Reality vs. the Profit Motive
Dear Unknown Friends:
With this issue we conclude our serialization of It Weakens, the lecture Eli Siegel gave on January 15, 1971. It is one of his great, definitive Goodbye Profit System talks. In them, and in issues of this periodical, he did what no other economist or historian has done: he explained what has happened these years to the American and world economy, and why there is so much economic anguish in people’s lives today. He wrote:
The desire for profit has never had a good effect on humanity. But [now]...the old motive in economics is not working well any longer....The purpose of profit is no longer able to produce well and to keep Americans contented....Unless good will in its full, deep, wide, keen meaning, is the chief thing present as man produces, distributes, sells, works, is paid—unless good will is the big thing in all this, there will be the slowing down we have. [TRO 213]
Economics Is Immediate & Philosophic
In earlier sections of It Weakens, Mr. Siegel, using an economics text, spoke about banks, trade, tariffs— always with vividness, depth, width, immediacy, often with humor; always in a way that made one see the world with more clarity and wonder and have more feeling for people. He read for the first time his “Snappy Economics: Six Instances.” They are definitions which, with a poetic, ethical “snap,” enable one to see the injustice that has attended various economic activities these centuries.
The section we publish here accents the philosophic. In discussing an essay of Emerson, Mr. Siegel does something amazing and mighty: he explains what good is. And he speaks about the motive which now must be the basis of economics if economics is to succeed and to stop causing misery. That motive is good will, which is, as he says, no soft, vague thing, but tough and critical.
The economics of Aesthetic Realism is inseparable from its philosophy, from its seeing of what the world as such is. Mr. Siegel is speaking about Emerson’s view that deeply the world is good. A question arising from that view, which Emerson did not ask but Aesthetic Realism does, is whether an economy not in keeping with the nature of the world has something basically amiss and inefficient in it. This is a world to be known, valued accurately, cared for critically—not manipulated, grabbed, seen as a field in which to take advantage of one’s fellow humans. In 1977 Mr. Siegel wrote:
The economics of the world so far has been directed by dislike of the world or indifference to it. This will no longer do....I believe it will one day be seen that unless people are disposed to like the world in which all selling, pricing, working, paying, distributing, storing, consuming go on, all these activities—included in economics, every one—will not fare so well.
A Sonnet Comments on the Profit System
There is a sonnet by Matthew Arnold that presents some of the pain profit economics has inflicted on people. And Arnold says there is a different way people need to see people. He says it in the tight 14-line structure a sonnet has, and with true poetic music. His “West London,” of 1867, begins:
Crouched on the pavement, close by Belgrave Square,
A tramp I saw, ill, moody, and tongue-tied.
A babe was in her arms, and at her side
A girl; their clothes were rags, their feet were bare.
There was a big feeling in Arnold that a human being had dignity and should be able to live in keeping with this dignity, and that poverty was not in keeping with what people—like this mother and two children—are and deserve. The profit system has always depended on the existence of poverty. It is, after all, based on extracting as much money as possible from the labor of others while paying them as little as one can. And today, in order to keep profit economics limping on a while longer, more and more people are being made poor.
Arnold uses three adjectives for the woman he tells of: “ill, moody, and tongue-tied.” His choice of these is surprising and true. The profit way has ruined the health of millions of people, but it has also brought out the ill-nature of people. And, too, there is that situation which mattered intensely to Arnold: how much could a person express himself or herself ?—because of the life she was forced to lead, this woman was “tongue-tied.” The poem continues:
Passed opposite; she touched her girl, who hied
Across, and begged and came back satisfied.
Some laboring men, whose work lay somewhere there,
The rich she had let pass with frozen stare.
Arnold sees (and says more about it as the poem goes on) that while this woman has to beg for money, she despises the scorn of the rich. So she sends her daughter to ask for money from working people.
With increasing clarity, people hate profit economics for two reasons: 1) they feel they’re being robbed by it; 2) they feel they are seen and used with contempt. This woman of the 1860s objected to being seen with contempt. She was, as Arnold will say in the concluding lines, a predecessor:
Thought I: “Above her state this spirit towers;
She will not ask of aliens, but of friends,
Of sharers in a common human fate.
She turns from that cold succor, which attends
The unknown little from the unknowing great,
And points us to a better time than ours.”
She points us, Arnold is saying, to a time when people will feel they are related to other people, and when this sense of authentic relation is the basis on which life, including economic life, is organized. What he is describing is good will. It is now the one thing that will enable economics to succeed.