I recall, about ten years ago, giving a lecture on Oscar Wilde and anarchism, outlining the critique of capitalism implicit in his aesthetic philosophy. The art historian Allan Antliff then spoke about Jacob Epstein’s design for the monument at Wilde’s grave, and the efforts to suppress it, and the role of anarchists in repeatedly unveiling it. At the end, the first question came from a man in the back of the room. “Yes,” he said, his voice beginning as little more than a growl, then rising quickly to a shout, a thick Quebecois accent adding to the dramatic effect. “But what have these petite bourgeois artistes ever done — for the class war!?”
It is, from a certain perspective, a fine question, though it was obviously intended as an objection, or rather a dismissal. Such an inquiry is not in itself unfair, or even unanswerable. One might respond, for instance, by pointing to Wilde’s support for the Haymarket defendants, or his protest against prison conditions, or to the inspiration others have taken from his expressly political writing, The Soul of Man under Socialism especially.
But one also feels that the question rather spectacularly misses the point, as it would seem to represent a perspective on politics, and likely on life, in which all things are weighed on a single scale. It seeks to judge a poem, for example, not by its beauty, or even for its sentiment, but according to its use as a kind of propaganda, its service to a “cause.”
For Wilde such an approach was exactly wrong. Poetry and socialism may come together, but it was the latter that should serve the former. As he declared in the poem “Poetical Socialists,” “to make men Socialists is nothing, but to make Socialism human is a great thing.”
Wilde found in art an exercise in freedom, a source of pleasure, and a mode of value free from moral considerations, the demands of utility, and the dictates of the market. He looked to art as an ideal for labor —creative, meaningful, its products a joy both to make and to use—and as the central element of any life worth living. He therefore thought that society should be organized to foster this sense of beauty —beauty in our surroundings, in our work, in our relationships; in the lives, imaginations, and souls of individual people.
This sense of beauty was to him practically identified with individualism, and to support the development of individuality was socialism’s ultimate objective. Wilde therefore opposed all authority, all regimentation, all uniformity. Perhaps most fundamentally, he was against any system, moral or political, which “treat[s] people as if they were things, and so treat[s] everybody alike,” which tries to impose a single standard or mode of life. He wrote in The Soul of Man under Socialism, “There is no one type for man[; t]here are as many perfections as there are imperfect men.”
The assumption that art must serve a political purpose, or that it serve any purpose beyond itself, is simply a variation of the philistine instrumentalism that Wilde was rebelling against. In my opening anecdote, this view appears in its revolutionary proletarian mode, rather than its commercial, bourgeois form. But it is the same pinched, sad, unimaginative instinct that looks at something wondrous, something beautiful —a poem, a flower, a cool summer evening, or a joyous life— and demands to know what it is for.
Only the question, so closely related, of what price it might fetch, could possibly be as vulgar. With variations, the challenge posed by our Quebecois class-war interlocutor could also have come from any number of militant environmental, post-left, nihilist, feminist, or decolonization perspectives. The focus of the question might shift, but the basis of the objection — the insistence that art must justify itself by demonstrating its utility —remains the same. That outlook —rigid, joyless, and unimaginative— is exactly that which Wilde’s aestheticism opposed.
Under the cobblestones, the sewer!
It is not hard to see how Wilde’s ideas provide a corrective to the self-sacrificing, workaholic, Robert’s Rules, anarcho-stoicism —if only the stoics would listen. What is more interesting, and maybe more urgent, is to discern what message Wilde’s philosophy holds for those other anarchists who in superficialities may seem closer to his position, but in essentials mirror their dull, dour, doctrinaire elders. One of the ironies of the past half-century is that it is precisely among those elements of anarchism most concerned with the textures and contours of daily life, the joy and pleasure of our lived experience, the celebration of creativity and the elaboration of alternative ways of being —I refer, of course, to the counterculture— that aesthetics are most sorely, desperately lacking.
In her essay “Reappropriate the Imagination!” Cindy Milstein notes the way that counter-cultural tendencies end up degrading the creative process and asks: “Why is anarchist art so often a parody of itself, predictable and uninteresting?… Why can’t art made by anti-authoritarians be provocative, thoughtful, innovative— and even composed of materials that can’t be found in a dumpster?” The answer, I believe, is that the counterculture makes an aesthetic of poverty, and finds its aesthetics impoverished as a result.
In 1973, the anthropologist Gail Kelly observed, “hippieism is what hedonism would be like, if it had been invented by Puritans. What could be more ascetic, bleak, and sensually uninformed than living on inadequate food, drugs chosen for their cheapness, and hand-me-down clothing?” It seems those who most persistently call for a renewed sense of beauty in everyday life look for it by living in squalor.
