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.