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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1733. —December 10, 2008
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941. 

Autos & the Force of Ethics

Dear Unknown Friends: 

e are serializing Eli Siegel's great lecture Once More, the World—one of his Goodbye Profit System lectures of the 1970s. In them is the explanation of what America is experiencing now: our economic crash, with all its human agony and billion-dollar false, ineffectual remedies. In them also is the true answer, the one solution that will work.

     As I've been describing in this serialization, Mr. Siegel showed that by 1970 the profit motive was no longer an efficient basis for national and world economics and never would be again. That motive, the looking at one's fellow humans in terms of how much money one can get out of them, was always ugly and mean. It's the desire to pay a person as little as possible for his labor, or charge him as much as possible for a product he may need, so as to make as much money from him as one can.

     The profit motive is a form of contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt, Aesthetic Realism explains, is the thing in the human self which has made for every cruelty. It's impossible to look at a person in terms of “How much profit can I extract from you?” and simultaneously want to understand that person, see him or her as fully real, feel that “this is a human being complete as I am, with feelings and hopes like mine, who deserves what I deserve.”

     In the section of Once More, the World printed here, Mr. Siegel explains why, after thousands of years, it is in recent decades that the death throes of profit economics have been taking place. He says that the cause of the profit system's failure is the accumulation of happenings, choices, knowledge, feelings that have taken place over time. This accumulation-as-power is part of what he described in his lectures as the force of ethics.

There Is the Auto Industry

o see what that means, we can look at the industry so much in the news: the once roaring, mighty U.S. auto industry, now in financial ruin.

     What is affecting the auto business inexorably is the force of ethics, the accumulation of history, in two chief ways. These, Mr. Siegel explained in 1970, are: 1) the achievements of unions in bettering the lives of American workers; and 2) the fact that “America is not the only country now with industrial know-how....There is more competition with the American product.”

     As to the second: It's quite clear that auto-making in Japan, Korea, Germany, and elsewhere has interfered with profits for owners of American auto corporations.

     As to the first: Every cent more in pay that a worker in an auto plant received was a cent less to go into the pockets of those who owned stock in GM, say, but who did not one minute's work on the factory floor.

     And here we come to some of the most smoothly vicious, untruthful talk and writing in relation to the present auto industry crisis. I refer to the placing of considerable blame for the industry's plight on its unions. On November 11, an ABC newscaster spoke (as others have) about “bloated union contracts.” A Detroit News editorial on November 19 noted that various commentators and lawmakers have pointed condemnatory fingers at “bloated union contracts” and at “the UAW for bleeding the companies dry.” In the November 22 New York Times, a commentator wrote:

It is critical for General Motors to be able to break its contracts with both its unions and its dealers. It needs to dramatically reduce its legacy benefits.

     Central to these “legacy benefits” are pensions, which are not gifts, but were earned by workers with the labor of their bodies and minds. Pensions are not luxuries, because in a civilized country, to feel one can meet old age without terror of impoverishment should not be a luxury. The so-called “bloated union contracts” provide wages that enable a child in Detroit (for instance) to have good meals and a nice house to live in, and a chance for a college education.

The Real Blight on the Economy

here's only one reason for suggesting that union contracts are hurting the auto industry. That reason is the assumption that we must protect the thing that's the real blight on American economics: private profits for people who didn't do the work. Americans were disgusted when executives from the auto Big Three flew to a Congressional meeting in three individual private planes. Should an 85-year-old former auto worker be without a pension, have to go without medication or enough food, so that such an executive, or some owner of stocks, can acquire unearned lucre? Should the modest but good life and future of an auto worker's 8-year-old daughter be sacrificed for them?

     The phrase “bloated union contracts” is an attempt to make something enabling people to lead lives of dignity look sinister. You can give anything good some bad name. After all, the British aristocracy called the American revolutionaries some awful names.

     There is absolutely no good reason why cars should be produced in America on the basis of personal, un-worked-for profit. That basis is what we can no longer afford, and it is what needs to be got rid of for the auto industry to be healthy.

