Saving the Soul of Man: Individualism, Old and New

I recently read Oscar Wilde’s fine 1891 essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism and would heartily recommend it (especially to my brothers and sisters in the United States!) as an excellent way to allay any fears that “socialism” inevitably means the sacrifice of the individual upon some collectivist alter of “the greater good”.

Rather, Wilde argues that libertarian forms of socialism offer the best way to realise the full potentialities of all individuals living in society. This he calls the new individualism, to contrast it with the old individualism of classical economics’ “rational hedonism” : the self-maximization of individual utility by an atomised “homus economicus” for whom “there is no such thing as society” (Margaret Thatcher) because society is merely “the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it” (Jeremy Bentham).

Oscar Wilde, photographed by Napoleon Sarony in 1882

First the “old” individualism then. The legacy of classical liberalism and the enlightenment, in my view, was to challenge the State’s co-option of the individual to serve its ends. This had traditionally been justified according to the divine right of kings – the King being God’s sanctioned representative on Earth, whose lineage should perhaps, at least in principle, be traced back to King Saul of the Israelites. The point being that you don’t argue with God, so you don’t argue with the right of the King to rule. You shut up and accept your designated place within feudal society, perhaps hoping for recompense in some presumed afterlife – George Orwell’s “Sugarcandy Mountain” perhaps?

The enlightenment subjected the doctrine of the divine right of kings to the full light of reason and found it wanting. Intellectual and popular agitations culminated in the French revolution and the concept of the individual as mere pawn in the King’s game of divine rule was finally consigned to the dustbin of history. The idea that the individual could be an end in himself was ready to take root, and so the enlightenment set itself the task of establishing its seed in the soil of classical liberalism and classical political economy.

This idea of the individual man as an end in himself is set out quite early and quite beautifully in Wilhelm Von Humboldt’s classic essay The Limits of State Action:

“…man never regards what he possesses as so much his own, as what he does; and the labourer who tends a garden is perhaps in a truer sense its owner, than the listless voluptuary who enjoys its fruits…In view of this consideration, it seems as if all peasants and craftsman might be elevated into artists; that is, men who love their labour for its own sake, improve it by their own plastic genius and inventive skill, and thereby cultivate their intellect, ennoble their character, and exalt and refine their pleasures. And so humanity would be ennobled by the very things which now, though beautiful in themselves, so often serve to degrade it…

[in contrast] Whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being, but remains alien to his true nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness…”

The individual’s free development was to be safeguarded via the institution of private property, which was to secure the producer (and not the King or feudal nobility) the full rights to what was produced. Keep in mind the aim: the cultivation of free self-perfecting individuals. Private property was intended by the likes of Humboldt, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, amongst many others, as a mere means to this end, not as an end in itself. For example Mill writes in his book  Principles of Political Economy that:

“The laws of property have never yet conformed to the principles on which the justification of private property rests. They have made property of things which never ought to be property, and absolute property where only a qualified property ought to exist. They have not held the balance fairly between human beings, but have heaped impediments upon some, to give advantage to others; they have purposely fostered inequalities, and prevented all from starting fair in the race. …

Private property, in every defense made of it, is supposed to mean the guarantee to individuals of the fruits of their own labour and abstinence. The guarantee to them of the fruits of the labour and abstinence of others, transmitted to them without any merit or exertion of their own, is not of the essence of the institution, but a mere incidental consequence, which, when it reaches a certain height, does not promote, but conflicts with, the ends which render private property legitimate.”

Mills’ “ends which render private property legitimate” are of course the cultivation of free individuals and not mere feudal serfs (or indeed “wage slaves”) carrying out their appointed duties with a “mechanical exactness” devoid of “truly human energies”.

