The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Absence of Good Will

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing an article in the April 1971 issue of Fortune magazine: Max Ways’ “Don’t We Know Enough to Make Better Public Policies?”

At the point we have reached, Ways says that many people have

a petulant wish that some thunderclap of social action will clear the air, discharging tensions built up around the guilty belief that we have used our knowledge badly.

Well, the matter is something more sober: what is the purpose of politics or government? For example, the purpose of a violin is not to act as a stop for the door in summer, though it can be used that way. I have pointed out that, among many other things, the violin can be a good bookmark. Sometimes it has, in a fit of franticness, served as firewood. But the purpose of a violin is to have music evoked from it. And in order to judge how the United States is doing, we have to ask, What is the purpose of the United States?

The United States is a what and a how: what it is, and how that is managed or run. As soon as we think of an it present in how the land is run, we are thinking of government. The word govern arises from the Latin word for “rudder,” through the verb gubernare. It’s a sea term at the beginning.

A government is supposed to have respect and good will for the nation’s people. And that government is represented by persons. If they have respect and good will for the people, the government is functioning well. If they don’t, it is not functioning well. That absence of good will as a whole is a sign of things’ being wrong, as a particular absence of good will is a sign of a particular thing’s being wrong.

A person who runs a government well, or a nation well, honestly wants people to be at their best and will do all he or she can to bring that out. That is the way rulers have been judged. So if—as the article says people feel—the United States is now failing at something, what is it failing at? The quite clear thing that it is failing at, is to make the people in it happy—because it is clear that the people in the United States are not as happy as they’d like to be.

What Is Inefficiency?

Many successful men who wear ties, own boats,...and occupy the chairs of corporation executive or professor are riddled with doubt about the validity of their own careers and of the society in which they play leading roles....Some of these want to see the rate of society’s action...slowed down until such time as knowledge...can ensure a higher quality of performance.

The technocracy movement of some years ago asked for efficiency in government. In order to talk about efficiency in government, you have to have some criteria. What is a government supposed to produce? What is a government supposed to achieve? What is it supposed to get at?

The vast majority of Americans...are puzzled and made insecure by the seemingly shameful discrepancy between what we know and the quality of what we do. They come to regard policy makers, including those for whom they voted, as antiheroes, stumbling inadequately from one challenge to another.

Again I ask: Is the whole cause of this the failure to see good will as real? As I’ve said before, persons do not want to see good will as a fact. They want to relate it to something mushy, something that people show on Thanksgiving or Christmas. Therefore it isn’t seen that the chief cause for the inefficiency, economic and human, of the United States and other lands is the absence of good will.

There’s a story of a person driving a team of horses, and very soon the horses feel that the person holding the reins doesn’t know too much about them. When we’re inefficient, there are two things that occur: we get sleazy and limp, and also we get frantic. If you’re a bad driver of horses, that’s what you do. You put the reins around the horse’s neck and pull, or you begin getting too shiftless and sleazy.

This is what happens with what are called the reins of government. The reins of government, every now and then, get very tight, and we feel that we’re in for a period of tremendous severity. Then the reins of government get very limp again and take their sleazy way. These are always a sign of inefficiency where life is concerned—the bearing down too hard, and the being shiftless and sleazy. Much of that is going on.

Throughout America

There’s now hardly a phase of government that is looked on as efficient, whether it’s the tax bureau, or the military, or in the field of education, or a commission or bureau or sub-bureau or division. There is a feeling things aren’t coherent enough and strong enough. And that’s been for some time. There’s not a city in America that feels itself to be trim. The situation is also in the private field, because every organization, while constantly trying to tighten up, feels that things are a little bit out of hand, that the flies have taken over the applesauce. The cause for this slackness or sleaziness is what I am talking about: whether the absence of good will is a cause of inefficiency or not, is the thing to be seen.

One of the earliest things in the history of politics is: if something goes wrong in a political entity, you appoint a committee, or a commission. Then, the commission itself can get to be looked on with a little doubt. Just as painting is soft edge and hard edge, so things in a nation ought to be effortless and they also ought to be tight. But they’re not that. And there’s a bad relation of frantic desire to get things exact and a desire to be careless or sleazy.

It has been said there isn’t a hospital of any size in the country now that’s run well. I haven’t seen all the hospitals, but I haven’t yet seen any statements saying, “This particular hospital, in every one of its phases, is run truly and efficiently.” And if you got a report of that kind from the directors, you’d still have to go to the employees, because the employee always knows something that the front office doesn’t. —Proceeding:

Experts, too, are distrusted for what appears to be repeated failure to understand events in their fields of special competence. People lose confidence not only in their leaders and teachers but in themselves.

In other words, if there’s anything of major importance that can be run, it’s run badly. The only things that are run well are new stores that have a celebration and for six months go well. Then something comes in from a wholesaler that disappoints a so far pleased customer—and that store also is in pretty bad shape. I remember once going to a confectionary store and hearing someone say, “I just can’t get the candy I want at the time I want it!”

This crisis of confidence, a product of all the accumulated disappointments, is a much graver danger than any particular failure of U.S. society....In every sector of contemporary life, disappointment is sharpened.

What do the sentences I’ve read so far cover? What are all these word-waves about? They are a sign that discontent is present in every county of the United States, in every city. And the question, which I cannot present too often, is: Has the absence of good will caused all this? I think it has.

Parents, Social Workers, Psychologists

Many parents...approach child rearing with such trepidation—or such soaring goals—that their performance may be worse than it would have been if nothing new about the parent-child relationship had been learned in the last hundred years.

Social workers, also, are ashamed, and psychologists in schools are ashamed. It is hard for them to say so. But one cause for the shame is, they don’t have good will enough for children; they don’t have good will enough for parents. That there is an insufficient relation between their desire to advance themselves and their desire to be of use to people—that, they cannot say. But it is true in the professional fields as it is in the strict business fields. The suspicion of social workers has been going on for a long time, the suspicion of professional people. And the lack is of a beautiful attitude to people, an honest attitude to people.

So I say at this time: the great failure of humanity has been that it doesn’t like reality, and doesn’t like those realities which are other people. It is this failure that has made for the present uncertainty. It should be asked whether the words I use are about something that actually is.