In Oscar Wilde’s, The Soul of Man Under Socialism there are plenty of things about art, individualism private property, how the individual could perfect themselves in the best sort of society and so on.
But there are also bits and pieces that emphasize the value of an individualistic socialism that would see individuals more free to idleness and remove monotonous and degrading work from society.
Read the essay to see how these match up with Wilde’s general vision of the best society or, if you like, just take a look at the quotes below that I’ve collected from the essay that most explicitly draw upon the theme of anti-work.
Wilde starts his essay stating:
The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that 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 fact, scarcely anyone at all escapes.
For Wilde any benefit of private property is wildly (no pun intended) outmatched by its detriments when it comes to how it affects we live and our relations to work:
At present, in consequence of the existence of private property, a great many people are enabled to develop a certain very limited amount of Individualism. They are either under no necessity to work for their living, or are enabled to choose the sphere of activity that is really congenial to them, and gives them pleasure. These are the poets, the philosophers, the men of science, the men of culture – in a word, the real men, the men who have realised themselves, and in whom all Humanity gains a partial realisation. Upon the other hand, there are a great many people who, having no private property of their own, and being always on the brink of sheer starvation, are compelled to do the work of beasts of burden, to do work that is quite uncongenial to them, and to which they are forced by the peremptory, unreasonable, degrading Tyranny of want.
It is also interesting to note that “property as nuscience” makes it sound like a very laborious task and this is indeed what Wilde is driving at. Private property, for Wilde, makes us all work a lot harder than we need to because of the duties it imposes on us. If we want to have a more leisure filled society then, according to Wilde, we need to abolish private property.
The possession of private property is very often extremely demoralising, and that is, of course, one of the reasons why Socialism wants to get rid of the institution. In fact, property is really a nuisance. Some years ago people went about the country saying that property has duties. They said it so often and so tediously that, at last, the Church has begun to say it. One hears it now from every pulpit. It is perfectly true. Property not merely has duties, but has so many duties that its possession to any large extent is a bore. It involves endless claims upon one, endless attention to business, endless bother. If property had simply pleasures, we could stand it; but its duties make it unbearable. In the interest of the rich we must get rid of it.
In this next quote we can see what definition Wilde is using and has been using all along. He doesn’t consider “work” to just be wage-labor, or merely compulsory labor but all activity. This is a far broader definition then I would give work so it is no surprise Wilde calls for its radical reconstruction instead of abolition.
Every man must be left quite free to choose his own work. No form of compulsion must be exercised over him. If there is, 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.
Here is a great passage on how work exists in Wilde’s time.
And as I have mentioned the word labour, I cannot help saying that a great deal of nonsense is being written and talked nowadays about the dignity of manual labour. There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities, and should be regarded as such. To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours, on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine.
Wilde’s solutions to the problems of work? Machinery.
All unintellectual labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by 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.
There is no doubt at all that this is the future of machinery, and just as trees grow while the country gentleman is asleep, so while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated 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.