Jobs for Usefulness—Not Profit
Dear Unknown Friends:
Mental Conflict and Jobs, of February 1947, is one in a series of lectures that Eli Siegel gave at Steinway Hall, and, based on notes taken at the time, we publish it here. Various terms in this early Aesthetic Realism talk, like “mental conflict” and “the unconscious,” were much in use then, and the term “nervousness” took in more than it does now. But I think it is clear that the human mind of all time and our time is being understood at last, and greatly.
As to jobs: in 1947 the state of the US economy was very different from now. It seemed to be flourishing. Unions were increasingly powerful and therefore more and more people were making better and better wages. Today a huge 10 percent of our population is unemployed—over 15 million men and women. And that government figure does not include the millions of so-called “discouraged workers”—people who have stopped even looking for work. Yet what Mr. Siegel is explaining in 1947 is not only relevant and true today—it’s blazingly needed; it is, in its kindness and clarity, an emergency.
He is speaking about something other economists do not discuss or understand: What way of seeing people and the world should jobs be based on? In a work published the previous year, Psychiatry, Economics, Aesthetics, he wrote about the conditions under which people make money:
It is important that...conditions be such [a person] does not feel that the misery or deficiency of other human beings is his victory. For a self does not really want that. The self does not want to be strong by the weakness of others. It wants to be strong by what it is, rather than by what others are not.*
Yet this victory through another’s weakness is the basis of profit economics. The profit motive has been glamorized, but it happens to be ugly. It’s the motive to extract as much from somebody as possible—as much of the person’s labor if you’re the employer, or as much of the person’s money if you’re the seller—while giving that person as little as possible. This motive had men who considered themselves good fathers think it right to employ other people’s children in factories—paying, as Carl Sandburg wrote, “how many cents a day? / How many cents for the sleepy eyes and fingers?”
Seeing a person in terms of how much profit one can squeeze from him or her is, Mr. Siegel explained, a phase of contempt. And contempt—the desire to make ourselves more through lessening what’s not us—is the most hurtful thing in everyone. In every aspect of our lives it is at war with our deepest desire: to like the world, to be ourselves through valuing truly people and things outside us.
It Doesn’t Work
In the 1970s, Eli Siegel showed that history had reached the point at which economics based on contempt could no longer thrive as it once had. The profit system was in a state of increasing and permanent failure. And that is the reason for our present economic breakdown.
On December 3, President Obama held a “jobs summit,” seeking suggestions as to how to provide jobs. There is only one real answer, and I heard Eli Siegel give it: Jobs for usefulness, not for profit. He said with passion and logic: the idea that a person who could be useful, who could make or do things others need—the idea that this person is out of work because somebody can’t make profit from his labor, is completely immoral. It is now also massively inefficient. To solve the problem, the horror, of unemployment in America, a certain element has to be removed from the job situation. That element is: the using of American jobs, American workers, American production to provide profits for people who don’t do the work. The various “stimulus” measures won’t change much, because they don’t deal with the fundamental trouble.
In the 1970s Mr. Siegel explained that it is ethics as a force, working over the centuries, which has made the profit system become fatally ailing. There are two big reasons so many jobs are gone in America as 2010 begins, and both have to do with ethics: One, Mr. Siegel explained, is that “America is not the only country now with industrial know-how....There is more competition with the American product.” Large profits could be made by US companies when America was the world’s Great Manufacturer, from whom other nations had to buy their autos, steel, clothing, electronics, etc. Those years are over. It is a victory for ethics that more and more people of this earth have know-how and prowess, and can produce well. Yet this ethical victory for humanity has crippled the ability of companies here to make profit for their owners.
The second reason for our job paucity is this: Given the vast “competition with the American product,” the only way for the profits of once to be made is to have US wages so low that the American people will starve. Lowering US wages that much is unfeasible, and so millions of our jobs are now being done by “cheap labor” in, say, Malaysia.
Indeed, there has been a terrific effort to lower Americans’ wages—and to annihilate unions in order to do so. But even though men and women across this land have taken wage cuts that are making them suffer greatly, jobs are still being lost. That’s because, in so many fields, even if workers are paid as little as the minimum wage, profits for the non-working owners still cannot be gotten. And the existence of a mandated minimum wage is an instance of the force of ethics: it came to be through the insistence that some justice was owed to people.
What We Can’t Afford
Our President is interested in “job creation” largely through companies that are based on private profit. But this has to be seen: there are three financial elements involved in the viability of such companies. The first two, I’ve just commented on: 1) the price at which the product can be sold, now affected inexorably by foreign competition; 2) what the workers are paid. The third element is the profit pocketed by the owner or stockholders. It is that third, extraneous, useless, truly immoral element which American production can no longer afford. When it is done away with, there will be plentiful jobs for the American people.
Directly related to unemployment is that terrible matter, hunger. A New York Times article of November 17 had the headline “49 Million Americans Report a Lack of Food.” For even one person to be hungry in America should be seen as intolerable, let alone 49 million! Each of these men, women, and children is as real as ourselves, and feels as we would feel if our stomach ached for food; if we had to look for meals in garbage pails; if we knew there were good, lovely edibles in stores and restaurants and homes which we could not put in our mouths and taste and be sustained by.
We have an administration that would like to be kind to people but would also like to keep the private-profit system going. Can these be together? Mr. Obama and his advisors need to ask, and answer straight: Can profit-based economics of itself keep Americans well fed? Can profit-based economics provide jobs for the millions of Americans who want them and who could be useful to their fellow citizens? These are questions people in Washington and elsewhere have avoided looking at, because the answer is no.
The next question is, Which do you prefer: a) for Americans to work and have the food they need through an economy that’s based on usefulness rather than on providing personal profits for a few individuals?; or b) to try to keep profit-based companies going, even if that means millions of Americans are jobless and hungry?
There are many ways in which the people of America can own their own jobs, so that the profits go to the men and women who produce them. And as I say this simply, it should be very clear that the answer is not some failed system associated with Eastern Europe of once. The answer is something that has not existed yet, but which Eli Siegel described as early as the 1940s. The one way economics can deeply please people, strengthen us, make us proud rather than ashamed, is for economics to be aesthetic: a oneness of justice to every individual person and to all people. It is an honor to quote these words of his, describing what we need now: “The world should be owned by the people living in it....All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs.”