Dirge for the Common Man: A Response to “Song to the Men of England”

Image from Fritz Lang’s film “Metropolis.”

The near-deafening brouhaha raised by the Tea Party during the 2010 election season in the United States attracted the attention of the mainstream media and political system with its use of controversial slogans and anti-government statements. Candidate Christine O’Donnell, misattributing words to Thomas Jefferson, riled the crowds with words that the government should fear them. Air-raid-siren-voiced candidate Sharon Angle shrieked against the so-called evils of public education, social security, and minimum wage. Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin announced that the women of the Tea Party were “mama grizzlies” ready to devour an out of control federal government. Party members met at rallies, shaking signs announcing “Warning Constitution Under Attack,” claiming President Obama was a socialist, and the need to “Protect and Defend the Constitution from All Enemies” (Scherer 27).

The November 4th election led to some Tea Party victories and the Republican Party gained a majority vote in the House of Representatives. Suddenly the Tea Party vanished into the background and little changed in government. Legislature made compromises, passed bills, and all will remain quiet until it is time for another election. Rather than being out-of-control wild grizzlies, Tea Party members showed themselves as sheep, bleating loudly until shepherds arrived to tell them they will be taken care of by the wealthy.

Large uprisings are nothing new. History is full of groups of people rising against their rulers demanding food, protection or freedom. The American Revolution, which energized Europe, provided hope for the people of France, who felt oppressed under a system that protected the wealthy and denied human rights to the common citizen. In time, however, the fervor about revolution calmed and many felt the dream of freedom and equality would never be attained. Indifference, or complacency, settled into the soul of the commoner.

Perhaps this is what early 19th Century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was responding to when he wrote “Song to the Men of England.” Shelly directs his poem directly to England’s working class, those who plough and weave for the wealthy, providing the rich with food and fine clothing, yet ultimately giving their lives for the upper class without receiving any gratitude. Ultimately, Shelley states these men toil, yet receive not “leisure, comfort, calm, / Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm,” but pain and fear.

Shelley’s words are clearly a call to arms, but they are also a reproof of, not only the workers’ indifference, but their willingness to contribute to class inequality. The final two stanzas of the poem tersely tell the men to go underground, bellow the very floors they built, and chain themselves with the very chains they made for their masters. If the men of England are going to continue supporting the system, then Shelley writes that they should use their tools and skills to make their own graves.

Class divisions still exist in the United States. After World War II and continuing through the 1970s, the gap between the rich and the poor in America remained relatively close and stable. With the introduction of Ronald Reagan’s policies of deregulating markets and giving large tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, the gap began to grow. The gap continued to growing as the wealthy continued to increase their corporate earnings while the working class was getting paid less. Unions are now viewed as an evil, designed to steal away money from workers. Yet non-union workers constantly find themselves struggling to make enough income to take care of their living expenses.

An example of this is Wal-Mart, where employees are constantly told they are part of the family, but consistently have trouble getting the desired hours they need. A new employee is forced to watch a video about why a union would simply hurt the store’s employees and create a rift between the management and the managed that would damage everyone. Just in case an employee does not get the message, he or she must pass a computerized exam where agreeing with Wal-Mart is a condition for passing the test (Ehrenreich 144-145). With twenty-five percent of all merchandise in the United States purchased from Wal-Mart, it benefits the company to remind its employees that they are part of a family and need to show loyalty to that family by accepting low wages and whatever hours the store decides an employee deserves on any given week. And employees agree to it. They become participants in a plan that benefits the upper echelons of the corporation disproportionately more than the workers.

From “Fight Club.” Courtesy 20th Century Fox.

That has become the American way, serve and be quiet. Author Chuck Palahniuk’s novel “Fight Club,” about the impotent and denaturalized condition of the modern American male, introduces status quo challenger Tyler Durden. Tyler challenges the system at every turn, setting up clubs for men, dissatisfied with their lives, to fight each other. In the fight clubs, every man, whether rich, poor, healthy, sick, big, or little, gets the chance to throw down with another man. There is no class. There is not any system elevating one man over another. A man’s liberty in Tyler’s world is forged with bare fists from bruised flesh.

Eventually the system, in this case law enforcement, tries to interfere. A police commissioner vows to stop the underground fighting. He is soon grabbed and pinned down by Tyler and a group of his Space Monkeys. They pull the commissioner’s pants down, wrapping a rubber band tightly around the man’s testicles. “How far do you think you’ll get in politics if the voters know you have no nuts?” asks Tyler (165). Since he is a powerful and wealthy man, the commissioner has much to lose. Tyler tells him that his gang has nothing to lose except for the fight club.

Tyler’s next words echo Shelly’s. However, in the case of Tyler and his Space Monkeys, they are already challenging the system. They are ready to neuter those who have kept them at the bottom and Tyler’s words tell the system that the underclass has realized its true power. He says:

“Remember this…The people you’re trying to step on, we’re everyone you depend on. We’re the people who do your laundry and cook your food and serve your dinner. We make your bed. We guard you while you’re asleep. We drive the ambulances. We direct your call. We are cooks and taxi drivers and we know everything about you. We process your insurance claims and credit card charges. We control every part of your life.” (166)

America’s political and upper classes remain happy with a nation where the workers view it as a privilege to serve the needs of the rich. The Tea Party, whether one agrees with their politics or not, made a lot of noise, but eventually allowed themselves to be used by the very people they claimed to be against. The Tea Party, which stood for less federal government, became supporters for fewer taxes for the rich, less regulation over the markets, and reduced funding for education. Ultimately they were happy to chain themselves down and be used by the political right.

Shelley knew the people’s power came, not from just rioting or protesting, but by their power to assert themselves through the goods and services they provide for the wealthy. If Wal-Mart’s employees decided to strike for better pay and work conditions, twenty-five percent of the nation’s economy would come to a halt.  That is power.

Or as Tyler would say, “don’t fuck with us” (166).

Note: This essay was originally written February 8, 2011 for an English literature class. In retrospect, I may have underestimate the Tea Party movement a bit. But it is still an early movement.  

Works Cited

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed. New York: Henry Holt, 2001. Print.

Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: Norton, 1996. Print.

Scherer, Michael. “It’s Tea Time.” Time. 27 Sept. 2010: 26-30. Print

Shelly, Percy Bysshe. “Song to the Men of England.” Ed. Applebaum, Stanley. English Romantic Poetry:An Anthology. Mineola: Dover, 1996. Print.

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