Music and the Meaning of a Strike
Dear Unknown Friends:
Aesthetic Realism shows that what makes for art and beauty is the same as ethics, and that this aesthetics-as-ethics is the most necessary thing in the world, and the most powerful. Eli Siegel explains—in the principle that is 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, there are the opposites of freedom and justice, self and world. For love to fare well, and for a nation to fare well, people need to feel that freedom for themselves—complete, expressive, personal freedom—is the same as their being completely just to someone different from them, a world other than themselves. And people are in pain about love, and there are pain and cruelty in our nation, because these opposites of self and world, freedom and justice are not one in private thoughts, personal relations, and the economic activities of America.
In the great 1951 lecture we are serializing, Aesthetic Realism and Music, Mr. Siegel is illustrating that inexorable equivalence of ethics and aesthetics as he shows that music in its technique has what we need for our lives. And I comment here on an important occurrence in American history: the national strike this month of 185,000 employees of United Parcel Service. Aesthetic Realism is that which explains the enormous meaning of this strike: its aesthetic, ethical, and urgent meaning.
In a series of lectures beginning in 1970, Eli Siegel showed that the profit system, a way of economics based on using human beings with contempt, could no longer continue successfully. He said it might go on in a sickly fashion for a while—as an electric fan rotates a bit after the plug has been pulled—but it is fundamentally defunct, and for a reason that should make every person proud and cause celebrations throughout America.
There are two big forces, Aesthetic Realism shows, in history and in each of us: contempt; and ethics, the desire to be fair to the world. Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” He explained that contempt is as common as dust—and it is also what has impelled every brutality ever committed. It can take the everyday form of a person’s inner triumphant smirk at feeling someone else is stupid. But it is also the motive behind all racism. Contempt is the thing in each of us which impedes every good possibility we have.
And contempt is the basis of the profit system: that system in which men and women work, not in order to be useful, but so that someone else can make a profit from them—the wealth they earn with their hours of labor comes not to them but to a boss or stockholders who didn’t work for it. “Only contempt,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “could permit a man to make money from the work of another—as man has done these hundreds of years” (Goodbye Profit System: Update, p. 155). And only contempt, he showed too, could permit that other central aspect of the profit system: the fact that you will get the things you need, maybe desperately need, only if you can pay someone profitably enough. It is contempt to see the needs of another as a means of profit for oneself!
The Victory of Ethics
Mr. Siegel showed that by the last quarter of the 20th century profit economics had been magnificently rendered dysfunctional by what he called “the force of ethics” working in history. There are various aspects to this force of ethics, but the largest was that greater justice to people which came to be through unions. To get an 8-hour day, decent salaries, benefits, laws against child labor, laws mandating workplace safety measures—men and women fought, literally bled and died. Each of these accomplishments was ethics: the saying, A human being not oneself is real, as real as oneself. And every one of these accomplishments cut into the profits of boss and stockholder. Justice to a person is simply in inverse proportion to the ability to use that person for one’s own profit.
The Profits Belong to America’s People
So many businesses have failed in these years. And the reason companies that remain are making profit is that they have worked to undo what ethics, and unions, had accomplished by the 1970s. They have turned vast numbers of Americans into temporary workers, unsure where their next paycheck will come from—if it comes. They have made people work for lower wages without benefits, made millions of people have that sickening worry as they look at their children, “Will I be able to give them what they need, the right clothes and food? What if someone gets sick—can I pay for a doctor and medicine?” The profits today of companies in America are what these companies have stolen from the American people. Stockholders are getting dividends only because a father in Milwaukee is working three miserable, part-time jobs; a woman in Georgia is working—with aching arms and legs—a night shift for a wage that doesn’t permit her to afford rent.
Why the Strike Was Beautiful
The UPS strike was beautiful—was like Bunker Hill—because it took a stand against something millions of Americans have hated but felt they couldn’t take a stand against. In this journal in April, I said there were two huge emotions in people about jobs: anger and fear. The fear that one might not have work, the desperate need to hold on to a job one despised, was, I said, keeping people’s fury in check, making them feel they couldn’t express it.
The strike of UPS Teamsters against being forced to work part-time for low wages has made for a shift in that relation of fear and anger in the American people—and they are grateful. On August 14, the Wall Street Journal stated on its front page, “The Strike, Oddly Popular with the Inconvenienced, Has Wide Public Support.” The Journal attributed the public’s support to the fact that so many of us know a UPS deliveryman. But that was only part of the reason. The reason was: “Here are these people we see every day—and they’re saying No to something that’s made us suffer too!” If the American people didn’t think the UPS strikers represented a deep objection in themselves, they wouldn’t have been so much for them. Even people who see themselves as against unions, the Wall Street Journal notes, felt sympathy with this strike. But it wasn’t just sympathy—it was identification. The people of America, whatever party they may vote for, deeply hate the basis of our economy: they hate being seen and used contemptuously, for profit.
