Jim Spates has kindly shared with readers of this site this entry from his wonderful blog, Why Ruskin. Here he explains that throughout “his career (which effectively lasted into the mid-1880s), even in writings on geology and botany, he fought for social justice.” — George P. Landow

Decorated initial R

uskin refused to rein in his attacks on what he saw as the unconscionable beliefs which had been avidly and self-servingly adopted by his contemporaries, beliefs which for all intents and purposes lauded rapaciousness and relentless exploitation of one’s neighbor as "natural impulses." Worse, he argued, all this exploitation of the weaker was done in full awareness that such actions were in directly disobedience of the principals for living together which had been repeatedly uttered by the founder of their professed religion. Such people were, he said, at best, "putative Christians," "devourers of widow’s houses who make pretense of long prayer”: sentiments hardly likely to win friends and influence people, especially those who regarded themselves as upstanding members of "good society.

From these critiques emerged, in various writings, the recommendations which follow. Although Ruskin never published them as a "list," it is useful to read them as though they were, because, taken collectively, they form a quite a powerful assembly. I first heard this "list" (in considerably shorter form) read to our students almost thirty years ago during a course on "London in the Nineteenth Century" I was co-teaching with my colleague in English and Comparative Literature, Professor Claudette Columbus (the person who introduced me to Ruskin!). Regarding the recommendations, it is important to keep in mind that, in every instance, Ruskin was either the first, or one of the first, to suggest the practice or change. (In the middle of the 19th century Britain, to take but three examples, no such thing as an old age pension existed, there was no national health care, and no system of nation-wide education. Even though, today, we have lost any awareness that all of these recommendations source back to Ruskin, it should become apparent quickly that not a few of his proposals have “taken” and are now regarded as being among the “self-evident” axioms of any humane society. But, as will also be clear, many of his proposals still remain far from implementation in societies which like to think of themselves as being in the forefront of the modern. As you read the proposals, I think you'll see that all rest on two of Ruskin's unshakable convictions: (1) that unnecessary suffering of any kind is unacceptable and that every effort should be made to ameliorate it; (2) that anyone who causes unnecessary suffering to another human being (or who wantonly debases nature) in an attempt to gain more money, power, or prestige is reprehensible, should be publicly reprimanded for such behavior, and ways found to get stop such heinous behavior.

[Notes: (1) The list is not hierarchical; I've numbered each recommendation partly for ease in distinguishing one from another and partly so that, should anyone wish to comment on one or some of the entries, the proposal can be easily located. (2) In a few cases, some extra comment is necessary; when this occurs, rather than lengthen an entry, I refer readers to the "footnotes"at the end of this post; these is geared to the number assigned to the recommendation. (4) given that the list is lengthy, it might be best to print it for easier reading.

1. Ruskin argued that we should feed, clothe, and house the poor. Not just the deserving poor, the limping poor, or the unlucky poor: all the poor. What good are poor people, he asked, to themselves or anyone else—their spouses, children, friends, or employers—if they are hungry, miserable, unable to function? [See Note 1 at the end of the post.]

2. If market vagaries threw the able-bodied out of work, we should set up, at public expense, training facilities so that, as quickly as possible, these unlucky souls could resume productive lives. Anticipating by more than eighty years the WPA (Works Progress Administration) formed during America’s Great Depression, Ruskin argued that, if the original skills of these newly jobless were no longer useful in a society changing rapidly or in crisis, it was government’s responsibility to generate projects (the need for which would be legion) where their other abilities could be utilized--in rebuilding bridges, for instance--these suggestions grounded in his belief that, beyond the practical benefits which accrue from the responsible doing of work, lay the equally vital issue of workers’ mental well-being, that sense only rising from knowing that one was not only maintaining oneself and one’s dependents in the work one did but was doing something “that matters.”

3. While such training or retraining progressed, those who were receiving it would be maintained at public expense. Such support would allow them to fully concentrate on developing the skills needed. Once that proficiency was attained, public support would cease.

