Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Unto this Last: John Ruskin's Economic and Political Writings

By Michael Norris on Monday, September 1, 2008 11:02 pm
(19th-Century British art critic John Ruskin has made several appearances on LitKicks. Here, Michael Norris introduces us to a surprising side of Ruskin not widely known today: his economic and political essays. -- Levi)

John Ruskin was the most influential art critic in mid- to late-19th century England. Influenced by Romanticism, widely read during the Victorian and Edwardian ages, he published books about art (the voluminous Modern Painters), architecture (The Stones of Venice, The Seven Lamps of Architecture) and many other subjects. In total he published over 250 works. He influenced Tolstoy, Marcel Proust (who translated some of his works into French), and Mahatma Gandhi, among many and varied literary and political figures.

Today, Ruskin’s works are largely out of print or available in abridged versions only. However, one of his most enduring, and perhaps his best, books is still available: Unto This Last, not a book of criticism but rather a series of four essays on social theory. The name comes from the Parable of the Vineyard in the New Testament, where Christ says “take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last even as unto thee.”

Ruskin was deeply concerned about the plight of the working class of his time, who suffered under the harsh conditions of the Industrial Revolution. The classic writers of Political Economy, as the study of economics was known at the time, had published influential works on free-market capitalism. Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations outlined the importance of the division of labor. J.S. Mill and David Ricardo published definitive works on Political Economy. The political economists theorized that economies were governed by laws of nature -- the law of supply and demand, and the law of self interest -- which could not be regulated by governments. The regrettable but inevitable side effect of these economic laws was that a certain amount of the population was destined to be poor. The role of government for the political economists was to set conditions favorable to the laws of self interest and supply and demand. The poor, on the other hand, were to be regulated by population control.

Ruskin found the ideas of these political economists abhorrent. He wrote the essays that comprise Unto This Last as a rebuttal in particular to J.S. Mill’s The Principals of Political Economy, the dominant argument for laissez-faire capitalism during Ruskin’s time. Ruskin published the essays as a series in a new magazine, “Cornhill”, which was edited by the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Public reaction to the works was so negative that Thackeray had to limit Ruskin to only four essays. Ruskin, although a political conservative and an advocate of the free-market, was labelled a socialist and worse. He assembled the four essays into a book and arranged for its publication. Sales started slow at first but began to climb towards the end of the century. Unto This Last would eventually become one of his most widely read works.

Why should we read Ruskin today? He writes with a flowery, sometimes difficult style, often tending toward purple prose in his description of art. But when you get used to his style, his writing is forceful and in fact beautiful. Still, even once we accept and begin to enjoy his style, why do we want to read a nineteenth century critic who went up against political economy? Global free-market capitalism has won the argument hands down. Or has it?

In Unto this Last, Ruskin set out to define wealth, and then to show that wealth can only be acquired under certain moral conditions, such as honesty and justice. The first essay, titled “The Roots of Honor”, outlines the problems existing in the relations between the employer and the employed, and states that the employer must deal honorably with his employees. Ruskin then proposes one of his most controversial ideas: work should be paid at an equal rate for a given job. He says:

The natural and right system respecting all labour is, that it should be paid at a fixed rate, but the good workman employed and the bad workman unemployed.

This means that two workmen, one more able or reliable than the other, cannot be played against one another to reduce the final price of the work. In that case, one worker will be paid less than the fair price, the other will not work. More just, according to Ruskin, is to pay the superior worker the going rate for the job. The inferior worker will still not work. Why is this more just? In the first scenario, both workers suffer. But in Ruskin’s scenario, the worker awarded the job is paid a just wage and is happy. The other worker is unemployed, but the total effect of the transaction is better than the first scenario. What is Ruskin’s solution for the inferior worker who is unemployed? First, all workers are to be educated, at the expense of the state, so that they have, in theory, the same skill sets. Second, government should set up manufactories, which would supplement the goods produced by the private sector, and provide jobs for those workers who have lost out on bids for jobs. The government would assure the quality of the work. As for honourable dealings with workers, Ruskin states that a master of a manufactory “as he would treat his son, he is bound always to treat everyone of his men.”

The second essay is titled “The Veins of Wealth”. Here Ruskin attempts to define wealth and to offer an alternative to the ideals of Political Economy, which he bills as the science of getting rich. Ruskin points out that under the political economist’s system, getting rich is always at the expense of someone else:

... the art of making yourself rich, in the ordinary mercantile economist’s sense, is therefore equally and necessarily the art of keeping your neighbour poor.

Ruskin then provides some simple illustrations that show that the accumulation of riches on the part of one member of a small society to the detriment of the others has the effect of diminishing the wealth of the society as a whole. Wealth is therefore a matter of justice:

The whole question, respecting not only the advantage, but even the quality of national wealth, resolves itself finally into one of abstract justice.

Wealth, according to Ruskin, is not accumulated material goods, but “power over men”, specifically power over men’s labor. Raw materials, even gold, are worthless without the labor required to extract them from nature. Wealth, to be just, has to be accumulated under moral conditions. And since wealth is power over men, Ruskin proposes:

... the noble and the more in number are over whom it [ the state ] has the power, the greater the wealth.

