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I just came across these amazing passages this morning, and thought some folks here might be interested in the eerily prescient thoughts of John Ruskin, a Victorian aesthetic theorist and political economist who seems to have a lot to say about the recent economic climate.  These are excerpts from a public lecture he delivered in 1858, entitled "The Work of Iron in Nature, Art, and Policy."

These passages are long, but if you have some time, sit back with a nice cup of tea and have a read-through.  His prose style is beautiful (ignore slight tinges of Victorian sentimentality here and there), and no one can raise the rafters in righteous indignation like he can.

First, below the fold, he takes on the ethical issue of sweat-shop labor.  Sound familiar?

[All italics are Ruskin's; all bold-type is mine:]

The nets which we use against the poor are just those worldly embarrassments which either their ignorance or their improvidence are almost certain at some time or other to bring them into: then, just at the time when we ought to hasten to help them, and disentangle them, and teach them how to manage better in future, we rush forward to pillage them, and force all we can out of them in their adversity.  For, to take one instance only, remember this is literally and simply what we do, whenever we buy, or try to buy, cheap goods -- goods offered at a price which we know cannot be remunerative for the labour involved in them.  Whenever we buy such goods, remember we are stealing somebody's labour. Don't let us mince the matter. I say, in plain Saxon, STEALING -- taking from him the proper reward of his work, and putting it into our own pocket.  You know well enough that the thing could not have been offered you at that price, unless distress of some kind had forced the producer to part with it. You take advantage of this distress, and you force as much out of him as you can under the circumstances.  The old barons of the middle ages used, in general, the thumbscrew to extort property; we moderns use, in preference, hunger or domestic affliction: but the fact of extortion remains precisely the same.  Whether we force the man's property from him by pinching his stomach, or pinching his fingers, makes some difference anatomically; -- morally, none whatsoever: we use a form of torture of some sort in order to make him give up his property; we use, indeed, the man's own anxieties, instead of the rack; and his immediate peril of starvation, instead of the pistol at the head....

But that was just a warm-up.  Next, we take on Wall Street greed (okay, not literally, but you'll see what I mean), and the great sin of speculation:

But this is only one form of common oppression of the poor -- only one way of taking our hands off the plough handle, and binding another's upon it.  This first way of doing it is the economical way -- the way preferred by prudent and virtuous people.  The bolder way is the acquisitive way: -- the way of speculation....  Of course there are some speculations that are fair and honest -- speculations made with our own money, and which do not involve in their success the loss, by others, of what we gain.  But generally modern speculation involves much risk to others, with chance of profit only to ourselves: even in its best conditions it is merely one of the forms of gambling or treasure hunting....  And this is destructive enough, at least to our peace and virtue.  But is usually destructive of far more than our peace, or our virtue.  Have you ever deliberately set yourselves to imagine and measure the suffering, the guilt, and the mortality caused necessarily by the failure of any large-dealing merchant, or largely-branched bank?  Take it at the lowest possible supposition -- count, at the fewest you choose, the families  whose means of support have been involved in the catastrophe.  Then, on the morning after the intelligence of ruin, let us go forth amongst them in earnest thought; let us use that imagination which we waste so often on fictitious sorrow, to measure the stern facts of that multitudinous distress; strike open the private doors of their chambers, and enter silently into the midst of the domestic misery; look upon the old men, who had reserved for their failing strength some remainder of rest in the evening-tide of life, cast helplessly back into its trouble and tumult; look upon the active strength of middle age suddenly blasted into incapacity -- its hopes crushed, and its hardly earned rewards snatched away in the same instant -- at once the heart withered, and the right arm snapped; look upon the piteous children, delicately nurtured, whose soft eyes, now large with wonder at their parents' grief, must soon be set in the dimness of famine; and, far more than all this, look forward to the length of sorrow beyond -- to the hardest labour of life, now to be undergone either in all the severity of unexpected and inexperienced trial, or else, more bitter still, to be begun again, and endured for the second time, amidst the ruins of cherished hopes and the feebleness of advancing years, embittered by the continual sting and taunt of the inner feeling that it has all been brought about, not by the fair course of appointed circumstance, but by miserable chance and wanton treachery; and, last of all, look beyond this -- to the shattered destinies of those who have faltered under the trial, and sunk past recovery to despair.  And then consider whether the hand which has poured this poison into all the springs of life be one whit less guiltily red with human blood than that which literally pours the hemlock into the cup, or guides the dagger to the heart?

