|NUMBER 1810.—November 23, 2011||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the second part of It Weakens, one of the Goodbye Profit System lectures Eli Siegel gave beginning in 1970. In this section we see some of the aesthetics of economics—in keeping with the principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
For example, Mr. Siegel speaks about economics in relation to how land is the same and different, and how nations are. We also see something about big opposites of self and world: how the tangible world in the form of land joins with, and meets the needs of, people, selves. He speaks too about aesthetics as ethics, or good will: how the basis of trade is that the likeness and difference of people can become one—kindly, efficiently, beautifully—because you have what I need, while I have what you need.
The Ugly Motive
Eli Siegel is the economist who showed that a particular motive has befouled the beauty and kindness inherent in economics. It is the motive for contempt: to obtain an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt, Aesthetic Realism makes clear, is that in the self which interferes with every aspect of life. It is the source of all cruelty. Contempt is that which weakens a person’s mind, even while the person thinks he or she is ever so keen in having it. It has thousands of forms, including the hope that someone be foolish so you can preen yourself on seeming smarter. Contempt makes for a fake notion of love—including the feeling that someone loves you if you can essentially own the person and he or she will be an inward mess without you. Racism, with all its viciousness, is a form of, and arises from, contempt: it’s the feeling that you’re Somebody if you can see a whole race as inferior. And in the field of economics, contempt has taken the form, these many centuries, of the profit motive: the seeing of other human beings in terms of how much money you can extract from them and their labor.
In his Goodbye Profit System lectures Mr. Siegel showed that history had reached the point at which the profit way was no longer able to succeed. He gave many reasons, including the ever-increasing foreign “competition with the American product.” “There will be no economic recovery in the world,” he wrote, “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.”
Despite the enormous effort to make people think otherwise, the profit motive has never been fundamental to economics as such. It was always completely unnecessary, as tacked-on as it was brutal; as artificial as it was unjust. What is needed now is something the world has never had fully yet: an economy true to the aesthetics and ethics at the beginning of economics itself.
Then & Now
Mr. Siegel gave the lecture It Weakens in January 1971, more than four decades ago. As we look at some of the matters he discusses in this section, we can see how they have changed or intensified over these years—all in behalf of the weakening of the profit system. For instance, he refers to “something called international banking”: that “something” has now become gigantic.
In 1971 he comments on the fact that US investments abroad were greater than foreign investments in America. Well, the US Department of Commerce, in its most recent report on the matter, tells us:
The U.S. net international investment position at yearend 2010 was –$2,471.0 billion...,as the value of foreign investments in the United States continued to exceed the value of U.S. investments abroad. [Bureau of Economic Analysis]
Mr. Siegel speaks about imports and exports. 1971 was the first year in which the US had a trade deficit. Today that deficit has become massive. And it exists and is growing because knowledge is more democratically had throughout the world. That is part of what Mr. Siegel described as “the force of ethics,” which was making profit-getting harder. He said:
America is not the only country now with industrial know-how....There is much more competition of various kinds with American industry than there used to be. This...doesn’t help the profit system.
Travel Is Economics & Emotion
Mr. Siegel speaks here about another matter in which we see a huge change from forty years ago: tourism. Americans, he said truly in 1971, were the big tourists. That the streets of New York would today be filled with tourists from other continents, and that these tourists would feel they could purchase things cheaply here, would seem fantastic to people four decades ago. So would the idea that the Chinese would be big tourists! Yet the reason it is so was explained by Mr. Siegel in the sentences I just quoted: the abilities of other nations have increased, and so has their wealth.
To comment on tourism as representing aesthetics—the oneness of opposites that are central to the hoping human self and to economics—I’ll quote briefly from a person who wrote about travel long before the tourism industry began. Around 1380, Geoffrey Chaucer told about a group of English travelers, of diverse occupations, en route to visit the shrine at Canterbury. In his General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales he makes it clear that the purpose was not just religious: to take this trip on horseback, in spring weather, in interesting company, met a desire in people. This was the Middle Ages, and travel, other than for trade or war, needed some religious excuse. But Chaucer has us feel that many of his travelers were on the road mainly because they wanted to experience reality in a new way. As April comes, he says:
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes.
This means Then people long to go on pilgrimages, / And palmers [pilgrims] to seek strange shores. There are wonder and exploration in the music of those lines.
The desire in 1380 to go on horseback to see new places, be somewhere different from where one had been, is like the desire to travel today. It is, deeply, an aesthetic desire: to put together the opposites of being and change; one’s intimate self and the world as wide; to feel at home in the unknown; to see the world as surprising yet continuous.
There are questionable reasons for traveling. A lot of tourism occurs because people don’t like themselves and feel if they go somewhere else they will like themselves. This, of course, doesn’t work. Also, much tourism takes place because people want to be seemingly affected by the world without having to think about what the world, things, people are and deserve. Meanwhile, the increase in tourists from different parts of the world to different parts of the world, is an aspect of a growing global feeling: We are all connected to the whole world; it belongs to all of us.
One of the most secular people in literature is the Wife of Bath, who is on the Canterbury journey. She has been married five times, and likes to wear bright red stockings. Chaucer writes about her travels in lines that can be translated this way:
And thrice had she been at Jerusalem;
She had crossed many a foreign stream;
At Rome had she been, and at Bologna,
In Galicia at St. James, and at Cologne.
She knew much of wandering by the way.
That an English woman of 1380 could travel so much and far is hard to believe. Yet Chaucer wants us to feel that this earthy, often selfish Wife of Bath had the mystery of things in her, and wanted to feel the mystery of things.
Chaucer tells us too about a person who physically traveled little, yet had a true love for and sense of the world as large. He is the scholar, or “Clerk,” who treasured, above everything he might possess, “Twenty books, clad in black or red / Of Aristotle and his philosophy.”
The world of the Clerk and the Wife of Bath is a world now insisting it be owned—not for the aggrandizement of a few—but by all people, aesthetically and kindly.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Land, Trade, Hopes
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.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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