Justice: As Real as the Sidewalks
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the final section of Shame Goes with It All, by Eli Siegel, one of his Goodbye Profit System lectures. In that historic series, begun in May 1970, he showed that an unjust, cruel way of economics had reached the point at which it could no longer succeed. The profit system was fundamentally finished, done for, though it might be made to totter on—with much pain to people’s lives—for some decades more. He was right. What he explained is being played out today; and in various issues of this journal I’ve described how.
In the present lecture, Mr. Siegel is speaking about the shame that has always accompanied profit economics. That shame exists because the profit way is based on something ugly: the seeing of human beings in terms of how much money can I extract for myself from them—from their labor and their needs. That is the profit motive. And however much one may try to decorate it, it is a form of contempt. Aesthetic Realism explains that contempt,“the addition to self through the lessening of something else,” is oh so frequent yet is also the source of every instance of human brutality.
In the final section of his talk, one of the passages Mr. Siegel quotes is from Wordsworth’s Prelude. It is about the feeling Wordsworth and others had at the start of the French Revolution: the excited feeling that much more kindness could be among people as a practical thing. And Mr. Siegel’s statement that this “did not come to be. But what is going on now will succeed” is, I believe, about the following: The French Revolution did not succeed fully (for one thing, the various European monarchies joined to stop it); however, what Mr. Siegel was describing in the 1970s would succeed, because it wasn’t a matter of uprisings or barricades but of the nature of reality itself, ethics as a force working in history. He wrote in 1976:
There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.
In America Now
As I’ve written in this journal, in recent years there has been a massive effort to make big profits come in for certain individuals the only way those profits now can be gotten: through making most of the people of this nation poorer and poorer. To do that, one must weaken, eviscerate, annihilate unions.
Of enormous importance for America’s history and future are the recent demonstrations across the land, demanding a $15-an-hour minimum wage. There have been several in the last two years, principally by fastfood workers. But the strike/demonstration that took place this April 15 in 226 American cities also included home healthcare workers, carwash employees, part-time college teachers, and more. According to USA Today, it’s being called “the largest-ever mobilization of U.S. workers seeking higher pay.” And that newspaper gave the article telling of it the headline “Fast-Food Strikes Widen into Social-Justice Movement” (April 15).
The New York Times article of the same day quotes a demonstrator saying, “This economy we’re living in now doesn’t work for people.” The Times reports that the Fight for $15 campaign “has captured broad public support”—and adds, “But the movement is up against a hostile business sector.” Certainly: because every additional dollar that can help feed a worker’s children is less profit for bosses, and hastens the full demise of economics based on using human beings for somebody’s private profit.
So we have what USA Today calls this new “Social-Justice Movement.” We have what the Times calls the “broad public support” for it. We have the widespread, frequent use of the word inequality as something ugly, shameful, and un-American. All these and more are a showing that people throughout the nation now feel our economy has to be ethical! And they are right. As Mr. Siegel explained, the only economy that will now work is one that has not existed before, one which is ethics-as-aesthetics: that is, economics based on the oneness of opposites—justice to each individual person and to all people at the same time.
“...and a Union!”
It’s important to be clear about the relation of unions to the Fight for $15 movement, and to the way it’s been reported on. Most major news outlets, whether called “liberal” or not, have disliked unions. That’s because those outlets are profit-based companies. And their owners (like owners of fast-food chains) don’t want unions interfering with how much of the wealth produced by their employees they (the owners) can pocket. So in the reporting, here is some of what has occurred:
1) Since public opinion is so much in favor of these demonstrations, in many reports there has been an effort to indicate that the Fight for $15 movement is admirable—but to have it seen as apart from unions. In fact, the central slogan of the demonstrators is: “$15 an Hour and a Union.” But in so many media accounts, the second phrase is just left out.
Unions—in particular the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers—have done much to have this movement exist; they, chiefly, have organized and funded it. Yet a lot of the media coverage gives the impression that low-wage workers somehow just got together in some vague grassroots way. And the reason is: if the reporting let Americans see how much unions are working to bring justice to these employees, and how much the employees know they need a union, Americans would love and value unions and want them—even more than many, many Americans now do.
2) Then there are the persons, sometimes quoted in the media, who are blatantly against this new “Social-Justice Movement”: the persons who present a wage increase for fast-food workers as ruinous to business and therefore to America. They say: The demonstrations are taking place only because Big Bad unions are trying to get money into their coffers! The fast-food workers would be satisfied with their situation if unions didn’t stir them up (as slaves would have been satisfied in the 1850s, were it not for those awful abolitionists).
3) To a degree, unions themselves have kept their role in the movement somewhat in the background, while certainly not lying about it. That’s because they haven’t wanted the movement to be hurt by the massive, ferocious anti-union campaign carried on day after day by those trying to keep the wealth of America in the hands of a few.
4) Then, there are the media reports which admit that unions have been useful in the “Fight for $15” movement—but which say that the unions are engaging in a new method: that unions have been dying off and had to come to something new to keep alive. This angle is ridiculous. Unions are doing what they have always done, what they created themselves to do: fighting for economic justice to workers; showing workers that in joining together, each person can take care of oneself by taking care that others get what they deserve. Unions have used different techniques over the years. But what they are doing in the “Fight for $15” movement is utterly in keeping with their history: for instance, fighting for justice for garment workers in New York City; textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts; auto workers in Detroit, Michigan; coal miners in West Virginia; teachers in American classrooms; truck drivers on the many and long American roads. American unions are as American as our Declaration of Independence, and they stand for the same justice.
5) The downplaying of the true role of unions as the $15 movement is told of, also has this purpose: The news operation can show sympathy toward, and evoke sympathy for, very-low-wage workers, rather than make clear that all the people of America have a right to have increasingly comfortable, dignified, well-paid lives. Unions have been a means of taking people out of poverty, yes. But they’ve also been a means of enabling people not only to be not poor, but to have such things as a pension and the financial ability to know and enjoy this world into which we were born. Companies, which may include news companies, don’t want you to know this.
Beginning as early as age 18, Eli Siegel wrote with passion and logic about the fact that economics should be based on the answer to this question: What does a person deserve by being alive? His passion and logic never waned—were ever greater and more beautiful.