Oscar Wilde was a Better Marxist than the Bolsheviks, Part 3

“‘Know thyself’ was written over the portal of the antique world.  Over the portal of the new world, ‘Be thyself’ shall be written.”

Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”

I have already made the argument that Karl Marx and Oscar Wilde share a particularly libertarian vision of socialism. I have also already speculated what Wilde’s socialism would have to look like. In this final part, I want to explore the view of individualism under socialism that makes it libertarian, particularly in the words of Wilde and Marx. Let’s begin with the question Wilde asks:

But it may be asked how individualism, which is now more or less dependent on the existence of private property for its development, will benefit by the abolition of such private property?

He answers:

Under [socialism], individualism will be far freer, far finer, and far more intensified than it is now… For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses.

Wilde’s answer reveals an existentialist’s view of socialism. For Wilde, individualism is self-making, rather than self-acceptance as is the individualism of Ayn Rand. That left-wing libertarianism is existentialist comes as no shock to anyone familiar with the neo-Marxist work of the nineteen sixties and their near obsession with young Marx. It is young Marx, the humanist, who celebrates the individual to come under socialism. The individual under capitalism is reduced to the base animal functions since the wages of a worker are reduced to subsistence, only these animal functions may be expressed. The norm then for the worker is to be a brute, an animal, for those are the only pleasures allowed for them. Marx writes,

[M]an (the worker) feels himself to be freely active only in his animal functions–eating, drinking, and procreating, or at most also in his dwelling and in personal adornment–while in his human functions, he is reduced to an animal. (99)

Individuality is not a given, it must be cultivated and requires resources to develop it. The goal of socialism, as we saw in part one, is to provide the resources that will satisfy the animal requirements and allow for the human individuality to emerge. The argument presented against this is that a fully realized individual, e.g. a Lord Byron, must have wealth to be fully realized and there is not enough wealth for everyone to be fully realized. Some people will have to content themselves with pushing the dirt around. Wilde argues against this that socialism is not interested in taking away opportunity as it is in extending it to everybody.

The question then becomes how? Right-wing advocates of capitalism argue that this is simply wishful thinking. It cannot be done. Not everyone can be a poet and philosopher. However, this argument is made on a particular set of unfortunate assumptions about the nature of humankind that amount to an anti-existentialism. The most important of these for our purposes surrounds the confusion between being and having, that is confusing self-realization for the possession of private property. Wilde writes,

[Under capitalism, humankind thinks] that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be. The true perfection of man lies, not in what man has, but in what man is. Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false.

This division between possession and essence is best described by the existentialists a half-century later. Using them to understand Wilde, we can conclude that individualism is living an authentic life, where possessions are merely possessions, things to be used in the pursuit of your life’s goals, not necessities that are merely useful. One must have a personality in order to decide what is useful, it cannot be defined for you by an outside agency, capitalist, socialist, or anything else. Individuality is authenticity and socialism is the necessary condition for it.

[Jesus] said to man, ‘You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself. Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your affection is inside of you. If only you could realise that, you would not want to be rich. Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot… And so, try to so shape your life that external things will not harm you. And try also to get rid of personal property. It involves sordid preoccupation, endless industry, continual wrong. Personal property hinders Individualism at every step.

Individualism is the call to be authentic, to author your own life, to care little for the direction others would have over your life. Contra religion, Wilde emphasizes that there is no set path to authenticity, no prescribable way to live your life.

Father Damien was Christlike when he went out to live with the lepers, because in such service he realised fully what was best in him. But he was not more Christlike than Wagner when he realised his soul in music; or than Shelley, when he realised his soul in song. There is no one type for man. There are as many perfections as there are imperfect men. And while to the claims of charity a man may yield and yet be free, to the claims of conformity no man may yield and remain free at all.

Individualism is what you make of yourself when you no longer have to labor for mere survival. The rich and the middle classes have to think about money all the time, it is how they make it, keep it, and spend it. When you have to think about money all the time you are unable to develop yourself, to become an individual. You are, in effect, reduced to making yourself whatever is easiest, most convenient, and most attractive to those upon whom your happiness depends. And under capitalism, this class includes everybody.

