By Alastair Roberts

In his insightful, if often quixotic, series of essays on the subject of economy, Unto This Last, the Victorian art critic and social thinker, John Ruskin, challenged some of the leading capitalist thought of his day. While most work in economics operates in terms of fundamental convictions that aren’t directly examined, the work of Ruskin, like other thinkers such as Marx or Proudhon, sought to unearth and unsettle what he regarded as the tendentious and mystifying metaphysical assumptions upon which much of the superstructure of capitalist economy and thought is based.

Ruskin addresses the question of value, upon which he argues against the thought of John Stuart Mill. Mill claims that “The word ‘value,’ when used without adjunct, always means, in political economy, value in exchange” and elsewhere that wealth “consists of all useful and agreeable objects which possess exchangeable value.”(1) Exchange value rests in turn upon the usefulness of an article to satisfy a desire or serve a purpose: if no one wanted or had use for an item, it would have no exchange value.

Ruskin contends that Mill’s account is neglecting some key elements of the picture. In particular, Mill’s approach carefully brackets certain moral considerations. While Mill draws some distinctions between money expended by a capitalist to purchase more luxuries for his private consumption and that which he might expend to increase the production of items for wider consumption by hiring more labourers, the distinctions that he draws are not the necessary ones. Ruskin wants to know whether, if the capitalist reduced his private consumption in order to produce more bombs or bayonets, he would still be employing ‘productive’ labour and producing ‘valuable’ goods. Mill’s approach, with its emphasis upon an exchange value freed from moral considerations, leaves him incapable of answering such a question satisfactorily.

Ruskin proceeds to argue that “the economic usefulness of a thing depends not merely on its own nature, but on the number of people who can and will use it.”(2) A horse is of no use if there is no human who can ride it and there will be no market for a painting if no one can be taught to appreciate it. Consequently, political economy and our account of wealth “must be a science respecting human capacities and dispositions.”(3) Yet Mill’s insistence that political economy shouldn’t be concerned with moral considerations implies that human capacities and dispositions have nothing to do with moral considerations, an unsustainable position.

Ruskin proposes that value needs a better definition, proposing that to be ‘valuable’ is to “avail towards life.”(4) By extension, ‘wealth’ should be defined as “the possession of the valuable by the valiant”: unless valuable items are possessed by worthy people who can make good use of them, they are of limited use or even detrimental.(5) Developing this point further, he writes

There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.(6)

In Ruskin’s critique of Mill some much deeper issues are raised, issues that are profoundly relevant to contemporary society, for which certain questionable understandings of value hold very considerable sway. Ruskin’s approach, though it may seem eccentric and quite impractical at points, reveals the degree to which the economic notions of Mill and others invite the detachment of our notions of value from the actual flourishing of human life.

The narrow equation of value in the realm of political economy with exchange value and of wealth with those things that possess such value has the effect of blinding us to the deeper issue, substituting an abstract notion for the true and actual wealth of a people—their concrete well-being. Ruskin writes:

[T]he wealth of nations, as of men, consists in substance, not in ciphers; and … the real good of all work, and of all commerce, depends on the final worth of the thing you make, or get by it. This is a practical enough statements, one would think: but the English public has been so possessed by its modern school of economists with the notion that Business is always good, whether it be busy in mischief or in benefit; and that buying and selling are always salutary, whatever the intrinsic worth of what you buy and sell,—that it seems impossible to gain so much as a patient hearing for any inquiry respecting the substantial result of our eager modern labours.(7)

The notions Ruskin is challenging have given rise to the beliefs that value and wealth are principally measured by money. Money is our chief means of exchange and the way in which we can render items commensurable. Our focus upon money as the measure of value and wealth has encouraged an indifference to the actual ends towards which we use our money: whereas for Ruskin, consumption is the most important matter. We consider that the wealth of a nation is to be measured largely in monetary terms, rather than requiring a close investigation of our actual well-being, seeing how our labour and resources are being employed.

