Egypt, the Economy, & Our Deepest Desire
Dear Unknown Friends:
The 1971 lecture by Eli Siegel that we are serializing—Shame Is in How You Do Things—is about ourselves right now: world happenings and people’s feelings today.
In the previous issue I spoke about the meaning of the momentous protests that were taking place in Egypt. As I write this now, they have been successful and people throughout the world are celebrating. Dictator Hosni Mubarak (funded by US administrations for decades) has been forced to leave.
Mubarak gave speeches saying he would certainly not go. He and his government sent goon squads into Tahrir Square to teargas, beat up, and try to terrify and stop the demonstrators. He arrested and tortured people. But the demonstrators were joined by organized labor: workers in major Egyptian cities hit the streets, making it clear they could stop the functioning of the nation’s entire economy, including the Suez Canal, if Mubarak did not go. And on February 11 (with, it seems, intense encouragement by the military), he departed.
As I wrote in TRO 1790, what the Egyptian revolution is about is also the biggest matter in every country, including ours: to whom does a nation, both its governance and its wealth, belong? We do not know what will happen now in Egypt: will the people be able to own the earth, the resources, the riches of that ancient and contemporary land? Until they do, they’ll never be satisfied.
But for now, it is good to use Hosni Mubarak as a metaphor. His adamant but ineffectual stand can be a symbol. His situation is emblematic of something Eli Siegel described beginning in 1970. That is: Mubarak is like the profit system, that economic way which, after being in the world for centuries, is no longer tenable, no longer works, yet is trying to hang on.
Its Time Is Over
The profit motive was always ugly: it is the seeing of other human beings, not in terms of who they are and what they deserve, but in terms of how much profit can I get out of you? By the last decades of the 20th century, Mr. Siegel explained, this motive as the basis of an economy was—along with being unethical and cruel—also inefficient. Its inefficiency is with us now. Thousands of American businesses are gone. Millions of Americans are jobless. Those who work are paid less and less. We’re living what Mr. Siegel described in the 1970s:
There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.
—It’s important to note that what must replace the profit motive is not some “foreign” economic way Americans fear, but American good will: seeing people in terms of justice, not profit.
The profit system is like Hosni Mubarak. It, or really the persons whose sense of self-supremacy is tied up with it, do not want to see that its time is over. They are too used to feeling they run the world. The for-profit ones will use all kinds of financial tricks to keep economic ill will grinding on. And they’ll act ever so smug and sure of themselves, as Mubarak did until he hightailed it out of Cairo.
The opposition to profit economics is larger, more inclusive, though perhaps less immediately seeable than the protests in Tahrir Square. It is a protest within the feelings, minds, very beings of millions of people in workplaces and homes: the feeling throughout America and Europe and the world that they’re being rooked and deserve something better. The opposition to economics based on using human lives for profit is, Mr. Siegel explained, reality itself. It is, for example, the fact that the world has reached a certain point in its history when “there is more competition with the American product.” Because many other countries are able to produce well, profit-making is much more difficult, and in many instances impossible. The world is no longer a market in which US companies have a monopoly. The protest against profit economics is not a matter of barricades, banners, shouts: it is a matter of history as ethical force, inescapable in that Tahrir Square which is reality.
On television and the Internet, people throughout the world saw the scorn emanating from Mubarak—scorn that is also conceit’s uncomprehendingness. What we saw as Mubarak spoke was: “I’ve run something for so long, I’ve felt superior for so long—the idea that I have to stop looking down on people and using them for my own aggrandizement is ridiculous! It will never happen!” Mubarak stands for contempt, and contempt thinks it can go on forever.
Contempt, Aesthetic Realism explains, is the feeling I am more through lessening what’s not me. It is a way of mind within every person, and is the most hurtful thing in the human self. In each of us, contempt is at war with our desire to like the world honestly, see its value, have good will. Contempt is ordinary: it can be a little boy’s bossing his sister around and feeling like a big shot because he can. But it’s also the ugliest thing in the world. Hosni Mubarak represents contempt gone very far: feeling he could push 80 million people around and use torture, murder, and US backing to do so.
The profit motive is contempt too: the seeing of earth and persons in terms of one’s monetary advantage. And as I said, we’re at a time when economics based on it has been acting out what Mubarak embodied: “It seems my days are numbered, but I’ll never go.” For it to stay a while longer, people have to become poorer and poorer, and even so it will never flourish again; it will never revive.
Before I leave the subject of Mubarak as metaphor, this has to be said: He is not only a metaphor for profit economics—he and others like him have literally been a means of keeping the profit system going. Mubarak was not only feathering his personal nest: he could be relied on to try to keep businesses, including US businesses, profitable through impoverishing and oppressing the Egyptian people.
What Do We Truly Want?
In the lecture we’re serializing, Eli Siegel discusses an article from Fortune magazine. Its author, Max Ways, says that Americans feel profound displeasure about every phase of economic life; our “public policies” have failed, and there is “disillusionment,” a “crisis of confidence.” The reason, Ways says, is that our knowledge is inadequate. The article is not very clear, and Mr. Siegel points out that we have to know what it is that the people of a nation truly want, and have economic policies based on that.
“The way to judge an economic system,” he explained in another lecture, “is whether it satisfies the true wants of people as well as might be.” He said that “an effective economic system” would have as its purpose “to understand what man really wants and to meet it.” For thousands of years there has been an economic way that encourages people to beat out others. It has now failed. People will be more ready to welcome that failure as they see what they want.
Aesthetic Realism explains that the deepest desire of every person is to like, respect, and add to the world—not conquer it. Evidence for this fact is in the literature of every nation. But for now I’ll quote from an Egyptian poem of about 4,000 years ago. These are lines from “Adoration of the Disk,” as translated by Robert Hillyer. The poem is addressed to the God Ra, the Sun. And the writer says that when dawn comes, the creatures and things of the earth show their happy love:
The cattle roam again across the fields;
Birds flutter in the marsh, and lift their wings
Also in adoration, and the flocks
Run with delight through all the pleasant meadows.
Both north and south along the dazzling river
Ships raise their sails and take their course before thee;
And in the ocean, all the deep-sea fish
Swim to the surface to drink in thy light.
For thou art all that lives, the seed of men,
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The chick within the egg, whose breath is thine,
Who runneth from its shell, chirping its joy,
And dancing on its small, unsteady legs
To greet the splendor of the rising sun.
This poem is beautiful. It is alive. It has, in both its statements and music, the oneness of reality’s opposites: stir and quiet, agogness and composure, personal feeling and the Grand Impersonal, the diminutive chick and the mighty Ra. The world this poem is about should not be the possession of a few people, and a field for the suffering of others. Poetry and the Egyptian revolution both say: the world is something everyone has a right to greet and love as one’s own.