he great revolutionary poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote 'The Mask of Anarchy' in just 6 days in September, 1819 in response to the Peterloo Massacre of August that year. An estimated 60,000 crowd had peacefully assembled to demand freedom and reform in St. Peter's Field in Manchester when they were attacked by the Manchester yeomanry on horseback who cut down 11 and left 150 more injured. In the strikingly vivid, nightmare pageant sequence that opens the poem, Shelley depicts the three emblematic figures of the arch-Conservative Liverpool administration (1812-22) in a 'ghastly masquerade' – namely the Lord Chancellor, Eldon, the Home Secretary, Sidmouth, and, most detested of all, the Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh. These well-connected, richly rewarded servants of 'Anarchy' are envisioned in a macabre procession, celebrating the murderous achievement of their class's very own paramilitaries. In Shelley's day the word 'Anarchy' had no left connotations, rather it meant tyranny, horror, chaos, violence.
Shelley's poem dramatically, if briefly, focuses on this notorious Tory triumvirate; however these political front men merely serve as warm up acts, preparing the reader for the grand entrance of Anarchy itself. Anarchy's three flunkeys know their place - for they process on foot; – Anarchy, however, towers high above them, mounted on a terrifying white horse bespattered with the blood of the innocent poor and dispossessed of England that Anarchy (remember - Tyranny) has already trampled to death.
Shelley's spectral figure of Anarchy as the embodiment of the terrorist state is accompanied by its sabre-wielding swarm of mounted militia, always ready to slash and stab a populace reduced to utter penury after the 20 long years of the Napoleonic wars. Anarchy cloaks itself in faux legitimacy by laying claim to the three pillars of 1819 England 's political order, saying 'I am God and King and Law'.
The 'order' Anarchy professes to uphold is, in effect, a Regency version of 'shock and awe' with a tiny ruling class holding the new industrial working class prisoner in a virtual state of siege as its foreign and economic policies bring death and famine to the country. No one knows better than Castlereagh that his class is engaged in a brutal life and death struggle to survive this economic depression with its wealth and power intact. And no one is more able than he at employing the dual strategy of mass starvation backed by the sabre in order to disorientate the people and keep his class's power firmly entrenched.
There were regular manifestations of popular resistance to the Regency state, but it was extremely dangerous openly to oppose the government as almost any act of resistance could end in prison, transportation to Australia or public hanging. However, as public anger with the seemingly interminable slump mounted in the years 1816-19, disorder became more widespread, the government increasingly fell back on its network of 155 army garrisons, constructed from 1795 onwards, to police the increasingly volatile, and potentially ungovernable, industrialising towns and cities of the midlands and the north. It was clear to Shelley, exiled in Italy and unable to contain his 'boiling indignation' at the 'Manchester work', that this militarised state-as-Anarchy had, with Peterloo, de facto declared 'class war' on the growing movement for reform. Shelley knew Castlereagh would try to exploit the shock instilled by the violence to silence the reformers permanently.
Were Shelley to wake from sleep in the Britain of 2010, he would find much to fire his imagination. A country ruled by an unelected cabal, one brought to power by a 'very British coup' executed by a bunch of millionaires in cahoots with urbane civil servants, smooth talking knights of the realm well practised in the art of managing political crises in the interests of their class. The various bankers, unaccountable FT 100 CEOs, their shareholders and their establishment functionaries who really run this country would more than whet his appetite. Caricatured brilliantly by Steve Bell and Martin Rawson, the leading characters of today's Coalition, two privileged, public school educated, Bullingdon boys, and their wheedling, fawning sidekick, Clegg, would surely remind Shelley of the Regency elite. Crucially, this Coalition too has its very own nightmare vision, one of Britain as a laboratory for a 2010 version of Milton Friedman's 1970s neo-liberal experiment; a vision to finish off what Thatcher started. More resonant still for Shelley, this is poison peddled employing seemingly innocuous platitudes - 'national interest', 'policies fair for all' and capped by the abominable refrain, 'we're all in it together'!
