The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Economics & the Self of Everyone

Dear Unknown Friends:

The lecture by Eli Siegel that we begin to serialize here is Selves Are in Economics, of December 18, 1970—a historic year. In May of it he explained that a way of economics based on contempt for people and reality was no longer able to succeed. This was and is the profit system, a system in which economics is propelled not by the motive to be useful to one’s fellow human beings, but by the motive to make a profit for oneself from their needs and their labor. It is the system based on the notion that the world, into which every person is born, should not be owned by all people but should belong principally to a few persons.

In a series of lectures Mr. Siegel gave evidence, from history and current happenings, that not only is it immoral to see a human being in terms of how much you can get from him while giving him as little as possible, but that economics based on such seeing had reached the point at which it was irremediably inefficient. Though persons in power might compel it to go on a while, it would never recover. In a lecture of June 12, 1970, Mr. Siegel explained:

Man should not make money from man! That was justice five thousand years ago, but it didn’t have a chance to show its power until now....Ethics is a force like electricity, steam, the atom—and will have its way. [Goodbye Profit System: Update, p. 82]

And let us be clear. What is necessary for economics to succeed and please people is not something associated with Marx or Mao. What is necessary, as I’ll describe later, is an economy based on ethics. Without entirely articulating it, Americans are demanding this ethical economics. They are resentful and furious because they don’t have it.

American Feeling

Never have Americans felt more disgust for corporations and bosses—and this disgust did not begin with Enron. It is to be seen, for instance, in the fact that the term corporate greed is as much part of our national parlance as the term cyberspace.

There is fury across this land at having to worry about the cost of health care, and in so many instances having no health insurance; fury that at any moment one may lose one’s job; that one has enormous credit card debt; that one fears the future because of insufficient retirement savings. There is a continental resentment at how one is seen at one’s job: as existing to provide profit for someone else. It shows itself in grouchiness, ill-nature, rudeness (and worse) at workplaces—and also on highways and in homes. This resentment is not the only cause of anger in America, but it is a large one.

It is also one of the reasons Americans have gone after a certain unquestioning "patriotism" in recent months. To be sure, the horrible attack on this country has had people want, truly, to protect America and show love for her. But it also happens that Americans, not knowing how to place their pervasive, constant anger about money and jobs—not knowing how to be for their country yet against a way of economics which isn’t America but goes on in America—have wanted just to get to a certain simple wash of feeling: we’re good!; what’s outside us is bad! There is a desire in Americans to transform an intense mix-up and resentment into an intense feeling that seems less confusing and more acceptable to them: a gung-ho nationalism.

An Agreed-on Fact

That profit economics is a failure in this land, while not stated clearly, is nevertheless presented as an agreed-on fact in various ways. Let us take television and radio ads. A commercial for an office supply chain shows us a business so strapped that it has its employees share one pen, or write on their calves so as not to use up paper. The ad is funny, and is supposed to be immediately recognizable to millions of Americans: it is supposed to represent the company they work for, or run. Then there is a radio ad I’ve heard in various forms: the father of the family doesn’t recognize his wife and children because he’s been working such long hours that he never sees them. Americans are supposed to "relate" to this ad, and do. And as is often the case with humor, what they chuckle at in it is a situation that distresses them. Another instance of humor acknowledging the profit system’s failure is the popular quip that one’s 401(k) is now a 201(k). That bit of jocularity is as frequent in America today as "Why did the chicken cross the road?"

Meanwhile, there is a stupendous effort to keep wringing from the American people, and from the resources and people of the world, big profits for a few persons. The effort has many forms. One is the desire to privatize everything—parts of national parks, schools, the post office, social security. Is the purpose to benefit the American people, or to supply more money—the American people’s money—to private companies?

The Self of Every Person

In keeping with the title of the lecture we are serializing, Eli Siegel saw what other economists have not: the chief matter in economics is the human self in its fullness, the self of every person. Economics is connected to the same self in each of us that hopes, loves, is bewildered, wants to understand who we are. Economics is certainly included in the following principle, stated by Mr. Siegel and great in the history of thought: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." Economics is composed of two opposites, self and world: every human self and the earth from which all products in some fashion come. For a nation’s economy to be sane, it has to be based on an asking, How can these opposites be one? How can this nation with its earth, its goods, its wealth, belong truly to the selves—all the selves—that are of it? For an economy to be efficient and respectful, it has to be based on honesty about this all-important question stated by Mr. Siegel: "What does a person deserve by being a person?"

From economics based not on such honesty but on the seeing of people in terms of profit, have come child labor, sweatshops, sickness and death from industrial diseases.

Eli Siegel saw the self of every person, famous or not famous, close or far away, as real, completely real. His grand, passionate, deep, exact justice to people, including me, was the most beautiful thing I know and the most needed. He wrote in his poem "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana," of 1924, "There are millions of men in the world, and each is one man." He was always true to that statement. And the opposites in it are, he showed, what economics has to be just to: an economy has to be fair to millions of people, and to bring out the strength and expression of each individual person. There has not been an economy which did that; but there needs to be. It is the only economy that will now work.

In the lecture we are serializing Mr. Siegel’s purpose is to show the self as present in economics. It is present in ways that are sometimes intense, but sometimes quite ordinary. The self is of economics intensely when a child, Jerry, in Boston cannot get nutritious food because his mother is out of work. And it is completely shameful that the first priority of the US economy is not to make sure every child, every person, eats well and has a dignified place to live. But the self is also in economics when we look at a garment in a magazine ad and think we should update our wardrobe (something Mr. Siegel refers to in this lecture).

