"The mother, being strongest, will get it, and eat it."
John Ruskin is an odd figure for a 21st-century reactionary to celebrate.
Ruskin’s personality cult inspired the whole world of Victorian socialism, from which sprouted the Fabian Society, which would flower into the Anglo-American procedural oligarchy that we know and love today. I am not sure Ruskin coined the phrase “social justice”—I’m not sure he didn’t. He was certainly every bit a “social justice warrior.”
Yet as arch-Fabian Shaw wrote 100 years ago, Ruskin—like his great mentor Carlyle—is a puzzling and unclassifiable figure whose 20th-century valence remains unclear:
Now since Ruskin's contemporaries neglected him politically because they found the plain meaning of his words incredible, I put the question whether in the course of time there has developed any living political activity on behalf of which you might enlist Ruskin if he were living at the present time.
Well, one thing is clear to Shaw:
It goes without saying, of course, that he was a Communist. He was quite clear as to that.
Carlyle, in the same sense, was a Fascist. In fact, Carlyle matters because Carlyle is our political most recent common ancestor. Carlyle’s thought is ancestral to all political narratives that competed seriously for power in the 20th century. In embryo, Carlyle is a Fascist, a Communist and a Fabian (not classical) liberal.
He not only denied that he was a Socialist; he asserted that the Socialistic ideal of human equality was unattainable and undesirable. He even wrote of “liberty and equality,” that he detested the one, and denied the possibility of the other. He proclaimed himself a “violent Tory of the old school,” and an “Illiberal,” and it is certain that for a clear exposition of Socialistic doctrine, we must look elsewhere but in the volumes of Ruskin. Moreover, economists tell us that many of his theories are unsound. It is probably true that any movement to remodel society precisely on the lines he laid down would be foredoomed to failure.
It is at is at least equally true that to ignore his teaching becomes every day more impossible and disastrous. For Ruskin, who is accepted neither by Socialist nor by practical political economists, nevertheless strikes at the very root-disease of modern “civilization” when he condemns commercialism and the struggle for mere material possessions, showing that life is the only true wealth, and that the richest man is he whose existence is the most useful, many-sided and helpful.
I’m sorry, sir—I’m going to have to pass you on to our based department.
Ruskin’s political thought develops, maybe even overdevelops, some aspects of Carlyle. But what Ruskin doesn’t believe in is what Carlyle doesn’t believe in: (a) libertarianism, and (b) politics (ie, democracy). Shaw agrees:
But now comes the question, What was his attitude towards Democracy?
Well, it was another example of the law that no really great man is ever a democrat in the vulgar sense, by which I mean that sense in which Democracy is identified with our modern electoral system and our system of voting.
Ruskin never gave one moment's quarter to all that. He set no store by it whatever, any more than his famous contemporary, Charles Dickens, in his own particular department the most gifted English writer since Shakespeare, and resembling Ruskin in being dominated by a social conscience.
Dickens was supposed to be an extremely popular person, always on the side of the people against the ruling class; whereas Ruskin might, as a comparatively rich University man, have been expected to be on the other side. Yet Dickens gives no more quarter to Democracy than Ruskin.
When he introduces a working-man, he may make that working-man complain bitterly that society is all wrong; but when the plutocrats turn round on that man and say to him, “Oh, you think yourself very clever. What would you do? You complain about everything. What would you do to set things right?” he makes the working-man say, “It is not for the like of me to say. It is the business of people who have the power and the knowledge to understand these things, and take it on themselves to right them.”
That is the attitude of Dickens, and the attitude of Ruskin; and that really is my attitude as well. The people at large are occupied with their own special jobs; and the reconstruction of society is a very special job indeed.
To tell the people to make their own laws is to mock them just as I should mock you if I said, “Gentlemen, you are the people; write your own plays.” The people are the judges of the laws and of plays; but they can never be the makers of them.
Thus Ruskin, like Dickens, understood that the reconstruction of society must be the work of an energetic and conscientious minority.
A perspective which is even clearer in the work of Shaw’s fellow Fabian, H.G. Wells. Here is a theory of history perfectly shaped for a new aristocracy; and it is the theory that our last century indeed adopted.
Shaw, being Shaw (and remember, it’s 1921), is not shy about taking this thinking to its most dangerous, shocking limit—a political aesthetic we might call Tory Leninism:
Europe has in the field a very interesting statesman named Nicholas Lenin. He says, “As long as you talk like that, you will not do anything, and don’t really mean to do anything. In this world things are done by men who have convictions, who believe those convictions to be right, and who are prepared with all the strength they have or can rally to them to impose appropriate institutions on the vast majority who are themselves as incapable of making the institutions as of inventing the telescope or calculating the distance of the nearest fixed star.”
