|NUMBER 1731. —November 12, 2008|
|Dear Unknown Friends:
t was thirty years ago this month that Eli Siegel, poet, critic, founder of Aesthetic Realism, died. This May, as I do every year, I wrote about the “simple” operation which led to his dying; about his integrity, grandeur, and kindness during his last, tragic months; and also about my own unending regret in relation to that terrible surgery.
Today the philosophy Eli Siegel founded is mightily alive. It is immortal. And it's the means to understand humanity and America now.
In this issue, we print the fourth section of his lecture Once More, the World. As we've been serializing it, I have written about the fact that Mr. Siegel, in the 1970s, explained what has really been happening to the world's economy. And economy takes in the very lives of people—their hopes, worries, resentments about jobs and money, and their feeling about what they deserve. Through what he said then, and through Aesthetic Realism itself, we can know what our current “financial meltdown,” as it's been called, is truly about.
Once More, the World is one of the many Goodbye Profit System lectures Mr. Siegel gave, beginning in 1970. In them he showed that economic history had reached a decisive point: economics had, for centuries, been based on contempt—on “the addition to self through the lessening of something else”—but such an unethical basis no longer worked, and the profit system could never succeed again.
Contempt is certainly not confined to economics. Aesthetic Realism identifies it as the “greatest danger or temptation” of everyone. It's the cause of every unkindness, every injustice, every lie. Contempt is what impels two boys in a playground to snicker at another boy because of his clothing: they make themselves big by lessening him. But economics, like behavior in a playground, is a human activity. And contempt in the field of economics gave rise to that system run by the profit motive: the motive to use people as instruments for one's financial aggrandizement.
I've tried to show in recent issues that the present financial crisis has occurred for no smaller reason than that the profit system itself—economics based on a shabby, unethical way of seeing people—no longer works. It failed irretrievably three decades ago, and was propped up and decorated and pushed along in the intervening years by various means. These included making Americans work for much less, and having jobs that were once American be done by “cheap labor” abroad. But in autumn 2008, the phony superstructure collapsed, and one got a glimpse of the real state of profit economics.
In this issue, to represent what Mr. Siegel explained and the present moment, I use a particular person.
What Alan Greenspan Represents
n October 23 Alan Greenspan appeared, at its request, before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The New York Times report (Oct. 24) begins: “For years, a Congressional hearing with Alan Greenspan was a marquee event. Lawmakers doted on him as an economic sage.” But now the former Federal Reserve chairman received an angry “grilling”: “Lawmakers asked him time and again whether he had been wrong, why he had been wrong and whether he was sorry.”
In this journal in 1976, Eli Siegel wrote about Alan Greenspan. It was before Greenspan was seen as the economic Eminence of our land; his name, Mr. Siegel noted then, was one “many people have not even heard of.” Yet under the heading “The Greenspan Failure,” Eli Siegel presented the clever Mr. Greenspan as standing for an approach to economics which has done terrific damage to humanity, and which has failed.
That was 32 years ago. For so many years since, it could seem that the man had hardly failed—with all the adulation he received, with all the power his advice carried. Then suddenly, in autumn 2008, he is accused of bringing financial disaster to America. What Mr. Siegel explained in 1976 is true now, but it was true all these decades. Something looking so knowing, so authoritative, was hardly that.
I'm going to quote from, and comment on, both Mr. Siegel's 1976 writing on Greenspan and the 2008 Times article. Mr. Siegel saw Alan Greenspan truly and deeply, as he saw others in history and culture, whether it was a person of authentic, kind magnitude, like Shakespeare, or Lincoln; or a person who could look impressive but was really, and very hurtfully, cold, like Robert E. Lee. Here, then, at some length, because it is so clear and important, is Eli Siegel writing in 1976 about Greenspan and what economics truly needs:
He Is “Shocked”
he Times article describes Greenspan, now 82, responding to the House Oversight Committee:
To be exact, Greenspan is being accused by the Committee of both too much and too little. The accusation is that our current economic plight came from his insistence on deregulation—his being adamant that the government should do nothing to regulate the trading of various high risk securities. Here is where the accusation takes in too little: yes, there should have been more regulation, but what's amiss with our economy is more than a matter of insufficient regulation. Economics, as Mr. Siegel explains with exactitude and feeling, has to be based on ethics, on good will: on the purpose of strengthening, and bringing out what's best in, every person. The purpose of regulation is to curb various persons' selfishness and their exploitation of people, and that's valuable. But we need something not selfish, in the narrow sense: we need an economy based on taking care of oneself through being just to one's fellow humans.
Then, as to where the accusation is too much: Greenspan alone is not to blame for America 's financial conflagration. What is to blame is the way of mind he represents. What is to blame is the view that the worst purpose of a human being (of course, not called that) should be the basis of economics. That worst purpose—ill will and contempt—has in it: “I need not think about what you deserve as I sell you a product, whether it's food or a derivative. I want to make as much money from you as I can, and I hope you'll be stupid enough to buy it at the highest price, and if you suffer as a result, too bad.” “As an employer, I want to pay you as little as I can, so that as much as possible of the wealth you produce with your body and mind comes to me. I hope you'll be in a desperate position so that you'll work for the lowest of wages.” Greenspan did a lot to make economic ill will look knowing, keen, and inevitable. That this sleazy, mean purpose no longer works is good news, and speaks well for humanity and earth.
