The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Labor of Our Lives

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the great lecture Ownership, Strikes, Unions, which Eli Siegel gave in July 1970. Speaking of economics in the tumultuous, real lives of people and in the history of thought, his basis was the same as when he spoke on poetry, science, love, art: this Aesthetic Realism principle—“All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The largest need of each of us, he showed, is to make a one of the opposites self and world: to feel we’re caring for our dear selves through being just to what’s not ourselves. On how well we do so depend our intelligence, usefulness, importance, and self-respect. 

These opposites are also the basis of economics. There is the world, with its land, wealth, resources. Then, there are the selves who live in that world. What, economically, should be the relation of those selves and that world? How can they be one? In his book Self and World, Mr. Siegel answers these questions in some of the most beautiful and kindest sentences ever written: 

It follows that the world should be owned by the people living in it. Every person should be seen as living in a world truly his. All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs. [P. 270]

As I described last week—in May 1970 Mr. Siegel began a series of lectures titled “Goodbye Profit System,” of which the present lecture is one. What he documented in them is something which no other historian or economist saw, but which the people of the world were, and are, experiencing hour after hour: a way of economics based on using human beings for profit had failed permanently, after hundreds of years. 

Mr. Siegel has identified the thing in every person which weakens our minds and is the cause of our disliking ourselves. It is contempt, “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” He showed too that this desire to make ourselves more by lessening other things and persons, is the source of all cruelty—from everyday coldness to genocide. One form contempt has taken these many centuries is profit economics: the seeing of a fellow human being in terms of how much profit one can make from him. 

“The desire for profit has never had a good effect on humanity,” Mr. Siegel wrote. “But men bore it. In recent years,...the purpose of profit is no longer able to produce well and to keep Americans contented”—nor, he said, would it ever be able to do so again (Goodbye Profit System: Update, Definition Press, pp. 167, 160). 

The Diminishing Standard of Living

And so, in the last decades, instead of the standard of living increasing for most people, as it did before, it has been diminishing. That is the chief criterion for an economy. Media statements that the economy is “booming” are cruel nonsense, set beside a declining standard of living, with all the agony that fact means—many middle class families unable to afford health care and food, long lines at food pantries in suburban communities, people worn out working two or more low-paying jobs. By 1970 a point had been reached where, to have large profits come in for a few people, workers would have to be paid less and less. 

The owning of most of this earth by a few people; a boss or stockholder’s taking the wealth other people produce with their hard work—this is the essence of the profit system. It is contempt; and with every decade it has become harder for it to go on and yet have most Americans live somewhat decently. Contempt at the basis of economics needs to be replaced by something that has not been in the world before. Production in America needs to be based on ethics and aesthetics: the beautiful, terrifically practical seeing of how bringing out the strength of other men, women, children makes oneself more! 

Ethics, Mr. Siegel showed, is a force in history, slow perhaps, but grandly inexorable. By the last decades of the 20th century this force has made it so that an unethically based economy can “no longer ...produce well and keep Americans contented.” Though of course that mortally ailing economy can be lied about and gussied up, and can have millions of people’s lives sacrificed to keep it going a while longer. 

The Main Thing

In the first part of Ownership, Strikes, Unions Mr. Siegel said: “The history of production has been essentially farcical and cruel,...because the main thing in production was not seen as the main thing” (TRO 1356). The main thing is labor; and Mr. Siegel uses two of the most respected of economists to illustrate that fact: Adam Smith and David Ricardo. He is discussing the opening pages of Ricardo’s 1817 Principles of Political Economy, where Ricardo quotes Smith. Mr. Siegel’s own explanation of the non-centrality of capital in production and the centrality of labor, is vivid, graceful, passionate, enormously kind, also humorous; and his example of the toothpick is unforgettable. 

If labor, or people who work, are the main thing in production, they should be treated as the main thing. They should in no way be sacrificed so that someone can make a profit from them. It should be they who, in some fashion, set the terms for production. And it is they who should get the results of that production, the wealth that arises from it. 

The economic matter Mr. Siegel speaks of here—that it is labor which makes for the value of any product—has a relation to our own selves at their most personal. What makes us valuable? Everyone wants to feel valuable; and people mainly try to feel they’re valuable by getting others to assure them of it in various ways, and by feeling they’re superior to someone else. These ways, though, are never convincing; going after them, a person feels increasingly unsure. 

Aesthetic Realism shows that our real value comes from two things. First, we have a value simply because we exist: we stand for reality, and in a way no one else, just so, does. But our largest value comes from something corresponding to the labor that makes for the value of any product. That corresponding thing making us valuable is how we see, how we use our thought and our selves to be fair to the things and people of the world. This is the lovely labor of our lives. We will never feel really valuable unless we do it. The justice to an object which is in a job well done—in the production of a good automobile or suit—corresponds to the justice we were born to give, beginning in our thoughts, to the world itself. And unless we are doing that ethical thought-work, no amount of praise can convince us we have value. This fact too arises from ethics as a force in reality and in us. The feeling we should be able to esteem ourselves and be loved without our working to see the world justly, is like the feeling we should have wealth we didn’t earn. 