This cooked-up Coalition has no more legitimacy than many a 19 th century administration though, of course, the men behind this 2010 version of the Regency England elite constitute an infinitely richer, similarly unaccountable and more powerful ruling class. The Anarchy Shelley would rail against today is the unchecked tyranny of the worldwide money markets. Today's sponsors of Anarchy are a species of pan-global, financial terrorists who manipulate a supra-national system of their own devising with the sole aim of generating profit ad infinitum . Holding vulnerable countries to ransom and owing allegiance to no one but themselves, these banksters see the destruction of the livelihoods and remaining welfare provision of the peoples of Britain, Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal (with France in their sights too) as the vital precursor to realising their deadly project: laying permanent financial siege to 'welfare state' economies until their enfeebled political classes capitulate and remake them to fit into 2010 Anarchy's neo-liberal, free-market, new world 'order'.
With their anodyne-sounding 'rescue programmes' composed of socially devastating 'reforms' aimed precisely at dismantling, then privatising, hard won welfare provision, 2010's Anarchy is every bit as rapacious as that represented in Shelley's poem. The Coalition's paymasters will snap up what their Coalition-cabal dismantles, so turning once free services into profit making scams, nimbly sorting away the proceeds via impenetrable, sophisticated tax avoidance schemes. Today's elites are the bastard progeny of those Shelley describes in 'Sonnet: England in 1819', they are the world's neo-liberal 'Rulers who neither see, nor care nor know/ But leech like to their fainting country cling'. For today's money-market Anarchy stalks sickly nation states, preying on those still reeling from bailing out these rogue banksters in the first place! As Ireland is discovering to its cost, 2010's globalised Anarchy is every bit as merciless as its Regency counterpart. Ireland 's lesson is that, like the Mafia, the appetite of the bankster's money-market Anarchy is insatiable: pay up and it just keeps coming back for more.
Shelley's main purpose in 'The Mask of Anarchy' is to answer the questions 'what is slavery?' and 'what is freedom?' and map out how to get from the former state to the latter. This journey will consist in a campaign of mass civil disobedience and tireless agitation to build up popular resistance. Shelley understands that his compatriots need a vision to fight for so he proclaims one of emancipation from social and economic slavery (freedom) as the antithesis to Anarchy.
Intriguingly, following the Millbank events and the subsequent mounted police attacks on school students in Trafalgar Square , towards the end of the poem we witness Shelley grappling with the thorny issue of violent / non-violent resistance. Just how should we oppose this ferocious onslaught of cuts, especially when the state increasingly resorts to using force? Here his position is, perhaps, unsurprisingly, contradictory – describing the problem is easier than prescribing the remedy. On the one hand, he urges total passive resistance, counselling the massed ranks of the reformers to stand firm 'With folded arms and steady eyes' and when provoked by the state to just 'Let them ride among you there/ Slash and maim and hew, - / What they like let them do' because, he argues, these soldiers will eventually reflect and understand that what they have done is wrong. But Shelley clearly perceives the limitations of this tactic because shortly after he opts for the people to exercise their inalienable right to confront the state directly. As he says in the famous last verse:
'Rise like lions from after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few'
Priyamvada Gopa, in an excellent piece for the Guardian (November 13 th 2010), raises the question of what to do when politicians, such as education minister Nick Gibb, assure us that the peaceful protest by 50,000 workers and students won't change the Coalition's policy one jot. For Gibb, a few broken windows are utterly unacceptable whereas the wholesale decimation of vital services needed by the weakest in our society, albeit regrettable, doesn't constitute violence in the slightest. Like Shelley, Gopal concludes 'civil disobedience – a principled breaking of the law – can be a powerful tool. Genteel rallies do not put sufficient pressure on the political class'. Indeed!
The Mask of Anarchy's enduring power rests its politics, a politics of civil disobedience, a politics fuelled by anger, creativity and the imagination; a politics made manifest today in the activism of the Coalition's increasingly resourceful opponents. For there is a dawning realisation that if we are to defeat this neo-liberal Coalition fronting for 2010's Anarchy, we need to make the country ungovernable, all the way from our workplaces to Topshop and Vodaphone, and then, on finally, to the very centres of political power themselves. We need to learn to disobey. Then Shelley could be proud of us!
200 years after Peterloo, it is now our turn to 'Rise like lions'!
*Available in Paul Foot's 'Shelley's Revolutionary Year: The Peterloo Writtings (sic) of the Poet Shelley ', Red Words (1992)