Saturday, June 4, 2011

Oscar Wilde's outdated socialism

In 1891 Oscar Wilde wrote the bizarre essay The Soul of Man under Socialism, calling for the establishment of a socialist anarchy. Wilde was an unusual socialist because he lacked any instinct for collectivism, instead seeing in socialism the perfect society for individualistic development. He thought his contemporaries were wasting time trying to help the miserable poor with charity:

They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation.... They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

This, he argued, was futile, even harmful. Instead of aiding those rendered poor by 'the institution of private property', one should simply banish that institution. Socialism would end poverty and great individuals could stop worrying about the poor people in their midst. Yet Wilde feared authoritarian socialism as much as authoritarian conservatism:

For while under the present system a very large number of people can lead lives of a certain amount of freedom and expression and happiness, under an industrial-barrack system, or a system of economic tyranny, nobody would be able to have any such freedom at all. It is to be regretted that a portion of our community should be practically in slavery, but to propose to solve the problem by enslaving the entire community is childish.

Wilde believed that crushing poverty was excluding most people from developing their individual genius. Under his property-free Utopia, individuals would no longer bother accumulating wealth and property, and would be free to simply live, 'to be'. This romantic ideology even interprets Jesus as an advocate of individualism, advising his disciples to give up their property not in God's name but because it 'hinders Individualism at every step'. Wilde describes the ideal Christian:

He may be a great poet, or a great man of science; or a young student at a University, or one who watches sheep upon a moor; or a maker of dramas, like Shakespeare, or a thinker about God, like Spinoza; or a child who plays in a garden, or a fisherman who throws his net into the sea. It does not matter what he is, as long as he realises the perfection of the soul that is within him.

Wilde wanted to end government, arguing bizarrely that the more severely criminals were punished by the justice system, the more crime there was. 'When there is no punishment at all, crime will either cease to exist,' he wrote, 'or, if it occurs, will be treated by physicians as a very distressing form of dementia, to be cured by care and kindness'. With no private ownership of property, crime would vanish because criminals are simply ordinary people who don't have enough to eat.

We get an amusing glimpse of Wilde's idea of the future in his passage about public ownership of machinery:

Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing. At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man.

Today the machinery of communications technology do 'run messages', but perhaps far more efficiently and speedily than Wilde had imagined - and we've moved a bit beyond steamers!

In all this socialist rhetoric Wilde is dismissive of the poor classes he seeks to liberate. They are ignorant amd unexceptional, incapable of self-expression and terrified of those great individuals who resist conformity. The public in general demand bland and obvious art. They are all poisoned by their acceptance of authority.

The fact is, that the public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.

Wilde's essay is long and rambling, but interesting for a few key points. First he assumes offhand that socialim will solve poverty and that this easy fix will allow all humans to develop and express their innate excellence.

Second, his descriptions of Victorian poverty seem weirdly out of date. This is how he imagined his Utopia:

If a frost comes we shall not have a hundred thousand men out of work, tramping about the streets in a state of disgusting misery, or whining to their neighbours for alms, or crowding round the doors of loathsome shelters to try and secure a hunch of bread and a night’s unclean lodging.

Well that sounds like what we have today. Ancient religions dreamed of milk and honey, both of which can be bought cheaply in any local grocery store today. Victorian Wilde dreamed of a bad winter that doesn't cause mass-hunger, which we had in Britain and Ireland for the last two winters in a row. Crop failures in wealthy developed countries do not cause famines, because people have enough money to import food from abroad. When Wilde was writing, the average Briton could expect to make it to 44 years of age. Today that's more like 80.

Wilde complained that 'Man will kill himself by overwork in order to secure property', but the products of that overwork are today the technologies that keep us from the excesses of poverty he so loathed.

Perhaps this has important implications for modern debates. Oscar Wilde was a Utopianist, admitting that 'A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at', and he thought only radical social change could solve the social problems of the day. History proves him wrong. Since Wilde's time most developed countries did develop layers of social welfare so that the loss of a job does not lead to immediate starvation, but these changes have been gradual, not radical. These changes also happened under the same old flawed democracy that he derided as 'the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people'. Today's Utopian dreamers should take heed: evolution, not revolution, is the better path.

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