And finally:

Perhaps is may even appear, after some consideration, that the persons themselves are the wealth.

National wealth is not built by a system of a few individuals getting rich at the expense of the many, but by the equitable sharing of riches among the greatest amount of citizens, and the bringing up of as many citizens as possible to the highest level possible in terms of education and intellect. Individual riches, as proposed by the political economists, are not beneficial to society as a whole, while just and honourable wealth is a benefit to all.

The third essay, “Qui Judicatis Terram” (“Who Judge on Earth”) deals with the idea of justice. To Ruskin, justice or injustice are inherent in all human economic transactions. Injustice in payment, in trade, in purchasing, puts the power exerted by wealth into one man’s hands, to the extreme detriment of the others in the transaction. But if the transaction is just, it has this effect:

The universal and constant action of justice […] is therefore to diminish the power of wealth, in the hands of one individual, over masses of men, and distribute it through a chain of men.

Ruskin then makes the statement wherein we see the result of just payment:

But the sufficient or just payment, distributed through a descending series of offices or grades of labour, gives each subordinated person fair and sufficient means of rising in the social scale, if he chooses to use them; and thus not only diminishes the immediate power of wealth, but removes the worse disabilities of poverty.

In other words, when men are treated and paid justly, we go from a society where the rich get richer and the poor poorer to a society where everyone has a chance to rise in economic status.

The fourth and final essay, “Ad Valorem” (“According to Value”) attempts to define value, wealth, price, and production in terms different than those proposed by the political economists. Value, in Ruskin’s terms, is that which leads to or supports life. Wealth is defined as “the possession of useful articles which we can use.” Mere possession or accumulation of objects is not wealth. Price is defined: “the quantity of labour given by the person desiring it [an object for sale], in order to obtain possession of it.” It should be pointed out that in industrialized societies, this labor is generally measured in money, not in kind. Finally, production is tied to consumption:

Production does not consist in things laboriously made, but in things serviceably consumable, and the question for the nation is not how much labour it employs, but how much life it produces. For as consumption is the end and the aim of production, so life is the end and aim of consumption.

Ruskin then sums up his economic philosophy as follows:

THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.

Pretty words, you say. Attractive ideas. But didn’t we agree earlier that global free-market capitalism has won? We in the U.S. have embraced the philosophy of Ruskin’s nemeses, the political economists, and have gone along with the idea that supply and demand and self interest should and will drive the economy, and that life under this system is good.

In what Ruskin called exchange, the trading of goods and services such that the goods are bought at the cheapest price and sold at the dearest, there is a winner and a loser. If the rich CEO of a corporation succeeds in driving down the wages of his workers in a labor negotiation, the CEO and the corporation wins, the workers lose. It is a zero-sum game. You might argue that the workers are lucky to still have a job, but they have lost nevertheless. Rather than “rising in the social scale”, as in Ruskin’s idea of a just economic transaction, they are sliding back. With constant inflation, a slide back, even a small one, is bad. The fact is that the United States is becoming a nation where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Let’s take the example of a company driving down wages by sending jobs offshore. This is a classic example of what Ruskin calls the unjust employer. The unjust employer bids two workers against each other until the pay for the job is reduced to its lowest terms. The man who does the job is ill-paid, and the other man is unemployed. The case of offshoring has an even more unjust effect. The workers in Asia and India, by reason of their economic situation, are so cheap that no bidding is necessary. The job automatically goes to the offshore worker, and the U.S. worker is unemployed. What if the U.S. worker were given the opportunity to bid against the Asian worker, to meet his competitor’s price, and secure the job? He would lose money, because the amount that he would be paid, that of the Asian worker, would be insufficient to cover his costs.

I submit that it is worthwhile to read Ruskin, because he foresaw the problems of free-market capitalism well ahead of his time, problems that are now becoming glaringly apparent. Since he foresaw the problems, perhaps we can apply his solutions to our current economy. The just wage is a particularly good place to start.

Ruskin was concerned with the wages of workers in factories. Some economists are already talking about an “hourglass economy” in the U.S., with a large number of highly paid executives and professionals at the top, a large number of low paid workers at the bottom, and the middle class occupying the thin portion in between. This is a disturbing trend for the U.S., which has traditionally prided itself on a large and prosperous middle class. Unbridled free-market capitalism may thus achieve its ends to the detriment of the many and the benefit of a few.

What can we do? Here is where “we the people” need government. As Ruskin argued, the government needs to reign in the capitalist economy, because nothing else can. The die-hard capitalists say that the market will resolve everything, but in fact it won’t. Capitalism left to its own devices is having devastatingly negative side effects: the creation of greenhouse gases, the steady erosion of wages, and the depletion of natural resources, to mention a few. Up until recently, the United States government had done a fairly good job in keeping capitalism in check, and protecting the citizenry from its excesses. The “trust busting” of Theodore Roosevelt, the New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt, and the creation of the EPA to limit pollution are examples where the government has stepped in to curb unrestrained capitalism for the benefit of the nation as a whole. Lately, the U. S. government has caved in to the interests of the corporations, but if things get back on track, the government can, for example, place a tax on jobs that are sent offshore. The tax would slow down the rate of offshoring, and the money collected could be used to re-train those workers who were unemployed due to their jobs leaving the U.S., or otherwise help them find new employment.

