66: The Laws of Life/The Laws of Death


This is not normally a “current events” site. What Ruskin has to share with us, as I hope our previous posts have made clear, transcends almost all those things that come, catch our consciousness, and then vanish out of our daily experience.

But two days ago, last Friday, the 24th of June, 2016, a “daily event” occurred which rattled the world. The population of Great Britain, Ruskin’Britain (!),  voted–not by much but by margin sufficient–to leave the European Union, the economic and political amalgam of countries which formed after the last catastrophic World War (estimate, perhaps low: 37 million dead), its humane and essential goal being to not just increase trade, communication, and social connection between the member nations and their peoples but to prevent, because of the powerful common interests which surely would develop between these nations over time, another World War (you know the one I mean: the one which really would be the “War to End all Wars”). Today, we are a little more than sixty years past the finish of that last, finally incomprehensible, horrific–a happy fact which suggests that, whatever its faults (admittedly many), the EU has worked as hoped.

Hence the abandonment of it by a majority of Britain’s voters seems myopic in the extreme, even though it is not hard to comprehend the frustration felt by many on the sceptered isles at what EU membership brought with it: too much immigration too quickly, a sense of Britain’s interests being interpreted and administered by “outsiders,” being particularly high on a long list of rankles. While it is much too early to tell what the final outcomes of the vote to escape the EU will be, the wake already being formed after the final tallies were reported, suggests that the changes to come may be sunamic in character–the destabilizing of world markets, a stimulus to other countries to start thinking about exiting the EU, the collapse of the EU itself, turmoil in British politics, breakup of the United Kingdom, more! It beggars the imagination!

A century ago and a half ago, James Smetham, an artist and long a devotee of Ruskin’s works, wrote, in a letter to a dear friend who had just discovered and was delighting in Ruskin: “I quite envy you your first reading of Ruskin. Ruskin is a revelation of a new world, and it only wants the remove of a century to show him in his colossal proportions…”

Well, that century and more than a half of another have vaporized since Smetham penned his laudatory lines, and still we have not taken enough measure of what Ruskin, in his deepest wisdom, had to teach us. Below is a simple saying which it would have been good for us to contemplate with some seriousness as all those decades edged their way toward eternity. The sentences first appeared in Modern Painters V (1860), in a passage where Ruskin was voicing his aiding dismay over the intense competition running rampant in the Britain of his day, a “serve yourself first and devil take the hindmost” attitude that was making a few rich while, in its wake, creating millions of impoverished and miserable. (The argument was easily demonstrable: all one had to do was walk into the slums of any major British city to see the human devastation wrought by laissez-faire: compare Post 61 and Post 53). Here are his two sentences:

Government and Cooperation are, in all things and eternally, the Laws of Life. Anarchy and competition, eternally, and in all things, the Laws of Death.

The sentences, like all of the greatest of the world’s aphorisms, were the outgrowth of an immense amount of study and sifting through of evidence. So important did Ruskin think them that, later that same year, near the end of the third essay of Unto this Last, his small but critically important treatise attacking the false assumptions at the core of laissez-faire capitalism, he repeated them, as, simultaneously, truth and warning, writing:

Government and Cooperation are, in all things and eternally, the Laws of Life. Anarchy and competition, eternally, and in all things, the Laws of Death.

Two years later, experimenting with another form of writing, Platonic dialogue, he included the lines yet again in some sentences the “Old Lecturer” (akin to Plato’s Socrates) spoke to the school girls who had come to discuss with him the world’s most important matters. He told them in all earnestness that:

Government and Cooperation are, in all things and eternally, the Laws of Life. Anarchy and competition, eternally, and in all things, the Laws of Death.

But it seems that no one was listening.


P.S. 1: Please do not think I am being “holier-than-thou” in saying what’s above. I am deeply aware that 48% of the UK’s voting public cast a ballot in favor of remaining in the EU. They deserve our gratitude and, alas, sympathy. I am also palpably aware (as is the rest of the planet) that, at the present time in the US, myopia, greed, narrow self-interest, and ignorance are riding high in the saddles of their apocalyptic horses (one thinks of Brugel’s “The Fight between Carnival and Lent”). If those horses not brought to a halt by the first Tuesday of this November, their triumph threatens even worse catastrophe for us all. world.

P.S. 2: Your reflections gladly received.

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9 Responses to 66: The Laws of Life/The Laws of Death

  1. Michelle Lovric says:

    Shellshocked here in London. When did the small minded and bigoted kids take over the school? I am ashamed for us. We are now living by the laws of competition and death. And it makes one afraid. It makes one believe that the white house too is vulnerable.

