Ruskin’s Economics

Six years ago I came across John Ruskin via James K. A. Smith.   As an individual and a thinker, Ruskin is not someone you want to emulate.   Abandoning any coherent form of Christianity by the end of his life, and unable to connect his aesthetics with his ethics (he adored pre-Raphaelite paintings, but when he saw pubic hair on his bride’s genitalia for the first time, he freaked out;  they later annulled the marriage for obvious reasons), you don’t want to be like Ruskin.  On the other hand, correctly saw what was wrong with society.  Further, he connected the alternative to earlier Christian visions.  His failure of nerve was he couldn’t bring his project forward in a new context where the baggage of “throne and altar” was no longer attached (or maybe it was, since he wrote around Vatican I).

Christian thinkers today are beginning to carry this forward, but not necessarily in the best way.  John Milbank shows promise, but is susceptible to the standard Catholic critique of him:  he hates liberal modernity but is not quite clear what to put in its place (similar to Reformed political ethics today).  On the other hand, given Roman Catholic economics, it’s not quite clear how Catholic thinkers can 1) value individual liberty in light of Vatican I, and in which spirit later Popes labeled Americanism a heresy, 2) not reduce to pure socialism (since Aquinas said you could take your neighbor’s stuff if you really need it).

James K. A. Smith’s Reformed vision, such that it is, is not entirely better.   Many of Smith’s applications are downright wacky, and I am suspicious of any “worldview-speak” at this point.  Still, we at least have the material on which to build something.

John Ruskin gives us a vision of life that is strangely united: how do a few essays about art, architecture, and economic reform relate to one another? Indeed, much of Unto this Last seems disjointed—and not all essays are of equal worth; some are quite dated and others are just weird. Notwithstanding, rays of light break through and give us an alternative way of being and community.

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Ruskin uses current (19th century) capitalism as his foil and “bad guy.” This will cause many free-marketers to bristle. Not without reason will they consider Ruskin a “socialist.” However, one must also consider that the days of the Industrial Revolution were quite grim. Whatever benefits it provided—and we cannot minimize the eventual breakthroughs in wealth—it was brutal and harsh. However, in reading Ruskin, we find this is not the worst criticism he throws at capitalism. It is not the fact that capitalism destroyed lives and introduced 16 hour workdays to the children. Rather, it was only the symptoms of a greater disease: Western world at this time had a view of reality that was violent and pragmatic, an ontology of violence if you will. Unfortunately, this is the weaker part of the book. Many of Ruskin’s proposals—uniform wage among other things—will strike the reader as bizarre, at best. Fortunately, I think Ruskin’s vision can be redeemed.

The following will be part Ruskin’s proposals and partly my own reconstruction of Ruskin’s thought. Ruskin proposes a Gothic society. Whether or not he truly understood it, Ruskin’s vision is not too different from Augustine’s in City of God book 19.4 and certainly echoes much of Plato’s thought in The Republic. Ruskin notes that a society’s architecture reflects its moral vision (233-234, 237). A Gothic society is one that arises out of a pure national faith and domestic virtue (239). This sounds like fascism, doesn’t it? That’s not what Ruskin has in mind. Following St Augustine, who reasoned that a society is one that shares its common objects and commonly loves its Object. Therefore, a pure national faith is nothing other than a society worshipping Christ and reflecting it, among other things, in its architecture.

Of importance, and what I will explore in the next few posts, is Ruskin’s definition of wealth:  possession of value by the valiant.

Other points:  expand Milbank’s essay on Ruling and Sharing, which solves the socialism/welfare debate.

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