Do not forget that this attitude of Lenin is the attitude not only of all the prophets, but of, say, Mr. Winston Churchill and Mr. Arthur Balfour. All our military and governing people who have practical experience of State affairs know that the people, for good or evil, must, whether they will or no, be finally governed by people capable of governing, and that the people themselves know this instinctively, and mistrust all democratic doctrinaires. If you like to call Bolshevism a combination of the Tory oligarchism of Ruskin and Mr. Winston Churchill with the Tory Communism of Ruskin alone, you may.
So it comes to this, that when we look for a party which could logically claim Ruskin today as one of its prophets, we find it in the Bolshevist party. (Laughter.)
You laugh at this. You feel it to be absurd. But I have given you a demonstration; and I want you now to pick a hole in the demonstration if you can. You got out of the difficulty in Ruskin’s own time by saying that he was a Tory. He said so himself. But then you did not quite grasp the fact that all Socialists are Tories in that sense.
The Tory is a man who believes that those who are qualified by nature and training for public work, and who are naturally a minority, have to govern the mass of the people. That is Toryism. That is also Bolshevism. The Russian masses elected a National Assembly: Lenin and the Bolshevists ruthlessly shoved it out of the way, and indeed shot it out of the way as far as it refused to be shoved.
Some of you, in view of the shooting, repudiate Bolshevism as a blood-stained tyranny, and revolt against the connection of Ruskin's name with it. But if you are never going to follow any prophet in whose name Governments have been guilty of killing those who resist them, you will have to repudiate your country, your religion, and your humanity.
You cannot repudiate religion because it has been connected with the atrocities of the wars of religion. You cannot, for instance, ask any Roman Catholic to repudiate his Church because of the things that were done in the Inquisition, or any Protestant to admit that Luther must stand or fall by the acts of the soldiers of Gustavus Adolphus. All you can do is to deplore the atrocities.
Lenin said the other day, “Yes: there have been atrocities; and they have not all been inevitable.” I wish every other statesman in Europe had the same candor. Look at all that has been done not only by Bolshevists, but by anti-Bolshevists, by ourselves, and by all the belligerents! There is only one thing that it becomes us to say; and that is, “God forgive us all.”
It becomes us to say what we like about the tenets of Leninism. At least it’s an ethos. Look at all that was done by the 20th century! To repeat none of it; to repudiate none of it; to shove it, with all its conviction and none of its atrocity, firmly out of the way—is the only thing that it becomes us to do. And it’s certainly what God would want.
It is this total conviction that we find in Carlyle and Ruskin. Err they sometimes do; in practical politics, like Plato they display no personal aptitude; but, as Shaw says,
You must not imagine that prophets are a dead race, who died with Habakkuk and Joel. The prophets are always with us.
Hitler and Lenin were prophets too. Shall we buy our prophecy at that store? Then it behooves us to read the Carlyles and Ruskins—prophets earlier, and prophets better.
Ruskin was one of those bloggers avant la lettre. His works come in 40 volumes and would be perfect for training an AI—GPT-3 probably has them. If so, its stream of pseudoconsciousness must be easy to kick over into “Ruskin mode.”
Beyond his Tory Leninism, which Shaw has distilled so eloquently, but which is hardly unique to the author, for me the most valuable vein in the ore of Ruskin’s corpus is his economics. I would agree with Shaw, though for very different reasons, that Ruskinite economics is hardly pure gold—his labor theory of value is something of a disaster—but there is something there.
The most important emphasis of Ruskin’s economics is the bankruptcy of hedonism. Hedonic economics is all economics premised on the belief that economic systems should be judged on their power to produce pleasure—to satisfy human desire. Albert Jay Nock used to call this premise economism, a coinage worth reviving.
All schools of economics practiced today, even the Austrian School, are hedonic; in the broadest 19th-century sense, they are liberal. Carlyle, Ruskin and Nock are the enemies of liberal, hedonic economics as a whole—from Ricardo and Mill to Keynes and Hayek. Albert Jay Nock used to call this premise economism, a very worthy word.
