Earth, Economics, and Regret
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the next installment of Eli Siegel’s historic Ownership, Strikes, Unions, a 1970 lecture from his Goodbye Profit System series. Those lectures explain what the people of the world are experiencing now: Mr. Siegel saw that after many centuries, the profit system had irrevocably failed. It might go on awhile, as a worn-out car may still be on the highway; its driver may even force some bursts of speed out of it, though its engine is dying.
Profit economics, Mr. Siegel showed, has always been based on a completely ugly way of seeing and using human beings: in terms of, How much money can I make from this person? How much work can I get out of her while paying her as little as possible? How much can I force people to pay for my product? It is based on hoping other people be weak—desperate for a job so they’ll work for very little. This is the economic way that made for child labor and sweatshops and unsafe, disease-causing conditions—because through all these, bigger profits could be got. Mr. Siegel said of it with passionate clarity 29 years ago:
Man was not made to be used by man for money....It is a corruption, it is artifice....In May 1970, the conduct of industry on the basis of ill will has been shown to be inefficient....This is the greatest victory of good will in history. [Goodbye Profit System: Update, Definition Press, pp. 70, 9]
I have written about how this failure of economics based on ill will, and the ferocious effort to force its continuance, have shaped life in the last decades. Now I ask some quiet questions:
1. How much do the people of America hate the profit system—though most would not describe their feeling in those terms? How much do people in American workplaces hate the way they are seen and used—as mechanisms to provide profit for somebody? And do the terrific anger and grumpiness so much present on American jobs constitute a terrific objection? Productivity is feeble when one considers the enormous technological advances in recent years: does this fact show that Americans despise how they are used on their jobs?—they’re resentful, and therefore, as I once put it, they don’t produce devotedly?
2. Is the profit system one of the forms that human contempt has taken? Mr. Siegel explained that the big fight within everyone is between our desire to respect the world—the purpose for which we were born—and our desire to have contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” He identified contempt as the thing in us that weakens our own mind; and also as the source of every injustice ever perpetrated on one’s fellow human beings. Contempt can be the everyday yet ugly pleasure at seeing somebody flop because his failure, we think, makes us better. Is the feeling that it is right for some persons to be rich and others poor—that a few should own much more of the world than millions of others—sheer contempt for people?
Economics: Ethical & Aesthetic
3. How much do the American people long for another way of economics? Do they want another basis for jobs, buying, selling—though they could not describe what that basis is? (They don’t, of course, want something they associate with Eastern Europe of once.) Do Americans want economics to be ethical, aesthetic—in keeping with this great principle stated by Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves”? That is, do they want an economy that both brings out the expression of each individual person and is fair to all people?; that puts together freedom and justice?; an economy that has a person feel “I take care of me by strengthening you”?
1970 and 1999
I comment now on some matters in the present section of Ownership, Strikes, Unions.
Mr. Siegel discusses the use of drugs at workplaces. That has increased these decades, and represents even more intensely what Mr. Siegel said it did.
He discusses a number of articles about unions. And he showed in 1970 that unions were the principal means by which ethics had dealt a mortal blow to the ability to use people as mere profit-producing commodities. I have said in previous issues: it is because of the courage of unions that people began to be paid with some decency; began to receive health benefits and pensions; did not contract occupational diseases; could have some hours of leisure, and vacations; could live with dignity, in a nice home; could send their children to college. Every cent more that a boss was forced to pay a worker or spend to make working conditions safe, cut in on his profits.
At the time of this lecture, unions were more successful than they had ever been—which means there was increasing justice to people who work. In the articles Mr. Siegel discusses, we see the pride that people in unions had come to have—and their power, which was the power of ethics. But the following mathematics is central to the profit system: the more a worker gets what he or she deserves, the less of the profit a boss or stockholder can take. And the profit system can’t go on—that is, various persons can’t rake in big profits—if all the people of America work and live with dignity. So there has been a furious effort to safeguard profit economics by wiping out the long-fought-for achievements of unions, and if possible unions themselves.
That is why, despite phony pronouncements in the media that the economy is “booming,” Americans are getting paid less; are becoming poorer; are forced to be temporary workers; are forced to work grueling hours, often at two jobs; are without health coverage; are tormented by debt. An article in the May 9 New York Times spoke glowingly of “America’s Jobs Boom.” But in two of its statements we can see on what basis profit economics is continuing in America.
The first statement, presented as good news, is: “American companies...find it cheaper to hire workers than their European competitors.” What this means is that American workers are being paid hideously; we are becoming a nation of “cheap labor”—with all the insult and agony to people that such a phrase takes in. The second statement is a quote from a Harvard economist, who says European governments “are unwilling to tolerate as much income inequality as in the United States.” This means our economy is functioning on the basis of keeping many people very poor so others can be rich.
The Vietnam War
In this section of Ownership, Strikes, Unions, Mr. Siegel describes plainly the purpose of the Vietnam War. The way he opposed that war from its very start, his tremendous feeling and clearness about it, was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. It was in keeping with his honesty, his grandeur and kindness of thought, about everything—from a poem to the depths of an individual person with whom he was speaking.
Our nation, with its military might, did not win in Vietnam, though we defoliated the country, napalmed children, burned villages, bombed hospitals and schools. In the years that have followed, we have tried to do with sanctions what we couldn’t do with bombs: destroy a land that was not based on profit. And that is what we have tried to do these years to any country that will not use its earth and people to supply profits for US corporations. Such countries are to be impoverished by the IMF, starved by embargo, bombed. One does not have to praise those nations to say, as I do now: if profit economics is wonderful and healthy, one need not brutalize nations who don’t go for it. If they have chosen wrongly, let them live with their bad choice and see the folly of it: don’t starve their children in order to make them say the Madeleine Albright way is the only way.
There is a deep regret America needs to express to the people of Vietnam, and we will never be clear or proud until we do so. American regret and pride are opposites asking to be one, as valleys and mountains are together as one in our beautiful American earth. And that earth, in its rich kindness, should be one with—belong to—every American.