What & Who Are Important?
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing Eli Siegel’s great lecture Romanticism and Guilt, of 1963. In it he shows that every new movement in art arises from the sense that the world has not been seen with enough justice; things have not been valued; their meaning has not been brought forth! We’re ashamed, we have guilt, when we’re unjust. And an artist welcomes the guilt and feels, I must give to these misseen, undervalued things the form, the beauty, they deserve!
Never was such a feeling stronger than during the romantic movement, at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. Romanticism said: The ordinary things you take for granted have wonder! Things you consider distant from you, strange, even grotesque, can tell you about yourself! People who have been thought lowly have importance, dignity, even grandeur!
The article by educator Leila Rosen that we print here too is on a related subject. It is part of a paper she presented at a public seminar this spring: “Being Important: What Does It Mean, & What Mistakes Do We Make about It?”
The Battle in Us & Economics
In each of us, Aesthetic Realism explains, there is a fight about importance, and it’s the big fight in our lives and throughout history: will I be important through having respect for the world or contempt for it? This fight is central in the economics of the world.
The profit system arose from a notion of self-importance based on contempt, and that contempt befouls the way people are forced to work and live day after day. The profit motive is contempt: it is by definition the seeing of one’s fellow humans in terms of how much money one can get out of them. In the profit system an employer thinks this way: “How little can I get away with paying you and spending on your working conditions, and how much labor can I squeeze from you? I’m not interested in your feelings, who you really are, what you deserve: that would stop me from aggrandizing myself through you. It would interfere with using you for profit!”
In 1970, Mr. Siegel explained that history had reached the point at which profit economics no longer worked and would never recover; it was terminally ailing, deeply dead, though still “drearily wriggling”—and “wriggling can take the place of life.” Today, as I’ve said in this journal, the only way profit economics can continue at all is through making people who work become poorer and poorer.
On July 31 there appeared a New York Times article by Steven Greenhouse about a matter that has much to do with the subject of this issue: what and who are important?; who has value and power? Greenhouse writes:
From New York to several Midwestern cities, thousands of fast-food workers have been holding one-day strikes during peak mealtimes.... [They have] an ambitious agenda: pay of $15 an hour, twice what many now earn. These strikes...carry the flavor of Occupy Wall Street.
First of all, we need to see that these strikes are hugely different (in both “flavor” and fact) from Occupy Wall Street—though certainly they’re not against it. The difference is that Occupy Wall Street was not stopping various corporate owners from making profit. These strikes are. During them, many, many people did not go into the fast-food places and spend money. That difference is tremendous. Occupy Wall Street was not a threat to companies’ operations. This “Fast Food Forward” movement is. The purpose is to show the very tangible, dollars-and-cents power of the workers over the persons who are robbing them: employers, stockholders. And as soon as people working see that they have power, a great deal can happen. There has been a terrific attempt in America in recent years to make workers feel that they have no power.
Eli Siegel was clear, passionately and logically, on the subject. He said: “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.”
Though the media coverage of the fast-food strikes has not pointed out their principal meaning, Americans are getting the idea that at any moment some big-name restaurant may be made unable to function. As they see this, they see that workers have power, and they’re encouraged to feel that they themselves have power. A crucial question in terms of power is: during the days of the strikes, how much money did the businesses lose? The restaurant owners and associations will not give a straight answer to that question.
Because of the failing of the profit system, most of the once mighty American industrial base is no more. Ours has become largely a service economy. Well, now service workers are beginning to get the idea—which is true—that our economy cannot function without them; therefore, they should be able to set the terms on which they work.
A Union, Like Art, Makes Opposites One
Though the workers engaged in the selective strikes are being assisted by the Service Employees International Union, they themselves are not unionized. Perhaps they will be. However, they are acting like a union, and that is the main thing. They have that aesthetic oneness of one and many which is the basis of a union: many people seeing that for each individual to get what he or she deserves, all must stand up for it together.
The Times article tells a little about the suffering of fast-food workers. It quotes a representative person, “a father of two who earns $7.40 an hour.” He states, quietly, something terrible: “You have to choose between paying your rent and eating the next day.” The workers want the minimum wage raised to $15 an hour. I’ve heard television commentators ask, But where will that money come out of—are you ready to pay more for your hamburger to cover the increase? That is a phony question. The real question is: who should receive the money brought in by a fast-food restaurant (or other business)—the people who have worked for that income, with their hours of mental and physical labor; or some stockholders who didn’t do the work? The answer is, of course: the first.
That is justice. It’s also the one way our economy can now succeed. America’s fast-food workers, who have shown they can shut down, at least for a time, some mighty operations, are illustrating this statement by Eli Siegel: “The whole purpose of history is to show that the greatest kindness is the greatest power.”