From Fors Clavigera
by John Ruskin

From Letter II, February 1871.

[... after a comparison of iron fencing in Italy and England ...]

But I think it is pay that you want, not work; and it is very true that pretty ironwork like that does not pay; but it is pretty, and it might even be entertaining, if you made those leaves at the top of it (which are, as far as I can see, only artichokes, and not very well done) in the likeness of all the beautiful leaves you could find, till you knew them all by heart. “Wasted time and hammerstrokes,” say you? “A wise people like the English will have nothing but spikes; and besides, the spikes are highly needful, so many of the wise people being thieves.” Yes, that is so; and, therefore, in calculating the annual cost of keeping your thieves, you must always reckon, not only the cost of the spikes that keep them in, but of the spikes that keep them out. But how if, instead of flat rough spikes, you put triangular polished ones, commonly called bayonets; and instead of the perpendicular bars put perpendicular men? What is the cost to you then, of your railing, of which you must feed the idle bars daily? Costly enough, if it stays quiet. But how, if it begin to march and countermarch? and apply its spikes horizontally?

. . .

And now note this that follows; it is of vital importance to you.

There are, practically, two absolutely opposite kinds of labour going on among men, for ever.*

The first, labour supported by Capital, producing nothing.

The second, labour unsupported by Capital, producing all things.

Take two simple and precise instances on a small scale.

A little while since I was paying a visit in Ireland, and chanced to hear an account of the pleasures of a picnic party, who had gone to see a waterfall. There was of course, ample lunch, feasting on the grass, and basketsfull of fragments taken up afterwards.

Then the company, feeling themselves dull, gave the fragments that remained to the attendant ragged boys, on condition that they should “pull each other’s hair.”

Here, you see, is, in the most accurate sense, employment of food, or capital, in the support of entirely unproductive labour.

Next, for the second kind. I live at the top of a short but rather steep hill; at the bottom of which, every day, all the year round, but especially in frost, coal-waggons get stranded, being economically provided with the smallest number of horses that can get them along on level ground.

The other day, when the road, frozen after thaw, was at the worst, my assistant, the engraver of that bit of ironwork on the 29th page, was coming up here, and found three coal-waggons at a lock, helpless; the drivers, as usual, explaining Political Economy to the horses, by beating them over the heads.

There were half-a-dozen fellows besides, out of work, or not caring to be in it standing by, looking on. My engraver put his shoulder to a wheel (at least his hand to a spoke), and called on the idlers to do as much. They didn’t seem to have thought of such a thing, but were ready enough when called on. “And we went up screaming!” said Mr. Burgess.

Do you suppose that was one whit less proper human work than going up a hill against a battery, merely because, in that case, half of the men would have gone down, screaming, instead of up; and those who got up would have done no good at the top?

But observe the two opposite kinds of labour. The first, lavishly supported by Capital, and producing Nothing. The second, unsupported by any Capital whatsoever,— not having so much as a stick for a tool but, called by mere goodwill, out of the vast void of the world’s Idleness, and producing the definitely profitable result of moving a weight of fuel some distance towards the place where it was wanted, and sparing the strength of over loaded creatures.

Observe further. The labour producing no useful result was demoralizing. All such labour is.

The labour producing useful result was educational in its influence on the temper. All such labour is.

And the first condition of education, the thing you are all crying out for, is being put to wholesome and useful work. And it is nearly the last condition of it, too; you need very little more; but, as things go, there will yet be difficulty in getting that. As things have hitherto gone, the difficulty has been to avoid getting the reverse of that.

For, during the last eight hundred years, the upper classes of Europe have been one large Picnic Party. Most of them have been religious also; and in sitting down, by companies, upon the green grass, in parks, gardens, and the like, have considered themselves commanded into that position by Divine authority, and fed with bread from Heaven: of which they duly considered it proper to bestow the fragments in support, and the tithes in tuition, of the poor.

. . .

These things the great Picnic Party mignt have taught without cost, and with amusement to themselves. One thing, at least, they were bound to teach, whether it amused them or not; how, day by day, the daily bread they expected their village children to pray to God for, might be earned in accordance with the laws of God. This they might have taught, not only without cost, but with great gain. One thing only they have taught, and at considerable cost.

They have spent four hundred millions of pounds here in England within the last twenty years!— how much in France and Germany, I will take some pains to ascertain for you,— and with this initial outlay of capital, have taught the peasants of Europe to pull each other’s hair.

With this result, 17th January, 1871, at and around the chief palace of their own pleasures, and the chief city of their delights:

“Each demolished house has its own legend of sorrow, of pain, and horror; each vacant doorway speaks to the eye, and almost to the ear, of hasty flight, as armies or fire came of weeping women and trembling children running away in awful fear, abandoning tha home that saw their birth, the old house they loved of startled men seizing quickly under eacli arm their most valued goods, and rushing, heavily laden, after their wives and babes, leaving to hostile hands the task of burning all the rest. When evening falls, the wretched outcasts, worn with fatigue and tears, reach Versailles, St. Germain, or some other place outside the range of fire, and there they beg for bread and shelter, homeless, foodless, broken with despair. And this, remember, has been the fate of something like a hundred thousand people during the last four months. Versailles alone has about fifteen thousand such fugitives to keep alive, all ruined, all hopeless, all vaguely asking the grim future what still worse fate it may have in store for them.” Daily Telegraph, Jan. 17th, 1871.

That is the result round their pleasant city, and this within their industrious and practical one: let us keep for the reference of future ages, a picture of domestic life, out of the streets of London in her commercial prosperity, founded on the eternal laws of Supply and Demand, as applied by the modern Capitalist:

“A father in the last stage of consumption two daughters nearly marriageable with hardly sufficient rotting clothing to ‘cover their shame.’ The rags that hang around their attenuated frames flutter in strips against their naked legs. They have no stool or chair upon which they can sit. Their father occupies the only stool in the room. They have no employment by which they can earn even a pittance. They are at home starving on a half-chance meal a day, and hiding their raggedness from the world. The walls are bare, there is one bed in the room, and a bundle of dirty rags are upon it. The dying father will shortly follow the dead mother, and when the parish coffin encloses his wasted form, and a pauper’s grave closes above him, what shall be his daughters’ lot? This is but a type of many other homes in the district: dirt, misery, and disease alone flourish in thai wretched neighbourhood. ‘Fever and small-pox rage,’ as the inhabitants say, ‘next door, and next door, and over the way, and next door to that, and further down.’ The living, dying, and dead are all huddled together. The houses have no ventilation, the back yards arc receptacles for all sorts of filth and rubbish, the old barrels or vessels that contain the supply of water are thickly coated on the sides with slime, and there is an undisturbed deposit of mud at the bottom. There is no mortuary house the dead lie in the dog-holes where they breathed their last, and add to the contagion which spreads through the neighbourhood.” Pall Mall Gazette, January 7th, 1871, quoting the Builder.

* I do not mean that there are no other kinds, nor that well-paid labour must necessarily be unproductive. I hope to see much done, some day, for just pay, and wholly productive. But these, named in the text, are the two opposite extremes; and, in actual life hitherto, the largest means have been usually spent in mischief, and the most useful work done for the worst pay.