For and Against in America
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue our serialization of the great 1970 lecture Ownership, Strikes, Unions, by Eli Siegel—the tenth of his Goodbye Profit System lectures. In them he described history as it was taking place, and explained something that is affecting vitally every aspect of life today. He showed that economics based on contempt for human beings—on seeing and using people as means for one’s personal profit—had failed as the 20th century neared a close. It would never work well again. “The purpose of profit,” he explained, “is no longer able to produce well and to keep Americans contented…. It is the culmination of years of world history.” And he said, with immense carefulness and feeling:
Man should not make money from man! That was justice five thousand years ago, but it didn’t have a chance to show its power until now....Ethics is a force like electricity, steam, the atom—and will have its way. [Goodbye Profit System: Update, Definition Press, pp. 160, 35, 82]
He explained that for the American and world economies to fare well, a contemptuous way of using people and owning the earth would have to be replaced—and not by anything regimented and graceless certainly. It would have to be replaced by ethics, by good will. Economics has to be based on bringing out the strength of every man, woman, and child, and on the right of every person to own this earth. This right should be as obvious as one’s right to breathe. But most of the world’s people are deprived of it from the moment they are born.
I have described various ways in which those persons whose sense of self is linked to the profit system have tried intensively these years to keep big profits for a few individuals coming in. What has taken place is an effort to turn back the clock: to have people work under the more profit-supplying conditions of, say, 100 years ago—when bosses’ profits didn’t have to be wasted by paying wages that were somewhat decent, frittered away so that workers could live with some dignity.
To save profit economics, Americans today are being made to work for lower wages. Benefits once taken for granted are gone, and many millions of Americans have no health insurance. A “secure” job is a rarity—something to marvel at. People are in constant fear of losing the job they have—despite the fact that they likely hate that job. Millions are working two and three jobs. Child labor has returned. Sweatshops have multiplied. The US standard of living has worsened. The American middle class has diminished. The rich-poor gap is wider and wider. And all the while the media, which consist of corporations, tell the nation the economy is “robust”—hoping that if Americans hear this enough they’ll think it’s true, despite the daily evidence of their worried lives.
In the section of Ownership, Strikes, Unions printed here, Mr. Siegel does something tremendous: he shows that the American people have always had a deep objection to profit economics. And he uses literature, not of the “grand” or “classic” kind, but popular works, things people liked, to show this. He was, in my opinion, the greatest scholar of American literature—along with being, himself, so important a part of that literature.
As this TRO is being prepared, our nation continues its bombing of the earth, cities, people of Yugoslavia. One does not have to praise the Yugoslav government to find our bombing shameful, horrific, against everything decent in America, from the beauty of our Bill of Rights to the grandeur and loveliness of the Rocky Mountains.
I wrote about the US and NATO attack on Yugoslavia in issue 1360 of this journal. Here, in the present issue, are some Bulletins on the subject. If—as I hope—by the time this TRO is published the bombing has stopped, the Bulletins will still be about an emergency: to understand and end the purposes which have impelled the US-NATO attack and so much other cruelty.
During the Vietnam War, Mr. Siegel wrote Bulletins, read at Aesthetic Realism Dramatic Presentations, which had in them opposition to that war of the clearest, most passionate kind, and at the same time had humor, true lightness, authentic charm. A phrase he once used, to represent a goal people should have, described him: he was a “Fearless Fighter for Truth.” While he opposed injustice with unstinting courage, his love for the world, people, and America was always vivid. And his conviction enabled him to be at ease, graceful, lightsome too. The way he fought and loved, opposed and respected, was an embodiment of this definition of beauty at the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
Let us say the following Bulletins were written by a friend of ours, who some people think is a distant relative of Walt Whitman.