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The Battle for Britain's Soul: Oscar Wilde, Socialism and Equality of Happiness

01/06/2015 11:13 BST | Updated 29/05/2016 10:59 BST

What kind of country do we live in? This must be at the back of the minds of everyone listening to or reading the Queen's Speech, but is it the wrong question? Shouldn't we be asking what kind of world would bring us happiness? One premised on free-market capitalism where a few seem to enjoy the benefits of wealth and privilege, and the rest of us muddle along snatching at happiness when and where we can? Or one in which we're relieved of the burden of striving after riches, riches which the vast majority of us will never see and, if we do, will never be able to spend? One where everybody's individuality is celebrated and not just those who don't need to struggle to survive? One where we are all free to achieve our potential because we're not part of a system that effectively enslaves us? One in which we're free to pursue equality of happiness?

Utopian socialism? It was a dull day when we woke unwilling to dream. Ours is a very unhappy world: we've opted to stumble on, eyes wide open in the dark, with little to look forward to except more austerity, more inequality, and an obsession with a will-it-won't-it economic growth that is metaphorical slavery. Of course, no one was offering Utopia at the polls. Few ever have; even the US Constitution's promise of the pursuit of happiness has only ever been that, a promise. No one, no where has offered the prospect of equality of happiness.

A little over a hundred years ago Oscar Wilde pondered this question in an essay he called The Soul of Man under Socialism, one of the most perfectly written examples of its kind. His supremely practical solution was to abolish private property, to free people to pursue and develop their talents untrammelled by the duties and cruelties imposed by a fruitless capitalist work regime. Machines would make goods and do the chores that debase humanity; government's business would be to ensure that individual spirits were free to expand. There'd be no charity because there'd be no poverty: 'It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.' Food banks and pay-day loans, the Big Society and a belittled NHS are only modern symptoms of the same evil that continues to degrade both the giver and the receiver.

This attack on private property shouldn't be surprising. Wilde had always viewed money and possessions as something fluid, to be passed on through reciprocal generosity. The poverty of his last few years would have reinforced this impression: 'Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor... is like advising a man who is starving to eat less.' What is austerity but a more terrible version of imposing thrift on the poor.

Wilde would soon experience first hand the plight of the have nots among his fellow prisoners in Reading Gaol, victims of capitalism's wiliest regime, the English common law. Now that law will continue to protect the rich and penalise the poor: a system that would have prevented Wilde's conviction, the Human Rights Act, is threatened with repeal, and cuts to legal aid will further restrict access to justice. If law protected a right to happiness, rather than a right to property, poverty would disappear and along with it crime, immorality, for nothing would be deemed immoral other than poverty itself, bigotry and hatred. Under such a vision of Utopian socialism people will be happy because they will be free to pursue whatever is beautiful in their nature: the beauty of the arts, of invention, of a mathematical equation, the beauty of growing things, of exercise for its own sake. The pursuit of equal happiness will make artists of us all.

Human nature, we're told by our demonically right-wing media, wants to be better than everyone else, to accumulate and deprive; socialism is 'unnatural', equality a matter of equal opportunity only, and we believe them, forgetting Wilde's definition of journalism as 'prejudice, stupidity, cant, and twaddle'. Human nature, he reminded us, would change under Utopian socialism, beneath a benign and happy sky, a sky in which The Sun never shone. Striving would be for the betterment of mankind not the betterment of anyone's property portfolio. Under Thatcher the very notion of socialism became a dirty word, it was equated either with the sort of monolithic structure the Soviet Union represented or the Marxist dystopia of universal means-of-production ownership, interestingly systems Wilde himself had warned were not socialism. Rampant riches were justified by the trickle-down effect, something to which Wilde also gave short shrift: why should the poor 'be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table'? Wealth, after all, is the only form of liquidity that defies gravity.

We live the consequences of Thatcher's political inundation: a now stagnant society where the larger part of the people look enviously at the rich, and dream, not of a good and simple life, not of personal happiness, but of a lottery-win funded gorging on branded living, a quick-fix X-Factor film of celebrity, a charlatan happiness. The rich, many of whom were once like the rest of us, are so discontented themselves they are busy pulling up the draw bridge to keep their ill-gotten swag from a feral poor, if they're not buying up public services like health and education to turn a profit on necessity.

Labour, the Lib Dems, even the SNP are scrambling to occupy the so-called business-friendly, private-enterprise-with-a-heart muddy ground in the wake of the most uninspiring poll victory for decades. Call me naive, but as the next five years draw to an end, and poverty, inequality, unfairness and discontent are the only blossoms of the Conservative spring, while more and more aspects of our lives become the private property of the few, maybe, slowly, purposefully, breathlessly, we will tip-toe towards Wilde's dream of equal happiness.