The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Economics and the Two Desires

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue to serialize Ownership, Strikes, Unions, by Eli Siegel. The American people need to know what he explains in this great, clear, scholarly, historic, blazingly logical, infinitely kind lecture of July 1970, in order to understand what is happening now in our nation and the world.

Mr. Siegel showed what no other economist did: the fundamental struggle in economics corresponds to a deep fight that goes on moment by moment within every individual self. The underlying, insistent battle in economics—which takes the form of a battle about how people should work and for how much, and about who should own the world—is the battle described by these words of Mr. Siegel:

The large every mind, every mind of once, every mind of now, is...between respect for reality and contempt for reality. [TRO 151]

This fight, going on within a single individual—a Vermont boy of 5, say—is a fight about power. What kind of power will win in little Jason—the power of respect for reality or the power of contempt for reality? There is a dog in Jason’s home; and there is a desire in him to have the power and self-expression of being useful to this doggy, enabling it to become more its canine self, more at ease in the world through knowing Jason. That is the power of respect. But Jason also has a desire for another power: the power of managing a creature smaller than himself, of showing that this doggy is controlled by him, that he can grab the doggy when he wants or even kick it—the power of feeling, This creature exists to make me important. That is the power of contempt.

Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Should economics be based on that? Should economics be based on a few persons’ using the work and lives of others to aggrandize themselves? Should it be based on boss and stockholders’ taking the wealth that others—the workers—produce?

A sentence in Eli Siegel’s book James and the Children vividly describes the contempt way of seeing: “It is a way that says: ‘A person made by God exists for me to have glory’” (p. 54). That is the way of seeing behind profit economics: a person made by God exists for me to make profit from; my concern is not who he is, what he feels, how he sees, but how I can get as much money as possible out of him. Mr. Siegel continues:

This evil pure. Because as soon as we begin using the weakness of another with the hope that the person continues weak or foolish to maintain our own glory—there is nothing more ugly in this world.

Profit economics is based on that hope: that an employee be weak—in desperate need of a job—so we can pay him as little as possible; that the consumer be weak—desperate for our product—so we can charge him as much as possible. This contempt-as-power is what ran the economic show for centuries.

The Power of Respect

The other power—the power of respect in economics—is the power of every person to be given his dignity; what used to be called the fruits of his labor; his fair share of the world’s wealth. After all, didn’t he have at birth the same right to that wealth as any other breathing, crying infant? The power of respect is the power to feel we are working, not to be exploited by someone or to beat out someone, but because what we do can strengthen other people even as we feel we are being strengthened.

So I have been describing the two warring desires, the two possible powers, in economics. They correspond to the two warring desires in every person. When, through Aesthetic Realism, people can see clearly what these two possibilities are, they will be on their way to knowing clearly at last which they want to win.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his “Song to the Men of England” (1819):

Men of England, wherefore plough

For the lords who lay ye low?


The seed ye sow, another reaps;

The wealth ye find, another keeps....

But even Shelley did not see that an English lord’s enriching himself through the labor of a poor ploughman, corresponds to a primal ugliness in every person. “Most people,” Mr. Siegel writes, “have felt...they had the right to see other people and other objects in a way that seemed to go with comfort.” And he continues, “This fact is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world” (Self and World, Definition Press, p. 3).

We Come to 1970—and Unions

By May 1970, Mr. Siegel showed, something tremendous and beautiful had happened. In that contest about whether people would work under terms respectful of their lives, or be used for someone else’s aggrandizement—so much headway had been made in behalf of the first that the economics based on the second could no longer function prosperously. And a central reason was unions. Because of unions, millions of people in America were able to live with a kind of dignity that had not been possible before. Every law in behalf of safe working conditions, against child labor, mandating workers’ compensation and a minimum wage; the health benefits people began to have, the increased wages so they could live with more ease—all these came to be because of the enormous courage of persons working together in unions.

And as Mr. Siegel says in this lecture, it’s mathematical: the money which a company was now made to pay a worker in higher wages, or made to spend on safety features so workers would not lose limbs or inhale life-destroying chemicals—that money no longer could be pocketed by the boss and stockholders, who hadn’t earned it to begin with. “Ethics,” Mr. Siegel explained, “is a force.” And unions have represented that force. By 1970, Mr. Siegel showed, big profits were not coming so readily to people who didn’t do the work: more of the money was going to the people who earned it. Unions should be so proud! Humanity should be so proud! Mr. Siegel wrote: “The profit system has failed and is showing its failure....It is the culmination of years of world history” (Goodbye Profit System: Update, p. 35).

Ego Fights Back

In the first part of the lecture we are serializing, Mr. Siegel discussed the opening pages of David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy. Ricardo in this 1817 work quotes Adam Smith; and both, Mr. Siegel shows, are saying that the most important factor in production, that which makes for the value of any product, is labor. Now he goes to a college textbook, and discusses passages about unions. Through his comments, not only can we see what the deep battle in economics is really about—we can see with a sharpness something that has taken place since this lecture was given: there has been an enormous effort to undo that victory of ethics which the American people had achieved by 1970.

