‘There is no wealth but life.’ Could there be any more concise and profound challenge to our current economic system and materialistic values? Yet this is a quote from John Ruskin’s ‘Unto This Last’, published in 1862.
Ruskin, brought up a devout Christian, was arguing for ‘people before profits’ 150 years ago, and his words inspired many people, from the first founders of the Labour Party to Mahatma Ghandi. He is one of those rare thinkers whose ideas become ever more relevant with the passing of time.
Although he started out as a brilliantly influential art critic, Ruskin soon turned his mind to social and political economy. As the Industrial Revolution progressed and Britain’s economy boomed, he was considered a maverick when he pointed out the dangers to human beings and the planet. A booming economy is pointless, he said, if it is not improving the wellbeing of the general population. He was even ridiculed for suggesting that industrialisation was affecting Britain’s weather.
Ruskin’s home Brantwood, in Coniston, Cumbria, is open to the public, and promotes his legacy, which its website summarises thus :
"He championed many of the tenets of the welfare state, and inspired the founders of the National Health Service, the formation of Public Libraries, the National Trust and many other cornerstones of civil society …His influence reached abroad in such areas as women’s education, the minimum wage, child labour, and environmental protection and has served both as a restraining influence on unbridled capitalism and a moral conscience for the nations of the world."
The most inspiring passage from ‘Unto this Last’ is perhaps,
"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 the means of his possessions, over the lives of others.’
It really is a book that has much to teach us today. But it’s not the easiest of reads, and being realistic, it’s unlikely that large numbers of people will rush out and buy a copy. There is, however, a brilliantly accessible and affordable introduction to Ruskin’s thinking available, in the form of an entertaining comic book, price £1.
‘How to be Rich’ drawn by Hunt Emerson and written by Kevin Jackson is a 24 page exploration of Ruskin’s ideas through the story of Darren Bloke, an ordinary man who wins the lottery but then finds his life falling apart. As he drowns his sorrows and descends into a drunken stupor, the spirit of John Ruskin appears to him and talks about the constructive, positive use of money, which can be called wealth, and the destructive, negative effects of money being used wrongly, which Ruskin calls ‘illth’.
In another challenge to today’s economic orthodoxies, he is adamant that the rich can only become richer at the expense of the poor, declaring, "What I mean is you can no more have riches without poverty than you can have north without south."
As our banks fall ever deeper into scandal, the super rich get richer, the welfare state disintegrates, and the planet is pillaged, we would have to agree that more and more of the world’s wealth has gone toxic, and turned into illth.
This little comic book, really a true gem, is available from Brantwood, price £1 (telephone 015394 41396 or email firstname.lastname@example.org  to order, it’s not on their website but it is in stock), or can be viewed for free at Cumbria and Lancashire Education Online  as part of their Key Stage 3 Citizenship resources.
John Ruskin was born almost 200 years ago, but he is truly a man for our time.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.