Do We Need Another Black Death?

Wat Tyler’s Rebellion — an obscure trivia question, something for crossword puzzles and Jeopardy. Don’t repeat my mistake, and confuse it with the Diggers of Elizabethan times, despite the similarities. Because Wat Tyler’s Rebellion teaches what Occupy movements have to learn.

You might have seen — might even own — the tee-shirt that says “Black Death World Tour.” In 1347, the population of England declined by about 40 per cent. According to Norman Cantor, quoting Michael Hatcher, the labor shortage didn’t begin to affect wages until the second generation. The Statute of Laborers, 1351, begs to differ: Parliament moved immediately to suppress the wage increase that supply and demand would force into effect. Cantor summarizes this generically, rather than pointing out the immediate suppression of market forces.

What made the wage level of 1346 so attractive to employers? Well, despite the almost total lack of medical care as we know it, the spread of competent farming, coupled with some good climate years, had generated a huge labor surplus. Landlords were able to bind peasants and employers to bind workers at low wages, because all these poor folk felt lucky to have even minimal food and shelter. Supply and demand in this case benefited the employers and landholders. Plus, given the excess population, they could afford their own private police forces (all those dashing knights, swearing fealty to “my lord”) to keep the more ambitious potential fugitives in line. Black Death eliminated the surplus on which personal excess depended.

Thanks to medical care — which might become more widespread if Obamacare or something like it prevails — food lunches, even those bags of groceries you drop off at the local food shelf or, conversely, stand in line to receive — the current American laborer lives in 1346. It’s probably worse now than it was then, due to our longer span of life — which, again, is rising more greatly. I have to laugh at the Greedy Class: if they knew what was good for them, they’d be sending Obama so much money he’d send it back!

So how do we, the 99 per cent, avoid the fate of Wat Tyler? You might not recall that his rebellion was suppressed and its leaders executed in nasty ways. I laugh at all the Facebook posts about police oppression against Occupy: you folks have no idea what state-suppression can mean. Tyler was run through with a sword as he approached King Richard II, who then promised peasant leaders a full hearing. Once they settled into his presence, he had them arrested, and some were hung. Apparently not drawn and quartered, as would have been done in Elizabethan times. Ah, progress.

Despite this setback, supply and demand prevailed: wages rose over the next century, as did the first independent middle class. For a readable account of such a family, try this life of Geoffrey Chaucer,
which I found to be a real page-turner that completely derailed my aspiration to read The Canterbury Tales. What Professor Howard makes clear is that Chaucer’s economic and political rise was no isolated incident. The Black Death had reconsolidated scattered family wealth and made a talented local youth a good investment for ambitious aristocracy. Not only did the smaller population open a path for him, but the clearing was wide enough to be seen from inside the royal household itself.

But, again, we live in 1346, not 1351. The wage level we want to restore grew not from supply and demand but outright class warfare between unions and corporations. But even then, recent medical advances have increased survival rates from warfare, childbirth, workplace accidents and ecological degradation. Have you ever noticed how many young men in early US history died from misadventures with farming tools? Do you notice the way folks in other countries still suffer and die –especially children and elderly — of bad water, bad air, landslides, heat waves, deep freezes, floods that for us are just Weather Channel “Send Us Your Photo” ephemera?

That’s the real problem, and no, I don’t know the answer. All I know is that the switch from unionism to universalism isn’t going to happen without a return to the kind of nasty class warfare that names and condemns greed, that distinguishes between the desperate acquisitive energy of folks trying to escape poverty and celebrate newly-won comfort, as compared with folks who want their kids to think of work as something their social circles give them to play with (which lets everyone deduct all the parties, horses and club memberships from their taxes).

Supply and demand, at this moment, is not the laborer’s friend. In earlier eras, social pressure forced women back into unpaid marital and parental roles, and that helped (especially since hiring females is a great way to maintain low wage averages). Racial and ethnic prejudice, tight borders for labor or capital — those are other avenues often pursued. Which are we going to choose? How are we going to combine them? These days we reward members of affluent families for unpaid “community service” and delay our children’s earning years with “internships,” but these do not remove them from the job market: they remove jobs from the realm of pay and make the pressure worse.

I’ve been pondering this one for over a year, and come up with no ready answer. But the first step is to understand what we are up against, and what has worked before. The only thing that restores wages is a smaller pool of laborers. Even then, the only thing that gets employers to pay them is blood-soaked class warfare.

This is not what I advocate. Mao tried it and within three generations, the problem is back, big time. But what can we do instead?

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