Feeling in America, & the Profit System
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing Eli Siegel’s great lecture They Go Away from Something, of January 22, 1971. Eight months earlier he had begun his Goodbye Profit System talks, of which this is one. Economics based on contempt—on seeing people in terms of how much profit one could make from them—was, he showed, no longer able to flourish. It would never recover, and would become increasingly inefficient as the years went on.
That is what we are experiencing now. So much of American industry is gone, and with it millions of jobs. The agony of unemployment is throughout the land, and those who are working worry that soon they won’t be. Wages are lower and lower. And there is the terrible fact that hunger is growing. For America to have even one hungry child would be shameful. But the US Department of Agriculture reported last year that in this country “50.2 million people lived in food-insecure households, including 17.2 million children.”
History, Mr. Siegel explained, has reached the point when the only economy that will now work is something which has not yet existed fully in the world: an economy based on ethics. He described ethics as a oneness of opposites: “To be ethical is to give oneself what is coming to one by giving what is coming to other things” (Self and World, p. 243).
In the part of the lecture printed here, Mr. Siegel is discussing a Wall Street Journal article. It’s about a young man, Herbie Akers, who shot himself after using a large amount of LSD. Mr. Siegel praised the writing of the reporter, Kirk Scharfenberg. “Within [this story],” he said, “is a novel....The writer is conscious that...he’s writing literature.”
Mr. Siegel takes up the story because what’s said about Herbie Akers and his years of drug involvement comments on what millions of people feel about the profit economy they’re in the midst of:
People not necessarily left are against the profit system, and the present going for drugs is one of the ways that shows....You don’t have to get away from a world the financial basis of which you like, and the basis in general.
It is forty years since Mr. Siegel gave this lecture. The job situation is different now—people are going after work desperately. Yet Americans’ dislike of profit economics is larger than ever. I’ll mention some of the ways anger at the financial basis of our land is showing itself today.
1) Even as Americans are trying to get jobs, and are dutifully working longer hours, there is an atmosphere of ill-nature and resentment at most workplaces. People are more aware than ever that they’re being seen in terms of how much can I get out of you?—and they hate it.
2) Increasingly, anger in the workplace has taken the form of physical violence. Sometimes that anger makes news because it becomes homicide. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between “2004-08, an average of 564 work-related homicides occurred each year in the United States.”
3) The drug use that Mr. Siegel spoke of in 1971 is more widespread. The December 2010 newsletter of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA Notes) has the headline “Drug Abuse at Highest Level in Nearly a Decade.” Further, over the decade “drug abuse among those aged 50 to 59 doubled.” People of all ages and job descriptions are deeply repulsed by how they’re seen and used economically, and how they’re compelled to see others—as beings to beat out. So there is a desire to get away from things, through, among other means, drugs, and certainly alcohol.
Among the persons inwardly disgusted with profit economics—however much money they make from it—are executives. It’s no secret that substance abuse is popular among the corporate mighty. There are drug rehab programs geared to business executives.
4) The use of foul language, by people of all ages, has increased. A person who sees the world as friendly, including economically, does not feel impelled to the sneering, dismissive, triumphantly contemptuous expletives.
5) Young people throughout America see their parents worried about money and humiliated by not being able to find work. And, as I said earlier, millions of these children do not have the food they need. High school students see an economic future that looks bleak.Young people are furious at a world which has an economy so insulting to them. They may lash out at that world through bullying. And, as Mr. Siegel says, “they go away from” the world—sometimes through drugs, and through not taking in knowledge presented in a classroom.
We have, Aesthetic Realism explains, an attitude to the world that affects everything we do. And to have contempt for the world is the greatest danger for every person. Getting rid of reality through drugs is one form of contempt; there are many others. People are using our unjust economy to have contempt for the world itself. That’s not how it should be used. We should be critical of the profit system, intensely, and use our criticism to see what we truly want.
What we want economically, Eli Siegel described in Self and World in the 1940s: “The world should be owned by the people living in it. Every person should be seen as living in a world truly his.” That is the only thing that will satisfy Americans. It is the only thing that will work.