This evening, while we may shake at the poverty revealed in Struggle Street, the reality in this country is that in even in destitution, we’re fortunate.
Tonight, SBS will broadcast its second series of Struggle Street. And afterwards, our great nation and its politicians will come together and vow to do something about poverty. Make sure that the 2.9 million people who live under the poverty line in Australia will have something better to look forward to. And that includes the 731,300 children. Or else.
You know me, I will always try to be positive about humanity. But I am also a historian. And history teaches that ignoring the poor is a dangerous game. It can cost you your power, and if you are very unlucky, your life. Don’t forget that 2.9 million people is 13.3% of the Australian population. That is a lot of angry people with very little to lose. Let’s look at some historical precedents of what can happen, shall we? Just so we can say “we told you so” when the shit hits the fan.
The most famous example of revolt by the poor is, obviously, the French Revolution. Although Queen Marie Antoinette didn’t say “let them eat cake”, the fact that the saying was attributed to her eventually caused her head to roll. You can’t say that she and her husband, Louis XVI, hadn’t been warned. After earlier wars against just about anybody had left the French with enormous debts, the powers-that-be decided that it would be a great idea to let the poor pay those. While the clergy and the aristocracy enjoyed enormous privileges, people who had very little to eat were slugged with enormous taxes. On top of that, a few harvests failed, and worst of all, the rich proved that they had no idea what being poor really meant. “Let them eat cake” was the second part of a sentence. The first part was: “If they say they can’t afford to eat bread.”
It was that kind of stupidity and arrogance that finally led to the guillotine at the Place de la Revolution. Marie Antoinette lost her head in October 1793, watched by Marie “Madame” Tussaud, who had been tasked to make wax heads of the royals. Her husband, the King, had died a few months before, in January, delighting some onlookers, who dipped their handkerchiefs in his blood, ready for sale. In the end, of course, the revolution ate its children, as it usually does. One of the last to die was Maximilien Robespierre, the instigator of the “Reign of Terror”. Estimates say he was guillotine victim number 40,000.
History teaches that ignoring the poor is a dangerous game. 2.9 million people is 13.3% of the Australian population. That is a lot of angry people with very little to lose.
Although the French Revolution would be very influential, it was hardly the first time poor people stood up to their repressors. And that kind of behaviour was also not limited to “Western” nations. In 1368, for instance, the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty in China ended when Chinese peasants were completely fed up with the discrimination, corruption and over-taxation they had to deal with at the hands of the descendants of Genghis Khan. That year there were also enormous floods, which led to hunger. When the emperor ordered hundreds of thousands of Chinese peasants to repair the dykes of the Yellow River, treating them with disdain, they revolted. Under the ruthless leadership of Zhu Yuanzhang, they made sure the Mongols were driven out of China, leading to the start of the Ming dynasty. Which, by the way, ended the same way in 1644: by ignoring poor peasants and being oblivious to ordinary people’s lives.
The examples in history are plentiful. Look up the Peasants’ Revolt in England in 1381. The Mexican Revolution against the Spanish in 1810, or even the Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848, that followed the Irish Famine. The latter one gave Australia the Eureka Stockade and Ireland the IRA. These things go deep and have long-lasting tentacles. Take the Russian Revolutions. Yes, that is plural, because the one in 1917 had a precursor in 1905, when millions of people were so fed up with hunger and the abuse of power by the tsar and the moneyed classes that they went on strike. Soon they found a leader, Father Georgil Apollonovich Gapon, who led them to a Bloody Sunday, where troops massacred tens of thousands of them. They became the martyrs who inspired Lenin and Trotsky and their more successful overthrow of the establishment in 1917.
So, basically what I am saying is this: maybe we should be grateful that most Australian poor still have something to lose. Even if it is the pitiful government allowance they can barely live off. Maybe we should also be thankful that there are hardly any collective movements anymore. No churches, unions or political movements, no charismatic leaders who can translate people’s anger into storming the barricades. Maybe we should be happy that usually, people choose ice over action, self-blame over class thinking, struggle street over anti-government, anti-capitalist fights. One day, though, that might be different. And 2.9 million people can do a lot of damage. Enough said.