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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1730. —October 29, 2008
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941. 

People's Lives, Economics, & the American Land

Dear Unknown Friends: 

n October 10, an article on the front page of the Washington Post carried the headline “The End of American Capitalism?” What is happening, as financial institutions collapse and are bailed out, or bought out, by the government?

     Eli Siegel explained it in 1970, in his many Goodbye Profit System lectures. And one of these is the lecture we are now serializing, titled Once More, the World.

     He explained that history had reached the point at which economics based on contempt no longer worked and would never succeed again. He documented with wide-ranging, scholarly, and vivid detail the profit system's failure; the cause of it; and the historical and human reasons why its terminal illness was taking place at the end of the 20th century. There would be an effort to keep it going and make it appear healthy, but it was a dying thing. And there is only one way, he said, for American and world economics now to succeed: economics—including jobs, finance, buying and selling—must be based on ethics, an honest answer to the question “What does a person deserve by being a person?”

What the Profit System Comes From

esthetic Realism shows that the large fight in the human self is between the desire to respect the world, see value in it, care for it; and the desire to have contempt for things and people not ourselves—lessen them, look down on them, exploit them as a means of elevating ourselves. This fight takes place in every aspect of a person's life. The going after contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else,” is very ordinary and immensely popular. And it is the cause of every meanness and cruelty. Contempt, Mr. Siegel writes, “is that which distinguishes a self secretly and that which makes that self ashamed and weaker” (Self and World, p. 362).

     A woman, for instance, wants to love a man; she wants to find meaning in him. But also (though she won't put it this way, even to herself), she wants to use him contemptuously: she wants to own him; she sees him as hers—as a being who exists to make her important. And in doing so, she is really robbing him of his humanity, making him a tool for her comfort and self-glory.

     The way this woman, Gwen, sees a man has its economic likeness. It corresponds to the profit motive: the seeing of people in terms of how much money one can get out of them. The profit motive is the motive to aggrandize oneself monetarily through other human beings—their labor and their needs—not to see them justly. This motive has been the basis of economics for hundreds of years.

     Gwen is married to Jim. Her psychological profit motive as to him, her mentally acquisitive use of him, makes her irritable, agitated, and deeply ashamed. It, along with Jim's similar way of seeing her, has made their marriage angry and quite empty—though in social settings they put on an impressive show. Contempt has weakened them and made them failures together, because it's opposed to the very purpose of their lives: this purpose is to like the world through knowing it. And central to this purpose is to see another person justly, with good will: to see a human being as related to the whole world, not only to you, and to do all you can to have his or her relation to the world be as accurate and beautiful as possible.

     That purpose, good will, has to be the purpose of our economy too. Unless it is, not only will people be cruel to each other, but our economy will no longer be able to supply the jobs, the money, the homes people need.

     I will not now attempt to describe all the hurt which economic contempt has made for. The profit motive is what made a manufacturer think it expedient to have children work their young lives away in his textile factory. It is what made a mine owner employ little children, who could fit nicely through crawl spaces of his mine. The profit motive has made millions of people suffer from poverty, hunger, industrial diseases—because the profit motive, being contempt sheer, says: “I will pay you as little as possible, and therefore make as much profit from you as I can. Also, I'm not going to spend money to make your working conditions safe, because that money would come out of my profits!”

     Yet just as conquest and acquisition in love, though hugely popular, never is in keeping with what the self is truly after, so profit-motivated economics never has been. And the contempt, the bad ethics, at its basis is the underlying reason why it is in ruin.

     What Eli Siegel explained in a class of June 1970 describes what we're in the midst of today, as a terrific and deeply fake world financial structure topples:

What is working now?... The profit system has failed and is showing its failure....It is the culmination of years of world history....
     Man was not made to be used by man for money....That was justice five thousand years ago, but it didn't have a chance to show its power until now....Ethics is a force like electricity, steam, the atom—and will have its way. [Goodbye Profit System: Update, pp. 35, 70, 82]

It Is Always Land & Labor

said that the financial structure now in collapse was built on something fake. Why that is so can be found in the section of Once More, the World printed here.

