Trains, Beauty, Profit, & Shame
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the third part of Shame Goes with It All, by Eli Siegel. This great 1970 lecture is from his Goodbye Profit System series, begun in May of that year. In those landmark classes he described what other historians had not seen: economics based on the profit motive had failed and would never recover.
The profit way, he made clear, was always unethical, always ugly. After all, the profit motive is the looking on a fellow human being not for the purpose of understanding him, wanting him to fare well, to get what he deserves, wanting to relate him to oneself and use him to know oneself. Rather, it is the seeing of another with the motive of aggrandizing oneself through this person: you hope the person is so desperate that you can pay him very little for his work—or charge him very much for something he needs.
That (despite all that’s been done to glamorize it) is the profit motive. It has made for sweatshops, child labor, thousands of industrial accidents (because safety measures cost money and cut into profits). It has made for poverty, and hunger. And Mr. Siegel explained that this motive which for centuries was unethical and cruel now is also inefficient: it is a victory for humanity and ethics that the immoral is now also the impractical.
It is nearly 45 years later, and he was right. Today, in order to keep that sick thing, a profit-motivated economy, on life support—to force it to bring in wealth for a few—millions of Americans are being made poorer and poorer.
What Is Shame?
In the Goodbye Profit System talks, Mr. Siegel gave historic and immediate evidence for his statement that economics based on ill will could no longer work—and explained the causes. In the lecture we’re now serializing, he is commenting on an emotion that has always been with profit economics: shame.
The section included here has in it two subjects that are very different: Dante Alighieri, writing and worried about money around 1302; and a war between 19th-century railroad magnates. Mr. Siegel, swiftly, deeply, shows that what’s in common is the shame that the profit way makes for.
Shame is a huge thing in human life and certainly has to do with things other than economics. What is shame, and what causes it? In his Definitions, and Comment, Mr. Siegel defines shame as “pain coming from the self’s feeling that it is not as it wants to be, or is not doing what it wants to do.”
Shame exists because of the aesthetic nature of the human self. The aesthetics which is as much of us as our bones is described in this principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” And the two biggest opposites for us are our intimate self and the wide world we have to do with all the time. “When we are unfair to the world,” Mr. Siegel writes, “it can be shown that something in us which is the world itself, doesn’t like it.” This not liking it, is shame. Shame is a tribute to the aesthetics, which is also the ethics, of ourselves. And so every American is ashamed that there is poverty in this beautiful country we associate with ourselves. We may try to put aside the shame, because we have other fish to fry, but it is there—and it can come forth if someone on the street asks us for money. To have an economy based on some few people being very rich and millions of others poor, makes everyone ashamed. Then, as Mr. Siegel described, there can also be a false shame: it is a terrible thing that people have felt being poor must mean there is something wrong with them and so have felt ashamed.
Motives, People, Railroads
In this section of his talk Mr. Siegel speaks about a particular occurrence in the history of American railroads—a history that has the profit motive and its ensuing cruelty and shame all through it. There was, for example, the brutal use of “cheap Chinese labor” to build the first transcontinental railroad. Chinese immigrants were worked to literal exhaustion and sometimes death; were maimed and crippled; were blown up through the hazardous use of explosives—all to make building the railroad as lucrative for a few persons as possible. This way of dealing with people arose from the very basis of profit economics: the less you can pay a person and the more work you can wring out of him, the more profit you can make.
Then, later, there were the workers on the trains themselves, and the tracks. In 1877, the terrible working conditions and the cutting of their already meager wages impelled the Great Railroad Strike. It was put down violently by state militias and federal troops.
There was the Pullman Strike of 1894. President Cleveland, backing the Pullman Company and railroad owners, deployed federal troops to crush that strike. So Americans demanding a wage on which they could feed their children were fired on and killed by fellow Americans in army uniforms. The Pullman Strike has been described as the first national strike in US history: workers in other industries and across the nation struck in sympathy with the Pullman workers. And though the strike was broken by guns and soldiers, it gave working Americans the sense that if they joined together they had Power, and could increasingly get justice. That is true. That is what unions are based on. And that’s why those who want to save the profit system are trying to destroy unions and fool Americans about what unions are.
The years just referred to, the late 1800s—also the early 1900s—represent the successful time of profit economics: the time when the profit-makers could flourish. The people now trying to resuscitate the profit way know that to do so they must bring back the situation of that time: when a person was forced to work for whatever pittance and under whatever conditions the employer chose. They know that for this situation to be, unions must be wiped out—because unions are the force that has enabled Americans to work under dignified conditions and earn wages placing a person in that disappearing thing, the middle class.
Meanwhile, there is the train itself, which is wonderful and has not been fully supplanted by the automobile or plane. It seems right to include here Eli Siegel’s 1926 poem about a train in an American autumn, “Red and Yellow and Hills.” The poem has in it the oneness of quietude and sound, gentleness and force, eternity and the mechanical moment, which happens as a train joins the American earth. The poem is from his book Hail, American Development, and we also print the note that accompanies it there.
The profit motive is one form of what Aesthetic Realism identifies as the hurtful motive in everyone: contempt. But we have another, opposed motive: to be ourselves through wanting other things and people to get all they deserve. America now is asking for an economy based on that deeper motive, which is justice and true self-expression.