Such was the expressed intent of  “the old individualism”. We now fast-forward several decades to Wilde’s essay on “the new individualism”, written with the benefit of hindsight. Did a reformed institution of private property succeed in realising its (alleged) aims? Wilde thinks not. More, he thinks that in making private property and the market into Mammonite gods to replace the divine authority of the King, the liberal ideal of cultivating the free individual went completely astray:

“For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses. It has led Individualism entirely astray. It has made gain not growth its aim. So that man thought 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. It has debarred one part of the community [the poor] from being individual by starving them. It has debarred the other part of the community [the rich] from being individual by putting them on the wrong road [materialism], and encumbering them.”

This “true perfection of man” Wilde terms the new individualism and for him socialism – the abolition of private ownership of productive property –  is the way of realizing it. The poor are no longer to be starved and the rich are no longer to spoil themselves through gluttony. Necessary though drudgeorous work is to be automated and performed by machines, thus freeing every individual for self-cultivation:

“At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man. There is no doubt at all that this is the future of machinery, and just as trees grow while the country gentleman is asleep, while humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivating leisure – which, and not labour, is the aim of man – or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the  necessary and unpleasant work.”

How sad we live in a world where economic growth continues unabated and the question of whether it should be channeled into ever more production or the freeing of time for contemplation and the development of the individual cannot be asked – market systems seem incapable of suffering such a question to be asked. Bertrand Russell captured the absurdity of this situation wittily in his essay In Praise of Idleness:

“Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price.

In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?”

Whether machines will really be able to do “all the necessary and unpleasant work” remains an open question, but they could surely do a great deal more of it than they do today – where recall that there is an army of reserve workers who have little choice but to do this work, on pain of impoverishment and misery should they refuse – and hence the reigning oligarchy has little interest in lessening their burden through automation (if anything their inclination is the opposite – an exhausted and hence mentally debased workforce is less likely to offer them any resistance). Were humanity instead to apply itself to the task of automating drudgery in earnest, who knows how far it could be taken? Perhaps as far as is desired, or else any remaining “necessary and unpleasant work” could be fairly shared.

In order that we may produce beautiful things as well as necessary things – roses as well as bread –  Wilde’s socialism is necessarily a libertarian socialism. Wilde characterizes the individual realizing his latent potentialities most perfectly as “the artist”. His “artist” is not to be subject to the forces of supply and demand governing the production of necessities under socialism, because:

“A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or a dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist. Art is the most intense mode of Individualism that the world has known. I am inclined to say that it is the only real mode of Individualism that the world has known.”

Rather, “the artist” must be let alone, left free to develop his latent potentialities, left ungoverned, because all authority is equally fatal to individualism/art:

“People sometimes inquire what form of government is most suitable for an artist to live under. To this question there is only one answer. The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all. Authority over him and his art is ridiculous. It has been stated that under despotisms artists have produced lovely work. This is not quite so. Artists have visited despots, not as subjects to be tyrannised over, but as wandering wonder-makers, as fascinating vagrant personalities, to be entertained and charmed and suffered to be at peace, and allowed to create. There is this to be said in favour of the despot, that he, being an individual, may have culture, while the mob, being a monster, has none. One who is an Emperor and King may stoop down to pick up a brush for a painter, but when the democracy stoops down it is merely to throw mud. And yet the democracy have not so far to stoop as the emperor. In fact, when they want to throw mud they have not to stoop at all. But there is no necessity to separate the monarch from the mob; all authority is equally bad.”

Hence if we desire true art then artists must be let alone to do such as they individually please. Is this then a selfish individualism? Wilde tackles that objection with aplomb:

“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 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 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.”

A red rose. Libertarian Socialism (a.k.a. anarchism) should cultivate our roses (in all colours!) as well as baking our bread, because “man cannot live by bread alone”.