  2. Tim Holton says:

    Thank you for pointing out that Ruskin found this “Law of Help”—”the first law of the universe”—so important that he repeated it in at least 3 writings. Sara Atwood did very well making it the central theme of her introduction to Ruskin for the Hillside Club Round Table a few years ago. It is indeed at the heart—in every sense—of his thinking.
    I must, however, say a word in dissent, regarding Brexit. Although I can’t honestly say how I’d have voted were I British, I also can’t believe Ruskin would’ve approved of “globalization”, if by that word we mean the ultimate expansion and exercise of laissez faire policies, and of which the EU is certainly one very great part. One need not be opposed to the principle of free trade to object to the EU’s indifference to what Ruskin was passionate about: just and fair trade and the public good. Government and cooperation, yes. But surely Ruskin did not favor remote and insular government—especially one clearly indifferent to nations and favorable to self-serving corporations. I don’t think the latter have an inkling of Ruskin’s Law of Help. They certainly don’t obey it. Nor would Ruskin have taken lightly the great loss of livelihoods and meaningful and industrious work due to globalization.
    Do not think I’m endorsing any of the misplaced and misguided Leave arguments, especially those aimed at immigrants. But the more fundamental sense of betrayal felt by ordinary working people is valid and must be reckoned with. Political leaders, both in Britain and here in the U.S., have abandoned those people—ceased to help them. And that strikes me as singularly and decidedly contrary to Ruskin’s Law of Help.

  3. David Peacock says:

    Hello Jim and thank you for this. All a very bad business and our country now like a ship without a rudder heading for goodness knows where.

    David Peacock

  4. Pascal DEBOUT says:

    Dear Jim,
    I usually do not leave a reply to your posts, not because I find them uninteresting but simply because I read them as words to medidate upon, which I always do with genuine pleasure.
    Nevertheless, your latest publication about the recent Brexit has urged me to take my electronic pen to add a comment. The Brexis debate is of uppermost importance because it essentially deals with the political and economic model we want to live with, which ultimately means the kind of life we want to have.
    Let me state it bluntly : I am pro Europe and strongly anti EU. Why ? For two main reasons : first, the EU does not appear to be a democratic system; second, it is not the best answer, in the long term, to the numerous challenges the 21st century has and will have to face.
    Not a democratic system. One of the mottoes that paved the way to the American Declaration of Independence was “no taxations without representation”. The problem of true representation is central to the existence of any community. Who are the true representatives of the European population ? The MEPs ? The non-elected members of the European commission ?
    Let me give you one simple example, one that Mr Ruskin would certainly have appreciated. It is about bees, these incredible insects which are the perfect illustration of a life of cooperation and govenment referred to in your post and central to Ruskin’s economic thought.
    Bees in France – as in the rest of the world – suffer from the intensive use of pesticides and their populations are decreasing dramatically. French representatives have almost unanimously called for a ban on a certain pesticide which is notoriously responsible for the sad demise of bees. This ban cannot be implemented in France simply because the MEPs in Strasbourg cannot find an agreement to pass a law and this against the wish of a majority of French MPs elected by the French population. This example might sound trivial but it is not. It raises the fundamental issue about what a truly democracy is all about. Should we expect a Danish or a Spanish MEP to care for French bees when that person is elected through a very complex system upon which the French electors only have a slight influence ? That seems to me a very diluted definition of democracy.
    We are here at the very heart of the problem. This lack of genuine democracy and transparency explains why the British electors have decided to vote Leave. By the way, what an extraordinary decision when you consider how we, Europeans, are brainwashed on a daily basis into thinking that outside the EU life is utterly impossible. The media, the intellectuals, the experts and above all the economists (it’s time to read again what Mr Ruskin thought of the “soi-disant science of political economy”) have been telling us for years that if a nation leaves the EU, an economic disaster will strike it immediately. Let us wait now for the crickets to invade the streets of London as a sign of a modern plague (but they will probably, like our bees, be killed by all the pesticides we use and against which the MPEs are so reluctant to react).
    In a year or two, we will be a better position to measure the real economic consequences of the Brexit. But my bet is that the British economy will be as active and booming as it was before the Brexit. If this is the case, it will demonstrate to the other members of the EU that leaving it is possible contradicting the frightening and ominous reports repeated like mantras by the European bureaucrats and experts. This might serve as an incentive for other European populations to require a referendum in their own countries, provided their politicians accept the idea of a referendum, which is far from being certain, especially in my country. Another example of a dubious democratic spirit at work in the EU. Let me remind you that the French rejected the Treaty of Lisbon a few years ago but that popular vote was circumvented and did not change the course of the European policies.
    By the way, as I am alluding to a lack of genuine democratic spirit, what should be said of the 3 million people who in GB ask for another referendum to be held ? Like spoiled brats unhappy with the result of a game, they ask for the game to be played again until they win. If victory happens to be out of touch, I imagine they will probably ask to change the rules or play another game. Again, sorry but it is not my definition of a democratic and popular vote.
    To finish, let me write a few words about the second reason why I strongly feel anti EU.You are perfectly right to say that the initial impetus behind the creation of the EU was to prevent another catastrophic world war. A noble and respectful goal, needless to say.
    But today the main goal of the EU is to be an economic answer to the process of globalization, the other word for anarchy and competition, two concepts to which we can add nowadays “growth” ans have the 3 pillars of our modern laissez-faire capitalism.
    The main tenet of the European enthusiasts is that the bigger we are, the better we could face economic challenges. This is more or less a reminder of the too-big-too-fail theory international banks are so eager to promote. But how can we continue to rely on bigness and growth in a world of limited resources ?
    This leads me to my point : I think that in the long term the only viable solution to our social, economic and political problems is not to be found in big institutions and organisations only interested in profits but in smaller ones, accountable to the people who elect them. The EU has become too large, which means too complicated and remote from the people, especially the poorest who are the true victims of a system that only exists to serve the interests of big corporations and financial institutions.
    And this is where I set foot on highly dangerous grounds because I really think that the nation is the most relevant economic and political area within which problems can most appropriately be tackled and dealt with. But for the European propaganda, “nation” is translated into “nationalism” and “nationalism” into “extremism”. End of debates.
    The British vote, far from being “myopic” to use your own terminology my dear Jim, will hopefully enable us to open our eyes on the wonderful opportunity that is given to all Europeans to imagine new political and economic models based on a sensible cooperation among self-governed nations and this for the benefit and well-being of their people.

