‘Against supranationalism: in defence of national sovereignty (and Brexit)’ by Bill Mitchell and Thomas Fazi

Let’s face it: national sovereignty has become irrelevant in today’s increasingly complex and interdependent international economy. The deepening of economic globalisation – and the massive leaps achieved in the fields of mass transport, communications, technology – have rendered individual states increasingly powerless vis-à-vis the forces of the market. The internationalisation of finance and the growing importance of multinational corporations have eroded the ability of individual states to autonomously pursue social and economic policies – especially of the progressive kind – and to deliver prosperity to their peoples. Financial markets and mega-corporations today wield more power than governments – and can easily bring these to their knees. This means that our only hope of tackling the cross-border challenges of modernity, of taming the power of global financial and corporate leviathans, and of achieving any meaningful change, is for countries to ‘pool’ their sovereignty together and transfer it to supranational institutions (such as the European Union) that are large and powerful enough to have their voices heard, thus regaining at the supranational level the sovereignty that has been lost at the national level. In other words, to preserve their ‘real’ sovereignty, states need to limit their formal sovereignty.

If these arguments sound familiar (and persuasive), it is because they are espoused and reinforced on a daily basis by politicians and commentators, particularly in Europe. This became acutely evident during the pre- and post-Brexit debate. A simple Google search for the words ‘Brexit’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘delusion’ yields hundreds of articles, including from allegedly progressive commentators, mocking voters for wanting to ‘take back control’ – for being too unsophisticated to realise that there is no sovereignty to take back, that ‘[i]n today’s integrated world it is a chimera to believe that one can establish some presumed long-lost economic sovereignty’,[1] and that ‘pooling decision-making and resources is the only way to stand up for self-interest’.[2] As Marlene Wind, director of the Center for European Politics at the Department of Political Science of the University of Copenhagen, summed it up: ‘[B]eing outside the EU with no influence on the rules that will limit and structure any states manoeuvring in a 21st century global society will most likely make [the UK] much less sovereign’.[3]

Continue reading

Imagining Toussaint Louverture by Charles Forsdick

The oppression of non-white people didn’t go away. It was transformed; subsumed into structures and institutions; discernible in asymmetric economic inequality or a culture that promotes white superiority. It has taken white tyranny to reach the heights of Nazi salutes on the street and the death of an anti-racist protester for the ‘post-racial’ fabrication to die a necessary death.Forsdick T02889

Contemporary politics is afflicted by an historical amnesia that we must resist. By looking to figures such as Toussaint Louverture, leader of the only successful slave revolt in history, we on the Left can make sense of what informs white supremacy, and what has defeated certain strains of it in the past. In this blog, Charles Forsdick, author of Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions, examines how Louverture’s legacy has been mobilised in the past and how we can ‘recover and restate the incendiary political implications of his life, actions and revolutionary thought’.

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Of the three most notable leaders associated with the Haitian Revolution, it is Toussaint Louverture – as opposed to Jean-Jacques Dessalines or Henri Christophe – who has attracted the most sustained attention in the Atlantic world and beyond. In Haiti itself, Dessalines (known in Haiti as the ‘Liberator’) is the only one elevated to the status of divine lwa in the vodou pantheon, and the national anthem (the Dessalinienne) is named after him, but outside the country Louverture (the ‘Precursor’) has achieved a visibility and recognizability as an anti-imperialist revolutionary comparable perhaps only to Che Guevara. As the scholar Deborah Jenson has claimed, the diverse catalogue of representations of Louverture can be tracked back to his own lifetime when, often acting as his own spin doctor, the leader of the Haitian Revolution deployed self-representation and harnessed early Atlantic print culture as a means of managing the understanding of his actions on a wider international stage. Continue reading

Chips and cheese and a massive fucking TV: Stephen Crossley on representations of Britain’s impoverished

Crossley T03151From Jamie Oliver’s ‘chips and cheese’ and a ‘massive fucking TV’ comments, to the sneering ‘Benefits Street’, absent from the discourse on Britain’s poor is discussion of the material processes that cause poverty. Instead we see a committed Othering of poor people; a belief in social pathologies and moral inferiority. In this blog, Stephen Crossley author of In Their Place, explores this manipulation of public discourse; examining how often ethnographic research, and the institutions that fund it, often reinforce these stigmatising narratives through methodological approaches and practices.

