraces the blessings of others while accepting the risk of their wounds.
*** Other Books by Luigino Bruni
The idea of gratuitousness is central to Bruni’s proposal. However, it retains a somewhat mysterious character throughout the book. “Gratuitousness,” Bruni suggests, “best expresses the ambivalent nature of human relationships.” The act of gratuitousness is the supreme good, while gratuitousness betrayed is evil. According to Bruni, we recognize it when we experience it and we suffer when it is lost. The translator’s introduction likens gratuitousness to “free and open reciprocity” that offers gifts to another “without the binding, obliging, subjugating requirement of some form of return.” A gratuitous relationship is based on trust and never relies on asymmetrical power differentials to coerce an exchange. Bruni compares gratuitousness to agape, the especially Christian way of being in love characterized by selfless sacrifice. Like agape, it considers the relationship as its sole end; the relationship is never instrumental, never a secondary phenomenon, but is instead the primary, constitutive element of the truly good life.
Gratuitousness is essential to Bruni because it enables a more fully human existence by acknowledging the “unbreakable link between ‘wound’ and ‘blessing’,” which is the book’s foundational insight. “Being human,” Bruni asserts, “begins with gratuitousness” because it accepts the blessings of others without trying to evade their wounds. Suffering, then, is the price of gratuitous relationships, which form the basis of the ideal modern community defined by liberty, equality, and fraternity. However, classical economic thought has been unwilling to pay this price, and, in an attempt to avoid the risk of injury at the hands of others, created a space for liberty and equality at the expense of fraternity. Adam Smith conceived of this space –the market – in line with the political theories of Thomas Hobbes and Nicollo Machiavelli, which were based on a radically pessimistic anthropology that necessitated protection from the wicked, fearful schemes of human individuals engaged in constant competition. Gratuitousness is therefore inimical to the market because it links the fate individuals to the benevolence of others, which can always be denied. The whole aim of the market was to create a “sacrifice-free zone” where individuals could use contracts as a mediator to protect them from the unpredictable whims of others. By refusing to deal directly with others, Smith, along with the dominant strain of modern economics that followed in his footsteps, created a system characterized by immunitas: free individuals protected from the relational wounds of others but also incapable of gratuitous relationships and therefore sealed off from any authentically human existence.
Bruni stresses that he does not reject the notion of markets and contracts; what he rejects is the arbitrary extension of market relationships into all arenas of life, like healthcare and education. The market must make way for gratuitousness. Bruni calls for a return to the Italian tradition of “civil economy” (as opposed to the dominant tradition of “political economy”), in which he locates his own work, because it associates economics with happiness instead of wealth. Bruni proposes a theory of happiness based in relationship: “one cannot live a ‘good life’ unless with and thanks to others.” This theory points to what is known as the “paradox of happiness” emerging from recent economic research. The paradox of happiness asserts that happiness depends on genuine relationality, which makes reciprocity, and the potential for being wounded by others – gratuitousness – absolutely essential. Once people have enough income to live decently, their relational well-being becomes the primary source of their happiness.
Following Aristotelian and Thomistic tradition, Bruni rejects the equation of happiness to pleasure and defines happiness as an all-encompassing human flourishing lived within a community of non-instrumental relationships. The society dominated by neoclassical economic theory thus suffers a relational crisis because, as Bruni asserts, it cannot account for gratuitousness, for non-instrumental relationships. In order to suggest a way through this crisis, Bruni introduces a new type of economic good: the relational good. These goods are characterized by: the presence of non-anonymous individuals, reciprocity, a process of simultaneous production and consumption which necessitates involvement in a relationship, the absence of any motivation outside or beyond the relationship, a transcendence over the initial intentions of the relationship, intrinsic motivations toward the relationship (which is gratuitousness), and a priceless value which opposes any reduction to a commodity. Relational goods must be considered in economic measures because, according to Bruni, “up to a certain critical threshold, income and relationships based on gratuitousness can be seen as complementary goods; afterward they become rivals, and income can displace non-instrumental relationships.” When relational goods are ignored, regular economic goods lose their power to contribute towards happiness.
Bruni’s proposal is radical because it introduces the blessings and wounds of human relationships into the cold, analytical “business” world. It confronts our fear of others, which exerts such a powerful, divisive force in our society, and seeks a way through, instead of around, this barrier by tying economic development to the reciprocal response of others. Luigino Bruni does not offer all the answers in this book, but he does provide a theoretical framework to restore the primacy of the oikos – “the household,” a site of deep relationships – which has become so irrelevant in our oikonomia – “the rules of the household” – also known as economics.