As part of the Ruskin in Sheffield Wealthy Weekend Jason spoke alongside other Sheffield people on other forms of wealth, prompted by Ruskin’s statement that there is ‘no wealth but life’. The talks and discussion were a pleasure to be a part of. A summary of his talk is below…
The form of wealth I’d like to talk about is control. Control is a kind of wealth because it is something we can hold, something we can have more or less of. Whether it be self-control, or the control we have in the world thanks to our position in society. Control is linked to wealth, because the more wealth you have, the more control you have over the world. The wealthiest individuals on the planet now have more control, in terms of the number of people they can get to do their bidding, than any other individuals in history. More than Roman Emperors or Egyptian Pharohs. The wealthy today can raise bigger armies, build bigger pyramids, buy bigger yachts. We have had so much progress and yet that is the situation of our society today – an extreme inequality of control.
Yet many people would say of our hierachical society “yes the people at the top have the control, but they have the stress that goes with it, so wealth is their just reward”. However, in a groundbreaking study, the health sceintist Michael Marmot and his team looked at that very hierachical structure – the Civil Service. They expected to find that the people at the top were the stressed ones, but what they found was that at every level people were stressed. Not only that, but the health of those at the top was not affected by this stress, because stress when you have control is not a negative thing. If you are in a stressful situation and have control then you can resolve it, stress becomes a positive, driving you towards a solution. You can tell other people to do stuff and sort it out, or at least think you are sorting it out, which is what matters.
At the bottom, you’re still stressed. You’ve still got targets to meet. There is still a job to be done, whether it’s delivering the post or sorting out a spreadsheet or cleaning the desks. But if you get stressed, you haven’t got the control to change that situation. You are stuck. You can’t tell others what to do. You’re like a fly in amber, stuck with the stress of the situation and you can’t get out. That’s when stress turns into something that causes illness, it causes depression, lowers the immune system, makes heart disease and disability more likely. And you can account for lifestyle, which itself can be affected by stress – this effect remains.
But at the bottom you’re not just lacking in control within work. On low income you have little control out of work. Little control to have a holiday, or over where you live. Like the E15 mothers in London, hit with eviction notices and told they have to move to Birmingham. Away from their birthplace, away from family. Imagine such a lack of control. So many live with little control over where they live because of the housing market now. On low income you can’t choose a social life. If you’re out of work you have no option over work and maybe no pay for it either. So little control over day-to-day life. If you are vulnerable and rely on Council services, then find they are cut, your life can be reduced to an unbearable minimum. A complete lack of control over the world.
Yet you might say, there are other forms of wealth. Of course there are. If you’re not being evicted by the bedroom tax or starved by sanctions or neglected by cuts in care. Just struggling. Just getting by. Then there are beautiful things out there that cost nothing.
Those moments of awe, of beauty, of love. Of dancing at a party, or laughing with friends, or seeing the rays of the setting sun play upon peak district hills. Those moments of creation and making and wonder. Painting a picture or joining in song or building a wall that will stand for a hundred years.
But to take advantage of such wealth is not always a simple thing. We need control. The self-control to prevent the hiccups of psychology from taking us down the wrong path. So we can build relationships or keep going at learning a skill when the going is not easy. We also need a belief that we can control the world. That our efforts will not be in vain. That the life we want in our heads can be made real in the world.
Control is not equally shared. Some have the wealth in abundance. Middle-class children raised with expectations of control and self-control can seize different kinds of wealth easily. Working class kids tend to have less self-control and less expectation of being able to control. After generation after generation of having little control. Reaching out and taking different kinds of wealth, any kind of wealth, is a thing that has to be encouraged and supported. Yet we can learn. Self-control can be learnt and can be taught. Control can be shared.
Of course, there are big things we could do. Reforming education so that children have the control and the self-control to get the life in their heads out into the world. Reforming housing and democracy so that people have more say over their places and lives. Reforming workplaces and support to make the relations between people more equal.
But in our own lives we can also change. Learn self-control through methods such as mindfulness. Understand when we are in a position of control and work to share this wealth of control with others. Because if we do more equally share out control then we enable people to get the life that is in their minds out into the world. And surely that is in a way the point of being human. If we more equally share control then we as a society will be happier, healthier, and more creative.
That is something Ruskin would have wholly approved of.