Alan Greenspan, then, is like the profit system itself: both presented themselves as ever so sure, ever so powerful. But underneath was a vast unsureness; underneath was a gigantic failure. Now some of the failure, of both the profit system and its acclaimed spokesperson, is obvious. That failure, as Americans across the land lose their jobs, is in the public eye, amid so much public and intimate pain.
Respect for People
think the description of economics in the passage by Eli Siegel that I quoted is great and true: “Economics is the production and distribution of the things our bodies look for.” As I've said before, it's important to be clear: what America needs for that production and distribution to fare well is not some economic ism. It's ethics. It's to be true to the purpose Mr. Siegel describes: “The purpose of economics is to have man in a position to have the best human life.” And man here includes a little girl in Omaha . Though born poor, she has as much right to “the best human life” as anyone, and not to make sure she's in a position to get it is un-American.
Throughout the lecture we're serializing, Mr. Siegel is showing that, contrary to what economists generally say, there are only two elements of production: land and labor; the non-human and the human. The third so-called “element,” capital, is not an element, because all capital was created by labor.
Mr. Siegel's seeing and stating with passion and logic that “Labor is the only source of wealth. There is no other source, except land, the raw material,” is part of his great respect for people. We see that respect in the passages that follow. All his life, his justice to people was unceasing and at one with the fullest scholarship, and artistic imagination that was beautiful and new.
Ethics Then & Now
At this point, Mr. Siegel looks at a weekly magazine of 1910, the Independent.
abor represents the most ordinary thing and also the most wonderful thing. It happens that the word used for all artists is works. “Have you seen the works of Leonardo da Vinci?” “Have you seen the works of Renoir?” Why is the word works used? What does it mean? The word work is where the highest things in the world are—it says hello to the sunrise and sunset in all their subtleties—and also it is that which is the simplest thing in the world. When a waitress brings you a glass of water, she is working, and if you get your glass of water yourself, you're working. The glass of water apparently doesn't mind; it's the non-human element. Humility and pride are one in labor, and that fact is being insisted on now all over the world.
I said early that a human being is a purpose accompanied by a body. That means he is labor. And a certain kind of respect is good sense. A good deal of the literature of the world is about that. When Burns said, “A man's a man for a' that,” it was in the field, but it has been said otherwise.
In 1910, when these issues of the Independent were published, there was a feeling about America that would take the form of the Progressive Party in 1912. It's a feeling hard to see now, but it's there. In certain instances it was related to religion. In the Independent (1 Sept. 1910) there's a story by Alexandra Watson about a minister, “His First Circuit.” That's a phrase from the Methodist way, in which a minister travels around a part of the country. The minister in this story, the Rev. Gregory Walsh, is very pleased with himself. However, as he goes about talking to a Steven Grayam, he is aware of Steven's sister, and he's interested in her. He tries to say he's higher than she is and shouldn't be so interested.
Gregory Walsh says he loves Joan Grayam. But she thinks he is conceited. She says:
I say that labor is in the position of Joan Grayam; it doesn't want the profit people to come to it like a conqueror. It's tired of that. Call it management, call it enterprise, capitalism, investment—labor doesn't like anything to come to it as a conqueror, and that unconscious feeling is coming through in various ways, some of which I've talked of.
The Rev. Walsh is surprised by Joan Grayam's not being interested in marrying him—he took for granted she would be. He is somewhat like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. She says:
And another passage:
The thing the rich have to see is that capital is not an element of production. It's useful in production, it's a very nice thing to have around, but it's not an element. It's also good for the rich to see ethics. Rich people should see as much as possible. Since they have the best meals, they should also have the best perception.
Gregory Walsh is affected by what Joan Grayam says, and the story ends this way:
There Is Theodore Roosevelt
1910 was tumultuous. If we understand 1910 wholly, this year and the next years will be better understood. A person who in 1910 was getting to many things that trembled on the verge of rightness was Theodore Roosevelt. New Mexico and Arizona were becoming states of the union, and Mr. Roosevelt, in Pueblo, California, speaks about the constitutions for the new states. This, from the September 8th issue, is a long sentence of his:
The question of what was a corporation was very subtly debated, and the relation of the corporation to the Fourteenth Amendment. A corporation is technically a person. The fact that a corporation had to be like a person is a tendency on the part of capital to act as if it were labor; that is, the human element. That cannot be wholly shown now, but some of the judicial decisions concerned with corporations are related to human and non-human.
Mr. Roosevelt, however, was correct: that there were people who would like to have a constitution phrased in such a manner that if there were a debate between what a corporation had a right to do or not do, and what something else or some other person had a right to do or not do, the constitution not be too much against the corporation.
From a Novel
book is reviewed which was very popular at one time: The Circuit Rider's Wife, by Corra Harris. There are these sentences from the review (8 Sept. 1910):
It happens that, though making money and getting your pile has been a big thing in history, nobody has ever said on a tombstone, “I made my pile.” And it should be asked why.
Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:
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.
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