Unions and Beauty
Dear Unknown Friends:
We have been serializing the great 1949 lecture Poetry and Unity, by Eli Siegel. And that tremendous subject of both art and life—unity—is explained in this Aesthetic Realism principle stated by Mr. Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” We each, for example, want to affirm and protect the unity, distinctness, uniqueness, individuality of our self. There is nothing dearer to us: we are we, a contained, precious entity. Yet if our notion of our unity is not the same as the feeling that we are related to everything, that the diversity of the world is inseparable from us, that we need it to be ourselves—then our uniqueness is really loneliness, narrowness, emptiness, meanness. This false unity is, at best, like the unity Wordsworth describes at the beginning of his poem “Daffodils,” only not as pretty: “I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o’er vales and hills.” People unwittingly cultivate in themselves every day the unity of that separate, superior, and therefore lonely cloud.
I comment a little here, however, on one of the most beautiful instances of unity in human history: unions. There are millions of people in America grateful to unions, and many more should be. And there are persons, including in government, who have been trying to destroy unions. But Aesthetic Realism is that which shows that a union, a true union, is aesthetic: like a concerto, a novel, a painting, it is a oneness of opposites. And its aesthetics is its power.
The oneness of opposites, the aesthetics, of a union is told of in a swift, playful, yet important poem by Eli Siegel, “Lines on an I.W.W. Person.” The I.W.W., Industrial Workers of the World, was founded in 1905 by, among others, Eugene V. Debs and “Big Bill” Haywood. It aimed to be “one big union,” in which workers of all industries would fight together in behalf of decent wages and working conditions, and the just ownership of America. Some of the true courage in American history was shown by I.W.W. persons, also called Wobblies—for instance, at the Lawrence strike of textile workers in Massachusetts in 1912. This is Mr. Siegel’s short poem:
Lines on an I.W.W. Person
Being an individualist,
He sang “Solidarity Forever”
All day long.
These lines are about two kinds of unity, which are deeply the same, but which people usually pit against each other, with cruelty and agony ensuing. That is, there is the unity of solidarity, of joining with others and making a one with them. Then, there is the unity of individualism: the seeing oneself as a distinct, indefeasible, sovereign unit unto oneself. And as I implied, people have felt their individualism was equivalent to how little they needed others, how much they were unlike them and superior to them. This poem, however, says, Just because this person was an individualist, he sang that union song “Solidarity Forever”: just because he wanted to be his ever so particular, complete, expressed self, he asserted proudly that he was related to other people and needed them.
The Basis of a Union
That is the beautiful basis of a union. In the first paragraph printed here of Mr. Siegel’s lecture, as he describes the principle of composition as such, he is describing too the principle behind every authentic union. His description is great and new:
The idea...is to relate things so as to bring out power which, without the relation, these things would not have...[;] to show that something is more itself through being next to something different from it.
For example, the individual notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, separate, apart from each other, don’t mean so much. But unified by Beethoven, a tremendous power has come to be: that of the symphony itself, rich in might and tenderness, able to move people at their depths after nearly 200 years. The power of a union is like that. Individual men and women, at the mercy of bosses, compelled to work for wages that could barely keep them alive, and under conditions that wrecked their bodies and made for misery, found that in joining together they could force something better from an employer, which he would not have given on his own in a thousand years. The power, for instance, of all the workers in a factory leaving their machines and hitting the streets, so that nothing could be produced until they were treated more justly, is like the power of those opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Both are power through organization, composition, unity; and both are, strictly, beautiful.
What Unions Stand For
It is not my purpose here to present with thoroughness how Aesthetic Realism sees unions. No one loved them more than Eli Siegel. And he is the person who most understood and described their beauty and might. He showed that—with all their imperfections, with the fact that some people in unions can be selfish, narrow, cheaply ambitious because they themselves don’t believe enough in what a union truly is—unions stand for this great fact, which he articulated with passion and logic:
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. [Goodbye Profit System: Update, Definition Press, pp. 39-40]
My purpose is to say that there is a fight going on within every person which is also the underlying economic fight. And unions represent one side, the beautiful side, of that fight. Aesthetic Realism shows that every human being has within himself or herself all the time an unspoken war between respect for the world and contempt for it. Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else,” and showed it is the most dangerous thing in humanity. The contenders in the war within each of us are the feeling “I’ll get to the unity of myself, be myself, through seeing as much value and meaning in things and persons as I can, for I'm related to all of them,” versus the feeling “The way to take care of myself, be somebody, is to beat out, lessen, look down on, and also exploit what’s not me."
