My Paper to the Shelley 2017 Conference on Reclaiming His Radical Republicanism

I had the great honour in September to present a paper on the radical republicanism of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and how it influences my political activity.  I reproduce it here.

Reclaiming Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Radical Republicanism

1.  Introduction

A number of works have analysed Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (PBS) poetry from a proto-left viewpoint (e.g. Paul Foot 1981*). This paper, however, considers the issue of Shelley’s radical political philosophy with specific attention to Republican principles.

Clearly, PBS could have known nothing about socialism or communism. So any analysis based solely on these principles risks misrepresenting fundamental points of his ideology.  Viewing his work within a contemporary setting not only brings his political concepts on liberty into focus but reveals a surprisingly strong relevance to current concepts of republicanism.  Over the past 40 years researchers such as Quentin Skinner have revealed aspects of republican thinking lost to us for two centuries whilst others have set about the task of evolving them for the 21st Century. When PBS was at the height of his powers liberalism was starting this process of marginalizing republicanism but Thomas Paine and William Godwin, amongst others  would have exerted a strong influence on Shelley.

To illustrate the points, the paper focusses on two of Shelley’s poems where the republican vision is most highly developed, Mask of Anarchy and Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things along with the sonnet England in 1819.

2.  What is Republicanism?republicanMag

In popular conception Republicanism has become synonymous with anti-Monarchism.  But its history and development is vastly richer and it is more accurate to characterise it as ‘anti-Slavery’. The seeds date back over two and a half thousand years when the Roman Republic was established following the defeat of the ruling Tarquin Kings in 509BCE. Indeed our modern word is derived from the Latin res publica meaning ‘public matter or affair’.  The early Roman republic bears little similarity to our current idea of Republicanism but we, along with PBS, owe a great debt of gratitude to that great statesman and lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero (106BCE-43BCE) for codifying the fundamental tenets.  Predictably for a society heavily dependent on slavery it was important to define just what a constituted a free person.  It is this formulation as an individual free from domination which provides a golden thread right from that era, through Shelley’s time to the present day.

The goal of early Republicanism was to establish the political; system which most effectively liberated citizens to protect their city-state. But around four hundred years ago a significant mutation occurred and republicans began to reformulate the ideas of non-domination explicitly in terms of citizen rights.

So how can we characterise modern republicanism? Professor Stuart White of Jesus College Oxford suggests four overarching principles:

1. Individual freedom defined as not living at the mercy or largesse of another (the famous nondomination doctrine).

2. An economic and social environment promoting and serving the Common Good.

3. Popular sovereignty, appropriately inclusive of all citizens and excluding oligarchic rule.

4, Inclusive and widespread civic participation by citizens.

I shall show how each of these principles are present in the works by PBS under consideration. These ideas were radical in the early eighteenth century and, I argue, are still radical today.

3.  Freedom as Non-Domination; Core RepublicanismLibertySlavery

At the heart of republican philosophy lies a definition of freedom as non-domination or the absence of the condition of slavery.  Non-domination is a far stricter doctrine than non-interference which forms the basis of liberal and libertarian ideology. Non-domination asserts that not only must an individual or group be free from arbitrary influence by another, but further, there must be no possibility of such influence. This guards against the benevolent master condition who allows his slaves latitude and possibly wealth, but could change his attitude at any moment. It is in these terms of slavery which PBS grounded his idea of liberty.  So in the Mask of Anarchy we find:

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 late Paul Foot in The Poetry of Protest asserted that slavery is economic exploitation. For a republican this is a narrow and incomplete view which fails to take into account the myriad other ways which slavery can occur, for example gender oppression which concerned PBS. Again in Mask of Anarchy we find:

‘Tis to be a slave in soul
And to hold no strong control
Over your own wills, but be
All that others make of ye.

4, The economic and social environmentwordcloud

But republicans do agree with socialists that sufficient economic resources are essential to individual freedom.  At first, however, republicans took a hardline stance.  Cicero, for example, says this in de officiis:

..vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery.