And now for the truly squirm-inducing part:

You may indeed, perhaps, think there is some excuse for many in this matter, just because the sin is so unconscious; that the guilt is not so great when it is unapprehended, and that it is much more pardonable to slay heedlessly than purposefully.  I believe no feeling can be more mistaken, and that in reality, and in the sight of heaven; the callous indifference which pursues its own interests at any cost of life, though it does not definitely adopt the purpose of sin, is a state of mind at once more heinous and more hopeless than the wildest aberrations of ungoverned passion. There may be, in the last case, some elements of good and of redemption still mingled in the character; but, in the other, few or none. There may be hope for the man who has slain his enemy in anger; hope even for the man who has betrayed his friend in fear; but what hope for him who trades in unregarded blood, and builds his fortune on unrepented treason?  But, however this may be, and wherever you may think yourselves bound in justice to impute the greater sin, be assured that the question is one of responsibilities only, not of facts. The definite result of all our modern haste to be rich is assuredly, and constantly, the murder of a certain number of persons by our hands every year....

[Y]ou will find that wherever and whenever men are endeavouring to make money hastily, and to avoid the labour which Providence has appointed to be the only source of honourable profit; -- and also wherever and whenever they permit themselves to spend it luxuriously, without reflecting how far they are misguiding the labour of others; -- there and then, in either case, they are literally and infallibly causing, for their own benefit or their own pleasure, a certain annual number of human deaths; that, therefore, the choice given to every man born into this world is, simply, whether he will be a labourer, or an assassin; and that whosoever has not his hand on the Stilt of the plough, has it on the Hilt of the dagger.

This is one of the many reasons I enjoy reading Ruskin so much: the fiery, unapologetic, brimstone rhetoric.  Yes, he was a bit of a nutter; yes, he was probably a misogynist (accounts vary as to why he never consummated his marriage, but none of the theories paint him as particularly progressive with regard to women); yes, he had all the usual Victorian blindnesses with regard to race, gender, colonialism, etc.  But by God -- you cannot touch him on class issues.  What a glorious crank.

And as a little reward for making it this far, some John Ruskin eye candy:

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Originally posted to Sweetness and Light on Sat Oct 25, 2008 at 11:23 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tips for John (not McCain) (15+ / 0-)

    He also talks about how speculation is like high-stakes gambling.  Here that, John "Craps" McCain?

  •  Oh, yes you can (5+ / 0-)

    "touch him on class issues!"

    He's a typical upper-class condescending conservative. As your passage shows, Ruskin thought the problem with the poor was that they were cast adrift in a ruthless society - no quarrel with that! He also thought if we could only return to those good old days when lords were lords and ladies were ladies (minus the unladylike stuff between their legs - he never got over that), not to mention serfs doffing their hats and pulling their forelocks when His Lordship passed - then all would be fine.

    Which being said, he really is among the greatest prose writers of the English language, a huge influence on Marcel Proust among others. But for the class issue money I'll take William Morris, his friend and admirer and founder of what was to become the British Communist Party, as well as a poet, a designer, a factory owner, etc.

    Founder and CFO, The Giddiyap Society.

    by Trotsky the Horse on Sat Oct 25, 2008 at 11:43:04 AM PDT

    •  Clarification: in context... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pico, slksfca, Trotsky the Horse

      ... I think he's about as good as you can get on class.  Of course he had no models to work with beyond benevolent paternalism, I'll grant you that.  I guess as a scholar of the Victorian period, I'm so used to cutting my guys (and gals) some slack that I assumed the "in context" was a given. :-)

      Oh, hey, William Morris is my hero!  I even have a tattoo of a Morris wallpaper design.  (That is not a joke, by the way.)  Morris did, though, have the advantage of decades more progressive political thought than Ruskin....

  •  I'll rec anything with John Ruskin (3+ / 0-)

    or William Morris.

    or Lewis Carroll, for that matter.