     Mr. Siegel is showing that there are only two elements in all production: labor and land; human beings and what's not human. The third “element” put forth by economists, capital, is not an element of production, because it arises from the other two. The presenting of capital as elemental to economics has been used to justify making a lot of money from someone else's work. For example, it's been used to make it seem that the wealth people produce with their labor (and need for their lives) should go, and go, and keep going into the pockets of somebody who does no work but once bought stock in the firm.

The Mayflower Compact & Now

he earliest document of American government is a means of placing the economic tumult of America now. It is the Mayflower Compact, and William Bradford quotes it in his History of Plimoth Plantation. In 1620 Bradford, with about a hundred others, arrived near the coast of Massachusetts, on that little ship, now so famous, the Mayflower. In his History, he describes the Compact as “a combination made by them before they came ashore.” —So immediately, with the words them and ashore, we have the two elements Mr. Siegel speaks of: we have people, who called themselves Pilgrims; and we have the land, the American earth.

     That is essentially the situation of America now: it is the American earth and people. And the real question within the matter of failing financial institutions is: what should be the relation of America's earth and her people? Should America be owned by a few people essentially, or by all the people? We have reached the point when the only fair thing is the only efficient thing: America needs to be owned truly in behalf of all her people.

     There is no idea more fundamentally American. It is in the Mayflower Compact. Bradford writes that some of the people uttered “mutinous the ship,” saying that when they landed they would just be out for themselves. But Bradford and others said, No; we have to see that the way for each individual to take care of oneself is by being fair to all of us. So the Compact was written, and everyone signed it. It contains these phrases:

We whose names are underwriten...solemnly & mutually...covenant & combine our selves together into a civill body politick,... for the generall good of the Colonie, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

     The Mayflower Pilgrims didn't say, Some of us will use the others for private financial advantage. They said their purpose was “the generall good”—the good of everyone.

     Of course, there were other people on the American earth already. The desire to exploit the Indians is horrible and much in American history. The brutality to the Indians came from the same thing profit-motivated economics came from: contempt, the feeling, I don't need to see this person as being as real as I am; through making less of him, I'm more! Bradford and his colleagues, though, seem to have been more respectful of the Indians than others were, and there was a friendliness with them, he writes, “which hath now continued this 24 years.”

     The phrase “the generall good” and the similar phrase in our Constitution, “promote the general Welfare,” are easy to utter and be insincere about. But now, to have an economy that works, America has to see these phrases as real—and make them real. The wealth of America, from her earth, her production, her finance, has to be for the general good—the good of a little girl in a Milwaukee school; a tired mother in Tennessee; a young man in Missouri who wants to go to college; a man of eighty in New Mexico who would like to enjoy the next years, not fear them.

     It should encourage Americans, with all their distress, to see that the present financial collapse has arisen from the failure of something ugly, something that has hurt people's lives for centuries, something un-American because it's anti-human: economics based on contempt. Eli Siegel's understanding of economics was great, passionately kind, unwaveringly logical. It is what the America he so much loved needs now.

ELLEN REISS, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


There Are Work, People, Profit
By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is quoting from Principles and Problems of Economics, by Otho C. Ault and Ernest J. Eberling.

e have more about the law of diminishing productivity. There is a point, the writers say, at which it's not productive for a company to have more workers:

that is, the value of the product (the increase in production) attributable to the efforts of this additional laborer would not be equal to the wage paid a workman already engaged in the plant.

     The problem always is that if there's any addition to a factory, what you pay for the addition, whether it's capital or labor, should not be more than the profit to be got from the addition. That is equivalent to saying that in economics the first consideration is, will it make for more profit? Profit is supreme. Then we have the following:

Assuming...that management will push its profit-seeking motive to the utmost, it will employ additional laborers so long as the value added to the product by the additional laborers equals the price (wages) paid for labor.

So in one way or another the idea of profit has to be kept in mind. This does have in outline the history of production in the last two hundred years or so.

Two Elements Only

he disagreement with Ault and Eberling is like a disagreement elsewhere. While economics talks of three or more factors in production, you can have some putting over and fast work. There are only two factors. There never have been any more than two. There never can be.

     So I'm going to quote, from the Modern Quarterly, what I wrote in 1922. It will say something about the history of the world next year and years after. I'm reading from the reprint in The Modern Quarterly Beginnings of Aesthetic Realism, 1922-1923.

