The working class / peasant divide

The longer I am away from my working class hometown of Newcastle, the more I am feeling the truth of Marx’s claim that the industrial revolution was creating a new class of people, the working class, who in fact had the power. You feel that in a working class city. More people are members of unions. Conservative politicians don’t even bother to visit. And regardless of the cause, people love rallies.

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Things are very different here in Launceston, a city where landlords descend from yeoman farmers aping the English aristocracy, not as it was, but as they perceived it looking up from below. Anyone who has not inherited wealth gained in the era of slavery (the early 1800s) traces their lineage to unfortunate peasants: unskilled labourers queuing to sheer sheep or bale hay, in the knowledge that plenty more people were in the queue to take over the moment they stumbled. Without a cultural understanding of their collective ability to upset the applecart, current generations seem far less likely to organise rallies, form unions, investigate corruption, or unpick the half-truths of public officials. Key stats for crime, healthcare and education paint Tasmania as a dark recess of the industrialised world, which really underlines my main point, that the industrial revolution never quite reached here, and never produced a sizeable working class population of Bolshies like me.

This has everything to do with cycling because without mass demonstrations, cycling is inevitably shafted, simple reason being, there’s no money in it. The landowning community would much rather you all looked after their car dealer buddies and the myriad of other businesses who profit from your car dependence, than steal a free ride.

In keeping with the wildly speculative tone of my blog generally, I would like to propose that bike infrastructure is coming to populations with working class roots more quickly than it is to people whose ancestors provided labour to farmers. Southern and Eastern Europe: no bike infrastructure. Cotton-picking regions of the US: same situation. Tasmania: forget it.

With my next beer I will consider bike infrastructure in the light of the emerging “creative class”, if such a thing even exists.

7 Comments

  1. Edward says:

    That’s an interesting point and I have always wondered whether bike advocates are more or less likely to get a friendlier ear among salt of the earth types or toffs.

    One thing that has been suggested a few times in Adelaide is to pick a particular suburb to be built up as a sort of ‘showcase’ for bike infrastructure. Common sense suggests it would be most appreciated where running a car eats up a larger proportion of the weekly budget. But at the same time I read somewhere that the median wage on Danish bike lanes is higher than on the traffic lanes So who knows?

    I’ll be interested in your take on the creative class. Beards and fixies seem to go hand in hand these days and on one of my favourtie groovy people sites (http://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/), everyone has a bike hanging up on their wall.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks for introducing me to freundevonfreunden, but are you sure it isn’t a dating site?
      These thoughts about class are informed by an interview I half listened to on Radio National recently, with an historian interested in the defining myths of America’s North verses its South. Keeping in that groove, my first thought would be to throw the whole of South Australia into the same “free-settler” bin as Launceston, i.e., having yeoman farmers and peasants. But then I recall Stephen Yarwood saying the grid was set up to be egalitarian (I presume that means permeable). And you did have car industry which must surely have given you unionised Bolshies. My feeling would be to tap into the city’s myth of its whole self as a classless utopia where everyone gets a fair go.

  2. Luis G says:

    How does Andalucía’s recent investments on cycling infrastrucutre fit into your theory?

  3. Luis G says:

    Yes.

    Andalucía is an autonomous region (equivalent to state in Australia) in southern Spain that would fit very well on the category of a peasant-based society . It’s not very industrialised and many of its industries are based on agricultural produce. It’s got higher levels of poverty and unemployment than the neighbouring regions.

    Yet, its government has recently developed a plan to invest 400+ million euros on cycling infrastructure, with the objective to build +1000 Kms of bike paths. In Seville (its capital), cycling already represents 10% of trips. Way ahead of more industrialised working class cities.

  4. Luis G says:

    an exception to the rule perhaps? 😉

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