|NUMBER 1808.—October 26, 2011||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
The 1973 lecture Ah, Blessed Worry, the conclusion of which we publish here, is part of Eli Siegel’s great Goodbye Profit System series. What he described in those lectures describes our economic state today. Using historical, cultural, and contemporary documentation, he showed that by the 1970s the world had reached the point at which economics impelled by contempt was no longer able to succeed.
Aesthetic Realism defines contempt as the “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” It has thousands of forms, including things as ordinary as the hope that somebody look foolish so oneself can seem the smarter one. Yet the feeling that we are more if other people and things are less, is the source of everything hurtful in the human self. It’s the cause of every cruelty, including racism. It’s that in us which weakens our own mind and is the reason we dislike ourselves. And, Aesthetic Realism explains, the big, continuous fight in every person is between contempt and the deepest desire we have: to like the world honestly, to be just to it as a means of expressing and truly being ourselves. This deepest desire is the source of all art, science, real intelligence, kindness, true pride.
Contempt in Economics
The profit motive is contempt. The profit motive is the looking at a person in terms of how much money can you get from him or her? And profit economics is composed of the activities of that ugly motive. Centrally, it is the paying people as little as possible for their labor so that the wealth they produce can come not to them but to you. Central too is that a person should be able to get a product he needs only if he can pay enough so someone will make profit from his need. And fundamental to the profit motive is: the more desperate people’s need for what you produce, the higher the price you’ll demand—this is, after all, the profit motive.
Though it has been in operation for thousands of years, such a way of seeing one’s fellow humans is a barbaric thing for an economy and the lives of people to be based on. From it have come sweatshops, child labor, hunger, and ever so much poverty, with all that poverty makes for: suffering and stifled hopes and the monumental curtailment of people’s possibilities. That is why Eli Siegel saw the profit system’s inability to go on as a cause for celebration: it was an ethical victory that a cruel thing could no longer thrive! It might be made to continue awhile, with increased pain to millions of people, but it would never prosper as it once had.
The Dollar, the Trade Deficit, & Ethics
In the final section of Ah, Blessed Worry Mr. Siegel speaks about two matters that were just beginning in 1973 but are big established facts now. One is the US trade deficit. The other is the weakening of the dollar. He points to these as aspects of the profit system’s failure.
Today, Americans above a certain age can cringe within as we look at the euro and see it’s worth considerably more than our once lofty dollar. The US has become, for many foreign tourists, a bargain basement, where they can buy things, dine, and be entertained at prices that are (to them) low. All because the dollar is so much less glorious than it was.
As to our trade deficit: it is, under a profit-motivated system, an insurmountable thing, because it’s a result of what Mr. Siegel called the force of ethics working over centuries. He said:
Deeply, what has made the profit system weaker is at the very beginning of 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.
Part of ethics having its way is the trade deficit, because that is a result of more knowledge throughout the world and more widespread technical ability, and it’s ethical that knowledge belong to all people, not just some. Mr. Siegel explained in 1970 (before we had a trade deficit):
America is not the only country now with industrial know-how....There is more competition with the American product.... [This] doesn’t help the profit system.
The “Occupy Wall Street” Protests
Last month there began something of great importance, which arose from, and also embodies, the force of ethics in our nation and the world. The headline of an October 4 New York Times article about it is “Anti-Wall Street Protests Spreading to Cities Large and Small.” Americans from all walks of life have been literally occupying an area near Wall Street. Joined day after day by others, in hundreds and thousands, they are expressing their passionate objection to the economic injustice in this land. There are rallies, marches. There are “Occupy Boston,” “Occupy Chicago,” “Occupy Portland,” “Occupy DC,” “Occupy Memphis,” and more, and more.
It has been said that the demonstrators are not clear enough about what they’re asking for, that they’re objecting to various things but not demanding something definite, agreed to by all. From one point of view, that’s so. But the diverse objections do come to a single objection, a deeply unified objection, which Aesthetic Realism can make pellucidly clear.
For example, the Times says the demonstrations are “anticorporate.” It says they’re protesting “corporate greed, unemployment and the role of financial institutions in the economic crisis.” It quotes a Los Angeles demonstrator, age 24, who said, “Everybody is in debt whether it’s medical bills or school or loans”; and another, a freelance film director, who “said the protesters were united in their desire for ‘a more equal economy.’”
Well, these are all aspects of the unifying objection: People across this nation are angry that America is being owned by, and run on behalf of, a few people—not by and for all. That is why a slogan of the movement has come to be “We Are the 99 Percent.” These demonstrations are really opposing that contempt for people’s lives which is the profit system itself.
An America True to Herself
The chief reason it has been hard to get to a unified “message” is that the message cannot be put in the terms Americans have been presented with intensively over the years: that is, this is not a matter of “capitalism” versus some other “ism.” What Americans have wanted for years, and are demanding courageously now, is economics based on the best things in America. They want an economy based, for instance, on the famous phrase in our Constitution’s Preamble, “We the People of the United States.” They want an economy based on the idea stated in the Declaration of Independence, that all people have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What these demonstrations are really calling for is an economy that Mr. Siegel once described by quoting Lincoln: an economy, not based on profit for a few, but an economy “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
The American Revolution itself did not begin with a clear statement that we should separate from England. It began with the colonists saying they wanted to be treated better by King George—treated like other British subjects; for instance, taxed more equitably. Then in time people came to see that in order to get the things they wanted, America had to be a nation unto herself. We today shall certainly not have an armed revolution; our Constitution, the structure of our government, is a fine, beautiful thing. But an increasing clarity is growing that for Americans to have the economic lives we want, for so much agony to end, our economy has to be based, as Mr. Siegel put it, “on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.”
The phrase “Occupy Wall Street” is a very good one, and it is deep. It means that a certain part of the American earth, land occupied once by Indians, near that beautiful harbor into which Henry Hudson sailed four hundred years ago, does not belong to a few people who will use the rest of us to aggrandize themselves financially. It means that America, including Lower Manhattan, belongs to all of us, together; and so we occupy it: it is ours.
What people are occupying for, marching for, demonstrating for can be called economic democracy. It can be called production based on the seeing of every person as real. What they are demanding is an America based on the honest answering of the question Eli Siegel said is the most important for our world: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
What Does It Mean?
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.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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