Zealous & Candid; The Powerful Poetry of Republican Chartist Gerald Massey

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Gerald Massey Chartist poet

Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we!

Percy Bysshe Shelley presents the British establishment with a conundrum. While acknowledging him as one of Britain’s greatest poets his reputation must be carefully marshalled to hide the devastating commentary he delivered on political and social conditions (as Graham Henderson points out here). For Shelley’s radical successors the situation is simpler – just pretend that they never existed.  Such a poet was Chartist Gerald Massey born 1828 in Hertfordshire.

‘A strong feeling against the British aristocracy….’

The titles of some of Massey’s poems such as The Red Republican (also the name of a publication) and The Last of the Queens and the Kings leave us in no doubt of his aims. Shelley had died in Italy in 1822 (at the tragically young age of 29), well before the rise of Chartist activity from the mid-1830s.  But being born almost 40 years later, much of Massey’s work is placed firmly in the cauldron of that political and social movement, with his early poems published from the mid-1840s onwards. The penalties for such activity could be severe, the Treason Felony Act being passed by Parliament in 1848 with the express purpose of increasing the chances of a guilty verdict being delivered against those tried for advocating the abolition of the monarchy.  A long prison term or transportation to Australia was a real possibility!

Massey came from impoverished beginnings and a scant education in a ‘penny-school’ meant that he was virtually an autodidact. He was to engage in a wide range of literary activities aside from poetry including journalism, theology, histotian and criticism. But just as with Shelley my aim is not to analyze his work as an academic exercise but to consider what insights his work holds for radicals and republicans today.  The great American poet  and essayist Walt Whitman was in no doubt about the aims of Massey’s poetry when in 1855 he observed:

I have looked over Gerald Massey’s Poems ― They seem to me zealous, candid, warlike, ― intended, as they surely are, to get up a strong feeling against the British aristocracy both in their social and governmental political capacity.

‘Put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust’

In this short post it is not possible to do justice to the whole of Massey’s substantial output so I shall focus on just three of Massey’s poems Progress and TraditionThings Will Go Better Yet and Kings are but Giants Because we Kneel from which the following is the opening stanza:

Good People, put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust,
Who grind your hearts in mammon’s press, your faces in the
    dust,
Trust to your own stout hearts to break the Tyrant’s dark, dark
    ban,
If yet one spark of freedom lives, let man be true to man,
We’ll never fight again, boys, with Yankee, Pole, and Russ,
We love the French as brothers, and Frenchmen too, love us!
But we’ll join to crush those fiends who kill all love and liberty,
Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we.

We can learn much from this verse alone. The themes are similar to those which exercised Shelley, the people are good and monarchs are not worthy of trust. The term merchant-princes is telling and points to the autocratic nature of mid-Victorian trading companies with their lack of accountability and democratic control. This was the era when the activities of the British East India Company (EIC) were finally being acknowledged as a danger to even the British government (it was nationalised in 1858 and finally dissolved in 1874).  As I mentioned in this post the EIC was an effective forerunner and model for many of todays multinational Corporations who present such a danger to us. In the far less deferential 21st century, however, even the eager consumers of the products of corporations such as Microsoft and Apple would regard trusting those organisations as a little naive! Massey’s work is essentially internationalist in tone reflecting Tom Paine’s sentiment in his comment My country is the world which was to find expression in the realisation of the proto-socialist movements in the 1820s and 1830s that the problems faced by the people had a commonality throughout Europe.

Continue reading “Zealous & Candid; The Powerful Poetry of Republican Chartist Gerald Massey”

JD Sports, Poverty Conditions and the Zimbardo Experiment

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Zimbardo Experiment

For years we have been warned that Government policy was returning us to Victorian era working conditions. While things are clearly different in many respects, such as no child labour and greatly reduced physical risks to name but two, there is evidence that in the social sphere this has now happened in some areas of Britain. But it is not in terms of the palpable outward employment conditions that this manifests itself nost starkly, but in the attitude of the various layers of worker, supervisor and owner.