But as the Industrial Revolution evolved along with the concept of the Free Contract, wage-earning per se was not viewed as slavery in itself but rather the lack of agency to contest the conditions of the contract. This is what concerned PBS and economic hardship is a frequent theme in the works under consideration.

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Harry Windsor, Contestability and the Problem of ‘Doing Good’

If the Windsors were quoted on the stock market then the past few weeks would have been what the analysts term a ‘rollercoater’  Firstly, Elizabeth Windsor visits the site of the Grenfell Tower disaster and the WinDaq rises rapidly as she is reported as ‘showing Theresa May how sympathy is done’.  But then it all spins hopelessly downwards.

In a series of interviews Harry Windsor paints the Royals as victims of a grotesque system ‘enduring’ privilege while not wanting the responsibility which comes with it.  In a twist of fate, that argument is actually similar to the one Republicans such as myself deploy, that the archaic monarchy really benefits no-one. So the WinDaq falls. Last week it hit rock bottom as it was revealed that the royals share of the Crown Estates profits will net them a very healthy revenue increase. This is in the same week as the Conservative/DUP deal highlights the dire state of public service funding.

But lets focus on one single moment, courtesy of Harry in an interview reported in the Daily Mail which actually reveals something fundamental. He muses on the point of the yoyals, concluding

‘We don’t want to be just a bunch of celebrities but instead use our role for good.’

It is difficult to see whether this comes from a place of ignorance or naivety. Harry seems blissfully unaware that what is ‘good’ has been the hottset of political hot potatoes for centuries (maybe millennia). He is effectively saying he wants the Windsors to be overtly involved in politics (as if they weren’t already). Straight away there is a problem. For me the monarchy is bad because it represents a fundamental inequality, a secretive and manipulative private interest which distorts the heart of our Government. So ‘good’ for me is a constitutional Head of State accountable to the people.

For centuries the battle lines over what is good has been framed in terms of the balance of individual and state. Libertarians would argue that what is good is few laws and low taxes with a small state since only the people themselves truly know what is best for them.  A socialist may argue that what is best is a larger state with higher taxes falling on the wealthiest in order that a redistribution of wealth gives even the poorest a better chance of the good life.  There are many other possibilities besides, especially involving the definition of freedom as I have argued elsewhere in my blog. Harry must appreciate he is in a most precarious of positions being afforded a huge level of personal privilege and freedom while being funded by the state. If he doubts this he just need to consider the freedom of action available to people using foodbanks!

It seems the approach Harry wants to take is that of Charles Windsor who pontificates on what is ‘good’ while suppressing debate and dodging accountability. He does this in a number of ways but most commonly by making interviewers sign a 15-page contract effectively handing editorial control to Clarence House. Nowhere is this more focused than on climate change.  Charles Windsor calls for allocation of resources to Green projects without the difficulty of saying where those resources will come from who will be the ‘losers’.

If Harry Windsor really wants to ‘do good’ as he says then as the campaign group Republic urges, he must, give up his royal status and argue for what he believes in.  But he will find the court of public contestability and accountability a harsher arena than the one to which he is accostomed.  Just as it should be!

Republican Inspirations; A Matter For the Heart And the Head

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Who knows not that there is a mutual bond of amity and brother-hood between man and man over all the World, neither is it the English Sea that can sever us from that duty and relation…

John Milton; The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1650)

Inspiration. One of my favourite words implying a positive  relationship with a person, event or entity. Among the various definitions of inspiration, this one from from the Merriam-Webster dictionary I find particularly useful:

…the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions

It sums up the dual nature of my enthusiasm for the Good Old Cause of republicanism in its broadest sense, an idea much richer than just anti-monarchism. Let me explain by starting with the emotions.

From Milton to Shelley….