This fight, raging though unarticulated in the private depths of each individual, is also the fundamental matter in economics. That is, the big fight all through history is not, as Marx said, “class struggle.” It is between those two huge desires of self, become ways of using earth, goods, other human beings. For example, “I’ll strengthen myself by strengthening others” made for unions. And the profit system, with all its intricacy, is based on the simple sheer contempt of the famous profit motive—the seeing of your fellow human beings in terms of how much money you can get out of them, including out of their labor.
This is the big fight economically in the world now, and people need to know it, including people in unions. It is the fight of individuality through relation and justice, versus individuality through contempt.
It was unions—with their aesthetic oneness of many persons and each person, of solidarity and individuality—which, as the 20th century proceeded, ended sweatshops, made for salaries that could give people dignity, made for legislation insuring conditions under which people would not become diseased or lose limbs. Men and women in unions put themselves in danger, got blacklisted, went to jail, died, so that these decencies could come to people.
In 1970 Eli Siegel explained that the profit system had failed as the century approached its end; and he was grandly right. Profits for owners are harder and harder to come by—for one thing, there is more competition throughout the world. So in recent years, in order to have big money continue to come to bosses and stockholders, who do not work for it—in order to have profit economics go on—there has been a steady effort to undo all that unions achieved. There has been a bringing back of low wages, long hours, sweatshops. Increasingly, the jobs of America are miserably paying ones. When a person loses his $16-an-hour union job and must work instead for $7 an hour, he should know he’s doing so to help keep the profit system afloat, to have some rich persons continue getting money. That is why he is coming home bone-tired from working two jobs, while his children don’t get the kind of food he'd like to give them.
The Questions Now
Throughout the decades, bosses always complained that unions were impoverishing them. A boss, asked to ventilate a factory so people could breathe properly, would say if he spent money that way he'd become so poor he’d go out of business! Mainly, it was a lie. But in 1999 we have come to the following situation: in order for the profit system to continue, fewer and fewer people can be paid decent wages. Most people have to become poorer so a small number of people can make large profits. And the question Americans now have to answer is one I have asked here before: What should be sacrificed—decent jobs for millions of Americans; or profits of individuals who didn’t earn them, so that millions of people can have decent, dignified lives? There can no longer be both. Another question is: If no one were making personal profit from the work of others, and everyone were making a good living and feeling expressed—would that be good? Would that be beautiful? ethical? truly American? The answer is yes!
The Unity of Person and Job
All this concerns unity, and unions. “The Strike,” “La huelga,” is a very good poem by Pablo Neruda. It is an illustration of that great statement by Eli Siegel “Labor is the only source of wealth,” and of a related statement by Mr. Siegel, jocular, but crucially true: “You can bring a hundred thousand dollars to a tree and no toothpick will come.” There is, deeply, a unity of two things: a person and the job he has, the work he does. It is he who is needed for that work—no amount of capital can do it—and the wealth he produces should come to him. These are some lines from my translation of the Neruda poem. The man told of is a striking worker who has walked out of the factory:
When the man left the habitations
Of the turbine, when he unfastened
His arms from the fire...
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Out of the overwhelming energy,
There remained a pile of useless steel.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Nothing existed without that hammering fragment,
Without the man in the torn clothing....
So Ramírez, who has been made so little, a “fragment,” with “torn clothing,” is really, in Mr. Siegel’s beautiful words, “the only source of wealth”: there is only “useless steel” without him.
Eli Siegel is the person who showed most fully the dignity of every human being: every person stands for the whole world. And that world, he wrote, “should be owned by the people living in it.”