The granting people just part-time work is not only an insulting, demeaning, and impoverishing use of human beings (23 million Americans work part-time); it represents the contempt with which others feel they too are seen. It stands for what the profit system is as such: human beings exist not to be understood and respected, but for profit; to be used, paid as little as possible, and disposed of.
We Need to See Our Feeling Clearly
What the UPS strike did was bring forth a tremendously deep feeling in people, which has churned in them, screamed in them. Through the UPS workers, that feeling picketed, got onto the streets, stopped packages from moving, was not just in people’s broodings and anguished discussions in the kitchen. Yet the strikers and others still need to see what that feeling fully is. Eli Siegel has expressed it with beautiful clarity and kindness. He said in 1970:
Industry has been conducted on the basis of warfare and ill will. Men live with more difficulty and incompleteness, and the world is saying: We don’t want ill will to hurt and poison our lives any more.
That is what the strike was really about, and the depths of the American people were picketing.
Kindness As Power
Americans have also been affected by the bigness of that strike. It was a oneness of opposites: it was vast—national—yet intimately close to oneself, involving trucks, people, feelings one recognizes. As size, 185,000 Teamsters are no slouch. People want to see ethics as having Largeness, Power; they long for it. And the boldness of the UPS workers standing up in that huge way against ill will has affected people tremendously. It illustrates how much people want to see what Eli Siegel describes in these beautiful words: “I say that the whole purpose of history is to show that the greatest kindness is the greatest power.”
Every strike is, too, a oneness of the individual and collective. This strike was massively collective—but the individual hopes for justice of each single person were throbbing in it, sometimes shouting in it. It was each man or woman’s particular right to dignity and respect that held a picket sign in personal warm hands—in Massachusetts, Illinois, New York, Washington state.
On What Basis Should Americans Work?
The two big questions pulsating within that strike are stated clearly only by Aesthetic Realism. Unions and others need to ask them, not some substitute, and say they learned them from Aesthetic Realism: first, in Mr. Siegel’s words, “What does a person deserve by being alive?”; and, On what basis should Americans work? UPS made over $1 billion in profits last year. Other companies have made big profits. But, as I said, these profits exist only because people in America are not being paid decently. If everyone were employed and at a respectful salary, those profits for people who did not work for them would no longer exist.
We have come to a point at which, if suffering is to end, men and women have to ask: Is it worth it to subsidize the profit system with the anguish of American lives? Should the working conditions of Americans continue—including the renewed child labor and sweatshops, the low wages, the scrambling for temporary work, the terrible uncertainty, the part-time employment—just so that some few people can make profits?
The feeling about the UPS strike—the sympathy the Wall Street Journal called “odd”—is deeply: “Why should the American people subsidize the profit system?! Why should we sacrifice our happiness, our ability to get the good things in life, our children’s future, for somebody’s profits?!” This feeling is patriotic. As Mr. Siegel pointed out, “There is nothing about the profit system in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.” Seeing people as means for profit was un-American to begin with; it’s the way of seeing that’s behind slavery. And in the instance of UPS, we have vivid evidence that private profit is not one bit necessary for an industry: the U.S. Post Office has been in the package delivery business for over 200 years, and its owners are the American people.
The Meaning of a Strike
Eli Siegel was the philosopher, historian, person who most loved and fought for justice. He wanted to see truly, with beautiful depth and exactitude, every object, happening, human being. Studying with him, being comprehended to my center by him, enabled me, a representative person, to have a life that is beautiful. It is he who explained the meaning of labor, its power and grandeur. And so I comment further here on what a strike—as aesthetics—is.
What the UPS strike and every real strike illustrates is this great statement by Mr. Siegel:
The most important thing in industry is the person who does the industry, which is the worker....Labor is the only source of wealth. There is no other source, except land, the raw material. The other sources are decorations....Every bit of capital that exists was made by labor, just as everything that is consumed is.
Production is a oneness of the opposites self and world. It is a person joining with the “land, the raw material,” or joining with something that in turn is the result of persons working with earth. A UPS truck is metal and other substances made a composition by the intelligence and physical activity of people. Then that truck-composition joins with another person: a driver. To drive a truck over streets, to bring a package to a door and into someone’s hands, requires the oneness of self and land, mind and motor, purpose and miles of earth; it does not require profit for someone who didn’t work for it. When there is a work stoppage, what is shown is this glorious fact: despite a billion dollars in profit, things can’t move—and why? Because “the most important thing in industry is the person who does the industry”! That person should own, with his fellow citizens, the land he works with and lives on—its richness, industry, possibilities.