In Their Place: The Imagined Geographies of Poverty explores how spaces of poverty and representations of disadvantaged people are used by politicians, the media, policy makers and academics to ensure a gap in inequality remains and that everyone knows where the poor belong.

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Members of the public could be forgiven for barely batting an eyelid when David Cameron announced in 2014 that he was going to ‘blitz’ poverty by knocking down what he referred to as ‘sink estates’. Cameron argued that it wasn’t a coincidence that people who participated in the 2011 riots came ‘overwhelmingly’ from post-war housing estates and suggested that some such estates were ‘actually entrenching poverty in Britain – isolating and entrapping many of our families and communities’. There is, of course a long history of politicians and other prominent individuals – journalists, social reformers, media personalities, authors – of conflating places where poor people live, with locales that produce both poverty, and an assortment of other, often tenuously connected, ‘social problems’.

William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, compared the East End of London with outposts of Empire and, in 1890, rhetorically asked:

‘As there is a darkest Africa, is there not also a darkest England? Civilisation, which can breed its own barbarians, does it not also breed its own pygmies?’

More recently, Iain Duncan Smith famously ‘discovered’ his ‘passion’ for social justice (one is left wondering how he had previously missed it…) following visits to Easterhouse in Glasgow. His discovery led him to establish the Centre for Social Justice think-tank and staff it with ‘lackey intellectuals’ whose ‘research’ identified five ‘pathways to poverty’, which relied on and promoted behaviourist explanations for poverty. Jamie Oliver has proffered his own helpful contributions to debates about poverty in the UK at the current time, arguing that an episode of one of his television shows which featured a child eating ‘chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive fucking TV’ showed that poverty in modern-day Britain ‘just didn’t weigh up’.

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One might hope, if not expect, academics and academic institutions, supposedly capable of and supporting and advancing independent and critical thought, to robustly challenge such stereotypes. Alas, divergence from such lazy, stigmatising portrayals of disadvantaged neighbourhoods can also be found within the walls of academia. Tom Slater has powerfully argued that the ‘cottage industry’ of ‘neighbourhood effects’ research that focuses on how where you live affects your life chances, is deployed as ‘an instrument of accusation, a veiled form of class antagonism that conveniently has no place for any concern over what happens outside the very neighbourhoods under scrutiny.’ One university that I have connections with has produced a risk assessment that attempts to address the ‘increased hazards of testing in socially disadvantaged areas’. Potential researchers are encouraged to ‘investigate the area in which they’re planning on working in advance’ and ensure they are ‘aware of any social or cultural tensions in the area’. They are told to study a map of the area before conducting the research, and to check the location of areas that ‘might form the basis of obtaining assistance if required’. Further information is provided on personal safety with researchers reminded to ‘carry valuables in an unobtrusive and secure manner’, ‘consider safe places to park’ and, incredibly, ‘consider breaking routine so your timings vary’ if travelling to the neighbourhood on multiple days. This is not to undermine the need for lone workers to feel safe when carrying out their work and for appropriate mechanisms to be put in place to ensure their safety as far as possible. A generic risk assessment for carrying out research ‘off-site’ would be a useful resource for researchers about to embark on a study. The specific reference to ‘research carried out in a socially disadvantaged neighbourhood’, however, gives the game away. There is no such risk assessment for carrying out research in an ‘affluent neighbourhood’ or a ‘socially advantaged neighbourhood’ at the same institution. The insinuation is that poorer areas are more threatening and dangerous areas. In writing about the idea of disadvantaged neighbourhoods as ‘dreadful enclosures’ in 1977, the sociologist E.V. Walter wrote:

‘Certain milieu gather reputations for moral inferiority, squalor, violence, and social pathology, and consequently they objectify the fantasy of the dreadful enclosure … According to the stereotype, housing projects are loci in which sick and dangerous people drift together in a kind of behavioural sink, producing urban capsules of pathology so highly concentrated that the ordinary resources of the body social cannot control them.’[1]

