Today, the British government frames the argument around national debt by referring to the need for ‘us’ to make sacrifices or the fact that ‘we’ have been living beyond ‘our’ means and need austerity to survive economically. Despite evidence to the contrary, this ideology resonates with many people who think that in some way, we are all responsible for the financial crisis. We live within this widespread, false ideology, and some of us fight against it. However, a look back to the nineteenth century reveals that this fight was already taking place, and that capitalism was employing many of the tricks it still uses today. Jacqueline Mulhallen looks at the political life of the radical romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in her new biography and reveals that there was much more to him than first meets the eye.
Debt in the time of Shelley
‘In 1819, Percy Shelley was writing A Philosophical View of Reform. In its pages, he is clear about whom he considered responsible for the national debt, which at that time was bigger than it had ever been before – in 1815 the interest amounted to £37,500,000. Shelley, like many people today, fought against the common consensus and blamed the bankers and the nation’s financial institutions. He clearly expressed his contempt in them; the ‘stock jobbers, usurers, directors, government pensions, country bankers: a set of pelting wretches who think of any commerce with their species as a means not an end’ and whose position in society he believed was based on fraud. Shelly himself surprisingly came from the landed aristocracy, however he had no love for this class either, as their existence was built upon force and was what he labelled ‘a prodigious anomaly’. He also talked of the rise of the newly wealthy as a different form of aristocracy who created a double burden on those whose labour created ‘the whole materials of life’. He could see that they together formed one class – ‘the rich’.
It was obvious to Shelley that the national debt had been contracted by ‘the whole mass of the privileged classes towards one particular portion of those classes’ – just as is the case today. ‘If the principal of this debt were paid … it would be the rich who alone could, as justly they ought, to pay it … As it is, the interest is chiefly paid by those who had no hand in the borrowing and who are sufferers in other respects from the consequences of those transactions in which the money was spent’.
Austerity and War in the Nineteenth Century
Shelley also expressed what he saw as a clear connection between austerity and war. The national debt was ‘chiefly contracted in two liberticide wars’, against the American revolutionaries and then the French revolutionaries. The money borrowed could have been spent in making the lives of working people better. As it was, the majority of the people in England were observed by Shelley as ‘ill-clothed, ill-fed, ill-educated’. After the Napoleonic Wars unemployment soared and returning soldiers were often found begging in the streets. The condition of all the classes ‘excepting those within the privileged pale’ was ‘singularly unprosperous’, allowing Shelley to comment, ‘The power which has increased is the power of the rich’.
Shelley also believed that anyone whose ‘personal exertions’ were ‘more valuable to him than his capital’ such as surgeons, mechanics, farmers and literary men (people often described as middle class) were only ‘one degree removed from the class which subsists by daily labour’ and therefore should not be classed with the rich. However, Shelley returned again and again to his obsession, the situation of the worker. His essay A Philosophical View of Reform, which on the surface was about the possibilities of reforming the English parliament to make it more representative, contained within it a message about how reform would not be enough. Why demand universal suffrage, he asks, when you can demand a Republic: ‘the abolition of, for instance, monarchy and aristocracy, and the levelling of inordinate wealth, and an agrarian distribution, including the parks and chases of the rich?’
The Radical Questions of the Day
As a boy, Shelley was probably involved in anti-slavery activity in his home town of Horsham in Sussex. His father had been elected to Parliament as an MP to support the anti-slave trade bill in 1790, although some corrupt practices meant that he lost his seat before he was able to vote on the question. But in 1807, the year the slave trade was abolished, the inhabitants of Horsham were particularly active, with a close family friend of the Shelleys standing on an anti-slavery platform.
Shelley also supported the independence of Ireland, arguing that the repeal of the Act of Union with England was a more important issue than Catholic Emancipation (although he supported the campaign for Catholics to sit in the British Parliament). Shelley admired Thomas Paine, the author of The Rights of Man and Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. He went so far as to try to renounce his inheritance as a member of the wealthy landowning class in favour of his sisters, though he only succeeded in transferring some of this wealth to his brother. He supported women writers including his own wife, Mary Shelley, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and author of Frankenstein.
Percy Shelley believed that equality was the natural state. He was ahead of his time. And yet, in the twenty-first century we still labour in an unequal, class society, and we still live with racism, exploitation and sexism. As is well known, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened to become greater than at any time in the last fifty years.
Despite living 200 years ago, Shelley’s legacy is very much with us today, even if it was ignored and ridiculed in his lifetime. He attempted to get A Philosophical View of Reform published in England, but the publisher he submitted the manuscript to ignored him. Not having other contacts in England, Shelley left the essay unfinished. It was not published until 100 years after his death and so was never read by his contemporaries, although he recycled parts of it into his Defence of Poetry. Even nowadays it is not often read or discussed, and it deserves to be better known. Shelley should be honoured as a political thinker, as well as a magnificent poet. In A Defence of Poetry, Shelley describes poets as the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’ and his example shows the way in which poets can be closely involved with the political issues of the day.’
Jacqueline Mulhallen wrote and performed in the plays Sylvia and Rebels and Friends. She is the author of The Theatre of Shelley (Open Book Publishers, 2010) and contributed a chapter on Shelley to The Oxford Handbook to Georgian Theatre (OUP, 2014), which was shortlisted for the Theatre Book Prize 2015.
Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary is available to buy from Pluto Press.