Tuesday, March 19, 2013

John Ruskin, Walmart and Minimum Wage

John Ruskin's insight on consumerism is worth revisiting today as we rethink economic equity

The little book On Art and Life by John Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of my companions during my six-week bicycling sojourn in India in 2007. This Victorian-era architect and social critic turned a sharp eye and tongue to his English brethren, but it sounds as if he might be speaking directly to a consumer-driven society today. Consider the following quotes by Ruskin the next time we go to Walmart or consider the minimum-wage debate:

VIRTUAL STEALING. “Whenever we buy, or try to buy, cheap goods – goods offered at a price we know cannot be remunerative for the labor involved in them, we pillage the poor. Whenever we buy such goods, remember we are stealing somebody’s labor. Don’t let us mince the matter. I say, in plain Saxon, STEALING – taking from him the proper reward of his work, and putting it into our own pocket.”

TAKING ADVANTAGE. “You know well enough that the thing could not have been offered you at that price, unless distress of some kind had forced the producer to part with it. You take advantage of this distress, and you force as much out of him as you can under the circumstances.”

MARKETPLACE MURDER. “The definite result of all our modern haste to be rich is assuredly, and constantly, the murder of a certain number of persons by our hands every year.”

LUXURY AND WASTE. “On the whole, the broadest and most terrible way in which we cause the destruction of the poor is, namely, the way of luxury and waste, destroying, in improvidence, what might have been the support of thousands…”

CAUSE AND EFFECT. “You will find that whenever and wherever men are endeavoring to make money hastily, and to avoid the labor which Providence has appointed to be the only source of honorable profit; - and also wherever and whenever they permit themselves to spend it luxuriously, without reflecting how far they are misguiding the labor of others; - there and then, in either case, they are literally and infallibly causing, for their own benefit or their own pleasure, a certain annual number of human deaths…”

LABORER OR ASSASSIN. “Therefore, the choice given to every man born into this world is, simply, whether he will be a laborer or an assassin; and that whosoever has not his hand on the Stilt of the plough, has it on the Hilt of the dagger.”

The following related excerpt is from Unto this Last (thanks for the addition, David Craig, Ph.D., a Ruskin scholar:

"The present rage for cheapness is either, therefore, simply and literally, a rage for badness of all commodities, or it is an attempt to find persons whose necessities will force them to let you have more than you should for your money. It is quite easy to produce such persons, and in large numbers; for the more distress there is in a nation, the more cheapness of this sort you can obtain, and your boasted cheapness is thus merely a measure of the extent of your national distress."

Here's an example of our current dilemma: "Haitian Sweatshops: Made in the USA" (In These Times)

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA 

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