Ruskin attacked the materialistic tendencies of his nation and thus evoked the sinister criticism of the conservatives. The essays of Unto This Last in which Ruskin first formulated his economic theories aroused so much indignation that the publishers of the ‘Cornhill Magazine, refused further contributions from him on the subject. His doctrines were condemned as windy hysterics, intolerable twaddle, etc. He was called merely a sentimental idealist. For long, his remarkable book, Unto This Last was mocked at as the beautiful vapouring of an unpractical idealist. His ideas on Work and Traffic expressed in The Crown of Wild Olive were regarded so highly unpractical and foolish.
Despite this outright condemnation of Ruskin’s political economy, the real value of his views on this ‘dismal science’ cannot be minimised. He was convinced that a nation loses its glory when it adds nothing to the beauty of the world and when it jumps headlong into material mire, other voices were also heard against the orthodox views on that subject. But Ruskin was certainly the first to expose the fallacies of political economy as it was commonly understood. He gave a literary form to his views. He criticised the orthodox economists like Ricardo, Malthus and M’culloch. Dickens, Kingsley had freely attacked the Gradgrind philosophy of labour and the moral and social curse it involved. According to
Harrison, “he certainly was the first to put these doubts and criticisms into trenchant form such as long stirred the general public as with a trumpet note.”
Ruskin’s views on political economy are best expressed in Unto This Last, where he defines various economic terms in a novel and humanitarian manner. The opening sentence of the book makes a ridicule of the orthodox economy. “Among the delusions which at different periods have possessed themselves of the minds of large masses of the human race, perhaps the most curious,-certainly the least credible in the modern soi disant science of political economy, based on the idea that an advantageous code of social action may be deter-mined irrespectively of the influence of social affections.” The basis of Ruskin’s political economy is human welfare. He differentiates between Political Economy and Mercantile Economy as under :
“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. The farmer who cuts his hay at the right time...and the singer who rightly disciplines and never over-strains her voice are all political economists in the true and final sense ; adding continually to the riches and well-being of the nation to which they belong. But mercantile economy signifies the accumulation in the hands of individuals, of legal or moral claim upon or power over the labour of others.” The writer defines several economic terms in relation to human labour. He defines wealth as “the possession of useful articles which we can use.” It is not defined in terms of market as was done by orthodox economists—“Wealth consists of all useful and agreeable objects which possess exchangeable value.” He states the purpose of political economy in the essay ‘Ad Valorem’ as under : “The real science of political economy which has yet to be distinguished from the bastard science, as medicine from witchcraft and astronomy from astrology, is that which teaches nations to desire and labour for the things that lead to life and which teaches them to scorn and destroy the things that ‘lead to destruction’.
The last essay, ‘Ad Valorem, in Unto This Last is devoted to the study and discussion of economic terms He defines labour as follows: “Labour is the contest of the life of man with an opposite ; the term ‘life’ including his intellect, soul and physical power, contending with ,question, difficulty, trial or material force.” He writes about Capital : “Capital signifies seed or source or root material—it is material by which some derivative or secondary good is produced.” Ruskin wanted the minimum wages to all workers so that they might feed themselves properly. He assigned a new meaning to ‘value’. In common transaction it means exchange. J. S. Mill wrote, “Wealth consists of all useful and agreeable objects which possess exchangeable value.” Ruskin regarded it as a fallacy. He believed : “There is the exchange value and the intrinsic value.” The latter is the life-giving force. “The fundamental characteristic of Ruskin’s teaching is the welding of aesthetic and ethics into a doctrine of social as distinct from financial values.” He explained every economic term in the sense of life. His approach was humanitarian and not utilitarian––“To be valuable is to avail towards life. A truly valuable or availing thing that which leads to life with its whole strength.
Like a true devotee of Gandhiji and Acharya Vinoba Bhave, he denounces the material pursuits of man and extols his spiritual power. A worker to him is not the engine of that motive power which functions with the aid of steam or some calculable force. On the other hand, he is an engine whose motive power is a soul.
He is highly satirical and denounces the habit of profit-making at the cost of human values :
“Buy in the cheapest market ? Yes, but what made your market cheap ? Charcoal may be cheap among your roof timbers after a fire and bricks may be cheap in your streets after an earthquake, but fire and earthquake may not therefore be material benefits.” He expresses the true concept of political economy in the most memorable, poetical and rhythmical words.
“There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings.” All the philosophers of the world and all sincere democrats insist on life-giving and life-generating forces. Life is to be enriched by powers of love, sympathy, brotherhood and cooperation. We do not need Shylocks in our midst. We wait for Harshas and Karnas. They are the real benefactors of mankind.
To Ruskin, the central economic doctrine of his age that national prosperity is best advanced by everyone doing the best for oneself is absurd and wicked. This doctrine is responsible for all exploitation and human sufferings. Regarding the labourers and conditions of labour, Ruskin remarks that they ought to be paid according to justice and not according to laws of competition. Under the present system, they are miserably and inadequately paid and many persons are unable to get employment even on such dishonourable terms. Regarding the distribution of hard work, he remarks in the essay on Work in The Crown of Wild Olive : “Now, nobody does anything well that they cannot help doing ; work is only done when it is done with a will and no man has a thoroughly sound will unless he knows he is doing what he should and is in his place.”
Ruskin advises people to discard money and strive for general well-being. He writes in Traffic : “But if you can fix some conception of a true human state of life to be striven for—life for all men as for yourselves—If you can determine fome honest and simple order of existence ; following those trodden ways of wisdom, which are pleasantness and seeking her quiet and withdrawn paths; which are peace.” He becomes eloquent and ornate in the last sentence of this lecture :
“You will know then, how to build, well enough, you will build with stone well, but with flesh better : temples not made with hands, but riveted of hearts ; and that kind of marble, crimson-veined is indeed eternal.” The passage is a fine specimen of rhythmical prose. The harmony of tone and the ease of words are so complete, that we hasten through the passage in a rapture of admiration. Milton, Browne, Jeremy Taylor could not attain this amazing triumph of mastery over language.
The greatness of Ruskin as a political economist lies in the fact that most of his plans have been incorporated into Acts of Parliament. He was the pioneer of policies relating to wastelands, care of the aged poor, the hours and conditions of labour, the relations between capital and labour, problems of unemployment, reforms of educational system and the planning of cities and so on. Some of these policies are still the guiding principles of the democratic countries. His idea that economic well-being is subordinate to the moral life, is on every politician’s lips. His notion that the use of wealth is more important than its accumulation, is the hobby-horse of all modern statesmen. Today we are all socialists but socialism is incomplete without moral or spiritual essence and this message was conveyed to us by Ruskin who himself was not a socialist, but an aristocratic absolutist. “He is forgotten now”, writes
Harrison in an inspired bit of prose, “because he went forth into a sort of moral wilderness and cried, ‘repent and reform, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ The kingdom of heaven is not yet come on us, perhaps is yet far off, but John was the fore-runner of that which will one day come to pass. He was not, as the mocking crowd said, ‘a reed shaken with the wind’.” The ideals of truth, beauty, justice, cherful and self-sacrificing labour for the good of the community must reign in men’s hearts : the worship of Mammon must be abandoned. Then and only then will the prophetic vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” be fulfilled.