Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Sunday 24 February 2019

Illthy rich

The Victorian John Ruskin’s radical ideas about ‘dead’ money are alive again

By Catherine Nixey

What’s in a name? Too easy – Shakespeare wrapped that one up long ago and his answer was: not much. So here’s another question: what’s in a syllable? The obvious answer must be: even less. If an entire word makes no difference, what possible difference can a bit of a word make? Nothing, surely.

John Ruskin, the Victorian critic and writer, would beg to differ. He showed in an 1860 essay that, on the contrary, there was an awful lot in a syllable. In particular, he suggested that we should change one particular English syllable: the one at the start of the word “wealth”. We should replace it with “ill-” (since much wealth does no good) and pronounce the whole to rhyme with “filth”: illth. Which instantly has a different feel to it.

It was a radical essay and, like most radical essays, was largely ignored – even reviled. “People were so shocked,” says Sally Shuttleworth, professor of English literature at the University of Oxford. After his death Ruskin himself gradually fell from view, one of those many eminent Victorians whom the 20th century preferred to sneer at rather than revere. If people knew anything at all about him it was for his disastrous wedding night.

But now, as the bicentenary of his birth is celebrated, people are starting to listen to Ruskin once again. He is now being remembered as the passionate environmentalist who pioneered England’s system of “green belts”. In East London, a workshop naming itself “Unto this Last” – after the essay in which illth appears – is emulating his working ideals. And the idea of “illth” itself has been resurrected.

Getty Images

John Ruskin was the leading English art critic of the Victorian era.

Look at its precise definition and it’s easy to see why it appeals. Illth isn’t just any old money. Ruskin wasn’t against all cash – like most of those who inveigh against money, he had buckets of the stuff. Illth instead referred to money that is being dammed up by individuals for no reason other than to give them impressive bank balances. This money, Ruskin wrote, was like “pools of dead water”, pools that are “useless” to the economy and that “serve only to drown people”.

His words feel eerily timely. Ruskin’s assault aside, “wealth” is in the ascendant. Less crass than “riches”, less smug than “affluence” and less blunt than “money”, “wealth” has become the tasteful way to talk about your cash. Adverts in the airports of the world’s tax havens, in Geneva and Luxembourg, offer discreet help with the perennial problem of “wealth management”. The FT and The Guardian have “wealth correspondents” (recent FT headline: “Would you turn down £1bn? Why some people don’t want to inherit”).

The ascent of wealth is raising even more troubling questions than the problem of whether one should turn down a billion. Dammed-up pools of money are starting to be recognised as one of the most pressing problems of the 21st century. The UC Berkeley economist Gabriel Zucman has made his name by finding out precisely how much cash is stashed away in such stagnant pools. And the answer is: a lot.

Annette Alstadsæter, professor of economics at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, is co-author with Zucman and Niels Johannesen of several recent papers on tax evasion through tax havens. “A huge amount of households’ financial wealth is held through tax havens,” she says, “corresponding to about 10 per cent of world GDP.”

Ruskin’s argument “rings a bell with a lot of the arguments that come up these days about the concentration of the wealth among the super-wealthy”. Particularly as it’s not just money that is concentrated among the rich. Tax evasion, too, “is hugely concentrated among the rich. In our research project we found that in Scandinavia, 80 per cent of the hidden financial wealth is owned by the richest 0.1 per cent of households.”

Like Ruskin’s stagnant ponds, this money is all but useless. “Economists would ideally like capital to be invested,” says Alstadsæter. “Wealth hidden as real assets in freeports is just sitting there. That is non-productive wealth.”

So Ruskin, it seems, was right. If all this makes him seem astonishingly far-sighted, then we should pause for a moment. Not all his ideas had such prophetic genius. For one thing his views on women were, Shuttleworth says, “appalling”. (His own marriage was a disaster. Ruskin, a real-life Pygmalion, had first fallen for the female form through classical statues. However, unlike Pygmalion, his story did not have a happy ending. On his wedding night, Ruskin was horrified to discover that his wife’s body was not, like Greek statues, entirely hairless. He fled from the bed and never returned to it.)

Other ideas Ruskin had were, at best, impractical. While an undergraduate at Oxford, Shuttleworth says, he “tried to break down the divisions” between the classes. As part of this plan “he got undergraduates – including, amazingly, Oscar Wilde – to repair roads”. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the project of turning the 19th century’s most famous aesthete into a navvy was “a bit of a disaster”.

Still, other Ruskin concepts have stood the test of time rather better. His rage at the pollution of rivers and the land; his determination that everyone deserves to be happy and fulfilled at work – and his revulsion at illth – feel very of the moment. It is intriguing to wonder what might happen if, in this new-found enthusiasm for Ruskin, the modern world were to adopt the word “illth”. If banks were to offer help with “illth management” or papers renamed their financial journalists “illth correspondents”.

For the moment that seems unlikely. So in the meantime, until the global financial lexicon changes – or until some of that hidden money returns to circulation – perhaps we should console ourselves with remembering one of Ruskin’s most famous dictums of all, also included in the same essay as “illth”. “There is,” he wrote, “no wealth but life.” Now it’s hard to see the FT’s wealth correspondent covering that one.

Further reading

Ruskinland: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World by Andrew Hill is published by Pallas Athene, pp250, £15.99

Further viewing

The exhibition John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing runs at Two Temple Place in London until April (https://twotempleplace.org)