     We will never eliminate foreign competition with American industry. History has reached that point—though there are persons who would love the rest of the world to lack know-how and again be at the mercy of U.S. sellers. The fact that people everywhere know more and can do more is an ethical victory for humanity. It is part of that progress which is the accumulation of happenings become a determining power. It is part of ethics as force. And it has helped undo the profit system. It has made the reaping of private profits from auto-making no longer feasible.

Michigan, 1937

n instance of the events that have accumulated and come to a crescendo now, is the protest in 1937 in Flint, Michigan. Before then, laborers at GM worked to exhaustion, at increasingly sped-up assembly lines, to the destruction of their health, often for pay that could not support their families. The United Auto Workers Union was formed—even though workers were fired, threatened, blacklisted, and beaten up in employers' attempts to stop it.

     Then, for 44 days, in order to get decent working conditions and pay, workers waged a sit-down strike in GM plants. They did not leave the premises for 44 days—and no cars were produced, because, as Eli Siegel has explained, “Labor is the only source of wealth. There is no other source, except land, the raw material.” The wives who brought food every day to their striking husbands were tear-gassed, but they continued, and so did the strike.

     The union, the workers, won. Their suffering, feelings, thoughts, determination, courage, very lives are in those “bloated [which means respectful ] union contracts.” And in order to have the auto companies again supply profits for non-working stockholders, the employees would have to go back to the horrible, inhumane conditions of pre-1937.

     To blame union contracts for any of the auto industry's financial trouble is disingenuous and an insult to the American people. The true feeling of Americans is: “All of us should be making at least what our brothers and sisters in the UAW are. Nothing should be taken away from them—the nation should make sure good salaries and healthcare and pensions are had by everyone! What we want is something fundamentally American. What we want is a profit-for-those-who-do-the-work system. What we want is a profit-for-all-Americans system.”

ELLEN REISS, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Accumulation of Events
By Eli Siegel

s my third general document this evening, I use The International Thesaurus of Quotations (ed. R.T. Tripp, 1970), because of the world point of view represented by it.

     A few persons on the thoughtful side have affected American thought about money and status and how money is made. The most popular is Vance Packard, with The Status Seekers. Another person is C. Wright Mills. But perhaps the most distinguished is John Kenneth Galbraith. Under the head of “Events,” this thesaurus of quotations gives a sentence from Galbraith's The Affluent Society:

The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events.

     That sentence is in keeping with the purpose of these talks: to make clear that things have happened in the world and the momentum of what has happened or accumulated in the world showed itself in 1970, and will continue to show itself. It's a little bit like a boulder going down a hill slope. You don't need to cheer on the boulder—the boulder is going down the hill. The boulder is criticism of the profit system and the desire for it to leave. And again I ask people to be critical: if this is so, it is so; and if it isn't, that should be seen.

     In keeping with the Galbraith sentence, there are two things that are in history; for instance, the French Revolution was seen as two things. One is that France had accumulated so much in its history that sometime toward the end of the eighteenth century we had to have agitation in Paris and in the provinces. History, after all, is not only a slowpoke; occasionally it moves, as the planets do and water does. How history moves is a large question. The other theory is that there were various persons, scoffers and non-conservatives like Diderot, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and other people, like Mably, Condorcet, even Condillac, and they were upsetting the way of France, and the way of people in general—the big four being Montesquieu, Rousseau, Diderot, and Voltaire. They, with their ideas, were making France unsettled.

     The relation of ideas to what was happening in France anyway, is still being studied. What made for the French Revolution? Was it the accumulation of French history, beginning with Charlemagne? And are there things working this year that are the accumulation of world history, also American history? There certainly are ideas of all kinds. But Galbraith—and I think he is correct—says that the march of events now has such a momentum that while ideas can deal with what that march is, the march of events is there.

     I've said that the march of events will march the profit system out of the United States . But it's not going to be with any exasperated slogans. The question is, is my calculation exact or adequate—has enough happened so that the profit system simply has to march out? Will the march of events tell the profit system, It's your time to leave now?

The Desire for Contempt

nother quotation is by Oscar Wilde. The fact of contempt has kept the profit system going. There are two reasons to get ahead: one is to be happy, which is a very good reason; the other is to be better than other people. And the second has been very complicated. For instance, years ago there were good reasons to have a Packard car: one was, a Packard was comfortable. But the other reason was to look down on people having only a Studebaker or no car at all. So contempt as related to the profit system is a big matter—Under the heading “Failure” we have Wilde quoted from the play A Woman of No Importance:

We women adore failures. They lean on us.

