The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Unions, America, & William Cullen Bryant

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 4 of Eli Siegel’s lecture Shame Goes with It All—one of the historic Goodbye Profit System talks he gave beginning in 1970. In them is the means to understand the economic tribulation of America now: for example, the huge debt, including student debt, burdening millions of people; the feeling you may lose your job at any moment—if you have one at all; the being paid much less than once; the fact that millions of people who considered themselves middle class no longer are; the fact that hunger is real and widespread—over a fifth of America’s children are “food-insecure.”

As I have described in these TROs: Eli Siegel explained in 1970 that a way of economics which was always cruel, and which is based on an ugly motive, no longer works. The profit motive is the motive, not to see a person justly, but to get as much money for yourself as possible from his labor or needs while giving him as little as you can. Economics impelled by it, Mr. Siegel showed, has failed and will never recover. To succeed now an economy needs to be based on ethics: the oneness of individual expression and justice to all people.

The lecture we’re serializing is about the fact that shame has always accompanied profit economics. That is because the profit way is fundamentally against the purpose of our lives. There are, Aesthetic Realism makes clear, two desires fighting in us. One is the desire to like the world, see big meaning in it, and add to that meaning. This is our deepest desire; it’s what our lives are for. Our other, completely opposed desire is to have contempt: get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” The profit system arises from contempt, and this economic way brings out the contempt, and shame, of those involved in it.

In the section published here, Mr. Siegel refers to unions. One of the biggest campaigns of our time is the gigantic effort to annihilate unions. It is run and massively funded by persons who think the wealth of America should belong to only a few. I have written about it in other issues of this journal. For now, in order to place it, I am going to quote from the journalistic writing of a person eminent in American literature and history: William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878).

He is one of this nation’s true poets. And from 1828 to the year he died, he was editor of the New York Evening Post. He changed it from a conservative paper to a progressive paper—though he certainly could not be called a radical. In 1836, some of the very earliest attempts to form unions were going on, and Bryant wrote on the subject in editorials. To understand the effort to kill unions now, we have to see why employers fiercely wanted them rendered illegal when they were just beginning—and why judges attached to those employers’ interests encouraged juries to convict union members.

The Journeymen Tailors

In June 1836, Bryant comments on a court case. A trade union, the Society of Journeymen Tailors, had just been formed in New York—and on May 30, 1836, twenty-one of its members were convicted of “conspiring injurious to trade and commerce.” In his June 1st editorial, in some of the good prose of America, Bryant presents this court decision as utterly unjust. How ludicrous, he says, for a judge to convince a jury

that the laws of the free State of New York have made it criminal for the working classes to settle among themselves the price of their own property [their labor], and to promise each other that they will not part with it for less than they believe it to be worth!

He writes that if unions were permitted,

What would become of the men of the money bags? Poor souls! they would have to pay for labour what labour was worth.

Why were the bosses of 1836 and their friends in the judiciary so against unions? In the lecture we’re publishing, Mr. Siegel says the big matter in relation to how work and production go on in America is: What is it all for? Should it be for the benefit of the people who live in America, the people who do the work, all the children? Or should it be to have the wealth produced in this land go mainly to a few bosses and corporate owners (in 1836 lingo, “masters”) and their friends, including political friends? The “masters” of 1836 saw that if unions were permitted to exist, they, the “masters,” would be forced to pay higher wages—wages that would enable workers’ families to live with less misery. And as a result, the “masters’” profits would be less! They tried to stamp out the damned thing—unionization. They tried for many decades. They did not succeed. Their way of mind continues in those trying to kill unions now.

I am quoting from Power for Sanity: Selected Editorials of William Cullen Bryant, 1829-1861, edited by W.C. Bryant II (1994). In his editorial of June 13, 1836, after the Journeymen Tailors were sentenced, Bryant writes about them. And he has, at that very early time, a feeling for what the kindness and power of a union is:

What was their offence? They had committed the crime of unanimously declining to go to work at the wages offered to them by their masters. They had said to one another, “Let us come out from the meanness and misery of our caste….By the means which we believe to be the best let us raise ourselves and our families above the humbleness of our condition….We cannot help believing that we might do much if we were true brothers to each other, and would resolve not to sell the only thing which is our own, the cunning of our hands, for less than it is worth.” [P. 37]

