IN HIS HEYDAY John Ruskin exercised the sort of influence that today’s hyperactive “thought leaders” and “taste makers” can only dream of. Oxford University named not one but two institutions after him—the Ruskin School of Art and Ruskin Hall, for working-class students. He inspired the creation of the National Trust and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. “Thus disappeared from Earthly view the last of the giants who make the modern British socialist movement possible,” Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour Party, declared when he died in 1900.
Ruskin’s reputation sank like a lead Zeppelin after the first world war, under the combined assault of Bloomsbury intellectuals, who mocked his over-wrought prose and didactic style, and modernist architects, who ridiculed his taste for the Gothic. Today the only thing that most people know about him is that he was supposedly so shocked by his wife’s pubic hair on their wedding night that he couldn’t bring himself to sleep with her (the marriage was eventually dissolved “by reason of incurable impotency”).
The 200th anniversary of Ruskin’s birth, on February 8th, provides a welcome opportunity to re-evaluate this extraordinary man. Exhibitions of his drawings and paintings will remind us of his artistic gifts. “Ruskinland”, a timely book by Andrew Hill of the Financial Times, demonstrates that he had valuable things to say about reforming capitalism. It turns out that this prudish pubophobe is nothing less than a prophet for our times.
The odd man of Coniston
The problems confronting late Victorian England were remarkably similar to those now facing late Elizabethan Britain. The ruling class was feathering its own nest, the capitalists through global commerce and the political elite through their offices. The country was divided into “two nations”. The dominant utilitarian philosophy failed to answer urgent questions about the quality, as opposed to the mere quantity, of life. Ruskin was at the centre of a constellation of intellectuals, including Matthew Arnold and Walter Bagehot (a former editor of this newspaper), who devoted themselves to stitching the country back together by reforming capitalism and re-moralising the ruling class. Ruskin’s output was as rambling as it was rich—his works run to 39 volumes—but he remains strikingly relevant on three subjects: the nature of work; the importance of place; and the role of beauty in everyday life.
Ruskin believed that the pursuit of efficiency had deprived labour of meaning. Workers hated what they were doing because they were performing repetitive tasks rather than expressing their souls in their work. It is easy to dismiss this as trustafarian clap-trap. Ruskin inherited a fortune from his father, a wine merchant, and was prone to organising madcap schemes such as getting undergraduates, including Oscar Wilde, to build a road near Oxford, hardly an optimum allocation of talent. But his ideas about the importance of meaning as a motivator are not as impractical as they may seem. The Toyota system of production has outperformed mass production precisely because it gives workers more control over their jobs. This question is now at the heart of the knowledge economy: should we use smart machines to break work down into tiny chores that can be globalised and mechanised (as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an outsourcing platform, does), or should we use them to give workers more control over their tasks? Hurtling down the first route will lead to a “zipless totalitarianism”, to borrow a phrase from Sean Orlando, an American artist, that will alienate workers without much improving productivity.
Ruskin worried that what we now call globalisation was creating a rootless society, prosperous but anomie-ridden, composed of interchangeable human atoms, “circulating here by tunnels under ground, and there by tubes in the air”. He urged his followers to put down roots in particular places, as he himself did in Brantwood, in the Lake District. Dozens of “Ruskinlands” sprang up across the world, putting into practice his dictum that “local is logical”. He urged the rich to take responsibility not for humanity in general but for particular people and places. Again what seems like effete claptrap contains a good deal of hard sense. The British elite’s infatuation with globalisation has produced a backlash that now threatens globalisation itself, most obviously in the form of Brexit but potentially in the form of a hard-left Labour government. Politicians have abandoned place-based policies while businesspeople have failed to see that breaking free from the common obligations of citizenship, by parking their money offshore, will whip up a whirlwind.
Ruskin’s greatest passion was for art. He made his name as a fluent champion of J.M.W. Turner and as a talented artist in his own right. But for Ruskin, art was not something to be gawped at in galleries. It should suffuse the built environment, as it did in his beloved Venice. This insight resonates today. Town planners and builders have forgotten the importance of aesthetics, assembling identikit houses and shopping centres without even nodding to local traditions. This fuels not just alienation but nimbyism. Kit Malthouse, the housing minister, now talks of building “the conservation areas of the future”. Last November he set up a commission on “building better, building beautiful”, chaired by Sir Roger Scruton, the closest thing Britain now has to a John Ruskin.
Ruskin’s most important lesson is the importance of eclecticism. He called himself both a “violent Tory of the old school” and a “reddest also of the red” socialist. “I am never satisfied that I have handled a subject properly till I have contradicted myself at least three times,” he once said. One of the dangers facing Britain is that, after dividing into warring political tribes over Brexit, it will split again over the future of capitalism. The only way to bring the country back together and tackle its manifold social and economic problems is to adopt a Ruskinian approach, and ransack every tradition—conservative, liberal and socialist—for good ideas.