The premise of any illiberal economics is that while economism is completely valid given its axiom, premises or assumptions, its axioms are unwarranted. Its theorems, while logically correct, smuggle those assumptions unexamined into its conclusions. Or as Ruskin puts it:
We made learned experiments upon pure nitrogen, and have convinced ourselves that it is a very manageable gas: but behold! the thing which we have practically to deal with is its chloride; and this, the moment we touch it on our established principles, sends us and our apparatus through the roof.
Observe, I neither impugn nor doubt the conclusions 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 constitution.
The reasoning might be admirable, the conclusions true, and the science deficient only in applicability. Modern political economy stands on a precisely similar basis.
If Ruskin has one compact economic testament, it is “Unto This Last,” from which the above is drawn. “Unto This Last” had more intellectual impact than Marx on the early Labor Party. Even Gandhi was a huge “Unto This Last” fan.
Besides his rejection of hedonic economism, or maybe as an elaboration of it, Ruskin’s main economic contribution is his heterodox labor economics. After the great century of classical liberalism, Ruskin has no choice but to acknowledge that the natural forces of supply and demand operate in labor markets as all others; he just believes that it is the inescapable task of the state to tame these stormy oceans.
Ruskin starts by denying that liberal forces are an accurate model of economic actors, who are not perfectly independent nor motivated by perfect self-interest:
If there is only a crust of bread in the house, and mother and children are starving, their interests are not the same. If the mother eats it, the children want it; if the children eat it, the mother must go hungry to her work.
Yet it does not necessarily follow that there will be “antagonism” between them, that they will fight for the crust, and that the mother, being strongest, will get it, and eat it.
Such sentimental, uneconomic affection is is not even a rare and special economic case—at least, not if you’re a Victorian gentleman:
We shall find the best and simplest illustration of the relations of master and operative in the position of domestic servants.
We will suppose that the master of a household desires only to get as much work out of his servants he can, at the rate of wages he gives. He never allows them to be idle; feeds them as poorly and lodges them as ill as they will endure, and in all things pushes his requirements to the exact point beyond which he cannot go without forcing the servant to leave him.
In doing this, there is no violation on his part of what is commonly called “justice.” He contracts with the domestic for his whole time and service, and takes them—the limits of hardship in treatment being fixed by the practice of other masters in his neighborhood; that is to say, by the current rate of wages for domestic labor.
This is the politico-economical view of the case, according to the doctors of that science; who assert that by this procedure the greatest average of work will be obtained from the servant, and therefore the greatest benefit to the community, and through the community, by reversion, to the servant himself.
That, however, is not so. It would be so if the servant were an engine of which the motive power was steam, magnetism, gravitation, or any other agent of calculable force.
But he being, on the contrary, an engine whose motive power is a Soul, the force of this very peculiar agent, as an unknown quantity, enters into all the political economist’s equations, without his knowledge, and falsifies every one of their results.
The largest quantity of work will not be done by this curious engine for pay, or under pressure, or by help of any kind of fuel which may be supplied by the cauldron. It will be done only when the motive force, that is to say, the will or spirit of the creature, is brought to its greatest strength by its own proper fuel: namely, by the affections.
Libertarians, did you ever wonder why the government has this weird, paternalistic, almost feudal concept of an “employee”—where a company doesn’t just buy bulk labor from its workers, but is responsible for caring for them in this semi-creepy way?
Or why the Japanese system of lifetime employment, which should definitely not be compared to other systems of lifetime employment, is so instinctively popular in all progressive circles?
It is because of John Ruskin. Or because Ruskin was right. Or even because he was wrong, if in a seductive way—but I think he was right. In any case, Anglo-American leftism from the Ruskinites till now contains this feudal tendency to patronize the worker, either directly by the state, or by a private employer deputized by the state.
Is this a bad tendency, or a good one? Superficially, we cannot tell—but we can tell that the relationship of patron and client is an eternal tendency. Some eternal things are bad and unnecessary, and can be done away with. Not so many as was once thought…
Ruskin, who often goes down ratholes but at least seldom goes too shallow, is actually interested in this puzzle of economics and human affection. Suddenly we are almost in airport-bookstore management theory—Ruskin seems about to invent the stock option:
It is easy to imagine an enthusiastic affection existing among soldiers for their colonel. Not so easy to imagine an enthusiastic affection among cotton-spinners for the proprietor of the mill.
A body of men associated for purposes of robbery (as a Highland clan in ancient times) shall be animated by perfect affection, and every member of it be ready to lay down his life for the life of his chief. But a band of men associated for purposes of legal production and accumulation is usually animated, it appears, by no such emotions, and none of them are in anywise willing to give his life for the life of his chief.
