Unto this last

Some time ago, I happened upon a short essay by Alain de Botton in an issue of Monocle (the article isn’t online, it seems). The essay is a new year’s prediction for 2009. Based on the continuing economic crisis, de Botton argues that we will turn to new paths:

I believe 2009 will be the year when the question of how society should be arranged will cease to be an idle, abstract topic, dwelt upon by ivory-tower-intellectuals after a few glasses of wine, and will instead enter the workday mainstream with a vengeance.

These discussions, de Botton predicts, will lead to the rediscovery of thinkers such as Karl Marx and John Ruskin. Most have heard of Marx, but I knew little of Ruskin. So, inspired by de Botton’s article, I read Ruskin’s essay Unto this last.

Written in 1860, “Unto this last” reads as the foundation of many of the tenets of the welfare state we know today: minimum wage, public health care and schools, unemployment benefits, and so on. The title is a reference to Christ’s parable of the vineyard, which Ruskin uses to support his argument that all workmen should receive equal pay, as they all have the same needs, even if they haven’t worked equally hard.

And that touches upon a central part of Ruskin’s argument: That merchants, manufacturers, capitalists have a social obligation above that of merely making a profit for themselves. Soldiers, teachers, doctors, and lawyers all have an honour code integral to their profession that are easily recognized as central to the well-being of their society:

The Soldier’s profession is to defend it.
The Pastor’s to teach it.
The Physician’s to keep it in health.
The Lawyer’s to enforce justice in it.
The Merchant’s to provide for it.
And the duty of all these men is, on due occasion, to die for it.
“On due occasion,” namely: –
The Soldier, rather than leave his post in battle.
The Physician, rather than leave his post in plague.
The Pastor, rather than teach Falsehood.
The Lawyer, rather than countenance Injustice.

Similarly, the merchant is obliged to ensure both the quality of the products he provides, as well as his word in his engagements with his customers and employees.

Basically, what Ruskin is advocating is a sort of primordial Corporate Social Responsibility: That corporate entities are obliged to focus on the needs of the people it interacts with above mere profit maximisation. Acquiring material wealth in its own right is of little value, it is only the life you lead, as he concludes, forcefully: “There is no wealth but life.”

I found a great introduction to Ruskin’s work in this documentary, which also explains in greater detail how he meant the above statement to be interpreted. It is also some of the best and most compelling art history I’ve ever seen:

Ruskin, a very conservative man in many regards, saw society like an organism or a natural habitat or an eco-system: all its parts completely interdependent, constantly striving to maintain equilibrium. Wealth, then, is our ability to help those around us, as well as being helped when we need it. But whenever this mutual aid ceases and parts of the system care only for their own self-interest, that is what Ruskin calls corruption.

Ruskin saw capitalist industrialization as such corruption – a disruption of interdependent equilibrium of old, where artisans infused their work with their individual creative soul, combining home life and work life in one harmonious whole (Ruskin had some fairly romantic ideas of what medieval life was like).

What I find so compelling is Ruskin’s insistence that mutual aid ought to be a matter of honour above petty personal concerns and ambitions. All professions should mind the well-being of society as a whole as well as their individual self-interest, for we are all dependent on one another. Doctors, teachers (well, pastors at Ruskin’s time), soldiers and lawyers all have clear honour codes, ritually established through oaths, pledges and creeds defining their professional obligations to society.

But merchants, manufacturers, bankers, and the like lack such an honour code. And in the past 40 years (or more), they have embraced the neo-liberal notion that the market – and individuals’ rational economic self-interest – would provide the necessary means to maintain society.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

And now more than ever, merchants and others providing goods and services to a society should be expected to be as honourable as every other professions. Especially in a globalised world where the consequences of one’s actions – both socially, economically and environmentally – might not be immediately evident.

What might such an honour code look like? Well, Ruskin offers a rough idea:

In all buying, consider,
first, what condition of existence you cause in the producers of what you buy;
secondly, whether the sum you have paid is just to the producer, and in due proportion, lodged in his hands;
thirdly, to how much clear use, for food, knowledge, or joy, this that you have bought can be put;
and fourthly, to whom and in what way it can be most speedily and serviceably distributed;
in all dealings whatsoever insisting on entire openness and stern fulfilment; and in all doings, on perfection and loveliness of accomplishment; especially on fineness and purity of all marketable commodity: watching at the same time for all ways of gaining, or teaching, powers of simple pleasure, and of showing in simple things which even the poor enjoy — the sum of enjoyment depending not on the quantity of things tasted, but on the vivacity and patience of taste.

Today, there several attempts at making such merchant honour codes. There is the UN Global Compact, the Fair Trade certification, even the International Co-operative Alliance’s statement of co-operative identity.

But I find that there are two problems with all of these:

One: There are very limited options for sanctions against any member who breaks the rules. They are not legally binding in any way. For such an honour code to work, it needs to have clear cultural, social and legal implications – similar to the pledges of other professions. Ideally, it would be something like a GPL license for ethical business conduct.

Two: They focus on companies, businesses or products, and not for individuals. Taking social responsibility is not something that an incorporated entity can do on behalf of its employees and shareholders. It is an ethical commitment that each individual must make and believe in. In a way, it is a return to the more spiritual meaning of Christ’s parable: Unto this last will be expected the same ethical commitment.

One way of doing this may be to return the ideas of the co-operative movement: Where each stakeholder – employee, customer, supplier – has an equal say as well as ethical commitment and responsibility for the conduct of the business as a whole. I find that the co-operative movement, anchored locally and centered around a shared code of conduct may well have a renaissance with the emergence of new digital social tools. But I’ll have to ponder this some more.

Input is welcome.

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