Education, Economics, & a World to Like
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing Educational Method Is Poetic, a lecture of 1973, definitive, beautiful, kind, in which Eli Siegel shows what education is. We see that this Aesthetic Realism principle is crucially true of education: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." And opposites Mr. Siegel speaks of in the present section are the tremendous opposites of the compulsory and the free.
Eli Siegel is the philosopher who explained the purpose of education: "to like the world through knowing it." This, he showed, is the purpose too of our very lives. Then, there is the other subject of this TRO: economics. The world in which economics takes place—in which work goes on, and people live, and things are needed, manufactured, bought, sold—is the same world all education is about, and it should belong to every child, and every person. The basis of our economy should be in keeping with the purpose of life itself and education: for all people to be able to know and like the world. Because economic activity over the centuries has had a different basis, it has made for vast misery. Profit economics is based on contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else."
Contempt, he showed, is a constant desire in everyone, fighting against our life-purpose, to like the world. And while it is tremendously ordinary, it is completely ugly. The feeling we're more by making something or someone less, is that from which all unkindness comes. And it is that which weakens our mind, makes us nervous, dull, empty, and unable to respect ourselves. Contempt, in economics or anywhere, is entirely opposed to education. To see the world, not as something to know, but as something to grab and own as much of as possible; not to want to value and comprehend people, but to see them in terms of how much profit we can extract from them—this is sheer contempt; and it is the basis of profit economics.
Thirty years ago, in his "Goodbye Profit System" lectures, Mr. Siegel explained that the contempt at its basis had, after centuries, made the profit system unable to go on successfully. Economics based on some few persons using the needs and labor of others for profit, has continued these decades only through making most of the people of this nation and the world poorer, and through making Americans work under conditions more painful, agitating, insulting than before. Americans have had to work longer hours, increasingly without benefits, without job security; millions are unable to afford medical care; millions have built up massive credit card debt.
For the last two years the media presented our economy as "booming," "robust"; and in issues of TRO I showed that that presentation was a fake. Now, suddenly, we are told the economy is in big trouble. What was the moment when the exuberant health disappeared? Something truly robust does not suddenly change and become ailing. No: the profit economy has been a failure all these years, including during the supposed boom.
I am going to comment on a best-selling book which, without meaning to be, is a testimony to that fact. Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson (NY: Putnam, 1998), is a means of seeing—though not in the way its author and promoters intend—what people really feel at this time. It is evidence for what Mr. Siegel described in 1971: "The profit system of America is trying to go on while individual psychology in America is now against the profit system" (TRO 522).
Work, Feelings, & a Book
Who Moved My Cheese? is a parable involving two mice and two "littlepeople" the size of mice, who inhabit a maze and eat cheese. Suddenly, the cheese that they have counted on is no longer there: it has been moved. How should they meet this change? The book's subtitle is "An A-Mazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life."
The subject of change is as big a subject as any in the world. We are with primal, philosophic opposites: being and change. They are opposites Heraclitus and Parmenides were interested in 2500 years ago or so. But it happens that though Who Moved My Cheese? purports to be about change both at work and in life as such, it is really a book designed to have people feel that being pushed around by the profit system, shunted about on their job, being robbed of security, being told they should work extra hours without pay, being fired—that all this is a very fine thing. It's "change," and one should adapt to it and like it.
That is why this book has been bought in enormous quantity by many corporations, some of which are listed on page 4. They include Chase Manhattan, Compaq, Exxon, General Motors, IBM, Mercedes Benz, NY Stock Exchange, Procter & Gamble, Time Warner, Xerox. These corporations have been providing their employees with the book, and their bulk purchasing of it has much to do with its heading the "how-to" best-seller lists month after month.
This book had to be written because people across the nation are furious at the way they are treated on their jobs, furious at the contempt with which companies and bosses use them. There was a need for something that would calm them down and assure them that the contempt they object to isn't really that at all! That is the book's purpose. Further, its advice on "deal[ing] with change" is based on a terrific fallacy. This fallacy is that all change should be adapted to. Johnson makes no distinction between change that is beautiful and useful, and change that is ugly and hurtful. By the logic of his book, when Hitler invaded various nations of Europe, the people in those nations should have felt the change was good, a real opportunity! (In fact, some did; they were the collaborators.)