One often hears (old) individualism criticised on the grounds of its selfishness, and with significant justification I feel. For example, in his excellent recent book The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology, Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

“In modern life people think their bodies belong to them and they can do what they want to themselves. “We have the right to live our lives”, they say. The law supports such a deceleration; that is one of the manifestations of individualism. But according to the teachings of the Buddha, your body is not yours. Your body belongs to your ancestors, your parents, and future generations. It also belongs to society and to the other living beings. All of them have come together – the trees, the clouds, the soil, everything – to bring about the presence of this body. Our bodies are like the Earth. And there is the Bodhisattva Earth Holder, holding everything together.

Nhat Hanh calls this concept “inter-being”. We “inter-are” with our ancestors and our descendants. I think of people’s lives as being like a stone thrown into a pond. The stone is seen to disappear, but the ripples carry on afterwards. The pond is changed forever – the effects of the ripples play out over its surface forever. What is you and what is other people? Everything we are and do has been influenced by the “ripples” of other “stones”. We carry the lives of our ancestors within us through their influences upon our own thoughts and actions. Did they ever really die? Shall we? No, we shall all live on through our children and their children.

How long we shall all live on together depends upon our actions today – it may not be much longer if our “inter-being” remains unrecognized by most of us. A selfishly individualistic culture whose fruits are nuclear weapons and ecocide is a serious danger to our survival and as Nhat Hanh writes:

“The only alternative to co-existence is co non-existence”

So I agree with Nhat Hahn’s condemnation of “the old individualism” as well as with Wilde’s celebration of “the new individualism”. I think we can agree with both. Notice that Nhat Hahn criticizes one manifestation of individualism and not the manifestation of it per se. I interpret what is being criticised as Adam Smith’s vile maxim of the masters of mankind: “All for ourselves and nothing for other people”. I think that such a selfish individualism does not really deserve to be called individualism, because it aims at accomplishing individual fulfillment through denying it to others. It is trying to demand all flowers in “my” garden be red roses (and moreover all belong to me, not to themselves).

That, sadly, was the outcome of the classical liberal project of private property and “free” markets. As anarchist historian Rudolf Rocker lamented  some decades after Wilde’s essay, in his book Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice:

“Democracy with its motto of equality of all citizens before the law, and Liberalism with its right of man over his own person, both were wrecked on the realities of capitalist economy. As long as millions of human beings in every country have to sell their labour to a small minority of owners, and sink into the most wretched misery if they can find no buyers, the so-called equality before the law remains merely a pious fraud, since the laws are made by those who find themselves in possession of the social wealth. But in the same way there can be no talk of a right over one’s own person, for that right ends when one is compelled to submit to the economic dictation of another if one does not want to starve.”

In contrast to the “old individualism” of the classical liberal democracies, Wilde’s “new individualism”, yet to be born from a libertarian socialism, seeks not to deny society, solidarity and “inter-being” but to employ our understanding of them to help every member of society cultivate their diverse individuality. I think it is an individualism appropriate to our 21st century civilisation. Perhaps it is also the form of individualism needed to save that civilisation from an untimely death? When we have become so many lemmings marching towards a cliff, it takes a staunch individualist to head the opposite way. But upon watching them pass, perhaps others may pause for thought and decide to follow? Therein lies my hope for humanity.


~ by freedomthistime on July 6, 2012.

One Response to “Saving the Soul of Man: Individualism, Old and New”

  1. Enjoyed the essay David. Thought I might leave you with a John Cage quote I have been carrying in my wallet for close on twenty years now. Perhaps Wilde may have agreed?

    “When a composer feels a responsibility to make rather than accept, he eliminates from the area of possibility all those events that do not suggest this at that point in time vogue for profundity. For he takes himself seriously, wishes to be considered great, and he thereby diminishes his love and increases his fear and concern about what people will think.There are many serious problems confronting such an individual. He must do it better, more impressively, more beautifully, etc than anybody else. And what precisely, does this, this beautiful profound object, this masterpiece, have to do with Life? It has this to do with Life: that it is separate from it. now you see it and now you don’t. When we see it we feel better and when we are away from it, we don’t feel so good.” John Cage (published in 1959, written in 1952)

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