And even in the 21st-century startup, no robber band but associated for legal purposes, no cultural trope is quite so motivating as an enemy—any engineer will work an extra hour a day for that feeling of maybe even killing some despised corporate behemoth. The genus Homo has made great strides, but Pan is never far beneath the skin.
Ruskin’s labor market
Now, Ruskin is not just mocking Victorian capitalism. He has a better alternative. Ruskin, as a literary economist, is a thorough thinker; his whimsy is only flight and fancy; he has a clear problem statement and a clearly-articulated solution. Since he is even more long-winded than me, let me restate his point on command economics.
Ruskin intends to make salaried labor—labor of all skill levels, from ditchdiggers to doctors and lawyers—produce a predictable income for capable laborers. He intends to give it a sense of human collective pride and disincentivize mercenary corner-cutting.
His solution is to reintroduce something like the medieval guild system. Artisans are licensed, possibly at multiple quality tiers, with fixed wages at each tier. To keep the labor market stable, the regime has two knobs to adjust: raising wages, or adding or removing licenses.
If demand for the art is exploding, the regime invests in a crash training program; if it needs to recruit more or better people, it raises wages. If demand is crashing, the regime stops issuing new licenses, or buys back old ones at the market price. In this guild system, there is no way for technical or economic shifts to blindside the worker.
Not only is this Ruskinite fixed-wage guild system how old-school taxis are run—it is also how most of the world’s medical systems, including the US, pay doctors. There is no doubt that problems exist in practice—in both New York taxis and US hospitals. It remains hard to tell if these problems are problems with Ruskin’s theory, or just errors in its implementation.
Ruskin, a Victorian after all, was intimately familiar with every form of Darwinism. As a Tory he was well aware that nothing is less equal than any two human beings, and as a Darwinist he was well aware that competition is the engine of all quality.
Why pay every cardiologist equally, when no two cardiologists are equal? Ruskin will convince you, or try. (Note that the guinea was the standard Victorian medical fee.)
“What!” the reader, perhaps, answers amazedly: “pay good and bad workmen alike?”
Certainly. The difference between one prelate’s sermons and his successor’s—or between one physician’s opinion and another’s—is far greater, as respects the qualities of mind involved, and far more important in result to you personally, than the difference between the good and bad laying of bricks (thought that is greater than most people suppose).
Yet you pay, with equal fee, the good and bad workmen upon your soul, and the good and bad workmen upon your body; much more may you pay, contentedly, with equal fees, the good and bad workmen upon your house.
“Nay, but I choose my physician and (?) my clergyman, thus indicating my sense of the quality of their work.” By all means, also, choose your bricklayer; that is the proper reward, of the good workman, to be “chosen.”
The natural and right system respecting all labor is, that it should be paid at a fixed rate, but the good workman employed, and the bad workman unemployed.
The false, unnatural and destructive system is when the bad workman is allowed to offer his work at half-price, and either take the place of the good, or force him by his competition to work for an inadequate sum.
Ruskin’s point is that the labor market can still be competitive at fixed wages. Most laborers, whether bricklayers or doctors, deliver a quality of work which is generally inelastic to pay. Paid twice as well, a good heart surgeon would not cut twice as well. But a bad surgeon might be tempted to compete on price—is this good?
A labor market with fixed wages is limited both in its ability to clear (equate supply and demand), and compete (select out the worst suppliers). Still, it is a real market, and perfectly functional if its managers turn its knobs to keep it in the right envelope.
A functional market for cardiologists must be able to deliver effective quality ratings for cardiologists. In a free labor market, high fees for the best cardiologists will no doubt in some way reflect some quality signal—but hardly with any fidelity. A better signal is some system in which the masters of the guild, be it cardiology or bricklaying, can somehow rate each other.
Any working status system is a much better quality incentive than price. It can even include price tiers; the price of a master is not the same as the price of a journeyman. Both masters and journeymen are competing amongst each other for business; they are only prevented from differentiating their services by price.
A free market in labor, as in any product, is a two-dimensional competition across both price and quality. When price is fixed, the market competes only on quality. The highest-quality providers can choose their clients, and may have waiting lists; the lowest-quality providers have to hustle hard not to fall out of the profession.
Only for marginal workers in danger of such relegation is economics a predominant motivation to quality. For experienced professionals of medium or high skill, quality is motivated by other non-economic affections: status at worst, and pride at best.