Disadvantaged and marginalised populations have often been the subjects of a variety of social research from different disciplinary backgrounds. Researchers can gain credit, or symbolic capital, for carrying out research in such areas and with groups of people iDS EASTERHOUSEothers deem to be ‘hard to reach’, dangerous or threatening. For example, the American sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, who recently took up a position at Facebook, wrote a book about how he was ‘gang leader for a day’ during ethnographic research in a housing project in Chicago. Simon Harding, a criminologist in the UK has published a book on status or ‘weapon dogs’ and another on street gangs in London, in which he describes gang members as players of the game in ‘the casino of life’. Sociologists in the UK who debunked the idea of households where ‘three generations have never worked’ highlighted the almost mythical status of such households amongst politicians, policy-makers, practitioners and members of the public, by likening their research to ‘hunting yetis’. Interest in disadvantaged groups has even led to an emerging literature on ‘over-researched communities’, with some young people in Kings Cross apparently confident in asking researchers working in their neighbourhood about their choice of methodology and ethical approval processes.

And yet, going to see things close-up and first hand, does not necessarily lead to greater clarity of though or greater insight. The influential French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that:

‘The perfectly commendable wish to go see things in person, close up, sometimes leads people to search for the explanatory principles of observed realities where they are not to be found (not all of them, in any case), namely at the site of observation itself. The truth about what happens in the ‘problem suburbs’ certainly does not lie in these usually forgotten sites that leap into the headlines from time to time. The true object of analysis, which must be constructed against appearances and against all those who do no more than endorse those appearances, is the social (or more precisely political) construction of reality as it appears, to intuition, and of its journalistic, bureaucratic and political representations, which help to produce effects that are indeed real, beginning with the political world, where they structure discussion.’[2]

This is not to criticise the work of all researchers or academics who carry out ethnographic, or indeed other forms of research with marginalised groups or in/on disadvantaged communities and neighbourhoods. For example, Kayleigh Garthwaite spent a year volunteering in a foodbank in order to understand the issues and processes which led people to use foodbanks, in the process highlighting the political, structural and systemic causes of increased foodbank use in the UK. Lisa McKenzie has highlighted how residents of St. Ann’s in Nottingham experienced austerity and increasing class inequality. Researchers such as Rob Macdonald and Tracy Shildrick have documented the myriad effects of deindustrialisation in Teesside, expounding the difficult youthcrossley blog 1 transitions to adulthood at a time of chastening political attitudes towards young people, and when the local labour market offers only low-paid precarious employment. These are all research studies of individuals and groups living in impoverished areas, but with one eye (at least) on the wider social and structural determinants of the lives of the research participants. In a similar vein, contributors to the recently published book The Violence of Austerity highlight the effects of austerity driven cuts and ‘reforms’ on different already structurally disadvantaged groups.

How disadvantaged and impoverished neighbourhoods, and the people that reside them, are depicted in research depends very much on how they are perceived in the first place. Martin Nicolaus, put it succinctly when he railed against ‘fat-cat sociologists’ who operated with their eyes trained downwards and their palms turned upwards, stating that ‘it all depends on where you look from, where you stand’. Research that views, or accepts the dominant political narrative that ‘socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods’ are threatening places, or a ‘problem’ that can best be understood by examining ‘neighbourhood effects’ or close-up research does nothing more than legitimise the stigmatising narratives about working class neighbourhoods or social housing estates. On the other hand, research that attempts to highlight the impact on poor neighbourhoods of political decisions made by powerful people living very different lives in very different neighbourhoods can help to reveal to reveal the impact of such decisions on communities across the country. Nicolaus, however, went further. He argued for a ‘reversal of the machinery’ and asked:

‘What if the habits, problems, secrets, and unconscious motivations of the wealthy and powerful were daily scrutinised by a thousand systematic researchers, were hourly pried into, analysed and cross-referenced; were tabulated and published in a hundred inexpensive mass-circulation journals and written so that even the fifteen-year-old high-school drop-out could understand them and predict the actions of his landlord to manipulate and control him?’[3]