4. For young people from the lower end of the economic spectrum, special training facilities should be established (again at government expense). These would be dedicated to discovering their talents and powers (resources much too valuable to squander). After such determination, these agencies would do what was needed to prepare these young for lives of work where their abilities would benefit themselves and others. Those receiving this training would be taught other essential things as well: for instance, how to create and perpetuate good health and the importance of dealing justly and kindly with all those with whom they would interact. (See Note 4.

5. He called for the eradication of all slums, such places being unconscionable consequences created by a culture of callousness, inimical to all who were forced to live in them, inimical to the healthy functioning of bodies, minds, emotions, and spirits. (see Note 5.

6. Everyone working deserves an adequate wage, where “adequate” is defined as the amount of remuneration one needs to support, at a decent (not opulent!) level of life the worker and those dependent on him or her for their well-being. Although different occupations would require different levels of pay so that their work could be done at the highest level of efficiency (brain surgeons have different expenses than farmhands, for instance), suitable salary levels would not be hard to calculate because, no matter the line of work, everyone requires so much for food, housing, clothing, medical expenses, transportation, children’s education, etc. Added to this would be a small amount for entertainment, home improvements, charity giving, and the like. If people wanted more income, they would need to earn it by working extra hours or by working a second job. Both of these other options, however, are intrinsically worrisome, as either could overtax the worker and compromise performance in the primary occupation. Once adequate salaries were determined, there would be no oversight of how people spent their money. Each person, as a human being, always retained the right to determine how he or she would behave. If each was well-educated--see #13--there would be little likelihood that abrogation of one's responsibilities would be widespread. Despite the fact that those with greater professional demands would live easier lives, in no case would anyone be paid enough to become rich. Riches, Ruskin said, should arrive accidentally, not by plan. For instance, Jim Henson, creator of the wildly successful television "Muppets" got rich, but did so because people so loved his product by the millions they happily paid for it. Given these unsought riches, Henson could choose to create more delightful muppets for his audiences or give the surplus away. (See Note 6.

7. Everyone should have a work day and week which did not sap their strength, a work year which afforded enough “break time” to relax and rejuvenate (what we now call “vacations” or “holidays”) and, in due course, sabbatical leaves which would give all employees an opportunity to improve their skills in some important way.

8. Workers who fell seriously ill should be allowed time to repair (without financial penalty); in the interim, they would have their responsibilities taken over by others. When those others fell ill, the now-repaired workers would fill in for them.

9. Because mechanized labor debased and deadened workers by reducing their mental powers to rote and weakening their physical powers, employers needed to find ways of regularly stimulating their minds and bodies. Most important in the former category would be the stimulation of workers' creativity. The best way to accomplish this would be to give all workers some level of responsibility for the quality of the work they did and for the finished product.

10. Each employer bore a responsibility to treat all workers as though they were their own daughters and sons, to think of them, as, in reality, they were: as fellow human beings for whom he or she bore responsibility for their well-being (their "being well"); anything less being cruel, exploitative, or both.

11. We (any nation) should support, with adequate pension to the end of their days, not only our halt, our lame, and our blind (what kind of a society would not do that?), but our old. After all, hadn’t they given us the best years of their lives?

12. There should be adequate health care for all. Like the poor, what good are sick people to themselves, to those they love and are responsible for, or to society in general? Besides, on what logical grounds could any humane, healthy person who possessed enough money to purchase health care for himself and others he cared for, deny, with any semblance of good conscience, similar care to those whose lack of such surplus monies made it impossible to provide for themselves and their loved ones?

13. The nation should be responsible for educating everyone, for creating a system which, on one level, would be dedicated to teaching all children the things they needed to know so that they might live fulfilling lives. Such instruction would cover not only the skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but would teach everyone how to choose and practice a socially-useful trade, how to appreciate, love, and protect nature, and how to make informed ethical and moral decisions.

