105: Some Remarks Pertinent to Posts 103 and 104 and a Report on an Important Conference in the Alps

Good Folks,

The last two posts (103 and 104) have been something of a departure. Hopefully, you have found them useful. To explain their content and framing a bit more adequately, it seemed a good idea to share these comments.

(1) Ruskin and William J. Stillman did indeed travel to the Continent in the summer of 1860, the latter’s intent, as related, to determine whether he had enough talent to become a great painter (he didn’t); Ruskin, also as related, spent the bulk of this time deciding how to move forward in the wake of what he believed to be the all-but-complete failure of his books to have the healing effect on society he intended. Before the summer was far advanced, as the arguments in the posts make clear, he had determined on a radically new tact: He would give up his art and architecture work for social criticism and attack head-on the injustices perpetrated by laissez-faire capitalism. The first published result of this change would be a series of essays which, sequentially each month, were published in one of Britain’s leading intellectual journals, The Cornhill Magazine. Many readers–not unlike James Fairbank–hated what he had to say and tried, from the moment his first essay printed, to have his disturbing voice censored. Before the summer ended, they would succeed. Ruskin was allowed to publish only four of the seven essays he had agreed upon with The Cornhill, the last combining arguments he had intended for four! A year later, the complete set of four essays was published with the title Unto this Last (a book mentioned frequently in previous posts); Unto this Last was the one book among his dozens that Ruskin, to the end of his life, judged his most important (for his definition of “A Book,” see Post 53). During the time he was preparing to write these “essays on political economy,” he studied with great care John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy. At the time, Mill was one of the reigning theorists of laissez-faire theory. Ruskin would make him the theorist he criticized most often in Unto this Last.

(2) James Fairbank was a very successful Bradford brick manufacturer in the middle of the nineteenth century. Whether he had a wife named Sophia and, if he did, whether she was a lover of Ruskin’s works and traveled to the Continent and Alps with her cranky husband, where, unexpectedly, they met him, I have no idea.

(3) Ruskin’s favorite inns on the road to and in Chamouni were, as told, The Hotel du Mont Blanc and The Union Inn. Because he ate and slept at these venues frequently, he was well-known to and quite friendly with their proprietors and staff. In much diminished form the Hotel du Mont Blanc in St. Martin’s still exists (on the left in the accompanying photograph). The view of the Mont Blanc range it affords still awes.

UK and Europe 2016 (ROR VIII) 100

Chamouni’s Old Union Inn is gone. (I have not been able to determine the date of its demise.) To get some idea of the view of Mont Blanc’s famous aiguilles it afforded (Ruskin always asked for a room with a superlative view), here is one of his watercolors, painted in 1849.


(4) Ruskin’s arguments as set out in the posts are paraphrased versions of key arguments advanced in Unto this Last and Munera Pulveris (his second, and, unfortunately, much underappreciated, second book on political economy). If anyone wishes, I can direct them to the exact pages.

(5) The texts of both of these posts are excerpts taken from two chapters in my evolving book on Ruskin’s social thought and its continuing importance for our time, Availing toward Life. The first part of the book–from which these excerpts come–“set the stage” for the second part, a detailed exposition of the arguments in Unto this Last. The goal of this second part is to demonstrate that Ruskin’s arguments about what is wrong with the laissez-faire philosophy and what can be done to create a humane capitalism in its place remain palpaby relevant to our time. The third part of the book will show what happened to Ruskin and his criticisms in the wake of having had the courage to publish works like Unto this Last and Munera Pulveris and will examine the lessons which can be gleaned from this Fairbankian reaction.


That said, I want to underscore that the purpose of “Why Ruskin?” has been, from the first post, to make it clear that, as noted, Ruskin’s thought continues to shed bright light on the problems and issues that plague our own time-out-of-joint (into which we have been born, like it or not, expressly, as we are able, “to set it right”).

In which context, it was with interest that, some days ago, I re-read an article I clipped out of The New York Times in January of this year, a year now speeding to its end. After that re-reading, I thought it might relate perfectly, if a little sadly, to the arguments Ruskin makes in Posts 103 and 104. The James Fairbanks of the world are still with us, and still, seemingly, are as powerful as ever, perhaps much more so. The article reports on an internationally important twenty-first century fine-wined and canapesed conferenc, not in Chamouni, but Devos, not so very far away. Surely, the same, and a few new, participants will assemble there again, before the next sixty days are gone. It is an article which, as I read it, has great and immediate relevance as our legislators here in the United States are on the verge of voting on a tax-reform bill which, if passed, will largely benefit the already extremely well-off at the cost of harming the already badly off.

