The Victory of Good Will
Dear Unknown Friends:
It Weakens, the 1971 lecture we are serializing, is one of the Goodbye Profit System talks that Eli Siegel gave beginning in 1970. In these he showed that economics driven by the profit motive—the looking on human beings, their needs, their labor, in terms of how much money one can extract from them—had reached the point at which it could no longer succeed. It might grind on for some years. But the contempt of seeing reality, with its grandeur, and people, with all their feelings and depths and dignity, as existing for one’s private profit, would never flourish again. For an economy to succeed, that ugly motive has to be replaced by something that is new yet has been demanded in various ways throughout the centuries: economics has to be based on ethics, on that aesthetic oneness of justice to other people and to oneself which Mr. Siegel described as good will.
The failure of the profit way, which he spoke of four decades ago, is what we are experiencing now. He documented his explanation with material from history, literature, economic thought, human life, and the news of the moment. At the point we’ve reached in It Weakens, Mr. Siegel is discussing passages of an essay by Emerson. It’s included in a book he used in several lectures, The American Transcendentalists, which contains work by Thoreau, Emerson, William Henry Channing, Margaret Fuller, Amos Bronson Alcott, and more. Through their writing, we can see that the objection to profit economics is as American as Plymouth Rock, and was voiced by some of our most important men and women of letters.
What Good Will Is
In this section Mr. Siegel speaks too about something for which he gave evidence throughout his lectures—something which, as he says, cannot be agreed with through simply hearing it stated: that good will is a force, and is of the nature of reality itself. What Aesthetic Realism means by good will is not what people generally associate with the phrase. It is the feeling that one takes care of oneself by being fair to what’s not oneself. It is not mush, or gush, but accuracy. All art and science arise from this driving desire to be just to the object. They show that good will is true self-expression, resplendent and thrilling.
In the daily life of every person, Aesthetic Realism makes clear, good will is in a fight with contempt: the desire to increase oneself through making less of other things and people. Throughout history, contempt has seemed to win: the victory of looking down, manipulating, grabbing, dismissing, sneering, being cold, has seemed more attractive—and quicker—than the desire to know, value, be just. Yet our desire to lessen what’s not us is the thing that makes us dislike ourselves and feel agitated, pervasively unsure, depressed.
This is because the need for good will is part of the structure of the human self. Our structure, Aesthetic Realism explains, is aesthetic: the oneness of opposites. We are always, inseparably, our particular self and our relation to everything else. Therefore, when we make less of a world to which we’re inextricably related, when we mentally or otherwise kick around what Mr. Siegel called “the other half of ourselves,” we’re untrue to what we are. And the inevitable result is—we are profoundly uneasy and ashamed. No matter how much we gloat or bluster, the fact that self-dislike arises from having contempt is as much a law of reality as a law of physics is.
The profit motive, looked at straight, is contempt. And by the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st—for historical reasons Mr. Siegel detailed in his lectures—the profit system became disabled by its own contempt, just as a person who year after year is contemptuous of others can come to be inwardly disabled with self-dislike, emptiness, anxiety.
I’ll comment on two articles which, like many others, point to both the ill will and the infirmity of profit economics.
The first appeared in the New York Times on November 30. Its headline is: “Line Grows Long for Free Meals at U.S. Schools.” The article begins:
Millions of American schoolchildren are receiving free or low-cost meals for the first time as their parents, many once solidly middle class, have lost jobs or homes.
This article by itself is enough to show that economics based on profit is a vicious, ugly flop. It’s vicious because any economy is immoral which causes children to go hungry, which does not have as a prime motive and first order of business the enabling of its young people to eat adequately. The free meals at school are not, in any way, part of the profit system. They are governmental good will attempting to mitigate a little a hideous effect of a profit-driven system: widespread hunger in the young people of our land.
That the profit way is a flop is illustrated by the following sentences of the article:
In Sylva, N.C., layoffs at lumber and paper mills have driven hundreds of new students into the free lunch program. In Las Vegas, where the collapse of the construction industry has caused hardship, 15,000 additional students joined the subsidized lunch program this fall. Around Rochester, unemployed engineers and technicians have signed up their children after the downsizing of Kodak and other companies forced them from their jobs.
That description stands for so much of American life today, in which businesses, jobs, and even whole industries are gone. One of the biggest tragedies and follies of humanity is that people have seen “efficiency” as being apart from, and often contrary to, ethics, kindness, good will. Over the decades, a justification given for profit-motivated economics has been: It may be selfish, but it’s the only efficient way. Well, what we see today is what Eli Siegel described in 1970: “The conduct of industry on the basis of ill will has been shown to be inefficient.” The fact that economics now cannot be efficient unless it is just, is, he said, “the greatest victory of good will in history.”
A November 29th New York Times article has the headline “At Top Colleges, Anti-Wall Street Fervor Complicates Campus Recruiting.” It reports that increasingly, college students are protesting against and picketing persons who come to their campuses to recruit for Wall Street firms:
Yale students turned a Morgan Stanley information session into a protest site....Wall Street has been steadily losing its allure on college campuses since the financial crisis.
One could say the students’ objections are not just based on ethics. One could say Wall Street is now looked on askance on campuses because it’s less able to provide those lucrative jobs the graduates once grabbed at. But it’s that very linkage of ethics and the failure of something standing for the profit system, which matters so much. People have always felt seeing others in terms of acquisition was ugly. In the past they tried to bury their uneasiness, since it seemed that what Wall Street represents was a means of aggrandizing themselves. Yet the uneasiness was always there. We can see it in a person the Times quotes, who says he wants a Wall Street job. He tells the reporter: “My friends and I joke about, ‘Oh, are you going to the dark side?’”
That phrase, “the dark side,” is not only a joke. Because of the failure of profit economics, people find it less possible to make economic injustice look somehow fine, including to themselves. This is a victory of good will.