The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Fight in Each of Us—& in Economics

Dear Unknown Friends:

With this issue we begin to serialize the lecture Eli Siegel gave on November 15, 1974. It is a magnificent untitled talk about the relation between difficulties of mind and the ownership of a nation.

Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which shows that the central fight in every person’s individual mind and the central fight in world economics are the same. There is a battle in everyone between respect, the desire to see meaning in things and people, and contempt—the feeling, I am important if I can look down on someone, manage things and people, and also put them aside, not think about them at all. That, too, is the big battle in economics: should things be produced, jobs be had, the nation be owned in a way that respects every man, woman, and child—or should an economy be run on a basis of contempt for millions of people?

In 1970, Mr. Siegel explained that economics based on seeing people in terms of how much money one can make from them had failed after hundreds of years and would never succeed again. That contemptuous economic way is the profit system, the “engine” of which is the following: “I, the employer, will pay you as little as I can for your labor, while getting you to supply me, through the work of your mind and body, with as much wealth as possible. I, who haven’t done the work, will seize as much as I can of the earnings you have produced, and leave you with as little as possible.” And to a possible buyer: “I’ll make you pay as much as I can for my product, whether it’s software or milk. The more desperate you are for it, the more I can make you pay and so the more victorious I feel; and I’ll sock you with that high price even if you suffer trying to pay it.” That’s what the profit motive comes to, despite the many attempts to make it look honorable.

Contempt Is the Reason

Mr. Siegel showed that the contempt at its basis is the essential reason the profit system has irretrievably broken down. And in terms of the individual mind: he showed that the essential cause of mental difficulty is also contempt.

Our minds were made to see meaning in the world. So as we try to make ourselves important through despising and belittling what we were born to value, our very beings object: we feel nervous, empty, are deeply unsure and profoundly displeased with ourselves. This self-trouble of the individual is like the failure of profit economics: both arise from contempt, because—whether in the privacy of one mind or in that massive economic structure of jobs, money, and ownership—contempt is not what human beings and reality are designed for.

In the lecture we’re serializing, Mr. Siegel speaks of the fact that in a person a feeling can grow, unshown, for a long time, then at a certain point come forth intensely. That is like the failure of profit economics: for centuries there has been an objection in people to how they’ve been used—for profit and without respect. Then, in recent decades, the objection became more and more clear and outward. We see it today, present with even more overtness than in the 1970s. For instance, the feeling that economic respect is deserved by every human being and should be given now! has made for the tremendous popularity and power of the Bernie Sanders campaign. The power of that feeling is a momentous American fact, regardless of who the Democratic nominee is.

The Force of Ethics

Mr. Siegel explained that the profit system will never flourish again because of the force of ethics working through history. Ethics as force is in that increasingly expressed demand of people to be seen with respect, including monetarily: to have America owned not just by a few but by all. And an enormous form of ethics as a force weakening the profit system is something Mr. Siegel described in 1970: “There is more competition with the American product.” The U.S. is not now The Big Producer and Seller to the World, with all the continents providing a flow of revenue chiefly to American stockholders.

But there is no bigger way ethics as force has been present in economics than through unions. Decade after decade men and women in unions fought hard for and got better wages and working conditions—lives of greater dignity and ease—for millions of working people. Because of the courage of unions, bosses were forced to lessen their robbery of those who worked for them. And that is why, as I have described in this journal, there has been such a fierce effort to kill unions, including through hideous propaganda and legislation: if unions are able to continue their beautiful work, having those who truly earn the wealth get more and more of it, the profit way will be finished.

So we come to the Verizon strike of April 13 to May 27, and its importance. The unions involved, the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, definitely won, against a very large company. They got sizable wage increases. And, as CWA official Dennis Trainor wrote: “We preserved our job security,...increased the amount of call center work performed by union members,... protected our pensions.” There are other big achievements in the victory. And it has come at a time when it seemed unions were weaker and workers afraid to stand up for themselves.

I am proud that for many years Aesthetic Realism and people who study and teach it have encouraged unions and union leaders—profoundly, steadily, and vividly. That includes enabling them to know statements by Eli Siegel which make clear, in a way no one else did, the meaning and power of unions. For example, this:

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....Every bit of capital that exists was made by labor, just as everything that is consumed is.

