The Biggest Question for a Person & Nation
Dear Unknown Friends:
There is no more pressing question now than How should people see people? It’s the biggest question for every individual, in social life, domestic life, and love. It’s the central question for a nation. It’s the burning economic question. We have two choices: 1) Do we see people principally as existing to aggrandize us and make us comfortable—as beings to beat out or ignore or use for our importance? Or 2) do we feel it’s through seeing other people truly, justly, that we become more ourselves?
The question of how we should see people is a form of what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the great fight within everyone: “the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality” (TRO 151).
In his Goodbye Profit System lectures, begun in 1970, Eli Siegel explained that economics for centuries has been based on seeing people with contempt. It’s been based on the profit motive, which is: how much profit can I get from somebody’s labor; how much profit can I make from somebody’s needs. He showed that by the 1970s, this contempt for one’s fellow humans was no longer a tenable basis for an economy: it no longer worked. Such an economy might be made to limp on for a while, but would do so with increasing difficulty, more and more pain to people. And that, as I’ve been illustrating in issues of this journal, is where we are today. Mr. Siegel was right: the only economy that will now work is one the world hasn’t had before—an economy based on good will, the feeling, I take care of myself by being fair to you.
We are serializing the lecture he gave on May 28, 1971, Shame Is in How You Do Things. In it he looks at an article from Fortune magazine. Much of the article is unclear, turbid. But what its author, Max Ways, does say with a definiteness is that the American people dislike how just about every aspect of the country is run: they’re looking for something and are disappointed—there is a “crisis of confidence.” Mr. Siegel makes clear what it is that people are looking for, including in economics.
Looked For in Egypt
I am writing this commentary as a revolution is going on in one of the oldest nations of the world, Egypt. There are barricades, tear gas, burning police cars, and people, people, people demanding something, near the same Nile where Cleopatra travelled in all her queenliness and humanness. I don’t know, of course, what will happen to this Egyptian revolution. But it’s about what Eli Siegel described in his Goodbye Profit System talks. Humanity, he explained, “is saying: We don’t want ill will to hurt and poison our lives anymore.”
It is clear that the fury of the Egyptian people is centrally about the fact that they’re tremendously poor, there is massive unemployment, and their government hasn’t wanted that situation to change. In recent years, the media have led Americans to think the big opposition to Mideast dictators comes from persons who desire an Islamic government. But the recent successful uprising in Tunisia, and now the mighty events in Egypt, as well as demonstrations in Jordan, show that is not true. “So far,” notes the Wall Street Journal of January 29-30, “the protests have remained secular rather than Islamic in nature.”
There is a way, Mr. Siegel explains in the talk we’re serializing, that a person wants to be seen. A term for that way is good will. Another term is ethics. Aesthetic Realism shows that good will and ethics are not “nice” terms or “soft” terms. They’re about something real, solid, powerful, inescapable. Central to good will is: should every person have enough money to live with dignity and grace; or should you (a boss, corporation, or politician) be able to keep people poor so you can enrich yourself through them? Part of good will is the very material matter of how the wealth of a nation should be owned; what kind of homes people should be able to live in; the quality of food people should be able to eat.
The people of Egypt hate how they have been seen—with ill will. Their objection is not a religious one (though it may happen that various religious parties try to make use of it). Their objection is of ethics: human, eternal, immediate ethics. People want to be respected; and they want to have enough money to live well. They want both, and the two are not separable.
Unemployment Is Ill Will
Unemployment—huge, ongoing, agonizing unemployment—is a major reason why millions of Egyptians have used their bodies on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez to demand that the Mubarak government get out. And of course, while the United States is very different, the pain and insult of unemployment are across our nation too.
Unemployment is part of the failure of profit economics. An economy which cannot supply jobs to the people of a nation is a failure. The basis of jobs under the profit system is: you can work only if somebody else can make a profit from your labor. This is sheer ethical ugliness. A person who could do or make something that other people need (perhaps desperately need) is not permitted to—simply because somebody else can’t make money from it! The outrage at this ill will is walking, running, protesting in Egypt’s streets.
In a recent class for Aesthetic Realism consultants and associates, there was discussion of sentences by Thomas Carlyle from his Past and Present, of 1843. The sentences are about unemployment. They’re about men who want to work but are not permitted to, for the reason I just gave. Instead, these men have to live in miserable poorhouses, or “workhouses” (“pleasantly so-named,” says Carlyle, “because work cannot be done in them”). Carlyle’s writing is beautiful, about a situation that is terrible and, he makes clear, unethical:
Twelve hundred thousand workers in England alone; their cunning right-hand lamed, lying idle in their sorrowful bosom; their hopes, outlooks, share of this fair world, shut in by narrow walls. They sit there, pent up, as in a kind of horrid enchantment.
To have a person be jobless, says Carlyle, is to cripple him, lame his right hand.
And Carlyle describes the opposites which, as one, are the true basis of economics: the land and labor; earth and selves; the world with its possibilities, and a person who can bring those possibilities forth. These opposites have been sundered by the profit system. He says about the jobless men:
They sat there, near by one another; but in a kind of torpor...: An Earth all lying round, crying, Come and till me, come and reap me;—yet we here sit enchanted! In the eyes and brows of the men hung the gloomiest expression, not of anger, but of grief and shame and manifold inarticulate distress and weariness; they...seemed to say, “Do not look at us. We sit enchanted here, we know not why. The sun shines and the Earth calls; and, by the governing Powers and Impotences of this England, we are forbidden to obey.”
I’ve brought together people in England, 1843, wretchedly stunned by joblessness, and people in Egypt, 2011, furious at joblessness, poverty, and a government that seems to welcome these. The big difference is that people now, throughout the world, are not only stunned by their economic situation: there is a much greater consciousness that this is not how things should be!, that we deserve something much better!, that what’s been inflicted on us comes from ill will! This greater consciousness is part of what Mr. Siegel called “ethics as a force.”
It’s been said the US government is in a difficult position as to whether to welcome the Egyptian uprising. America has called Mubarak an ally and given his government $1.5 billion yearly even though it’s clear the Egyptian people’s resentment of him is correct. The difficulty as described by the media is: if Mubarak goes, there may come to be an Islamic fundamentalist government. Certainly that’s not desirable.
But there is a deeper difficulty for the US government. It has to do with the profit system itself. For decades, US administrations have supported dictators in the Middle East and elsewhere because they were friendly—not to America—but to American corporations. The basis of judgment has not been: Is the government of that country fair to its people? The basis has been: Through that government, can US companies make profit? And companies today can’t make the profits they want if people are paid well. For a few persons to make large profits, millions need to be poor. Now there is this question: Suppose the people of Egypt want a government which is not Islamic, but which is also not for profit economics and is fair to them—would the US welcome that?
The America I love—of Lincoln, Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence—says, I want an economy fair to people, based on good will, not contempt, here and everywhere in the world!