104: An Embarassment of Riches

A Postprandial Conversation at The Union Inn, Chamouni, late June, 1860

a continuation of Post 103.

The Union Inn Chamouni mid-19th century

The Union Inn in Ruskin’s Day (Glacier du Bossons in background)

As he arrives at the dining room door some hours later, Ruskin is immediately hailed by a broadly smiling Mrs. Fairbank, who truly seems delighted to see him again. Fairbank and Stillman stand behind her, having met moments before. Handshakes exchanged; Fairbank’s with Ruskin the least enthused. As they enter the dining room, Robert, Ruskin and Stillman’s regular waiter, tells the writer that the Inn’s best bottle of wine is open on the table, having been ordered by Mr. Fairbank, who has also made it clear that tonight’s expenses will be charged to his room.  As soon as they are seated, Robert fills their glasses and then, as is his habit, retreats to the room’s edge to await their next request.

Stillman begins. Not knowing anything about such an enterprise, he says, would Mr. Fairbank be so kind as to explain what a modern brickmaker does on a daily basis, being, as he is, in charge of a fully functioning factory and many employees—how many? a hundred? more? (Fairbank bends his head toward Stillman and says quietly: “Over two hundred!”) For the following twenty minutes, the manufacturer holds forth, telling of his rise–by dint of a dozen and more years of unremitting hard work–to ownership of his company, explaining how he learned, traveling that route, not only how to make bricks cheaply but how to provide a quality product, a product which has become the envy of all his competitors in Bradford; he intends, he says, before he is done, that his product will be the envy of all the brickmakers of England. He is, he adds (as he added some days ago in the Hotel du Mont Blanc in St. Martin’s), what Mr. Herbert Spencer calls a “self-made man,” and proud of it.

The dinner, as per usual at the Inn, is elegant, even more so on this evening because the brickmaker insists on ordering the best of everything. Ruskin enquires about the Fairbanks’ sojourn to St.-Gervais. Twenty minutes more of rhapsodizing, now in the voice of Mrs. Fairbank, follows. Glad that his recommendations have borne fine fruit, Ruskin suggests that the couple alot the next three days to visiting the Chamouni Valley’s most beautiful places. (Mrs. Fairbank clearly thrilled at the suggestion, her husband clearly less so.) Having anticipated that they might agree to his proposal, Ruskin says that he has taken the liberty to engage for them André, a truly matchless driver; the fellow who brought him to St. Martin’s. André will take them to not just to the most famous places in the valley, but to spectacular sites which, otherwise, they would miss. He himself will, two days hence, bring them to his special rock on the Brévant, Mont Blanc’s sister mountain on the other flank of the valley. In the interim, he will be extremely busy with other matters—for which, his apologies. Might this be acceptable? “Indeed it is!” enthuses Mrs. Fairbank, adding: “In preparation, since last night I have been rereading your third volume of Modern Painters every spare moment! We are very much in your debt, Mr. Ruskin!”

As the meal nears its final stages, Stillman, hardly loquacious since his first query, suggests to their hosts that it must be a particularly welcome thing to be able to travel on the Continent and the Alps at their leisure, as few have neither the resources nor the time for such excursions. He himself is exceptionally grateful to Mr. Ruskin, who, aware of his limited means, has sponsored his journey, the object of which has been to carve out the time he needs to discover if he is capable of creating fine art, his heart’s desire ever since he read Mr. Ruskin’s first volume of Modern Painters, a decade and a half earlier. Mrs. Fairbank is about to ask how the experiment has been going when her spouse intervenes, asking the young man in a voice brimming over with disapproval: “Do you mean to say you are here using money you haven’t earned?” Chagrined, Stillman replies that, yes, this is indeed the case, adding that, except for Mr. Ruskin’s largess, he could not possibly have traveled here. “Well,” replies Fairbank in the same truculent tone, “at least I can go to sleep secure in the knowledge that I have earned every penny of what it has cost to make this trip.”