In an introduction, the point of the book is explained to us:
The two mice do better when they are faced with change because they keep things simple, while the two littlepeople's complex brains and human emotions complicate things .... You can see it would be to our advantage to do the simple things that work when things change. [Pp. 17-18]
The aim of this book is to have people not think much. Don't question what is being done to you. Don't ask if you are treated justly; don't ask what you deserve. And this is where Who Moved My Cheese?, with its deeply ugly purpose, really represents good news. The good news is that there is a state of mind in the American people so prevalent and intense that this book has to be used to combat it: People want work in America to take place on a basis of respect, not contempt. What they want isn't anything "subversive" or Marxist or Mao-esque. The desire for ethics to be the basis of American economics is a logical thing, a patriotic thing. Meanwhile, it has been taken by the corporate owners buying this book as something which, if it is not put down, will end their use of lives and earth for personal profit. And that much they are right.
The two mice are named Sniff and Scurry. We are supposed to model ourselves after them. Johnson explains: "The mice did not overanalyze things .... The situation at Cheese Station C had changed. So, Sniff and Scurry decided to change" (p. 32). Throughout history, the persons who have wanted to use others for profit have never wanted those others to think much, and to be educated. The more you know and think, the less you will consent to being exploited. So the anti-thought purpose of this contemporary book is in keeping with the way of mind, say, of a slave-owner in the South who didn't want his slaves to be able to read books: they should follow orders and not "overanalyze" the situation.
Unlike the sensible mice, when the people find their cheese no longer available, they object. How foolish! Johnson has named them Hem and Haw. Hem "put his hands on his hips, his face turned red, and he screamed at the top of his voice, 'It's not fair!'" (p. 33).
Yes, all over America people feel that the way they are used—as mechanisms to make money for someone—is not fair. This feeling, that something is fundamentally and acutely unfair, has increased year after year—even as the press told us how "robust" our economy was and how much people were benefiting from it. It is this feeling, this continental uproar, "It's not fair!," which the book I'm discussing tries to squelch.
So Johnson presents the "littlepeople" as wrong to be angry just because that which they need, that on which their lives depend, has been taken from them. The reason they're wrong, we find on page 38: there Johnson indicates that the notion we're entitled to anything - like a job, a decent income, respectful working conditions - is absurd. Hem says:
"This sort of thing should not happen to us. Or if it does, we should at least get some benefits." "Why should we get benefits?" Haw asked. "Because we're entitled," Hem claimed. "Entitled to what?" Haw wanted to know. "We're entitled to our Cheese." "Why?" Haw asked .... "Maybe we should stop analyzing the situation so much and just get going and find some New Cheese."
There is no more important question than the one implicit in this passage, which Johnson tries to make ridiculous. Mr. Siegel gave the question clear form, and showed that the one way our economy will be successful is through answering it honestly. It is "What does a person deserve by being alive?" It took many centuries for nations to grant that every child deserved to go to school, was entitled to do so. It took long, courageous fighting by people in unions for there to be laws saying workers are entitled to job conditions that do not poison them, maim them.
What does a person deserve?: Americans do want to ask the question in all its clarity, and answer it in its fulness. That feeling "I'm entitled to something" goes toward the asking of it. And Johnson is right: if you want to use people contemptuously, for profit—for them to think about what they're entitled to is the most dangerous thing in the world.
With his magnificent scholarship and honesty, Eli Siegel showed three decades ago that "Ethics is a force, like electricity, steam, the atom—and will have its way."* Ethics is insisting that economics be respectful and, yes, kind. Ethics as force is present in the feelings of people in workplaces throughout this nation. The book I have discussed is part of the effort to stop those feelings, to stop ethics, from winning. But ethics happens to be stronger than all the powers against it, even though it does not appear on the New York Times best-seller list.