I think the most beautiful labor in the world was that of Eli Siegel himself. He went, bravely, constantly, lovingly, after knowing the world in its wholeness and diversity, including people, and bringing out their strength. It was the happiness of my life to have seen this beautiful, unflagging labor in motion year after year as I attended his classes. Persons of the press and others resented his integrity, and the fact that they could not feel superior to him. But the fruit of this most courageous, kind labor is Aesthetic Realism; and is humanity’s, forever.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


About Value

By Eli Siegel

This is Ricardo, about value: 

It has been observed by Adam Smith, that “the word Value has two different meanings, and sometimes expresses the utility of some particular object, and sometimes the power of purchasing other goods which the possession of that object conveys.”

If someone finds a rare old photograph of one’s grandmother in a store, it doesn’t have much value for the storekeeper; but if it’s your grandmother and it’s the only picture of her, you would pay a lot. Most of the letters we write aren’t worth anything to most people, but to some person they may be worth a great deal. So there are exchange value and what can be called essential value or real value. 

“The one may be called value in use; the other value in exchange. The things,” he continues, “which have the greatest value in use, have frequently little or no value in exchange; and, on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange, have little or no value in use.”

Which means that you can’t sell a pint of air, but try to be without it. Air has no exchange value. There is a kind of water that has exchange value—the water that comes from a certain lake in upstate New York. It’s put in bottles and doesn’t look like water anymore. But water doesn’t have much exchange value, except if you’re in a siege. 

Water and air are...indispensable to existence, yet, under ordinary circumstances, nothing can be obtained in exchange for them. Gold, on the contrary, though of little use compared with air or water, will exchange for a great quantity of other goods.

An idea of value is in the story of Midas: he wanted more daughter and less gold. When he found his daughter changed to gold, he wasn’t so interested in gold—he couldn’t embrace gold very well. You can’t make love to gold, and you can’t eat it. But gold has lots of uses—there’s no doubt about it. 

Utility then is not the measure of exchangeable value, although...if a commodity were in no way useful...it would be destitute of exchangeable value....Possessing utility, commodities derive their exchangeable value from two sources: from their scarcity, and from the quantity of labour required to obtain them.

Radium is scarce and has a value; and its scarcity can be made equivalent to seeking labor. Diamonds have a value. But the chief thing in the value of the things we use—and in fact the only thing—is labor. 

“There are some commodities the value of which is determined by their scarcity alone. No labour can increase the quantity of such goods.” That is why there’s an attempt to say to investors, You can’t do so well investing in Gulf oil—how about investing in some Dutch painter?; because the Gulf oil will flow and flow, and there are no more Dutch painters of the 17th century than what we have. Some people would rather invest in Renoir than in IBM. 

“Some rare statues and pictures...are...of this description.” A Shakespeare folio is pretty high there. There are about two hundred in existence, if that many, and, unless you fake them, there can be no more. Then, there is the Gutenberg Bible. You have to buy that page by page, there are so few. And the Bay Psalm Book—you can’t have five copies of the Bay Psalm Book of 1640 because it isn’t 1640 anymore. 

These commodities, however, form a very small part of the mass of commodities daily exchanged in the market. By far the greatest part of those goods which are the objects of desire, are procured by labour; and they may be multiplied...if we are disposed to bestow the labour necessary to obtain them. 

In speaking then of commodities, of their exchangeable value, and of the laws which regulate their relative prices, we mean always such commodities only as can be increased in quantity by the exertion of human industry.

What Makes Them?

There will be some things two weeks from now—commodities, articles, anywhere from autos to spoons or toothpicks. These spoons, autos, toothpicks don’t exist now; and investment and capital as such will have nothing to do with their coming to be. Because no auto was ever made by capital. No toothpick was ever made by capital. You can bring a hundred thousand dollars to a tree, and no toothpick will come. You can’t have an auto that way either, or a spoon. What capital does is to set labor a-going. It’s the same as saying it isn’t the match that makes the tea. The match is applied to the kettle of water. Capital is, then, something that can give labor a chance. A person who is a very good woodsman couldn’t do much with wood unless he had an ax. The ax itself wouldn’t cut the wood. And particularly, the price of the ax wouldn’t cut the wood, or investment in an ax factory. It’s man plus ax. 

“The Real Price”

In the early stages of society, the exchangeable value of these commodities ...depends almost exclusively on the comparative quantity of labour expended on each. 

“The real price of everything,” says Adam Smith, “what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it....Labour was the first price—the original purchase-money that was paid of all things.” Again, “in that early and rude state of society, which precedes both the accumulation of stock and the appropriation of land...”

But the reason stock could be accumulated, and the reason land could be appropriated, is the labor that already had been in action. That is the essential thing still. 

“...the proportion between the quantities of labour necessary for acquiring different objects seems to be the only circumstance which can afford any rule for exchanging them for one another. If among a nation of hunters, for example, it usually cost twice the labour to kill a beaver which it does to kill a deer, one beaver should naturally exchange for, or be worth, two deer.”

Every economist has his particular examples. I don’t love this one, but you’ve got to take them as you find them. Then Ricardo says: 

That this is really the foundation of the exchangeable value of all things, excepting those which cannot be increased by human industry, is a doctrine of the utmost importance in political economy; for from no source do so many errors...proceed, as from the vague ideas which are attached to the word value.

These vague ideas are still in the running. How much comment is possible on these sentences! But they’re there, right at the beginning of one of the most noted works on political economy. 

Continue reading the lecture.

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