In a May 30th New York Times article on the Verizon strike there are two important sentences, both of which have to do with ethics as power. Here is one: “...Verizon may have been vulnerable because so few of its replacement workers, typically managers, had experience with installations.” That is about conceit and contempt. Those running the company, and their union-busting lawyers, did not want to see the importance, the skill, of the union workers. They thought that of course managers could do the job! They were wrong. In 1970, Mr. Siegel explained:

It is a matter of power against power....It seems that if the power of labor is really believed in, you don’t need Engels. All you need is to know how much people need what you can do.

And there is the following statement in the Times article, which I see as thrilling, though it is put so mutedly: “The company’s real miscalculation may have been its assessment of the unions’ ability to hold out.” The company did not see the power of a conviction about ethics: that justice believed in and agreed about by workers is a force, and becomes tangible—becomes uninstalled equipment; displeased customers; telephone poles, in certain suburbs, tumbling to the street.

As we begin to serialize the November 15, 1974 lecture, we include an addendum: a short passage from a 1970 lecture by Mr. Siegel. There he speaks about philosophy in relation to economics and America. And the largest matter in philosophy is described in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” Economics is always about the central opposites: self—each individual self—and world. And our economy will succeed only when it’s based on this great statement about them by Mr. Siegel—a statement brought to the attention of union leaders and others these many years: “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


Mind & Economics

By Eli Siegel

I’ll talk today about something that puts together the uncertainty of knowledge sociologists have had when they deal with the individual and then try to place the individual in terms of a matter that is large and historical. The book I’m using was a classic for a while, about 1940: Social Disorganization, by two professors of sociology, Mabel A. Elliott and Francis E. Merrill. It is worth having. It’s really an encyclopedia of things that can go wrong with people. But it’s also very uncertain. One can see that there came a time when the mind of one of the writers, at least, was inadequate to what that writer was dealing with—and then suddenly there’s something incomplete in the writing, or, to use an insulting word, amateurish.

There are two chapters I hope to deal with. One is called “The Mentally Deranged,” and there the writers are more or less at ease. They’re not exactly correct, but they present some notion of why an individual mind goes wrong. Then, in a later edition (1950), there’s a chapter titled “Revolution,” and that is very inadequate; it’s misleading.

We sometimes think our minds work in a constant way. But we meet things that somewhere we’re not at one with, that we really don’t like, and we don’t know we don’t like them, and then we show our injustice.

However, the matter in this book is important. I’ll read some of the chapter headings; they can give an idea of the things the writers feel have to do with disorganization: “The Adolescent,” “The Juvenile Delinquent,” “The Alcoholic,” “The Industrial Worker,” “The Mentally Deranged,” “The Changing Family,” “Family Tensions,” “After Divorce,” “The Small Town,” “Migration,” “Unemployment,” “Religious Minorities,” “Racial Minorities,” “War.” Well, it covers a lot—the troubles, as Hamlet said, “that flesh is heir to.”

In chapter 13 we have an interesting description—sometimes the writing is quite good when it gets visual. The writers visit an asylum:

In another room a sad-eyed young man vacantly stares at the floor. Another parades up and down issuing military commands which go unheeded. In a corner a figure is huddled in a catatonic stupor.

The desire to control and to say things that others have to listen to is presented in the second sentence. It’s part of what a human being is, and it’s put well here.

A Fight Is in Us

Whether a person shows it or not, there is a conflict. Let’s say a person never has a chance to be tempted to steal anything—that doesn’t mean that the fight between honesty and dishonesty is not in him. It never took the form of Jean Valjean. It was never brought to a tangible situation or head. The writers have a sentence related to that fact: about “suddenly yield[ing] to a compulsion.” A sudden yielding to something may take years—as, for example, the papers are full of people who were apparently doing a good job in some form of state activity, city activity, county activity, national activity, and suddenly they’re accused of accepting bribes. Something that has been working in you may show itself in the last years of your life. So this sentence has in it the drama of the two ways people can be, or can have:

Some...psychopathic individuals may suddenly yield to a compulsion and commit a sex murder, write extortion notes, or steal money or movable property.

