John Ruskin helps shed light on what it means to have an economy that demands we die for it
“There is no wealth but life.”
— John Ruskin, Unto This Last (1860)
A chilling experiment is underway in America, with plenty of unwilling human guinea pigs.
Many parts of the country are reopening for business against the warnings of medical experts, flying in the face of grim predictions of sharply rising body counts. Two-thirds of Americans fear that the restart is happening too quickly, and the President himself acknowledges that by easing restrictions, “there’ll be more death.” Yet he presses on, even as his own White House suffers a viral outbreak.
News screens flash with tallies of death and tallies of wealth: New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo has declared that lives must be saved “whatever it costs,” insisting that for Americans the choice “between public health and the economy” is “no contest.” But he did not ask celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, who some weeks ago expressed his view that reopening schools could give the country its “mojo back,” and perhaps “only cost us 2-3% in terms of total mortality. (2% sounds conveniently small compared to its equivalent in human lives, 6,560,000. Oz later apologized after public outrage).
Meanwhile Dan Patrick, lieutenant governor of Texas, offered his own assessment of the trade-off between capitalism and the lives of America’s senior citizens, explaining, “there are more important things than living.”
Since the days of Adam Smith, free market capitalists have held that human beings are rational actors who pursue economic gain for self-interested motives. But here is Patrick, a free marketer if there ever was one, talking about a gift-sacrifice economy model in which people – some people, at least – lay down their lives to keep the economic engines revved.
Patrick’s words reveal an unspoken truth about capitalism. For the system to work smoothly, there have always been requirements of human sacrifice — a certain portion of the population was expected to act not as self-serving homo economicus, but self-sacrificing homo communis, focused upon what benefits the collective at their own expense. If these people can’t social distance at the workplace, they are expected to show up anyway. If there isn’t enough safety equipment, they are declared essential workers who must put their lives and that of their families at risk for the greater good.
But for whom and for what is this sacrifice intended? How much dying will be figured into state budgets and gross domestic product (GDP)? When ranked by GDP, the U.S. is the wealthiest economy in the world, but is a country’s wealth something totally separate from, or even contrary to, the health and life the majority of its citizens?
Wealth v. “illth”
To help us navigate these questions, it is useful turn to someone who offered potent challenges to the economic calculus of his day: John Ruskin, the 19th-century art critic-turned-political economist. He was one of the most outspoken critics of capitalism and prevailing economic ideas of the Victorian era, and his work presciently points to shortcomings that have followed us into the present day.
Ruskin questions the premises on which free market capitalism is based, returning to first principles: what is wealth? What do we value? How should we understand the relationship between people, the economy, and the state?
In his view, economies are, above all, social systems whose true end is to benefit the people, and not, as the Texan politician would have it, the other way around. Anticipating the behavioral economics of our own day, Ruskin rejected the idea advocated by such economists as John Stuart Mill that there could be a deductive science of economics based on the assumption that the human being is “a covetous machine” that when applied to actual situations could take “the social affections,” the non-rational aspects of human behavior, into account. Ruskin recognized that such a system implicitly removed the marketplace from the constraints of religion and morality that are supposed to apply to all human behavior. He compared it to an assumption that humans are essentially a skeleton with flesh, blood and consciousness as add-ons founding “an ossifiant theory of progress on this negation of a soul.”
Ruskin defined wealth quite differently from many of his contemporaries, and ours. For him, wealth is anything that supports life and health, from the supplies in your storeroom to the song in your heart: “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; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.” (Unto this Last).
By that definition, America is looking increasingly impoverished. And it is not a virus which is stealing our wealth away.
Playing on the root of the word “wealth” from the Old English word “weal,” signifying health, Ruskin proposed that while wealth was anything life-supporting that could be used and enjoyed, it had a dark counterpart that he called “illth” from the Old Norse word for bad – the things that make people ill, their lives stunted and despairing, their environment polluted. Wealth cannot be produced without illth, but great fortunes have been made by extracting the means of wealth without paying the cost of illth. To take a Ruskinian example, a factory that pollutes the water it uses, fouls the air and pays its workers below what a healthy life requires will be more profitable than a business that cleans up after itself and pays a living wage, but its illth becomes a form of national debt expressed in damage to the health of others and the environment. Think of something like a toxic Superfund site.
Economists have a term for Ruskin’s concept of illth, referring to it as “negative externalities,” even though they are not external to the capitalist economic system, but intrinsic to it. The most daunting problems of the current age, environmental disaster and inequality, are fueled by illth.
The Covid-19 crisis has merely amplified trends of rising illth, of despair, sickness, and alienation, which have been on the rise for decades as globalization, money-driven politics, decimated workers’ rights, and privatization have tipped the economic balance far in favor of the very few. If we are to judge a country’s health not by GDP, which rises in the face of a massive oil spill, but according to the criteria of the World Happiness Report (WHR), which measures things like social trust and faith in institutions, America is in bad shape when it comes to the ratio of wealth to illth. Scandinavian countries top the WHR, while the U.S. ranks a dismal 19th.