The unanticipated attack has had the effect of putting everyone on edge. An uneasy silence ensues. Mrs. Fairbank, in particular, is noticeably disturbed. This sort of conversation is exactly what she had told Ruskin she wanted to avoid if they met in Chamouni.

Although he sees her discomfort, after a minute, Ruskin says: “Have you, Mr. Fairbank? Have you really earned every penny you have spent on this trip?” “What on earth are you talking about, Ruskin?” comes the retort. “Yes!! Every pence, every shilling, every pound I have spent comes from what I have earned in my business.” To which, Ruskin replies: “Well, I presumed that the money you have spent comes from your business earnings, Mr. Fairbank, but, if I understand the process by which money circulates, as I think I do, I have to say, frankly, that I am in considerable doubt about whether you have earned it all. That the money comes from your coffers, of course there is no doubt. How it came to reside there is the question. And before you think I am accusing you for some personal reason, or because of some lingering aggravation resulting from our uncomfortable exchange in St. Martin’s, I want to say that all I wish to say on this matter could also be said of my father, who, while by no means the richest of the rich, is quite well-off financially as a result of the success of his sherry business.” Stares and silence. “I can explain myself if you’d like. Should we move to the sitting room? It might be more comfortable.”

Fairbank, his anger (barely) checked because of the public setting which includes the always attentive Robert as well as other diners is not interested. “I will reluctantly hear you out, Ruskin, but I am in no mood to move. I expect that what I will hear, as happened during the passage of our unhappy evening in the valley, is another argument damning the manufacturing process and those who, like myself, overseers of that process, have made the Industrial Revolution in Britain the envy of the world that it is. If that is your intent, whatever remains of this ‘friendship’ will have arrived at its end.”

“I would be very grieved if that happened, Mr. Fairbank,” Ruskin returns, “but you might be a little mollified to know that what I want to say doesn’t apply only to modern business dealings but to how, at any time and in any place, a few people have managed to get rich while everyone else remains poorer, with some, those at the bottom of the heap being so poor they cannot keep body and soul together. And you may be glad to know as well that, as I see it, many of these poorer (I exempt the women and children among the poorest who are almost always unable to control their unhappy situation) are, if in different way, complicit in creating their own desperate circumstances.”

Another uncomfortable pause. During it, Ruskin beckons Robert, still hovering at the edge of the room, and asks him to bring a bottle of the inn’s best port, and—over Fairbank’s weak protest—put its price on his account. Following which, he continues:

“Here is what I have been thinking. Truth to tell, Mr. and Mrs. Fairbank, I’ve been turning this matter over and over in my mind since our conversation at the Hotel du Mont Blanc. How do people get rich, assuming they do so legally—that is by not breaking the law, hoodwinking a competitor, or committing outright theft? Take my own situation. I am not here on money I have earned. My books sell some and something comes in from that, but that is far from enough to defray these months of expense, the fine modes of travel, fine hotels, fine food, or pay for the leisure time for Mr. Stillman and myself to do as we wish during our days; nor–and hardly incidentally–is what I earn sufficient to allow easy purchase of the finest after-dinner drinks as I have just done.

“My father—or, rather, my father’s business profits, coupled with the generosity which flows from his love of his son—is paying for this trip. The real truth, a most inconvenient one for those of us who live our lives on such surplus money—that is, money which is not needed to meet life’s necessities like food, clothing, and shelter—is that not one of us, or anyone else for that matter, is capable of becoming rich by our own efforts. With the fewest of exceptions, the riches that are ours (mine!) to dispose of as we like have been extracted from the money we justly owe others who work for us. We have underpaid them and are spending the fruits of their labor. These others, many of whom are keenly aware of the injustice we have visited upon them, are forced to live with the painful consequences of this exploitation (a harsh word, I realize, but that is exactly what it is) simply because they are weaker than ourselves. Occasionally, their anger at the injustice boils over—as in the case of those angry workers in your brickyard, Mr. Fairbank—and they protest. But when they do, almost always, in one way or another, they are silenced by those who hold the reins of power. In this case, you simply sacked your protestors, didn’t you, Mr. Fairbank?—and this punishment for having the courage to protest serves as an example, a symbol, to others who, also resentful of how they have been treated, learn that they must keep their own counsel if they wish to continue getting the less than adequate amount they receive.”