Here I come to a cherished and important part of College Economics, and Contemporary Schmoos Economics in general: The three factors in production are Labor, Land and Capital. They are, though, Land and Labor.

     In the Ault and Eberling book we find there's another factor: management. Cute. I'm not denying that management is there. Of course it is. But just because chemical elements are used in a new way doesn't increase the number of the elements. There are more elements in chemistry than there are in economics; there are only two in economics—I say this very definitely—land and labor. There never have been any other than two, whether production took place under monarchy, under Pharaoh, in Assyria, in the French Revolution, and there are only two right now in the countries looked at with suspicion.

Capital, as even the college economics books say, is wealth that can be used to produce more wealth. But this wealth comes from the land, just as wealth directly consumed does, and comes from there through labor.

     I remember at the time I wrote this I was amazed—what do they need these other “elements” for? I had the rather simple approach that this is what happens: anytime something is made, there are people and something they work with. You can go later into the offices and look in the books to find a lot of complicated terms, like “immobilized assets.”

     It's hard to see that a meal is made in the same way as a computer, but it is. There are only two things in the meal—human work and land—and there are only two things in the computer. There are only two things in an opera.

For machinery, which is the most distinctive part of Capital, is made of iron coming from the land and it was made by labor just as a pair of shoes is.

What Capital Is

achinery is capital in its most interesting form. Occasionally the word used was tools, or instruments of production. But anything that expedites the relation in action of labor and land, or the human element and the non-human element, is capital. A machine does. You can even say that the smile of the foreman does; you don't have to.

     Capital is divided, as wealth itself is divided, into abstract and immediate. That is, a sum of money, whether in the form of a check or cash, is abstract or symbolic wealth, while a machine is immediate. A derrick is immediate. A bulldozer is very obvious capital. A pick and shovel used to be once; still is.

     What I was getting at in 1922 is, if it is seen that a machine for manufacturing shoes is made from the land in the same way the shoes themselves are, this schmoos—which is the oily form of the phrase putting over—would not occur.

Capital was made by labor from the common raw material land, to help labor. There is no use then, and it is wrong, to call Capital an element in production.

     If any person can give any instance of capital that wasn't made by labor, I should like to hear it. But if labor itself makes capital, it certainly is not necessary to make the result as elemental as the cause. If capital is an element in production, I am willing to say that all the Goodbye Profit System talks so far have been wrong.

     People don't say, just so, “I don't want capital to be seen as being as fundamental as my work.” But that is what the message is. It is being said by angry people in America, usually in the form of wanting more money. For example, when a strike vote is taken and then the union members vote against the terms agreed to by the negotiating committee, they have some of that feeling. A lot of that is going on.

There is no use then, and it is wrong, to call Capital an element in production. For man could, if he came to a hitherto uninhabited country, in the course of years, come to have big factories, with big machines in them, moving briskly to produce cereals, shoes, pianos, more machinery and bricks to make buildings to hold machinery.

     Twenty years ago Nevada had fewer than 100,000 people—in other words, as many people as a corner of New York. It now is fairly populous. And for that, there had to be structures, including night clubs and so on. But forty years ago it was a desert, and it now is a hot spot. What changed the desert into the hot spot, and also into a grocery store, and occasionally an apartment house?

     We have to be very simple here. Every apartment house was built because the means of the apartment house were in the land, and various people knew the means were there and got them together. Then, what with bricklaying and structural work and some piping, there came to be an apartment house. Where once there was nothing, there's now an apartment house in Nevada. What happened?

     Now, people can say, “It was with my capital that this apartment house came to be.” And the answer to that is, “Where did your capital come from?” The attempt to make something later as elemental as an earlier thing is un-poetic. That, of course, wouldn't affect too many people, but sometimes the un-poetic is the wrong.

In All the Complexity

gain: in this field there is something exceedingly simple. It will be met when the complications are seen truly. As I've said, I don't intend to make the complications any the less complex; they will be given their full complexity. That is, there's a certain relation of this to dividends; inflation; employment, certainly; and a falling market; a rising market; the market itself. The simplicity will be there, as it is in a world that looks very strange and yet is based on certain chemical persistencies or elements.

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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