True Individualism: A commentary on “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”

by Alexander Apetroaie

In his essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’, written just before the turn of the 20th century, Oscar Wilde makes some important points largely excluded from current mainstream political and social reformist thinking. Writ large throughout the essay is his concern for the realisation of true ‘Individualism’, briefly defined as the unrestricted realisation and expression of an individual’s personality. He contrasts this to false capitalist Individualism, in which the common person is tricked into believing ‘the important thing is to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be’, such that the ‘perfection of man’ through the realisation of its personalities has become subservient to the mindless pursuit and accumulation of wealth and possessions (Wilde, 2016:7).

Wilde argues that true Individualism is only realised under capitalism for the privileged few who possess enough wealth such that they do not have to worry about working for a wage, and thus can freely express their own personality without having to tailor such expression to the needs of the market. He cites wealthy writers such as Hugo and Byron as examples, but a modern equivalent can be found in those who simply live off the interest from stock market investments, or who just have enough money to not need to work. In contrast, the vast majority are forced into menial, unfulfilling work due to the necessity of earning a wage and avoiding starvation, and thus are unable to freely express their personalities by undertaking activities of their own free choosing. Therefore, to achieve true individualism, freedom and happiness, Wilde argues that ‘every man must be left quite free to choose his own work.’ For if he is forced into work by the necessity of earning an income, ‘his work will not be good for him, will not be good in itself, and will not be good for others. And by work I simply mean activity of any kind.’ (Wilde, 2016:6).

Now, immediately, this ‘true’ Individualism may strike many as obviously desirable, but practically unrealistic. If we are free to choose to do whatever we want, whatever activities express our unique personalities and thus give us value individually and inherently, such that the product of our activities cannot merely be replaced by another worker like a cog in the machine of the modern labour market, who will do all the boring work? Luckily, Wilde has an answer for this.

For he recognises it is a necessity that in order to keep society going, ‘a portion of our community should practically be in slavery’ to do the unfulfilling, undifferentiating work nobody wants to do, that expresses no individual’s personality (Wilde, 2016:6). But he proposes that instead of humans being enslaved – who should have a right to be free from coercion into activities they find unrewarding and unsatisfying (otherwise how empty is the ‘freedom’ modern capitalist society so prides itself in providing) – instead machinery should be. However, under the capitalist system of ruthless competition, such that the prioritisation of profits over all else becomes a matter of life and death for firms, Wilde asserts that man has become ‘the slave of machinery’. He states that ‘one man secures the produce of the machine and keeps it, and has five hundred times as much as he should have… Were that machine the property of all, everyone would benefit by it.’ (Wilde, 2016:13). And yet, if such exploitation was true in Victorian society, it has only become more pronounced in our current society.

It is not just the employment of machines in factories, shops and farms, but the employment of AI in most aspects of our lives, which has been central in driving economic growth and fuelling the exorbitant profits of modern-day corporations, as the extra revenue generated from the increased output of machines is matched by a lower cost of production from not having to employ or paying human workers less. However, more and more of this profit is being fed into executive’s personal incomes and free dividends (handouts) to investors, rather than being used to raise up the poorest in society (by paying workers more, for whom money isn’t just something to gratify the ego, something to mindlessly accumulate simply because the pursuit of it provides a purpose in life, but a matter of life and death – money which instead sits safely in the bank accounts of billionaire CEOs due to the desire to keep on ruthlessly expanding their businesses without any consideration for societal fairness, any consideration that the poorest in society, simply as a result of being human, might be just as entitled to that money as they are).

Therefore, with the common ownership of machinery – or at least the non-profit, non-exploitative use of it – used to ensure that at the very least everyone has a relatively comfortable existence free from hunger, homelessness, and with access to the basic technology most of us take for granted, perhaps it is our moral duty to forgo the production and enjoyment of unnecessary luxuries until the necessary needs of everyone are fulfilled. By ensuring that all can live a life free from the necessity of degrading, mind-numbingly dull labour, degrading the very humanity of those unfortunate enough to have to undertake it, society can allow for the expression of each individual personality by allowing us to instead freely undertake the activities we want to undertake, which we find fulfilling, and which would give us a much more complete meaning and purpose in life than conventional forms of work currently give us. However, Wilde is quick to stipulate that this would be conditional on the non-impingement of that activity on the freedom of others to express their own personalities through their own activities, otherwise, once again, you’d fall into the trap of false, not true, individualism.

It is also key to note that, unlike some other thinkers, although Wilde recognises that in modern society the best way a person may be able to truly express their personality is through art, partly because it is the activity which has the least possibility of authority being exercised over it, he in no way restricts the expression of a personality to the medium of art. He states: ‘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 the 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, 2016:11). Therefore, the expression of one’s personality is, unlike in current capitalistic society, not just restricted to a select few, but available for all to realise.

However, issues in Wilde’s thinking arise when he starts asserting the complete malleability of human nature. He claims that ‘the only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes’, which he uses to justify the impracticability of his societal vision (Wilde, 2016:26). This denial of human nature allows him to assert that once true Individualism is achieved, and the individual finds full expression of their personality in their activity, they will automatically lose all selfishness and egotism, for if someone can live ‘fully, perfectly… without exercising restraint on others, or suffering it ever, and his activities are all pleasurable to him, he will be saner, healthier, more civilised, more himself.’ (Wilde, 2016:30). He asserts that the true realisation of a personality will ‘not be always meddling with others, or asking them to be like itself. It will love them because they will be different.’ (Wilde, 2016:8).

