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he years 1818 and 1819 are auspicious in the history of capitalism. They mark the respective births of its strongest nineteenth century critics: Karl Marx and John Ruskin. Born roughly two decades after the turn of the nineteenth century, Marx and Ruskin both began their university studies in 1836 and completed their studies one year apart, with Marx receiving his doctorate from the University of Jena in 1841 and Ruskin receiving his bachelor’s degree from Oxford University in 1842. By 1849, both were living in England and were firmly established within their respective intellectual circles. During the 1860s, Marx and Ruskin wrote their most influential works on political economy, Capital and Unto this Last (complete text), respectively. Karl Marx was later buried in London at Highgate Cemetery upon his death in 1883, where he rests today. Ruskin lived until 1900, but spent the last decade of his life inactive at his home on Coniston Lake in northern England.

Although they lived in and around London at the height of their careers, there is no evidence that they either met or were directly influenced by one another’s writings. Nevertheless, their writings demonstrate conspicuous places of convergence, especially regarding the structure of labor and the conception of economic value in a rapidly industrializing society. Their divergent views of social change provide additional insights that remain relevant for evaluating the paths for restructuring social and economic life today. Given that they are seldom compared, the bicentenary years of their respective births provides a unique opportunity to provide this much-needed comparison and to argue for the lasting value of their respective contributions to social thought. The radical transformations that Marx and Ruskin observed during the Industrial Revolution are difficult to comprehend at two centuries removed. The development of laissez-faire capitalism transformed European economies into a system rooted in private property with the fewest possible restrictions on the use of that property to generate profit. As E. P. Thompson points out, workers in this new political economy found that the “statute law, as well as common law and custom,” that had provided “market-supervision” and “consumer-protection” up until the nineteenth century were no longer a part of their working lives (83).

The additional rationalization and mechanization of labor for mass production that occurred during this era quickly spread throughout industrial Europe. By the end of the nineteenth century, this new labor regime achieved its purest expression with Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management,” which provided a methodology for dividing the labor process into discrete and measurable operations in order to derive profit from “the maximum number of actions a worker could perform in a working day” (Harman, 383). The subsequent mass extinction of skilled labor was swift, as workers became commodities in the industrial process themselves. Marx and Ruskin were the first to theorize the origin and effects of this epochal transformation. Both theorists argued that while intelligent labor is necessary for expressing and cultivating our essential human nature, industrial capitalism had undermined those conditions in the interest of mass production.

Beginning with “The Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844,” Marx argued that humans are distinct among other creatures for our ability to consciously modify the material world. Through this conscious activity, we express our full nature or “species being,” a fully developed unity between thought and action (75). By means of such labor, Marx argued, we encounter our selves and each other “in a world that [we have] created” (76). Such creative activity further develops our aesthetic sensibilities and intelligence. As Marx wrote, “the forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present” (89). Every act of human labor has a cumulative effect on our sense perceptions and creative capacities, which, in Marx’s words, allow an “eye [to] become a human eye” (87).

Ruskin, like Marx, also argued that creative labor had a humanizing effect on workers and in social life. These ideas first appeared in “The Nature of the Gothic,” a chapter in the second volume of The Stones of Venice (1851-53), a book intended as both an architectural study of Venice and a warning to Ruskin’s England to fend off the destructive tendencies that lead to the collapse of great empires. In “The Nature of the Gothic,” Ruskin defined six architectural principles, the first of which, “savageness,” identified intelligent and creative labor as an essential component of our human relationship to the material world (10.184).

He observed that we humans do not, of our own accord, produce commodities with machine-like precision. Rather, some idiosyncratic imperfections appear in anything created with human ingenuity and invention. These imperfections, he argued, do not result from a lack of craftsmanship or skill but from the human tendency to err in the creative process. When a person expresses creative thought, Ruskin wrote, “he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being” (10.192). Such an apparently flawed act, Ruskin argued, embodies imagination and skill. This is not to say that Ruskin believed that all work should contain error, but that labor must allow for, and reflect, the idiosyncratic character of the laborer.

