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Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1703.— October 17, 2007
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Economics Is about People's Feelings

Dear Unknown Friends: 

esthetic Realism explains that there are essentially two ways we can have of seeing another person, an object, in fact the world itself: with good will or with ill will. Good will, Eli Siegel writes, is “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” Ill will, or contempt, is “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.”

     In the great 1974 lecture we're serializing, Always with PDC, he is showing that central in all production, distribution, and consumption—in every moment of economics—is the seeing of people with either good will or ill will.

Economics Is Not Separate

conomics is not some territory apart from human feelings and human purposes, something impelled by “market forces” and resolvable into statistics. Every aspect of it is as human a matter as embracing someone, as slapping him on the face, as having good health or being diseased. What's “always with production, distribution, consumption” is human, living, flesh-and-blood ethics.

     In his 1970 Goodbye Profit System lectures, Mr. Siegel explained that history has reached the point when ill will as the basis for an economic system no longer works. That is, an economy founded on the profit motive, on seeing the needs, the work, the very lives of your fellow humans in terms of how much money you can get out of them—such an economy might go on a while longer, but it would never thrive again. And so it has been these past three decades.

     In the section of the lecture printed here Mr. Siegel, using a high school textbook, comments on aspects of economics. He is, as he earlier said he would be, purposely casual. But he has us see human feelings as central to those economic matters. He has us see ethics as always there.

     In the last issue, I quoted from a children's poem by Robert Louis Stevenson as a prelude to Mr. Siegel's discussion, and I'll quote from two more poems here.

     The speaker in Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses is a little boy. And though the collection has been very popular for over a hundred years, it hasn't been seen that present in it, quietly, charmingly, and with true poetic music, are the two purposes of a person: ill will and good will. That means also the two possible purposes in economics.

Owning the World

et us take the poem called “My Kingdom.” A child tells of going to a certain place near his home and imagining that he owned and ran everything:

...And all about was mine, I said,
The little sparrows overhead,
The little minnows too.
This was the world and I was king;
For me the bees came by to sing,
For me the swallows flew.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
No other kings than me...

     Ownership can be wonderful—if our purpose is to be fair to the thing owned and to all other things and people. For instance, we can own a book because we want to know what is in it and use it to see the world and humanity more deeply. We can own an article of clothing because we want to have a good effect on the people who may see us wear it. But ever so much desire to own is not for this purpose. It's to have reality subservient to us, and to look down on other people.

     That is what is going on in the lines I quoted: the little boy makes the sparrows, minnows, bees, and swallows exist to serve him—instead of wanting to see them as creatures unto themselves, to be known by him. Also, as we can see, part of the ugliness in wanting to own the world is that you have to want other people not to own it: you want them to be much less than you, to have much less than you. The boy says, “No other kings than me.”

     This way of mind is what the profit system arose from. It is contempt. From the feeling that the world consists of things to be owned by you and that other people are less than you, have come (for instance): sweatshops; child labor; the “right” to have another person work for you with you taking the wealth he produces and paying him as little as possible.

     In “My Kingdom” Stevenson presents that desire—to have the world under one's thumb and to have contempt for it and people—in an early form, without some of its possible outgrowths. It exists in a child because it exists in every person. He presents it simply, musically—but he doesn't make it seem good, or decorate it by calling it “the entrepreneurial spirit.”

The Greatest Power

There is a poem by Stevenson that is about the opposing desire in a child or anyone: good will. “The Lamplighter” is really about the feeling that to use oneself to have a good effect on people is the greatest power, including in the field of economics. Why does this little boy care so much for a person who comes each evening and turns on the gaslights along the street? The poem begins:

My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky;
It's time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

     There is symbolism in this poem. For children as well as adults, light stands for a making of the world friendlier; it stands for that which enables us to see, that which enables us to know. The boy says in the next lines that to have this effect is the best thing one can do with one's life in terms of career. It is better than making a lot of money:

Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papa's a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I'm to do,
O Leerie, I'll go round at night and light the lamps with you!...

     There is musical longing and triumph in the last of those lines. And however surprising this may seem, I am saying that the line stands for the purpose America wants in economics. Every person longs to feel that the purpose of one's job is—not to make profits for somebody, or use people to make profits for oneself—but to have a strengthening effect on one's fellow citizens, to have the world truly look better to them, to add to humanity's knowledge and brightness.

