|NUMBER 1734. —December 24, 2008|
|Dear Unknown Friends:
n this issue we publish the conclusion of the great 1970 lecture Once More, the World, by Eli Siegel. As we've been serializing it, I have been relating the economic happenings of today, with all their pain and fearfulness, to what Mr. Siegel explained in his Goodbye Profit System lectures of the 1970s:
That is what we're in the midst of now. The profit motive—the viewing of one's fellow humans as instruments for one's financial aggrandizement—is no longer feasible as an efficient basis for economics. That is why our government has had to bail out corporations with billions of taxpayer dollars.
The failure of the profit system, Mr. Siegel made clear, is an ethical matter, as economics itself is. That is, everything in economic history has concerned ethics fundamentally—has been a phase of what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the biggest fight in every person: between the desire to have contempt for the world and the desire to see meaning in it, to respect it. For the US economy now to succeed, what's necessary is not the futile patchwork of bailouts, and not some “rival system.” What's necessary is that our economy be based on respect for every man, woman, and child—that the drive behind it be an honest answer to the question Mr. Siegel said was the most important for the world: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”
Is It Always Selfish?
n the final section of Once More, the World, Mr. Siegel asks, “Is the profit motive as such a selfish thing? Is it based on ill will?” To illustrate the fact that the answer is Yes, I'll comment on a matter that went on for centuries, and an English poem about it.
William Blake's Songs of Innocence appeared in 1789 and included his poem “The Chimney Sweeper.” It begins this way (the speaker is a little boy):
So let us consider the chimney sweeping business, important for many years. Its basis was that of any business in the profit system. A Master Sweep, the owner of a particular company, wanted to make as much money with as little expense as possible: that, after all, is what the profit motive means. Little boys were just the right size to fit into the chimney flues; they could climb through them and clean them. And many poor parents were willing to have their children do that work. The boys would stay in the quarters provided by the Master Sweep, usually in cellars, where they would often sleep on bags of soot. That is what Blake refers to in the simple and melodious opening stanza of his poem.
A Master Sweep, interested in profit, could not see those “climbing boys” as real, as human, as having feelings vivid as his own. If he did, he would be unable to use them for his monetary advantage. That is so in any business field, including now. We look at a person either for the purpose of knowing him, seeing him deeply and widely, seeing how he is related to ourselves—or in terms of, How can I be important or comfortable through you?
Those are the two conflicting purposes in personal and social life, as we have to do with people. They are also the two conflicting purposes in economics. In 1970, Mr. Siegel showed that we have come to that point in economic history when the second purpose, the contempt purpose, the profit purpose, no longer works.
A Person Is Real
ere is the next stanza of Blake's poem. What he does is the contrary of the profit system. He thinks about what a person feels. He makes a person real—not something to aggrandize himself. The boy who speaks these lines is telling about another child, and the words have a poignant irony as the music is wide and gentle:
There are descriptions of what these little “climbing boys” endured. They are terrible, and I quote briefly from two, only to show that the profit motive as such is completely against good will. A British website—yourlocalsweep.co.uk—notes: “It was common for the child to become scared and reluctant to climb, so often...a small fire [would] be lit underneath the child, to force [him] to climb to the top.” Nicolas Bentley, in The Victorian Scene ( London: 1968), writes of “the sweeps' boys being suffocated, burnt or injured” as they “got lost in a system of flues.”
Bentley notes that “the employment of climbing boys by chimney sweeps, although [finally] forbidden by law in 1840, continued long afterwards” (p. 209). No economic cruelty—whether child labor, poverty wages, even slavery—was curtailed or terminated by the employers' own desire. That's because to stop such uses would be contrary to the profit motive. The cruelty was stopped only by laws (often brought about through unions) and the enforcement of those laws.
As we're in the midst of economic turmoil, with millions of Americans losing their jobs, we have to see the cause. It is this: an economic motive arising from the ugliest thing in the human self, contempt, is trying to go on when, after hundreds of years, it no longer works.
Poetry Opposes Fakery
n Blake's poem, Tom Dacre has a dream that his fellow chimney sweepers have died and at last, in heaven, they're happy: “Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run, / And wash in a river, and shine in the Sun.”
Blake has an angel give Tom a message. It's the kind of lying message that people who've tried to protect the profit system have often given to those whom the profit system has colossally rooked: this is all God's plan; be submissive; you'll be rewarded in heaven. Blake is, musically, mocking and furious:
True poetry, Aesthetic Realism explains, is the opponent to profit economics. It is the seeing of an instance of reality—including a person—so justly that we feel the structure of the world itself: the oneness of opposites. Take those lines about the chimney sweeps who died. In the sound of the words we hear the lightness and weight of the world, its bounding freedom and order, its motion and glowing quietude: “Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run, / And wash in a river, and shine in the Sun.” The whole world—art shows, and Aesthetic Realism explains—has to do with everyone. And the seeing that the world should belong to everyone is the only real solution to our economic failure.
Happenings & Ethics
fter the more general cultural documents we have looked at, it would be well to get a touch of the current once more. And what's the Daily News for, if not that? The December 24th Daily News quotes Bob Hope “speaking on Tuesday to U.S. troops in Camp Eagle, South Vietnam ” (the brackets and enclosed words are the News's):
What Mr. Hope is doing is that which has been done before. Macaulay, in his essay on Milton, points out that King Charles I did many good things—he was very kind to his family, and he had a beautiful appearance, and he wasn't always trying to have Parliament weaker, and he wasn't always questioning the liberties of the English people. And in the 1920s it used to be found that gangsters who, perhaps, killed people were very fond of robins. They loved certain music very much—some of them were awfully fond of Offenbach, and occasionally a gangster could hum Victor Herbert's latest melody.