It happens often: you are taken to be a law-abiding organist, you’re seen as a rather continuous choirboy, and suddenly you do something that has the whole community talking. Recently an attitude to the family was shown in Amityville, when a person suddenly became a patricide, fratricide, matricide, and (I guess the word is) sororicide. Six people were killed. That must have been accumulating a long while—then it was put into action.

In another sentence the writers use the phrase “breaking point.” A person tries to keep in something, and then no more can be taken: he suddenly blurts out something, or starts yelling. It can happen. You grit your teeth, tighten your lips; then something occurs and there’s the Johnstown flood. The writers say: “Some can ‘take’ more than others, but everyone probably has his breaking point.” The relation of quietness and activity, which is a big thing in self, can be looked at here.

An Aesthetic Problem

There is a sentence that has to do with the cause of “mental derangement.” At one time, not so much now, there was the physical idea: that a person can be affected mentally because of some chemical imbalance.¹ For example, there’s a conspiracy between the hormones and chemistry, and you suddenly don’t look at the world right. For a while it was felt that when people were not interested in the world, or were against all other people, or wanted to live under their skins, there was a glandular cause. But now glands have lost some of their front page quality. The writers say that the glands may not be the cause of mental trouble:

There is, however, reason to believe that many such disturbances are the result of mental conflicts and crisis experiences, which in turn generate the glandular disturbances.

A large aesthetic problem in a human being is the relation of the self you can touch, or body, and the self which is thought or personality or character, which is there but which you cannot touch. A human being consists of that which you can infer or surmise, and that which you can touch. That which you can touch, roughly can be called body. But a person’s hopes, outlooks, insights, memories, possibilities, disposition, voting capacity—all these things you can’t touch. Nobody ever touched one’s insight. Glands were talked about in the ’20s. It was felt that the glands affected the way one saw. But these writers say that is not accurate. Instead, a malfunctioning of the glands can arise from the way one sees.

Then there is this:

Out of emotionalized conflicts arise a significant share of our social problems. These in turn are related to...community, state, national, and international disorganization.

That is related to something I’ve talked about: that emotion, or the way one sees, has a great deal to do with inflation. [Editor’s note. Mr. Siegel wrote, in TRO 75: “It is quite clear that inflation has something to do with the unwillingness of a person to be left with the bag called Lower Price in his hands while some other person has a container in his hands reading Adjusted and Higher Price. So much ‘economic adjustment’ has retaliation in it, and ill will....The study of inflation as caused by hidden and somewhat observable ill will all over the world, is a compulsory study for these years.”]

What Kind of Emotion?

What kind of emotion has the economic basis of the world made for? Has it been a healthy emotion, a good emotion, or not? Aesthetic Realism definitely says the emotion the economic basis of the world has made for is very bad. It can be called deranged. It can be called crazy. It can be called diseased. About any adjective, as long as it is not good, can be used. All the mental enterprise that has been useful to man could have existed without that awful basis of making money from a person.


From Reality Is Order & Disorder

By Eli Siegel

Is there something philosophically wrong with the world at present? Yes, there is—and that is because the people of the world do not feel that they own it as a means of being kind to all other people, who also own it.

What attitude should one have to the world?: that’s a philosophic question. The attitude should be that the world is one’s own—which is somewhat different from owning it; but it does mean that the world exists so that a person be the best he can be and also that he do his best to make the world liked by other people. That can never be if it is not felt that everybody owns the world. The situation will be crazy. Until people feel that everybody owns the world, everybody will be encouraging craziness in others and going for it themselves. The history of the world so far has been that the world is something you’re in, but you cannot be proud of your relation to it. And if you are “proud,” you have to feel that you’re superior to other people.

It can be said that something has failed in America. It has failed for some time now. And what is that? Right now there’s less of a desire to work on the part of nearly everybody, including executives.² Work happens to be a sign of being interested in the world. Why is it that in America there is this rather uncertain attitude to work? The reason is, there’s not enough meaning in it. There’s a feeling that you’re not working in order to use the world better, see the world better, but for some other reasons, so if you can get out of it, good.

¹ Clearly, the “physical idea” is in fashion again. It’s pretty much the basis of current psychiatry, because psychiatrists do not understand the human mind.

² This disinclination to work is with us today. See “Why Is Productivity So Weak?” New York Times, April 28, 2016.