In the same editorial Bryant says: criminalizing unions and their ability to strike, really amounts to slavery. He says those who want to suppress unions and stop workers from collectively withholding their labor, are trying to use people in the horrible way they’re used in the South:

[The tailors] were condemned because they had determined not to work for the wages that were offered them!…If this is not SLAVERY, we have forgotten its definition. Strike the right of associating for the sale of labour from the privileges of a freeman, and you may as well at once bind him to a master….If it be not in the… poor franchise of naming his own terms in a contract for his work, what advantage has the labourer of the north over the bondman of the south? Punish by human laws a “determination not to work”…and it matters little whether the task-masters be one or many,…the hateful scheme of slavery will have gained a foothold in the land. [P. 38]

A Century & More Later

By 1970, organized labor had become very strong. As unions themselves have truly pointed out, they, the unions, created the middle class. All the laws in behalf of safety, dignity, and justice in the workplace exist because people in unions fought for them, sometimes died for them. And there are right now persons who are trying to undo those very laws—because those laws, in their justice, interfere with private profits. In 1970 Mr. Siegel explained:

If unions are honest, if they cannot be beaten down, and also if they will increase in power, the profit system…—which is the ability to employ labor on terms…presented by ownership—the profit system will not be able to go on.

That is why there is the carefully mapped strategy—financed with billions of dollars—to wipe out unions. The desire is to bring America back to conditions like those of the 1830s, because that’s when the profit system was humming along, on the backs of impoverished workers and their families. I’ll mention two of the propaganda techniques that these strategists are using on the American people:

1) Try to make people in unions feel that what they have gotten through their union would have come from the boss anyway—so why spend money on union dues? This wild lie appeals to one of the filthiest and most eager of human emotions: ingratitude. And ingratitude makes people act very foolishly.

2) Get people not in unions to be angry at unionized workers for having what they, the non-union workers, lack: for instance, pensions and decent wages. This technique has been quite effective against public sector unions. Citizens are encouraged to feel: “My tax money is being used to give them what I myself don’t get!” (All the while, these citizens are diverted from seeing that their tax money is being used by the state and municipality to fund private businesses.) This technique appeals to a narrow and unintelligent selfishness in people, as a means of stopping them from being truly and kindly selfish—from saying, “If we join together in unions, we all can get what we deserve.”

Inseparable from both the techniques I described is the underlying strategy: Stop unions from being able to sustain themselves adequately through dues. Render them financially unable to fight for justice to workers. That way an employer can deal with workers however he chooses—and extract the largest possible profit for himself from their labor.

In 1836—and 1936—the joining of workers together was seen as a threat to profits. However, as Mr. Siegel pointed out, there has come to be another force also corroding the profit way. He said, nearly 45 years ago:

America is not the only country now with industrial know-how….Industry is going on elsewhere….So there is more competition with the American product.

This foreign competition has been undermining the profit-making ability of various Americans, and there is nothing they can do about it. So they’re determined that economics run for private profit be made to continue the only way it now can: through the impoverishment of the working people of America. And needed for that is the undoing of unions.

In 1836, the nomenclature around unions was unclear. In an editorial, Bryant uses a capitalized phrase that means organized labor. The phrase is awkward, yet I conclude with the passage containing it because we feel his respect. Bryant writes that he himself could never “be tempted…to play foul the noble cause of the Liberty of Associated Effort.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


What Is It All For?

By Eli Siegel

Shame is in industry, in every form of it, and it is in every square inch of the profit system. I’m saying this carefully. There is a phrase, which has been around, “scientific management.” The books on the subject are tremendous. It is one of the dopiest things I ever saw, but it makes very good reading. There is such a thing as time study, which is part of it, and is already shameful: there’s some guy with a notebook hanging around you and making notes on time and what you produce. Then he’ll take notes on another person, and then get back to you.

The book I’ll read from is scholarly, and its author is a good writer: Labor and Industrial Relations: A General Analysis, by Richard A. Lester. There’s a quiet shame, which is presented dignifiedly in what I’ll read, but shame it is: to have someone keep tabs on how you’re producing. I will try to make clear its technological obscenity.