Ruskin believed that industrial capitalism and its factory system undermined the conditions for such expressive labor. This mode of production permits workers to sell their labor, but they lack control over the product or the means of its creation. The concentration of capital in a single elite class causes the dissolution of healthful relationships between workers and their life activity, thus ending their dominion as “proprietors of the instrument” of production (263). Furthermore, as Marx explains, these industrial conditions created an ever-expanding pool of unskilled labor that become integrated as a commodity into the industrial process. Under these conditions, Marx argued, we encounter ourselves as “strange and inhuman [objects]” surrounded by “an alien reality” separate from our “species life” (87). Alienated labor thereby inhabited a bleak cultural landscape in which people could no longer fully develop their human sensibilities and intelligence.

Ruskin viewed the industrial emphasis on precision and accuracy as a kind of “slavery” (10.193). By design, industrial production, he argued, “must un-humanize [the workers]” while “all the energy of their spirits must be given over to make cogs and compasses of themselves” (10.192). As such, industrial production had transformed labor into a denigrating and unskilled activity, dividing workers into parts so specialized “that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin” (10.196).

Such mechanized labor created a moral imbalance that harmed workers while benefitting the owners of capitalist, who become an elite social, political, and economic class. Once their capital makes workers little more than a commodity, the owners of capital gain a distinct advantage over them. First of all, deskilled labor makes workers increasingly interchangeable, and they also become more easily replaceable through automation. Moreover, a labor regime that eliminated inefficiencies and intelligent craft from the production process was a means for maximizing profits for those who controlled labor.

Marx and Ruskin argued that capitalists furthered their class domination by profiting from the monetary difference between the cost of labor and the market value of a commodity. These conditions of domination depended on the commodification of both labor and the value of commodities sold in the market. Marx and Ruskin illuminated these systemic relations in their respective works on political economy in the 1860s, Ruskin’s Unto this Last, which appeared in book form in 1862, and Marx’s first volume of Capital, published in German in 1867.

Using the etymology of value, Ruskin defined it as a quality that “avails toward life,” which is “independent of opinion, and of quantity” (17.85). Any commodity, he argued, can be evaluated for the effect it has on human health and well-being. Marx similarly argued that a commodity’s “use-value” becomes realized “only by its use or consumption” (303). This value, which exists in the commodity itself, reflects its actual utility for consumers regardless of its monetary value.

Both men also applied this idea of intrinsic value to nature. Ruskin, for example, observed that the “maximum of population on a given space of land implies also the relative maximum of edible vegetation, whether for men or cattle; it implies a maximum of pure air; and of pure water” (17.101). Marx, in his turn, wrote that all production is ultimately constrained by the “air, virgin soil, natural meadows” used in production (307). Human life and labor, in short, are only possible in healthy relationship with the natural world. The logic of profit under capitalism, however, does not account for such value in its calculations. Rather, capitalism ascribes all commodities with monetary value to produce a profit. All commodities, in short, are only as valuable as their “exchange value,” for Marx, or “price,” for Ruskin, for which they can be sold in the market. Both Marx and Ruskin saw this as the main process by which capitalists manufacture a structural advantage over an ever-expanding class of workers.

For Marx, the capitalist advantage over workers derives from the difference between the exchange value of a commodity and the wages paid for their labor. The goal of capitalist production “is to extract the greatest possible amount of surplus-value, and consequently to exploit labor-power to the greatest possible extent” (385). With mechanization and automation, capitalists extract ever-larger profits from the same amount of that labor’s power. The result is greater wealth for the capitalist by means of the sale of a commodity without an attendant increase in the wages of the workers.

Ruskin also describes wages as a means of structured class advantage but viewed the condition chiefly through a social and ethical framework. Wages are, in short, a “promise…that for the time and labor he spends in our service to-day we will give or procure equivalent time and labor in the future” (17.64). In contrast to the capitalist view, Ruskin conceptualized profit not as the difference between price and wages, but from receiving an equivalent good or service or the means to procure that good or service from another person. The “justice [of wages],” for Ruskin, “consists in absolute exchange” (17.65). Under these conditions of equitable exchange, no one could control more labor than any one person produces. When the balance of exchange allows one person to control an outsized proportion of labor, then capitalist exploitation and class advantage results.

Ruskin’s observations further echoed Marx’s own that capitalism gave the bourgeoisie the “means of domination over, and exploitation of, the worker” (1978). As Ruskin wrote, laissez-faire capitalism, or “mercantile economy,” was solely directed toward the “accumulation, in the hands of individuals, of legal or moral claim upon the labor of others” (17.45). The rise of this elite class was, in fact, predicated on the poverty of others, since the “power of wealth…is greater or less in direct proportion to the poverty of men over whom it is exercised” (17.46). One’s riches are only as valuable as they allow for one person to direct the labor of others. As a result, riches are predicated on the advantage of one class and the disadvantage of another.

