Dear Unknown Friends:
We publish here the first part of the 1973 lecture Ah, Blessed Worry, by Eli Siegel—from his Goodbye Profit System series. In those lectures he explained what was happening to the world economy. And the explanation is true—urgently, kindly, beautifully true—about us right now. Economics based on contempt for people, he said, had failed and would never recover. The profit motive is the seeing of your fellow humans in terms of how much money you can get from them—from their labor and needs. And Mr. Siegel gave evidence that history had reached a point at which this contempt-driven economic way could be made to grind on a while longer only with increasing difficulty and ever-increasing pain to millions of people.
What needs to replace it is a way of seeing people, products, work, finance, earth, that is different from anything which has been before. The economics people are hoping for, the only kind that will work, is aesthetics: the oneness of opposites—including the opposites of freedom and justice; the expression of each individual and fairness to all people. This way of economics will also be ethics: it will be based on a true answer to the question, articulated by Mr. Siegel, “What does a person deserve by being a person?”
In Ah, Blessed Worry we meet an instance of something much around today: the attempt to frighten people away from the American good sense and justice they’re looking for by giving it some fake, scary name.
A matter told of recently in the news, stands importantly for what Eli Siegel was the historian to explain.
On August 18 an article appeared in the New York Times with the headline “Foreign Students in Work Visa Program Stage Walkout at Plant.” The story, by Julia Preston, begins:
Hundreds of foreign students, waving their fists and shouting defiantly in many languages, walked off their jobs...at a plant here [Palmyra, Pa.] that packs Hershey’s chocolates, saying a summer program that was supposed to be a cultural exchange had instead turned them into underpaid labor.
These university students found themselves laboring (many at night) on fast-moving production lines or continually lifting and moving heavy boxes. Making profit from their work was not only Hershey but what Ms. Preston calls “layers of contractors”—private companies with names like “Council for Educational Travel,” “Exel,” “SHS Staffing Solutions.” As in the notorious “company towns” of the early 20th century, these students lived in company-designated housing at whatever rent the company demanded. Ms. Preston notes:
After paycheck deductions for fees associated with the program and for their rent,...many of them were not earning nearly enough to recover what they had spent in their home countries to obtain their visas.
She quotes an undergraduate in international relations, from China: “There is no cultural exchange....It is just work, work faster.” And a medical student from Turkey: “You stand for the entire eight hours. It is the worst thing for your fingers and hands and your back; you are standing at an angle.”
So the students protested. They got in touch with American labor leaders, who advised and backed them.
What It’s About
I 'm writing about the Hershey’s matter because it’s a mingling of something enormously ugly and something beautiful. And both have to do with the fact that economics based on using humanity for profit has mortally flopped.
1) What Hershey’s illustrates is: it’s no longer so possible for company owners to make private profits if workers are paid with a modicum of decency. In an August 25 Times article a professor of labor, Jennifer Gordon, points out that “Hershey’s once had its own unionized workers packing its candy bars”; now, through private contractors, it has replaced them with this near-slave labor. This is what employers across America are trying to do—get what Prof. Gordon calls “ever cheaper labor.” The reason is: it’s the only way the profit system can now go on. The vast, tricky effort to evade that fact is ugly and cruel.
2) Meanwhile, evil can be sloppy. American manufacturers have had terrific contempt for foreign workers, feeling that they’re ignorant, thirsty for any kind of work here, and will keep their mouths shut. What Hershey’s found was that the workers it was trying to exploit were very educated, and not dying for the pittance the company was offering: they were university students, future engineers, doctors, authors, diplomats. The more educated people are, the more they see they have the right to be treated with respect.
Mr. Siegel explained that what is ending the profit system is “the force of ethics” working in the world. Part of that power of ethics is the fact that people throughout the world have more knowledge. A huge result of the increased knowledge is what Mr. Siegel called “more competition with the American product…. America is not the only country now with industrial know-how.” But another result is that people in other countries are more educated—and therefore increasingly less exploitable.
The student workers for Hershey’s stand for the people of the world, saying, “There is something we deserve: respect, including economic respect! We don’t exist as mechanisms for your profit. We’re here to know, to see, to be added to by the world outside us and to add to it.” To be sure, they didn’t say just this. But what they said and did amounts to it. What will replace the profit system is the seeing that the world is for humanity to have and know respectfully together.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Ah, Blessed Worry
By Eli Siegel
The reason for the title is: there are more signs in the media that there is worry about something central and permanent being wrong in the way this country is industrially or financially run.
