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Fragile fraternity a hundred years on from Black Friday



This week marks the centenary of Black Friday. To Australian eyes it may seem an odd event to commemorate, but perhaps one that resonates with our predicament as we move away from COVID-19. Here Black Friday naturally evokes images of bushfires, terrible events imprinted on our national consciousness. The Black Friday of Great Britain in 1921, however, was notable not for terrible things that happened but for desirable things that did not happen. 

Main image: Demonstration in black and white (Getty Images)

It occurred in the aftermath of the 1914 War, during which the government had taken control of coal mines and had paid the miners a bonus. This reflected the sense of national unity and community in sharing the difficulties and sacrifices of the war. In 1921 the Government, faced by massive debt from the war, moved to hand back the mines to their owners with a reduction in salary. Those who did not accept it would be dismissed. The union leaders from the mines called a strike. This had wider consequences. 

At the start of the war workers from many different unions had united under the triple alliance of Transport, Coal and Rail, and Industrial workers. The alliance provided that if workers in one group struck, the others would join them. Black Friday marked the breakdown of negotiations between the members of the Triple Alliance to support the strike.

At a time of high unemployment and depression caused by the withdrawal of government economic stimulus, many even among the miners were anxious at losing jobs. The day is remembered as a failure of solidarity. It was 'black' because it marked the end of the euphoria and hope generated by solidarity in a time of crisis and hopes for a more equal world at the end of it.

The parallels with our own times of the events of Black Friday, with its movement from a time of heavy social spending and the flowering of social capital to a time of recovery, and the fateful choices that are made at such times, are evident. We await the results of the economic choices being made by government and their effects on community and solidarity.

For the moment, however, it is a time to savour the simple joys of fraternity, one of the three pillars of the French Revolution. Many people have expressed delight at the multiplication of maskless conversations, fuller pubs, face to face teaching, the return of religious services as expressions of community, the reappearance of musical performances, concerts and marches, and other celebrations of fraternity.

The shared sacrifice for others involved in lockdowns has sparked the realisation of how much was lost in the necessary isolation they entailed, and a corresponding recognition of the importance for human flourishing of community and of commitment to the welfare of the weak. Perhaps, too, the rediscovery of fraternity underlies the revulsion expressed at the sexual abuse of women and at discriminatory treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and of Black Americans.


'The scrutiny of fraternity will lead us naturally to reflect on how the policies we adopt will further equality or exacerbate the already growing inequality in our society.'


Fraternity is precious while it lasts. The public experience after the French Revolution, including in Black Friday, however, suggest that fraternity, like its fellow pillars liberty and equality, is fragile. Each depends on an effective commitment to the other two. Certainly, unless fraternity guides personal and public action, the pursuit of liberty or equality is likely to turn feral and to tear at its two sisters. The passion for freedom in the French Revolution developed into the tyranny and bloodletting of Robespierre and to laws restrictive of freedom. Similarly, after the Russian Revolution the quest for equality led to dictatorship by the State, the proscription of freedom of expression, and the massive self-enrichment of its rulers. In both revolutions fraternity was narrowed into suspicion. Good will was confined to allies and accompanied by hatred for enemies and for those who did not take sides.

The cost of disregarding either liberty, equality or fraternity can also be seen after the 1914 War. The British Government pursued an economic policy that intensified inequality by impoverishing further the poor. Such a policy necessarily alienated those who hoped for a more just Great Britain. It also sowed division and hostility between the better and the worse off. The threat of destitution undermined the solidarity that fostered sacrifice for those worst off. Fraternity gave way to mutual suspicion. Those enriched by Government policy feared that public anger might lead to the loss of their privilege and demanded harsh laws that curtailed civil liberties.

The interlocking relationship between liberty, equality and fraternity suggests that we should treasure our current delight in fraternity and see its continuance as a test of the health of our national life. We should also ask to what extent our leaders’ projects to move out of the time of COVID-19 will be based in fraternity or betray it by mistreating minority groups and vilifying them for political ends. It is easy and destructive of fraternity to deflect responsibility for one’s failings by abusing unfavoured groups. 