It’s not just the hippies. I recall addressing an anarchist audience a generation later —punks, now; or what had become of punk. I looked out over the crowd, seated in rows, wearing grim white faces and coarse black clothing, and I thought to myself that they resembled nothing so much as a Puritan congregation, only with piercings and tattoos.
It is one thing to live in a run-down, over-crowded, unheated house, to eat from garbage cans, to meet one’s needs through a combination of scamming, scrounging, and shoplifting by necessity, or even from a sense of adventure. It is something else, however, to try to elevate such deprivations to the status of virtues.
Worse still is to look with contempt on people who do not embrace this austerity, who choose instead a certain amount of comfort and security, even if they have to keep calendars, take jobs, and pay rent to achieve it — or who make such sacrifices not on their own behalf, but because they are also responsible for the care of others. This asceticism does nothing to change the world, though it may allow the ascetics to feel somewhat superior.
Perhaps the best example, and worst offender, in this regard is the anonymous book Evasion. The narrator, a carefree, twenty-something, hitch-hiker, dumpster-diver, squatter, professional shoplifter, and self-described “struggling artist,” can only look with disdain at the “living-dead of the ‘work force’” and “the drooling zombies working at the bagel shop” where he hangs out all day scamming free coffee.
He even looks down on other dumpster-divers who, he believes, “were only looking for strictly material wealth” like video games or VCRs. He says of them: “They were the people I was happy to see slave away in the rat race.” Reading Evasion, one is tempted to conclude that voluntary poverty is just another form of snobbery.
The tendency, in translating from radical politics to the counterculture, is to relocate politics to the level of individual choice. By this understanding, politics begins with what you personally do, and then we scale up — or more to the point, we fail to. Individual virtue replaces collective action.
Unable to confront capitalism, powerless to halt ecological destruction, incapable of defeating any existing system of oppression, we turn to what documentary filmmaker Amy Miller described to Chris Dixon as “secular puritanism.” In his book Another Politics, Dixon identified the constitutive elements: “scrutinizing one another’s behavior, creating our own status hierarchies, and excluding those who don’t live up to our righteous standards.”
CrimethInc’s Contradictionary offers this observation as part of its definition of moralism:
Those who cannot achieve their desires, or who despair of doing so, often compensate by constructing imaginary frameworks. For example, if you wish to live in a world in which no one exploits animals, it is moralism to judge those who eat meat immoral instead of setting about disabling the animal exploitation industry. People retreat into moralism as a sort of consolation prize, for it is easier to rule in the realm of good and evil, fictitious as it may be, than to come to terms with our limited leverage upon this world and yet persist in endeavoring to change it.
In the moralist framework, every decision by every individual will be treated as a referendum on society — as though we might through our private gestures of refusal (or is it self-denial?) opt out of the existing order and cleanse ourselves of its stain. And so we judge each other by the trivia of our daily lives —what we eat and wear, what we buy, where we work, how we talk, whom and how we fuck.
Laura Portwood-Stacer, in her ethnography Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism, documents this tendency in appalling detail. In one chapter, she recounts an incident she witnessed while on a road trip with a group of anarchists. One woman, Raychel, bought a bean and cheese burrito for a panhandler. Later one of her friends complains that “Raychel was supporting a system of cruelty” by purchasing dairy, and Raychel then “expresses regret” for buying the food. This pattern of critique and confession is one of the dominant themes in Portwood-Stacer’s depiction of the counter-culture: “I gotta admit,” another of her profiled subjects, Emily, says, “I’m a bad anarchist. I watch a lot of TV.”
“I can’t really consider myself a total anarcho-cyclist,” another interviewed anarchist, Miranda, laments, “because in fact I have a car.” In one interview, an anarchist named Joel explained his philosophy: “Just do whatever the fuck you want, but don’t be, like, promoting what you’re trying to fight against. Like, if you’re, if you’re an anarchist but you’re like, gonna go eat at McDonald’s, you gotta check yourself right there, you know?” And yet another anarchist, Josef, told her,
I wouldn’t want to cipher or hang out with somebody who is like, like, really obsessed with Beyoncé dance routines so they can impress people at the club. . . . I wouldn’t want to like surround myself with, you know, people who watch football games and drink Budweiser and go to strip joints or whatever, who contribute to the violence, you know.
