economies

When, in August 1860, John Ruskin published an essay in Cornhill Magazine – an essay that would later become the first chapter of his book Unto This Last — readers were appalled by his argument that all workmen in a given profession should be paid the same, no matter whether they do their work well or badly. When he published Unto This Last, he said “it is a matter of regret to me that the most startling of all statements in them, – that respecting the necessity of the organization of labour, with fixed wages, – should have found its way into the first essay; it being quite one of the least important, though by no means the least certain, of the positions to be defended.”

But this insistence on the insignificance of his “startling” statement is belied by the title that he chose for the book. “Unto this last” is a line uttered by Jesus in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, in which the owner of the vineyard pays the people the workers who arrive at the end of the day the same that he pays those who worked all day long. This is of course a parable of the Kingdom, because all of Jesus’s parables are: the simplest point is that those who arrive late in the narrative of God’s redemptive work in the world, e.g. the Gentiles who hear Jesus’s message as opposed to the Jews who have been a part of this covenant history for hundreds and hundreds of years, are welcome to the same reward of eternal life that the old-timers are. It is not, most interpreters agree, a story about the principles of political economy. But nothing could be more characteristic of Ruskin’s thought that his belief that it is a principle of political economy, indeed the key principle of political economy, which is why he titles his book as he does.

Right from the beginning of Unto This Last Ruskin insists upon one governing point: that in thinking of political economy it is impermissible to treat human beings as what we today might call rational actors, people who simply maximize their own economic well-being, even when that comes at the expense of others. Or especially when it comes at the expense of others.

Disputant after disputant vainly strives to show that the interests of the masters are, or are not, antagonistic to those of the men: none of the pleaders ever seeming to remember that it does not absolutely or always follow that the persons must he antagonistic because their interests are. 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. Neither, in any other case, whatever the relations of the persons may be, can it be assumed for certain that, because their interests are diverse, they must necessarily regard each other with hostility, and use violence or cunning to obtain the advantage.

For Ruskin, human beings are never purely economic (in our usual sense of that term) in their motives and actions, but are always actuated in considerable part by their affections. Another way to put this is to say that Ruskin thinks that political economy needs to take the gift economy into account as well as the market economy, and his bizarre (or apparently bizarre) plan for paying workers is a natural outgrowth of this emphasis.

More on all this in due course.