The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Jobs for Usefulness—Not Profit

Dear Unknown Friends:

Mental Conflict and Jobs, of February 1947, is one in a series of lectures that Eli Siegel gave at Steinway Hall, and, based on notes taken at the time, we publish it here. Various terms in this early Aesthetic Realism talk, like “mental conflict” and “the unconscious,” were much in use then, and the term “nervousness” took in more than it does now. But I think it is clear that the human mind of all time and our time is being understood at last, and greatly.

As to jobs: in 1947 the state of the US economy was very different from now. It seemed to be flourishing. Unions were increasingly powerful and therefore more and more people were making better and better wages. Today a huge 10 percent of our population is unemployed—over 15 million men and women. And that government figure does not include the millions of so-called “discouraged workers”—people who have stopped even looking for work. Yet what Mr. Siegel is explaining in 1947 is not only relevant and true today—it’s blazingly needed; it is, in its kindness and clarity, an emergency.

He is speaking about something other economists do not discuss or understand: What way of seeing people and the world should jobs be based on? In a work published the previous year, Psychiatry, Economics, Aesthetics, he wrote about the conditions under which people make money:

It is important that...conditions be such [a person] does not feel that the misery or deficiency of other human beings is his victory. For a self does not really want that. The self does not want to be strong by the weakness of others. It wants to be strong by what it is, rather than by what others are not.*

Yet this victory through another’s weakness is the basis of profit economics. The profit motive has been glamorized, but it happens to be ugly. It’s the motive to extract as much from somebody as possible—as much of the person’s labor if you’re the employer, or as much of the person’s money if you’re the seller—while giving that person as little as possible. This motive had men who considered themselves good fathers think it right to employ other people’s children in factories—paying, as Carl Sandburg wrote, “how many cents a day? / How many cents for the sleepy eyes and fingers?”

Seeing a person in terms of how much profit one can squeeze from him or her is, Mr. Siegel explained, a phase of contempt. And contempt—the desire to make ourselves more through lessening what’s not us—is the most hurtful thing in everyone. In every aspect of our lives it is at war with our deepest desire: to like the world, to be ourselves through valuing truly people and things outside us.

It Doesn’t Work

In the 1970s, Eli Siegel showed that history had reached the point at which economics based on contempt could no longer thrive as it once had. The profit system was in a state of increasing and permanent failure. And that is the reason for our present economic breakdown.

On December 3, President Obama held a “jobs summit,” seeking suggestions as to how to provide jobs. There is only one real answer, and I heard Eli Siegel give it: Jobs for usefulness, not for profit. He said with passion and logic: the idea that a person who could be useful, who could make or do things others need—the idea that this person is out of work because somebody can’t make profit from his labor, is completely immoral. It is now also massively inefficient. To solve the problem, the horror, of unemployment in America, a certain element has to be removed from the job situation. That element is: the using of American jobs, American workers, American production to provide profits for people who don’t do the work. The various “stimulus” measures won’t change much, because they don’t deal with the fundamental trouble.

In the 1970s Mr. Siegel explained that it is ethics as a force, working over the centuries, which has made the profit system become fatally ailing. There are two big reasons so many jobs are gone in America as 2010 begins, and both have to do with ethics: One, Mr. Siegel explained, is that “America is not the only country now with industrial know-how....There is more competition with the American product.” Large profits could be made by US companies when America was the world’s Great Manufacturer, from whom other nations had to buy their autos, steel, clothing, electronics, etc. Those years are over. It is a victory for ethics that more and more people of this earth have know-how and prowess, and can produce well. Yet this ethical victory for humanity has crippled the ability of companies here to make profit for their owners.

The second reason for our job paucity is this: Given the vast “competition with the American product,” the only way for the profits of once to be made is to have US wages so low that the American people will starve. Lowering US wages that much is unfeasible, and so millions of our jobs are now being done by “cheap labor” in, say, Malaysia.

Indeed, there has been a terrific effort to lower Americans’ wages—and to annihilate unions in order to do so. But even though men and women across this land have taken wage cuts that are making them suffer greatly, jobs are still being lost. That’s because, in so many fields, even if workers are paid as little as the minimum wage, profits for the non-working owners still cannot be gotten. And the existence of a mandated minimum wage is an instance of the force of ethics: it came to be through the insistence that some justice was owed to people.

