A gift economy for Europe

Twenty years after the collapse of communism, the ongoing crisis of capitalism which has plunged Europe into the worst economic turmoil since the Great Depression offers a unique opportunity to chart an alternative path. In a remarkable speech (pdf), Herman Van Rompuy – the EU's recently appointed first president – has outlined such an alternative by drawing on ideas shared by European Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists. This has the potential to transform the ongoing debate on how best to reform the EU's ailing economy.

Van Rompuy's argument is that both capitalist free-market and socialist central planning policies fail because they are based on a false account of human nature. Human beings are neither bare individuals who pursuit private profit through market competition, nor are we anonymous parts of a monolithic collective controlled by the state.

The real, true account of the human person must be about our social bonds which discipline us and make us the unique persons we all are. At their best, the bonds of family, neighbourhood, local community, professional associations, nation and faith help instil civic virtues and a shared sense of purpose. Concretely, this means solidarity and a commitment to the common good in which all can participate – from a viable ecology via universal education and healthcare to a wider distribution of assets and other means to pursue true happiness beyond pleasure and power.

Christian conceptions of God stress the relations between the three divine persons of the Holy Trinity. Therefore, the belief that we are all made in the image and likeness of a personal, "relational" creator God translates into an emphasis on the strong bonds of mutual help and reciprocal giving. For true Christians, charity is never about handing out alms to the poor and feeling better about oneself. Rather, it is about an economy of gift-exchange where people assist each other – not based on economic utility or legal obligation but in a spirit of free self-giving and receiving by members of a social body greater than its parts.

Nor is this some sort of religious utopia. Guilds, cooperatives and employee-owned businesses in parts of Italy, Germany, France or Spain demonstrate the concrete reality of a mixed economy that combines gift-giving with economic exchange. In Britain, there are grassroots initiatives to apply this approach to public services and welfare provision, as Jonathan Freedland has noted. The idea is to foster civic participation based on self-organisation, social enterprise, reciprocity and mutuality which help produce a sense of shared ownership. This approach seeks to balance liberty and responsibility as well as rights and duties.

Whereas state models reduce people to needy recipients of public benefits and market models degrade citizens to passive consumers of private services, the real "third way" proposed by Van Rompuy encourages active, voluntary membership of people who give as well as receive.

For politics, that means going beyond abstract measures like GDP and instead creating the conditions for individuals and groups so that they can flourish in solidarity and cooperation with each other. The task for Europe's leaders is neither to restore the broken market nor to remake society through legislation and regulation. Rather, the most pressing problem is how to enable people to nurture and grow those bonds of reciprocity and mutuality.

As the EU's first president, Van Rompuy's main challenge is to transpose this powerful and compelling vision into concrete action at EU and national level.

First, he must argue for a genuine commitment to subsidiarity – devolving power to the most appropriate level – as it strengthens reciprocity and mutuality through solidarity, cooperation and shared ownership of political and socio-economic processes. He must press both the European commission and member-states to decentralise decision- and policy-making to regions, localities and neighbourhoods. Civil society must be given real powers and properly associated to the current debates about economic reform.

Second, Van Rompuy could propose measures to break up and limit the size of big banks, supermarket chains and other corporations which form cartels and exert what economists call monopsony – excessive buying power through market dominance which crowds out small- and medium-sized enterprise. The latter need promotion, as they create more stable employment and better working conditions – a better way to fight soaring youth unemployment in the EU's Mediterranean and eastern countries.

Third, he could draw up reforms of the EU's prohibitively expensive Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that currently favours large-scale industrial farming. In line with the principles of reciprocity and mutuality, support should go predominantly to small-scale farmers and cooperatives which not only engage in more environmentally sustainable farming but also help preserve the important cultural legacy of Europe's rural economy.

None of this presupposes faith. But the fact that these ideas are advanced by Christians as diverse as Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Rowan, Patriarch Kirill, Jon Cruddas MP and Van Rompuy himself underscores the enduring importance of Christian ideas for a gift economy in Europe and elsewhere.

Adrian PABST

* First published by "The Guardian" (13.01.2010) at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/jan/13/europe-van-rompuy-economy

Adrian Pabst is a lecturer in politics in the University of Kent at Canterbury. Since 1998, he also been a research fellow at the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies. He is a frequent visitor to Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Asia. Currently he is writing The Spectacle of Paradox, a book on market-states, crisis capitalism and the coming ideologies. He is a regular contributor to the international press on geopolitics, political economy, Europe and religion.
№2(41), 2010