Coronavirus outbreak What history can teach us about building a fairer society after coronavirus Richard Power Sayeed

If workers unite, we could force real change. But there are warnings in the aftermaths of the Black Death and Spanish flu

n the middle of the 14th century, the Black Death killed perhaps a third of Europe’s population, hastening the breakdown of rigid social hierarchies – what we now call “feudalism” – to an astonishing degree. But there was nothing inevitable about that transformation. It happened because people such as William Caburn exploited the crisis.

Two years after the plague hit England, this Lincolnshire ploughman was in court for “refusing to work at the daily rate”. He had no legal right to do so, but leveraging the fact that landlords didn’t have enough workers to cultivate the land, he bartered for higher wages.

It wasn’t just wages – peasants also collectively bargained for lower rents. We see in the accounts of one landlord how, in the several villages dotted across his Warwickshire estate, most tenants suddenly went into arrears at the same time. Almost certainly they were secretly communicating and cooperating.

Local protests and uprisings against landlords had happened before, but after the Black Death they became more common. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was the biggest, but it was an overreach and was defeated. The ruling aristocracy resisted the peasants’ demands from the outset. Brutal new laws tried to stop labourers asking for better pay, and even specified what kind of fabrics people of different classes could wear.
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But the peasants’ movement survived; in fact, it thrived. Some landlords cut their rents by more than half between 1350 and 1400. In the same period, wages for agricultural workers rose by around 50% for men and 100% for women. And by the turn of the century, almost all rents in England were paid in cash, rather than feudal services, reflecting how many former serfs had bought their freedom.

But over the next five centuries, a minority of freed peasants enclosed common farming land and made it their private property, so that most of the labouring classes were forced into cramped city slums and dangerous jobs. And at the beginning of the 20th century, the anger this engendered was radicalised, first by the failures of Europe’s ruling classes in the first world war, and then by another plague: the 1918 outbreak of Spanish flu, which killed tens of millions.

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Across many of the countries affected by the pandemic, militants and reformers demanded change, and governments improvised public health innovations. The eventual result was the first phase of welfare state construction across the world, which climaxed with the Swedish social democrats’ ambitious reforms of the 1930s. These provided housing, childcare, child benefits, pensions and other social security. Once again, political organising in response to a pandemic had enabled enormous change.

But Spain’s experience during this period shows us there’s no reason why organising or change have to be progressive. When influenza reached the Iberian peninsula (it wasn’t actually “Spanish” flu – that was a misnomer), the response of the country’s establishment reflected its reactionary goals. In his history of the outbreak there, Ryan Davis shows how politicians, doctors and journalists sought to control the unhygienic masses with a “sanitary dictatorship”. In Galicia, police accompanied doctors on house visits, and in Murcia youth juntas were created to denounce public health infractions.

As well as weakening the country’s revolutionary socialist and anarchist movements, this militarisation of Spanish society laid the social foundations of the dictatorships that would rule Spain – with brief interludes – until the mid-1970s.

In recent weeks, some people have optimistically predicted that the Covid-19 outbreak will force governments to build fairer economic systems. But the peasants’ story reminds us that change isn’t automatic, and Spain’s history shows that the bad guys can take advantage of a crisis, too. Look at the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, seizing the right to rule by decree while citing Covid-19 as his excuse.

There are great strategic challenges ahead. Lockdown gives workers and renters power – the government has to pay people not to work, and landlords are struggling to evict tenants or get new ones – but it will not last. While previous pandemics cut the labour force, this crisis will increase unemployment, perhaps to levels unknown for centuries, and bosses will exploit workers’ desperation so that they can keep wages low and conditions poor.

Conservatives are organising already, subtly shifting responsibility for the severity of the outbreak from government failures on to individual “covidiots”, migrants or other countries, and gearing up for a return to austerity when the downturn slows.

Countries with social democratic governments could strengthen the hand of workers by paying all residents a basic income, but there’s no chance of Britain’s Tories doing that. The question for the UK trade union movement is an old one: how to choreograph a “Goldilocks” strategy, with enough radical action to force concessions out of politicians and bosses, and enough conciliatory noises to build a broad coalition of support.

The left will need to work through and rebuild all sorts of institutions for collective action. Members of renters unions such as Living Rent have negotiated rent cuts and breaks since lockdown began: imagine the power that tenants could wield – and hold on to after lockdown ends – if everyone getting grief from their landlord was told how to fight back. (Here’s the advice for Scotland, and for England and Wales.)

Mutual Aid groups have created an exceptionally diverse and capable network of neighbours who are excited about helping their communities. Once the outbreak is over, it’s vital they carry on that organising, for instance, lobbying local businesses to pay a living wage.

Like the generations of peasants who took advantage of their landlords’ need for labour, we hold enormous power, but only if we fight together. Even then, change may be inevitable but progress certainly isn’t: look at how, over a decade, Spain’s reactionaries exploited their country’s influenza outbreak. In an age when political decision-making happens at lightspeed on Twitter, Whatsapp and Zoom, we need to act collectively – and we need to act now.

• Richard Power Sayeed is the author of a history of New Labour and Britain in the 1990s, 1997: The Future that Never Happened

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