The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Justice: As Real as the Sidewalks

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the final section of Shame Goes with It All, by Eli Siegel, one of his Goodbye Profit System lectures. In that historic series, begun in May 1970, he showed that an unjust, cruel way of economics had reached the point at which it could no longer succeed. The profit system was fundamentally finished, done for, though it might be made to totter on—with much pain to people’s lives—for some decades more. He was right. What he explained is being played out today; and in various issues of this journal I’ve described how.

In the present lecture, Mr. Siegel is speaking about the shame that has always accompanied profit economics. That shame exists because the profit way is based on something ugly: the seeing of human beings in terms of how much money can I extract for myself from them—from their labor and their needs. That is the profit motive. And however much one may try to decorate it, it is a form of contempt. Aesthetic Realism explains that contempt,“the addition to self through the lessening of something else,” is oh so frequent yet is also the source of every instance of human brutality.

In the final section of his talk, one of the passages Mr. Siegel quotes is from Wordsworth’s Prelude. It is about the feeling Wordsworth and others had at the start of the French Revolution: the excited feeling that much more kindness could be among people as a practical thing. And Mr. Siegel’s statement that this “did not come to be. But what is going on now will succeed” is, I believe, about the following: The French Revolution did not succeed fully (for one thing, the various European monarchies joined to stop it); however, what Mr. Siegel was describing in the 1970s would succeed, because it wasn’t a matter of uprisings or barricades but of the nature of reality itself, ethics as a force working in history. He wrote in 1976:

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.

In America Now

As I’ve written in this journal, in recent years there has been a massive effort to make big profits come in for certain individuals the only way those profits now can be gotten: through making most of the people of this nation poorer and poorer. To do that, one must weaken, eviscerate, annihilate unions.

Of enormous importance for America’s history and future are the recent demonstrations across the land, demanding a $15-an-hour minimum wage. There have been several in the last two years, principally by fastfood workers. But the strike/demonstration that took place this April 15 in 226 American cities also included home healthcare workers, carwash employees, part-time college teachers, and more. According to USA Today, it’s being called “the largest-ever mobilization of U.S. workers seeking higher pay.” And that newspaper gave the article telling of it the headline “Fast-Food Strikes Widen into Social-Justice Movement” (April 15).

The New York Times article of the same day quotes a demonstrator saying, “This economy we’re living in now doesn’t work for people.” The Times reports that the Fight for $15 campaign “has captured broad public support”—and adds, “But the movement is up against a hostile business sector.” Certainly: because every additional dollar that can help feed a worker’s children is less profit for bosses, and hastens the full demise of economics based on using human beings for somebody’s private profit.

So we have what USA Today calls this new “Social-Justice Movement.” We have what the Times calls the “broad public support” for it. We have the widespread, frequent use of the word inequality as something ugly, shameful, and un-American. All these and more are a showing that people throughout the nation now feel our economy has to be ethical! And they are right. As Mr. Siegel explained, the only economy that will now work is one that has not existed before, one which is ethics-as-aesthetics: that is, economics based on the oneness of opposites—justice to each individual person and to all people at the same time.

“...and a Union!”

It’s important to be clear about the relation of unions to the Fight for $15 movement, and to the way it’s been reported on. Most major news outlets, whether called “liberal” or not, have disliked unions. That’s because those outlets are profit-based companies. And their owners (like owners of fast-food chains) don’t want unions interfering with how much of the wealth produced by their employees they (the owners) can pocket. So in the reporting, here is some of what has occurred:

1) Since public opinion is so much in favor of these demonstrations, in many reports there has been an effort to indicate that the Fight for $15 movement is admirable—but to have it seen as apart from unions. In fact, the central slogan of the demonstrators is: “$15 an Hour and a Union.” But in so many media accounts, the second phrase is just left out.

Unions—in particular the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers—have done much to have this movement exist; they, chiefly, have organized and funded it. Yet a lot of the media coverage gives the impression that low-wage workers somehow just got together in some vague grassroots way. And the reason is: if the reporting let Americans see how much unions are working to bring justice to these employees, and how much the employees know they need a union, Americans would love and value unions and want them—even more than many, many Americans now do.

