Ethics Is Invincible
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the great lecture Ownership, Strikes, Unions, which Eli Siegel gave on July 17, 1970. It is one of his Goodbye Profit System lectures, begun in May of that year. In them he described what no other historian saw, and what continues—intensely—in the world’s economy and the lives of people right now. He said:
What is being shown today is that without good will, the toughest, most inconsiderate of activities—economics—cannot do so well....I wish I could call it something else—good will and ill will are such pale words; but that is what it’s about.... 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. 2, 7, 9]
There is a way of seeing and using other human beings and reality which is ugly, and economics has been based on it these many centuries. To understand it, we need to understand the fight that goes on within each individual self, within us. Mr. Siegel explained this fight: it is, he said, between our deepest desire, to respect the world; and our desire for contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” We go after contempt in thousands of ways. It is tempting and easy. But it is the source of all the cruelty in the world; and it is the thing in us that weakens our own minds.
Contempt is the seeing of outside reality in terms of how comfortable and important it can make us. It is the feeling that if we can lessen another, look down on something or someone, we are more. Racism, in all its hideousness, is a form of contempt. So is profit economics. The profit system is the seeing of a human being in terms of how much profit one can get from him. It is the owning of the earth—which should belong to all humanity—by only a few people. It is a boss or stockholder, who doesn’t do the work, taking the wealth that other people produced with hours and months of labor.
Giving much, much evidence, Mr. Siegel explained, with his beautiful depth, clarity, and passionate kindness: “The profit system has not appealed to man at his best or wisest,” and in these last decades of the century “the purpose of profit is no longer able to produce well and to keep Americans contented.” This is because "Ethics is a force like electricity, steam, the atom—and will have its way" (GPS:U, pp. 160, 82).
The Effort to Sidestep History
I described in previous TROs some of what has been done these decades to try to make profits keep coming in—to make the use of human beings for profit continue lucratively. And I have described some of what this effort to sidestep the force of history and ethics has done to people. For example, to keep big profits coming for a few individuals, millions of Americans are being made to work longer hours, for less, often at two or more jobs, without benefits. While government and media announce with cruel disingenuousness that the economy is “booming,” Americans are struggling, are unable to have savings, are in massive debt, are declaring bankruptcy in record numbers.
In an article in the New York Times of April 30, we find this representative, truly ridiculous, contradictory statement: There is, the Times says, “a persistent fear among workers about losing their jobs despite the strong economy.” American workers—which means the American people—are not paranoid idiots. If they have this “persistent fear,” it’s because the economy is not "strong": there are not good, decent-paying jobs for them. The chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers, quoted in the article, affirms, “Growth is slowing and a lot of companies will be cutting back.” The economy may be “strong” for a few favored persons and big corporations. But for America, for real families across this land, the profit economy is a continuing source of daily fearfulness, fury, suffering—including, in more and more instances, hunger.
There Was the Stock Market
In this section of Ownership, Strikes, Unions, Mr. Siegel speaks about the stock market. In the spring of 1970, stocks had fallen massively. The Dow Jones, which in late 1968 had been at 985, by mid-1970 was at 630: it had lost more than a third of its value. This was the largest drop since 1929, and Mr. Siegel said it was a culminating sign, along with many other signs, that the profit system was not the thing it had once been. Here he describes some of what was being done to prop up the stock market, give it the appearance of health, despite what was really happening in the economy.
My purpose is not to talk about today’s market. But there is an increasing feeling in people that the current soaring stocks are not much connected with the real economy—the economy of going to work at a job you hate, where someone tries to force as much labor out of you as possible. How much is the stock market arranged, decorated, managed, assisted now—including by the government?: from the putting into place of circuit breakers so stocks can’t fall below a certain point; to changing which companies comprise the Dow Jones, so that only prosperous ones are counted; to the effort to have Americans’ social security be invested in and support the market?
Certainly, our government has done much to keep businesses going. It has used the IMF to ensure the profitability of US corporations, by turning the people and resources of other nations into profit-producing fodder for those corporations. Unless a “third world” nation, with its wonderful fund of “cheap labor,” serves US firms and speculators as the IMF decrees, it will not get the loans it needs and will starve. Our government has bailed out banks with taxpayers’ money while American children increasingly live in poverty. And our government is also assisting the making of profit by bombing the people of Iraq and Yugoslavia. Military expenditure stimulates the economy: the explosives dropped on Belgrade, like the planes that drop them, are part of US economic production and keep American companies and workers busy. In 1970, Mr. Siegel explained:
What has tended to blunt the Depression of 1929 has been a condition of war. That made people feel the Depression was over. The Depression of 1929 is not over. Capitalism has been sustained by war conditions. [GPS:U, p. 97]
It is being sustained by them now.
Meanwhile, there is ownership itself. This Aesthetic Realism principle is true about ownership, as about everything else in the world: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Ownership, Mr. Siegel shows in this lecture, is always a relation of opposites: oneself and something standing for the outside world. Ownership can be beautiful if it is in behalf of justice to the thing owned and to all things and people. Owning a book can have us fairer to all humanity and earth, if we are trying to know what is in the book. But to own in a way that stops other people from being all they could be, is infinitely ugly. And that is how the world has been owned for hundreds of years. So I quote sentences that I love, from Eli Siegel’s Self and World: “We can own the world only by knowing it. We can possess the world only by having it in our minds; that is, by having knowledge of it” (p. 279).
Those sentences stand for how he was all the time. His brave, beautiful purpose was always to know, and to bring out the strength of every person, and the world itself.