There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else. That is the misery of being poor. What Jesus does say is that man reaches his perfection, not through what he has, not even through what he does, but entirely through what he is.

This notion of individualism echos Marx’s idea of freedom from alienated labor. As Erich Fromm said of Marx, “Socialism… was never as such the fulfillment of life, but the condition for such fulfillment… Marx says quite clearly in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, ‘communism as such is not the aim of human development.’ What, then, is the aim? Quite clearly the aim of socialism is man,” (60). Alienated labor is the particularly capitalist organization of labor which isolates rather than individuates human beings. It breaks people up into specializations, but it also breaks them down into parts, making laborers out of people, or, in a few cases, capitalists. No one is free to be who they want, everyone is compelled by a system designed from without. As Marx said, “alienated labor… alienates man from himself, from his own active function and from other men,” (101). Subjected to our alienated needs human beings become “mentally and physically dehumanized… the self-conscious and self-acting commodity.” In other words, we come to see ourselves and each other as things.

What makes capitalism dangerous is precisely the fact that owning capital seems to fully compensate for the loss. Possessions can be lost, but capital, self-replicating possessions, appear to be just as permanent as authentic being itself. Capitalism, like the Christian ideology it came from, emphasizes an asceticism that forbids individuality because this allows you to replace an authentic existence for a treasure trove of self-creating wealth. Of course, this only works if everyone is made, by incentive or force, to bow to their role in the system. Marx writes,

[The political economy of capitalism] is… [also] the science of asceticism. Its true ideal is the ascetic but usurious miser and the ascetic but productive slave…. The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre or to balls, or to the public house, and the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc. the more you will be able to save and the greater will become your treasure which neither moth nor rust will corrupt–your capital. The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the greater is the saving of your alienated being. Everything which the economist takes from you in the way of life and humanity, he restores to you in the form of money and wealth. (144)

For Marx, the aim of socialism then is liberation from this system. He writes in the manifesto,

All that we want to do away with is the miserable character of this appropriation, under which the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and allowed to live only so far as the interest to the ruling class requires it.

Under socialism, one must not err into thinking that capital is somehow a substitute for individuality, but at the same time, one must not confuse individualism with selfishness. Long before Ayn Rand extolled the virtues of selfishness, Wilde argued that “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them.” Selfishness for Wilde is what altruism is for Ayn Rand. I have already shown that Wilde would have agreed that altruism is bad, but he would have disagreed that selfishness was any different. He condemns egoism, saying,

For the egotist is he who makes claims upon others, and the Individualist will not desire to do that. It will not give him pleasure.

This is because:

Individualism exercises no compulsion over man. On the contrary, it says to man that he should suffer no compulsion to be exercised over him. It does not try to force people to be good. It knows that people are good when they are let alone. Man will develop Individualism out of himself.

And therein lies the great difficulty with individualism, for the freedom to be oneself, is all too often accompanied by the desire to restrict the freedom of others. It was in the name of freedom that slave-holders denounced the abolitionists. “What right have they to take away my freedom to own slaves?” Or as Marx put it, “Freedom is so much the essence of man that even it opponents realize it… No man fights freedom; he fights at most the freedom of others.” Freedom requires the rights of all to freedom. It is not up to the capitalist to decide what a worker’s needs should be, and yet that is exactly what happens. For the capitalists require workers, as much as possible, to resemble the “self-acting commodities” they need them to be. Wilde writes,

[A] man is called selfish if he lives in the manner that seems to him most suitable for the full realisation of his own personality; if, in fact, the primary aim of his life is self-development. But this is the way in which everyone should live… Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognises infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of ones neighbour that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him. A red rose is not selfish because it wants to be a red rose. It would be horribly selfish if it wanted all the other flowers in the garden to be both red and roses. Under Individualism people will be quite natural and absolutely unselfish, and will know the meanings of the words, and realise them in their free, beautiful lives.


Who Is Saving Up for the Future?

