Movement of the Day: Economy of Communion

A “social-Catholic” approach to economics.

Luigini Bruni:

“The EoC is a project that currently involves hundreds (754) of businesses in five continents and has attracted the interest of scholars and economists alike. The project started in 1991 when Chiara Lubich visited the city of San Paulo in Brazil. Whoever arrives in that metropolis is confronted with a scenario that powerfully symbolises the potential contradictions within capitalism: a forest of skyscrapers surrounded by a savannah of slums. Chiara was deeply moved by this sight and felt the great suffering of humanity: a humanity that is increasingly able to conquer technology and produce wealth, but has not yet been able to overcome misery. What she saw in San Paolo, instead, showed her that the gulf between the rich and poor was growing. Within a few days of that trip to San Paolo at the end of May 1991, what has come to be known as the Economy of Communion was born: businesses which are managed with a new culture (the ‘culture of giving’) and put their profits into communion, with the aim of demonstrating a part of humanity ‘with no-one in need’, and becoming a model for many.

The sharing of profits in three parts was the first way in which the EoC became a practical proposal:

  1. one part of the profits would be re-invested in the business in order to develop and create new jobs;
  2. the second part would be used to create a new culture which would inspire women and men capable of living communion in their lives;
  3. and the third part would go directly to the poor so as to reinsert them fully into the dynamic of communion and reciprocity.

This three-way sharing of profits is a ‘pre-economic’ intuition, since it neither represents a new juridical form nor an organisational business model, nor a measurable technique, but rather a vision of the economy and society. This vision points to the principal institution of the market economy – the business – as an economic phenomenon… but not exclusively so. Besides their growth, businesses of communion are also directly concerned with culture, need and poverty. For these businesses, profit is regarded as the means, rather than the end of entrepreneurial activity as the profit is put into communion.

EoC is about firms. Nevertheless, the EoC is not primarily an organisational formula for a business to be more ethical or socially responsible. The EoC is a project for a more just and fraternal humanism.

The EoC came about from an encounter with favelas or shanty towns. The original intuition of the EoC emerged as a result of the suffering that Chiara experienced when she realised that there were persons who were living in those inhumane conditions. Rather than the need to make businesses more ethical or more human, it was the need to do her part, through the Movement, to build a more just world, where there would be fewer people forced to live in often inhumane conditions. This is why the EoC cannot and should not become a corporate social responsibility project. It did not come about to renew businesses, but to renew social relations. The specific novelty of 1991, its novum, is elsewhere, as I will now try to explain in the next sections.

At the same time, there is also something that is relevant to business as an institution. EoC thought of the business as an institution as the natural ‘instrument’ to respond to what is essentially a problem injustice and the incorrect distribution of goods. Normal logic could have led her to think of other institutions: foundations, NGOs, fundraising activities. In fact, the natural mission of traditional businesses is to create jobs, produce products, goods and services. In the normal course of events, the aim of redistributing wealth is not prevalent in business (even if it cannot be totally excluded: there are taxes, but also salaries). Instead, in the EoC are the traditional business that is invited to go beyond its “normal” social function or “vocation”.”

Source: THE ECONOMY OF COMMUNION. Luigino Bruni. Draft of essay written for the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, 2008.

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