It seems to me, from what I’ve written in the last couple of posts, there are at least two fundamental questions for life on Earth.

1) Can capitalism as it is, produce prosperity without significant forms of ‘illth’, or harms, to society, personal psychology, liberty and ecology? The same can be asked of the developmental State.

2) Are pro-free market ideologies anything other than schemes to protect the dominance of the wealth elites and the illth they produce?

With these questions I’m much more interested in actually existing capitalism, than in an ideal or imaginary capitalism, in which The Market operates smoothly and only produces benefits in accordance with justice: i.e. the wealthy are virtuous and the poor are, at best, incompetent.

I have mentioned Ruskin’s concept of illth previously. It follows from Ruskin’s concept of wealth.


Wealth, is defined by Ruskin as what makes life and health. That includes good food, pleasure, love, connection, concern, compassion, beauty, contemplation, psychological wholeness, religious experience, sharing, good work that builds a good ‘soul’ and ‘a good life’. Wealth is tied in with the cultivation of people and the provision of beauty, beneficial work and peace. Wealth involves the higher pleasures natural to humans; it is fundamentally life enhancing. We can add to this that wealth is sustainable, it exists with less destruction than can be absorbed, and transformed into wealth, by society and ecology. This is summarised in the slogan “There is no wealth but life,” adding “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.

Ruskin Works 17 “Unto this Last”: 105

‘Wealth’ needs to be distinguished from ‘Riches’ and ‘illth, or there is no real economics, only encouraged destruction and tyranny.

Riches, he defines as the appropriation from another. Riches can brought about through death, power and injustice, by impoverishing and harming workers. Riches tends to be found in lots of money or possessions, not so much in real wealth. Riches can simply undermine character and soul. Riches tend to usurp, overthrown or diminish, life.

Illth‘ is the contrary of wealth. While wealth brings ‘weal’ (health, well-being, prosperity, plenitude or improvement) illth brings physical or mental sickness, harm, destruction, impoverishment, lack, desperation and death. Illth is anti-life.

Ruskin suggests Riches and illth go together. This coupling can be seen in despoiled landscape, grotesque buildings, sensationalist art, filth, disease and in ruined bodies and souls. Any difference between the labouring and the rich classes comes about because of this illth and their different conditions of living and working.

It is not impossible that Riches could go together with wealth, but we should not disregard the illth that also comes with riches in our current economy. Traditionally, conservatives would denounce the pursuit of riches at all costs; the cheapening of culture; the degradations of soul resulting from mass literature or TV; or the lying slogans of populism and so on. But now they seem more concerned with protecting the riches of some, than cultivating real wealth or truth. Neoliberalism may well exist to sanctify selfishness, lack of co-operation and riches for some rather than wealth for all.

Illth as ‘Externalities’

In classical economics we might identify illth with what are called ‘externalities’. That is the parts of the economic system that you can ignore, or thrust upon less fortunate others, who do not have the power to retaliate. Pollution is often classed as an externality, because it rarely enters into the costs of production, distribution or sales, unless valued people start dropping down dead. This obviously benefits the Polluter Oligarchy/Elites. And forcing them to count the illth costs of pollution would count as interfering in The Market, or at best ‘green tape’.

Riches are important to continuous illth creation, because riches can command the power, and the information channels, to classify illth as irrelevance, minor, someone else’s problem or unreal. In classical terms if the cost of illth can be dispersed onto the ‘uncomplaining’ Earth or amongst the relatively powerless, then it is ‘free’, and contributes to Riches. We should not concern ourselves with it, as it results from The Market (not from any particular people seeking riches), and if it is a problem, will be fixed by The Market and others seeking Riches.

As umair haque suggests, capitalism promotes the central idea that:

left to their own devices, self-reliant individuals in markets will expand the common good, through aggressive, crushing, competitive self-interest…. It’s led to 80% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, watching their kids be shot at school, their neighbours die and go bankrupt for a lack of basic medicine, never save enough to retire — all while the ultra-rich shoot themselves off to Mars.

umar haque The Missing Half of Economics

The other point is that it seems easier to create Riches by illth production than by wealth production. In making Riches without a concern for wealth, less energy has to be expended in exploring the harmful results, or unintended consequences, of making those Riches. With a focus on Riches, free pollution and ecological destruction is a ‘good’. This is less likely if people are focusing on wealth production. Consequently, producing Riches will tend to be more profitable than producing wealth, and hence is likely to drive wealth producers out of business.

A system which makes profit primary, will tend to ignore both illth and wealth, as it has no concern for them beyond profit, and hence produce more illth.

The battle for distinction

One of the task of people, in a functional society, may be to distinguish between wealth and illth. I would expect that this is a political battle, as those with riches will fund people to defend, ignore or deny the presence of illth, or to help confuse ‘soul-based’ illth with liberty.

I would, however, suggest that anything which, in the long term, is likely to damage land and ecology will produce illth, irrespective of any other virtues. The only excuse for it, is that it replaces some process which is even more destructive, in which case there should be ways of phasing its harms out.

Having the concept before us, it is more likely that people can see the importance of distinguishing wealth from illth, and participate in discussions. To quote haque again

Economics is there to study the question: what forms of social and political organization genuinely expand the common wealth, the human good, prosperity, possibility? If it can’t do that — it serves no purpose… at all, except as a kind of… ideological machine. 

umar haque The Missing Half of Economics


The distinction between wealth and illth is fundamental to the functioning of any society.

With the question of illth being put forward repeatedly, it is perhaps possible that capitalism can be altered to be less harmful. Without considering the question, then capitalism will probably be overwhelmed with its own destructiveness.


The points about real wealth and illth, seems to me, to be as useful as when Ruskin made them over 150 years ago. I am puzzled why the idea of illth has been so thoroughly abandoned, when it seems vital to describing economic (and other) activity. I would imagine most people would want a high Ruskinian wealth and a low illth, to be part of their lives, rather than mere riches, or in general poverty (high illth, not lack of money). It is hard to talk of economic/productive/consumptive harms in general without such a term, and they occur nearly all the time.

I wonder if the idea of illth been so hard to accept because:

  • Western culture has a demand for order which causes it to ignore the disorder produced by everyday approved actions…. as I have argued on a number of occasions on this blog? Or because
  • Of the politics of capitalist domination and the politics of markets? It may be implied that riches drive the problem. Successful, well known and promoted economists will be those who tend to suggest capitalism always delivers the best possible results, and that what we observe are either a) those best possible results in action – give or take a minor tweak – or b) the fault of government.

If we talked about illth would we might have to look more closely at what drives the production of illth, and observe how that ties in with particular organisations of the economy, and work towards getting rid of them. However if we assert that markets always deliver the best results, that the wealthy are virtuous, while forgetting about illth, then we will not really criticise ‘The Market’ and its players and generators?