The Peasants Are Revolting. Illustration by Clifford Harper.
The piece below is from the D.i.Y. CULTURE#9 COVID-19(84) – Dystopian Visions edition
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By Dr Lisa Mckenzie, working class academic
Mishandling of Black Death 640 years ago led to the Peasants’ Revolt. It’s time we modern-day peasants rebelled over Covid-19.
The coronavirus has been killing poor people at twice the rate of better-off people, and exposing the appalling inequalities and injustice of our broken system. We need a new revolt, to bring about real change.
“Things cannot go well in England, nor ever will, until all goods are held in common, and until there will be neither serfs nor gentlemen, and we shall be equal” said the Priest John Ball, during his speech before marching into London with Watt Tyler during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the first great popular rebellion in UK history.
Nearly 650 years later, the Office for National Statistics has released data which show what some sociologists have been saying for generations, that class inequality in Britain is our greatest shame: the coronavirus is killing TWICE as many people in poor areas as in rich ones.
Fifteen words that should spark a new popular rebellion, designed to rid our flawed system of all its inherent inequalities, unfairnesses and injustices. The most deprived areas in England and Wales have had 55.1 Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 people – more than double that of people in the least deprived areas, where the death rate was 25.3. This is not surprising or shocking for some of us that have been engaged in the class struggle: the poorest always disproportionately suffer at the best of times, and that simply gets ramped up during a public health crisis or an economic downturn.
The UK’s housing crisis is on the front line of that class struggle. The facts are that the poorest people are often forced to live in appalling conditions – and when people have no safe home, they have nothing. The tragedy that occurred in June 2017, in one of the wealthiest areas in Europe, should have been a screaming alarm to wake up the British public, when Grenfell Tower, a social housing block in Kensington and Chelsea, went up in flames, killing 72. The cause of the fire is yet to be officially decided by the government inquiry that is still ongoing – but the wider issues that led to it are clear. The warnings by the tower’s working class residents ignored; the cost cutting on materials being used in refurbishment, and a general, callous lack of care by successive political administrations that allows some of the wealthiest people in the world to live in the same borough alongside some of the poorest.
All the indicators on an area that’s just 12 square kilometres in size show the stark divide. If you are a well-off male residing , say, close to the toffs department store Harrods, you can expect to live to 94; a couple of miles away, near Grenfell Tower, it is 72. So a rich man gets 22 years longer. This is the hard reality of class inequality: it’s cruel, it’s miserable and it ends in the premature death of the poor. These divisions are replicated right across the United Kingdom and behind every number there is an undeserved disadvantage and an equally undeserved advantage.
British history is soaked in and sustained by class inequality. Marx and Engels believed that a working class revolution would rise up and defeat the evils of capitalism, but they were wrong. The British ruling class have a deep charm and ruthlessness which means that they not only survive but thrive, and these overlords became the colonisers of half of the world, ensuring that our brothers and sisters from colonised territories would be forever exploited. The ruling elite are skilled operators and polished professionals: superb in ensuring that the existing order that is rigged in their favour, remains the same. Yet in 2020 – in the middle of a pandemic that is supposed to be a “leveller” – we can see all this more clearly than ever.
We are repeatedly told that we face a virus that moves through every home and community equally, ensuring there is a common purpose in fighting it. But this is just not true. As a working class sociologist, there was never any doubt in my mind that it would always be the poorest that would be hit the hardest by this pandemic – as they are at every crisis, whether it’s a banking or an inflation crisis, a housing crisis, or an environmental crisis. The poorest are always the least resourced to cope, always living on the edge and about to fall off into the void – of homelessness, absolute poverty and eventually, premature death.
There have been many such crises in our history, plague and pestilence, sometimes man-made war. After every one, there is some genuflecting nod by the wealthiest – those who have ridden easy on the backs of the poorest – towards the working class resilience. After both World Wars, the British Ruling class bowed their heads in some guilt and in fascination at how the lower classes had borne their hardships. Today we hear similar traces of guilt and awe, as even the most neoliberal and economic driven of our politicians become nostalgic for the working class stoicism in their impending doom.
We must look back through history and remember that after both World Wars the working class received little more than empty medals and empty promises of jam tomorrow. Some might argue that the post-war Attlee Labour government brought about a welfare state that increased life expectancy and narrowed the inequality gap – and it’s true that it did so for a very short time. But by the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s, studies showed clearly that working class poverty had never left us and that divisions remained rife.
Boris Johnson now has first-hand experience of the way in which public services literally save lives – and some think this may result in him doing something positive for the plight of the poorest and the most vulnerable in our society. To which I retort: let’s not get fooled again. Remember the lessons of history. Remember that back in 1381, Wat Tyler and his rebels – infuriated by an unjust poll tax and laws which attempted to fix maximum wages during the labour shortage that followed the Black Death – sacked London and burned down the Savoy Palace and killed both the chancellor and the chief treasurer.
Their mistake was to then trust the young King Richard II, who appeared sympathetic to their cause and who agreed to some of their demands – that England could and should be a place that shares its wealth with all.After persuading them to stand down, the King and the Lord Mayor promptly reneged on their word and raised an army to round up and kill those who had dared to fight and stand up for their rights. John Ball, the priest, was hanged, drawn and quartered in front of the King, and his head displayed on London Bridge.
Those with the most power and wealth will rarely give up any of it unless their heads are on the end of a pike. Metaphorically speaking, of course.