47: Bound together on a Glacier (Social Security)

Whether we like to think about or admit it or not,

the whole nation is in fact bound together as men are by ropes on a glacier. If one falls, the rest must either lift him or drag him along with them as dead weight, not without much increase of danger to themselves.

So Ruskin wrote in 1857 in The Political Economy of Art, his first systematic study of how society works. The two lectures signaled a major shift in his work. He was on the cusp of abandoning art criticism so that he might write what, today, we would call sociology. For the next two decades, the bulk of what he would publish or lecture upon would be comprised of various attempts to not merely analyze what ailed his social world but offer specific suggestions about how the many harmful realities he detailed could be ameliorated. Later, he would refer to this second phase of his work as the most important of his life. We will have more posts focused on this work in weeks and month to come, but, for the moment, let’s return to 1857 and this quote.

As the sixth decade of the nineteenth century drew toward its close, as we know, Ruskin was an author famed on both sides of the Atlantic for his path-breaking, brilliantly written works on art and architecture–the four volumes of his early masterwork, Modern Painters (the last volume would appear in 1860), his path-breaking three-volume treatise, The Stones of Venice, and his rehearsal of the principles which made buildings truly great, The Seven Lamps of Architecture. As these books came into being, increasingly, he was appalled at the inequities which existed in British and European society and the unnecessary human and societal toll which consequenced from such differences.

His study of the greatest architecture in Europe (The Seven Lamps, 1849) had taught him that buildings only sing when they are constructed by workers who love their work. By the time he finished The Stones of Venice four years later, he was convinced that everyone had some kind of ability or talent which, discovered, encouraged, and directed, would not only create personal satisfaction and a sense that life was worth living, but contribute to the bettering of society at the same time. But, that truth grasped, it was also clear, painfully so, that most of his contemporaries who engaged in creation of buildings disdained their workers, saw them as a sort of chattel, as living tools to be assembled, used as hard as they could stand, and then, after they had been broken or became too weak to go on, discarded like cracked shovels. For such exertions, those who made them would be paid as little as possible–not much more than enough to keep them alive (and sometimes not even that)–their employers secure in their awareness that, should these breathing accouterments ever find their work requirements or remuneration lacking and protest, a dozen unemployed others would be eagerly standing at the gates, delighted to take their fellows’ exploited places. About which sorry state, Ruskin wrote this in the second volume of The Stones:

We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labor. Only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labor that is divided, but the men: Divided into mere segments of men—broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; [divided] so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail.

      Now, it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day. But if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished—sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is, we should think there might be some loss in it also. And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is…that we manufacture everything there except men. We blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery. But to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages. And all the evil to which that cry is urging our myriads can be met only in one way: not by teaching nor preaching, for to teach them is but to show them their misery, and to preach to them, if we do nothing more than preach, is to mock at it. It can be met only by a right understanding, on the part of all classes, of what kinds of labor are good for men, raising them, and making them happy, by a determined sacrifice of such convenience, or beauty, or cheapness as is to be got only by the degradation of the workman, and by equally determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labor.

Encountering such sentences, few of Ruskin’s readers wanted to believe and fewer still to heed them. For what he was saying (in truth, they didn’t miss it!) was that society (any society) was a system of interlocked souls and that, as a result, when someone thrived by doing work that was both strengthening and useful, in ways overt or covert, the lives of all were bettered. His readers wished to ignore, too, the correlative truth that, if someone did not thrive, not only that person (and all those dependent on him or her) suffered, but, in ways overt or covert, we all suffered. Much more palatable to the builders of buildings and manufacturers of almost anything in Ruskin’s day (and, alas, still in our own) was to continue their focus on their short (and eventually long) term gain by paying workers “what the market would bear,” or, as Ruskin would surely have put it, “what the weaker, out of desperation, were forced to bear.”

Finally–and utterly unpalatable to most of the monied of his time–was his insistence on the basic humanity of all those who had been employed as shovels, and his further insistence that, out of respect for such humanity, as well as out of our subscription to the Biblical injunction that we should treat others as we should like to be treated, all who had given their lives in working service deserved the ungrudging support of their nation when, whether in later life or injured, they needed support if they were to go on living decently. In which light, in a second paragraph from The Political Economy of Art, he proposed the following,

A laborer serves his country with his spade, just as a man in the middle ranks of life serves it with his sword, pen or lancet…[A]nd it ought to be quite as natural and straightforward a matter for a laborer to take his pension from his parish because he has deserved well of his parish as for a man in higher rank to take his pension from his country because he has deserved well of his country…

I know well how strange, fanciful, or impracticable these suggestions will appear to most of the businessmen of this day, men who conceive the proper state of the world to be simply that of a a vast and disorganized mob, scrambling each for what he can get, trampling down his children and old men in the mire, and doing what work it finds must be done with any irregular squad of laborers it can bribe or inveigle together, and afterwards scatter to starvation. But it is still not the right way of doing things for people who call themselves Christians. Every…soul…claims from every other such soul protection and education in childhood, help…in middle life, reward or relief, if needed, in old age. All of these should be completely and unstintingly given.

Of course, all such suggestions were seen, as Ruskin well knew they would be, as preposterous, as anathema by his self-serving fellows (the gendered word is proper in the present context). It would take another half-century before any serious form of what we now call Social Security was affected in Britain; nearly four decades more would pass before the same safety net was put tentatively in place in a New Dealing America. In that long meantime, despite Ruskin’s ongoing protests (and those of a growing number of others–Dickens and Carlyle among them), the weak and impoverished of Britain and America struggled on as best they could (not very well in a very large percentage of instances).

We are bound together on a glacier, like it or not. If one slips, we can hoist him up so all can continue on easily, or, scorning this option, we can drag him along, useless, damaged, and terrified–at great moral and living expense to everyone. A choice.

Be well out there as our summer slides toward fall.



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2 Responses to 47: Bound together on a Glacier (Social Security)

  1. Tim says:


    Excellent piece. This theme of Ruskin’s, the idea of social solidarity and cohesion, his concern for the social fabric, seems to me one of the key contributions he has to make to our public discourse today. He tries to sustain into the modern world the medieval Christian idea of corpus Christi, or what the self-described atheist Morris called “the whole people.” Few today, whether they think of themselves as conservative or progressive, seem to have much regard for this value. (We do hear it on occasion from a few individuals on both sides, which is a hopeful sign.) What we call “freedom” — a deeply individualistic and corrupted, makeshift version of the real thing—supersedes all other social values and dominates all social priorities. It is invoked, but without consistency and only when convenient. As human beings, we live in not only our personal bodies but social bodies, along with our neighbors, as members of the local body politic. (A full-throated expression of this medieval body metaphor for understanding society can be found, as I’m sure you know, in a seminal document of American political thought: John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity.” And in this we might find hope that it is not a dead but merely a dormant understanding.) Ruskin reminds us of our nature and the violation it suffers in our fractious, divisive—our truly decadent— modern commercial-industrial society.

    Thank you! Well done!

  2. Jack says:

    Thank you, Jim. Well put, in a language that is clear and well-framed, that amplifies that which is truly sociological in Ruskin’s insights and understandings. What he says, and what you explain, speaks to our own time, although likely to fall on ears no less deaf than in his time. But they must be spoken, and re-spoken, because reform is possible, as we see in the results Ruskin sometimes imagined.

    If this is from your recent book writing I shall be an eager reader indeed.

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