JD Sports:  Queuing to get in and out of ‘Prison’

Following the revelations of working conditions at retailers Amazon and Sports Direct the December 14th Channel 4 News special report on working conditions at JD Sports confirmed what we already suspected.  Oppressive working conditions in many major retailers are the norm rather than the exception with practices which are at best borderline illegal. The report contained shocking footage of low wage workers being forced to queue for hours in the cold to get in and out of the Rochdale distribution warehouse. Employee contracts state that such queueing had to be undertaken in their time thus reducing the actual wage rate per hour for the job below the statutory minimum. With the cost being borne completely by the worker there is no incentive for the company to either improve its practices or review its draconian security arrangements.

Aside from the physical hardship there were two particularly disturbing aspects of the report involving the attitudes displayed by both the agency staff (supplied by Assist Recruitment) and their supervisors. As the lowest rung of management the floor supervisors themselves can be earning only a little more than the minimum wage agency staff who comprise their charges.  Yet on a number of occasions in the report, bourne out by subsequent anecdotal reports, the supervisors could be seen behaving in ways both oppressive and, at times, inhuman .  The second disturbing aspect was the use of the word ‘prison’  to describe conditions at the Rochdale warehouse. I consider these two aspects are related and create a toxic environment of working conditions which are similar to those of Victorian mines and factories.

The 1971 Stanford University Experiment

In 1971 a notorious psychological experiment was carried out at Stanford University in California by Philip Zimbardo.  Funded by the US Government via the Navy its aim was to study the the evolution of norms and the effects of roles and social expectations in a simulated prison (actually the basement at Stanford).  The details of the setting up, running and conclusions of this highly controversial experiment are beyond the scope of this blog and I can give only the briefest of outlines.  Further information is freely available including this helpful website associated with a documentary film of the experiment. and this very readable desription.

Continue reading “JD Sports, Poverty Conditions and the Zimbardo Experiment”

What Thomas Rainborough Said Next; More Crucial Lessons We Need to Learn

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Thomas Rinborough

In a recent post I considered a comment by Thomas Rainborough from the 1647 Putney Debates and explained just why it articulates a crucial point still relevant today. Rainborough was expressing an egalitarian ideal not just in terms of wealth but in terms of the election of representatives. As a recap here is the essential core of his speech:

..I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he;

All progressive contemporary thinking accepts in some form this basic idea of equality. To place the quote in a wider context you can read an expanded version of his speech on this Guardian newspaper webpage. So is there really any more we can  learn from Rainborough’s speech from over three centuries ago? I think plenty. Lets start with Rainborough’s central point of just who is eligible to vote. For much of English and British history you needed to own property before you could vote in an election. But Rainborough says:

I do think…the main cause why Almighty God gave men reason, it was that they should make use of that reason, and that they should improve it for that end and purpose that God gave it them.

As the qualification for voting in elections, Rainborough was specifically detaching the requirement for possession of physical property and substituting an inalienable personal quality of every person, namely the ability to reason.  Yet today the homeless are not encouraged or given support to vote, despite expecting them to adhere to the laws passed by Parliament and Local Authorities.

Political Equality: Reality Falls Short of Expressed Values

Effective disenfranchisment of the homeless (through a mistaken perception that you need a fixed address to register) is a clear case where political process falls far short of the supposed ideal of political equality. Other examples are the introduction of Individual Voter Registration which disenfranchised up to 800,000 people in the UK along with the distortions delivered by a First Past the Post electoral system which gives disproportionate power to a minority of voters (37% at the last election). Similarly we can point to the recent US presidential election where the Electoral College system gave Donald Trump victory despite losing the popular vote.

Continue reading “What Thomas Rainborough Said Next; More Crucial Lessons We Need to Learn”

Senator Bernie Sanders is Right About Oligarchy; But the Warning is Over 2 Thousand Years Old!

We humans pride ourselves on our ability to learn and adapt. So it must be a triumph of greed over intellect that well we fall into the same traps despite being warned about them for over two thousand years!!. Nowhere is this more stark than with the rise of oligarchy, the problem where a small group of people gain control of a country or an organisation. Writing as long ago as the 4th Century BC the philosopher Aristotle identified oligarchy as a deviant form of aristocracy and pointed to  two specific aspects which concern us at this time.  Firstly he regarded wealth as the important issue in the rise to prominence of a few powerful rulers.  Secondly, he regarded an oligarchy as ruling solely for its own benefit (hence deviant), disregarding the plight of the poor and dispossessed.