So I’ll recapitulate. The profit system in America and the world has been so wounded that it can never recover. It is gone in the same way as a person who has been deeply wounded is trying to function with no chance of recovering from the wounds.
The idea in the profit system is that the way goods or commodities are produced should not be by people as a whole saying, “We’re on this earth and we want to see what is best for us in terms of the uses of this earth”—just as the Constitution begins with “We, the People,” going for a certain purpose. One of these days it will be “We, the People, interested in using the American land for the good of all of us, constitute the following modes and see the following principles as necessary.” The profit system is a way of activity that says: even if what people need in this world, of a physical or material kind, is a large common concern, it can be put in the hands of people who are private.
For example, everybody needs wheat. And at the moment the production and distribution of wheat is a private concern. The same goes for railroads; for cloth; for food as such. A common need is managed for a private purpose. This, which has been the prevalent way of the world, has, in its fashion, worked for a long time—though there have been interferences with it. For instance, there have been laws, including ordinances of New York City, saying that corn should not be sold for more than a certain price in the markets. There has been constant interference, sometimes in behalf of a monarch, sometimes in behalf of a people.
However, what I am saying as historian is that this mode of production and distribution has outworn its usefulness, has been wounded so much that it can never recover. All the “indications of recovery”—more construction, more retail sales, Christmas humming—don’t mean a thing. Because what I have been describing hasn’t been looked into, there is much more pain than might be. If the journals were interested fully in seeing how much was wrong and why, a great deal of pain would be avoided.
A Word Is Misused
The Wall Street Journal today has an editorial called “The HEW Encyclical”—that is, the document by the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare¹ which the Wall Street Journal compares to a general document issued by the Pope.
[Note. The editorial defends an article by Irving Kristol, which called the HEW report—written under the auspices of a Republican administration—“neo-Marxist.” It also defends the Journal’s own earlier calling a papal encyclical “Marxism.”]
We have to look at words. A word almost as much misused as love is Marxist. One definition of Marxist would be a person agreeing with the works of Marx. That would exclude Marx himself, because some things in his works don’t go along with other things in his works. The Eighteenth Brumaire, for instance, does not go along with The Communist Manifesto. Even in the first volume of Das Kapital, there are things that don’t go along so well with other things. And as soon as Marx gets to the field of art, he is a pitiful boy—I don’t care how imposing his visage is.
Something one can see in Marx is that there ought not to be the private control of industry—and there Marx goes along with other persons. That idea is not “Marxist.” It can be described in the sober terms of Harry W. Laidler, of 1911, even of Walter Lippmann: the democratic ownership and management of industry. There were phrases like that, and they are still important. For instance, there is something going on now as to Rheingold Beer: an asking, Should the Rheingold workers come to the ownership of that company which once was noted as using women for profit?² If they do, we’ll have something like a democratic ownership and management of part of an industry.
There is democracy in that phase of human interest called politics; and why it cannot be extended to a larger human phase called industry or production is hard to see. What has occurred is that the private management of industry has outlived its usefulness; is making for a great deal of harm. There is the important matter, told of in the press, that in West Germany and Europe generally the dollar was not very welcome. In fact, there was a statement just a short while ago that Bonn did not want any more inflow of dollars. We have to ask, What does that mean? The dollar has fallen from its high estate. It is hardly the Almighty Dollar anymore. You can call it the dollar whose other leg is remembered—it’s on one leg.
The Wall Street Journal editorial begins:
We would have warned Irving Kristol about the word “Marxist,” but we had somehow momentarily forgotten our great brouhaha with the Pope. We got world-wide attention in 1967 for saying there was a lot of “warmed-over Marxism” in Populorum Progressio, the encyclical on foreign aid.
This Has Been Felt
Every now and then a Pope, issuing an encyclical, would use a phrase like “greater participation of the worker in the development of industry”—and somebody would get alarmed. But there are two things in this world: either all the people will run industry, or some of them will. There’s an inclination to think that as many people as possible should see themselves as concerned in industry: it can happen to a pope, to a baseball player, to a senator. All through the 19th century there were famous Catholics—like Montalembert and Lacordaire in France; in England, Cardinal Newman; a Catholic like Derringer in Germany; and cardinals everywhere, in South America, Italy, Spain—occasionally saying, The world is unjustly run. You don’t need Marx to feel that. It’s either justly or unjustly run.
