Back To CoursePoetry: Help & Review
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Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German
John Ruskin rose to prominence in nineteenth-century England as a critic of art and architecture, the author of highly esteemed works like Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice. Over time, however, Ruskin became concerned about life in newly-industrialized England and worried that unrestrained capitalism had created a vast and poor working class, led to deplorable living conditions, and placed little value on human life beyond its ability to convert labor into profit.
Unto this Last offers Ruskin's passionate responses to these socio-economic problems. It first appeared as a series of four long essays in Cornhill Magazine in 1860. Ruskin's fascination with things like the intricacies of architecture and medieval guilds of craftsman, like stonemasons and carpenters, made him have a deep respect for the labor of all workers.
Unto this Last also shows the influence of Ruskin's Christian faith. For starters, the title of the book references one of Jesus' parables in the Bible. On a deeper level, the book's emphasis on respect for others, equality for all, concern for one's neighbors, and an insistence on justice for all are directly connected to Christian values. Despite this, Unto this Last was highly controversial when first published. Ruskin's ideas were condemned, and he was labeled a socialist. Originally, Ruskin had planned on having seven magazine essays, but because of the controversy, the publisher only allowed four essays to be published.
Ruskin's first essay, 'The Roots of Honor,' describes the relationship between employer and employee. In the second, 'The Veins of Wealth,' Ruskin analyzes the standard definition of wealth and offers an alternative. The third essay, 'Qui Judicatis Terram,' which is Latin for 'They Who Judge on Earth,' explains how justice is critical to Ruskin's view of political economy. The final essay, 'Ad Valorem,' which means 'According to Value,' provides a definition of value that doesn't rely strictly on money and the exchange of labor.
Ruskin declares that wealth is not simply the accumulation of money, possessions, or property: 'What is really desired, under the name of riches, is, essentially, power over men,' he writes in 'The Veins of Wealth.' In an economy based on free market capitalism, which is capitalism without government intervention, according to Ruskin, employers strive to keep wages as low as possible and to make people compete to work for the least amount of money.
Think of it this way: if one person will mow your lawn for $30 while another wants to charge $50, who would you choose? The effect of this, Ruskin argues, is that the average worker's wage goes down while powerful employers' profits rise. This might sound familiar since this is a version of the argument still talked about today that, in an unrestrained capitalist economy, the rich will get ever richer while the poor will get ever poorer.
Unto this Last suggested what originally seemed a ridiculous alternative to this model: political powers, as in the government, employers, and individuals, should all ensure that workers doing the same work are paid the same for the same. For example, all people mowing lawns would be paid $40 for their labor, no matter what. This is a version of what we would now call fair wages. Enforcing this, Ruskin argues, would lead to more equal work opportunities, a fairer distribution of wealth, and greater opportunities for individuals and families to improve their lives.
Echoes of Ruskin's ideas can be heard in contemporary debates. For instance, some argue that raising the minimum wage to a fair living wage will lead to overall social improvement, while others fear that it will decrease business opportunities and incentives to work harder, better, and faster in order to move up the social ladder. Should workers who are just bad at their job, or lazy, or criminals be paid the same as someone who works hard and honestly?
Ruskin anticipated such concerns, and believed that free, compulsory education, designed to help people find the skills and jobs that they are best at and enjoy the most, will help them work to the best of their abilities. Society overall would benefit. In an unrestrained capitalist economy, Ruskin argues, bad workers and criminals are manufactured, too, as a result of greedy and unethical practices: 'Let us reform our schools,' he writes, and we shall find little reform needed in our prisons.'
Classical economists like Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill (whose economic theory Ruskin criticized), and David Ricardo understood value as a matter of exchange for a thing or service. In essence, how much a person is willing to pay for it. For instance, if I have chocolate bars for sale, and people will pay $2 per bar, then that's the value. If lots of people want the bars, I can raise the price fifty cents to get a more favorable exchange. Or, if everyone wants chocolate bars and there aren't many around, the scarcity can also raise their value.
Ruskin, however, sees value as independent of opinion and quantity: 'political economy (the economy of a State, or of citizens) consists simply in the production, preservation, and distribution, at fittest time and place, of useful or pleasurable things.' For Ruskin, the value of something lies in its ability to uphold life - to serve a useful purpose, to improve living standards, and to be enjoyed and appreciated. These qualities are less tangible than monetary value. However, it's not so hard to see how they apply to the topic that begins Unto this Last - the relationship between employer and employee.
In the modified capitalist system that Ruskin envisions, the value that workers and their labor have is convertible to money but not reducible to it. A just political economy would support the health, happiness, and general well-being of its workforce, in addition to securing its fair wages. Again, you can see that the ideas Ruskin raises in Unto this Last are still relevant in debates on things like collective bargaining, access to employee-supported healthcare plans, maternity leave, vacation days, and similar topics.
Despite its initial controversy, Unto this Last has proven to be enduring and influential. It redefines core economic concepts like wealth, labor, wages, and value, all within the context of an ethical perspective influenced by Christianity. This makes the book a thought-provoking - if difficult - read, no matter whether you agree with Ruskin's argument or not. Ruskin criticized the economic theory devised by John Stuart Mill and critiqued the free market capitalism economic system, while being an early advocate for a fair wages income system.
If you find yourself pondering the book's ideas, you're in good company. Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, was profoundly influenced by the book and translated it into his native language, as was Martin Luther King. Both of these historical figures shared with Ruskin a spiritually-influenced ethical outlook, a concern for the poor, and a belief in the rights and justice of all.
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Back To CoursePoetry: Help & Review
5 chapters | 120 lessons | 1 flashcard set
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