The Battle of Insistences
Dear Unknown Friends:
We begin to serialize a lecture Eli Siegel gave in 1949: Mind and Insistence. I find it amazing—great. He describes with richness and delicacy the various kinds of insistence everyone has, which are not understood by or even known to us.
There are, Aesthetic Realism explains, two big purposes that insist in every person, and battle with each other. There is the purpose we were born for: to respect the world, see meaning in it. That is at war all the time with another purpose, false but tremendous: to have contempt, to lessen what’s not us as a means of elevating ourselves. This second purpose is the source of every cruelty. Yet the first—to see things and people with vibrant justice—is the larger, deeper insistence. No matter how much we try to submerge it, it’s what our minds are for. Our being untrue to it is the central reason we are ashamed, nervous, have a feeling of emptiness, loneliness, self-dislike.
Going On Now
As we publish this lecture of 65 years ago, I think it right to comment on a huge battle of insistences going on in the world now. The battle is about: On what basis should human beings work, have money, buy and sell? To whom should the world belong?
Beginning in 1970, Mr. Siegel explained that an economy based on the profit motive—on seeing people in terms of how much financial gain one can extract from them—was no longer able to carry on successfully. The profit system would never recover, though it might be made to limp along at the cost of enormous pain to people. Profit economics is a form of contempt. It arises from this assumption, which is also an insistence: certain people should own much more of the world than others, and can use those others to aggrandize themselves.
However, by the 1970s, another insistence had, as Mr. Siegel said, “come to a tangibility.” He called it the force of ethics. And this ethical insistence, working through history, had made it so that by the end of the 20th century private profits were much more difficult to obtain. Ethics as force is by no means some vague or mystical thing. It has many, many aspects, and from one point of view is equivalent to progress as such. A central form it has taken is the coming-to-be of greater technical and productive ability on all the continents, so that now (in Mr. Siegel’s words) “there is more competition with the American product.” One result is, thousands of American businesses have disappeared.
In the last years, I have been describing the following fact: those who insist that the profit way must be the basis of our economy have been trying to do the one thing that can now keep it going. That one thing is: make Americans work for less and less pay, so more and more of the money they earn with their labor can go into the pockets of the owners, who don’t do the work. Only by increasingly impoverishing the American people can the profit system now go on. Of course, to pay people less and less, to impoverish them successfully, one must try to annihilate unions. Unions—which have fought for and won better economic lives for people over the decades, are one of the biggest embodiments of ethics as a force.
What Is This Thing Insisted On?
It is necessary for Americans to ask: what is this thing, the profit system, which there’s so much insistence on saving? An article that appeared in the New York Times last month contains what profit economics fundamentally is. Writing from tobacco country in North Carolina, Steven Greenhouse describes children, aged 13 and under, working 12-hour shifts in the tobacco fields. For protection from nicotine poisoning, they cover their young bodies in black plastic garbage bags, with holes for their arms, but they get sick anyway. The “nicotine-tinged dew,” we’re told, “can cause vomiting, dizziness and irregular heart rates, among other symptoms.” Some of the children are ten years old. Greenhouse writes:
For years, public health experts and federal labor officials have sought to bar teenagers under 16 from the tobacco fields, citing the grueling hours and the harmful exposure to nicotine and other chemicals, but their efforts have been blocked. [9-7-14]
What is the state of mind of a person who has children work in tobacco fields and be subjected, among much else, to poisoning? What is the state of mind of the legislators who “block” efforts to undo this barbarism? Is the way work takes place in the tobacco fields just an abuse of the profit system—or does it stand for what the profit system is?
Through this industry we can see something basic: the profit way is, as such, ill will for people, for those who work and also those who buy. By now, everyone knows that the tobacco industrialists are not a bit interested in the health of people: rather than forgo profits for themselves, they’ve chosen to have millions of human beings contract cancer and die. (It happens that the bringing to light, these last decades, of the perils of tobacco and the lies told by the tobacco producers; the lawsuits against those producers; the laws against tobacco advertisements—all are instances of the force of ethics impeding the procedures of private profit.)
Let us be clear: the profit motive as such, whether your product is tobacco or milk, is always ill will and contempt. By definition that motive is the using of a person—not to know that person, be just to that person—but to aggrandize yourself financially through her or him. There has been, over the years, legislation curbing some of the effects of profit-motivated economics. There have been (thanks mainly to unions) minimum wage laws, regulations in behalf of workplace safety, laws against child labor in most industries. Every such regulation, every law in behalf of workers’ health, safety, and dignity is an instance of ethics as force and has impeded the making of private profit. That’s why there have always been attempts by employers to get around those rules. The laws, rules, curbs did not change the motivation central to the profit system itself.
The Central Matter in History
Eli Siegel disagreed with Marx. The central matter in human history and economics is not, Mr. Siegel said, the “class struggle.” It is the fight between good will and ill will, between ethics and meanness, between respect and contempt—a fight that goes on in every person. And the thing needed to replace the profit system is not what persons associate with Eastern Europe of once. What will replace an unjust economy is an economy based on ethics and aesthetics: an economy based on seeing that the way to be truly selfish, the way to express yourself, be yourself, is to be just to people, things, the world into which we were all born.
So we come to the two insistences in the world today. The reason certain people are ferociously and trickily insisting that the profit way must continue, is the reason mentioned by Mr. Siegel in the lecture we’re serializing: their “vanity is bound up with it.” Then, there is the insistence of history itself, ethics itself, the decency that’s within every person. Of the two insistences—no matter how devious the former is, and how brutal—the latter is stronger. “Ethics is a force,” Mr. Siegel explained, “like electricity, steam, the atom—and will have its way.”
I love him for showing this—and for explaining, as you’ll see, the insistences in everyone. As he speaks of them, his spoken prose is beautiful: warm, clear, strong, kind.