  5. Gray Brechin says:

    I think what we’ve just seen is a revolt of the masses for whom neoliberalism and its handmaiden austerity has not worked as it has for those at the top and the center who chided, cajoled, threatened, and insulted so many with the consequences of Brexit. It is not simply a matter of racism, xenophobia, and ignorance; Greece provides Exhibit A of what Berlin and Brussels could do to one of the EU’s members that attempted democracy and sovereignty: it has been driven into an equivalent of the Great Depression or worse to serve as an example to others as well as to pay off the German bankers. Meanwhile, of course, the chickens from US, UK, and EU meddling in the Muslim world is now coming home to roost in the tsunami of refugees destabilizing the EU countries, and Brexit is one expression of that. (BTW, when will Tony Blair be put on trial there, and Cheney & Co here?)

    There is one more thing: London itself. It is a city that I love because I can afford to enjoy what so many there cannot; I cannot help but notice, however, the rapid growth of people sleeping rough there as they now do in US cities in vast fetid encampments as Tories and New Labour tear up Clement Attlee’s safety net in the UK as “we” have torn up FDR’s New Deal in the US. In my book Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin I analyzed how imperial cities parasitize the environment for the sake of those who own them. This has long been true of London, and it is all tied to land value. London, of course, has some of the highest land values in the world, and Boris Johnson believes that the high-rises springing up all over town – wrecking the skyline and overwhelming the capacity of the Underground and so much more even as rising sea levels will soon overwhelm the Thames Barrier – define a world-class city. I think Mr Johnson will think twice as real estate values there tank if corporations and the wealthy decamp to venues momentarily more congenial and obsequious.

    Of course, we are now in uncharted waters, so I grant that everything I’ve said here may be errant foolishness. I nonetheless give you my opinion from the U.S. where we are about to be offered the choice between two flavors of fascism. We were denied an alternative by the machinations of the putatively friendlier version; she now seeks our votes as a consolation prize while her champions mock those of us who believed we could do and even deserved better.

    One final thought: I welcome ANYTHING that detours us from what appears to be NATO’s inexorable march towards a nuclear showdown with Russia which so few want to think or talk about. I hope that this will do so before there is no one to think or talk post planetary mortem.