Some  writers metaphorically light up my life. One of these is Richard Overton the seventeenth century radical whose pamphlet An Arrow Against All Tyrants changed my life and the way I think about freedom. He was a Leveller and the enduring influence of him and his fellow Levellers can be seen even in the title of my blog. For example, I find this passage very powerful:

I may be but an individual, enjoy my self and my self-propriety and may right myself no more than my self, or presume any further; if I do, I am an encroacher and an invader upon another man’s right — to which I have no right. For by natural birth all men are equally and alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom…..

Richard Overton ‘An Arrow Against All Tyrants (1646)

Now, there is much in Arrow to feed the intellect, but more about that later.  Likewise with the wonderful prose and poetry of Overton’s near contemporary John Milton, an example of which I started this post.  Speaking of poets, one has come to embody a sense of defiance and optimism for a better world like no other – Percy Bysshe Shelley (OK, him again for any regular readers of my blog!!). But where did I encounter him? Some time ago I read a post by Cliff James (he can be found on twitter as @cliffjamester), Cliff’s post was centred on Shelley’s radical poetry; of which I confess I was then largely ignorant.  II started with England in 1819 a mightily powerful piece of radical writing.

Continue reading “Republican Inspirations; A Matter For the Heart And the Head”

Republicanism and Democracy; Two Ideas Not To Be Confused

Politicians are fond of throwing aeound the word ‘democracy’ as though it is a talisman, warding off tyranny in the same way as a clove of garlic drives back Count Dracula.  But it is in fact a tricky and complex concept, as spectacularly demonstrated by the fallout from the Brexit vote. So lets clear up some confusions.

As a republican (in the European sense for any US followers so I’m not thinking of the GOP here) it is important for me to understand the part played by democracy.  There are some people who simply equate republicanism with democracy as though they were the same thing, but the situation needs clarification. Lets dispense with the more obvious differences. For example, North Korea styles itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Although nominally a republic (just), it is far from democratic and proof that you can call yourself what you like, it is the Constitution which counts! In this case North Korea is an Autocratic Republic  Also consider Iran, or the Islamic Republic of Iran, in this case  it is a Theocratic Republic. So strictly speaking all Republicans I know are Democratic Republicans. So far, so good.

Now, leaving aside the convoluted and discarded historical theories in which monarchs can actually be part of a republic (such as Rousseau’s idea) we can ask what is the status of democracy in a republic. In fact the Brexit vote illustrates the issues quite well. Consider that the vote told the Government what to do (withdraw from the EU), but did not tell the Government how to do it (how much sovereignty, if any, must we share in any trade deal)! So the role of democracy is as a means of controlling and holding the Republic to account by the people, but it is actually quite poor at what is known as ‘deliberative’ decision making. Furthermore, the idea that democracy enables everyone to have a say in Government is far from clear, as the 48% who voted Remain may possibly have no say at all in the final settlement.  By the way, this would also have been true if the 48% had been on the Leave side. This also raises the question of just who participates in the formation of policy in the first place, a point I considered in a post on radical Thomas Rainborough.

This means that a Republic must have some non-democratic elements to rein back a Government pursuing aims for which it actually has no mandate, no matter what it tries to claim. So, for example, we do not know how many UK citizens would be happy to remain inside the Single Market. Assuming all 48% Remainers, we cannot know precisely how many Leavers would be happy to do so, if it retained jobs and educational opportunities.  In the UK the justice system can be regarded as part of this non-democratic brake, although it is an imperfect piece of machinery being dependent upon citizens having the resources or sponsorship to bring a case. Also in this category is the totally unsatisfactory House of Lords as I blogged about here.

So we must be careful when using words such as republic and democracy as they are very different concepts and a well regulated Republic will ensure steps are taken to ensure democratic processes do not actually become a tool of oppression. Likewise we must be aware of the unthinking correlation of democracy and direct elections and appreciate the positive role which non-elective means of democracy can play in our brave modern Republic.  But I’ll leave that for a future post.

A Sobering Reminder; There Is No Future in England’s Dreaming

God save the queen
She ain’t no human being
And there’s no future
In England’s dreaming.