    Silence is not an effective reply to propaganda.

    by fleisch on Sat Oct 25, 2008 at 11:54:41 AM PDT

  •  The truth hurts, doesn't it, Conservatives? (3+ / 0-)

    We have lived so long in the shadow of self-serving "conservative" sophistry that we have almost forgotten the clear-sighted thinkers of the past who pointed out the inescapable immorality of capitalism.

    Ruskin is channeling Marx when he points out that the worker gets stiffed by the capitalist, who always pays less than the value of the labor he gets. That's the only way for the capitalist to make money: if he paid fair value for everything he needed to make a product, he would only get back when he sells exactly what he paid out.

    So capitalism is inherently unjust. OK, but it also is the only thing that can run an economic engine. So it's a necessary evil. The unforgivable sin of economic conservatism is that it refuses to acknowledge the injustice, and demands that there be no limits on how much extra labor the capitalist can extort from the worker. In other words, economic conservatives worship greed, selfishness, and antisocial exploitation of other human beings. And then they preach it as the highest virtue!

    The Keynesians and demand-side economists figured out back in the thirties how to control capitalism through government regulation so that it can be a force for good in society. It is too bad that we needed another Republican-induced world-wide financial collapse to remind us that conservatives cannot ever be trusted with economic power (or political power either, but that's another story).

    But now that we have experienced the living proof of the failure of conservatism, now that we are about to hand liberals and progressives total control of government, I hope they have the guts to use the next two years to DEMOLISH the ruins of conservatism, and to flush all traces of its influence from the land. Only then might our children and grandchildren be safe from the unconcerned selfishness of those who style themselves "conservatives."

    •  And Ruskin was also an early demand-side... (0+ / 0-)

      ... theorist, writing in the tradition of Thomas Malthus.  (Not the Malthus of over-population, but the other side of Malthus, who worried about general gluts.)  Many of these voices were marginalized in the nineteenth century, when economic doxa was largely Ricardian.  (Until the rise of the marginal-utility school in the 1870s, that is.)  I just think it's fascinating to trace these influences, too.

      Anyhoo, great comment, thanks!

  •  Well done! (2+ / 0-)

    Thank you!  A strong and apt antidote for the muppets with diaper rash who have invaded this once proud forum.  Will look forward to your next work!

    The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein -- best book ever, I nominate for a Nobel Prize!

    by xaxado on Sat Oct 25, 2008 at 01:01:36 PM PDT

  •  Callous indifference is something we cultivate (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    slowheels, Sweetness and Light

    nowadays, thanks to Fox and the rest of the propagandists. What can you say when it's made such a manly virtue to trivialize and laugh at bombing innocent people in foreign countries, burning the faces off children with white phosphorus munitions, destroying hospitals and water treatment plants, selling weapons to thug militias that rape young women (or even female children) with bayonets, operating a Congressionally funded school for torture with minimal attempts at disguising its mission, etc. And of course every fool on a barstool is all for nuking whoever the designated enemy of the day is, such tough guys!

    Exploiting the laborer and driving the poor retiree to starvation or suicide don't even appear on the radar to most of these folks, that's just  the norm, how things are, nothing dramatic enough about it to even warrant a mention. This is what our morality and "family values" have come down to.

    •  Interesting parallel... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      glaser

      ... to take it back to Ruskin: he was quite bitter about the fact that he was routinely mocked and "feminized" for the supposed softness of his views.  In Fors Clavigera, he wrote:

      [B]ecause I have passed [my life] in almsgiving, not in fortune-hunting; … because I have lowered my rents, and assured the comfortable lives of my poor tenants, instead of taking from them all I could force for the roofs they needed; … therefore, the hacks of English art and literature wag their heads at me, and the poor wretch who pawns the dirty linen of his soul daily for a bottle of sour wine and a cigar, talks of the "effeminate sentimentality of Ruskin."

  •  Reading the Victorians (0+ / 0-)

    makes it CLEAR as day
    that the Republican Party still hasn't
    outgrown Victoriana's most corrupt and decadent era.

    Public hangings for the homeless,
    and workhouses for the poor ?  
    Just ask the Divine Sarah about it.

    The best of conservative thought is no more than second rate Victorianism, sterile and moribund for over a century.

    Good post.

    BTW: nearly all of Tennyson's poetry can be sung to the tune of Yellow Rose of Texas.

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