14. So that people could continue to educate themselves throughout life, there should be public libraries in every city and town, these to be staffed by librarians whose task it would be to help anyone find the information they needed to become healthy and capable. It would also fall to libraries to educate their patrons in the appreciation of great works of art and literature (Titian and Turner in the former category; Plato, Dante, Shakespeare in the latter), such works being uniquely capable of engendering deep reflection on life’s most critical matters. If such a national system of education was not created, he said, with considerable prescience, that, before the next century [the twentieth] was out, careful reading would be all but anathema and when it occurred at all, most people would read slight works comprised of slight words set down by slight minds, works which had been written only for sensation's and sales’ sake, works which, as a matter of course, would depict immoral and harmful behaviors (lying, stealing, greed, revenge, adultery) as normal. [Turn on any television.]

15. With the exception of one subject--the higher levels of religious instruction--women should be educated the same as men. (To put the recommendation into practice, Ruskin invested financially and materially in women’s colleges in London and Cork, Ireland. For more on why he made the exception, see Note 15.

16. Adulteration of any product from its pure state (adding water to milk; surreptitiously substituting synthetic fibers into “all wool” sweaters) was shameful, being not only a degradation which would harm a customer (in healthy calories not consumed, in cold suffered unnecessarily), but a kind of theft, a way of tricking unsuspecting customers into spending money for quality promised but not delivered. [That our common practice of adding chemicals to food to make them more attractive or create longer shelf life (Ruskin would surely call it “shelf death”) would be abhorrent to him should be evident.]

17. In order to restrain any impulse to chicanery, the account books of all businesses should be open, so that, should we be so inclined, by consulting such ledgers, we could easily see why we had been asked to pay the amount a seller was asking for any item or service. (If prices had been fairly determined, what was there to hide?)

18. Because incomes and riches vary, we should have a graduated income tax for both individuals and businesses. The taxes would be used for all manner of public works (the need for which would be endless). Such taxes were eminently fair because the more fortunate bore a greater moral responsibility for the well-being of those less well-off, as well as for the well-being of society as a whole. If those who could easily afford such expenditures for advancing the public good were not responsible for such contributions to that good, who, pray tell, might be?

19. Hence, any attempt to not pay one's fair share of taxes was reprehensible: another form of theft, causing others to suffer while the tax thief danced and drank to his or her selfish heart's content.

20. He said (perhaps a tad facetiously) that the rich, particularly the "Captains of Industry" [our modern CEOs, CFOs, etc.] should be required to wear trousers outfitted with glass pockets so that we could easily see how much was in them.

21. There should be a commonly recognized limit to income and profit. Every individual requires enough to live decently and every business requires enough to produce and keep producing its products at the highest level of quality. But, if these essential amounts were exceeded, it was only right that the excess be given voluntarily to organizations dedicated in some aspect of the common good.

22. “Sales” and “discounts” should be banned because (again, wasn’t it obvious?) they were only created so that one seller might gain advantage over another. Anyone running any useful business needed a certain number of paying customers to cover expenses, pay workers, and support their families. Hence, markdowns were, by definition, always harmful, whether the harm was direct (helping to put other businesses out of business) or indirect (forcing companies harmed by such discounts to lay off perfectly good workers, or pay the workers less, or compromise on production or service).

23. No business should be created which harms human beings (physically, emotionally, or spiritually) or which harms the natural world on which everyone depends for their well-being. [Cigarette manufacturing would be an example of a business belonging in the first category; companies which denude forests so extensively that floods and landslides develop would belong in the second.

24. Relative to the last point, no one should ever work or be tempted to work for a business which they know does harm to others.

25. Hence, and obviously: One should create only businesses which help human beings become stronger and healthier or which protect and strengthen the natural world on which we depend for our sustenance.