According to the Columbia University study of the 2020 WHR report, the key factors that account for the relative happiness of Scandinavian countries — what makes them wealthy in Ruskin’s terms — are precisely those that have been under pressure or cut back in the U.S. since the rise of neoliberalism: “emancipation from market dependency in terms of pensions, income maintenance for the ill or disabled, and unemployment benefits” together with labor market regulation such as a high minimum wage. Of course, no one likes to pay taxes, but Scandinavian “citizens’ satisfaction with public and common goods such as health care, education, and public transportation that progressive taxation helps to fund,” meets with approval at all income levels.
Pandemics are exacerbated by illth. We can see it in communities of color where the coronavirus strikes down those whose resources and access to health care have been limited by discriminatory policies and high contact employment. We can see it in factory farms where broken supply chains have caused farmers to euthanize livestock and plow under crops while people across the country go hungry. Airlines got immediate stimulus aid in the U.S., but there has been no subsidy for the restaurant supply chain that could be diverted for distribution by food banks and favorably located restaurants thus sustaining at least some of our much-vaunted small businesses. No one has to fly, but everyone must eat.
We sense illth accumulating in the comments of Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman, who, in her eagerness to get the casinos back in business, told an astonished Anderson Cooper on CNN that she would offer up the city’s workers as a “control group” in a reopening experiment. If they weren’t able to social distance, Goodman was unconcerned: “In my opinion, you have to go ahead,” she said. “Every day you get up, it’s a gamble.”
Ruskin saw the capitalists of his day as gamblers heedless of the costs they foisted onto ordinary people: “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 and gains, far away among the dark streets, are essentially, though invisibly, dependent upon theirs in lighted rooms.” (Unto This Last).
In other words, not only do capitalists gamble with other peoples’ lives; they are oblivious to the fact that there are other ways to arrange society, to deal the cards differently, more fairly.
Witness the post-Covid reality imagined by Governor Cuomo. Instead of focusing on what changes could better support the health and lives of ordinary people, he has called in Google CEO Eric Schmidt to head a commission to reimagine New York state with more technology permanently inserted into every dimension of civic life. A better deal for Silicon Valley, to be sure. But what is in the cards for everyone else? When educational platforms and health protocols are mapped by gigantic and unaccountable corporations, who gets lost? Surely the answer is those who can least afford it.
President Trump says that it is time to move on from the coronavirus and get on with economy. Ruskin would have recognized the deity worshipped by country’s leader, which he called the “Goddess of getting on.” Only Ruskin recognized that she tended to favor “not of everybody’s getting on – but only of somebody’s getting on,” — what he called a “vital, or rather deathful, distinction.” For capitalists, getting on post-Covid means executives working remotely while the rank and file return to the factory floor without adequate face masks, and large corporations, not public input, determines the blueprints for our lives.
The issue of worker safety does matter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but not because he fears that some will get sick or die, but for a potential “epidemic of litigation.” In the next pandemic relief legislation, McConnell is looking to solve the problem of worker safety by shielding corporations from lawsuits rather than supporting Centers for Disease Control (CDC) mandated regulations that would both promote safety and sort out what is and is not actionable.
The Visible Hand
Instead of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, Ruskin advocated a Visible Hand of reasoned management, a government which could allocate resources effectively and create stores of what citizens most needed in a crisis. In our day this need not be a literal storehouse but surge capacity. The Obama administration, for example, contracted with Halyard Health to design a machine that could turn out 1.5 million N95 masks per day. They were ready to build the machine in 2018 when the Trump administration cancelled the program.
In Ruskin’s view, the Visible Hand was the guardian of the lives of the citizens, especially the poor, whose health and lives were their essential property. Ruskin actually defined an economy as the wise management of labor, applying labor, carefully preserving what it produces, and wisely distributing those products. A country’s wealth is in the people’s strength and health, not their illness and death.
Ruskin’s concepts of wealth and illth help us understand the centrality of ethics and responsibility to economic activity, and how economies are not an assemblage of atomistic human units but whole systems of people interacting, where the activities of some impact the lives of all. His work indicates the need for a whole systems approach to a crisis in which what happens on the beaches of Georgia impacts a nursing home in North Carolina, and visitors to New York City or New Orleans can carry the infection home. The decisions of one business in a complex international supply chain can impact the fate of millions.
In unregulated capitalism, Ruskin sussed out what Sigmund Freud might have recognized as the death drive. Decisions about the economy, he held, must be informed by the essential biologic basis of life itself: “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” (Unto This Last).
The Covid crisis has exposed contradictions in market and America First ideology. Without federal aid to state and local governments, essential personnel are being laid off even as we declare them heroes. Employer based insurance is failing, but few American politicians are willing to fully embrace single payer insurance. Meat plant workers are declared essential, but still subject to deportation, as if famed Revolutionary patriot Nathan Hale had said, “I only regret that you have but one life to give for my country.”
Ultimately, the most dangerous pestilence that threatens the country is not a packet of RNA called Covid-19 but an economic and political system that does not value true wealth, and promotes the life of the few while condemning the many to literal sickness unto death.