2) Then there are the persons, sometimes quoted in the media, who are blatantly against this new “Social-Justice Movement”: the persons who present a wage increase for fast-food workers as ruinous to business and therefore to America. They say: The demonstrations are taking place only because Big Bad unions are trying to get money into their coffers! The fast-food workers would be satisfied with their situation if unions didn’t stir them up (as slaves would have been satisfied in the 1850s, were it not for those awful abolitionists).

3) To a degree, unions themselves have kept their role in the movement somewhat in the background, while certainly not lying about it. That’s because they haven’t wanted the movement to be hurt by the massive, ferocious anti-union campaign carried on day after day by those trying to keep the wealth of America in the hands of a few.

4) Then, there are the media reports which admit that unions have been useful in the “Fight for $15” movement—but which say that the unions are engaging in a new method: that unions have been dying off and had to come to something new to keep alive. This angle is ridiculous. Unions are doing what they have always done, what they created themselves to do: fighting for economic justice to workers; showing workers that in joining together, each person can take care of oneself by taking care that others get what they deserve. Unions have used different techniques over the years. But what they are doing in the “Fight for $15” movement is utterly in keeping with their history: for instance, fighting for justice for garment workers in New York City; textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts; auto workers in Detroit, Michigan; coal miners in West Virginia; teachers in American classrooms; truck drivers on the many and long American roads. American unions are as American as our Declaration of Independence, and they stand for the same justice.

5) The downplaying of the true role of unions as the $15 movement is told of, also has this purpose: The news operation can show sympathy toward, and evoke sympathy for, very-low-wage workers, rather than make clear that all the people of America have a right to have increasingly comfortable, dignified, well-paid lives. Unions have been a means of taking people out of poverty, yes. But they’ve also been a means of enabling people not only to be not poor, but to have such things as a pension and the financial ability to know and enjoy this world into which we were born. Companies, which may include news companies, don’t want you to know this.

Beginning as early as age 18, Eli Siegel wrote with passion and logic about the fact that economics should be based on the answer to this question: What does a person deserve by being alive? His passion and logic never waned—were ever greater and more beautiful.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Great Emotion about Justice

By Eli Siegel

One of the great poems in English having to do with the misfortunes of man, the injustice to people, is Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” It is one of the great social poems, humane poems, justice poems; and then, it is a great poem by itself. It was worked on by Gray in the 1740s. In the stanzas I’ll read, Gray is talking of those persons who have the humble headstones, or maybe not any at all, in this country churchyard. The stanzas have some of the highest, deepest, subtlest music in the English language.

The matter told of in them has still not been attended to: that is, there’s no honest attempt to bring out the powers of children who are born. It is not felt that this is necessary. But every child born deserves that the people who know that he or she is born do all they can to bring out what proficiency and efficiency is there.

It happens that proletarian children have never had a chance to pit their algebraic minds against those of non-proletarian children, with elementary algebra, let alone elementary arithmetic. I think their minds can do pretty much the same things. —Gray says:

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid

Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;

Hands that the rod of empire might have sway’d,

Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.

That stanza is a study in exact formation: forty syllables brought together like cells in a most symmetrical tissue. There are no poetic unorthodoxies here—there are just surprises.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,

Rich with the spoils of time, did ne’er unroll;

Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,

And froze the genial current of the soul.

“Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage”: that is one of the coldest lines in the language. And the reason is the way the rs are definite but go so very fast that you feel nothing much is happening.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene

The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear;

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

We have blushing in its two senses: there are the blush of shame and the blush of pride. These show how close pride and shame are, because if a person is praised a great deal, he’s likely to blush. There are flushes and blushes that come out of such a mingling of pride and shame. A person may not know what he’s ashamed of and what he’s proud of, and this can make for nervousness. The population is simply in a dither and in a dimness about what it is doing with its blood, because people blush. Walter Winchell used to have this phrase, “Is my face red!” Sometimes it was because somebody had pointed out an inaccuracy. But also, he would give a good notice of himself and then say, “Is my face red!” —“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen”: it’s a lovely line.