26. Hence, and obviously: One should choose to work only for such businesses. [See Note 26.]

27. All essential items (milk, for instance, or, in winter, warm coats), wherever sold, should be offered at fixed price, because, other things being equal, it costs more or less the same to produce them (so much for raw materials, so much for the labor required to make them, so much for overhead, etc. . While small differentials--caused by transportation costs, say--are acceptable, to vary the price of essential items is merely another way of enticing customers into your shop instead of someone else's. It is also a way of confusing customers, of forcing them to make the extra effort to find where the things they truly need can be purchased at "the best price." A policy of fixed prices would ensure that there would no longer be a need for buyers to pay attention to one of capitalism's central, time-wasting, anxiety-producing, tenets: caveat emptor: “Let the buyer beware!” (the aphorism itself proof positive of the corrupt nature of an economic system which warns of the need for it!). Instead, the watch phrase for all forms of trade should always be: sit emptor secures—“Let the buyer be secure”!

28. To avoid emotional upset and eliminate any temptation to shirk or decrease the quality of work, within any given line of work everyone should be paid the same. The object of work is to produce goods and services of highest quality for one's customers. If some people get more for doing the same job, those denied that advantage would, more than likely, be resentful, might slack off, or seek to undermine those paid more in some way. Motivation under a system where employees are paid the same for the same work would be what it should be: Namely, to do the work so well that one could not only take pride in one’s efforts but, subsequently, be chosen, on the basis of a fine reputation, to be hired by other employers. Those infrequently or never chosen would be naturally encouraged to find work in other occupations. (That this recommendation has influenced the call for "equal pay for equal work" for women, minorities, and those with different personal preferences should be obvious. [See Note 28.]

29. Advertising was both unfair, advantaging those able to pay for it at the expense of those who cannot (particularly problematic when poorer sellers have better products), and creates the temptation to produce items we do not need. Most of us, for instance, need transportation and, sans prodding, will figure out how to get it. Whether anyone needs to transport oneself in a Ferrari is seriously debatable.

30. In the same vein, most luxuries, whether Ferraris, expensive jewelry, rare wines, “extra houses” or "apartments in town," only exist in order to satisfy what Ruskin called “an inelegant pride,” and generate envy in others who do not have such things. Both effects are personally and socially damaging, encouraging those with the luxuries to think that they and the luxuries are important, and stimulating those who do not have them to find ways to get them. Would it not be better if the huge sums spent on such extravagances were directed to other useful outcomes—to building a hospital or creating an educational fellowship fund for students from poor families, for instance?

31. The trait which should be preeminent in all leaders—whether they be CEOs, politicians or priests—is magnanimity, a word which at its root means someone “mighty of heart, mighty of mind.” Both qualities are the essential characteristic of leaders who are committed, as all leaders should be, to bettering the lives of those over whom they have been given power, whether these beneficiaries be their customers, workers, constituents, or congregations.

32. Regarding inheritances: everyone should die as close to penniless as possible (or, if this proves impossible, after modest inheritances have been allotted, the excess of any estate should be given to charity). Having used our money and possessions for good while here, nonexistent or small inheritances ensure that the next generation will have to make its own financial way (this a direct reflection of Ruskin’s belief that creating one's own career and life is the only way to properly develop and feel confident in one’s powers, coupled with his observations that great cash legacies, as often as not, spoiled their inheritors). [See Note 32.]

33. We should create a national agency dedicated to supporting the arts, the wellsprings of our national imagination. To do so would legitimize the arts and the life of imagination in the national mind; to refrain from doing so would deligitimize both in that same critical mind.

34. Thinking of those who will come after us, we should have another agency which would be devoted to the preservation of our cultural and historic heritage. If the links with our past are lost, we forfeit not just our history but the lessons which can be learned by the study of it.

35. In a similar way and for similar reason, we should establish an agency whose responsibility it would be to preserve our natural environment and protect it against predation. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the land on which we grow our food, are all sacred, and when properly maintained, bestow on us--in perpetuity--health, beauty and enjoyment. To destroy that environment or allow it to be degraded by inattention or pollution is folly of the highest order; it is, in fact, a sin.


Last modified 10 July 2016