Commonplace - Week Beginning 8 September 2019

The Communist Ruskin

I didn’t get around to reading much this week, mostly because I spent most of my free time agonising over whether or not to buy an Apple Watch (I eventually decided to, but that’s another story for another time), and because I’ve spent what was left over reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars.

Both of these pursuits, however, were connected to the article that I did manage to read, by Eugene McCarraher, Associate Professor of Humanities at Villanova University, on the “communist” Ruskin.

Professor McCarraher provides a summary of Ruskin’s economic thought (which inevitably touches on a plethora of other topics, as it should), in the form of a discussion of “communism”. Not that sort of communism, however, and the contrast with Marxism is a key point in the essay. As Professor McCarraher points out, Ruskin’s social thought represents “a road not taken in the history of movements for a just social order”.

The same problem that Marx had seen also motivated Ruskin to think about what a “just social order” would look like and how it could be achieved:

Like Marx and other communists of the nineteenth century, Ruskin was addressing some of the most intractable dilemmas of capitalist modernity. These included the expansion of industrial production at the expense of individual control and creativity, an enormous increase in wealth and productivity alongside poverty and despoliation, and an ideal of limitless technological progress that threatened to reduce the heritage of the past to oblivion. They also reflected a new, money-defined view of what it means to be human, one in which men and women are no longer valued as images of God but rather as sources of profitability and efficiency.

Faced with this situation, Marx and Ruskin diagnosed and prognosticated in very different ways:

Marx believed that the resolution of these conflicts lay in the harsh but ultimately liberating trajectory of capitalism itself, whose own internal contradictions would necessarily goad the proletariat into revolution. (This is the deterministic notion at the heart of so-called scientific socialism.) By contrast, Ruskin rooted his opposition to the tyranny of mammon in a sacramental humanism that was emphatically Christian. For Marx, communism would be the tragicomic endpoint of capitalist development. But for Ruskin, communism represented “the Economy of Heaven”: a society that would recover the artisanal mastery destroyed by mechanization and would elide the distinction between private property and the common good. With the freely creative person at its center, Ruskin’s kind of communism was to be a political economy of love.

It is not often that one considers the “communism” of a “Tory”, as Ruskin himself claimed to be. However, this only goes to show that often, what we understand by certain terms and debates are governed by the chance of history, whether certain ideas or their proponents manage to sneak their way into the pages of history or not. “Communism” has been flattened by the overweening presence of the 20th century experiments in Marxist politics, but there are different understandings of “communism”. Professor McCarraher deftly shows how the concerns of a “conservative” can be the concerns of a “communist”:

Despite claiming to be a “violent Tory,” Ruskin was no reactionary, as many of his critics (then and now) have contended. “I am not one who in the least doubts or disputes the progress of this century in many things useful to mankind,” he insisted (The Two Paths, 1859). What mattered was how to distinguish “the progress of this century” from regression into barbarism. To Ruskin, the industrial division of labor, far from liberating human beings, constituted their disfigurement and profanation. He argued that mechanization – mandated by the imperative of profit – effected “the degradation of the operative into a machine” (The Nature of Gothic). Human beings were ingenious, intrepid, and imperfect; the precision of motion dictated by industrial machinery reduced people to machines themselves. “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.” If you want pliant, efficient workers, “you must unhumanize them,” Ruskin warned – which meant that you must desecrate the image and likeness of divinity.

A fundamental aspect of Ruskin’s critique is against the discipline of economics itself, the ideology of capitalism:

Economics is untrue, not just dismal, he maintained, because it got human nature wrong: a human being is not a rational utility-maximizing calculator but rather “an engine whose motive power is a Soul.” Because its starting point was false, economics was like “a science of gymnastics which assumed that men had no skeletons.” As with human beings, so with the rest of the world: everything “reaches yet into the infinite,” Ruskin mused, and the earth resonates with “amazement” – a measureless, inexhaustible wonder at what Gerard Manley Hopkins would call the grandeur of God.

In contrast, Ruskin posited a different “science” that would be able to account for the capacity of mankind to get beyond individual material desires and concerns:

This keen sense of the sacred in nature and in humankind was the basis for what Ruskin dubbed the “real science” of production and consumption. If the “Soul” was what made us reach yet into the infinite, then true political economy was a science of desire, for “the desire of the heart is also the light of the eyes.” The real science of the “Economy of Heaven” taught us how to “desire and labor for the things that lead to life” – life meaning not just survival, but the cultivation of all our powers of “love, of joy, and of admiration.” The implication, of course, was that capitalist economics is a science of death – a necro-science that taught us to desire competition, envy, avarice, and corruption.