  6. Christine & John Parker says:

    Hi Jim As usual your comments are insightful and thoughtful. But I would take issue with you about one thing. I do not think that the the EU has been the mechanism which has prevented further wars in Europe. This is and has been, the role of NATO. It is true that increasing economic prosperity may have helped but by itself I would suggest that would not have been sufficient.  Most European nations would have great problems defending themselves and only the UK and France have large standing Armies. I voted to Remain, so am unhappy with the result, but would suggest that the real issue is the failure of the political class to properly represent their constituents and to present cogent and valid arguments to Remain.  Increasingly in the UK politicians are mistrusted to do anything other than feather their own nests whilst complaining about others.  To take a wider perspective most “brits” are “gobsmacked” at the thought that the next leader of the free world could be Donald Trump! Regards John

  7. Mike Humphreys says:

    Thank you for those comments, Jim. Yes, I think that many of us were in shock with the ‘Leave’
    result. I think that people in poorer areas simply voted in protest against the Government, as they would probably vote against them on any issue. As for immigration, we are already seeing a backlash as extremists take the vote as a carte blanche to initiate racist behaviour. It is very sad. The UK had an opportunity to take the lead in rescuing Europe; instead, we have jumped out of the boat, grabbed a life-raft and shouted ‘every man for himself!’ Selfish attitudes never had good outcomes in the past, and they never will in the future. To quote Ruskin (from ‘Traffic’):- “All our hearts have been betrayed by the plausible impiety of the modern economist, telling us that ‘to do the best for ourselves is finally to do the best for others’. Friends, our great Master said not so; and most absolutely we shall find that this world is not made so. Indeed, to do the best for others is finally to do the best for ourselves.” A united Europe would have been closer to a more united world. Now we have lost that chance, and it will take very special leaders to unify us all again. To quote Ruskin once more (Fors 90) “The wealth of our country is in its good men and women, and in nothing else.”

    Best wishes,
    Mike Humphreys

  8. Clive Wilmer says:

    Well, I can’t disagree with most of what Gray Brechin says, and I have a lot of sympathy for those who voted to leave the EU. It is a disaster to me and my friendships and values, and I believe it will do irrevocable damage to the UK in isolating it and impoverishing it both economically and culturally, but I understand the disenchantment with business as usual as understood by the establishment and in some ways applaud their taking their fate into their hands. But they have, as usual, been viciously deceived. Almost as soon as the result was out, the Brexiteers started denying that they had promised them anything. The huge message along the side of Boris Johnson’s battle bus read: ‘We pay the EU £350 million a week. Let’s use it to fund the National health instead.’ He and his colleagues are already saying that that money is not available for the NHS at all; some of them are even saying that they never said so, and similarly, they are saying that there’s nothing governments today can do to stop immigration. They are talking of staying in the single market and leaving the EU, but the single market requires free movement of labour. The Tories will simply swap one old Etonian for another, Johnson for Cameron: big change! Furthermore, whatever the faults of the EU, it is a forum for international communication and co-operation. It can also be reformed, but only from the inside. Neoliberalism is its present ethos, indeed, but where in the world at the moment can you find anything different? Clive

    • Clive Wilmer says:

      I’ve been asked to add this in response to some of these replies and to some messages received privately from visitors to this site. We in the UK at the moment are the victims of demagogues, as it seems are many Americans as well, though you still have the chance to protect what you have. It is shocking to see good people shaking their arms in despair over this decision, knowing it to be wrong and yet powerless to do anything. I do sympathise with the objections to the EU made by Tim and Gray, but it is simply destructive to tear us from a context that had grown and developed and, whatever the economic injustices, was helping to shape a collaborative Europe free of the conflicts that have historically damaged it and damaged the world in consequence. We are not going to return to a world before globalisation and neo-liberal economics. We remain in that world. The difference is that we are now completely powerless to change it or direct it. I regard this breach as the biggest disaster for Britain I have experienced in a life of 70 years, and I am not alone in that. Americans should realise — I guess most of you do — that it is not only our membership of the EU. As a result of Brexit, the United Kingdom will fragment, which will mean parts of families living on different sides of two foreign borders. In Scotland and Northern Ireland we shall for the first time have land frontiers with foreign powers, and those frontiers will run in some places — particularly in Ireland — down the middle of village streets. That situation, moreover, is guaranteed to bring back the Northern Irish troubles. The republicans there, appalled at being ejected from a united Europe, want a referendum on the unification of Ireland, which will bring the Protestant gunmen back on to the streets. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, who decided he was against the EU two days before the referendum began, admits he has never had a plan as to how we should separate ourselves from Europe and since the result has told us that none of the changes he promised can now happen (reduction of immigration, transfer of EU funds to the NHS, etc), has now decided that he doesn’t want to be Prime Minister after all, presumably because the mess he would have to sort out is too alarming for him. Not only that, but the Labour Party is falling apart and is impotent to affect or effect anything. It is the most desperate of situations and I fear for the future.

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