The Soul of Man After Neoliberalism

by Jeremy Gilbert

Oscar Wilde's socialism reminds us that social conservatism and neoliberal individualism are not the only political philosophies possible.

First published: 29 January, 2014 | Category: Culture, Philosophy and Theory

When one considers the dilemmas which have faced the British Left in recent years, it is hard to think of a historical document with greater conceptual—if not practical—relevance than ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism.' As the egalitarian moralists of Blue Labour and now 'One Nation Labour'[1] seek to claim inheritance of the labour movement, banishing forever the evil spirits of Blairite individualism and market consumerism, the question has never been more urgent: what might a politics look like which rejected both the crass commercialism and unalloyed elitism of neoliberal culture and the conformist moralism which has normally characterised the social democratic tradition in the UK? 

The problem of how to relate to consumer capitalism has never gone away for the British Left. The Fordist-Keynesian orthodoxy of the post-war years seemed to have discovered a magic formula: paying the working classes a steadily-improving wage, which they could then spend on the steadily-expanding range of consumer durables that they themselves had made. But it always depended on a very measured and modest set of expectations from those worker-consumers, happy to accept a limited range of lifestyle choices and social identities: men were expected to accept their role as breadwinner and paterfamilias with very little variation in how these roles could be interpreted; educational options were narrowly restricted at all levels of society; immigrants were expected to assimilate; it was possibly the worst time in history to be gay; there were very few choices for the woman who didn’t want to be a housewife, etc. And this lack of freedom went along with a very modest range of choices in the marketplace: 'You can have any colour you like, as long as it’s black,' Henry Ford famously told his customers.  There were many reasons why this formula stopped working, but one of them was the fact that the 1960s posed in a very public way the question on which Wilde invites us to reflect: why, in a world of plenty, should every one of us not aspire to the life of an aesthete, a dandy, a sensualist; and what, indeed, is the point of eliminating poverty at all, if not to enable such a possibility to be actualised? 

It was this desire, as much as any other, which neoliberalism captured, capitalised, monetized, and sold back to us in debased forms. In the process it successfully destabilised and then demolished the ground on which social democracy had once stood, offering us excessive and compulsive consumption as the pay-off for the disintegration of social solidarity. For New Labour, the only possible response was to accept the neoliberal story about what the desire for nicer food, homes, clothes and holidays meant: namely, that the public wanted deregulation of all markets, commodification of public services, and the extension of the logic of consumerism to every area of social life. The fact that every possible measure of public opinion[2] told a different story didn’t seem to matter, and New Labour never seemed to understand why the same people who so loved Bluewater, or even Barcelona, seemed to get cross at them for covertly privatising large chunks of the education and health services. 

The problem with the ‘Blue’ tendency in the Labour Party is that it has seemed equally unable to grasp the complexity of popular desire, only able to critique New Labour by reversing its priorities, but retaining its founding conviction that the one choice to be made is between a conservative communitarianism and crass competitive individualism. And so we end up with the spectacle of an opposition which seems to believe that the only basis on which to criticise neoliberal capitalism is to complain that it produces too much immigration. What neither of these positions is able to grasp is precisely the position which is already implicit in the apparent paradoxes of popular desire and which Wilde tries to spell out for us here: that the desire for self-expression, for individuality, for sensory pleasure, for comfort and beauty, for cosmopolitan urbanity and aesthetic sophistication, are not the same thing at all as the desire for capitalism.[3]

The Social and Artistic Critiques of Capitalism

The implications of Wilde’s essay today are to remind us that the desire for the bounty and convenience which mass consumerism makes possible should never be mistaken for an implicit endorsement of the system of social relations currently underpinning their current mode of delivery. This isn’t a new or controversial argument: it is already implicit in Marx’s assertion that capitalist development was necessary to produce the infrastructure which socialists would socialise. But it offers a powerful resource with which to challenge prevailing attitudes on both Right and Left. 

From Wilde’s perspective, the problem with capitalism is that it just isn’t good enough at—and doesn’t deliver enough of—the very things that it claims to be able to deliver, from personal freedom to sensuous luxury.  In this sense, Wilde offers a fascinating synthesis of what Boltanski & Chiapello call the ‘social’ and ‘artistic’ critiques of capitalism[4]. According to these influential French sociologists, it is possible to divide the history of anti-capitalist ‘critique’ into these two broad trends: an aesthetic critique of the fact that capitalism produces a culture which is, to put it crudely, ugly and boring; and a moral critique of capitalism’s tendency to iniquity and inequality. It is debatable to what extent Boltanski & Chiapello deploy this distinction—as critics such as Maurizio Lazzarato insist they do[5]—in order to attribute superior authority and efficacy to the ‘social critique’ and to distance it from the bourgeois (or even aristocratic) bohemianism of the ‘artistic critique.' At times this seems to be the argument that they are making; at other times, their position seems to be that the two critiques work best together. What is certain is that Wilde’s position in 'The Soul of Man' incorporates both into one powerful polemic, and refutes any suggestion that they must be separate. 