The writer of this editorial says that “church intellectuals” sometimes have “an anti-capitalist...bias.” He sees that ecclesiastical people can feel that production and distribution are unjustly managed. Protestants have felt that. Jews have felt it. It is part of the tradition of the world. There’s a book of the Episcopal Church, published in 1919, A Church Year-Book of Social Justice, with quotations from many Episcopalians, and also St. Ambrose and Augustine. The feeling that something is amiss is in the Bible. And it’s true.
There’s a feeling that industry and the things of this earth are a common matter, and a common matter should be managed commonly. You find it in John Stuart Mill. You can find it even in economists who are not seen as left; you find it in certain passages in Adam Smith, in Ricardo. And there has been a feeling that what’s going on in the stockyards of Chicago, in the wheat fields of Nebraska or Kansas, what’s going on in the money markets of New York or Boston, is a huddle, is not kind to man, is ferocious. That is being said now more than ever. The protest against polluted air is part of the protest against a woefully managed economy. If you’re going to have a privately managed economy, you’re going to get gasoline among the hydrangeas.
What State of Mind on the Job?
The Wall Street Journal editorial continues:
Here we go again, only this time not with the Pope but with James O’Toole and the rest of the folk who wrote the HEW reports on the alienated worker. Mr. O’Toole, a good capitalist and Republican, can’t see how there could be “neo-Marxism” in the report.
One of the things I gave as evidence for the fact that the profit system was dying was an observable decrease in interest in their work on the part of the persons working in America, and along with that, a decreased efficiency. The product is not as good, generally. Over the years, there has been a great deal of discontent in work. There had been, in documents of the English government, a report on labor conditions, particularly of children; then that was summarized in a poem of Mrs. Browning, “The Cry of the Children,” saying that the children were in pain while they were working. Hauptmann’s The Weavers is one of the eminent plays of social discontent. But at the moment, the discontent is more conscious.
The word alienated is now being used about people who work but who don’t even know they’re there: they work as if they were a system of hands and feet and eyes, but not a person. Marx did not deal with that. The conditions of work were more objected to on human terms by Ruskin. What Marx said was that the way a worker was paid was unjust: that he was entitled to his surplus value—it should not have come to the owner of the factory. Ruskin dealt more with human discontent. He said people were not sufficiently interested in their work, because the creative principle was not there. And Matthew Arnold talked about the degradation of working people: that they had been mechanized, “brutalized”—he used that word.
We come to this: For hundreds of years industry was conducted with returns for some people and not all of them, and things were produced, people lived, married, had children; they died; and life went on. There had been statements about its lack of efficiency from the very beginning. One can find them in Thomas Aquinas. Man does not seem to be happy enough under the private way of ownership. Is there something that could be more efficient and better? That’s the question—just as people found out the electric light was better than gaslight; and gas was better than the candle; and the candle was better than sunlight in the cave; and so on. How much democracy can be in industry?
Fifty years ago people worked, and didn’t like going to work. I remember seeing, both in Baltimore and New York, in early morning, people on the sides of streetcars, going to Canton in Baltimore, or in New York going up Broadway somewhere, or going to work in that place where they made artificial flowers, around Broadway and Bleecker Street. O’Henry dealt with the dejected shop girl. And there are quite a few stories about girls who worked in factories and then went in for the “easy life,” the “life of sin,” because it seemed more interesting, and you also got paid.
The Wall Street Journal is annoyed with the government report, just as earlier it was annoyed with the Pope. The report said it would be good if the department could study the discontent of employers and employees and see what it came from. You can call it “Ruskin by the Potomac.”
If one looks at this editorial, I think one can see a petulance in it, a spitefulness. It seems to be urbane, but it has bad manners. Does the HEW report, saying that the worker is not sufficiently interested in his work, point to the leaving of the profit system in any way? Many persons went to work today, and everyone should ask, in what state of mind did they go to work in the various industries? If the talk, which is usually in novels, about workers’ discontent, is now in a report of a department of the government—no wonder the Wall Street Journal is worried.