If we want to truly understand how and why poverty affects some places more than others, we need to be turning our attentions to what might be termed ‘advantaged neighbourhoods’ and the daily lives of those that frequent the ‘corridors of power’. Decisions about resources and services that could be made available to neighbourhoods benefits streetand their residents are often taken hundreds of miles away, perhaps by people whose only experience or knowledge of poverty might have been gleaned from a carefully managed day trip or two.  It is worth remembering that few, if any, of the politicians who voted through, or abstained during, the welfare reforms introduced in the UK since 2010, were going to be substantially affected by them, or could imagine what they might mean to many families already living on low incomes across the country. Numerous researchers have demonstrated various ‘Westminster effects’ on disadvantaged neighbourhoods by highlighting how the government’s recent welfare reforms have had disproportionately greater impact upon poorer areas. Whilst it is vital to acknowledge that where people live can affect their lives, a compelling case can and should be made that the strongest effects exerted on residents of impoverished neighbourhoods often emanate from the words and actions of politicians in Westminster, rather than the allegedly ‘mean streets’ of social housing estates.

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Stephen Crossley is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Northumbria University. He previously worked on a regional child poverty project in the North East of England and has also worked in local government and with local voluntary sector organisations in neighbourhood youth work and community development roles.

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In Their Place: The Imagined Geographies of Poverty by Stephen Crossley is available from Pluto Press.

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[1] E.V. Walter, ‘Dreadful Enclosures: Detoxifying and Urban Myth’, European Journal of Sociology 18/1 (1977): 150-159, quote from p. 154.

[2] P. Bourdieu et al., The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), p. 181.

[3] M. Nicolaus, ‘Fat-cat Sociology: Remarks at the American Sociology Association Convention’, 1968 (available at: http://www.colorado.edu/Sociology/gimenez/fatcat.html, accessed 1 December 2016).

What’s Wrong with Modern Work? Jamie Woodcock on the Taylor Review

Low-paid, precarious zero hours contracts and an enforced dearth of union organisation is the bind that unites much of the post-industrial service economy. The failure of the Woodcock T03174Tory-backed Taylor Review to advocate in favour of workers suggests that a solution will only come from struggle within the ‘gig economy’. Jamie Woodcock, author of Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centressuggests we turn to Engels’ report on the conditions of workers in nineteenth-century Manchester, which could offer a glimpse into what a counter-offensive against atomised precarity could look like.

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The government has become increasingly concerned about the rise of the so-called “gig economy” and other forms of precarious work like zero-hours contracts. A range of scandals, from those at Sports Direct to Parcelforce,[i] have given a glimpse of the exploitation and regular breaches of employment rights that are rife in this kind of work.

The recent publication of Good work: the Taylor review of modern working practices[ii] was meant to provide the government with evidence and recommendations in this area. However, it has been met with widespread derision from workers and trade unions. In a particular, Jason Moyer-Lee (the general secretary of the IWGB – the Independent Workers union of Great Britain) has argued that ‘when one looks at the actual recommendations, it is full of vacuous fluff and light on substantive proposals.’[iii]

The report focuses on the idea of “quality work”, not recognising that the degradation of flog and dropthe modern workplace – from call centres, delivery, transport, and care – is not some kind of aberration, but central to the business models of these companies. However, this is no surprise given the constitution of the panel for the review. For example, one was a corporate lawyer who represented businesses in industrial relations disputes, while another had actually invested in Deliveroo! There were no workers’ voices included, nor was the IWGB consulted, despite it successfully organising workers in this sector.

In my ongoing collaborative research project with Deliveroo workers, a very different picture of modern work is emerging.[iv] We put together an evidence submission for the Parliamentary inquiry on ‘The Future World of Work.’ In the survey we organised, the overwhelming majority felt their current employment status did not accurately reflect the nature of their work, that the independent contractor classification was used to treat them unfairly (even that it was used deliberately to take advantage of them), and were in favour of greater employment rights.[v]

Yet instead of addressing these issues, the Taylor review failed on multiple counts. There are no serious suggestions for enforcement, with no measures to address breaches or remove the obstructive fees for employment tribunals. More worryingly, the review even goes on to suggest the introduction of piece rate legislation that would undermine the minimum wage:

platforms would be able to compensate workers based on their output (i.e. number of tasks performed), provided they are able to demonstrate through the data that they have available that an average individual, working averagely hard, successfully clears the National Minimum Wage with a 20% margin of error.[vi]