The Politics of the Aesthetic and the Nature of Freedom

The terms and tone of this polemic raise two fascinating questions about the fundamentals of political thought. Firstly: what is the relationship between ethics, politics and aesthetics? On the one hand, Wilde’s tone here is profoundly ethical, in its assertion of the value of the ‘Christlike’ personality. On the other hand, it is clear that the appeal even of Christ is for Wilde primarily aesthetic, a vision of the beautiful life. This is an ‘ethics’ purely in the Foucauldian sense of a system of self-fashioning and self-stylisation. This is a position easy to dismiss as merely the aristocratic posturing of a privileged aesthete. But before succumbing to any such dismissive attitude, try the following thought experiment. Ask yourself what your most basic and unquestioned political principles are, the abstract generalities informing all of your particular positions. Let’s suppose you have answered ‘justice’ or ‘freedom’ or even ‘openness to the other.' Now ask yourself again, how you would reply to an opponent who dismissed these principles, or merely a neutral questioner asking why they should care about justice, freedom or openness to the other, if they don’t happen spontaneously to do so. My suggestion (which is also Nietzsche’s, arguably) is that any properly objective interrogation of this issue will quickly find that one’s preferences for such things are themselves ultimately aesthetic in character, based on an impression of what the beautiful life, or society, might be. It is ultimately the ugliness of injustice, unfreedom, inequality and greed which we find so repellent, and it is Wilde’s implicit honesty about this issue which makes his approach so compelling. 

Of course, this question itself raises the question of where such notions of beauty might come from in themselves. They might be, as Pierre Bourdieu most famously posits,[6] merely expressions of the social location of particular groups, of their will to self-definition and mutual differentiation. A slightly more complex understanding of Bourdieu, or an analysis derived from other sources (Spinoza, Marx, Nietzsche, Gramsci, Deleuze), might suggest that in some sense such ideas of beauty always relate to the interests and bundles of potentiality of which various social groups share. Perhaps the beautiful is such because it expresses the agency and creative potential inherent in whatever situation it emerges from; certainly such ideas had a powerful currency at the end of the nineteenth century, in the work of thinkers ranging from Pater to Nietzsche to William Morris. If this is so, then any attempt ultimately to dissociate ‘ethical’ from ‘aesthetic’ and ‘political’ concepts might be flawed and banal from the start. Still, Wilde’s radical aestheticism at least poses the question of their relationship in a challenging and refreshing way. 

Secondly: Wilde is clearly very much concerned with the question of individual freedom. ‘Individualism’ is the unproblematically positive term in the essay, and this poses a problem, at least for me. I would argue strongly—although there is no space to elaborate on this here—that individualism, properly understood, is the key idea to which all radical thought and practice must be opposed[7]. The belief that the irreducible individual is the basic unit of human experience, that social relations are things which happen to the individual rather than the very things which constitute the person, and that private experience and private property must therefore be accorded a privileged status in both the cultural and legal spheres, has been the central strand of bourgeois thought at least since the 17th century. It is an idea which, today, neoliberal policies go out of their way to enforce on every social scene—for example obliging public service users and providers to treat their relationship as a retail transaction, even where they have no wish to do so. 

However, it is not at all clear that this is what Wilde means by his use of the rather all-encompassing term ‘individualism.' How could it be, in fact, given that Wilde clearly sees no incompatibility between his ‘individualism’ and socialism as he conceives it? The way out of this paradox is to notice what it is that Wilde himself counterposes to ‘individualism’: not collectivism, but authoritarianism and unfreedom. What Wilde is trying to express here, I would suggest, is not so much ‘individualism’ as understood by scholars (critical or supportive, conservative or radical) of the liberal tradition, but that same form of actually non-individualist libertarianism which various thinkers in the radical tradition have struggled to articulate: from Marx, who dreams that under communism, he will be able to ‘hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic,' to Deleuze, who valorises ‘the emission of singularities’ as the expression of the creative potential of all matter, to Hardt and Negri, who argue for the revolutionary ‘multitude’ as an ensemble of singularities. In each of these cases, the freedom which is sought is not the freedom to ‘be oneself,' or to defend one’s rights, but to allow the multiple potentialities and intersecting relations which constitute the person to express themselves as fully and multifariously as possible: to enable people to allow themselves (as the musician and producer Arthur Russell did, according to David Toop) 'the full extent of their complexity.'[8]

Is this just a case of special pleading, my claim that despite his terminology Wilde is actually an enemy of individualism as such? Possibly. Wilde’s arguments against all compulsion in this essay can certainly be read as an expression of a naive anarchism which is ultimately unable to break with bourgeois conceptions of freedom and selfhood, like his childish appeals to the value of complete independence. And yet even the latter must at least be understood as an acute observation of the extent to which capitalism, as Marx always argued, produces unprecedented levels of dense and globalised interdependence at the level of production, even while it claims to make us free agents in the marketplace. And whatever we may make of the details, Wilde’s call for a politics which advocates socialism not because it is just or good, but because it would make us all freer and our lives more sensuously pleasurable, is a salutary reminder today that social conservatism and neoliberal individualism are not the only political philosophies possible. 

This article is part of NLP’s series, The Soul of Man under Socialism.

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London. See. His most recent book is Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism (London: Pluto, 2013).

[1] Arguably ‘One Nation’ is a more open and potentially democratic concept than ‘Blue Labour'—arguably…

[2] See the British Social Attitudes 25th Report (Jan, 2009).

[3] Cf. Mark Fisher, ‘Postcapitalist Desire,’ in What We Are Fighting For: A Radical Collective Manifesto, Federico Campagna and Emanuele Campiglio, eds. (London: Pluto, 2012).

[4] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism ([Gallimard, 1999] Verso, 2005).

[5] Maurizio Lazzarato, Expérimentations Politiques (Éditions Amsterdam, 1999).

[6] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste ([Les Éditions de Minuit, 1979] Routledge, 1986).

[7] See Jeremy Gilbert, Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism (London: Pluto, 2013).

[8] Quoted in the movie Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, dir. Matt Wolf.

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