This is under the heading “Scientific Management”:

Through time-and-motion study and analysis of jobs, industrial engineers have sought objective means for establishing production standards and for evaluating jobs, as well as ways of improving plant efficiency.

A great deal of philosophic writing, too, exists in relation to time and motion and production. Time is the most abstract; there is motion, the things you do; and then, the purpose is to produce in such a way that some good will be done to somebody.

But the question is: What’s it all for? What do they (the industrial engineers and others) mean by “efficiency”? Going on: “Unfortunately no ‘scientific’ formula exists for determining what are proper prices and profits—” You said it.

—or for establishing how the gains from increased productivity should be shared between lower prices, higher wages, and greater returns to capital.

The “greater returns to capital” would be the one thing, if some people had their way.

Another question is: do you need profits to have productivity? The fact is that bees, for example, have produced a great deal of honey, and they don’t have any business journals; that hens, also, are very productive, laying eggs; that God is always interested in making new forests. He was very productive. All he produced was a world.

The speed of operations may also affect the length of working life, but no “scientific” means exists for deciding whether a pace that most workers cannot meet after age 60 is better than one that they generally can maintain until 65.

Everybody is worried about what can get them worn out. And one thing felt is, if you work at too high a speed you get worn out sooner. That’s a very big matter in the history of industry.

How Much Voice?

Nor can “scientific” analysis determine how much voice in the operation of industry wage-earners should enjoy.

Insofar as employees have unions, and unions have something to say, including through their grievance committees, they have a “voice.” That has been increasing, and it’s perhaps the most continuous sign that the profit system is being corroded from within. It’s the best corrosion I could think of.

There can be something like “scientific management” in about any economy. But the big question, again, is: What’s it all for and who’s going to be the gainer?An aphorism I once heard, and I think approved of, was: What helps General Motors helps you lose your job. And now too, what helps business helps you not to have a job. Also, if productivity is increased it’s usually done through machinery, and that means the human element is less and less required. So you speed yourself out of a job—unless What’s it all for? is dealt with truly.

Then there is the heading “Time-and-Motion Study.” In relation to that, there was a need for certain foremen and also their assistants, who used to be called—the word was fink. They would watch you and see to it that you didn’t have more than three puffs of a cigarette, if any. Well, you are ashamed. You’re ashamed that you have to elude these boys, and you’re ashamed if you’re caught by one. There’s a whole business of watching.

“Time-and-Motion Study.” That is what the person said when he came home to his wife: “You know, today I became a time-and-motion study.” So the value question, the beginning value question, is what is not in Lester’s discussion. Still, I commend this book. I think occasionally the writer did feel that there were things he should be more against than he had the courage to be.

Then, there’s a footnote. The scholarship that goes on in this field is like the scholarship in anything else—the study of the beginnings of the Italian sonnet; or the study of Renaissance painting in France in the 15th century; or studies of the history of law or American history. The note is:

For a discussion of union views on time study see William Gomberg, “Union Attitudes on the Application of Industrial Engineering Techniques to Collective Bargaining,” Personnel, Vol. XXIV (May, 1948), pp. 443-454.

From my study of this matter, the union attitudes are rather negative, also a little intensely contrary.

About time study, Lester continues:

They [unions] criticize the assumptions and methods employed, pointing out that judgments and errors enter at various stages in the procedure….The notion of a normal operator under normal conditions giving a normal performance is considered to be highly subjective.

A lot of this criticism went on, because if workers were having less take-home pay and working fewer hours, that came to be because of “study” in many places. —I consider the last sentence in the passage I just read, a little poem:

The notion of a normal operator

Under normal conditions

Giving a normal performance

Is considered to be highly subjective.

It’s a lovely quatrain.

Meanwhile, the purpose of the time study has been to have management bring in more for ownership, which is not too abstruse a matter.

With It All

In another note there is: “‘Experimental Criteria for Evaluating Workers and Operations,’ Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. II (July, 1949).” When you are “evaluated,” it means you are watched. You’re watched personally sometimes, but your record is watched. And whenever people are watched, shame can get busy—also, whenever we watch. The watcher and watch-ee are both servants of shame. “What are you doing around here?” “By the way, what are you doing around here?”

Is all this in a maelstrom of shame? I think it is. It’s attended by shame—north, east, south, and west, and very much so within.