A great Victorian art critic, arbiter of the nation’s taste, suddenly turns his intellect and wits on the orthodoxies of the day — in this case, the revered science of political economy. In a series of four articles published in a popular, widely read periodical the critic condemns the very epistemological basis of classical economics. It is, he says, “the most cretinous, speechless, paralysing plague that has yet touched the brains of mankind”. His once docile, admiring and thoroughly middle-class audience is horrified. He is, in his own words, “reprobated in a violent manner”. He is denounced in the press variously as “crazy and ignorant”, “a womanish man, who has run foul of a scientific truth”, “a mere baby”, “a mad governess”, and so forth. But the man does not relent. He spends a good part of the rest of his life lecturing and writing on society and economy. He stubbornly describes his economic writings as “probably the best I shall ever write”. That, in short, is the story of John Ruskin’s foolhardy foray into social criticism. The four articles, a call to infuse economics with affection and morality, were published in the Cornhill magazine as Unto this Last, from August to November of 1860. In time, more sympathetic ears would transform his words into action: his message would inspire Octavia Hill, Gandhi, and scores of other acolytes.
Like his contemporary, Charles Dickens, Ruskin was a restless visionary ill at ease with the blind confidence and complacency of his times. Many in the press yoked them together in vituperative attacks: “the gospel of John Ruskin and of Charles Dickens” was “sentimentalism that paralysed the soul”. Ruskin endorsed Dickens in Unto this Last: “The essential value and truth of Dickens’s writings have been unwisely lost sight of by many thoughtful persons… He is entirely right in his main drift and purpose in every book he has written; and all of them… should be studied with close and earnest care by persons interested in social questions”. Like many others, such as George Holyoake, F. D. Maurice and Frederic Harrison, they saw through the comfortable mid-Victorian equipoise and acutely felt the pain and suffering of the ordinary worker. We have seen similar misguided confidence in our time: at the turn of the last millennium it seemed that the world had seen the end of contentions, the end of ideology, the very “end of history”. Even now, Steven Pinker would have us rejoice in the long-term decline of violence. Yet after the events of the first decade of this millennium, and the continuing crises of our present decade, we would be foolish to forget what Ruskin and Dickens came to realise: that we cannot rest idle, content with the achievements of so-called civilization, and that we should always strain to hear the needy cries of our fellow men.
In a time of Occupy Wall Street, of justified rage at obscene bankers’ bonuses, of fiery scepticism about the workings of capitalism, Ruskin deserves to be heard once more. Infused with a wrenching sense of moral outrage, the searching questions, childlike proddings and terrible anger of Unto this Last are the very exemplar of attitudes that we need to spur reform of our fallen world. Ruskin felt no shame in being scorned, savaged and ridiculed, because his cause was just and right; and neither should we, in our pursuit of justice and rightness. Ruskin reminds us all of our essential humanity. What matters are not inviolable, supposedly scientific laws and mechanical workings, it is the “Soul … an unknown quantity [which] enters all the political economist’s equations, without his knowledge, and falsifies every one of his results”. A boss or CEO is the “governor of the men employed by him … invested with a distinctly paternal authority and responsibility”. Political economy is not about the individual accumulation of wealth: “it is impossible to conclude, of any given mass of acquired wealth, merely by the fact of its existence, whether it signifies good or evil to the nation in the midst of which it exists”. The workings of our economy should teach nations and their people “to desire and labour for the things which lead to life … to scorn and destroy the things that lead to destruction”. Ultimately,
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.
The words of the Master ring out as if they had been written just yesterday.
Daryl Lim is studying history at St Hilda’s College.