Friday, April 19, 2013

Value, Wealth and Richness

'Rocks and Vegetation, Chamonix', John Ruskin (c. 1854) 

Can't stop staring at this picture. Chamonix was where Ruskin composed his intervention into political economy, Unto this Last, which inspired Gandhi, among many others. To capture the drama of this moment in 1860, when Ruskin published this provocative work, I (shamelessly) quote a piece I wrote a while ago: 
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.
In fact, a survey of the first batch of elected Labour MPs in 1906 revealed that Ruskin and in particular, Unto this Last, were an inspiration for them, a name and a book they invoked more than any other writer or title. The issues Ruskin raised haven't gone away, in an age when inequality is worse than ever, when Thatcherism is still declared triumphant. As Ruskin said,
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.
We need to go back to those debates. Rather, we need to always have them -- in any good society. What is value? what is wealth? and what does it mean for a person or a country to be rich?


And this should be in every shop and house, again from Unto this Last:
what one person has, another cannot have; and that every atom of substance, of whatever kind, used or consumed, is so much human life spent; which, if it issue in the saving present life, or gaining more, is well spent, but if not, is either so much life prevented, or so much slain. In all buying, consider, first, what condition of existence you cause in the producers of what you buy; secondly, whether the sum you have paid is just to the producer, and in due proportion, lodged in his hands; thirdly, to how much clear use, for food, knowledge, or joy, this that you have bought can be put; and fourthly, to whom and in what way it can be most speedily and serviceably distributed: in all dealings whatsoever insisting on entire openness and stern fulfilment; and in all doings, on perfection and loveliness of accomplishment; especially on fineness and purity of all marketable commodity.

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