Marx and Ruskin both witnessed the political economy of Europe become transformed into a commodified system that generated massive riches for an elite class while simultaneously undermining human and natural life. Although both observing the same conditions, they diverged in their proposals for bringing about a more humane political economy. By comparing these views, we gain useful insights for considering means for correcting from our own perilous trajectory within the continued expansion of global capitalism. Marx rightly recognized that systemic changes in our economic behavior would only occur through a reorganization of political and economic power. Even “the modern State,” he argued, “is but a committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie” or owners of capital (475). Power must be decentralized in order to prevent the private exploitation of resources and accumulation of riches and thus alter these systemic institutional relations. Moreover, Marx explicitly recognized that those who control institutions are unlikely to yield their power without pressure from another organized social group. For Marx, workers formed the most likely social group to change the structure of economic power because they needed most to change the economic system.

That being said, Marx’s millenarian conclusion about the end of class antagonisms falls short of practical usefulness. The Communist regimes of the twentieth century only achieved what Marx referred to as “crude communism,” systems in which property is held by the state but not yet by the people themselves (84). With the abolition of private property, Marx envisioned a society in which people could pursue their creative potential free from the control of another class or person, including the state. Such has not happened in regimes that have purported to follow Marx’s ideas.

Ruskin, who also recognized the need for changes in the social order, argued that a sustainable and equitable political economic system must be rooted in a social ethic of mutual interdependence. To address conditions of alienated and deskilled labor, for example, Ruskin argued that the “demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labor” are connected to our own economic behavior (17.196). To that end, Ruskin advocated that no product should be purchased or demanded that does not reflect “Invention” on the part of the worker (17.196). We must, therefore, attend to the systemic impacts that our individual consumption, or demand for labor, has on others groups and individuals.

Under conditions of a social ethic rooted in this Ruskinian conception of value, he further reasoned that political economy should produce and distribute commodities that are inherently useful or beneficial. Capitalism, by contrast, frames value solely in monetary terms, operating as an amoral economic system through which individuals and corporations can profit monetarily without considering the effects of production on workers or consumers. Indeed, according to Ruskin, the greatest moral perversion of capitalism is that monetary profits can be generated at the expense of human and natural health. Since all products, according to Ruskin, have value to the degree that they benefit the individual and society, those who produce commodities are morally responsible for our collective well-being as consumers. A political economy evaluated through this lens would therefore prioritize “the production, preservation, or distribution, at fittest time and place, of useful or pleasurable things,” or those things that have a beneficial effect on social life (17.44). Wealth, as such, is not a monetary value but “the quantity of labor which [an economy] spends in obtaining and employing the means of life” as well as “wisely distributing and consuming” those commodities (17.98). Such a political economy, Ruskin wrote, is “the only one…that ever was or can be” (17.105).

If we are to reorganize economic and political power, Ruskin provides the ethical framework for doing so. Those who advocate for the free market today still use an ideology that celebrates unrestrained individualism and competition as the best means for serving the common good. After more than two centuries of enshrining these principles in doctrine, beneficial outcomes are dubious. Ruskin’s social ethic provides the necessary rebuttal for acting as producers and consumers in alignment with social justice.

In the balance, the works of Marx and Ruskin hold deep relevance on the bicentenary of their births. They challenge the systemic inequities of our economies still predicated on laissez-faire principles by critiquing the structure of social power and by exploring the ethical foundations for how that power should be realigned. Whereas Marx provides a more coherent theory of social power, Ruskin alone holds the key for the latter. The transformations brought about through industrialization and laissez-faire capitalism have so thoroughly enveloped our global civilization that there often seems little way to imagine a future predicated upon different terms. The writings of both Marx and Ruskin, which continue to provide that much-needed vision, help us to both imagine — and create — a more just and healthier world.

Works Cited

Harman, Chris. A People’s History of the World. London, Bookmarks Publication, 1999.

Marx, Karl. The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. R. Tucker. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.

Ruskin, John. Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin. ED.lkE.T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, eds.) London, George Allen, 1903-1912.

Thompson, E.P. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past and Present 50 (1971): 76-136.

Last modified 30 April 2024