‘Making an Example of Her’, by Ben Eltham
In the English summer of 1381, a mob of peasants marched from rural Kent towards London. Their demands were many and various, but most of all they wanted lower taxes.
The catastrophic pandemic of the Black Death thirty years earlier had killed around a third of England. With so many fewer peasants to work the field, agricultural wages shot up.
The nobility responded with a special law: the Statute of Labourers of 1351, which fixed wages at pre–Black Death levels. It also forced every able-bodied commoner without a private income to work, on pain of imprisonment. Despite its draconian provisions, it was poorly enforced, and wages continued to rise.
But prices were also rising. Food was short, and the price of bread and other essentials soon rose beyond the reach of ordinary peasants. To make matters worse, England was fighting a bitter and protracted dynastic war with France. This required money, money that could only be found by raising taxes. The wealthy landowners who controlled England, led by John of Gaunt, decreed a poll tax, which was levied on nobility and peasants alike.
Matters came to a head in 1381, when a tax collector sent out to the village of Fobbing was set upon and beaten. A general insurgency broke out in Kent and Essex, led by a charismatic rebel named Wat Tyler. Tyler marched on London at the head of a mob said to be 50,000 strong. Let into the City of London by friendly townsfolk, they stormed and burned John of Gaunt’s palace, The Savoy, and killed a number of Flemish merchants. The Knights Hospitaller’s headquarters were also sacked.
The young King, Richard II, agreed to meet the commoners at Mile End. Generous concessions were made: free land, free trade and the abolition of serfdom. Pardons and charters were handed out. A number of peasants headed home. But Tyler and his most militant followers remained, hoping to extract more concessions from the King the following day.
Riding up to meet the King the next day at Smithfield, Tyler failed to dismount or demonstrate appropriate courtesies. The enraged Lord-Mayor of London, William Walworth, immediately stabbed and killed him. The King seized the moment, drawing on his monarchical aura to persuade the remaining peasants to disperse.
In the following months, the revolt was brutally supressed. Peasants who had received pardons were hunted down and hanged. Richard also repudiated the charters he had granted. “Rustics you were and rustics you are still,” the chronicler Thomas Walsingham later reported him saying. Thus ended the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381: in total failure.
Medieval history it may be, but the Peasants’ Revolt remains a cultural and symbolic touchstone. The idea of the lower classes throwing off the yoke of servitude and unfair taxes would re-occur through subsequent episodes of English history, from the Diggers of 1649 and the Chartists of 1838 to the Poll Tax riots of 1990.
Popular struggle is often like this: a spontaneous outburst of protest, followed by the methodical repression of the state. You don’t need to follow the writings of Marx and Engels to see that eruptions of dissent are often followed by brutal repression. In most cases, a concerted effort is made by the powers that be to demonise and delegitimise those that protest.
And so it was in the aftermath of the protest that occurred on the evening of the 24th of May in inner Sydney. An agitated group of local citizens turned up to the chambers of the newly-formed Inner West Council on a Tuesday evening, angry at the forced amalgamation of three democratically-elected local governments.
The amalgamation was decreed by Premier Mike Baird. It was a fait accompli: there was no consultation and no opportunity for local citizens affected by the change to express their views. The three local councils and their mayors and councillors were simply dissolved, and an “administrator” named Richard Pearson was appointed in their stead.
The inner west of Sydney is a vibrant and political place, home to great wealth and great inequality. It is also the site of a new toll road named WestConnex, championed by Baird’s New South Wales Coalition government, but vehemently opposed by the three councils that have been dissolved – not to mention by many of the local citizens whose lives the new development will affect.
So it was perhaps not surprising that the first meeting of the new body, complete with Baird’s hand-picked proconsul, would prove controversial.
According to the Daily Telegraph’s Miles Godfrey, Ben McClellan and Matt Bamford:
Riot police had to move in on Tuesday as a rowdy crowd, egged on by NSW Greens MP Jamie Parker and others, forced the abandonment of the meeting.
The protest mob vented their anger at the merger and new WestConnex motorway, and jeered loudly as Mr Pearson attempted to read the Welcome to Country.
During the altercation, Pearson was jostled and a local artist, Nicky Minus, spat on Pearson. The incident was captured by Channel Seven news cameras. Minus has since been charged with one count of offensive behaviour by New South Wales Police.
The reaction was predictable. The right-wing media columnists and the shock jock radio hosts had a field day. Minus was denounced as “disgusting” by the Liberal Minister for Local Govenrment; for Channel Seven she was “the face of chaos”. The Tele’s cartoonist Warren Brown even drew Minus as a pig, photoshopped clumsily over Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.
The ridicule from the mainstream media spilled over into hatred on social media, where Minus and The Lifted Brow have received hundreds of abusive and violent messages.
In the process, the right has easily been able to paper over the manifest injustice of the forced council amalgamations, and the obvious unpopularity of Baird’s increasingly paternalistic and anti-democratic regime.
The discourse around the Inner West Council protest and Minus’s role in it has been instructive. For Minus’s ostensible supporters on the left, the fact that her act could be construed as “violent” made many rather uncomfortable. (And let’s remember, Minus wasn’t charged with any crime of violence, merely one of offence). Spitting is not seen to be appropriate conduct, even in rowdy activism. Civic protest is meant to be a strictly non-violent affair. Hence the disavowal of Minus’s act of insurrection from many on the left who ought to support her.
For the right, Minus is nothing less than the personification of class disdain: a young woman who has violated the patriarchial boundaries of acceptable conduct. Worse, Minus is an artist, one of the most hated categories for many on the right. With her feminist cartooning, Minus is the perfect distillation of the new class of precariously-employed symbolic workers increasingly populating the inner suburbs of large Australian cities.
Although they don’t like to admit it, the growth of the cultural precariat makes a lot of right-wing culture warriors nervous. This is a class that seems far more activist and class-conscious than the disappearing rump of manufacturing workers once represented by trade unions and the Labor Party. If you’re fighting a culture war, the growing strength of an opposing force of cultural workers must seem rather threatening. As Channel Seven put it, she’s “the face of chaos.”
The class disdain was encapsulated by Minus’s appearance in Tim Blair’s annual exercise in misogynistic hate speech, his “Frightbat” poll. For the Tim Blairs of this world, Minus is not just a peasant, but a revolting one.
It’s this fear and loathing of the cultural underclass that underpins the sudden efflorescence of hatred against people like Minus or Duncan Storrar. It’s not surprising that newspapers choose to pursue these less privileged Australians who dare to spit on an unelected superior, or express some doubts about the efficacy of corporate tax cuts.
Minus and Storrar are being made examples of, because the resurgence of class narratives makes the people that run newspapers and sit in boardrooms distinctly unsettled.
After all, if we let an Australian on welfare question company tax cuts, pretty soon everyone will be questioning them. If we let someone spit on the unelected Administrator, who knows where it might lead? Why, people might start demanding proper local representation, and a say in where a giant toll road is developed. It’ll be anarchy.
Warren Brown’s cartoon riffing off Delacroix tells us more than his superiors at News Limited probably realise. Spitting on an official representative of the over-class is a dangerous symbol. It’s not the (vastly overblown) violence of Minus’s act that has led to the pursuit of a young cartoonist. It’s the lack of respect for power implied by that gobful of human saliva on the face of the local grandee.
Ben Eltham is the National Affairs Correspondent at New Matilda and a Lecturer at Deakin University.
‘#Baird Out Now’, by Nan Gillespie
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