|NUMBER 1811.—December 7, 2011||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue to serialize It Weakens, the lecture Eli Siegel gave on January 15, 1971. In his Goodbye Profit System talks of the 1970s Mr. Siegel explained that, after many centuries, economics based on the profit motive—on seeing people in terms of how much money can be made from them—had finally failed. The profit way would never work efficiently again, though it might be made to stagger on awhile with increasing pain to humanity. The profit system, he showed, had become an irreparable failure because of the contempt for people on which it is based. I quote again this statement, in which he describes exactly, ringingly, and kindly what is happening today on all the continents:
There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.
For Example, Europe
I have commented often on economic matters in America. But let us take the trouble now going on in the European Union. Two photographs in the November 18th New York Times stand for that trouble. One has the caption “Tear gas swirled Thursday around protesters...in Athens. Tens of thousands of Greeks marched to protest austerity measures.” The other is captioned “Students and union members in Rome protested budget cuts on Thursday. Prime Minister Mario Monti said Italians would face sacrifices in the months ahead.”
These “sacrifices” and “austerity measures” principally involve the cutting of pensions and welfare benefits to millions of people, the lowering of wages—the impoverishing of most of the population. They are presented as the only means to stop the nations concerned from going bankrupt. What they really are is the one means of having the profit system there grind on a bit longer. But for some strange reason, the people of Greece, Italy, Spain, other nations, don’t like being made poor. And they don’t see the cause they’re asked to sacrifice for as beautiful or necessary. So they’re objecting on the streets of Europe. And the swirling tear gas is part of the attempt to kill their objection.
The dire warnings about the need for “sacrifice”—both in Europe and here—are part of an effort to make the profit system seem inevitable: to make it seem that economics based on anything other than using earth and humanity for some individuals’ private aggrandizement is unthinkable. And therefore, senior citizens, robbed of pensions, must go hungry to save the profit system. Children must go without medical care and with insufficient clothing and food to save it. Yet people feel increasingly that another basis for an economy is not unthinkable. And such a basis is not Marxism, etc. The needed basis is ethics.
It happens that even if “austerity measures” are imposed, in most instances the desired profits for private individuals still will not flow in. The reason is: profit economics can now succeed only if there is huge inequality, not only within a nation, but among nations. And today so many nations are able to produce things and rival each other that business persons of the West are no longer able to be the profitable market-lords and tycoons of the universe. As Mr. Siegel explained in 1970: the more competition becomes worldwide, the more people everywhere are able to produce—the less profit is available for various private owners, bosses, stockholders who don’t do the work.
We can see instances of this fact through comparing some things mentioned in It Weakens with the situation today. In the second paragraph of the section printed here, Mr. Siegel names several American cities noted for their manufacturing—yet today there is so little manufacturing in most of them. The industries that once hummed there—and the jobs that were Americans’—are in other countries instead. He speaks too, in 1971, about a controversy involving certain imports: how much should foreign-made shoes, fabrics, clothing be allowed into America? This controversy is long over: now we expect such items not to be made in America; we’re in wonder if we find an instance that is. (And that China should be the big supplier, was unthought-of in 1971.)
The Real American Way
In this section of It Weakens Mr. Siegel discusses passages from a book he used in other lectures: The American Transcendentalists, edited by Perry Miller. What he was illustrating is: contrary to the propaganda that profit economics is fundamental to America, some of the most important, kindest, most patriotic of our writers objected to it from the beginning. These included the New England Transcendentalists: Emerson, Thoreau, Amos Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, and more. They said, in various ways, that the basis of human activities should be good will. Mr. Siegel defined good will as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” The good will he spoke about is not at all fuzzy, misty, Christmas-wishy, but the toughest, most practical, most critical motive there is—also the most creative. So to accompany the passages Mr. Siegel discusses here, I’ll quote some sentences by that American classic, Henry David Thoreau.
Throughout his Walden there is the idea, passionately held by Thoreau, that the world, the earth, the land, should be valued for its beauty, should be known and loved, not used for some private aggrandizement. In chapter 9 he comments on the owner of a nearby pond, Flint’s Pond. Thoreau can’t stand the man because, he says, Flint saw this pond in terms of profit:
[He] loved better the reflecting surface of a dollar, or a bright cent...; [he] regarded even the wild ducks which settled in it as trespassers;...[ he] never saw it....[He] thought only of its money value...and would have drained and sold it for the mud at its bottom....I respect not his labors, his farm where every thing has its price; who would carry the landscape, who would carry his God, to market, if he could get any thing for him;...who loves not the beauty of his fruits, whose fruits are not ripe for him till they are turned to dollars.
Also in Walden, Thoreau comments on the profit motive in relation to factories, like the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. These represent the profit system when it was thriving: an owner paid workers horrible wages that kept them hungry while he made a lot of money from their labor. Thoreau says in chapter 1:
I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing. The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like that of the English; and it cannot be wondered at, since, as far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched.
Thoreau’s way of seeing is more American than that of various financial advisors turned to by politicians and press. It is also much more practical. It is a saying that the earth and people should be seen with justice, good will; not with that narrowness, greed, and selfishness institutionalized as profit economics.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Trade, Antagonism, Kindness
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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