|NUMBER 1807.—October 12, 2011||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the second part of Ah, Blessed Worry, by Eli Siegel, one of his Goodbye Profit System lectures of the 1970s. In those talks—with documentation from history, contemporary life, economic thought, philosophy, literature, and the news—he explained that
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.
We print here too an article by anthropologist and Aesthetic Realism consultant Arnold Perey. It is part of a paper he presented at a public seminar last month titled “Is the Importance We’re after False or True? or, Men’s Mistakes about Importance.” That title itself, in its sober way, is earthshaking, or self-shaking—because while people feel both driven and ashamed on the subject, they haven’t seen clearly that there are two kinds of importance they’re after, one beautiful, one ugly. In Aesthetic Realism is the great, kind means of distinguishing between these.
The Profit Motive & Us
Aesthetic Realism is, too, the philosophy which explains that there is a likeness between what impels an economy and what impels us in our most personal thoughts.
Take the matter of importance. It happens that the profit system itself is based on a false notion of importance. It’s based on the notion that the way for oneself to be important, succeed, be somebody, is through lessening others: paying them as little as possible for their work; hoping they’ll be so much in need that they’ll work for the lowest wage; wanting a “competitor” to flop so that you can rule the field; hoping you can get people desperate for your product so they’ll pay you a high price, whether doing so hurts them or not; feeling that some persons (like you) should own much more of the world’s goods than others.
The profit motive is one form of a certain way of mind: contempt, the desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” That way of mind, Aesthetic Realism shows, is the big interference with intelligence, kindness, happiness. The false notion of importance which contempt is, befouls every activity of ours, from love to education to economics to social life. It gave rise to the profit way of using the world and humanity, and in turn, the profit system has encouraged contempt in people. The fact that contempt no longer works economically, that economics based on seeing people in terms of profit can never revive, no matter what is done to save it: this is a tribute to the fundamental ethics in reality and the human self.
Which brings us to the meaning of Mr. Siegel’s title Ah, Blessed Worry. He explained: “The reason for the title is: there are more signs in the media that there is worry about something central and permanent being wrong in the way this country is industrially or financially run.”
How People Feel
In the New York Times, on September 4, there appeared an op-ed article about the way people feel at work. The writers, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, describe something which is not commented on much these days, but which Mr. Siegel spoke about 40 years ago: what state of mind do people have in the workplaces of America? And is the way people feel at their jobs in behalf of productivity or against it? The article, titled “Do Happier People Work Harder?,” has this statement in bold type: “Employees’ apathy and disengagement cost American businesses a fortune.”
Amid vast unemployment and desperation to find work, one might think that people would be glad to have a job at all and be anxious to work well so as to hold on to it. One might think they’d have a large desire to be productive. Well, sometimes they may even tell themselves to be; yet a feeling, a state of mind, is simply in people, even while they may occasionally try to shake it. The “apathy” and “disengagement” the writers speak of as going on across America, are really a terrific objection. They are a kind of unconscious job action year after year.
To those words apathy and disengagement the writers add others as the article continues: “Workers,” they say, “often expressed frustration, disdain or disgust” about their jobs. Does this huge, continental workplace displeasure contain an opinion about the profit system itself? The answer is Yes. In a 1975 lecture Mr. Siegel explained: “The profit system of America is trying to go on while individual psychology in America is now against the profit system.”
What the Objection Is About
Ms. Amabile and Mr. Kramer are describing the results of a study:
Americans now feel worse about their jobs...than ever before. People of all ages, and across income levels, are unhappy with their supervisors, apathetic about their organizations and detached from what they do.
What do they object to? What is this feeling about? The writers don’t say that workers are against the basis on which jobs are had, but that is the case. People hate the way they’re seen and used: as mechanisms to produce profit for somebody else. Their repugnance, their deep, wide objection, is not essentially a matter of whether their manager “support[s] workers’...progress” or doesn’t, as the article later suggests. They feel that the situation itself is profoundly disrespectful of them, is ugly. Besides, the manager feels it too—he or she is also a worker. Forty years ago Mr. Siegel described what’s true today:
There is a feeling all over the world on the part of persons who work that they are not getting their just share of the gross national product, and they feel that their not getting it is caused by ill will....The world is saying: We don’t want ill will to hurt and poison our lives anymore.
Ms. Amabile and Mr. Kramer use the interesting phrase “America’s disengagement crisis.” They tell us that the Gallup study “estimates the cost of America’s disengagement crisis at a staggering $300 billion in lost productivity annually.” And they note:
When people don’t care about their jobs or their employers, they don’t show up consistently, they produce less, or their work quality suffers.
As to “car[ing] about...their employers”: well, maybe in 1911 people were assiduous at making money for the boss, but there’s very little of that now; today people are pervasively resentful, even furious, about it. And that is so no matter what they consider themselves to be politically. In other words, people may say they’re in favor of “the entrepreneurial spirit,” but they still feel and loathe the horrible ethics of how they’re being used.