“And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” How many wildflowers have never been seen by pleased pedestrians or pleased autoists, we do not know. Even squirrels missed them.

And Gray says: “Some mute inglorious Milton, here may rest.” The phrase “mute inglorious Milton” has remained.

With these stanzas, we’re in the field of the Might-Have-Been. History always has in it the Might-Have-Been-Otherwise.

William Wordsworth Tells of Good Will

Wordsworth disparaged Gray in the Preface to the 1800 edition of the Lyrical Ballads. But he continues Gray as to an attitude to people. In book 11 of Wordsworth’s Prelude, a famous revolutionary passage occurs in which he describes the good will that was in France as the French Revolution began, the new feeling, the greater generosity.

The passage is uneven, but it is important in the history of thought and poetry. It does describe something which did not come to be. But what is going on now will succeed, the cellular motion of now, the quieter motion. At the present time there are no great demonstrations; there’s no cheering. There are no things like those that did occur in England when people didn’t yet know what the French Revolution was getting to and sympathy for it was not yet clamped down. There is large feeling that one can see in the writings of the time, and even later. You can see some of it in Shelley, who was born in the third year of the revolution, 1792. Some of it’s in Byron. But a great deal is in Coleridge, and in Wordsworth, and in others, including a person like Thomas Paine or Mary Wollstonecraft. The passage begins:

O pleasant exercise of hope and joy!

For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood

Upon our side, us who were strong in love!

Wordsworth sees himself as being “strong in love.” And he felt that the outside world, the “auxiliars,” were for the good will that he felt. There are many passages about love in Wordsworth. Not love as Sardou understood it or, shall we say, John O’Hara—but love, good will. And some of it is here.

Next there is perhaps the most famous line, or nearly two lines, in The Prelude: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very Heaven!”:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very Heaven! O times,

In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways

Of custom, law, and statute, took at once

The attraction of a country in romance!

Nobody realizes the romance in good will. There is romance and Wordsworth mentions it.

When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights

When most intent on making of herself

A prime enchantress—to assist the work,

Which then was going forward in her name!

Those are two opposites, reason and enchantment. —And it seemed the whole world was going to change:

Not favoured spots alone, but the whole Earth,

The beauty wore of promise.


The inert

Were roused, and lively natures rapt away!

There is nothing like this today: the only thing that’s roused is the world itself, the force of the world itself, reality as good will.

Wordsworth says that at the time of the French Revolution there was a feeling that the world as it now is can change to something more beautiful. —The beauty would take place

Not in Utopia,—subterranean fields,—

Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!

But in the very world, which is the world

Of all of us,—the place where, in the end,

We find our happiness, or not at all!

That passage is often quoted too. It is not the customary blank verse rhythm of Wordsworth. It is exceedingly stamping-of-footish: assertive with a certain definite and quick thump.

Then Wordsworth compares coming to this world to finding that an estate has been given to you and you’re going to look it over:

Why should I not confess that Earth was then

To me, what an inheritance, new-fallen,

Seems, when the first time visited, to one

Who thither comes to find in it his home?

He walks about and looks upon the spot

With cordial transport, moulds it and remoulds,

And is half pleased with things that are amiss,

’Twill be such joy to see them disappear.

In other words, since he has this estate or house, he’s pleased that things are not satisfactory because he has some delightful work to do. And he says he was “an active partisan” and “moved among mankind / With genial feelings.”

In brief, a child of Nature, as at first,

Diffusing only those affections wider

That from the cradle had grown up with me,

And losing, in no other way than light

Is lost in light, the weak in the more strong.

This means that one’s personal affection can get lost in an affection that the whole world has. The good will in the world, the love in the world, will meet the love in Wordsworth as light meets light.


That is the famous passage. It has a great deal to do with shame. And the French Revolution had a great deal to do with Why in the world did we let all these things go on as long as they were let go on?!

So the profit system has gone along with shame. The question still remains: what is the relation of shame to pride? And how can we take one for the other?