A Wilde kind of socialism

Written by Isabella Welch, OULC Social Secretary and Disabilities Officer.

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.” – Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism.

The lifestyle of the free, self-realising individual seems to be one that today is still a utopian vision for many. Given the labour and conditions that many in his society had to endure to support the elite intelligentsia, it is perhaps not unfair to hold individuals like Oscar Wilde to have been parasites on their societies. However, in a world where social reforms have made literacy, physical books and teaching available to the majority of the public, we can now call such people influential intellectuals, and indeed, it was Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891) which was one of the early texts advocating for a world in which all menial, unpleasant tasks would be performed by automata, leaving creative work as the primary engagement for the many. Some have described this as a ‘post-work’ world, living a life that present society as a whole perceives to be idle, when really it is a matter of redefining work (and thereby idleness) in terms of spending time absorbing and producing art, culture, poetry, languages, and conducting research that interests one personally. The kind of work that independent scientists and artists did in the past which was considered useless now makes up seminal ventures in their respective fields. Post-work, in this sense, means an end to conventional labour that could reasonably be replaced by machines, coupled with a liberty to select whatever kind of work one wants to do. This is combined by Wilde with an endorsement of socialism as a necessary condition, so that the produce of this mechanical labouring class is distributed to ensure that all are sustained to pursue their respective interests.

But Wilde’s utopia is one that advocates for a kind of self-interest, too: “Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody.” In this ideal world, we would be able to live according to our interests and desires, to flourish as individuals, with the state securing us from the threat of starvation and squalor. Surely, it’s in everyone’s interest to dream of a world where the individual is free from excessive toil, due to automation and the equal distribution of output, and can therefore pursue what interests them most? But more than this, learning about what it is to be human should not be a privilege, but a right of passage for everyone on this planet.

He also draws on ideas of commodification of art and output, and calls for a revolution on these grounds: “An individual who has to make things for the use of others, and with reference to their wants and their wishes, does not work with interest, and consequently cannot put into his work what is best in him.”

Freedom from economic pressures, equality for all, and the absence of pressure to conform to any rigid line of employment will not only allow more people who would like to produce art to have the time to do so, but would open up opportunities for people to produce any kind of art they please, to “realise their personality more or less completely.” I think it was this ideal, come across in my first reading of Soul of Man under Socialism, that inspired me to support a post-work world – after all, as of a March 2018 study, it’s reported that 88% of people do not enjoy their jobs, as jobs stand today. In fact, it was around the same time that Wilde’s contemporary Karl Marx was observing the struggle of the working class, writing how increasingly acute specialisation led to workers performing meaningless tasks, and causing them to be alienated from their work and the product of their labour.

The development of complex machinery sufficient to liberate Man from menial, alienating labour is one part of this puzzle. But ensuring we redistribute to allow, for the time being, everyone in our country to pursue some form of self-expression, some cultivating interest, is the other. In Labour’s 2017 Manifesto, in the section titled “Leading Richer Lives”, Labour committed to enhancing public access to the means of creativity and inspiration, including a “£160 million annual boost for schools to invest in projects that will support cultural activities for schools” and to putting “creativity back at the heart of the curriculum”.

Wilde himself acknowledged that the image of a world of perpetual artistic creation was somewhat ridiculous. But every utopia is no longer a utopia once realised, and so we must undertake that perpetual act of sailing towards a new utopia.


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