Sunday, 7 March 2010

Unlikely Socialists no. 1 - Oscar Wilde at odds with Evening Standard

Last night I helped a friend to celebrate her 30th birthday at the Green Carnation, a Soho bar with an Oscar Wilde theme - flock wallpaper, comfy sofas, Wilde quotations on the walls, and rammed to the rafters with young men in tight t-shirts (as you might expect, it has a mainly gay clientele).

One enjoyable quotation, just at the top of the stairs, which you can read as you pull your coat on at stupid o' clock before tottering off in search of a night bus, is:
Work is the curse of the drinking classes.
How true, how true. Not many people know Oscar Wilde's other guilty secret - that he was a socialist, a libertarian socialist or anarchist, some say. The best evidence for this is his 1891 essay "The soul of man under socialism". This opens:

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.
If that sounds paradoxical, well, it is Wilde! He was having a swipe at the widespread practice of philanthropy by middle- and upper-class people, when what was really required was a new economic system to eradicate poverty entirely and allow everyone to achieve their potential - particularly, their artistic potential.

How true this rings right now! For the last couple of weeks London's Evening Standard has been filled with hand-wringing articles about the extent of poverty in the capital. People who have the opportunity to do something meaningful about it, if they and their friends would only put their hands in their pockets and pay more tax, have instead been lining up to shake their heads and urge the better-off to do more charity work among the feckless poor.

They include Gordon Brown (you know him, that rather prominent member of the democratically elected government for the past 13 years), who tells us:
Poverty demeans a great city like London... There is much further to go, because the causes of poverty are often deep-rooted and will take a generation to turn around.
And Prince William:
It is up to us, not just politicians and charities, to answer this challenge — wherever, whenever and in whatever way, small or large, we feel we can.

I realise that I am very fortunate. But through my involvement with Centrepoint, and talking with the disadvantaged young people it looks after, I feel I have an understanding of some of the issues surrounding homelessness, one of the many manifestations of poverty in this capital city.
And London mayor Boris Johnson:
The welfare system is an essential part of a civilised society. The state must be strong. The state must be active. But the state on its own cannot cope. It is time for a new age of voluntarism and volunteering. It is time for the rich to show their sense of duty to wider society.
Oh, spare us! The government and the would-be government that are slashing and preparing to slash further our public services and put people out of work, but who are totally devoted to maintaining our unequal distribution of wealth, are calling on the rich to help the poor - who are evidently perceived to be incapable of knowing what is good for them.

Relying on philanthropy from the rich to solve problems of poverty didn't work in the 1890s and won't work now! We need to defend and extend public services, create jobs, build homes, reduce the wealth gap. We should tax the rich and big business (including those pesky greedy bankers) to do it!


This blogpost is the first in an occasional series on Unlikely Socialists - people who self-identify as socialists, whose idea of socialism I more or less agree with, and who are fairly famous and respected by the mainstream. The aim of this thread is to help rehabilitate the label "socialist" to something that more people will be proud to call themselves.

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