The Fight in Each of Us—& in Economics
Dear Unknown Friends:
With this issue we begin to serialize the lecture Eli Siegel gave on November 15, 1974. It is a magnificent untitled talk about the relation between difficulties of mind and the ownership of a nation.
Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which shows that the central fight in every person’s individual mind and the central fight in world economics are the same. There is a battle in everyone between respect, the desire to see meaning in things and people, and contempt—the feeling, I am important if I can look down on someone, manage things and people, and also put them aside, not think about them at all. That, too, is the big battle in economics: should things be produced, jobs be had, the nation be owned in a way that respects every man, woman, and child—or should an economy be run on a basis of contempt for millions of people?
In 1970, Mr. Siegel explained that economics based on seeing people in terms of how much money one can make from them had failed after hundreds of years and would never succeed again. That contemptuous economic way is the profit system, the “engine” of which is the following: “I, the employer, will pay you as little as I can for your labor, while getting you to supply me, through the work of your mind and body, with as much wealth as possible. I, who haven’t done the work, will seize as much as I can of the earnings you have produced, and leave you with as little as possible.” And to a possible buyer: “I’ll make you pay as much as I can for my product, whether it’s software or milk. The more desperate you are for it, the more I can make you pay and so the more victorious I feel; and I’ll sock you with that high price even if you suffer trying to pay it.” That’s what the profit motive comes to, despite the many attempts to make it look honorable.
Contempt Is the Reason
Mr. Siegel showed that the contempt at its basis is the essential reason the profit system has irretrievably broken down. And in terms of the individual mind: he showed that the essential cause of mental difficulty is also contempt.
Our minds were made to see meaning in the world. So as we try to make ourselves important through despising and belittling what we were born to value, our very beings object: we feel nervous, empty, are deeply unsure and profoundly displeased with ourselves. This self-trouble of the individual is like the failure of profit economics: both arise from contempt, because—whether in the privacy of one mind or in that massive economic structure of jobs, money, and ownership—contempt is not what human beings and reality are designed for.
In the lecture we’re serializing, Mr. Siegel speaks of the fact that in a person a feeling can grow, unshown, for a long time, then at a certain point come forth intensely. That is like the failure of profit economics: for centuries there has been an objection in people to how they’ve been used—for profit and without respect. Then, in recent decades, the objection became more and more clear and outward. We see it today, present with even more overtness than in the 1970s. For instance, the feeling that economic respect is deserved by every human being and should be given now! has made for the tremendous popularity and power of the Bernie Sanders campaign. The power of that feeling is a momentous American fact, regardless of who the Democratic nominee is.
The Force of Ethics
Mr. Siegel explained that the profit system will never flourish again because of the force of ethics working through history. Ethics as force is in that increasingly expressed demand of people to be seen with respect, including monetarily: to have America owned not just by a few but by all. And an enormous form of ethics as a force weakening the profit system is something Mr. Siegel described in 1970: “There is more competition with the American product.” The U.S. is not now The Big Producer and Seller to the World, with all the continents providing a flow of revenue chiefly to American stockholders.
But there is no bigger way ethics as force has been present in economics than through unions. Decade after decade men and women in unions fought hard for and got better wages and working conditions—lives of greater dignity and ease—for millions of working people. Because of the courage of unions, bosses were forced to lessen their robbery of those who worked for them. And that is why, as I have described in this journal, there has been such a fierce effort to kill unions, including through hideous propaganda and legislation: if unions are able to continue their beautiful work, having those who truly earn the wealth get more and more of it, the profit way will be finished.
So we come to the Verizon strike of April 13 to May 27, and its importance. The unions involved, the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, definitely won, against a very large company. They got sizable wage increases. And, as CWA official Dennis Trainor wrote: “We preserved our job security,...increased the amount of call center work performed by union members,... protected our pensions.” There are other big achievements in the victory. And it has come at a time when it seemed unions were weaker and workers afraid to stand up for themselves.
I am proud that for many years Aesthetic Realism and people who study and teach it have encouraged unions and union leaders—profoundly, steadily, and vividly. That includes enabling them to know statements by Eli Siegel which make clear, in a way no one else did, the meaning and power of unions. For example, this:
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....Every bit of capital that exists was made by labor, just as everything that is consumed is.
In a May 30th New York Times article on the Verizon strike there are two important sentences, both of which have to do with ethics as power. Here is one: “...Verizon may have been vulnerable because so few of its replacement workers, typically managers, had experience with installations.” That is about conceit and contempt. Those running the company, and their union-busting lawyers, did not want to see the importance, the skill, of the union workers. They thought that of course managers could do the job! They were wrong. In 1970, Mr. Siegel explained:
It is a matter of power against power....It seems that if the power of labor is really believed in, you don’t need Engels. All you need is to know how much people need what you can do.
And there is the following statement in the Times article, which I see as thrilling, though it is put so mutedly: “The company’s real miscalculation may have been its assessment of the unions’ ability to hold out.” The company did not see the power of a conviction about ethics: that justice believed in and agreed about by workers is a force, and becomes tangible—becomes uninstalled equipment; displeased customers; telephone poles, in certain suburbs, tumbling to the street.
As we begin to serialize the November 15, 1974 lecture, we include an addendum: a short passage from a 1970 lecture by Mr. Siegel. There he speaks about philosophy in relation to economics and America. And the largest matter in philosophy is described in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” Economics is always about the central opposites: self—each individual self—and world. And our economy will succeed only when it’s based on this great statement about them by Mr. Siegel—a statement brought to the attention of union leaders and others these many years: “The world should be owned by the people living in it....All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs.”