It also happens that if you're a safecracker, most of the other things you do are fairly honest. If you're a safecracker, you don't forge checks, because it's not your métier. But this we know: if, let's say, an engineer on a railroad hits another train, all the times that he got to his destination may be remembered, but still, hitting the train would not be seen as a good thing, particularly if he was careless. And if some person gave the right change every time except once in a hundred, he'd still be looked upon as an accelerated artist for himself.
At any time in history, the people who do some of the cruelest things can also be seen as being jolly. But what Hope doesn't want to see is this: that if there was, and it seems there was, a carelessness about the people in South Vietnam, it means something about the state of mind present in the whole management of the military there. And all this about how the same persons could have little children's associations and have checkers and ice cream for them, does not destroy the fact that, whatever the cause—confusion, bitterness, desire to get rid of something not understood—this massacre at My Lai is something the meaning of which will last through American history and world history, as other massacres do.
Economics & Selfishness
he Pope, in his message at the end of the year, talks about how it's necessary to eradicate hate from one, and selfishness. But the Pope does not do that which is very necessary: relate selfishness to an economic procedure already going on. Is the profit motive as such a selfish thing? Is it based on ill will? This has to be studied, because many persons would say, “My purpose is just to have a fair profit for myself,” and assume that no ill will is necessary. If that's true, then I'm wrong. But one can see in the history of business that ill will was there. It is there now. Once you want to make money out of another person's labor, some ill will has to be there as a propulsion, an energy-giver, a guide.
Others have felt this. The encyclicals of the popes occasionally get down to the relation of the profit system as such to what Christ said. Christ is completely against the profit system. There is nothing in his words that is for it. The only thing in the field that he seems to say is “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's.” However, as such, the statements of Christ, some of which I've quoted in other talks, are against that accumulation which has a disregard for man.
So it is well to speak of people snapping out of their hate, selfishness, wickedness, but unless the unconscious gain that we get from hate, the unconscious advantage that we get from seeing people a certain way—unless that is studied, the hate and selfishness will go on. What is necessary is that there be complete honesty as to whether the present means of accumulating wealth helps selfishness along or is against it, is for hate or against it. There are many priests, and many persons of the church, who feel that the present way of accumulating wealth triggers that hate unconsciously in the depths.
On the Daily News editorial page, someone has a statement which, in its jolly manner, is like that of the Pope:
But our unconscious won't let us, because our desire to get ahead doesn't go along with that. You can have a lot of talk about “good will to men,” but unless you see that good will is that which sustains you and makes you more the way you want to be, you won't have it. While ill will seems to be the smartest thing, it will be gone for, in the psychological field and the economic field.
Less Chance for Profit
here are two items, which don't prove everything, on the financial page. One is “Incorporations at 6-Month Low”:
This roughly means that many persons feel there isn't as much chance of making a profit as, say, in the wonderful year of 1954.
A Railroad Is Helped by Congress
he situation of Penn Central is still amazing. We'll find an item saying very simply that Congress found it necessary to help Penn Central.
The history of Penn Central and railroads generally shows that supply and demand can go crazy. There's more desire for transportation on the ground, both for people and freight, than there ever was. Even so, with the great demand for freight motion and people motion, the Penn Central has to go through this. Roughly, the cause is that supply and demand can go crazy if people don't see well enough, because people have a great deal to do with supply and demand.
But what does it mean that one of the most famous railroads in the world has to appear this way? How did it get all these liabilities?
Mortgages & Ethics
'll read one more item I think is necessary—from the December 12th New York Times. Mortgages are all over the land, and part of the drama of America is some of the emotion going with mortgages—how persons who granted a mortgage or arranged one for a would-be property owner, hope he won't be able to meet it so they can foreclose. That is a great deal in the drama; I refer you to The Old Homestead.
Can there be good will between mortgage haver and mortgage giver? Can there be a time when people hope that the next payment will not be made? Also, can there be a hope of being able not to pay it and get away with it anyway? Such are the things that are present, have been present in what is called the profit system.
A mortgage already has something sad about it, and disagreeable. It always has had. When people say they got a mortgage, they try to look very brave, and sometimes they are.
What Is Looked For
hese are things that are going on. I cannot read all of the relevant items. But when they go together it does mean—what with, let's say, a good many sick calls on the Long Island Rail Road today—that persons are looking for some other condition under which to work, some other auspices.
They are looking for another relation of man and man as money is made. This desire has been present from the very beginning. It is becoming more conscious and occasionally it takes a very “disagreeable” form, through such things as strikes. More and more, people see it has nothing at all to do with the left, because some of the unions which are the least left are the most “disagreeable”—as, say, certain aspects of the Teamsters Union. Since the Teamsters Union can take in any kind of work, including schoolteachers sometimes, well, it's some union.
All this is going on. And I'll say again that the world has asked for a change in the way wealth is got from it, or money is made. But as I say this, I ask people to be more and more critical and to relate what they've heard this evening to what else they have heard, to be more and more vigilant, so that what may not be so not be seen as so. I think that the being critical will go along with a world asking for a deep difference in itself, but it will also make people kinder. There is a great deal of anger now, ever so much. And the being critical is the beginning of not being angry, and of understanding other people's anger.
Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
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