In the neoliberal picture of economics, it is a common assumption that workers are indirect beneficiaries from the saving and reinvestment of capitalists in their privately owned businesses. Capitalism thereby provides these laborers with jobs, income, and indeed their very lives. This notion can be found from Bernard de Mandeville (The Fable of The Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits) to Friedrich Hayek (The Fatal Conceit), and popularized in the war cry of Gordon Gekko, “Greed is… good. Greed is right, greed works.” Of course, we are not really talking about “greed” here but “savings and investment”. Put simply, the idea is that by following their own self-interests the capitalists, inadvertently and out of necessity, provide for an army of workers who would otherwise be unable to survive. This all sounds straightforward enough, but there is a problem. This argument is curved three hundred and sixty degrees.

The neoliberalism assumes that the act of saving for new capital expenditures must be the product of the lone action of the enterprises’ owners. Part of the reason for believing this is cultural. The law and most people have–without good reason, mind you–assumed that the product of an enterprise’s efforts belongs exclusively to the owners of its capital. This is the fundamental assumption of capitalism. It is from this assumption that it seems to follow that the reinvestment in an enterprise’s capital is an act of its “owners”. Another reason, more classist and derogatory, comes from a long history of intellectual’s belief that lowly wage-workers were incapable of managing money. The stereotype of the drunken field hand or dock worker embodies the sentiment. Given them more money, according to this classist logic, and they would thoughtlessly spend it on gambling games, booze, and prostitution. This prejudice lingers on centuries later the wreck of capitalist poverty created such desperate people for whom a minutes entertainment was the best they could hope for, and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This is nevertheless the source but not the problem with the neoliberal argument. To see why we’ll need to examine the process of profit from sales.


The neoliberal’s capitalist model looks something like this: the owner of the capital (material components) of an enterprise is assumed to be “owner” of the enterprise itself, and this is true whether or not they work for the company or have ever even laid eyes upon it. As the “owner” of the enterprise, they have rights that extend to the products of the enterprise’s industry. The owners of capital then, own the fruits of labor’s efforts based squarely on the strength of the assumption. As “owners”, they are at liberty to sell these items, (including service labor) for any price they can get and keep all of the profits thereof for themselves. The labor of workers has been assumed to have been contracted out, paid in advance, through fair and just negotiations, before the manufacture and sale of the “product”. The risk of a failure at the market is assumed also to belong entirely to the capitalist and is often invoked as the justification for their keeping the “surplus-value” or profit from sales, over and above the costs of production. If you accept this model, then it does follow that capitalists are saving for the future good of all of society and therefore what is good for the capitalists is the best anyone, capitalist or otherwise, can hope for.

I, obviously, do not accept a neoliberal capitalist model. Against it, I offer the following alternative: when a “product” is sold at the market the price is fixed by the consumers, that is the proceeds of the sale are ultimately set by demand for the product and have nothing whatsoever to do with the way the product was brought about. Consumers lack knowledge of production methods and set price based on relative utility over the cost of a product or service to themselves (this is the Austrian theory). But from the manufacturers’ point of view, the profit of sale comes back somewhat mysteriously, set entirely by the market, with little (including advertising) they can do to change it. It is impossible to tell from this perspective whose productive contributions made the product profitable. The labor of one person and the materials of another are so combined that both were equally necessary for there to be realized any profit at all. If we don’t just assume the capitalist tradition of arbitrarily favoring the material owners of the things in an enterprise as the legal owners of the enterprise itself (and hence its products), we would have to ask ourselves how the profits, set by the market, ought to be divided among the respective contributors to production.

L0000880 Opium den, East end

If we make the uncontroversial assumption that the rewards of group efforts ought to be shared evenly with respect to individual effort then there seems to be no reason to accept the fundamental assumption of capitalism. What gives capitalists the priority claim except for mere arbitrary tradition? And if we reject their claim, then the notion that workers owe their lives and livelihoods to capitalist’s self-interest goes right out the window; for if the profit is evenly shared then so too would be any saving and reinvestment in the capital of the enterprise. Worker’s can be seen to have been forced to save, so that money could be invested into the capital of an enterprise which they will benefit from only in the sense that the grist mill benefits from laboring because then its owners’ oil its parts. In short, if the profits are evenly shared, the savings are also.

