Max Beerbohm’s caricature frontispiece below declares Rossetti as equally indifferent to politics as I previously thought myself to be. However, yesterday I had cause to revise my indifference to at least hostile indifference, if such a thing be possible. This in itself was a rather unfortunate turn of events as that was potentially the only thing I could ever hope to have equalled Rossetti in.

Beerbohm, D. G. Rossetti, precociously manifesting, among the exiled patriots who frequented his father’s house in Charlotte Street, that queer indifference to politics which marked him in his prime and his decline (1916 – 1917, Tate, London)

A train journey to Guildford was made sufficiently more interesting by my companions: my son, a pain au chocolat, fresh from Waitrose, and a copy of John Ruskin’s Time and Tide. Ruskin’s literary bite sized chunks of good sense lead me to the thought; what would Ruskin think of Tesco’s? On discussing this thought with my son, we worked out that my town, with a population of approximately 20,000, has 5 Tesco shops. One of which, I may add, masquerades as being another shop until you realise the same staff appear in both Tesco’s and the pretend non Tesco’s. On this fact alone, I suspect Ruskin would have despaired and no doubt would have ensured all pain au chocolat purchases came from Waitrose alone. At least until the monopoly (competition) within the town had been redressed.

My reason for making this assertion arose immediately upon reading a handful of the letters, the book itself being a compilation of letters Ruskin wrote to Mr. Thomas Dixon in the year 1867. The focus of these letters was centred around Ruskin’s nurturing of independence among English workmen and is best considered in his own words; ‘The reform you desire may give you more influence in Parliament; but your influence there will of course be useless to you – perhaps worse than useless,- until you have wisely made up your minds what you wish Parliament to do for you; and when you have made up your minds about that, you will find, not only that you can do it for yourselves, without the intervention of Parliament; but that eventually nobody but yourselves can do it.’1

John Ruskin
John Ruskin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not only was this sage advice for Mr. Thomas Dixon, but its intrinsic logic is somewhat soothing in all matters personal. The letters within the book were republished with a sense of their subject, e.g. Letter 1 carries the heading of ‘Co-operation’, Letter 2 ‘Contentment’. The personal yet instructive manner of Ruskin’s text somehow avoids condescension. Instead it provokes, it encourages, it plays devil’s advocate. His basic message is pragmatic, logical, rational and, I would go as far as to suggest, moral. (For the purposes of my post, I will use the present tense as I believe Ruskin’s words are still relevant for our society today).

Avoiding claims of the morality of capital (at least of capital received / inherited) Ruskin’s ideas focus on what to do within society as it is. Acknowledging, pragmatically, that society is where it is, he suggests an understanding of society between different two states; one where greed and need are primary indicators. His identification of need is key to his suggestion that society would enhance its own profitability and harmony if it were to avoid monopolies and the inevitable greed that produces (or is produced by) such mercantile activity. What he sees, and if only those in charge of our own economy had seen (and I obviously include bankers, not just our government/s within that label) would have pre-empted our current economic dire straits. Ruskin suggests that money should trickle down, not to facilitate further greed but to ensure that man (and obviously I include woman in that meaning) would be comfortable. He does not advocate luxury, preferring instead to encourage proportion in one’s working life. He does not suggest all should become ‘master’ rather than ‘worker’, for that would be a dead end. Nor does he suggest everyone should become worker bees. Instead Ruskin suggests that everyone has a place within industry and society, with the possible underlying caveat that negates personal ambition as a fruitless, non productive activity. If one is good at a certain job / task / work then why attempt to be more or to do something different to that activity? God provides for a reason. Moderation, of both temperament and desire, are considered moral ends to the pursuit of a liberal education. If we are given just a bit more (money) to become comfortable then we can avoid the anxiety of being progress focused and become more centred on that which providence has pre-ordained. Indeed if, as Ruskin suggests, we can structure society in such a way, we could all be dedicating more time ‘to devote some leisure to the attainments of liberal education, and to the other objects of free life’.

How can we get to this stage? Why aren’t I there? Well, if we ensure we achieve a mastery of our God given gifts and have money enough to secure ourselves in old age and/or sickness, then we can pass down our skills and professional positions to our children. This restructuring of society ensures the up and coming youth are able to assume a position within the working community and become productive rather than be beholden to our demise. Ruskin acknowledges this is a major social undertaking, involving ‘moral relations between individuals’.2

So, we should pause for breath in our approach to our working lives. We should seek to furnish our minds with a liberal education, once the time is right, at least the moment there is youth enough to absorb our work and once we have become accustomed enough to mastering our job and mentoring those who will assume our role after us. We should work hard with a view to learning hard. We should consider work as part of our intrinsic morality and we most definitely should, consider the spread of wealth and the longevity of all.

A brief exploration into Ruskin’s huge thinking I know, but what would Ruskin have thought of five Tesco shops in one small town? Would he have considered Tesco’s approach to sick pay a moral advancement? Would he have considered their Schools campaign sufficient and early delivery of ‘liberal education’? Would he have felt their occasional down marking of fruit and veg a sufficient effort to physically harmonise the poor? What would he have thought of the horse meat scandal (that has been rather quiet of late, hasn’t it)? Would Sainsbury’s have faired any better in his estimation?

I suggest Ruskin would have been very much against Tesco’s, in particular their modern day version of masters trying to ‘undersell each other’, and their seeking ‘to get the other’s business’, instead advocating a society made up of individuals, some of whom sell goods, who come together under a umbrella of ‘cooperation’. Ruskin’s view encourages expertise, globally or nationally, and celebrates such traits. Character and collective identity, in the sense of a country or community, is considered by Ruskin to be a positive. He encourages support for mindsets of industry whilst ensuring markets co-operate and accommodate; and this is why I conclude that Tesco’s desire to take over our town centres (am I too late in suggesting this has yet to happen?) is non co-operative and (potentially?) immoral. What would Ruskin have thought of Tesco’s. Like Rossetti I had always thought myself indifferent to politics but for now, at least, I know where in this town I will buy my pain au chocolat. Not least because I cooperate.

English: A Pain au chocolat from a Belgian Bak...
English: A Pain au chocolat from a Belgian Bakery. Français : Petit pain au chocolat en Belgique (Hamois). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wonder if Mr Cameron has read Time and Tide?

1John Ruskin, Time and Tide (London: George Allen, 1904) page VIII – X

2Ibid, pg 4.