Our Economy: The Failure of Ill Will
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing Shame Is in How You Do Things, the lecture Eli Siegel gave on May 28, 1971. It is one of his great Goodbye Profit System talks, begun a year before. He explained, and provided evidence week after week, that economics based on using human beings for profit was no longer able to function successfully. It could stagger on now only with increasing difficulty. And it would never recover: the inefficiency of the contempt at its basis was now apparent and insurmountable.
In the present lecture, Mr. Siegel comments on an article in Fortune magazine. The author, Max Ways, describes what he sees as the atmosphere in America: of discontent and sourness. The article is written unclearly, and Mr. Siegel points out that it doesn’t ask the right questions. But what’s in it illustrates the failure of profit-based economics.
That was nearly forty years ago, and much has changed. The technology of now is in many ways dazzlingly efficient. But the economy is most certainly not. Poverty in America has been increasing: there is much more of it—and of hunger—than there was in 1971. There is much more job insecurity; the standard of living is lower, and falling. The “crisis of confidence” that Ways speaks of and doesn’t understand is even more intense in America now. It’s a daily, ongoing anguish: millions of people don’t know if they’ll ever find work again; millions are, to use the frequent expression, “just a paycheck away” from losing their homes, from being unable to buy food for their family.
The Underlying Question
Aesthetic Realism makes clear the big, underlying question of economics. It is hidden by various elaborate economic terms, though present in some fashion in all of them. It is: Should our economy be based on contempt, on the seeing of people’s labor and needs as means for someone else’s profit; or should it be based on good will, on having the people of our nation get what they deserve?
Inseparable from profit economics is the idea that it’s right for some people, from birth, to own much more of America than others; that it’s right for one child to grow up in a mansion and another in a rat-infested slum. Well, in 1970 Eli Siegel said about economics based on this way of seeing humanity: “The profit system has failed and is showing its failure....It is the culmination of years of world history.” And we should be clear: what’s needed is not something regimented and dull, associated with Eastern Europe of once. He explained:
What is being shown today is that without good will, the toughest, most inconsiderate of activities—economics—cannot do so well....I wish I could call it something else—good will and ill will are such pale words; but that is what it’s about. I say that the whole purpose of history is to show that the greatest kindness is the greatest power. The other thing has not worked.
Today we have an America in which thousands of businesses simply are no more—swept away by foreign competition. We have remaining businesses trying to make profit by using “cheap” foreign labor, or by paying Americans less and less (and attempting to kill unions in order to do so).
The Effort to Privatize
Because of this failure of business based on private profit, there has been a huge effort in the last decade to privatize publicly run institutions. The technique is to disseminate massive propaganda against the public institutions, and also do what one can to make them fail, including through withholding funding from them. Eminent among such institutions are the public schools and the post office. The desire is to place them in private hands—not for the public good, not so that the American people can fare well—but to keep profit economics going. The purpose of privatizing what the American people as a whole own is 1) to provide new means for private profits to be made—which is necessary if profit economics is to continue at all; and 2) to have people feel that the non-profit or public way of owning and employing does not work and that the only way things can possibly be run is through the profit system!
For the same purpose, we have municipalities giving tax breaks and subsidies to private companies, and handing over public jobs to private firms, while also trying to slash the hard-earned pensions of public employees.
Emerson on Contempt & Good Will
For perspective and a better seeing of what good will is, I’ll quote some lines of a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson. He wrote his “Boston Hymn” in honor of the Emancipation Proclamation. In it, he brings together what America was founded for, what the American Revolution was for, and the ending of that hideous thing perpetrated on American soil, slavery. These are early lines:
God said, I am tired of kings,
I suffer them no more;
Up to my ear the morning brings
The outrage of the poor.
Emerson has the Creator of reality itself objecting to ill will. Kingship, and the aristocracy that went with it, is one form ill will has taken in human history. It went on for thousands of years and was seen as inevitable. To advocate anything else—to advocate a republic (which, from the Latin res publica, means “public thing”)—was often to incur imprisonment, torture, death. Anything other than monarchy was considered not only hugely dangerous, but sheerly impractical.
Emerson, though, tells us: along with the American Revolution’s opposing the ill will of monarchy, there was that in the very nature of reality which was against kings and their contemptuous owning of a nation. We have this stanza—and God is speaking:
I will have never a noble,
No lineage counted great;
Fishers and choppers and ploughmen
Shall constitute a state.
This having the nation equivalent to, owned by, the people who do the work, is, Emerson says, what America was based on. He says the demand for such ownership comes from the very cause of reality.
One can rewrite history all one pleases in behalf of a contemptuous agenda—but the purpose of the American Revolution was to have a government that would represent the American people in their fullness; a government that would bring out people’s strength, “promote the general welfare.” The United States exists because of an insistence that government have good will.
Slavery Is the Profit System
Then, there was the matter of slavery. And as Emerson describes it, we can see that slavery is a form of the profit system: you “coin” a person’s labor, use it to make money for yourself:
But, laying hands on another
To coin his labor and sweat,
He goes in pawn to his victim
For eternal years in debt.
In other words: if you use a person for profit this way, you owe that person eternally. You’ll be in the pawnshop of reality for all time—because you can never make sufficient restitution to him or her for what you’ve done.
Emerson’s poem is authentic, musical, and he read it publicly in Boston on January 1, 1863, the day the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. To persons who were saying that if slaves were freed, the owners should be compensated for their financial loss, Emerson has the following answer:
Pay ransom to the owner
And fill the bag to the brim.
Who is the owner? The slave is owner,
And ever was. Pay him.
That is, the only one who should be compensated is the real owner of the slave: the person, the slave, himself.
Good will, Eli Siegel said, is the toughest, most practical thing in the world. It is the only practicality. The American Revolution was a fight between good will for a nation against ill will. The Civil War was a fight between good will for human beings against ill will. Aesthetic Realism explains that a fight between the having of good will and the having of ill will or contempt, goes on within every one of us.
Economic good will today, Mr. Siegel made clear, is not a matter of arms, uprisings, barricades. Simply: ill will no longer works. And when people see that this ill will is behind the economic inefficiency and pain, they will find ways that are natural and utterly American to continue in our economy the good will that such persons as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln represented, stood for, and showed.