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John Ruskin, the1860s and the eventual end of laissez-faire.

In 1860 John Ruskin first attempted to publish four essays that he later published as Unto this last. This was a condemnation, in difficult and sometimes stunningly beautiful prose of the state of England. Ruskin saw the glaring contrast between the alleged wealth of industrial production and the pattern of pollution and its long term consequences or of the exploitation of the laboring poor. What briefly (he wrote volumes) did Ruskin argue? Has Ruskin anything to tell us for today? What follows is a summarization of a longer piece on John Ruskin by Willie Henderson.

Formal economics looks at the world and sees “scarcity”, albeit relative scarcity. Ruskin looked at the world and saw “abundance” and wondered why such abundance did not translate into healthy and fulfilled working lives. He observed and reacted to a world in which those who produced did not consume and those who consumed did little in the way of production. The question of the proper uses of affluence has been asked many times since, in particular within the radical tradition of non-mainstream American socio-economic criticism. I am thinking of future theorists as diverse as Thorsten Veblen, the institutionalist perspective of conspicuous consumption and the wastes of advertising, John Kenneth Galbraith, a Keynesian perspective of private affluence and public squalor, and, from a Marxist perspective, Paul Sweezy and the economic waste of monopoly capital. There are hints of some of their ideas in Ruskin’s writing. The protest meetings on the street of London against current market failures and the G20 proposals, seem to have a strong Ruskinian tinge. Ruskin was, for example, deeply concerned that monopolies would wipe out the tradition of the independent artisan or small-scale producer.

Ruskin’s response to the ugliness of capitalism—capitalism, for him, produced ugly and polluted landscapes, ugly and unhealthy townscapes, ugly and greedy economic behavior— was aesthetic, as it was for the twentieth-century writer, D.H. Lawrence. Ruskin’s longer term wish was for a system that was capable of naturally painting the white and worn faces of the London poor with healthy color. Ruskin was concerned that Britain’s factories produced two outputs: goods and broken and divided men. He challenged manufacturers and merchants to take into account a full understanding of the costs of production measured in human terms. Ruskin was deeply concerned that far from moderating the selfish drive, the very image of economic man heightened it in the day-to-day ruthlessness of market oriented production. He was deeply suspicious of what he saw as the greedy fiction of “economic man”. Nature in this respect was capable of imitating art. Set our standards of discourse too low, Ruskin felt, and human behavior would soon follow. Whether intended or not, economic man by its very construction recommended “bad” behavior.

Ruskin is concerned about the true nature of wealth and he attempts to get his ideas though to his middle-class audiences with striking imagery. Thus: "So, also, the power of our wealth seems limited as respects to the comforts of the servants, no less than their quietude. The persons in the kitchen appear to be ill-dressed, squalid, half-starved. One cannot help imagining that the riches of the establishment must be of a very theoretical and documentary character" (UTL, 40).

This domestication of the issue of economic well-being had the potential to shock his middle-class, and servant-employing, readers. For Ruskin, wealth must translate into wellbeing before it can really count as wealth. Here he is referring both to individual households and to the nation as a household or estate. Given this insight, Ruskin moves from what I have called “a heap of things” to people themselves: “Perhaps it may even appear, after some consideration, that the persons themselves are the wealth”.

His arguments for economic regulation and the modification of market principles are based on reason and reasonable administration. The flow of resources in an economy is compared to the flow of rivers, each need “administering intelligence”: "The course neither of clouds nor of rivers can be forbidden by human will. But the disposition and administration of them can be altered by human forethought. Whether a stream shall be a curse or a blessing, depends on man’s labour and administering intelligence "(UTL, 46).

Ruskin’s notion of value is distinguished from price and based upon biological principles and environmental respect and on aesthetics (readily recognized by Adam Smith as part of the judgments involved in moving beyond subsistence). The nature contradiction to “wealth” in this sense was “Illth”. Ruskin was very aware of unregulated capitalism’s potential to take the natural resources of this world and of turning them into dangerous rubbish.

With respect to consumption in a capitalist society, Ruskin was very aware of the need for households to be ethically motivated. Demand, for Ruskin, is romantic in origin. It should be regulated not just by the imagination but by the “heart”, by consideration of the impact that expenditures will have on the “condition of existence” caused for producers, by consideration of a fair price. There is a direct line that goes from Ruskin to the fair trade movement, whether this line is acknowledged or not. Ruskin exhorts his readers to look directly and carefully, as he had done, at the economic world around them and to “raise the veil boldly” rather than filter their impressions through abstract and conventional political economy. His closing acts in Unto this last places the moral responsibility for prevailing economic conditions in the hands of the consumer, in the potentially availing hands of his readership.

Ruskin felt keenly the urgency of improving the lives of poor people for the time span for changing lives is limited by the length of life considered. He would have approved of John Maynard Keynes notion that in the long-run we are all dead. He would have approved of the rise of the fair trade movement and its institutional location in agencies such as Oxfam: their values are his values. He would be shocked to see China and India (to a lesser extent than China) repeating the problems, in their rush for growth, of the Industrial Revolution. The environmental degradation and the abuse of the health of the poor in that context would have astounded him. That product adulteration, a form of dishonesty that Ruskin attacked time and again, could even now claim the lives of babies would have angered him. He would have been appalled at the suicides in India blamed on the impact of corporate capitalism and genetically engineered seeds and the consequent rise of indebtedness in rural lives .

Ruskin would encourage us to look at social phenomenon as directly as we can and respond not simply with conventional analysis but with concern, imagination and compassion. This willingness “to raise the veil boldly” that separates us intellectually, morally and emotionally from the problems of poverty and economic justice is, I think, the enduring legacy, and hence understanding this capacity is the enduring “meaning” of Unto this last. Ruskin's ideas though set in a different time have a lot in common with the ideas of soem of those currently protesting prior to the G20 meeting in London.