I typed up this brief (ok, relatively brief) summary for our class.
Unto This Last was published in 1862, following, as Ruskin himself says in the introduction, 18 months after the publication of the four essays which comprised it in The Cornhill Magazine. Although these essays were violently ridiculed by many of their readers, such was Ruskin’s confidence in his argument that he republished the four articles without any changes, without any additional defense of his claims or reply to his detractors. And indeed, while many of Ruskin’s suggestions seem quite fantastical, they also prove, on close examination, to be rigorously logical, and, it seems, quite thoroughly Christian.
Ruskin does not try to claim that his proposal for social economics is “natural,” that mankind, left to his own devices, will realize the just and beautiful social order to which Ruskin calls him, but this need be no refutation of his argument. Polanyi has showed us that the rise of the capitalistic economic and social order was not “natural” at all, but innovative and artificial, so capitalism cannot criticize Ruskin for being “unnatural.” The situation of modernity requires us to develop a social order which will necessarily be “artificial” to some degree, to the degree that any good social order must be brought into being willfully and will not simply emerge by itself. The question is whether this development can glorify the natural, instead of destroying it, whether it can encourage beauty and justice, rather than ugliness and vice. Ruskin seeks to articulate such a Christian glorification of natural social order in the pursuit of justice and beauty.
In the first essay, “The Roots of Honour,” Ruskin begins by denying the fundamental premise of capitalist political economy--that it is possible to determine how economies will and should function by taking into account only man’s economic interests, without regard to his social affections. A science such as this, while it may be true on its own premises, can never be true in the world. Ruskin mocks it, saying, “I neither impugn nor doubt the conclusion of the science if its terms are accepted. I am simply uninterested in them, as I should be in those of a science of gymnastics which assumed that men had no skeletons. It might be shown, on that supposition, that it would be advantageous to roll the students up into pellets, flatten them into cakes, or stretch them into cables; and that when these results were effected, the re-insertion of the skeleton would be attended with various inconveniences to their conclusion.” Social affections, both vicious and virtuous, must be taken into account, Ruskin says, and that being the case, our desire should be to encourage an economy based on the virtuous ones, not the vicious ones.
Manufacture, argues Ruskin, shall be most productive if workers work not merely out of economic interest, but out of affection for their masters. This will not happen, he says, as long as workers know that their wages may be reduced or removed at any moment, due to economic downturn. Ruskin therefore proposes that we find a way to keep wages 1) from varying based on the demand for labour, and 2) from disappearing when there is no work to be done. Both sound preposterous, but Ruskin endeavours to show otherwise. To save time, I will mention here only how he solves the first problem, since that is the most fascinating and compelling.
Many of the most honourable occupations, he points out, already function according to the principle of a fixed rate of pay, rather than on the basis of the supply and demand. We pay priests and statesmen (and in his time, doctors and lawyers) a fixed wage for their work, rather than hiring the lowest bidder. We do this because we expect those in such occupations to work not for money, but out of a sense of honour, and for the good of society. Those in honourable vocations are expected to occasionally sacrifice their own good, and their own profit, for the good of those they serve. Why should it be otherwise in the realm of commerce? Why can we not cultivate a mindset whereby merchants serve society by providing in the same way that ministers do by teaching, instead of seeking their own interest and avoiding loss at all costs?
In the second essay, “The Veins of Wealth,” Ruskin anticipates the objection, “Well, all of this may be fine and wonderful, but the science of political economy doesn’t propose to deal with that sort of thing. Its task is solely to determine the best method of acquiring wealth.” In response, Ruskin proposes to assess the nature of wealth, instead of simply assuming that it can be equated with monetary riches. Wealth, Ruskin points out, is ultimately power over labour--a fabulously wealthy man alone on a desert island, who could not use his wealth to employ anyone, would not be truly wealthy. Moreover, because of this, wealth is a relative phenomenon...to be able to use your wealth, you need others to be poor. Therefore, says Ruskin, the normal pursuit of wealth is the pursuit of a “maximum inequality in our favor,” and usually by unjust means.
Because of this agonistic nature of wealth, Ruskin sees that the pursuit of riches is often deleterious to the total wealth of a society. Therefore, we need a theory of wealth based on justice, which does not seek to take advantage of the weaker party to improve the relative position of the stronger. Otherwise, “that which seems to be wealth may only be the gilded index of a far-reaching ruin,” since the lives of many will necessarily be rendered miserable as the rich pursue more riches.
To solve this problem, Ruskin returns to his definition of wealth as power over men: “since the essence of wealth consists in power over men, will it not follow that the nobler and more in number the persons are over whom it has power, the greater the wealth?” The pursuit of real wealth is thus the pursuit of the enrichment and ennoblement of all societies members, and it will become clear in the end that the “persons themselves are the wealth.”
In the third essay, “Qui Judicatis Terram,” Ruskin turns to consider the notion of justice at more length. Rich and poor, he says, will always, as long as the world lasts, come into contact with competing interests. We cannot change this fact, but we may decide whether this contact will be destructive or beneficial, and to ensure the latter, we must use justice. Likewise, the laws of supply and demand are, to an extent, inevitable; the question is whether justice will guide them or whether they will destroy all in their path. Again, it is silly, he says, to say that economics is the “science of getting rich,” for there are many sciences of getting rich, such as poisoning rich people, for example; the question we have to answer is what is the science of getting rich justly?
Justice in employing labour, says Ruskin, means giving the labourer the same amount of labour in return (or the means to buy the same amount of labour) for the labour he has given. A just wage then will be sufficient to procure for the labourer as much or more labour as he has given, not less. By just wages, Ruskin endeavours to show, just as many will be employed in society as otherwise would be, but the power over labour is spread throughout the economy, and down through the social ladder, rather than remaining all in the hands of a few wealthy employers. Just wages will tend to raise men to the employer’s level, rather than keeping them at a low level.
In the final essay, easily the longest, Ruskin seeks to redefine the crucial terms of political economy, namely Value, Wealth, Price, and Produce.
Value, he argues, cannot be determined by supply and demand, or by how much labour goes into something. No, value is objective, it is a matter of whether or not something “avails toward life.” True political economy, then, depends on transcendent values, teaching us what to value and what not to value. Wealth, he points out, is not merely the possession of useful things, but the possession of them in such a way, and by such persons, that they are rightly and constructively used; it is ‘the possession of the valuable by the valiant.’ Price, he determines after some complex discussion, is ‘the quantity of labour given by the person desiring it, in order to obtain possession of it,’ and labour, in turn, is defined as ‘the contest of the life of man with an opposite.’
What about production? Here his argument dismantles the modern notion that the production of an economy can be best gauged by a statistic like GDP. Just because labour produces something doesn’t mean that anything beneficial has been done. Labour can produce many things, some destructive of life, others availing towards life. Production of capital, for example, is not in itself valuable, but only insofar as it enables the production of goods for consumption. Moreover, depending on how or why something is consumed, it may be valuable or not. A bomb, when it is “consumed” is destructive, and so the labour of bomb-making is not true production. “Production,” he concludes, “does not consist in things labouriously 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.”
He ties together the argument of this essay, and of the whole book, that economic value cannot be separated from social value, and thus moral value, by declaring, “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.” Moreover, “the maximum of life can only be reached by the maximum of virtue.”
A just and true economy, then, will function by the rich treating justly and the virtuous working to instill virtue in all those below them.