The agnosticism or ill-founded presumption concerning the actual commonweal of a people that results from this blinds us to the many ways in which our supposed wealth may even leave us poorer off. It also prevents us from asking the more searching questions that need to be asked. Beyond this, however, such a measure of value and wealth in political economy has also increasingly set the terms in which all value in society is considered.

The concept of value seems commonsensical to us, yet when we look more closely at it we discover that it disguises a great deal. Marx exposed something of the mystification of value in Das Kapital. He drew his readers’ attention to the bizarre character of commodities. While a commodity might appear to be a concrete object with physical characteristics, the commodity’s concreteness and characteristics are quite accidental to its character as a commodity. Rather an object is rendered a commodity by virtue of its possessing exchange value. While this exchange value may be grounded in the use value of the object, it can float free of the material properties of any given object: one commodity can be exchanged for another, while the value remains. This abstract value comes to be regarded as the substance, while physical commodities are just a rapidly cycling series of accidents.

Indeed, we find it almost impossible to regard objects without perceiving them as bearers of this mana-like quality of ‘value’. When we look at commodities, it is as if they were surrounded by an aura of value; we unreflectively perceive items as expensive or cheap, sometimes in ways that render us blind to their natural properties. Their character as commodities is an aspect of their very phenomenology in our society. Much as we would perceive the weight of an item, so we perceive its exchange value. This isn’t just an external ideology, but a stubborn feature of our perception, an issue of how we see the world around us.

Recognizing the true weirdness and perception-altering potential of money is important here. Money is a medium of exchange and of expressing value. However, money is also the arch-commodity, an object that functions purely as exchange value. You can’t eat money, wear it, or use it to keep your family warm (Pablo Escobar’s burning over a couple of million dollars to keep his daughter warm while on the run being a very rare exception). Goods were once largely produced to serve the immediate needs of a community, with only excess goods being exchanged. Within such a context, goods would be principally perceived in terms of their usefulness and only on occasions in terms of their exchange value. Even then, the exchange value would often not have been reified in money, as the exchange would have taken the form of barter. However, as the arch-commodity, radically fungible and abstracted from use value, money has come to represent value itself. We increasingly live in pursuit of money, labouring for pure exchange value. And, as money is value, what we earn comes to represent our value and our social standing.

Yet as money becomes the overwhelmingly dominant way that we perceive and pursue value, our world will be reordered around it. It will impose a logic of abstraction and alienation upon everything. Money makes it possible for us to convert the specificity of particular forms and acts of labour into pure exchange value. While my labour might once have primarily been a matter of exercising my own agency, living out my specific vocation, and developing my dominion in the world, my labour is now more likely to be alien to me, something from which I and my employers seek to extract value in the form of money. Money frees me to exercise a more general power and influence, detached from the specificity of personal relationships and local bonds, with their attendant responsibilities.

Our society is often described as a ‘materialistic’ society. However, we must recognize just how hostile our society is to matter in its notion of value, which both alienates value from matter and seeks to render all matter homogeneous and conformable to abstract value, power, and knowledge. Our society is built upon alienation, abstraction, and extraction from matter. We extract power, knowledge, and value from matter and abstract ourselves from its binding particularity. Matter is to be broken down and departicularized for the sake of our autonomous power. This is what defines reality for us today.

This hostility to the concreteness and particularity of matter isn’t just true in the case of money. It can also be seen in the way that we regard power as a homogeneous reality to be extracted and abstracted from the particularity of the material world. It can be seen in our modes of mass production and digital replication. It can be seen in our scientific posture towards reality that reduces reality to universal laws acting upon indistinguishable particles, purged of the particular or local meanings or qualities that render them salient to us. It can be seen in the way people are trained to be self-effaced, fungible, and optimized raw human material for labour. It can be seen in the way that the market steadily dissolves particularities of culture and persons to create homogenized markets. It can be seen in the way that the particularity of personal skill is replaced by universal abstract processes. It can be seen in the replacement of the deep wisdom that arises from lengthy enculturation with the study of detached technique.