     One of the reasons for the profit system is to be superior to other people and, being superior, to be in a position to help them. This quotation is very much in the field of contempt. And while it is about women and men, still it's relevant.

The Family Can Be Narrow or Wide

his book provides statements sustaining the idea that the family has had a great deal to do with the profit system, because the family can be an exclusive club in which persons misunderstand each other and despise other people. One statement is from the Italian playwright and man of thought Ugo Betti, who is being thought of a great deal these days:

I think the family is the place where the most ridiculous and least respectable things in the world go on. [The Inquiry (1944-45)]

     Alexander Pope is also quoted. You'd think he was Strindberg for a while:

A family is but too often a commonwealth of malignants.

—Meaning, people with ill will. That is from Thoughts on Various Subjects, 1717. And Pope is surprising here.

     There is another kind of statement—an interesting statement by Pearl Buck:

Woman...must once more forget herself, as she did in the old pioneer days and...[go] into the world.

That is, there was a chance for the pioneer woman to see the rest of the world as she went west, and Pearl Buck says that is desired now. The sentence is from “Man, Woman and Child,” in To My Daughters, with Love (1967).

The Past Is Working

nder the category “Fate,” C. Wright Mills is quoted. He is among the three I mentioned earlier. There are others, but these persons are indications of a certain drift of America: C. Wright Mills, John Kenneth Galbraith, Vance Packard. This is Mills:

Fate has to do with events in history that are the summary and unintended results of innumerable decisions of innumerable men.

     That is important, because while anything that happens right now is impelled by the way people feel at this moment, the other cause can be considered as the past without limits. The second is harder to see. It's hard to see that anything we do at the moment has been somewhat chosen or impelled by what has been. This is where Freud, even, is useful, because he does have the idea of causality. What kind of causality, is something else. That is, what one did in the past, or had done to one in the past, will be something making one choose what one does now. It's a part of causality, and others have felt it.

      So, what does make things be chosen now, or why do people in general and particularly do as they do? C. Wright Mills, while using the word fate, points out that everything that was done in the past has its effect.

     The accumulation of choices, events, processes, procedures, and occurrences—everything else that's in the past—is now showing itself, and showed itself in May 1970. What these are, without just listing them, I'm trying to show and give a context to. We have the sociological and the psychological in that statement of C. Wright Mills, from his Power, Politics and People of 1963.

The Acquisitive & the Artistic

nother relevant statement is under the head of “Fighting.” It's a Russian proverb:

In a fight the rich man tries to save his face, the poor man his coat.

     This means that the rich man has to look good to himself and to others. We have a mingling of the artistic way and the acquisitive way. They want to be one. One of these days the seeing of something will be seen as the same as the capturing it, and it will be the only capturing necessary. To see something honestly and fully will be the great conquering, the great victory—not mooching and stratagem.

     Under the heading “Flowers” the editor quotes Browning in Sordello. In this statement there's a perception, a sensation, something seen, but it's presented as if it were a conquest. It's presented as if it were a perceptive work by an entrepreneur in perception:

                              ...Any nose
May ravage with impunity a rose.

While there is a response to, and seeing of, an object, one can get the feeling that it's like the capturing of a railroad. So this statement belongs.

     Also under “Flowers,” the most famous American naturalist of rivers, mountains, glaciers—John Muir—is quoted:

There is that in the glance of a flower which may at times control the greatest of creation's braggart lords.

Which means that the seeing of something is a more powerful thing than capturing it and being a braggart about it. That is from A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916).

The Force of Good Will

he undercurrent of all this is that free will has to be good will and that good will wants to be free will, or will that is free and unimpeded. This has to do with the coming leaving of the profit system, which I should like to make, as time goes on, more and more tangible, not just a pious prediction.

     Good will is a great force. So, under the head of “Friendship,” we have the following quotation from Eustace Budgell in the Spectator (1711-12):

Friendship is a strong and habitual inclination in two persons to promote the good and happiness of one another.

     That has not been the main force in the economic life of the world so far. And the question is: is the world, or the march of events, insisting that it be? I think it is.

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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John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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