Saturday, December 26, 2009

Remembering John Ruskin in the Times of Global Recession: Or The Invisible Hand that Did not Show Up

I would not have read certain books, had I not been assigned the job of teaching them. And I am mighty happy that I was assigned such a job. One of such curious books is  `Unto This Last' by John Ruskin (1819-1900) which appeared in 1862. Probably, some bias against the Victorian literature instilled by my modernist preferences is one reason why I stayed clear of the Victorian Prophets. However, its time I got rid of my biases. There are hardly funnier and entertaining books than Carlyle's Sartor Resartus. The book is important for India because it has deeply influenced Gandhian thought. Gandhi translated the book into Gujarati as ` Sarvodaya' (1908) and it was retranslated into English! This curious case of back translation is also interesting for me as a student of translation.

Ruskin's book is a collection of four essays he published in Cornhill Magazine in 1860 and the magazine was forced to stop its publication owing to the outrage and aggressive opposition it provoked. Ruskin's approach can termed as `prescriptive economics' where he makes a rather impassioned plea for more just and human economic thinking.

The book is a vicious invective on contemporary laissez-faire economic theory as exemplified by Ricardo, Mill and Adam Smith.  He attacks this though as being inadequate and being pseudo-scientific like astrology, alchemy and witchcraft. Ruskin argues that it is inhuman and narrowly defined as it does not take aspect of human personality other than economic into consideration like emotional attachment or envy or jealousy which dictate human behaviour into consideration.  He objects to the economic thought based on the mechanical conception of economy based on `demand and supply mechanism' and competition.

His most outrageous suggestion is to fix the wages irrespective of the quality of labour and the demand-supply mechanism which make it volatile. This volatility and fickleness of the price of labour, in Ruskin's view is unjust and extremely detrimental to society in the long run. By setting a constant price for labour, Ruskin feels that the bad worker does not flourish by reducing his charges and thus consequently reducing the damage he does to the society. This move, Ruskin feels, also does not force the good worker to reduce his wages because of competition. The title of the book comes from the parable of the workers in the vineyard in the Bible (Matthew 20:14). The parable illustrates the God as an ideal employer who pays the last man who is hired on the vineyard, the same amount as the first man to be hired.  Ruskin's use of the Bible for reinforcing his arguments is also fascinating. He cites the maxims of Solomon to back up his plea for more just economic system.

The most interesting part of this book, however, in my view is his insight that `What is desired,under the name of riches, is essentially power over men....and this power of wealth is greater or less in direct proportion to the poverty of the men over whom it is exercised and inversely proportional  to the number of person who are as rich as ourselves.' ( The Veins of Wealth). The more wealthier people we have around us, the less valuable is our wealth. So it is poverty which keeps rich men rich, not the wealth!

In a characteristic way, Ruskin questions Mill's definition of being wealthy as,` To be wealthy is to have a large stock of useful articles', by question what exactly is the meaning of `have' and what exactly is ` useful'. He gives the example of the passengers in a wrecked ship who fastened a belt about him of two hundred pounds of gold. When he sank, Ruskin asks, `had he the gold? or the gold had him? He also gives an example of the embalmed body of St Carlo Borromeo holding a golden crosier and a cross of emeralds on its breast. Ruskin asks can we say that the corpse `has' those `useful' articles and so is wealthy?

I found the way he marshals his language for his impassioned but extremely lucid rhetoric very fascinating. His analogies and aphorisms in the manner of the Prophet are sharp. Consider a typical Ruskinian aphorism:

" Absolute justice is indeed no more attainable than absolute truth; but the righteous man is distinguished from the unrighteous by his desire and hope of justice, as the true man from the false by his desire and hope of truth. And though absolute justice be unattainable, as much justice as we need for all practical use is attainable by all those who make it their aim."

Emphasizing that the ethics is the true base of economy, Ruskin observes that money is basically a promise ( "I promise to pay the bearer the sum of ten rupees") and if the ethical base is destroyed it will destroy both the economy and the society on which it is based. Ruskin reminded me of Barack Obama and his policies. It is not so much the question of the right and the left, but the question of basis of society. The Invisible Hand of Market Forces, as the global recession as demonstrated, has failed to show up and it is left to the Hand of that State, which people had declared to be irrelevant and dying, which was called up to rescue the collapsing economy.Well, the nation-state is indeed alive and very much kicking and it is the prophets of the nineties who predicted the evaporation of nation-state ( like Negroponte in his Being Digital) who have vanished so has the dogma of the nineties.

Market, then, is not a self regulating mechanism based on the force of demand and supply. Gandhi, one of the truest disciples and translators of Ruskin is famed to have said that we have enough for people's need but not enough for people's greed. Greed left to its own devices, is self destructive. Marx saw capitalism as being self-destructive in the end, so did Gandhi and Ruskin.

Ruskin makes a sharp distinction between the Political Economy, which is concerned with the welfare of whole society, with the `mercantile economy' which is a science of getting rich. Ruskin responds to his detractors who say that `every capitalist  knows by experience how money is made and how it is lost', by saying that these capitalists who,` playing a long practiced game, are familiar with the chances of its cards and who can explain their losses and gains. But they neither know who keeps the bank of the gambling-house, nor what other games may be played with the same cards, nor what other losses or gains, far away among the dark streets, are essentially , though invisibly, dependent on theirs in the lighted rooms. They have learned a few, and only a few, of the laws of mercantile economy; but not one of the those of political economy."

It is when the governments start following the laws of mercantile economy rather than those of political economy that the society is in trouble. There is a saying in Gujarati which says, ` Raja Vepari to Praja Bhikhari'- `When the king is a merchant, his subjects are paupers'. The global economic slowdown which has resulted in a great liquidity crunch and immense unemployment is a result of the governments behaving like grocery shopowners rather than as responsible managers of the societies.Only if the governments have a genuine concern for the society as a whole, instead of spending time increasing its bank balance. Obama, in one of the presidential campaign speech had said that the governments should care for the people on the streets, rather than the people on the Wall Street. Obama is the Ruskin of Twenty First Century.

That the global recession is a social crisis of a global nature has to emphasized and understood. May be the people who are hurt by the crisis would learn a lesson and be wiser in future and it is probable that the crises will actually be favorable for the planet. When we understand that in the Age of Interconnectedness and Interdependency, you cant become rich  and happy when your neighbour is poor and unhappy.


Unknown said...

Very interesting.From time immemorial man is searching for a suitable distribution model.Natures distribution is always skewed.May be nature is providing a gradient for the economic activity to flow.Amartyasen writes in his "Development as Freedom ' The twentieth century has established democratic and participatory governance as the preeminent model of political organisation. And yet we also live in a world with remarkable deprivation,destitution and oppression."He suggest freedom to work as best form of development.I believe with a free market economy with Increasing social responsibility from Govt may somewhat provide a better distribution model.

Anonymous said...