I would highlight here that the insight that “the desire of the heart is also the light of the eyes” is an essential one for seeing how capitalism can wreck havoc even on those who benefit the most, that is, the consumers and the wealthy. The capitalists are also victims, in a real sense, of the system. That is also Althusser’s insight — the capitalists are no more free from capitalism than the proletariat.

Further, this insight is a fundamentally anthropological one, although it is derived from Scripture. The theory of desires, of how the internal operations of man reach out to the world, is essential to understanding what man is. And this understanding is, in turn, essential for grasping the deleterious effects of manipulations of our desires, which again is needed if we are ever to resist that effectively.

But Ruskin is not anti-desire, not anti-consumption. It is his view of wealth that enables him to accept the true goodness of desire and consumption — by defining wealth differently, it is then possible to define desire and consumption in relation to that definition of wealth to ensure that goodness is pursued:

Conventional economics measures wealth quantitatively, for example as the tally of goods and services that make up the Gross Domestic Product. But Ruskin’s definition of wealth was qualitative: “the possession of the valuable by the valiant.” Such wealth existed in a connection between the nature of a thing and that of its possessor; a valuable object became valueless in the hands of a vicious person. Pursued for the sake of virtue, the true end of wealth was a bounty of “full-breathed, bright-eyed, and happy-hearted human creatures.” And since Ruskin favored “great quantity of consumption,” he was no ascetic; indeed, consumption, he insisted, is “the final object of political economy.”

But the error of today’s consumerism is that it is an insatiable consumerism:

Modern consumerism is really a covert culture of production, since profit, not pleasure, is its ultimate goal; its incessant stimulation of desire and dissatisfaction is a means to make money, not to ensure our fulfillment.

This is a useful understanding of modern consumerism — it is the production of desire, not the satisfaction of desire, that drives consumerism today. This production of desire is pervasive as it extends its reaches to the deepest parts of our soul, as advertisers and marketers look to eliciting deep responses to the products or services they hawk.

Professor McCarraher then considers the question of property, showing how capitalism and Marxism reduce the possibilities of property relations to “private property” or “communal property”. However, Ruskin (or McCarraher) shows that a third way is possible:

There is a name for a form of social relation in which a person or people can claim rights to objects “owned” by another: usufruct. It’s common among archaic and tribal peoples: I own a tool, but if you need it, it’s yours as long as you don’t damage it. Ownership depends on use; property is a kind of social trust that we’ll all use things for the common good. As vehemently as most Christians believe that private (read: capitalist) property is part of the essence of creation, usufruct was a governing principle among ancient and medieval Christian writers. It’s there in Luke’s account of the early Christians (“No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had”); in Saint Basil’s injunction about surplus goods (“The bread that you keep belongs to the hungry, the cloak in your closet to the naked”); and in Saint Thomas Aquinas’s argument for the “universal destination of goods.

Perhaps it is necessary to recover this understanding of property, to see it in the context of stewardship. There are a few more layers of distinctions, however, that may need to be drawn. Usufruct may be a distinct concept from the English legal notion of the trust, although they share very similar structures. Similarly, a lease may also provide a different view of things — here, it may be said that we enjoy the creation on lease from God (taking seriously the parable of the tenants and the landlord).1

But what all of these have in common appears to be a loosening of the grip of mankind on these things, which may correspond to a loosening of the thraldom of mankind to these things. The more that we steward what we have for the sake of others, the less Mammon will have a grip on our hearts.

As I wrote before,2 I am consistently confused about consumption, purchasing, pricing, justice, and holiness. This article is yet another marker in my meandering in this (potentially dangerous) landscape. Beyond these wanderings, there is a real need in the Church as well, especially when affluence begins to become part of the identity of believers in the eyes of the world. Ruskin may well offer a way forward:

It offers an imagination, if not quite a program, for reclaiming the wealth of the world that is ours. We need, not disruptors or innovators, but communists of the old school.

  1. Cataloguing the various kinds of property relations that exist in legal systems at present may be an interesting research topic, for another life perhaps.
  2. “Commonplace - Week Beginning 4 August 2019” on “Ruskin and Capitalism”. : I probably should not be surprised that it was reading something on Ruskin that had sparked those thoughts. Perhaps this is a good year to get into Ruskin proper. [return]