The writers of the Times article don’t realize that Americans’ workplace disgust is deeply beautiful. It’s beautiful because it’s against people’s being seen—and their being asked to see others—with ill will. Mr. Siegel said in 1970:
What goes on in the individual who, taking part in industry, has to see other people with suspicion, as opponents, as enemies? People want to go to work without hating their jobs....The industry of the world, from the very beginning, has been run on the principle of ill will....But what does it do to a person, what does it do to a nation, how efficient is it?...It is hard to be productive in America right now. [One] cause is that the state of mind in which people go to work is no good.
People who were 30 in 1970 now have children who may be 40 or older. This omnipresent resentment on the job has gone on for at least two generations. What will make people not resent their jobs? What will make their state of mind be good? The only way people’s state of mind at work will be efficient, creative, and proud is for them to feel that good will is had for them, that their work is taking place on a basis respectful of them, and that what they’re producing stands for good will for other people—has as its purpose the well-being of other people, not the private aggrandizement of some shareholder or boss.
In the paragraphs of Ah, Blessed Worry printed here we see something of the respect for people that America needs and deserves. Eli Siegel had that respect all the time. And it is, with grandeur and superb practicality, throughout Aesthetic Realism.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Knowledge & Wealth
As a young man, I thought the more people I could be better than, the more important I’d be. In his lecture Mind and Importance, Eli Siegel explains:
If you are important because you feel that what’s real is important, that other people can be important,...and if through the respect or importance you give yourself, you...give more meaning to what is not yourself—then your importance is good....To be selfish in the bad sense means that you are important at the expense of other people’s importance:...other people are made unimportant. [TRO 661]
Learning the difference between true and false importance, something that years of college and graduate education couldn’t teach me, made me a happier and more productive person by far.
False Importance, Early & Later
I remember, as a small boy, sitting on a little rectangular footstool in the pharmacy my father owned, and drawing with a pencil on the side of a large empty cardboard carton. I was trying to make a picture of a line of elephants walking down a ladder, with their ears flapped forward. I was trying to be exact, and enjoying it. There was a true importance in this desire to be faithful to something. But in the background of my mind was the sense of superiority I got from being the son of the owner and having an indulgent mother.
One day a boy my age (4 or 5) came in with his mother and soon was stamping and screaming about something his mother was trying to get him to do. I went up to him and said, “Don’t you cooperate with your mother?” I felt a glow of complacent ego-importance. I just had to assert my sense of superiority.
In graduate school I still saw that way. Late one night I was lecturing a young woman, Suzanne, who was for a short time my girlfriend, on the meaning of the number one, how many little parts it really had. Suzanne asked, “How do you know I don’t know this already?” I was dumbfounded—“But...um...,” I said. She continued, “But how could I? I’m only a girl. How could I know anything about mathematics?” I was mortified, yet this attitude of mine continued.
“Contempt,” wrote Mr. Siegel, “hurts mind.” My life embodied that principle. I made a good show of being an academic success—I was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” and “Class Scientist” in junior high school, and won awards later. But the way I used these to feel superior made me deeply unsure and self-conscious. I wrote in a journal at 22 about my pains, including “my agony of embarrassment when I thought I did the wrong thing.”
The Explanation—& the Beginning of Change
At age 28 I met the greatest kindness a man can meet. I had applied to study in classes taught by Eli Siegel, and in the first class I attended he asked me, “Mr. Perey, what do you have most against yourself ?” “My self-consciousness,” I replied.
ES. Do you feel there is a tendency to condemn yourself?
ES. And to use other people to do it with?
AP. Yes. That’s it.
ES. We usually have something against ourselves. [The question is:] why does this anti-self feeling come to be? If a person has a bad conscience, does that essentially come from depriving something else of what is due to it? Does it come from the fact that there is something in this world we don’t see as it deserves?
I was hearing the explanation that had the power to change the things in me I most disliked, and bring out what I could like myself for. Mr. Siegel understood what was going on in me, described it in the kindest way, and showed me that I was like humanity throughout history. The way I went from superiority to inferiority, from self-praise to self-dislike, was something I shared with other people. It wasn’t just my personal burden. I even learned that I got false importance by seeing it as my personal burden! What a relief to understand cause and effect, and know I could change.
The more I saw people, not as rivals to outdo, but as human beings who had full lives, who had deep thoughts and abilities—as people from whom I could learn and on whom I wanted to have a good effect—the more I respected myself. This new seeing took in the men and women I had lived with in Oksapmin, New Guinea, about whom I later wrote in my novel against racism, Gwe, Young Man of New Guinea.
As I saw people differently, I felt mutual friendliness where my striving for preeminence had once left me cold and lonely. In time I fell in love with Barbara Allen, flutist and Aesthetic Realism consultant, whose mind, ethics, and human compassion I respected enormously, and we were married. I cherish the continuing good effect she has on me, and the opportunity to have a good effect on her.
*Smith wrote to the Virginia Company of London: “When you send again I entreat you rather send but thirty carpenters, husbandmen, gardeners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons...than a thousand of such as we have.”
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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