     This purpose—good will—as the basis of our economy is possible and necessary. It is, Mr. Siegel has shown, the only basis which will now have the economics of the world succeed!

ELLEN REISS, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Humanity Is There

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is quoting from Economics, by John Ise (Harper & Brothers, 1946).

product is sometimes sold in a small town for a higher price than in a large town, and if you want to get it more cheaply, you use your car to go to a large town and buy it there. I'm mentioning this because one of the rivalries in economics is about the same goods—as we know that sometimes a thing can be sold in Macy's and also in the neighborhood store. It has made for a bad feeling. Also, the history of the independent grocery is a sad history, what with supermarkets. Ise writes:

The automobile has, of course, brought more competition into small-town merchandising, for many customers can now go to larger towns if they think local prices are too high. [P. 129]

     One looks around, very much so these days, for the lowest price. No matter how high prices are, somewhere somebody sells something a little lower than somebody else. There's the term that's in the book business, remainders: they're like the bread that used to be sold more cheaply because it was two days old. We can see where a person would have a debate: Should I buy this old bread at a lower price? Pride gets into it, and pride is an ethical matter.

     I think if there were 2,000 instances of ethics in economics seen clearly, we'd be about ready to say what the present inflation comes from. And there are more than 2,000.

Economics, Subtle and Plain

conomics is subtle, and also it is very plain—as let's say you buy something. You buy a magazine, you buy an ice cream cone, you buy a glass, you buy malted milk in a glass, and it's economics. Then there are such things as tariffs, and they are with the more subtle aspect of economics. But the two are related, because it happens that if milk is processed in Wisconsin it is in a state of rivalry with milk processed in Canada . Ise gives an example: people getting angry with Canada about milk. Milk is one of the oldest commodities, and we all know that it helped to bring our Chief Executive [Richard Nixon] to his downfall, because he accepted the favors of the dairy producers too easily.*

     In this sentence, we have a more subtle aspect of economics, with tariffs: “When the agreement with Canada was published”—that is, a reciprocal trade agreement, which would include dairy products—“there was a storm of protest from Wisconsin dairymen because duties were lowered on some Canadian dairy products” (p. 364). That is, Wisconsin wants to sell its dairy products, and if there are dairy products from Ontario that are going to be sold in the United States, the Wisconsin people have a right to be worried—which they were. And they did something about it.

     So, where there's competition there can be good ethics. But as most people know, there very often is not so good ethics. Tariffs have a long history.

Work Is Easy and Hard

good part of economics is work. Production is almost equivalent to work. There are some things that don't have to be worked at so hard. If you happen to be in coconut land, all you have to do is be around the coconuts and have the energy to take one off what it's growing from. Still, that's production; the world does most of it. As to coconuts, what would Mounds be without them? The making of candy is one of the most subtle production fields that we have, and people are trying to invent something new in candy. Even today they're looking for it.

     Some titles in economics have remained. One is Work and Wealth [by J.A. Hobson]. One way of making money that's still around—it's not out of fashion—is just to work for it. There are other ways.

Always under Conditions

here is something in this book about carpenters. When there's production, there's production always under conditions. Building a house in Rhodesia is not the same as building a house in Maine . Building a house in Brazil is not the same as building it in Illinois. And the persons working on the house also go through different things and are surrounded by different things. So we have this sentence:

One of the reasons why carpenters do not always receive as high an hourly wage as brick masons and plasterers is that carpenters usually have more work days in the year, partly because they can work indoors in the winter. [P. 370]

     Most people have not thought about that—that if you're a mason or a plasterer you may not work as often as a carpenter does. At the moment the construction industry all over the world is in a pretty tense state. Also, people want to buy houses, but mortgages don't know where they are. They're just as confused as people, mortgages are.

     The word wage is here, and wages is a religious word: “The wages of sin is death.” There's a song in Shakespeare's Cymbeline with the line “Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages.” The word wages itself, if you look at it, is just redolent with ethics.