A minimum bar in quality can be imposed by licensing and testing. Also, a regime of licensing, testing and if necessary training is required anyway, to control labor supply and ensure that markets clear. If the profession’s managers see a substantial decline in demand, they can reduce supply by buying out licenses, thus retiring workers—just as a taxi commission could reduce taxi supply by buying back medallions.
This or any managed market can be badly managed. Any metric of professional quality can be complete noise. Any licensing regime (a “closed shop” union is another example) can be mismanaged, and probably will be if power gets into the hands of the workers alone—who have many obvious conflicts of interest. The guild regulates the profession; the guild must still be regulated by the regime.
But if the market is well-managed, the provider of labor at acceptable professional quality has complete professional security; the consumer of labor gets acceptable quality at worst, and at least knows where to get in line for excellent quality. What other results should a healthy labor market produce? What is more important?
This is command economics; but it is command economics with only two knobs. And all of medieval Europe, which is not nothing, is an existence proof that it can work. (Which does not prove that Washington can make it work.)
Tory labor economics
Ultimately there is a clear relationship between Ruskin’s politics and economics. Both are statist in a simple and logical way—not that you have to like it.
As Shaw so wittily shows us, Ruskin’s political perspective boils down to the basically Bolshevik belief that the people are the property of the regime. There is no such thing as a citizen—only a subject. The idea that the people can rule the government is just a fraud—like QAnon—but older. The government has no choice but to rule the people. This is the purely absolutist Renaissance or Machiavellian theory of sovereignty.
This sounds like a grim reality and indeed it is. But it has a silver lining. Since the people are the property of the regime, the people are the assets of the regime. The regime’s incentive is therefore to maintain and improve this human capital. Note that this incentive is precisely aligned with the traditional maxim of state: salus populi suprema lex, the health of the people is the supreme law.
Note also: this incentive is in fact far more hard-headed than any metric of hedonic economism—such as GDP, which is measuring the amount of desire satisfied by the productive sector. At best GDP is a revenue metric. A prudent manager will manage an enterprise to maximize capital and profit, not revenue.
Normally all these lines go in the same direction, but focusing on the wrong one can produce degenerate outcomes. For example, a regime maximizing GDP may maximize the consumption of baubles and luxuries, but neglect the common good of its people.
Without a regime of actual slavery, it is hard to quantify the value of a human being, even just as a labor producer. Nor is it necessary to quantify—mere qualitative common sense can point us in the right direction. Any fool can see what makes people valuable.
It should not even be necessary to say that a healthy adult human being is a producer of labor; and that humans are healthiest when that labor makes the fullest use of their talent and experience. A regime which deploys its doctors as ditchdiggers is damaging its own human assets, and depreciating its capital.
So is a regime which leaves capable doctors unemployed, or even leaves them with the risk of unemployment. Most human beings are not entrepreneurs; they should not be entrepreneurs; even in a competitive economy, they do not need to be entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs, like generals, are essential but never in great quantity.
From a statist perspective, the adult, productive human animal, professionally trained in any career from masonry to ophthalmology, is a delicate machine. It is not an old wheelbarrow that can be left out in the rain. It needs to be continuously operated within normal operating parameters, or it degrades and becomes less productive.
It makes sense for the state to optimize labor markets to maximize the productivity of these bipedal cattle on the lifetime scale of a capital asset. Financial insecurity caused by unmanaged fluctuations in labor demand can seriously damage this human capital. Also, humans do their best work when they are happy and take pride in their work—not when they are underpaid, and definitely not when they are overpaid.
For the total state, socialism is just good business—since its people are its assets. And all states are total states; all states, regardless of their constitutional doctrines, behave objectively as if they do unilaterally own their subjects.
While Ruskin often sounds like a romantic dilettante in politics and economics, it was a romantic time—and he was a romantic writer. But beneath the roaring verbal power of his prophecy is a solid base of political and economic logic.
This 19th-century Ruskinite base is ancestral to many of the political and economic systems that the 21st century inherited from the 20th. If nothing else, it can help us understand the historical motivation behind these often poorly-maintained systems. While the old machine is often in poor shape, its original logic can be fresh as a daisy.
And even where Ruskin or even Carlyle have aged poorly, their abstract errors have aged into concrete and relevant warnings. The old machine is often in poor shape; other possible machines have flowered, flamed and been destroyed; all have deserved that destruction, not all received it; yet all this only helps us to correct the old design, whose backbone remains remarkably sound.