Davos Elite Fret About Inequality Over Vintage Wine and Canapés

By PETER S. GOODMAN JAN. 18, 2017 (The New York Times)

For most of the year, Davos is a resort town high in the Swiss Alps. But for two weeks each January, the global elite descend on the town in what could be described as the world’s most expensive networking event.

You have perhaps noticed that, in many countries, history-altering numbers of people have grown enraged at the economic elite and their tendency to hog the spoils of globalization. This wave of anger has delivered Donald J. Trump to the White House, sent Britain toward the exit of the European Union, and threatened the future of global trade.

The people gathered here this week in the Swiss Alps for the annual World Economic Forum have noticed this, too. They are the elite — heads of state, billionaire hedge fund managers, technology executives.

They are eager to talk about how to set things right, soothing the populist fury by making globalization a more lucrative proposition for the masses. Myriad panel discussions are focused on finding the best way to “reform capitalism,” make globalization work and revive the middle class.

What is striking is what generally is not discussed: bolstering the power of workers to bargain for better wages and redistributing wealth from the top to the bottom.

“That agenda is anathema to a lot of Davos men and women,” said Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate economist and author of numerous books on globalization and economic inequality. “’More rights for workers to bargain!!’ That’s the slogan on which Davos is going to get stuck. The stark reality is that globalization has reduced the bargaining power of workers, and corporations have taken advantage of it.”

Davos is — at least rhetorically — consumed with worries about the shortcomings of globalization. About the deepening anxieties of the middle class in many developed economies. About the threat of trade protectionism and its attendant hit to economic growth. About the fear that robots are on the verge of sowing mass unemployment.

It is a conversation fueled in part by fear: If the world is indeed in the throes of a populist insurrection, the pitchforks could do worse than to point here. The Davos elites have enjoyed outsize influence over economic policies in recent decades as a growing share of wealth has, perhaps not coincidentally, landed in the coffers of people with a need for bank accounts in the British Virgin Islands, while poor and middle-class households have seen their earnings stagnate and decline.

Yet the solutions that have currency seem calculated to spare corporations and the wealthiest people from having to make any sacrifices at all, as if there is a way to be found to tilt the balance of inequality while those at the top hang on to everything they have.

More entrepreneurialism, mindfulness training, education focused on the modern ways of technology: These are the sorts of items that tend to get discussed here as the response to the plight of those left behind by globalization. That perhaps private equity overseers should not be paid 1,000 times as much as teachers while availing themselves of tax breaks is thinking that gets little airing here.

At a dinner on Monday evening as the forum got underway, Ian Goldin, a professor of globalization and development at Oxford University, celebrated the connectedness of the global economy and the technological advancements that have liberated humans from disease, poverty and the drudgery of manual labor.

“There’s never been a better time to be alive, and yet we feel so glum,” Mr. Goldin said. “So many people feel anxious. So many people feel that this is one of the most dangerous times.”

He denounced the frightened retreat from globalization manifest in Mr. Trump’s threats of a trade war with China, and in Britain’s abandonment of Europe, commonly known as Brexit.

“You can’t stop managing an entangled environment by disconnecting,” he said. “This is the fundamental mistake of Brexit, of Trump, and of so many others. We are not simply connected. We are entangled. Our lives, our destinies are intertwined. What happens in China, what happens in Indonesia, what happens in India, what happens across Europe, and what happens in North America, across Africa and Latin America will affect all of us in dramatic new ways. The idea that somehow we can forge our future in an insular way, even for the biggest countries like the U.S., is a fantasy.”

And yet, Mr. Goldin said, if the benefits of globalization are not spread more equitably, the world could be in for a replay of the Renaissance, an extraordinary period of scientific progress, commercial growth and artistic creativity in Europe that ultimately yielded popular resentment. The gold leaf landing on cathedrals was not bettering the lot of the peasantry. The spices coming in from Asia were too expensive for most. The Medici family that ruled Florence was sent packing by the mob. Intellectuals were persecuted and books burned.

