Economy & Business

Riches unto Death: Poverty Is the Lack of More Than Money

John Ruskin’s concept of “illth,” the downside of wealth, speaks to America in our own day.

We know this intuitively: True prosperity is not the possession of mammon, nor is the commonwealth of a nation its GDP. Likewise, true poverty is the want not so much of money as of those things that make life sweet; no one has to struggle to see the poverty of Dickens’s Scrooge, rich though the miser is, or to realize the tragedy of Midas’s golden touch, as he loses the joy of food and drink and even his daughter’s embrace. You can hear the hollowness of the voices saying that now is the time of greatest human flourishing, as you look and see the human wreckage of the opioid crisis — men and women retreating from reality to the arms of death’s cousins, and then to death himself — and the diabolical ruin left by the swifter suicide of terrorists, young people on a fatal search for significance. Somehow, in a time of enormous material abundance, our civilization has become like some monstrous senior-care home, full of desperate and abandoned loneliness, smelling of the slow limp into the grave.

We know all this, and wonder what can be done.

I do not know its solution either and have no plan to offer beyond hope in divine grace, but I do have a suggestion. The present tangle of moral and political and economic crises should lead us to adopt John Ruskin’s concept of illth into our discussions. In Unto This Last, his meditation on Christ’s parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20, the 19th-century English critic gives us a way of acknowledging that an abundance of bread can still lead to starvation, and that a people may be wealthy and still unwell. There are, of course, other ways of talking about this, and other figures to whom one could point. But Ruskin provides the versatility of a new word. Illth enables us to identify this truth directly: that labor and resources turned to ill ends or left idle have a cost even when they produce a profit.

Ruskin writes of wealth:

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.

As I say, we know this. And if this is wealth, what then is illth? If the commonwealth is the whole of society’s contribution to and enjoyment of life together, a collective experience of eudaimonia, then society’s illth is the common contribution to and experience of death.

Here is Ruskin’s introduction of illth, his first naming of the ill-used and unused abundance that is to wealth what apathy is to love:

Many of the persons commonly considered wealthy, are in reality no more wealthy than the locks of their own strong boxes are; they being inherently and eternally incapable of wealth; and operating for the nation, in an economical point of view, either as pools of dead water, . . . or else, as dams in a river, of which the ultimate service depends not on the dam, but the miller; or else, as mere accidental stays and impediments, acting not as wealth, but (for we ought to have a correspondent term) as “illth,” causing various devastation and trouble around them in all directions; or lastly, act not at all, but are merely animated conditions of delay. . . . [Italics mine]

There are no unique secrets here, just the recognition that money can be misspent — or left unspent, producing nothing for anyone but compounded interest for its owner. We can go to Tim Carney for criticisms of rent-seeking and to Wendell Berry for descriptions of what is lost when industry and production are pursued without consideration for the cost, the tolls on human lives and on the land. Yet, though Ruskin frames illth here in economic terms, the word also gives us a way of speaking of the material and, at the same time, the moral components of financial transaction and market behavior.

As President Trump’s victory and the popularity of Senator Sanders make clear, American citizens are hungry for acknowledgment of their pain and anger in an economic system they feel has not only left them behind but has actively hurt them. There were few to no consequences for the executives playing Jenga with people’s lives and subprime mortgages leading up to the Great Recession in 2008. Automation’s Jeremiahs are acknowledged but unheeded. People see illth all around them, from the relatively innocuous McMansions (works more of ignorance than malice) blighting their neighborhoods to the billions of dollars hidden overseas from the tax man, hastening the insolvency of the country. But perhaps most of all they see illth in the deaths of their neighbors — deaths of desperation, overdoses adding fatally definitive punctuation to lives that felt incomprehensible to their inhabitants.

The alliance that has united conservatives and libertarians in common cause against bureaucratic bloat and its soft despotism is crumbling.

It will strain America’s conservative movement, when its speaker of the House has confessed his love for Ayn Rand, to confess that businesses and businessmen are as capable of wasteful and wasting spending as governments are. But the movement is strained already. The alliance that has united conservatives and libertarians in common cause against bureaucratic bloat and its soft despotism is crumbling; indeed, it could never be maintained. The identity confusion that manifested as the splintering of the Right into neo-conservatives, paleo-conservatives, crunchy conservatives, tea-partiers, Trumpists, and all the rest is, in large part, the tension between the conservative and the libertarian minds. The individualism and myopia of the libertarian vision of society — atomized individuals self-defined and free from every native context in a world where everything is earned and nature mastered — is at fundamental odds with the conservative reverence for ties to family, place, and history, with its hope for nature in harmony, man’s with himself and the rest of creation.

As the fissure widens and the semantic gap between “liberal” and “libertarian” shrinks —   “woke” capital chasing liberalism’s apotheosis — conservatives have an opportunity to reconsider their de facto alliance with finance and priestly service to the Market. Indeed, in the wake of President Trump’s victory, many (see, for example, the journal American Affairs) have undertaken this very project, despite the administration’s acceptance of a continued need for Goldman Sachs’s intercessory powers. The adoption of the concept of illth (and reflection on the rest of Ruskin’s political economy) can be food and footing for the effort to reclaim what actual priest Romano Guardini advocated: human scale and human responsibility in economic activity, and the understanding that there is no single Market but rather many markets, made up of the aggregated interactions of individual men. The justice of our economic activity is found in the justice of those exchanges.

“For no human actions ever were intended by the Maker of men to be guided by balances of expediency, but by balances of justice,” Ruskin writes. “No man ever knew, or can know, what will be the ultimate result to himself, or to others, of any given line of conduct. But every man may know, and most of us do know, what is a just and unjust act.”

The illth of America confronts us daily. Its manifold expressions cut across party lines, through barren fields and desolate towns, leaving lives parched, bereft of significance and of any sweetness but the numb ecstasy of substance abuse. The cost of acquisitiveness has been made apparent, and our language should reflect that. We have never had more; we may never have been in greater want. For all the resources and technology we possess, inquietude drives many to despair. There is no poverty but death, and we are poor. As we pursue a common-wealth, let us acknowledge our common-illth.


The Latest