Fairbank is already livid. Happily, and as if on salvational cue, Robert arrives with the port and the specially fluted glasses made for it. These are carefully set out, the bottle uncorked, and a first round poured, after which, the waiter retreats to the room edge once more. Ruskin: “Bear with me a few minutes more,” Ruskin says, sensing that another evening with the couple from Bradford is on the verge of collapse. “I am full aware that what I have said and what I still wish to say goes against what we all have been taught about how riches arise, but that teaching and learning points to something extremely interesting–the wish of the rich (and all at this table, save Mr. Stillman, fit this description) to ensure that everyone, including themselves, thinks that the possession of inordinate amounts of money is entirely a matter of pluck, talent, and intelligence. May I go on?” Fairbank, with a grudging, almost dismissive, glance, nods assent. The others’ faces are, for all intents and purposes, blank. He goes on.

“Here is how this unfortunate situation evolves, anywhere, and at any time: Any person in decent health and blessed with normal abilities can, during his days (assuming he is given by those more powerful than himself a chance to do so), maintain his life, gain what he needs to live decently and support those who depend on him, and retain when all’s said and done a little something for other purposes—indulging a modest luxury, saving for the future, and so on. But that is all he can do. Individual effort is never enough to make him rich. He can only become rich in one of two ways.

“He can,  to take one of these options, like our great novelist, Mr. Dickens, create a product that people find so enticing or useful that they willingly buy it in great amounts, which purchasing, given a modest profit margin, can, in time, make him rich. I believe, given your description, Mr. Fairbank, that such pleasure in your product is one reason you are rich. Money accumulated in this way is entirely blameless and deserved and he who has gathered it can do whatever he wishes with it.

“But this, history teaches, is the least likely of the two paths to riches. The other is utterly undeserving of praise. It comes about when an employer invents some unjust way of taxing the labor of those who work for him–of paying them less for their labor than they deserve, as I mentioned earlier–and putting the money thus extracted into their own pockets to use as they see fit–expand their business, build a mansion, or, to use a pointedly personal instance, travel to the Continent and the Alps for an extended period of time at the highest level of comfort. (Mr. Dickens could do the same, of course–and has, recently traveled to Italy and America–but, as I said, his expenses were paid for by monies which were gladly given him.)

“The process of extraction is easy to illustrate. Imagine that, in order to live decently–to buy the things you and those dependent on you need to keep body and soul together–you need to a shilling a day (it may be somewhat less but that doesn’t matter for the purposes at hand). But your employer offers only three-quarters that amount, either because that “is what the market determines” is a fair competitive price for the work being done or because he, the employer, is avaricious and well-aware that it is all but certain that you cannot find work elsewhere, and thus that you have no choice, if you want any pay at all, but to take what he offers.

“Once that path is chosen, a number of things happen. The worker does 100% of the work, but loses 25% of the fair pay for the work. The result, for him, is that he must find a way to live on 75% of what he truly needs to live decently. This means, in turn, that he must “short” something of vital import: food, clothing, shelter. It also means that, the same deficient payment transpiring day after day, over time, the worker and those dependent on him get weaker both mentally and physically–have to live in more dilapidated quarters, not buy shoes for his children in the winter, gets sick more often and can’t pay for medical assistance when he is so, and so on. The result for the employer is quite the opposite. Getting 100% of the labor he needs for maintaining his business, he “saves” 25% of the just payment for that labor. This 25% he can do with what he likes–buy expensive jewelry for his wife and daughters, or purchase all the other indulgences and luxuries I mentioned some moments ago. Into the “bargain,” he gets stronger both mentally and physically. In short, he gets rich as he makes his worker poor!” (Fairbank fuming, but still checked by the social setting.) Ruskin:

“Now here is how those who work for such an employer “contrive” to support this unjust situation. The chance for this transference of the labor of one person into the hands of another has, as nearly as I can determine from reading history, always occured in the same way: For various reasons, not everyone who is healthy and capable is willing to work as hard as is necessary to maintain themselves and those dependent on them. Some people choose, in various ways and at various levels of slack, to be improvident. Others, always fewer in number, chose the more responsible path: they are industrious, do what they must to survive decently, lay aside what they believe they will need for a rainy day as we say, and so on. They choose a provident life, in short. Now, assume, as again history teaches, that, at some point, an event occurs which puts the improvident, as a result of his own improvidence, in danger of losing access to the things he must have to survive–most usually, as mentioned, food, clothing, or shelter. If they are to avoid this painful deprivation, the improvident can only do so if they appeal to the provident for help. It is at this point that the possibility of getting rich manifests itself, for the provident now know that the improvident are in their power, and that, because of the poor decisions these others have made, they can make them do whatever they wish. I need to add one qualification here. Not infrequently, those who appear to be improvident really haven’t been. Often, they have been born into their impoverished state and are weak from first breath, making them, from the outset, desperate for the help of those who have enough or more than enough, if they are going to survive.

“Once again, there are two ways the situation can go. If the provident are of good heart and have a strong sense of their own obligation to help their fellow human beings live as well as they are able, they can set these petitioners to work doing things which will bring them back to strength and health and simultaneously teach them how they must live in the future if this sorry situation is not to repeat itself. As this process goes on, the provident pay those who are dependent on their good will their full due for the labor they give; that is, they pay them enough to maintain themselves decently. In short, the provident leave to one side any thought of exploiting these weaker souls for their own gain. The end result is that, when the process has completed, the provident are no worse off than they were before and the improvident are healthy and strong, a boon not merely for themselves but for the whole society, for now those who were formerly weak can use their talents to do that which they can do best to help the social order become stronger. It is quite like–I am sure you will all remember the story–the way the vineyard owner in Christ’s parable chose to treat all those who came to work in his vineyard on that harvest day of long ago. He gave them all the amount of money that was sufficient to meet their daily expenses. [Matthew 20: 1-16] But, please note, that, if this is the path chosen, while everyone gets what they need to survive decently, no one gets rich.

“But the other road–and I’m sorry to say it is the road much more often chosen—is that many, perhaps most, of the provident prove not to be this good-hearted and so, when they interact with these needful, pleading, and improvident folk, they see not the chance to bring them back to health and strength, but, rather, a chance to enrich themselves by exploiting their weaknesses. When that road is chosen, all the negative results just discussed inevitably occur. To which I need to add one, very important, additional consequence: that, to some degree, these weaker souls become, quite literally, slaves of the provident (“slaves” is, I know, another harsh word, but that’s the truth of it; underpaying the improvident fetters them just as securely as ever any rower of a Roman battle trireme was fettered below deck). As a result, as they become ever weaker and more desperate, the provident employer, looking at his supplicants generally, begins to use them as an example of his “natural superiority” as a human being, the irony of which distinction being that the difference between the two groups is that those in power have systematically created the “inferior”class of human beings they castigate!