Part of the problem with this is that the companies involved in the gig economy have a history of obscuring the data. For example, Uber have used the ‘Greyball’ tool to provide false information to enforcement officials.[vii] So there is little chance of accurate information being used in these calculations. In addition to these issues, the IWGB has prepared a very detailed response to the entire review.[viii]

I want to take a different approach to thinking about the impact of the review. Just over a week after the report was released, a statue of Engels was unveiled as part of the Manchester International Festival. As part of the ceremony, I argued that the statue should be a call to action on work.[ix] However, it is particularly important to reflect on the legacy of Engels in the light of the Taylor Review. Engels came from a bourgeois background – coming to Manchester to oversee the running of his father’s factory – yet opened his eyes to the conditions of workers across the city. In The Conditions of the Working Class in England, Engels investigated how the new form of factory work was effecting workers in Manchester.[x]

If Engels were to arrive in London today and explore its neighbourhoods, what would he engelsmake of the working conditions? The rights that workers have fought for – and won – since then are increasingly being eroded by companies, whether through wage theft, misclassification of employment status, or masquerading as platforms rather than employers. Yet, Engels did not see these kinds of deleterious effects as an anomaly, but rather a result of the antagonism between workers and capital.

Marx later took a similar approach when writing chapter ten on the working day in Capital.[xi] He drew on the data collected by factory inspectors for government reports. Later in his life, Marx would then argue for a workers’ inquiry to understanding the experiences of workers.[xii] It is this approach that guides my own research, from call centres to Deliveroo, that does not see research on work as an end in itself.[xiii] To paraphrase Marx: there is no one better placed than workers themselves to describe work, and the exploitation they face can only be overcome through their collective actions.

Taylor claimed at the start of the process he would ‘tell Theresa May what’s wrong with modern work’[xiv], yet after the response to the publication, he is now arguing that the ‘report on work’ is, in fact, ‘brilliant’ – it is just that ‘people don’t get it.’[xv] This is a long way from the reports of the factory inspectors in Marx’s time. Unlike Leonard Horner, whose ‘services to the English working class will never be forgotten,’[xvi] Taylor’s review deserves to not even be remembered. It has clearly failed to deliver results for workers in the gig economy, but given its approach, this is hardly a surprise. Instead what is needed is to listen to those workers who already understand the problems – but also to understand that the solutions can only come from the struggles that are emerging in the gig economy and beyond.

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Jamie Woodcock completed his PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is currently a fellow at LSE. His research interests include: digital labour, technology, management, critical theory, and the sociology of work. He is the author of Working the Phones (Pluto, 2016).

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Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres is available from Pluto Press.

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[i] Rob Davies, (2017) DPD and Parcelforce face MPs’ questions over working conditions, The Guardian.

[ii] Good work: the Taylor review of modern working practices (2017)

[iii] Jason Moyer-Lee, (2017) Wishy-washy and full of fluff – the Taylor review offers little, The Guardian.

[iv] Jamie Woodcock, (2017) Automate this! Delivering Resistance in the Gig Economy, Mute.

[v] Written evidence from IWGB Couriers & Logistics Branch (WOW 99), (2017), The Future World of Work.

[vi] Taylor review, (2017), p38.

[vii] Mike Isaac, (2017) How Uber Deceives the Authorities Worldwide, New York Times, available at:

[viii] IWGB (2017) Dead on Arrival, the IWGB’s reply to the Taylor review on Modern Employment Practices.

[ix] Jamie Woodcock, (2017) All work and no play.

[x] Frederick Engels, (2017) The Condition of the Working Class in England.

[xi] Karl Marx, (1867) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I.

[xii] Karl Marx, (1880) A Workers’ Inquiry.

[xiii] See, for example: Jamie Woodcock (2017) Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres, London: Pluto.

[xiv] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/01/i-tell-theresa-may-working-lives-review-modern-employment-zero-hours-flexibility

[xv] Rowland Manthorpe and Kelly Fiveash, (2017) ‘Matthew Taylor: My report on work was brilliant – but people don’t get it’, Wired.

[xvi] Karl Marx, (1867) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I.