But the stereotype persists, so that were the workers not “forced” to save, they would be very unlikely to reinvest, choosing instead to drink away their profits. I find this notion laughable, as I think of all the sodden millionaires, slurping Moet & Chandon, at some gala or another; no one accuses them of monetary impropriety. The fact is that laborers have more reason to invest in a company they own and work at than either an investor or an employee. The point here is that seen my way, the saving-act is really just as or even more legitimately an effort of laborers. We could view and should view laborers as the legitimate owners of the product, and so they either should have been paid more for their labor or they forwent the enjoyment of that income to invest it in the enterprises’ capital. It’s the assumption that capitalists should be considered the rightful owners of the products of industry and not all the members of that company that makes the neoliberal argument circular. The neoliberal cannot both assume the ownership of the products and use that assumption to justify the ownership of the means of production. This argument fails to prove that it is the capitalist who is really providing for the livelihood of the workers. It may just turn out that it is the workers who are really saving the money thus providing not only for themselves but all of the capitalist’s excessive wealth in addition.

jerrold william blanchard london c13856 05.jpg

It would surprise few on the left to learn that a similar kind of argument was used in defense of slavery in antebellum America. The idea was that slaves, being nearly as dumb as animals, couldn’t be expected to provide for themselves outside their native habitats. Being now caught up in an “extended order” (to use Hayek’s term for a society where almost none provide everything for themselves a bit anachronistically) they would not be able to survive without the slave-masters to provide for them. They owe their livelihoods and their very lives to the master’s efforts. So, the well-intended sympathies of intellectual elites and moralists who would abolish slavery can’t see that they would destroy the very material foundations that made the slave’s lives possible in the first place. But we know better today! It was not the slaves who depended on the masters’ benevolence for their livelihood, it was the masters who depended on the slave’s labors for theirs. It was mere contrivance that–like a funhouse mirror–makes it appear upside-down. Sadly, the “funhouse” is the “courthouse” and the “mirror of distortion” is the “law”.

The neoliberal argument pits an ideological morality against a supposed material economic necessity but is itself a reversal of the truth. The ideological morality is an empty vision that all too conveniently enables the mechanisms of economic oppression. The material economic necessity is built with the sweat of labor. The laborers provide the material necessity and the capitalists appropriate the excess with ideological morality.

To save money is exactly the same thing as to earn money, profit is savings and savings is profit, from an individual point of view. It is only when we consider society as a whole that we can see that the two are not the same. This Keynesian insight has largely been forgotten, but it plays a role both in the need to establish a guaranteed income and in arguing against the neoliberal conception of capitalism.

Marx wrote: “Political economy, the science of wealth, is, therefore, at the same time, the science of renunciation, of privation and of saving, which actually succeeds in depriving man of fresh air and of physical activity. This science of a marvelous industry is at the same time the science of asceticism. Its true ideal is the ascetic but usurious miser and the ascetic but productive slave… The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre or to balls, or to the public house, and the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc. the more you will be able to save and the greater will become your treasure which neither moth nor rust will corrupt–your capital. The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the greater is the savings of your alienated being. Everything which the economist takes from you in the way of life and humanity, he restores to you in the form of money and wealth.” (Marx’s Concept of Man, 144)

If the saving that enables both the reinvestment and the profits of the wealthy is, in fact, a forced saving on labor, then they are the “ascetic but productive slave” Marx mentions. And as I said above, the strength of the neoliberal argument for savings is carried entirely by assumption. We need only ask ourselves, by what right can capitalist’s claim ownership if we do not accept the neoliberal argument from tradition? Here I think is where the argument for private property ownership laid out in Locke, based on both a need for exclusive use and expenditure of labor to acquire comes into play. It is from this justification that we can see the neoliberal assumption to be false. And what is more, it not only reveals the assumption to be false but proves that it is laborers that are or could be the true owners of the means of production. They alone could meet both of the necessary conditions for private property ownership.