What We Can’t Afford

Our President is interested in “job creation” largely through companies that are based on private profit. But this has to be seen: there are three financial elements involved in the viability of such companies. The first two, I’ve just commented on: 1) the price at which the product can be sold, now affected inexorably by foreign competition; 2) what the workers are paid. The third element is the profit pocketed by the owner or stockholders. It is that third, extraneous, useless, truly immoral element which American production can no longer afford. When it is done away with, there will be plentiful jobs for the American people.

Directly related to unemployment is that terrible matter, hunger. A New York Times article of November 17 had the headline “49 Million Americans Report a Lack of Food.” For even one person to be hungry in America should be seen as intolerable, let alone 49 million! Each of these men, women, and children is as real as ourselves, and feels as we would feel if our stomach ached for food; if we had to look for meals in garbage pails; if we knew there were good, lovely edibles in stores and restaurants and homes which we could not put in our mouths and taste and be sustained by.

We have an administration that would like to be kind to people but would also like to keep the private-profit system going. Can these be together? Mr. Obama and his advisors need to ask, and answer straight: Can profit-based economics of itself keep Americans well fed? Can profit-based economics provide jobs for the millions of Americans who want them and who could be useful to their fellow citizens? These are questions people in Washington and elsewhere have avoided looking at, because the answer is no.

The next question is, Which do you prefer: a) for Americans to work and have the food they need through an economy that’s based on usefulness rather than on providing personal profits for a few individuals?; or b) to try to keep profit-based companies going, even if that means millions of Americans are jobless and hungry?

There are many ways in which the people of America can own their own jobs, so that the profits go to the men and women who produce them. And as I say this simply, it should be very clear that the answer is not some failed system associated with Eastern Europe of once. The answer is something that has not existed yet, but which Eli Siegel described as early as the 1940s. The one way economics can deeply please people, strengthen us, make us proud rather than ashamed, is for economics to be aesthetic: a oneness of justice to every individual person and to all people. It is an honor to quote these words of his, describing what we need now: “The world should be owned by the people living in it....All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs.”

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Mental Conflict and Jobs

By Eli Siegel

Today many, many people see their jobs in a conflicting way: 1) A person wants to be a “success,” and the contemptuous unconscious looks on success as being, “I’ve shown I can have my way with things. I’ve shown I can manage people.” 2) He also wants to like himself. If a person has “success” and doesn’t like himself, he’ll be in a conflict, and he won’t have true success. Doormen will be bowing to him, but deep down he’ll feel he’s pretty much of a heel.

We cannot like ourselves unless we are useful. To be useful means that through our existence we’ve added to the well-being of others. Our usefulness depends on how much beautiful newness we’ve brought to the world from which we were born, not on approving letters or back-slapping from colleagues. If a person wants to be useful in his job and at the same time is using his job to be against people, he’s going to feel like a hypocrite. If he is trying to like himself and at the same time he’s trying to get the best of people acquisitively, control people, show off, he is going to have conflicts.

If an Alabama senator doesn’t feel it’s good for others that he be an Alabama senator, he will, somewhere, feel ashamed. If you have something, and feel deeply that you don’t deserve it, you don’t like yourself. This goes for sex, money, praise, everything.

Aesthetic Realism is based on the idea that if a person doesn’t give what is coming to others, he isn’t giving what’s coming to himself—that the only way we can become ourselves is through affecting others in a way we like. Therefore, to be happy it is necessary to feel, “Through my actions, other people are becoming more themselves.”

Competition & Ill Will

There is a relation between nervousness and competition. People are very often forced to be against other people. If, by June 1948, many people have been laid off from their jobs, a woman, Janice, will have to wish that the woman next to her be laid off or become ill or get the boss angry with her, so that Janice’s job will be more secure.

Doctors can deny this, but with medicine based on money it is sometimes necessary for them to hope that people become ill. Similarly, lawyers have to hope that people break the law, and get into domestic difficulties.

Competition is, definitely, in the human mind. We like ourselves either for what we are or for what others are not. The second is the contempt way of liking oneself. And it has been encouraged by existing conditions.

If our civilization at the moment encourages feelings that make a person ashamed of himself, that civilization is worth changing. I’m not saying the feelings couldn’t exist without the civilization; but the purpose of civilization should be to bring out the best in people, what will make them happiest.

