“Our true monarch is not Victoria but Victor Mammon,” wrote John Ruskin back in 1866. Scorned for years as a crank, a reactionary, and a sexual deviant, could it be Ruskin’s time again?
It was Ruskin’s prophetic voice that breathed life into the fledgling Labour movement, Ruskin who railed, again and again, against the dehumanising power of capitalism. And it is Ruskin’s voice we need to hear again, in a world turned topsy-turvy with the worship of money. For Ruskin, modern political economy was based on the “negation of the soul” – human beings flattened and turned into gross domestic product.
Ruskin understood that what really drove the Victorian desire to be rich was the desire to have power over others. The art of becoming rich, wrote Ruskin, was really the art “of contriving that our neighbours have less”. Ruskin conceded that wealth wasn’t bad in itself, but neither was it good.
Ruskin would have laughed down Damian Reece’s absurd defence of directors’ pay rises in the Telegraph last week. “Wealth creation creates wealth,” Reece wrote. Yes, but what kind? For Ruskin, the wealth of nations was measured in their kindness, their moral strength, their cultural resources. These things were the “king’s treasuries” which he commended, as opposed to stock-market “health”. “Some treasures are heavy with human tears,” he wrote – and don’t we know it.
Behind many glittering boardrooms lie tales of human misery. Yet company directors continue to act like the gods of Mount Olympus, floating above the real world in a land of clouds and fantasy. Sir Martin Sorrell claims his £1m pay packet is “very low”. We know, as Ruskin would, the cruel logic behind these claims. A director on £1m a year is worth over 30 times as much as a teacher on £30,000 and seven times more than the prime minister. To the gods, real people don’t exist, or have chosen to work in lesser-paid professions out of misguided naivety.
Ruskin’s key insight was that you couldn’t divorce money from morality. He also knew how to use the full power of biblical wrath. The Bible, he wrote, “not only denounces the love of money as the root of all evil, but declares mammon service to be the … irreconcilable opposite of God’s service”. To a (nominally) Christian nation, he thundered: repent! Ruskin’s appeal to God gave his appeals to social reform the flavour of divine edict, of lightning from Mount Sinai.
Ruskin is a key influence behind both Phillip Blond’s Red Toryism and Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour movement. Despite criticisms, both these movements have tried to change the ground of politics, to alert us to the way that market and state have been oppressive forces in Britain for too long.
Yes, there are some dangers to be steered around in Ruskin’s sometimes nostalgic and romanticised vision of Britain – the guild of St George, as he put it. But in a world where protest often fizzles down to nothing, or tails off to a whimper, we need Ruskin’s voice. We need his thundering against greed and covetousness, his praise for the beauty of craftsmanship, his tireless campaigning for a decent wage.
Don’t we already have voices of protest? Not really, and not in mainstream politics. Westminster talks of “understanding people’s anger”, but can’t bring itself to be angry. Instead of identifying and embracing the Occupy London protesters – as Barack Obama did with Occupy Wall Street – David Cameron and Theresa May want to close them down. There are signs that Ed Miliband understands this – but he needs to harness the roar of prophetic anger. And politics – as Glasman and Blond understand – needs to listen to faith. Most people believe in God, and there is real potential for shaking the foundations of our unjust society in the holy books.
Jesus told us that it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, the Old Testament book of Hosea that the rich man’s gains “will not pay for the guilt of his sins”. Islam, too, has much to say about usury and the accumulation of wealth at the expense of welfare. It often feels like liberal atheism is blind to this heritage. There is nothing you get from admiring Richard Dawkins other than a narrow, obsessive pursuit of the religious at the expense of everything else.
Ruskin dreamt of a world where we yearned for a better, not a richer, society, a world where families could present their children with the words “these are my jewels”. We should too.Comments (0)