However, evolutionary theory would argue otherwise. It would argue that the pressures of natural selection have imbued us all, to varying degrees as result of genetic variation, with inherent tendencies towards greed, competition, ambition and the accrual of status. These tendencies are therefore an unavoidable part of our personalities, and so any true expression of our personalities must account for them (the supposed absence of these tendencies amongst our tribal ancestors is often cited as evidence that culture is able to eradicate them, however, it has been discovered that these tribal societies were in fact much more violent, competitive and domineering than had previously been thought (Pinker, 2003:56-57)). Thus, a society aiming at being free from greed and competition would unfortunately have to suppress those tendencies through coercion – the exact opposite of what Wilde advocates, for he claims that all forms of coercion are tyranny.

And so, there seems to be two ways one can deal with the undesirable side of human nature. The first would be to enforce limits on human activity in order to avoid, or at least reduce, these tendencies, and thus forcibly reduce the exercise and pursuit of power over others such that others remain free to realise their own personalities. However, the issue with solely using this method is that, if taken too far, it would likely end up preventing the expression of many personalities, because the expression of some personalities may actually involve the exercising of power over others, and the expression of inherent greed and pursuit of status. Therefore, a more desirable solution (although one which would still require a minimal amount of negative coercion in the form of laws) would be to shift the sphere of activity upon which the unavoidable greed and pursuit of power is exercised towards more desirable, societally beneficial ends, but whilst maintaining that participation in those activities is voluntary – i.e. that the alternative to participation in them is not starvation.

By shifting the sphere of activity in which we compete for the accrual of status and power towards less harmful and more beneficial ends than that of the blind pursuit of money, the traditional forms of hierarchy and power relations present in companies would still exist, but all manual and repetitive labour would be undertaken by machines. As every human would have the same income (a universal basic income in its purest, funded by state control of the businesses’ revenues, and given that the business itself would not be run on money), the business activity would not be coercively exploitative – a) because all employees have freely chosen to work in the company, and b) because every human in society receives the same income regardless of the nature of the activity they undertake, with which they can all buy their basic necessities and a certain amount of luxuries (for machines are doing all the manual work much more efficiently than humans, so there would be no shortage of basic goods).

Yes, this still maintains the greed, domination and power relations Wilde wishes to eradicate, but again, any society will have to allow for these tendencies unless it exercises direct coercion to repress them, and so all this society is doing is directing those tendencies towards the provision of basic human rights (I’d argue that equality of income and living standards is a basic human right, to which one should be entitled simply as a result of being human, for we don’t choose our inherent predispositions towards hard work, intelligence, financial ability, IQ). Through obeying and following orders, though this might entail a form of coercion, one might actually realise their personality; obeying a higher up may be what they are temperamentally inclined towards, and may be something they enjoy. For others, the full expression of their personality could be realised through leadership, generating ideas, self-autonomy, or a multitude of other roles and activities too numerous to list here.

In this respect, modern society is to be commended for the variety of the jobs it has created, and thus for its creation of the potential for the expression of many different types of personality. But, unfortunately, due to its inherent valuation of money over people, it goes nowhere near far enough in recognising the equal worth of these different expressions of personalities by rewarding them equally, or in ensuring that the ends these activities are aimed at are socially beneficial, rather than exploitative; or that all these roles are equally accessible – i.e. that those who are currently undertaking an activity are doing so because they want to, rather than because what they really want to do isn’t financially rewarding, and thus they can’t live comfortably whilst pursuing it (the archetype of course being the arts, a pursuit for which most people who’d like to dedicate themselves towards choose not to, often as a result of parental pressure, because it is financially unviable). Because we don’t choose our individual personalities, and the activities in which they find pleasure in expressing themselves through, it is simply unfair and immoral to reward some activities through which only some express themselves, over other activities through which others do – assuming, of course, the activity in no way encroaches on the freedom of others to pursue their own activities.

With the rapid development of artificial intelligence and automation, all the menial, dehumanising, unfulfilling jobs no-one wants to do (no one grows up seriously wanting to be a cleaner, factory worker, or receptionist), will not have to be undertaken by humans anymore, whilst the currently exploitative institutions in society, due to their prioritisation of profit above all else – which, unfortunately, due to the omnipresent demands of the market, are most institutions – can be reworked as previously demonstrated to pursue solely societally beneficial ends whilst still allowing for the realisation of the personalities of its employees. And all human endeavours – again, stipulating that such endeavours do not encroach on the freedom of others – would be properly funded and completely voluntary. For, to replace the reward scheme incentivising productive activity that wages currently provides, less harmful mechanisms, such as reputation, recognition by the public as someone doing an activity which benefits society, and your own knowledge that the activity you are doing is societally beneficial, would mean that the lack of such rewards for those who choose not to undertake productive activity (for, like in current society those who live solely off benefits, or dare to brave the waters of an artistic pursuit, there will always be those who would freely choose not to undertake productive activity) would not entail hardship and poverty. It would mean that just because someone doesn’t find the true expression of their personality in work conventionally considered as monetarily rewardable, they would be materially negatively impacted.

Therefore, whilst most conventional forms of work can and will be eliminated due to the advent of automation, leaving their former workers free to undertake activities through which they can truly realise their personalities, many people will choose to undertake the remaining forms of necessary productive-work simply due to the previously mentioned reward-incentives: the innate desire to exercise power over others, and be recognised in the eyes of others and oneself as undertaking societally beneficial activities. As this undertaking is completely voluntary, it will ensure that it will only be chosen by those for whom such an activity is a realisation of their personality, as the alternative for those for whom it is not will no longer be starvation and deprivation, but the undertaking of alternative activities allowing for the realisation of their own, individual, unique personality.

References

Pinker, S., 2003. The Blank Slate. 3rd ed. Penguin Books.

Wilde, O., 2016. The Soul Of Man Under Socialism. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

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