Lives, Feelings, & the Profit Motive
Dear Unknown Friends:
We have been serializing the great lecture Shame Goes with It All, which Eli Siegel gave in October 1970. It is one of his landmark Goodbye Profit System talks. And in it he is showing that economics based on the profit motive has always been accompanied by shame. That is because the seeing of other human beings in terms of how much money one can get out of them is a phase of contempt.
Contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else,” has thousands of forms. It is the motive that people think will take care of them, make them important; but it weakens the mind and life of the person having it, and it is the source of every instance of cruelty. Contempt makes us ashamed, because we were not born to lessen, weaken, manipulate, look down on what’s not us. We were born to see meaning in the world, know it, value it; and very much of the world is our fellow humans.
In his lecture Mr. Siegel gives instances—diverse, surprising, some subtle, all vivid—of the profit way of seeing and using people, with its ensuing shame. And by way of prelude, I’ll mention a very current instance.
On March 26, in New York City’s East Village, an explosion destroyed three buildings. There had been many apartments in those buildings, and the residents lost their possessions, their homes. Two people lost their lives. Twenty-two others were injured. The full cause of the conflagration that leveled the buildings is still being studied, but some things seem clear. New York Magazine wrote on April 1, “Authorities now believe [the explosion] was caused by an illegally tapped gas line.” That is: it seems the landlord of two of the buildings arranged a system for siphoning gas and getting it to the apartments in her building—either to avoid paying for the gas, or to keep the apartments usable and rents coming in even though utility workers had “determin[ed] that the building was not ready to receive gas on the upper floors.” The owner had been caught engaging in the same technique several months before.
Aspects of Profit Intertwine
Contempt-as-the-profit-motive is throughout this situation. First, there’s the energy company—which did not specifically cause the disaster. Yet it and companies like it across America are permitted to make private profit from a natural resource, which should belong to everyone, and which everyone needs. The companies are permitted to sell the nation’s gas and electricity to people who can’t live without it, at prices that will financially aggrandize certain individuals connected with the company. The situation is fundamentally crazy and ugly, and will be seen that way in the future. All over America, people look at their gas and electric bills, and their hearts sink at the money they must pay. Many Americans see they’ll have to cut down on food in order to keep the electricity on and have sufficient gas to heat their homes and cook with.
Then, there is the landlord-tenant matter. I know little about this particular landlord. However, we do have, with profit economics, a situation that is fundamentally ugly: millions of people cannot have a home, a place to live, a roof over their heads, unless they can supply someone else, a landlord, with the profit he or she desires. The idea of using someone’s need for a home as an opportunity to make oneself rich will be seen as barbaric. It is. And with this barbarism there has always been shame.
Just as, in the profit system, a boss wants to get for himself as much money as possible from someone’s labor, while spending as little as possible on wages and workplace safety—so a landlord wants to get as high rent as possible, while spending as little as possible to keep the building functional. And so, it seems a New York landlord felt: Why should I pay Con Ed—or be unable to collect rent until a system deemed safe is established—when I can get gas another way? Her purpose, the profit motive, apparently took a form that was illegal; had a result that was terrible. Meanwhile, does the motive as such have shame all around it: to see one’s fellow humans, and the circumstances under which they live, as means of getting money for oneself, and as much of it as one can?
In 1959 Eli Siegel wrote a poem which describes that motive: “Heaven for the Landlord; or, Forthwith Understands,” which appears in his book Hail, American Development and is very funny, yet also serious. The first four lines are:
The landlord’s Heaven is where
There’s a constant coming in of rent
And nothing at all is spent
On any repair.
That state of mind, so common, and told of musically here, made for catastrophe on Second Avenue.
A Purpose—& People’s Feelings & Safety
Our purpose with another person is either 1) to see him justly, and understand ourselves and reality better through understanding him; or 2) it is to make ourselves more through lessening him. The second purpose is contempt, and may take that monetary form which is the profit motive. The two purposes are mutually exclusive: while we’re after increasing ourselves through lessening another, aggrandizing ourselves through his weakness or his need, we cannot see that person justly. That fact is fundamental to the profit system: to see a person as an instrument for our pecuniary increase, in our minds we have to rob that person of fullness, not see him as having feelings as real as our own. In the process, we make the person’s need for safety unimportant, and unreal. Such a need is something we, the profit-maker, don’t like thinking about—because expenditures for safety cut into one’s profits. If authorities’ surmises are right, so it was recently in the East Village: the landlord made safety rather unreal, because the need for it interfered with what she was after.
In chapter 10 of his Self and World, “Psychiatry, Economics, Aesthetics,” one of the people Mr. Siegel writes about is Nathaniel Dresser, an “energetic purveyor of real estate.” Dresser is imaginary, but he is also real. Eli Siegel, writing in 1943, describes Dresser in the midst of the profit system: others are out to beat him—and he will try to beat them. I am quoting a few sentences because, with all the difference of time and selves, they stand for a landlord in today’s New York, trying perhaps to circumvent a gas company:
Dresser felt that he was either to outsmart or to be outsmarted….[He] resolved that he would not be holding the bag while [someone else] took a happy, profitable trip….The feeling of commercial battle grew in him. He made of selfishness a crusade. [P. 300]
If, again, officials are correct as to what occurred on Second Avenue, I am sure the landlord felt: “Here’s this gas company, Con Ed—they’re out to get as much money from me as they can. Well, I can outsmart them, and those snooping city officials too. Besides, the city’s regulations about safety are excessive anyway—the government’s just trying to stop people like me from making a living.”
The profit motive always has with it the feeling that other persons exist to be beaten; they are possible buyers, employees, or competitors. And there’s a contempt triumph in beating them. A landlord can feel, triumphantly, that she put one over on Con Ed, outsmarted them, beat them, as well as beating possible tenants. When you’re after beating out people, you cannot be fair to them.
I’ll mention another aspect of the shame present amid those now-destroyed East Village buildings. This phase of shame goes on in a quiet way throughout America and certainly in New York. If those three buildings were like other housing in the area, some persons in them were paying much lower rents than others, because, as longtime tenants, their apartments were rent-regulated. Newer tenants were paying gigantic rents—perhaps ten times higher. There is shame when someone can afford a very high rent and others cannot. Both resent the landlord: the higher-paying tenants feel they’re being rooked, though they can feel superiority at their ability to afford being rooked. The lower-paying tenants have a sense, sometimes with terrific and cruel evidence, that the landlord is trying to make them so uncomfortable they’ll move. (Meanwhile, even “regulated” rent can become so high that longtime tenants can no longer afford it.) Painful human emotions are entangled in profit-driven situations of real estate. These emotions are fierce and delicate. One of them is shame.
For economics to make for pride and kindness, it is necessary that it be based on that oneness of opposites which is aesthetics. A citizen needs to feel what an artist feels when he or she is making art: my own importance comes from justice—from seeing what’s not me with all the fullness, and exactitude, and good will I can!