How Should the Earth Be Owned?
Dear Unknown Friends:
Eli Siegel wrote in a 1966 essay, “Ownership: Some Moments”: “How the earth should be owned is the major economic question of this time; as it is the oldest.” That is the question now too: should the world be owned essentially by corporations that use the men and women of this earth for profit; or should it be owned by every person? This matter, Mr. Siegel showed, is not a political one. It is much deeper and wider. It is a matter of ethics, and aesthetics.
In the landmark principle that is the basis of Aesthetic Realism, he explained: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The most fundamental of life’s opposites are the self of each person, and that world which he or she needs in order to be and to grow—including the tangible world, or the earth. Simply: a child now being born has as much right to the earth with all its possibilities and wealth as anyone else. But children are coming into the world now, robbed from birth. Their lives have been curtailed before they can even look around, because the world is owned falsely and their parents have so agonizingly little of it. A girl, Trisha, was born today. Her little hands are now moving in the world’s air. She will soon go home to a miserable apartment where there is not enough food. Certain wealthy others are taking what rightfully belongs to Trisha, her share of America, making her rooked and poor at one hour old. This is the most primal of human rights abuses.
The great lecture we are in the midst of serializing, Ownership, Strikes, Unions, of July 1970, is one in Mr. Siegel’s Goodbye Profit System series. In May of that year, he showed that history had reached a crucial point: the profit system was no longer able to work successfully. Profit economics is the ownership by a few people of the things all people need to live. It is economics based on the profit motive—on seeing a person in terms of how much money you can get from him; on a boss and stockholders, who don’t do the work, taking the profits that workers have produced with the labor of their thought and bodies. Mr. Siegel showed that this way of using earth and people was no longer able to bring in the profits it once could. And it was unable to produce with its former apparent efficiency. He said, with a passion that was at one with great scholarship:
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, p. 82]
Mr. Siegel explained that a tremendous way ethics as force had worked was through unions. The horrors that were standard all through economic history, the unsafe working conditions, which caused industrial diseases and severed limbs, the pittance wages, which people couldn’t live on—it was through unions that these at last began to go, and that people could work in a way which had dignity. And, Mr. Siegel showed, each drop of greater safety and dignity for a person who worked, each penny a boss was made to pay in behalf of safety and a better wage, meant that much less for him to put in his own exploiting pocket. It meant that much less profit. Mr. Siegel was the historian who saw and said that by 1970 an enormous victory for ethics had taken place: “The conduct of industry on the basis of ill will has been shown to be inefficient....It is the culmination of years of world history” (GPS:U, pp. 9, 35). What should have happened then was the following, and it should happen now:
The people of America and those who govern this land should have said, “We’re studying what Mr. Siegel has been explaining, and we see it’s true. Not only does using human beings for profit not work well anymore—it’s contempt, and never was in keeping with the real meaning of America.
“We learned from Aesthetic Realism that the desire for contempt is the most harmful thing in every person. It’s the desire to get an ‘addition to self through the lessening of something else.’ Having contempt is what makes people dislike themselves. And contempt is behind every ugly, unjust thing people have ever done. It’s what made for slavery. Slavery was in America—a thriving, hideous institution—but it was finally ended. Similarly, the robbing a person of what he earns, and the having some people be rich and others poor when this land and all its resources should be everyone’s—that way of using people is in America. It’s not thriving; it’s sick and failing. And it should be gotten rid of, as slavery was.
“We need an economy that’s fair, and beautiful, and efficient! We need an economy based on the central question, which we thank Mr. Siegel for stating so clearly and kindly. That decisive question on which America’s economy should be based, is: ‘What does a person deserve by being alive?’ Let’s have town meetings all over America to answer this question. Let’s all of us take part in seeing how to implement it. What we’ll get to won’t be some rigid foreign thing, or some utopian thing: it’ll be real democracy!”
What Happened Instead
But instead of this practical, necessary discussion, something else has taken place in the last decades. Persons whose self-importance is bound up with profit economics have been trying to make big profits keep coming in for a favored few, at whatever cost to the rest of humanity. In behalf of this effort, Americans have been made to work for lower wages, often at two or more jobs; to become temporary workers; to be without medical coverage; and the middle class is diminishing. To achieve these profit-producing results, bosses and government officials have worked to crush unions. Some of the anti-union techniques which, in this 1970 lecture, Mr. Siegel accurately described as having “gone down,” were revived with a vengeance in the ’80s and ’90s: for instance, the use of scabs. And there are new techniques, such as the hiring of workers as “independent contractors” so that they are not able to be represented by a union. “Union busting” is now a lucrative industry in itself, with law firms specializing in it.
The effort to defeat American unions and undo what they achieved, is accompanied by another undertaking: to turn the rest of the world into a provider of cheap labor and resources for corporations of the US and a few allies. Any country that does not comply is to be punished by the IMF, starved by sanctions and embargo, or bombed into submission. All this is happening because of the joyful fact that the contempt for earth and humanity on which the profit system is based is deeply untenable—has failed.
The Postal Strike
I comment on two matters Mr. Siegel speaks of in the part of Ownership, Strikes, Unions published here. The first is the strike by US postal workers in March 1970. Mr. Siegel makes a surprising relation between that strike and the American Revolution, while of course he saw the huge differences between them. In 1970, many postal workers, employed by the US government, were making poverty wages. To strike was illegal, but the postal workers struck anyway—over 200,000. Mail stopped moving in America. President Nixon declared a state of emergency and sent troops to post offices. It was the first nationwide strike against the US government. And the postal workers held out—and won. In a class of March 25, 1970, Mr. Siegel said: “The fact that the postmen of America have won is one of the great poetic victories in history: for the first time, the people of America said, ‘We are the government.’” And in his lecture of June 12, 1970, he said:
The postal workers went out...and the National Guard was sent in. I think the National Guard looked at a few letters. But instead of all the postal workers hitting the clink, they were promised some improvements. This shows that a union, if it knows what it wants, will be admired.
He said this successful strike against the most powerful of bosses, the government, showed “the power of labor...really believed in”: “all you need is to know how much people need what you can do.” “So,” he said, “the postal workers’ strike made the profit system seem less essential, more vulnerable, weaker” (GPS:U, pp. 69-70). I think it useful to quote too the passage by Walt Whitman that Mr. Siegel mentions here. In Collect, Whitman writes:
The American Revolution of 1776 was simply a great strike....The French Revolution was absolutely a strike,...against ages of bad pay, unjust division of wealth-products, and the hoggish monopoly of a few, rolling in superfluity, against the vast bulk of the work-people, living in squalor. [Complete Prose Works (Philadelphia, 1897), p. 330]
The second matter I comment on is Mr. Siegel’s statement that management has to see itself as labor. That now is increasingly occurring. As executives feel that their jobs are not secure, that a company would readily fire them, that they could suddenly find themselves on the street, having to take a much lower paying job—executives are starting to realize that they are labor. The effort to flatter various persons, call them “supervisors,” “managers,” “vice presidents,” and have them feel superior to other workers and against those workers—is not succeeding as it once did. It is a beautiful fact that people across this land know better every day that they are being used contemptuously, for someone’s profit. It is a beautiful fact that they object to it: they want to work in such a way that they are seen and see other people with respect.