He sat alone. He seemed to be the only person at the conference not peering apprehensively over a metaphorical shoulder. He caught my eye as I loitered gazing at the dog-eared manuscript sat across his lap, The Soul of Man Under Socialism. He smiled softly in my direction, perhaps a shared sympathy at the lethargy of the day, and the paucity of ideas. I imagined he was going to simply say “This is crap, isnt it?” It was a far more eloquent introduction.
“My dear chap, your workplace is a struggle for the soul. In the hundred and twenty years since I wrote this, the arena has merely moved from the theatre of grand politics to the denuded avenues of primary and secondary circulation.”
His assurance was calm, his assertion suffocating. And he had been listening.
“What, then, are we seeking that remains the same?” I asked hesitantly.
“To live, as an Individual. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
“But we are striving for this. It may be slow, but we recognise that we need to base our decisions, our organisations, our processes, our aims around people. We here today are committed to it. These are good people, with a shared vision. This is the right place to be, isn’t it?”
“As when I wrote this” he rolled his manuscript as though a weapon “the obsession with private property changes nothing, as it has made gain not growth its aim. While we reach for gain, our aims will remain underfoot. So obsessed with property are we that we cannot freely develop what is wonderful, fascinating, and delightful in mankind— in fact, we miss the true pleasure and joy of living. The important thing is not to have, but to be.”
“But we are challenging the soul of our organisations, we are upheaving measured taylorist monotony. We are fighting the inevitability that previous decades would have us live tomorrow. As you said so yourself in your pamphlet” I gestured to the scroll “man is made for something better than disturbing dirt.”
I felt a little self-satisfied, quoting the icon before me in my own defence. He nodded his head sympathetically, and not without a little pride.
“Ah, disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion. Agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation. People like Perry Timms.”
“Organisations are becoming more democratic.” I responded. “The flow is with us, and will only grow stronger as the ideas gather credence and a practical footing. True, the germ-free hipster press don’t help, but its only a matter of when, not if.”
“The pursuit is foolish. Like so many ideas today, they gather pace before they have the oxygen to sustain them, they accumulate followers fearing abandonment, not those of conviction.” he laughed for a moment, drew breath and fixed his gaze on me. “Democracy is not your answer. Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people. And be careful that the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.”
“So what is our hope?” I asked, by now expecting little.
“Our hope, dear chap, is Individualism. Not selfish, harmful or egotistical individualism, but the Individualism of the true artist. That is, the artist who shuns populism, who grows through joy. Your workplaces need to create, nurture, grow Individuals, to create only the opportunity, not prescribe the solution. The tyranny of the crowd – its “crowd” everything, right? – the collaborative, the artificial collectivisation of creativity is a damnation. Organisations and structures make only what is useful – while only the Individual makes what is beautiful. Art is the most intense mode of Individualism that the world has known.”
He leaned back, and appeared to survey the interaction, chatter, irregular clank of porcelain with sadness. He was lost in his own thought.
“And what of the soul of humankind? Why is the struggle here, in our workplace?”
“Its where the Individual of your age flourishes, or is lost. Not in politics, but in your social relations and your environment. Only when you realise this, will you think of your environment, your relations and your intentions differently. For now, all the rebellion and disobedience in the world is in vain. It is a mirror.”
In that moment I saw myself, or perhaps the parody of myself. As I turned my gaze to think, he was gone. We were summoned back to the conference. When everyone had meandered in, chattering, clutching teacups, lost in themselves, I dropped my badge in the bin and slipped away. I hoped I would catch him hailing a taxi, window shopping, sneaking a cigarette…. but the streets were already awash with the human tide.
Some of what Oscar Wilde says is taken directly from “The Soul of Man Under Socialsm”, some are his words that I modified, some I made up altogether because they felt right