For example, Mr. Siegel says in July 1970 that certain means once used by employers to put down unions are not around much anymore: he mentions scabs, labor spies, the company union. That was true in 1970, and exceedingly important. In the 1980s and ’90s these returned, in horrible abundance. They are part of an all-out effort to kill unions and reverse what they accomplished, so as to have large profits for a few people go on.

In the first of his “Goodbye Profit System” lectures, May 22, 1970, Mr. Siegel explained: “In May 1970, the conduct of industry on the basis of ill will has been shown to be inefficient....This is the greatest victory of good will in history” (GPS:U, p. 9). America needed to know this, and to welcome proudly, celebratingly, the fact that economics now had to be based on ethics, justice to every person.

Ethics as the basis of working, buying, selling would not be some rigid thing. It would be something that had not existed in any country before. It would be the aesthetics described in this great Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The economics America wants, the only kind that will work, is the oneness of opposites: justice to each individual person, and to all people; the oneness of a person who works and the wealth he produces; of every self and the abundant world we all are of; of uncompromising justice and style, charm, imagination, expression.

Since 1970, instead of accepting gracefully the fact that profit-getting had been defeated by the achievement of more human dignity, some persons have worked ferociously to make profits prevail—by damaging millions of Americans’ lives. That is why employers have sent American jobs to Central America or Asia, where they can pay workers a pittance. It is why millions of Americans have been robbed of health benefits, forced to work two or more jobs in order to eat, made to hunt fearfully for one temporary job after another. It is why, increasingly, suburban families are forced to get their food from charity food pantries.

I learned from Mr. Siegel that ego is ruthless but ethics is more powerful. He himself was made to endure the ruthlessness of ego: press persons, and others, resented his beautiful, complete honesty, his tremendous knowledge, the authentic, grand democracy of his thought. They tried viciously to keep people from knowing Aesthetic Realism and him. But he represented, in all his words and life, the might, beauty, kindness, style of true ethics. And through Aesthetic Realism, the people of the world can know what they are looking for—in economics and life—and can have it.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Quarrel

By Eli Siegel

A lot happened, of course, from 1817 to the 1930s and ’40s. The quarrel went on—it has to go on, it is going on right now—between those who own nothing but their labor, themselves, and those who own the means by which this labor can be used. You can’t make bottles unless there are machines for bottles. Even when bottles were made by hand, you had to have certain materials. That is a long story; and we have to ask, What is the main thing? The main thing here is two things: earth and ethics. And they will not be denied. They have shown they have won, and the victory is still there.

There’s a book which is very useful—it’s neither of the moment nor is it old-fashioned—Economic Analysis and Public Policy: An Introduction, by Mary Jean Bowman and George Leland Bach (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1946). I’ll read from a chapter on trade unions, and comment.

“Employer policies toward labor organizations may be of four general types. They may (1) ignore the existence of the union;...” Of course, there may be no union. “...(2) actively fight it and attempt to destroy it or to eliminate its influence....”

I have said and still say: every union that is a real union is revolutionary—because unions want power, and wherever they get power, something else has less of it.

“If active resistance to unions is planned it may take various lines.” There are a few things that are different now. There is no labor spy. Usually if there’s a strike they don’t import scabs in trucks. It’s quite different. Things can go on, but it is so different.

The most subtle is “deflating” unions by...providing welfare services. In the period after the First World War this welfare capitalism blossomed out with profit-sharing plans, bonuses,...pensions,...and so on. 

All of these things are very nice; and if profit-sharing is honest, it interferes with the classical idea of profit—because if everybody is going to have profits, there is no profit.

Well, there has to be something now countering the failure of the profit system, because America has to present a good visage to the rest of the world. And has the Federal Reserve been applying a little makeup!

It is also interesting to see a company saying (I think it’s Control Data) that there will be ten days’ layoff without pay sometime in August and September. That’s a fairly new thing in the history of industrial prudence.

“The excessive supervision exercised by some of the patriarchs of industry over the private lives of their employees is a case in point.” In the ’30s there were stories about Weirton, where the company even provided the movies for its workers. They provided the homes; they provided the Bibles; and you were in a company town. Capitalism has quite a few adjectives by now. One of them is welfare capitalism; then there’s state capitalism; and then there is free capitalism. But no matter what the adjective, it’s better to look into it.

“More aggressive resistance to unions may take the form of promoting or encouraging the operation of a Company Union.” Those have gone down. That’s the one good thing about George Meany. I don’t like him too much, but you’ve got to have somebody president of a national union, and he’s not a company union man. He likes to be in the company of high government people, and he doesn’t have too much sense—but he’s not a company union man.

[A company union] is intended to have no members and no affiliations outside the group employed by a particular firm. [It] is often successful in giving the workers the impression that their interests are taken care of without the need of an outside union. 

These are called “Massa” organizations (there’s the Foster song “Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground”)—Massa came up with a few dollars for me.

The officers of [a company union] are always vulnerable to the displeasure of their employers and usually ineffective in cases where there is any real clash of interest.

So we can put this mathematically: if unions are honest, if they cannot be beaten down, and also if they will increase in power, the profit system will have to go. As unions increase in power, the profit system—which is the ability to employ labor on terms put down or presented by ownership—the profit system will not be able to go on.

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