“We need to learn these historical lessons and realize that this is the most precious moment in human history,” Mr. Goldin said. “We need to make the choices to ensure that globalization is sustainable, that connectivity is sustainable, that we deal with the intractable problems that are worrying people.”

But Mr. Goldin’s comments were merely the prelude to a conversation that was supposed to be about how to pull that off. The answers from the corporate executives who comprised a panel could be crudely boiled down to this: The people who have not benefited from globalization need to try harder to emulate those who have succeeded.

Abidali Neemuchwala, the chief executive officer of Wipro, the global information technology and consulting company that hosted the Devos event along with The Financial Times — and who last year earned some $1.8 million plus stock grants worth an additional $2 million or so — said working people would have to pursue training for the jobs of the future.

“People have to take more ownership of upgrading themselves on a continuous basis,” he said.

No one can reasonably argue against the merits of training (or entrepreneurialism for that matter). The jobs of the future have not yet been invented. New skills will be required to seize them. But nowhere in the discussion was there a mention of tax policy, or addressing the soaring costs of gaining higher education, or access to health care.

At a panel on Wednesday morning, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, injected a rarely heard word into a conversation about the crisis for middle-class households: redistribution.

“There are things that can be done,” she said. “It probably means more redistribution than we have at the moment.”

But then the conversation moved on to other subjects. Ray Dalio, founder of the American investment firm Bridgewater Associates — who took home $1.4 billion in compensation in 2015 — suggested the key to reinvigorating the middle class was to “create a favorable environment for making money.” He touted in particular the “animal spirits” unleashed by stripping away regulations.

For years, economic inequality has ranked as one of the most discussed issues at Davos, both in the formal conference agenda and in the conversations that fill hallways and the private parties and dinners held throughout town. For years, little to nothing has changed.

“People talk about inequality, how it’s a major problem, the greatest threat to globalization and the global economy,” Mr. Stiglitz said. “You have to recognize that the way we have managed globalization has contributed significantly to inequality. But I have not yet heard a good conversation about what changes in globalization would address inequality.”

That is not an accident, he surmised. Any sincere list would have to include items that involve transferring wealth and power from the sorts of people who come to Davos to ordinary workers via more progressive taxation, increased bargaining rights for labor unions, and greater protections for labor in general.

Same as every other year, Davos is again plastered with the slogan of the World Economic Forum: “Committed to Improving the State of the World.” But whatever improvements are supposed to be made, one can safely assume they will not conflict with those in attendance continuing to enjoy the state of the world as it is now, with canapés and aged Bordeaux and private jets at the ready.

Which means that the global populism insurrection is unlikely to lose momentum anytime soon.

Here is a picture of some of the folks who attended the forum:

World Economic Forum 2017


Until next time.

Be well out there!






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1 Response to 105: Some Remarks Pertinent to Posts 103 and 104 and a Report on an Important Conference in the Alps

  1. zbullock says:


    Your continuation of post 103 did two things that I found particularly useful, demonstrating, first, that no one’s riches are truly their own, and, second, spelling out how inequality is based on inequitable payment for labor, or shorting workers wages for a given amount of work. Fairbanks’ reactions to these ideas is very typical of those who inhabit a social sphere of privilege, feeling personally attacked when their privileged is illuminated. I feel that such responses are analogous to people make an outsized fuss that “all lives matter” or that the #metoo hashtag, used by women showing solidarity against sexual harassment, suggests that all men are predators.

    With regard to wages and riches, I am wondering if Dickens’ wealth, as portrayed in your post, would be considered legitimate riches. Having recently re-read Marx’s Capital, I was struck by the argument that all wealth accrued beyond the immediate production of a commodity is surplus-value not inherent in the labor itself. Therefore, all value beyond the immediate labor put into making a thing places someone in a position of economic privilege and another at a disadvantage. Dickens, for example, spent enough labor to write one book, but for each additional copy of that book made and sold, he did not put forth any additional labor. So, what is the fair wage for his writing? Marx would argue, and I think Ruskin, too, that the fair wage would be only what is necessary to keep a person in health for the writing of that one book, but no more. All wealth accrued beyond that would be surplus and, therefore, put the author in a position of unjust economic privilege over another. (Granted, Dickens is probably not the best example given that many of his books were published, like Ruskin, without him receiving payment and, ultimately, not bringing him a lot of wealth.) The example applies, I think, to anyone who profits from an idea or product beyond its immediate production.

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