The Law of Help

By Lucy Hartley

1200px John Ruskin Street In London

Looking back over the last year with John Ruskin in mind is both difficult and disquieting. It is difficult because the global pandemic seems to have an equivalence with what Ruskin described as the ‘storm cloud, or more accurately the plague-cloud’ of the nineteenth century; and it is disquieting because there’s no equivalence whatsoever between Ruskin and the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice. How, then, to commemorate the anniversary of Ruskin’s birthday in 2021? I don’t wish to celebrate, but, rather, reflect on conjuncture, by which I mean (with a nod to Stuart Hall) the convergent and divergent forces that shape power relations and that present a moment of both danger and opportunity. Put differently, I’d like to offer a few notes on what ‘the law of help’ was to Ruskin, and could be now.

[Note 1] It was in the fifth volume of Modern Painters, published in 1860, that Ruskin identified ‘help’ as ‘the highest and first law of the universe –and the other name of life.’[The Complete Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols. (London: George Allen, 1903-12), 7.207. Further references to this edition will be indicated by volume and page number] With characteristic confidence and more than a dash of bravado, Ruskin moved from paintings to plants, animals, and humans, thereby drawing together the different objects of study with which he had been preoccupied in the seventeen years from the first to the last volume of Modern Painters. Whereas a branch can be taken away without harming a tree, a limb cannot be removed without doing harm to an animal, and so, he reasoned, ‘intensity of life is also intensity of helpfulness—completeness of depending of each part on all the rest. The ceasing of this help is what we call corruption; and in proportion to the perfectness of the help, is the dreadfulness of the loss’ (7.205). Accustomed as he was to provoke readers to attention, Ruskin showed a delicate hand by parsing ‘help’ in a moral register against ‘separation’ and delineating something like a social policy in which ‘government and co-operation are in all things and eternally the laws of life. Anarchy and competition, eternally, and in all things, the laws of death’ (7.207). 

Paradise Place
Paradise Place (now Garbutt Place), Marylebone, London W1

[Note 2] I’ve been thinking about housing inequality for my current research on poverty and the social settlement movement in late nineteenth-century Britain. The fact that, in the 1860s and 1870s in Britain (and especially London), poverty was increasing as wealth was also increasing required, Ruskin believed, urgent action. Enter Octavia Hill (1838-1912). In a sense, the development of Hill’s expertise in the management of housing for the poor had its origins in art; she was a copyist for Ruskin at the Dulwich Gallery and the National Gallery and acknowledged as such in a note in the ‘Preface’ to the fifth volume of Modern Painters. What emerged from this aesthetic connection was a social experiment to address housing inequality. In 1865, Ruskin became a patron for Hill’s first housing experiment; he bought three houses in Paradise Place, off Marylebone High Street in London, with some of the inheritance from his father and appointed Hill as the de facto landlord. The efficiency Hill demonstrated and, equally, the interest she generated from Ruskin’s investment proved the viability of the experiment; hence, a year later Ruskin bought five more houses in Marylebone for Hill to manage. That Ruskin seems to have lost interest in Hill’s housing scheme as it expanded into an influential branch of the Charity Organization Society may be a coincidence. But that a moment of danger (the gulf between rich and poor) was also an opportunity (rent-controlled housing for the poor and a return on investment for Ruskin) points to the complexity of ‘the law of help.’ 

[Note 3] Help, government, and co-operation versus separation, corruption, anarchy, and competition: the resonances of this conjuncture are all-too-evident and so, too, ‘the dreadfulness of the loss.’ The kind of intervention described by Ruskin rested on a moral vision of connection whereby those in a position to help do something for those suffering harm. Such a vision has consequences for social policy, with the obvious example being access to healthcare, but raises the question of causes and, in turn, power relations. The coronavirus has illuminated the possibility of help through mutual aid, and it has also exposed the ongoing crisis of poverty and related issues of economic and racial inequality in (and between) nations across the world. The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is a salient example here. Launched in 2018 and led by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, the Campaign continues the work initiated by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, setting an agenda centered on the 140 million poor and low-income people in America and calling for M. O. R. E., that is, mobilize, organize, register, and educate. While it’s possible to see a convergence between the ‘law of help’ and the Poor People’s Campaign, it’s important to acknowledge the divergence between historical moments and social fields. Whereas help in its Ruskinian formulation worked within the existing social system, M. O. R. E. in the formulation of the Poor People’s Campaign works to effect structural change; and whereas the London poor tended to be treated as colonial subjects whose existence was a threat to the nation, the poor people of the Campaign are recognized as agents of national transformation. At stake is not just whether help is sufficient to meet the material needs of those suffering harm, but why it’s (still) necessary to challenge a social system predicated on separation. Perhaps, then, strange as it may sound, Ruskin’s birthday can serve as a placeholder for radical social transformation in our current time.