God Save The Queen – The Sex Pistols.

On Thursday evening I was reminded that sleep and dreaming has been a recurring theme when describing England, more specifically Southern England. The trigger was Republic Birmingham’s second poetry evening. This event contained a twist as it started with a debut standup comedy routine from Pete, a new member of our group. Sadly, due to traffic congestion I missed the first part but the ease with which he took the interruption of my late arrival completely in his stride belied his inexperience. A unique and valuable comedy talent in the making.  Then on to the main event, Spike the Poet making a return visit to our evening. Once again he did not disappoint with an intelligent mix of humour, passion and biting comment on the farce of monarchy.  Some wonderful anecdotes by way of background to a few of the poems reflected the depth and complexity of human relationships in the modern world. Find out more about Spike on his Facebook page.

My contribution was next and eschewing my beloved Shelley I read a poem (abridged for length) by Chartist Gerald Massey. My choice,  Tradition and Progress, written in the mid 19th century, intertwines republicanism and anti-war protest with rage at the poverty experienced by many working people.  You can read more about Massey in an earlier post.

So what about the dreaming? The last item was a prose reading by Alex Simpson. He chose the last paragraph of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia which recounts Orwell’s experience in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. In my Orwell readings I had not got around to this book so the tract was fresh and had impact. Having returned to England Orwell despairs of the complacency he perceives, concluding:

Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen–all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs. 

From Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Orwell and the Sex Pistols are simply two of many, poet Philip Larkin a notable example, who have used sleep and dreaming imagery to describe the state of England.  With a ramshackle constitution, increasing intolerance, and a seeming acceptance of ever more authoritarian inclined politicians talking of Empire 2.0 we are still sleeping and dreaming – and jeopardising our future!

Give a wrong time, stop a traffic line
Your future dream has sure been seen through.

Anarchy in the UK – The Sex Pistols

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

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
Trust to your own stout hearts to break the Tyrant’s dark, dark
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”

In a World of Peer-to-Peer Collaboration the End of Monarchy is Inevitable

Digital communications has changed the world profoundly and will continue to do so in the future.  An unconscious recognition of this fact lies partly behind the triumph of Donald Trump in the Presidential election and as I pointed out in an earlier blog, could spell long term disaster for many in the United States. The fear and rejection of a fundamentally changing economic landscape can be laid partly at the door of politicians who either do not understand the problems themselves or choose to ignore the issues.

Increasingly, authors (such as Vasilis Kostakis and Michel Bauwens in their book Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy) are pointing to the urgent choices we face in how we view intellectual property on the internet.  Many problems of a deeply complex nature such as climate change may only be amenable to solution by collaborative effort involving freely available information.  Essentially we can either let large corporations dominate with their highly protective store of information about almost every aspect of our lives or we can start to move towards a collective approach to the ownership of  knowledge.  This peer-to-peer interaction  with established relationships  (Commons) allows for free interaction between every member of society who wishes to participate. Understandably most of the emphasis is on the economic system and whether capitalism can be tamed to live with the new reality, or, conversely, whether it will be destroyed by it.

But in the UK we have our own anachronistic and regressive arm of Government.  The Royal Family have absolutely no interest in engaging in such a collaborative future. The interaction is all one way and instinctively secretive. Whether it is tightly controlled media interviews with no independent editorial control or confidential ‘black spider’ memos from Charles to Government Ministers. the Windsors are clearly not interested in collaboration, only lecturing us.  They speak but do not listen and as a consequence peer-to-peer interaction which relies on a flexible attitude of equal privilege cannot take place. At the beginning of the 20th Century the Russian Romanov’s found that being perceived as remote from their people was, surprisingly, more deadly to their future prospects than vast wealth inequality. The rapid technological; advances of the 21st Century are inevitably doing the same for their Windsor cousins. Considering the nature of the monarchy precludes such interaction it would be easier if we accept the inevitable and start the transition now to a modern and accountable Head of State.