Profits & Feeling in America
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are proud to publish, from notes taken at the time, the lecture Eli Siegel gave on April 17, 1947, at Steinway Hall. In The Unconscious of America, he explains what people now, six decades later, need to know: what is the biggest question in the life of each of us, and also the biggest question America as nation needs to answer.
“The unconscious” is not talked about as much as it used to be. In 1947, when this lecture was given, the Freudian picture of the unconscious was everywhere one turned. It was a baleful, sexual, scary, quite weird unconscious. In fact, the unconscious as Freudian psychology presented it, simply does not exist. It doesn’t correspond to what a person is or has.
Meanwhile, today most people would grant that there are things in them they don’t know, that they’re affected in ways they don’t understand. In the 1940s, Mr. Siegel gave this description of the unconscious—so clear, and so different from the murky cauldron Freud depicted: “The unconscious is, most deeply, what we want which we don’t know we want” (Self and World, p.112).
What every person wants, Aesthetic Realism shows, is to do what art does: we want to put together opposites, beginning with the most fundamental opposites—care for the self which is ours, and justice to the unlimited world different from us. The interference in us with our doing this well is something we mostly don’t see; yet we can learn to see it clearly. It’s contempt, the desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt is the ugly thing in everyone; it’s that from which every cruelty comes.
The Growing Awareness
There is no bigger matter concerning consciousness in America than the increasing awareness of Americans that they hate the profit motive. For example, more and more people of this land are conscious of something which once persons felt much more inchoately: that they resent, terrifically, being seen and used as a means of somebody else’s profit.
In the 1970s, Eli Siegel explained that economics based on that contemptuous way of using people had failed after hundreds of years. The present financial crisis of America and so many nations is part of the profit system’s failure. And, Mr. Siegel explained, the only way now for an economy to be efficient is for it to be based on ethics, the conscious asking, “What does a person deserve by being a person?” Inseparable from that question is another, which we need to ask consciously: On whose behalf should the earth of America, and her resources, be used?—which means, by whom should America be owned?
Weeks ago I wrote about the explosion and ensuing oil spill off Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s clear to millions of Americans that this spill, which is really a continuous gushing, was caused by the profit motive. Millions of people are conscious that the company, BP, did not take the needed precautions, and for only one reason: to do so would have cut into BP’s profits, which mattered much more to it than people’s lives. There is fury in America about this fact.
People see, on television and online, oil constantly surging into our waters; pristine beaches defiled with oil; magnificent birds, covered in black oil, dead or suffering. They hear anguished fellow citizens tell how they’ve lost their livelihoods. Seeing and hearing this, Americans feel nauseous. It’s a nausea with consciousness: a disgust at the profit motive and what it does.
Coincidentally, in his 1947 lecture Mr. Siegel mentions another terrible explosion in the Gulf. It had occurred the previous day, and was to be known as the Texas City Disaster. In the harbor a fire began in a ship, which was carrying about 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate as well as sisal twine and small arms ammunition. The massive explosion that took place ignited other ships, oil refineries, and chemical plants. At least 581 people died and over 5,000 were injured. It has been called the worst industrial accident in US history.
According to the website of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1259, when flame was first spotted on the ship the Captain said “he did not want to put out the fire with water because it would ruin the cargo.” So in order not to jeopardize profits, less reliable methods were used—which did not work. Again, we see a choice in behalf of profit rather than people’s lives, and the horrific results of that choice.
In 2010, more than ever before, there is a widespread conscious association of the profit motive with unfeelingness and cruelty. To be sure, there can still be a glamorizing of the go-getting entrepreneur, but such a character is not seen as the ideal he once was; indeed, he’s more often presented as a villain. There is much propaganda in the media from persons with power who have made the profit system equivalent to their self-importance: they’re working hard to stop Americans’ growing consciousness that the profit motive is against our lives. This truly patriotic consciousness is increasing nevertheless.
There Are Emerson & Oil
In his 1847 poem “Hamatreya,” Ralph Waldo Emerson criticizes the greed of some early settlers of Massachusetts. He says earth itself objects to their desire to grab more and more of the land, make many acres of it belong only to them and their offspring. Emerson has earth make fun of this profit system greed—the land, he felt, was not meant to be owned in this contemptuous way. He writes:
Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys
Earth proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs.
· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·
Ah! the hot owner sees not Death, who adds
Him to his land, a lump of mould the more.
One can find in the BP oil spill a symbolism that is in keeping with Emerson’s view. One can feel the relentlessly erupting earth saying, “You profit boys thought you could manage me, control me, take my resources not to benefit people but to aggrandize yourself. I’ll show you who’s more powerful. I’ll have oil pour forth in a way you can’t control.”
The trouble with that symbolism is, it doesn’t allow for the fact that the spewing oil is punishing not just the profit boys but so many others. Therefore I offer another instance of symbolism. The spewing, spreading oil, with its toxicity, its bringing disease and death and misery to living things, stands for the profit system itself, which has damaged the lives of people century after century. The profit motive is the foul thing which had little children work in mines. And an economy based on it is why so many people are jobless now: though they could be useful, they’re able to work only if someone can make profit from their labor.
Deep in the American people is the feeling: “Human beings and the American earth do not exist to be used for someone’s private profit. America’s earth and waters belong to all of us.” This is the feeling that—despite the effort to stop it—is increasingly conscious. It is true Americanism.