Shame, Pride, & Economics
Dear Unknown Friends:
With this issue we begin a serialization of the historic lecture Shame Goes with It All, by Eli Siegel. The “It” is the profit system: economics based on seeing one’s fellow humans in terms of how much financial profit one can extract from them—how much money one can get from them and their labor while giving them as little as possible.
Shame Goes with It All, of October 1970, is one of the lectures in Mr. Siegel’s Goodbye Profit System series. In May of that year he explained that the profit way of economics had reached the point at which it was no longer able to succeed. Though it might be made to continue, it would do so with more and more difficulty and would never flourish again. In his lectures he gave the reasons why and provided evidence from history and the immediate moment, from economic texts and from world literature. He explained:
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.
One can find in that statement—which the years have ratified—one of the major differences between Mr. Siegel and other economists: he saw the main thing in economics as ethics. He described ethics as “giv[ing] oneself what is coming to one by giving what is coming to other things.” The profit system has been unethical at its very basis these many centuries. And what will have to replace it is not some already existing economic way. The only economy that will now work, Mr. Siegel showed, is one arising from the honest answering of the question “What does a person deserve by being alive?”
It is nearly four and a half decades since Eli Siegel gave the lecture we’re serializing. And much has been done to keep the profit way grinding on, all of which efforts have brought increasing pain, increasing poverty, to millions of people.
What Is It About?
In keeping with the lecture’s title, I am going to comment on a word used very frequently these days. It’s a word that Americans can hear and think they’re simply hearing something descriptive, having to do with economic methodology. However, one of the most shameful things in human history is what that word is now being used to decorate. The word is austerity. One hears it mainly in relation to the European Union, but what it’s being used to justify there certainly has its likeness to matters here.
There’s nothing wrong with the word itself. Austere has with it an idea of strict, stern, serious, unembellished. Théophile Gautier uses it in a stanza of his 1857 poem “L’Art.” He has just said that art, which is strict, is the one thing permanent, and he gives an example: a medallion on which an emperor’s picture was imprinted far outlasts the emperor himself. The word austère comes in beautifully:
Et la médaille austere
Que trouve un laboureur
Révèle un empereur.
Literally: “And the medallion, austere, / Which a laborer finds / Under the ground / Reveals an emperor.”
Another notable use is by Bertrand Russell. He says mathematics has a beauty that is “austere, like that of sculpture.”
Today, the word austerity is being used as a euphemism for making people homeless, impoverishing them, forcing children to be hungry and malnourished, making infants die of disease. That is: the word is being used to cover a desperate and vile attempt to keep the profit system going. This is one of the foulest instances of euphemism in any language.
Austerity, as we find it in the press and statements of economists and government officials (particularly European), is the cutting down on government expenditures, as a means of lessening government debt. And the expenditures to be slashed are for such things as school lunches, assistance to the unemployed, medical aid, pensions. Many of these expenditures are part of what has been called “the safety net.” Now, “the safety net” in itself is an admission that the profit system is a failure: that profit economics cannot provide the people of a nation with that which they need to live. So in an attempt to make up for some of the suffering inflicted by the profit system, various governments provided ways of having people get a bit of the money, food, housing they need.
But a nation cannot go on trying to make up a little for the cruelties of profit economics, and at the same time maintain and back an economy based on private profit: the relation between the nation’s expenditure and its income will be disproportionate. That is true of the US, France, England, Japan. It is true of two nations much in the news: Greece and Spain; and we can look awhile at them.
The Lenders & the People
To support a private profit economy yet try to mitigate a little of the pain it causes, Greece and Spain had to borrow. And they could not repay their debt. So the lenders—mainly the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—insisted that for Spain and Greece to be “bailed out,” these nations had to privatize various government assets and institute “austerity measures.” The austerity was to be inflicted on people who did not have wealth. They would lose their “safety net.” They would be without government sustenance, lose their homes and somewhat decent-paying government jobs, go hungry. The babies of Greece and Spain; the children; the old people, their pensions made worthless, who now must scrounge in garbage dumps; the middle class people, middle class no longer: it is on them that “austerity” has been imposed, in order to keep the profit way going.
You children who go to bed with aching empty tummies so corporate owners can continue to profit—how proud you should be to take part in this noble effort! There could, after all, be “austerity” demanded of corporations: they could be taxed at a rate of, oh, say 85% of their profits; they might then have to become owned somewhat by the nation’s people, and how terrible that would be! How much better to let you, the little ones, be malnourished!
Aesthetic Realism explains that the source of all injustice is Contempt, the desire in every person to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” The use of human beings for someone’s private profit is a form of contempt. Eli Siegel was passionate about this matter, and his passion was at one with logic. “Man,” he said, “was not made to be used by man for money.”
And it is contempt that has a person cloak a hideous thing with pretty nomenclature. Once, child labor was described by some as a means of teaching young people responsibility. The present use of the word austerity is in the same tradition. No matter how smoothly government leaders and economists engage in that use, it is an insult to and a mockery of humanity.
I quote, swiftly, from some press accounts of the last few years indicating what “austerity” entails. A New York Times article (9-24-12) says: people in Spain “Forage Trash Bins for a Next Meal” due to “one austerity measure after another.” A 33-year-old woman is quoted: “When you don’t have enough money, this is what there is.” A 67-year-old man says about his findings in garbage pails: “This is my pension.”
The Guardian (UK) (8-6-13) reports that Greece’s middle class is in a “Food Crisis” and “Like malnutrition,...homelessness is also on the rise.”
The Independent (UK) (2-21-14) says “austerity measures in Greece” are “leading to soaring infant mortality,...the return of malaria, and a spike in the suicide count.”
The London Times (1-23-15) describes “thousands of hungry Athenians...queued at the soup kitchen” and “people sleeping rough”—that is, outdoors, because they’re homeless.
One need not praise a particular party to see that the recent overwhelming election victory of Syriza in Greece and the popularity of the new party Podemos in Spain come from people’s huge desire to rid themselves of a brutal economic contempt. Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos, called what Spain has endured an effort “to humiliate our country with this scam that they call austerity” (NY Times, 2-1-15).
I have been speaking about all this in relation to the title of Eli Siegel’s lecture: Shame Goes with It All. He is the philosopher to show that the one thing which will make us not ashamed, which will make us proud, which will work, in economics and personal life, is aesthetics: the seeing that what takes care of us and makes us important is the giving of imaginative justice to people and things not ourselves.