“I am about done. But I need to say that this process of inventing weakness and dependency in our fellow human beings not only characterizes the relations between the rich and the poor, but between the rich, the moderately rich, and the “just-getting-by” as well. For all of these latter groups, all less monetarily well-off at varying degrees are always at some threat of losing their lesser means, which loss, if it occurred, would throw them into desperate financial and life straits. For this reason, people in these “in-between” groups do whatever is necessary–including, often and alas, finding means to keep those weaker than themselves from gaining the strength they would need to challenge their own tenuous position. And, in this way, they become, to a lesser degree a kind of slave to those who hold the reins of power. The great irony in the whole system being that most members of all these groups, even including the poorest (!), is that they believe that this division in riches is “the natural order of things” and that, if only they could find the means to get rich themselves, all their problems would be solved and that, at last, life would become worth living!”

“And that is how riches, now and always, have come into being,” Ruskin says. “It is not that we who are rich are, as we like to believe, some sort of higher subspecies destined from birth to triumph over our lesser fellows, it is, to put it in the bluntest terms, that we who wield the power live, quite literally, on the blood and life-force we have siphoned, willingly and repeatedly, out of the wounds and weaknesses of others, wounds and weaknesses we have created and fostered. Tbe short of it is this: with very few exceptions, those who are rich are not so because they have earned their surplus money; they are rich because, in one way or another, they have stolen it from weaker others. (Fairbank on the verge of eruption.) And so, the extremely inconvenient truth for all of us at this table (again, I exempt my American friend. Mr. Stillman), the true embarrassment of riches, is that it is you and I, Mr. Fairbank, have conspired–another harsh but correct word–in our diverse ways to create this system of exploitation. It is we who are, historically and daily, responsible for having brought this incalculable amount of suffering into being.

“Having said so much, I want to underscore that, for the most part, this great injustice has been perpetrated legally and, often (I am thinking of my father–and surely of many other men of business) without a shred of malice aforethought. Very few people, even rich ones, mean to do harm. And, if the moment arrives when they come across the injured in the street, or worse, find them pleading on their doorstep, they immediately claim they have had nothing to do with it, or excuse any idea that they might be culpable by saying that these harmed, even the women and children among them, have brought about their own suffering, and should, for just consequence, learn the lesson of their ill-chosen paths. With which comment, they absolve themselves and legitimate going on with the same exploitive practices which will continue to fill our coffers at the living and breathing expense of others.

“That we absolve ourselves from blame in this way does not change the lamentable outcome an iota. The poor and poorer suffer just as much as if their lot had been manufactured by the harshest tyrant. And there must be no mistaking the fact that, collectively, our personal motivations in creating this harm are our own greed and an insatiable desire to serve and advance ourselves first and foremost, a motivation directly at odds with the repeated instruction of the man we profess to call Master, he who taught us to shun riches and give all that we can to the poor, conveniently forgetting his admonition that ‘as you do it to the least of these, you do it unto me [Matthew 20:40]

“And there is one thing regarding this supposed ‘royal road’ to riches: The sin we commit against the less fortunate is double-barbed. Not only do we steal from them the justly earned fruits of their labor so that we can fill our own baskets to overflowing, we deny them, in so doing, their full measure of humanity, a sin all the more egregious because of the fact that because we are the rich, it is within our power to grant them the chance and wherewithal to gain that full measure of humanity—a nurturing we provide freely, lovingly, and expensively for our own children, the chance to think well, be healthy, enjoy beauty, be curious and creative; and the means, by dint of the gifts or inheritance they receive once we’ve gone, to take adequate care of their loved ones. All this we rich can do, and do, do. None of this can they do. And, as they fester on, some, sometimes, like those workers at your factory, Mr. Fairbank, become furious.”

Now the eruption comes: “Ruskin,” fumes the industrialist, his rage fairly exploding from his throat, “you are as insufferable as you are hypocritical! You presume to chastise us about how cruel and heartless we are, those few of us who have made our money through hard work and dedication to that work, while, throughout your own life, you have sailed on a river of money amassed by your father. How is it possible for you to say what you have and still hold your head up as someone to be taken seriously?”