David Bentley Hart writes:

The abstraction of the market, its lightness, is a fire that attempts to burn away the weight of glory as so much dross, as exchangeable tokens of wealth; unlike the fire of God, it does not transfigure but consumes. The market, then, is a particular optics, a particular order of vision. Its aesthetic of immateriality suspends all difference in the univocal formalism of the aleatory; all more refractory values—beauty, need, awe—are transformed into the universal value of price (the transvaluation of all values, endless evaluation). Within the world descried by such an optics, there is no theme to vary in the fabric of things, no distinct orders of beauty and grace, but only random series of simulacra whose unitive logic is uniform: exchange value. (8)

Once we recognize just how powerfully determinative our reigning vision of value is for society, how deeply embedded in our consciousness it is, and how thoughtlessly we accommodate ourselves to it (indeed, accommodating ourselves to it is necessary for survival for most of us in modern society), some of the more specific threats that it poses may begin to dawn upon us.

This discussion of value may itself seem to be fairly abstract and theoretical. Let’s bring it a little more down to earth. Here it may be illuminating to consider the contrasting ways in which the accounts of Ruskin and Mill might lead us to regard the labour of the homemaker with regard to the production of value and the wealth of a people. For Mill, the labour of the homemaker would have little value in this regard, as it doesn’t produce much that is fungible or exchangeable: you can’t sell your home or your children on the free market. For Ruskin, by contrast, the work of the homemaker would carry value beyond almost all other labour: she brings new life into the world and is the living heart of a world that she creates around herself and extends out into her surrounding community.

The homemaker’s labour is highly specific to the particular home and family that she is creating and resists abstraction or alienation. Her labour isn’t alienable and abstractable, but is material in its most stubborn form (note the etymology of the word ‘mater-ial’). Her labour can’t be regarded as ‘production’ as such in pursuit of ‘value’ as such, but is labour ordered to very specific goods and ends, whose ‘value’ is the commonweal of her own home and family.

Men have always been much more conformable to the logic of abstraction and alienation. In his most characteristic forms of labour man stands over against the world and acts upon it. However, the same isn’t the case for the woman. The connection of the woman’s labour with the fertility of her own body is important to notice here, for instance. In Genesis, the body of the woman and the body of Mother Earth are bound together symbolically; throughout Scripture, the earth and the womb are paralleled. As Robert Farrar Capon has observed:

To be a Mother is to be the sacrament—the effective symbol—of place. Mothers do not make homes, they are our home: in the simple sense that we begin our days by a long sojourn within the body of a woman; in the extended sense that she remains our center of gravity through the years. She is the very diagram of belonging, the where in whose vicinity we are fed and watered, and have our wounds bound up and our noses wiped. She is geography incarnate, with her breasts and her womb, her relative immobility, and her hands reaching up to us the fruitfulness of the earth.(9)

In a culture that idolizes Mammon in the abstraction of pure exchange value and which pursues autonomous power, both the woman and the earth will suffer as the nature of both will suffer serious indignities. While the alienation such a society encourages is destructive and oppressive for men, it is even more so for women. It is important to notice the way that alienated labour increasingly sets the terms in which we regard and establishes the conditions within which we practice non-alienated labour. While the homemaker can establish deep and particular value as she pursues the well-being of her household, she is pitied and may even not be regarded as producing at all, as she has no money to show for it. Far better, it is suggested, that she outsource her domestic labour to other paid labourers and pursue a high wage through alienated labour for employers.

