America Is Ashamed of the Profit System
Dear Unknown Friends:
Published here is the first section of the lecture Shame Is in How You Do Things, by Eli Siegel. In May 1970 he began his Goodbye Profit System series of talks, of which this—given a year later—is one. In them he explained, with wide-ranging scholarship and evidence, something that has taken various forms in the years since and is affecting people monumentally now. He showed that by the 1970s a certain point in history had been reached: a way of economics based on seeing one’s fellow humans in terms of how much profit one could make from their labor and needs, had failed irreparably.
The heyday of the profit system was over; the thing would never thrive again. It could be kept going a while longer only through inflicting much pain on people, but it was terminally ailing. And so today we have millions of Americans jobless, industries long gone from this land, increasing poverty. Wrote Mr. Siegel four decades ago:
There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.
The lecture we are serializing is about pride and shame. That subject is personal for everyone. We all want to be, thirst to be, proud; but one can’t be proud just by wishing. Aesthetic Realism explains that the reason people don’t feel proud, don’t like themselves, feel ashamed, is that they go after contempt, the “false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.” We have to feel ashamed of elevating ourselves through lessening other people and things, because the purpose of our lives is to like the world different from ourselves and be just to it. The cause and effect is as inevitable as gravity: contempt makes us ashamed. Is this cause and effect true of a nation too? Of an economy?
There has always been shame connected with the profit motive, and this shame speaks well for humanity. The shame, of course, has been masked enormously. People can act like strutting economic moguls; they can flaunt and swagger and brag about making money. Nevertheless, to think about others in terms of how much money one can get out of them; to think about the world in terms of how much of it one can grab; to have as one’s purpose the beating out of somebody else—makes one loathe oneself, no matter how much it seems the way of the times and no matter how much one is praised for it.
Further, Americans today—however they vote or talk—are ashamed that millions of children are hungry in this nation. Americans are ashamed that millions of people who could be useful are jobless because profits for some stockholder can’t be gotten from their labor; and that families are without the healthcare they need.
The Oneness of Pride & Shame
Aesthetic Realism is based on the principle that “all beauty is a making one of opposites.” Pride and shame are opposites. Mr. Siegel points out in the present lecture that people don’t like to see themselves as ashamed and therefore can pretend to be proud. It happens, though, that in order to be proud, we need to welcome seeing what we don’t like about ourselves.
Let’s take an instance from American history. The abolitionists of the 1830s, ’40s, ’50s were scathingly ashamed that their country had slavery—that human beings were owned! There is William Lloyd Garrison: not only was he ashamed of American slavery, but in the first issue of his periodical The Liberator (1 Jan. 1831), he expresses intense shame that he once said slavery could be ended gradually rather than immediately:
In Park-Street Church, on the Fourth of July, 1829,…I unreflectingly assented to the popular but pernicious doctrine of gradual abolition. I seize this moment to make a full and unequivocal recantation, and thus publicly to ask pardon of my God, of my country, and of my brethren the poor slaves, for having uttered a sentiment so full of timidity, injustice, and absurdity.
Who was truly prouder—Garrison, or a person in New England (and there were ever so many) who said, “Don’t get so riled up about this slavery thing, and stop annoying me about it. This is a wonderful country, and I don’t have to think about what goes on in some plantation”? History tells us the proud person was Garrison—because honesty about shame is a requisite for pride. There are many things about America to be proud of, but one is that Garrison and others were beautifully ashamed of how our nation was untrue to itself.
Pride can be seen as having another opposite too: practicality. People have felt about various choices—whether business decisions, or the “need” to lie, or the choice not to help someone who deserved help—“Well, I’m not proud of my choice, but I need to be practical.” With the 1970s, Mr. Siegel showed, these opposites had become one in economics in an inescapable way: the profit motive, which had always made people ashamed, was now also inefficient, impractical. The inseparability of injustice and ineptitude had become more seeable. Once one could say that bosses were ruthless but that the profit system worked like a well-oiled machine. (It didn’t really, but it could seem to.) These days we have phrases like “fiscal crisis” and “financial meltdown.” Ethics, the desire to see what’s not ourselves justly, is both the one thing that will make us proud and the one basis for a successful economy.
A Painting, an Article, & the Main Question
Mr. Siegel begins his lecture very surprisingly: he looks at a virtually unknown painting as a means to show what pride is. Then he goes to an article in Fortune magazine, which he began to discuss in another class. The writer, Max Ways, speaks about a “crisis of confidence” in America, the feeling in people that there’s something very wrong with our “public policies.” Meanwhile, he gives the impression that there are no real solutions. Here are some earlier sentences:
We are repeatedly disappointed in our efforts to deal with the interlocked problems of inflation and unemployment. Whole libraries of research are spewed forth annually about the social questions of race, poverty, crime, and urban decay.…Yet policy results are, to say the least, unsatisfactory.…When we turn to straightening out the mess, we never seem to know enough.
Looking at the article, Mr. Siegel gets to the question that was fundamental then and is fundamental and urgent now: What is the purpose of a government. And he answers that question greatly and simply. Today there’s a lot of fierce—and often illogical, mean, and insincere—inveighing against “too much government.” What’s needed isn’t chiefly for government to be less or more. What’s needed is that Americans look at that question What is the purpose of government?, and at the answer Mr. Siegel gave, and discuss these honestly throughout the land.
The Declaration of Independence expresses an opinion on the subject:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men.
What does that last phrase mean? I think its meaning is in what Eli Siegel explains.
We should be proud of our Declaration of Independence. We should be proud of our shame at the profit system. Truly, shame at the profit system and pride in America are the same.