     Ise is pretty inclusive. He knew that work can be decorative but it's work. If, for example, an actor, however well known, has an engagement and he has to meet that engagement, he is working. Katherine Cornell had an engagement, let's say, with a town in Ohio—Columbus, Ohio . She had to be there. George Arliss had an engagement in Binghamton, New York, as some people know. He had to be there; or in England. Ise says:

The work of actors and actresses sometimes involves severe nervous and physical strain which shortens their average life; and in many cases their productive life lasts only a few years, because public tastes change so quickly, or technological changes may put them out of work. [P. 370]

I think Ise makes matters a little too sad, but there are such things.

     There is some work which is unusual, like that of deep sea divers who are supposed to go to the bottom of the sea and see what's doing after an accident. They work—because production can be defined as the changing of a situation so that a desire of somebody able to pay is satisfied. That's not the only definition. If someone wants to pay a deep sea diver to go to the bottom of the sea and see what's doing and bring something up if he can, or tell where it is, that is work. So acting is work too. In fact, the phraseology of actors is exceedingly interesting: you're either “working” or you're “at liberty.” Also, how much should one ask for one's work as an actor has been a question. In the old autobiographies a person would say, “Only let me be on the stage! I'm not going to ask any money from you. I just want to show what I can do.”

     The history of acting is ever so large, and there are a good many novels that have to do with how actors feel. In Thackeray's Pendennis there is the lady whom Pendennis is interested in for a while, Miss Fotheringay. There's Adrienne Lecouvreur, who had to make a living; sometimes opera is about important ladies who had to make a living.

Work Can Have This

Work is sometimes very ugly. Ise writes:

It is hard for most people to understand how a man can endure the blood and filth in the shambles of a meat-packing plant, or the stench of a garbage truck, or the danger in a riveter's job forty stories above the street or in a miner's work a thousand feet below the surface of the ground, or the terrible heat of a stoker's job in the hold of a ship, or even the tedium of a bookkeeper's task of balancing figures. [Pp. 376-7]

     As I quote this, we get very much into novels and plays. There hasn't been a great novel yet written about somebody who drove a garbage truck; that is, a novel which has shown the romance of sanitation life. But there could be.

     There are many propaganda novels and they usually have to do with economics, but there are two propaganda novels in America of great fame. One is Uncle Tom's Cabin, which essentially attacks that mode of production which can either be called plantation or slavery, depending on how you look at it. Then there is The Jungle of Upton Sinclair, which is about meat packing.

     “...or the danger in a riveter's job.” There have been stories about riveters, and descriptions. The Woolworth Building is still there, and somebody worked on the top of it; also the Waldorf, and the Chrysler Building . That was a big thing in the '20s: New York had sounds coming from on high constantly—apartment or office buildings, and every one has a history. The Equitable Building was a terrific clatter once (now it's a repentance).

     So there was “a riveter's job forty stories above the street,” and you had to learn that. A riveter is a person who essentially would put two flat iron things together so they would stick. In the meantime, we have the word rivet, meaning get attention of an intense kind.

      “...a miner's work a thousand feet below the surface of the ground.” There have been quite a few novels about miners. In Lawrence's Sons and Lovers you get a touch of the dissatisfaction in the Morels. The way Lawrence saw mining is important.

     “...or the terrible heat of a stoker's job in the hold of a ship.” That has been made part of American drama. The Hairy Ape of O'Neill has shown that if you have to work in the hold of a ship you're impolite to ladies, or at least you want to be impolite; you're embarrassed with them. With the steamship came the stoker. We don't have stokers in yachts—everything sails along. But once you have a steamship you have to have somebody who feeds the steamer or the liner, and that's what the Hairy Ape did.          

     “...or even the tedium of a bookkeeper's task of balancing figures.” Bookkeeping has become very classy. When it's very classy it becomes accountancy. Still, there's something like bookkeeping, and the adding machine has to do with that.         

     The kinds of work that are in the world are many. Every person who does a certain kind of work has a feeling about it. He uses it to get some notion of the world itself. You can't miss a feeling about the world if you have to draw animated cartoons day after day, or work at it.   

*One of the revelatory conversations on Nixon's Watergate tapes involved a $3 million gift from the dairy industry.—ER
Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

1.  The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.

2.  The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.

3.  All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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