Terrorism and Belonging in Europe by Umut Bozkurt

‘Belonging’ is both a fundamental human emotion and a political project that affects millions. Since its foundation in 1957, the European Union has encouraged people across its member states to feel a sense of belonging to one united community, with mixed results. Under current LermanFfractious conditions, it has become increasingly important to ask: Is there a European identity? Who determines who belongs? Is a single sense of belonging in Europe dangerous?

In this blog, Umut Bozkurt – a contributor to Do I Belong?, a collection of essays that seek to understand Europe in its current formation – examines the spate of terror attacks in Western Europe and asks how these horrific incidents reflect the economy, legitimacy, democracy, citizenship and multiculturalism of Europe’s ‘imagined community’.

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The murderous attacks in Paris in January and November 2015 tell us a lot about the multidimensional set of crises unfolding in Europe.

On Wednesday 7 January, two masked gunmen, dressed in black and armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, attacked the building of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve people and injured eleven others. After leaving, they killed a police officer outside the building. It was later revealed that the gunmen were two brothers: Chérif and Saïd Kouachi identified themselves as belonging to the Yemen branch of the Islamist terrorist group Al-Qaeda, which took responsibility for the attack.

The brothers were later shot dead by police, following a hostage drama in the north of Paris. On the same day another terrorist, Amédy Coulibaly, having already killed a policewoman on the eighth, killed four hostages at a kosher supermarket in east Paris and was then killed by police when they stormed the building. On 13 November, Paris witnessed a series of coordinated terrorist attacks that killed 130 people. The attacks included suicide bombings near the Stade de France and suicide bombings and mass shootings at cafés, restaurants and the Bataclan concert hall. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying that they were in retaliation for the French airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq. Seven attackers were killed at the time and two more five days later. Continue reading

Grenfell Tower: A photo diary from Activestills

The fire at Grenfell tower is an example of the classist and racist structures that organise Britain. The victims belong to a long list of austerity’s casualties, to quote Aditya Chakrabortty in the Guardian last week, ‘spectacular examples of social violence, such as Grenfell…usually occur out of public sight. This decade of austerity has been a decade of social violence.’ From austerity-induced suicides attempts numbering 30-40,000, to 15,000 people dying in fuel poverty, and over 10,000 deaths of people declared ‘fit for work’, it is manifest that in order to protect their wealth and power, the politics of the ruling elite have been deeply injurious for the underprivileged.

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Oren Ziv visited Grenfell in the days after the fire, creating this photo diary that shows the resilience, anger and grieving in the city; starkly revealing the injustices inflicted upon that community. Ziv is a member of the Activestills collective, whose photographs seek to capture the politics implicit in everyday situations and have been vital in documenting the struggle against Israeli occupation. Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel, collects many of these images.

As a cover-up of the number of victims seems likely, the transmission, circulation and dissemination of images of the charred building, of the protests and of the community, will gain political currency and act as a demand for rights. Activestills’ activist photography was conceived in opposition to the liberal sentiments of documentary photography, their images are agents for transformation, demanding social reform by exposing the economic, social, and political structures and conditions that enabled inequality in the first place.

For those lucky enough to not realise it before, Grenfell has revealed the deep injustices at play in austerity Britain, beyond that it should also signal the need for a sea-change and a new government that values the lives of all of its people.

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001 Neighbours look at photos of missing residents following the Grenfell tower fire, June 16, 2017.

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002 Local residents, including family members of missing people, protest together with activists outside the Kensington Town Hall, to demand justice for the Grenfell tower victims, June 16, 2017. Continue reading

For the Many, Not the Few: Jeremy Corbyn and Percy Bysshe Shelley

As he had throughout his election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn invoked the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley, to a crowd of thousands at Glastonbury festival. Here, Jacqueline Mulhallen, author of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionarylooks at the radical political history of The Mask of Anarchy, the poem Corbyn quotes, and examines the dialogue between Corbyn and Shelley’s activism.

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At the end of the election campaign on June 7, 2017, Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech in Islington which ended with his quoting the following stanza:

Rise like lions after slumber

In unfathomable number

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep have fallen on you –

Ye are many, they are few.

Some of the enormous crowd listening joined in with the last line. ‘You should never be afraid of saying you like poetry’, Mr. Corbyn said.  And certainly not this poem. It was Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy, the most famous and popular political poem in English. The Labour party had been using a modified form of the last line as their election slogan, ‘For the many, not the few’.