The scrutiny of fraternity will lead us naturally to reflect on how the policies we adopt will further equality or exacerbate the already growing inequality in our society. We should ask the same question about freedom — not the freedom to do or say what we individually choose regardless of its consequences, but freedom to grow within the relationships that shape our lives. This freedom includes freedom from fear, from hunger, from abuse and from assault and from discrimination based on gender, economic status, race, religion and unequal power.

We experience fraternity as a gift. Experience tells us, however, that it needs to be protected and cultivated. Liberty and equality are equally gifts that need cultivation. The yearly celebration of Easter reminds us yearly of gift. The centenary of Black Friday reminds us of the costs of its squandering.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Demonstration in black and white (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Black Friday, fraternity, equality, liberty, French Revolution, COVID-19



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Existing comments

Fraternity (community) considerations vied with economic necessities in the recent the pandemic management. Community did wonderfully well. Though many politicians think we are an economy first and a community second they had to recognize that an economy and commerce require live people. If too many die there is no trade. And Liberty of which the people across the Pacific wail interminably is the correlative of responsibility not narcissism nor individualism. Equality the poor sister is most opposed by those up the top end with most privilege. Coincidently our little village is being colonized by L'Étape a colonial version of the Tour de France. We are being told how good it will be, especially for commerce and for bike riders. But that is where the fraternity ends leaving the majority of the locals seriously inconvenienced to make way. But it fits the criteria of making a bob and being sport. Sport takes precedence over so much else as we saw with cricket, football and tennis in times of pandemic. The circuses part of bread and circuses. Nah we are being colonized fraternity is fractured and the common is commandeered by big business.

Michael D. Breen | 15 April 2021  

The “failure of solidarity” with Britain’s miners in 1921’s Black Friday, is indeed paralleled in our own times. Paul Embery spent 20 years as a trade-union official fighting for better rights and conditions for his firefighters. Yet Embery was kicked off the union’s national executive because he delivered a pro-Brexit speech, even though most workers are pro-Brexit. In his book, “Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class”, Embery notes the Labour Party has embraced globalization and fads like Identity Politics, while despising traditional working-class values of family and faith. In fact, “Fragile fraternity” already reveals blatant inequality among those who proclaim its virtues. To multimillionaires like Jane Fonda, Covid may have “God’s gift to the Left”: The Left got power; billionaires increased their wealth; government workers lost nothing; but ordinary workers lost jobs and businesses were destroyed. Black Lives Matter instigated riots that caused millions in property damage, including to many black-owned small businesses. But BLM co-founder, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a self-proclaimed Marxist, recently purchased 4 homes for US$3.2 million. As former Marxist Michael Rectenwald noted (“Beyond Woke”): “The politics that most closely aligns with the worldwide, global interests of monopolistic corporations, is contemporary leftwing politics.”

Ross Howard | 15 April 2021  

God Love You, Andy! The difference between fraternity and dismemberment were painfully illustrated in the UK by the starkly different roles played by Cardinals Manning and Bourne in response to the great industrial upheavals of their time. Manning, despite his former membership of the Anglican establishment, was a great supporter of Rerum Novarum and (by reputation) instigating it, went down to the London Dockyards to exhort the workers on their industrial rights, including the right to collectively strike for a better wage and working conditions in order to offset the desperate conditions of their impoverishment at the hands of an historically anti-combination British establishment. Bourne, on the other hand a man of narrowly-focused 'administrative' inclination, earned the plaudits of conservative anti-strike Prime Minister Baldwin for publicly condemning the General Strike. It will be interesting to see how a socially-just Australian Catholic attitude shapes up in response to the policy fork-in-the-road that we collectively face. Freed from the impossible strictures of a pre-Reformation cringe-Catholicism (sometimes portrayed by former PM Abbott) many Catholics look to the Labor Party to speak up without hesitation in support of an economic platform and recovery plan for all, especially the most vulnerable, given your Jesuit endorsement.

Michael Furtado | 16 April 2021  

"Fraternity is fractured' sounds a bit too bleak, Michael, but "the common is commandeered by big business" strikes a very real chord.

John RD | 18 April 2021  

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