Ruskin replies immediately: “You are absolutely right to criticize me, Fairbank, and although I did take pains to include myself in what I’ve just rehearsed, it is just as you say. I have been wrestling with the issue of my inordinate and unearned privilege and the damage it has done for some time now. It is only during this last week that I have clearly seen the depth of my own complicity in this cauldron of oppression. Our conversation in St. Martin’s brought all these thoughts to a head. I believe I have now  finally faced the fact that I cannot go on as I have, while, again as you rightly say, continuing to hold my head up. And so, because my life of privilege has given me the chance to write and because I know there are some who might read what I write, I have resolved that I must set down something intended for a much broader audience than this night’s, something which will not only repeat in some fashion what I have said about riches, but which will say considerably more about the human destruction occasioned by the laissez-faire system in which we live and which so many believe is the greatest economic system yet devised. I intend to write the first sustained and minutely reasoned attack laissez-faire ever put to paper. I believe that this is required of me as someone who would like to regard himself as not only a human, but as a humane being, someone who, as a long-time sailor on what you call this river of riches, must do if he wishes to modify the horrifics he has had no small hand in bringing to be. It will be the work of the rest of my life to find means of redressing this wrong.

“The fifth, and last, volume, of my Modern Painters books has just been published in London, a letter from my father reports today. Near the end of it, in chapters where I was struggling with this question of one’s responsibility after one has seen the not only the injustice but one’s own role in perpetuating it, I inserted a sentence that has been haunting me all week. I wrote it, and meant it, but, at the time, did not feel it fully. I asked: ‘What is the noblest tone and reach of life for man, and how can the possibility of it be extended to the greatest numbers?’ Now I feel it and accept it as the only question worth asking. In fact, it was in service of answering this question that I spent today rereading Mr. Mill’s Principle of Political Economy and understanding that work is also the reason I cannot tour with you and Mrs. Fairbank during the next two days. I am starting to outline a series of seven essays which will directly address the colossal injustice I have outlined, essays which I intend as a series of stepping stones that will allow us to cross to the opposite shore of this river of riches and see, perhaps for the first time, how to use its waters properly for the good of us all.”

Finished, Ruskin gives this apology: “Mr. and Mrs. Fairbank, I am truly sorry that these difficult and often cantankerous matters have become the subject of our conversation during the only two evenings we have had together. Mr. Stillman and I often talk about such things, but I am not sure that they are very conducive to new friendships.”

“These essays of yours, Ruskin, will be essays I shall never read!” says Fairbank with fury undiminished, as he fairly leaps from his chair, and pushes it in with force: “They will be essays I will recommend that all my business acquaintances in Bradford and elsewhere shun as well.” And then, in a replay of their final moments three nights before at the Hotel du Mont Blanc, the brickmaker withdraws, seething past, as though he did not exist, the ever-patient Robert who, for the past half hour and more, has been watching for just the right moment to serve a second round of the Union Inn’s best port.

Moments after, Mrs. Fairbank, eschewing, on this second night, any thought of conversing more with its principal irritant, follows. The two men still sitting at the table will never see them again–for, when Ruskin appears at seven the next morning to meet Stillman for breakfast, Michael immediately informs him that the Fairbanks had checked an hour before and, by now, Andre driving, must be well down the road toward the Valley of the Cluses, Geneva, on their way back to Britain and Bradford. As they departed, Michael reported, it was clear that Mr. Fairbank was in a furious state and in a great hurry to be off; Mrs. Fairbank, he said, seemed subdued and depressed but seemed to have make up her mind that their Alpine sojourn had come to an unexpected end.


Until next time.

Be well out there!



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1 Response to 104: An Embarassment of Riches

  1. David says:

    Thanks for this post – a powerful indictment, and very important to read in the present day. it is difficult to imagine grasping Ruskin’s clarity without reading every word of it. So how can that clarity be as widely appreciated as it should be, short of asking every wage-earning worker to read it? I think that is the challenge facing us today.

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