Portwood-Stacer’s chosen subjects sound like a bunch of dumb kids —and more importantly, they sound like assholes— but their attitudes will be painfully familiar to anyone who has encountered their local anarchist scene. Based on such accounts, or similar encounters in one’s own experience, we might begin to assemble a list of individual choices that may be treated as crucial political tests: Do you watch television? own a car? enjoy pornography? football? wear leather? eat meat? dairy? eggs? fast food? For each, there is a presumably correct “anarchist” answer —and the answer is usually No. And so, a philosophy of total liberation becomes an increasingly strict set of prohibitions.
Anarchist ideals become not goals to be sought after or standards of measure —not even constraints to guide our actions— but a series of denials and proscriptions. They cease to move us, and certainly do not inspire anyone else, but instead produce the opposite effect: discouraging, demoralizing, depressing. Our desire for perfection leads not to engagement, but renunciation. Purism too often means that our utopias remain, literally, no place.
Of course, social movements cannot be judged solely in terms of success or failure, victories and defeats —but also according to the possibilities they open up, their power to provoke and inspire, and the ways in which they enrich the lives of those who come into contact with them. And so Wilde saw the importance of beauty —more so, he would say, than justice— in shaping any ideal of freedom worthy of the name.
Anarchists, sometimes to the annoyance of other socialists, have always managed to incorporate the pleasurable aspects of life into our politics and into our struggles: “bread and roses,” a “carnival against capital,” “desire armed,” “Armed Joy,” “Joyful Militancy,” “We’ll be singing when we’re winning,” “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.”
Even so, there is always that minority (and I am sometimes among them) who insist too much on seriousness, who emphasize political work at the expense of political play, who think in practicalities rather than potentialities, demands rather than desires, who never expect —and therefore never see— miracles.
We do still have our stodgy old men —typically syndicalists, ex-Trotskyists, or future Maoists—with their stern faces, their rigid programs, their boring meetings, their dry texts, stale rhetoric, humorless slogans, and sadly earnest platforms. In the standard case, this character suffers a kind of inferiority complex whenever confronted with Marxism, and often as not, borrows his ideas, rhetoric, organizational form, and strategies from the Marxists in order to compensate. (In fact, that only makes the condition worse).
Then there is his opposite number, the scenester, the hipster, the poseur — a type common to every subculture, whose views on politics are exactly on par with his taste in clothing, and just as liable to change. The present fashion, ideologically, is of the “post-left” variety, characterized chiefly by a hatred of the quasi-marxism described above, leading to an in-principle rejection of —to borrow Wolfi Landstreicher’s list in From Politics to Life: Ridding Anarchy of the Leftist Millstone— politics, organization, democracy, demands, progress, identity, collectivism, and ideology. What must strike any outside observer is how well these two opposing types resemble one another —their moralism and obsessive purity, their rigid and doctrinaire thinking, the strict adherence to articles of faith even in the face of overriding evidence, the long and destructive heresy-hunts, and the bitter sectarian squabbling.
Wilde’s anarchism, in contrast to both these current types, was hostile to all forms of dogma and all varieties of Puritanism. It was, at once, aristocratic and egalitarian; socialist, yet suspicious of popular authority; individualist, but sympathetic and generous; radical, but not reductionist; militant, yet gentle and humane; engaged and still utopian. One need hardly ask how well Wilde —with his Oxford education, his aristocratic bearing, his Christian rhetoric, his shameless egotism, and his love for teenaged boys— would be welcomed in contemporary anarchist circles. One might, on the contrary, wonder whether such circles would be attractive enough to justify him making the effort.
If anarchism is to become, again, a beautiful idea alive in the minds of millions of people, guiding them like a star on their journey to freedom, we must concentrate our attention as much on our hopes, and desires, and aspirations as on the injustices we oppose and the oppressions we suffer.
Wilde’s essay The Soul of Man under Socialism may help remind us of our half-forgotten ideals, but as important, the playful and irreverent attitude of his aphorisms, the critique of morality represented by his plays, the sense of wonder and beauty contained within his critical dialogues, fiction, and poetry— may help us even more, by unlocking the puritanical cages that we have built for ourselves.
Our movement may serve both as an exercise in freedom and a vehicle for struggle, but not if we conceive of our politics solely as a system of refusals and unyielding judgments against one another. The very purpose of freedom, and thus of the movement, should be to expand the sense of possibility, to allow each individual to flourish and develop what is wonderful and unique in herself, not to cloister ourselves against the evils of the world and govern our lives by adherence to a rigid formula.
Kristian Williams is the author of Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde, Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell, and Whither Anarchism? (all from AK Press).