So its worth spending a little time finding out what we can learn from the beardy old Greek thinker. Aristotle warned that rule by the few alone (just like the rule of an absolute monarch or unrestrained democracy) is unstable and liable to collapse. In fact in America and Europe today the power of the few has grown markedly while the power of democratic forces have been consequently in decline.  In the US this is exactly the danger which former Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders has been warning about.  As a result, aside from the election of Trump, it has brought about an increased threat of instability and authoritarian government in almost every western country.

But we can learn a lot more from those old Greeks.  For a start, Aristotle was writing from experience of oligarchic rule which mobilised sages, poets and artists in the maintenance of their power.  Discussing public speech in a republic, Barry Strauss noted that:

The Sophists, with their corrosive relativism, taught rich and talented young greeks that power was better than truth.  Socrates [Aristotle’s illustrious predecessor] sat out the civil war in Athens between democracy and oligarchy at the end of the Peloponnesian war’.

Who were the Sophists? They were peripatetic intellectual coaches who taught the children of wealthy ‘excellence’ in order to gain power and fame. So little difference from our modern day Eton, Harrow, Oxford or Cambridge, apart from the fact that the students travel to them rather than the other way around!  Strauss’s point about corrosive relativism is telling with ancient poets and artists now being replaced by journalists, branding and PR experts employed in media outlets.  Today we call it ‘post-truth’ journalism, beloved of both the hard copy media such as The Sun newspaper and online outlets such as Breitbart. Socrates may have ‘sat out’, as Strauss puts it, the civil war in Athens between democracy and oligarchy, but such disengagement is not advisable in the modern age or we may experience the reappearance of the find the mass slavery of his time.

In the Spirit Level book Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett pointed out how initial wealth inequalities become entrenched into a class system.  They state:

Over time,  crude differences in wealth gradually become overlaid by differences in clothing, aesthetic taste, education, sense of self and all the other markers of class identity. Think for example of how the comparatively recent emergence of huge income differences in Russia will come to affect class structure.  when the children of the new Russian oligarchs have grown up in grand houses, attended private schools and travelled the world they will have developed all the cultural trappings of an upper class.

Apart from Russia, there are many examples of this happening, especially in the United States.  Already some members of the Democratic Party speak of persuading the Clinton daughter Chelsea to stand for President thus proving that at least some are intent on repeating the disaster of Hillary’s candidature. The only saving grace is that the Trump family look to be making the same mistake with daughter Ivanka raising eyebrows with her presence at some early high level meetings alongside her father. To the great surprise of almost no-one, rather than ending the Washington oligarchies, Trump is simply replacing them with new forms including his own family.

In the UK we have lived with this reciprocal arrangement of wealth and power for a long time.  The House of Lords, once the bastion of aristocratic power (though to what extent they fulfilled Aristotle’s claim of wielding power with the poor in mind is, to say the least, doubtful) is rapidly in the process of turning into a seat of oligarchic power. The fact that the transformation is not yet complete can be seen in their flat rejection of George Osborne’s punitive Tax Credit cuts.  But time is short and reform is now desperately urgent in the over bloated chamber.  The scandal of rewarding corporate donors with seats in the Lords is a well-known scandal.

So can we do anything about oligarchy as individuals. Unfortunately this is where the Greek experience can no longer help us since their solution was to apply their advice to prevent oligarchy arising in the first place and civil war is hardly a recommended remedy. But we are not powerless. Firstly, we can overcome ‘post-truth’ politics by looking at a variety of news media, combined with twitter and other online sources. Also, combine it with what you actually see in your daily life. Are people sleeping rough, what are NHS services like, and so on.  Then draw people’s attention to it.  Secondly, there is an idea gaining ground that voting changes nothing.  But tell that to Trump’s supporters! Make no mistake the current economic system was facilitated by politicians. Claiming they are powerless is a convenient distraction from this simple truth. A different system can be instigated by electing more egalitarian-minded politicians. Ownership of news media can be restricted and the rules on corporate board composition can be changed. ‘Too big to fail’ banks can be broken up. In reality it will take an international change to bring about profound and lasting improvement, but the UK with the City of London means that we can punch way above our economic weight in controlling corporations. So, whenever possible vote for a representative in any General or By-Election whom you think represents the best chance of change irrespective of their party. Vote for an individual, not a party. Finally join and support a party whose aims are to being about the end of oligarchy. Don’t be like Socrates the philosopher, don’t give up and sit this out!!