Ruskin, in his later years, actually used his own money to implement some of his ideas. He founded the Guild of Saint George, an organization whose members would run businesses that paid just wages and treated workers fairly, and donated 7000 pounds and a tithe of his income to it. Ruskin argued that factories should be run by water power rather than steam, as he was concerned with the ill effects of burning coal. His efforts influenced Pre-Raphaelite artist and critic William Morris, who helped found the Arts and Crafts movement, a forerunner of the socialist movement in Britain.

Perhaps our current so-called leaders would do well to read John Ruskin's too-often-ignored book of essays Unto This Last.
9 Responses to "Unto this Last: John Ruskin's Economic and Political Writings"

by Bill Ectric on

The only way to prevent a zero-sum situation is continued expansion, even when other countries don't want us expanding all over them. This sucks.

by Levi Asher on

I really like this article (mainly because I did not know about this side of John Ruskin, and am glad to learn about his progressive ideas).

Just for the record, though, the one thing I don't agree with here is the call for the US government to take steps against offshoring of skilled jobs, or adopting other protectionist policies. I'm looking forward to an increasingly global economy, and I do not see much long-term hope in US policies that isolate our economy from the rest of the world.

As a software developer, I see a lot of offshoring, and I work with people from Russia to China to India to England on a daily basis. I think this internationalization of the technology workforce is a good thing, and I don't fear the competition. As long as I'm good at what I do, what do I have to fear?

by Duncan Brown on

Levi, this is true, its great to work with the wotld.Protectionism is selfish.
There.s a lot of stuff about the pre-Raphaelites that is unknown or unread.
William Morris writes fabulous poetry about the Icelandic and Norwegian saga's.
He also done a complete demolition job on Wagner and his music.
There's more to the pre-Raphaelites than pretty boring pictures.

by Bill Ectric on

Michael, by the way - great article. Very informative. In my previous entry, I was saying that the economic situation sucks, not your article. I'm sure you knew that, but I'm becoming increasingly sensitive to the things I post and the way I post them.

I am not for protectionism. What I am for is workers being treated fairly, and having a certain basic social safety net. I feel that we have had this in the past, but that it is slipping away. I am not calling for government protectionism, but government helping its citizens and not just being a rubber stamp for the rich and the corporations - which arguably it is now.

I am also concerned that the US is getting away from being a producer of goods. I don't know if this is good or bad, but if you look at the fastest growning economies in the world, they are China and India, not the west. This may just be global leveling and not to worry.

But what really concerns me is for the whole world to rise to a Western style economic level requires, like Bill says, year after year growth. And year after year growth produces pollution. The use of raw materials to produce goods and energy is subject to the second law of thermodynamics, which says that the use of these materials produces energy and entropy. The energy we consume right away. The entropy we are stuck with. This is pollution - CO2, etc.

Growth, pollution, a fare shake for all workers, including those in Asia. These are my concerns.

Are we at the end of nationalism as we know it? I think the nations of the world need to work together on this point. Ruskin saw England as the answer, but the problems are global now.

by Levi Asher on

Good points, Michael, especially with this elaboration.

I am also for a reasonable level of "safety net" -- I just like to see a fair, thriving and ecologically conscious economic policy that invites global participation, rather than one that only addresses the prosperity of the USA.

by GETSY on

This is really a fantastic site.the notes of THE VEINS OF WEALTH provides a good expanation,it was very useful to me.

by Ian le Charpentier on

I am a working artisan in Europe and Ruskin's ideas provide the nearest thing to a modus operandi that I have. From our point of view, we see ourselves disenfranchised from contemporary economic thought and models, at the same time being confident that our modus operandi is essential to the health of society today. It is a kind of minority secular christianity in an amoral society.

Certainly "offshoring" has mixed benefits to us in particular: it's important to distinguish what the digital age offers workers in this area, from the blood and guts of dirty production, take the continuing scandal at Bhopal for example.

Personally, I have relocated to find the right kind of work, though in the same socio-cultural environment. I will be relocating again to distance myself from the unhealthy demands of a pressured urban environment, but then I am in the second half of my career and I can't be bothered to compete in someone else's race.

It would be hypocritical of me to criticise the craftsmen, for example, from Eastern Europe who undercut our rates, as they have travelled to find work also. I welcome them, but they should charge the same rates as us, or the government should raise the lowest tariff (in our case the minimum wage).

Regarding the relocation of manufacturing production overseas (in the UK a celebrated example is that of Dyson vacuum cleaners): it's anathema of course. Production/consumption must be under the aegis of local controls, otherwise the inevitable occurs, environmental and social degradation. To misquote Dickens, "telescopic misanthropy".

The old complaint from the blue collars amongst us is "too many chiefs not enough indians", with just a little more irony in recent times...

Excellent article.

by TED O'KEEFFE on

I recall enjoying an essay on the steam train and cannot remember the author. Would it have been John Ruskin?
Ted O'Keeffe

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