In the early 1990s, the Poll Tax campaigners used the line ‘We are many, they are few’ as their slogan.  The poem was recited in 1989 by the students occupying Tiananmen Square, and in 2011 by those in Tahrir Square.  It gave the title to Amir Amirani’s great film of the Stop the War demonstration in 2003. Further back, it was chanted by the garment workers of New York in 1909, mostly young immigrant women, striking for better pay and conditions (they won), and shortly afterwards, during World War I, Olive Waterman, a young member of Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Federation of Suffragettes, used to draw crowds in Victoria Park by reciting Shelley.  It has long been a part of working class consciousness.  Shelley’s Queen Mab was known as the ‘Chartist’s Bible’ and Engels told Eleanor Marx that they all knew Shelley by heart back then’.   It may well have been The Mask of Anarchy that they knew at the very least.

Shelley wrote the poem in 1819.  Although he was living in Italy at the time and had given up political activism for poetry, he kept in touch with leftwing political thought in England by reading Cobbett’s Register and The Examiner, edited by his friend, Leigh Hunt.  A perfectly legal and peaceful meeting of Manchester workers, gathered in St Peter’s Fields to hear Henry Hunt (no relation to Leigh) talk about his ideas for reform of Parliament, was attacked by a troop of militia men, not professional soldiers, who slashed at these men women and children, killing and wounding.  Shelley’s friend Thomas Love Peacock, sent him all the papers with accounts of what became known as the ‘Peterloo Massacre’.  The Mask of Anarchy was Shelley’s response.

It is a long poem in ballad form and it tells of a dream.  A long procession of masked politicians led by the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor (the names are blank and we can fill in their modern equivalents).  They are followed by ‘Anarchy’, for Shelley the capitalist system, but Anarchy is brought to a standstill by an amazing event.  A young woman throws herself in front of the horses. Her name is Hope.  Anarchy and his crew are defeated.

The central part of The Mask of Anarchy explains that ‘freedom’ is in fact the freedom of having sufficient to live on, education, comfort – all these questions were addressed in Labour’s manifesto.  Shelley then goes on to suggest another demonstration

Let a vast assembly be

And with great solemnity

Declare with measured words are ye

Are, as God has made ye, free

At around the same time, Shelley wrote a number of other poems inspired by Peterloo and the essay A Philosophical View of Reform, in which he pointed out that the reform of Parliament sought by Hunt and others would not be sufficient to improve the conditions of the workers, who, he says, are ‘ill-fed, ill-clothed and ill-educated’.   It is capitalism that Shelley is criticising, and this at a time when the industrial revolution was just beginning and the working class was not yet ‘made’. The parallels with today could not be clearer. Workers are so ill-fed that some resort to food banks.  They are housed in tower blocks with no protection against fire.  Education cuts, constant examinations (the SATS) and the introduction of university fees have destroyed the education system. Yet he could see that the workers had the solution in their hands. Many people have said that Jeremy Corbyn has given them Hope.corbyn for the many

The publishers to whom Shelley sent his poems did not dare to publish them, although in 1832, when the movement for the reform of Parliament looked like succeeding, Leigh Hunt at last published The Mask of Anarchy.  Since then, it has been part of the consciousness of the working class movement, both on the streets and among revolutionary intellectuals like Marx and Engels, and The Mask of Anarchy has provided the key slogan of many campaigns.  Paul Foot, the great journalist and campaigner and author of Red Shelley, talked about him at the annual Marxism events in London in the 1980s and 1990s.

In February 2003 a ‘great assembly’ took place – the huge anti-war demo in Hyde Park which echoed around the world in the first global protest.  Jeremy Corbyn was one of the speakers on that occasion, and it is only fitting that he should turn to Shelley to give a voice to his campaign.

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Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary by Jacqueline Mulhallen is available from Pluto Press.

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Jacqueline Mulhallen wrote and performed in the plays Sylvia and Rebels and Friends. Her ground-breaking book The Theatre of Shelley (Open Book Publishers, 2010) has been internationally acclaimed. She contributed a chapter on Shelley to The Oxford Handbook to Georgian Theatre (OUP, 2014) shortlisted for the Theatre Book Prize 2015.