We Need a Democratic Revolution of Investment Potential

The death of one of the richest men in the UK, Gerald Grosvenor the 6th Duke of Westminster, earlier this year (August 2016) threw into relief the gross inequality of wealth in the UK. The Grosvenor estate was established by Hugh Ardley in the 17th Century, who was no shrinking violet as can be seen from this ‘way to riches’ biography of his life. The outrageous aspect of the Grosvenor estate is that via a system of trusts the Estate pays almost no Inheritance Tax! It is a strong temptation to call for the state to simply seize the Grosvenor Estate and bring it into public ownership.  While I am all in favour of abolishing hereditary titles, such a call actually reveals a much more widespread and deepseated problem with in our current neo-libertarian approach to economics, that of exactly who controls the means of investment. Supposing we did in fact ‘nationalize’ the Grosvenor Estate. That means the Government will possess over £9bn worth of property which will be practically worthless unless the assets are sold.  So an equally important question is not only who controls the assets but who controls the investment potential generated by those assets.  Clearly by avoiding taxes the Grosvenors themselves are actually enjoying the full investment potential of the estate.

Investigating the ownership of investment potential as well as the assets reveals the true extent of the gross unbalanced nature of our society. An example from a different domain is the contract for controversial nuclear power station Hinckley Point C.  The construction of an as yet unproven model of power station is being funded by the French EDF power company but only on the basis that the UK electricity consumer (yes us again) buys the electricity at much above market rates for decades to come. But what if the unproven reactor design requires extensive and expensive modification?  Will the government really hold EDF to its contract and possibly bankrupt the company? The substantial potential returns on the installation are privatised while it appears that the risk is, once again, borne by the public.

But there are other models of investment, some of which operate in the United States which is often held up as a paragon of private owner capitalism.  A closer view reveals a more complex interaction of public and private ownership, a particularly interesting example being the New York Power Authority. The NYPA is a publicly owned power generating company in New York State which claims to be one of the most efficient generators in the US, tasked with developing renewable sources and providing cheap power to not-for-profit organisations and small businesses.   But we can go further than this with the massive potential in Pension Funds and other schemes.  Open up these funds to the control of their investors and a more democratic system of investment becomes possible. The question of the democratization of investment potential is every bit as important as who actually controls wealth with which, of course, it is inextricably linked.

‘Ye are many, they are few!’; More Inspiration From the Poet Shelley

shelley masqueThe anniversary of two events of primary importance in our radical history occur in August; the birth of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley on the 4th (in 1792) and the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, England on the 16th (in 1819).  Last week my thoughts Shelley’s great Poetical Essay on the State of Things was published on openDemocracy and it is a suitable moment to consider the relevance of another of his great works inspired by events in Manchester, the Masque of Anarchy (you can read it here).  Like the openDemocracy article, this post is neither intended as a literary study of Shelley’s work nor an account of the origins of Shelley’s radical opinions. There are many people far better qualified for this task and I can only draw your attention to two examples, Paul Foot’s excellent article from 2006 or the materials on this fascinating blogsite by Graham Henderson. In both my openDemocracy article and the present post I have two aims. Firstly to outline my claim to Shelley as part of the tradition with which I identify and secondly to assess the importance of Shelley’s work and the invaluable lessons it has for us now.

Although popular pressure had been building for reform since the start of the French Revolution in 1789, economic depression and high unemployment following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 intensified demands for change. In 1819 a crowd variously estimated at being between 60,000 and 100,000 had gathered in St Peters Field in Manchester to protest and demand greater representation in Parliament. The subsequent overreaction by Government militia forces in the shape of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry led to a cavalry charge with sabres drawn. The exact numbers were never established but about 12 to 15 people were killed immediately and possibly 600-700 were injured, many seriously. For more information on the complex serious of events, go to this British Library resource and this campaign for a memorial.