Wherever competition doesn’t make for nervousness and shame, it should be welcomed. There is no nervousness without shame. Shame is the looking at oneself and thinking, “I’m not what I might be, and through causes in myself.” Where competition makes for ill will, a civilization encouraging this is not all that it might be. Another kind of competition, one that doesn’t have ill will, is that which might go on between a Beethoven and a Brahms if they were contemporaries. Both would want to be as good as possible, but Beethoven wouldn’t wish that Brahms’ music be bad, or that he’d lose his sight and not be able to read music.

Ethics is mathematical: if we feel we have ill will for a person without sufficient cause, we can’t like ourselves. It is important to like the feelings that go on in us. And it is important to know what they are.

Always about the World

We are related to everything. In terms of jobs, the large idea is, “I feel I’ve done so much good for the world, I deserve this money from the world.” Money doesn’t come just from the boss, because he gets it from somewhere too. Wealth is a general concept. We get money from the whole world.

People go after fame, money, cars even, to feel the world is approving of them. When a person goes after money beyond a certain point, two things are going on. One of them is awful: he wants to swallow the world, manage it, control it. The other thing is that the more money he has, the more he feels the world is approving of him. But since he can’t truly approve of himself that way, it becomes increasingly necessary for him to have approval from the world in terms of money. It’s this kind of thing that makes for the rich man’s sufferings. However, the poor man can have it too. He can use $45 to show he’s better than someone else, just as a rich man can use $10,000. And a person who gets $45 a week and feels he isn’t doing as well as his brother Isidore, can use this fact as an excuse to retreat from the world.

I was told recently about a man who, when he came home with his paycheck, started to burn it up. Later he was taken to an asylum. With one part of him he felt he was too good to have the world please him in a definite way through money; and on the other hand, he felt he didn’t deserve it.

This passage from the New Testament is on the subject:

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart, and of one soul: neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common....

Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,

And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. [Acts 4:32-35]

It’s true that if the House Un-American Activities Committee saw this they’d think it was a Russian translation. It’s not. It’s from the King James version, a translation done 207 years before Marx was born. And this idea isn’t only in the New Testament. It’s related to American football statements, like “All for one and one for all”; to the motto of America, “E pluribus unum,” “From many, one”; to the US Constitution with its phrase “promote the general Welfare.” We have to do with everybody. Anyone who possesses something and feels that he’s a means of curtailing someone else, feels awful. That is why Tolstoy gave away his land.

Mistakes about Jobs & Money

A person who says, “I don’t care what they do with my work so long as I get paid and can stop at 5 o’clock” isn’t telling the truth. He’s saying he doesn’t care what happens to what he’s given himself to. He doesn’t know himself.

We have to feel our lives mean something to others, and jobs should be a specific way of this happening. But the unconscious can use jobs in a way that makes for complicated trouble; for instance, as an atonement. I’ve told of the woman who, when she was to get a promotion, felt very bad. The reason was, she wanted to see herself as badly treated in her job so she could say, “The world is not nice to me; I have a right not to like it.” In being happy over a promotion, she wouldn’t have a right to feel that way anymore; so she was sulky. There was also a person who said he went to his job every morning feeling, “When this is over I can go back to bed.” Most often, jobs are seen as the way we are enslaved by the world, so that later we can take shelter under our own skin.

Sometimes a false romanticism is given to jobs. In the ’20s, no one spoke of having “a job”—you were in “the writing game,” “the real estate game.”

Men sometimes don’t like women to work and be independent because it makes them, the men, less important. And in families, jobs and money can be used to show superiority. The father is usually the one who has these; the children and wife don’t. A young man told me he thought of his father as losing his job and himself as triumphantly engaging in an enterprise so that he could say to his father, “Here, old man, take a hundred thousand dollars.”

Money can be said to be the most statistical thing and the most romantic thing, the most various thing, in the world. We listen to music with it, buy lettuce with it, buy thousands of things. Money is a symbol of the meaning of the world.

Money is a relation of the utmost outwardness and the utmost inwardness. Aesthetic Realism respects money, and wants it to be used beautifully.

*Eli Siegel, Self and World (NY, 1981), p. 276. (Psychiatry, Economics, Aesthetics became chapter 10 of this book.)