While earlier feminist writers like Betty Friedan may have endeavoured to expand women’s horizons of meaningful labour beyond the limited realm of mid-century American suburban domesticity, without abandoning the non-alienated formation of their own homes and families, contemporary feminists have been more prone to idealize the pursuit of autonomy through alienated labour and look down upon homemakers or decry the injustice of their ‘unpaid labour’. In a society ordered around abstraction and alienation and the pursuit of pure exchange value, such a stance is not unreasonable. In such a society, the conditions under which one could form a stable and enduring family, home, and community are increasingly precarious as marriages, localities, and ways of life become ever more fluid and unstable in order to conform them to the logic of the market. Homemaking is a very dangerous gamble in such a context.

In the tensions that women experience between their work and their lives, they are not mistaken in feeling that in many respects the game is rigged against them. Their particular natural attachment to, embeddedness in, and symbolization of the realm of the home mean that they return home from work to a ‘second shift’, whose weight falls far less heavily upon the shoulders of their husbands. Robbed of its proper dignity, and reduced to a realm of the preparation and consumption of commodities, the work of the home is broken down to largely thankless chores, within which the woman is the chief labourer. She bears the greatest burden of what Ivan Illich calls the ‘shadow work’ required to keep every member of the household prepared for their labour in the economy.(10) And, as she will struggle to earn the equivalent of the men around her, she will often find herself deemed lesser in value.

While the challenges faced by women in our society are more acute and more widely discussed, they will never properly be addressed apart from a more general transformation in the way that we approach value—for both men and women. For the alienation of men’s labour is, in many respects an original driving mechanism of the problem. This alienation detached the labour of men from the dominion and vocation concretely manifested in the building up of their own households, a form of labour whose value was inextricably intertwined with the value of their wives’ labour. In sacrificing the more concrete forms of vocation and dominion grounded in their own house for the wage earned in the ‘house’ of another, men could enjoy a more autonomous form of power relative to their wives and also steadily diminish the power and significance of the home and women’s labour in it to one of the consumption of commodities and the refreshment of the ‘breadwinner’, the chief of the capitalist labourer’s pit crew.

The role of the state in all of this shouldn’t be ignored. The state has always had an especial interest in the expansion of the money economy and the drawing of areas of life that exist outside of it into its orbit. In the past, kings could establish economies by paying their soldiers in coins and requiring the general population to pay taxes in coins.(11) This rendered society more scrutable to the state, increased the control of the government, encouraged greater production and consumption, produced more taxes more efficiently, and put populations under various pressures and gave them various incentives to move in the direction of wage labour. The imperative of growing ‘the economy’ and strengthening the state means that governments have always had strong motives for pushing people out of the subsistence economies of households into the pursuit of pure exchange value in the money economy.

Opening our eyes to the distortion of our entire perception through an inverted vision of value is profoundly difficult. It initially requires something akin to an epiphanic moment in which we appreciate the disorienting strangeness and perverseness of the ways of experiencing the world that prevail in our society. However, beyond that it requires a continual effort of correcting our vision, over which the obfuscating distortions of mistaken perceptions of value retain considerable influence. Such discipline is not without its rewards. Our eyes do not merely open to the prevailing distortions, but to possibilities for goodness and beauty. Seeing value as life itself, as Ruskin teaches us, is inherently much more fulfilling than seeing value as money. As this way of seeing things starts to be internalized, it can release us from things we hadn’t realized were holding us in bondage. As I illustrated in the case of the homemaker, it can change the way that we view and appreciate people too.

Alastair Roberts’ podcast and other writings can be found at his website, Alastair’s Adversia.

(1) Cited in John Ruskin, Unto This Last and Other Writings (London: Penguin Classics, 1997), 206.
(2) Ibid
(3) Ibid 207
(4) Ibid 209
(5) Ibid 211
(6) Ibid 222
(7) John Ruskin, The Crown of Wild Olive and the Ethics of the Dust (London: Cassell and Company, 1909), 18-19.
(8) David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 437.
(9) Robert Farrar Capon, Bed and Board: Plain Talk About Marriage (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965), 62.
(10) Ivan Illich, Gender (London: Marion Boyars, 1983), 45ff.
(11) David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (New York: Melville House, 2011), 50.