Shelley was in Italy when news reached him of the events in Manchester and he set down his reaction in the poem Masque of Anarchy (sometimes Mask of Anarchy) which contains the immortal lines contained in the title of my post. The work simmers over 93 stanzas with a barely controlled rage leading to a call to action and a belief that the approach of non-violent resistance (an approach followed by Gandhi two centuries later) would allow the oppressed of England to seize the moral high ground and achieve victory. Such was the power of the poem that it did not appear in public until 1832, the year of the Great Reform Act which extended the voting franchise.

Anarchy – Chaos and Confusion as a Method of Control

An excellent place to start thinking about the relevance of the poem is with the eponymous evil villain, Anarchy. He leads a band of three tyrants which are identified as contemporary politicians, Murder (Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh),  Fraud ( Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon) and Hypocrisy (Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth).  But Shelley widens the cast of villains in his description to include the Church, Monarchy and Judiciary.

Last came Anarchy : he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood ;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown ;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone ;
On his brow this mark I saw—
‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’

The promotion of anarchy with its attendant fear of chaos and disorder was one of the most serious accusations which could be levelled at authority. The avoidance of anarchy was also a concern of English radicals ever since the Civil War in the 1640s and Shelley was making the gravest personal attack  with his explicit individual accusations.  But Shelley’s attack is pertinent, the implicit threat of confusion and chaos to subdue a population for political ends is something which we experience today.   The feeling of powerlessness which can result from an apparently confusing and chaotic situation is something which the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has termed ‘oh dearism’.  In our own time he has identified recent Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne as deliberately using such a tactic. Likewise the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been variously accused of being a threat to national security or a threat to the economy .

The 1819 Peterloo massacre occurred at a time of hightened external tension with fear that the French revolution would spread to Britain. The fear was not unfounded and various groups around the country emerged with such an intent, in many cases inspired by Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man which the Government had been trying to unsuccessfully suppress. The existence of an external threat combined with homegrown radicals was explicitly used as a reason for a policy of political repression and censorship. Likewise today an external threat, Islamic State combined with an entirely separate perceived internal threat (employee strike action) has been cited as justification for a whole range of measures including invasive communication monitoring (so called ‘Snoopers Charter’) without requisite democratic controls and a repressive Trade Union Bill seeking to shackle the ability of unions to garner support and carry out industrial action.

The Nature of Freedom

The nature of freedom is a problem which has bothered both libertarians and republicans for generations. In Masque of Anarchy where Shelley is enumerating the injustice suffered by the poor he clearly defines freedom in terms of the state of slavery, a core republican premise:

What is Freedom? Ye can tell
That which Slavery is too well,
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own

The essence of freedom which has financial independence as a core component is clearly articulated over a number of stanzas, starting with:

‘’Tis to work and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs, as in a cell
For the tyrants’ use to dwell,

‘So that ye for them are made
Loom, and plough, and sword, and spade,
With or without your own will bent
To their defence and nourishment.

In our own time freedom is frequently constrained by insufficient financial resources as a result of hardship caused by issues such as disability support cuts, chronic low wages and a zero-hours contract society. Shelley would have no problem with identifying Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley, playing with multimillion pounds football clubs while his workforce toil in iniquitous conditions for a pittance; or Sir Philip Green impoverishing British Home Stores pensioners to pile up a vast fortune for his wife in Monaco. Disgustingly the only thing we need to update from Masque is the cast of villains, the substance  is unchanged!.

Non-Violent Resistance – A Way Forward

I pointed out that in the 1811 Poetical Essay, Shelley was searching for a peaceful way to elicit change in an oppressive hieracrchical society.  By 1819 Shelley has settled on his preferred solution of non-violent resistance.

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war,

‘And let Panic, who outspeeds
The career of armèd steeds
Pass, a disregarded shade
Through your phalanx undismayed.

Nonviolent resistance is not an instant solution and takes years of persistent and widespread enactment to be successful. A partial victory was secured in the 1830s with the Great Reform Act (1832) and the Abolition of Slavery Act (1834). But history has proved that it is a viable strategy, the independence of India being an eloquent testament.