The One Economy That Will Satisfy

I say a little more now about an economy that is ethical, aesthetic—the only economy that will satisfy Americans or any people. Along with the opposites already mentioned, selves and earth, fairness to all people and to each individual person, there are also these crucial opposites: Americans want an economy in which they can express themselves by being useful to other people.

For example, I wrote in a previous TRO about the importance of Americans’ respect and love for the New York firefighters, so courageous on September 11. The big feeling about them stands for what Americans are looking for—because the firefighters were not impelled by a desire for profit, nor is the fire department owned privately. It belongs to the people of New York City, and the incentive of the firefighters was good will. The ugly notion that the one real incentive in economics is the desire for profit, is fake and insulting to humanity. Good will, seen truly, Mr. Siegel showed, is the greatest incentive: people want to have a good effect on others, and express themselves that way.

Americans want an economy based on that strong, expressive, critical, efficient thing which Mr. Siegel showed good will to be, and which he himself embodied all the time. 

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Selves Are in Economics

By Eli Siegel

The relation of selves, or a self, to economics is always to be thought about and it is present in today’s consideration. The large point in what I have been saying is that man, man all over the world, is psychologically fed up with the way he has been going through production and distribution, which are the two main things in economics, along with consumption of course. The question, then, is: is man objecting? And has that objection been made rather manifest?

The big thing at the moment does not depend on what the stock market chooses to do (or chooses to say it has done, which is sometimes nearer to the truth), but whether man is pleased with what he’s been doing, and whether also he’s so displeased at this time that he wants to change to something else. There is such a thing as a fed-up point, a breaking point in people.

This is to be seen in a full consideration of economics, and that is why I go on with reading from this rather inclusive book, Principles and Problems of Economics, by Otho C. Ault and Ernest J. Eberling (1936).

There is a chapter called "Value and Price Determinants." It is a mystery, as I said last week, why price is what it is; the factors are still not wholly understood. That which causes price to be what it is, is partly spontaneous and also manipulated or willed. And the factors are of many kinds. The reason why a price is what it is in any one place may have to do with other things in many other places.

Fashion Is Hard to Resist

Since I feel that there is a certain relation between liveliness and truth, and that if a thing can’t be made lively it hasn’t been presented in keeping with its truth, I read passages which are lively and which I think also serve the truth. In a section headed "Demand As Affected by Social and Psychological Factors," we have this sentence:

Styles are started sometimes purposely to increase sales.

That is where economics comes to quite a few people, because there’s been an attempt to have styles accepted, and they very often are accepted. It’s just as hard for a man to resist fashion as it is for a lady. Men’s hats, let’s say, are different now. There used to be the cute little hat some years ago; now there’s an attempt to combine Brazil and Texas. The beret is still around, good old beret. Well, the clothing industry is quite keen. And it’s worried.

"Styles are started sometimes purposely to increase sales." To some people this would seem an understatement. The purpose of a fashion designer is to tell you what you want before you know it; and usually you think you’re going to kick but you don’t. How, for instance, cufflinks came to be out of fashion has a history, though if you want to be very distinguished you can still wear them.

"Diminishing Utility"

There are a few phrases that are poetic. One is "the law of diminishing returns," which can best be put this way: if you eat four steaks in an evening, you’ll enjoy the last one less, and the third usually less than the second. That is not a complete definition of the law of diminishing returns, but it’s in the field. Then there is the phrase used in this chapter, "diminishing utility," which means if you have one set of the Encyclopedia Britannica you’re not so eager to get another set as you were getting the first one. It’s put by these writers in a very neat way:

A housewife, having one cook stove, would give very little for a second.

That is on page 210, and it shows economics has some lively sentences.

Transportation and Price

One of the things that have to do with price is the means of transportation. That is still operative—as, say, during a truck strike immediately certain goods change price. In the past too, prices were affected by whether you could get the goods shipped from the place of production or the factory, and in certain instances from the farm or fields, to where the consumer was.

So railroads are lovely things. The motto is: We should never say adieu / To the choo-choo. This is presented as a sentimental poem. And chances are we shan’t. In the meantime, Penn Central is definitely asking Congress to help it. But the methods of transportation are a very big matter, how things were carried—including the caravan, the wagon, the coach. You cannot separate a western from the burro or mule that carries packs.

Then, because there was a method of transportation, some things happened to the lands. When the Union Pacific was constructed, the railroad made farming land different, and the states through which the railroad went all were different in terms of what they produced, beginning with agriculture. The Erie Canal changed the farmland near it.

Sometimes the writers of this book, without intending it, get to a poetic way. This occurs with the following:

Sometimes it happens that improved methods of transportation make it possible to open up vast areas of rich agricultural lands heretofore inaccessible.

Now, that happens to be poetic, and I’m being very serious. The writers did not intend it, any more than a throstle or a nightingale studied music. But there’s a structure here which came out of the truth of the matter. I give it the title "Sometimes It Happens":

Sometimes it happens

That improved methods of transportation

Make it possible

To open up vast areas of rich agricultural lands

Heretofore inaccessible.

The idea is poetic: because of transportation, that which was buried and concealed comes out in the open. And the way this is said goes along with the idea. It happens to have a sound quality that serves.


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