Resilience and self-reliance helped Australia survive The Great Depression

During The Great Depression, people lived hand-to-mouth, unemployment skyrocketed and food was scarce.

However, from life in the dirt, emerged incredible resilience and resourcefulness as Australian families and communities stuck it out.

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A country of battlers.
Photo: ANA
Community is king.

THE GREAT DEPRESSION

In her latest book, Australia’s Great Depression, Joan Beaumont offers a deeply conservative history animated by the neo-liberal transition of our age.

Beaumont’s powerful book tells the story of a “resilient nation” — a people whose personal values of “stoicism, independence, self-reliance and personal responsibility” defined their response to the worst economic crisis of the 20th century.

Although more than a third of workers were unemployed by 1932 and many more were immiserated, thousands of businesses bankrupted, homes lost and families separated, the “narrative of disaster that has dominated popular memory” needs to be “complemented”, in Beaumont’s view.

In this book, she draws attention to people’s “capacity for resilience” during a time of despair.

As we face down a similar economic crisis 90 years later, all Australians can learn from this tale.

A RESILIANT NATION

The theory of ‘resilience’ — originally a concept developed in biological sciences — provides Beaumont’s book with its conceptual framework and historical narrative.

Australia’s Great Depression tells the story of the impact of international economic forces on hapless communities and individuals.

No doubt a familiar setting to the 2022 dystopia we find ourselves in.

“Their endurance and survival,” Beaumont writes, provide one of the most impressive narratives of resilience in the nation’s history.”

Australians faced an unprecedented economic attack and came out on the other side.

She touches on how the legacy of World War I shape Australia’s Great Depression.

“In every sense … the experience of the war framed the way that Australians understood and endured the later economic crisis.”

Beaumont focuses heavily on family and community survival strategies during this time, and not so much the political mobilisations animated by visions of radical change.

It was the community, not political movements, that helped Australia weather the storm.

Her account of the causes and duration of the Depression is based on wide reading. 

According to Beaumont, the “agency” displayed by community organisations during this time also characterisedstrategies of self-helpadopted by families – with “the tireless maternal figure at the core”.

Noting that starvation did not stalk the streets of Depression Australia, Beaumont draws heavily on David Potts’ earlier controversial history, The Myth of the Great Depression (2006), to discuss the concept of a positive culture of poverty where people knew how to value simpler things.

This is perhaps the most pressing lesson modern day Australians must learn to understand.

In Beaumont’s history, the story of resilience trumps the power of resistance.

Community, family and an ability to adapt outside of the system were key to Australia’s survival.

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ECONOMIC CRISIS

The second half of Australia’s Great Depression covers the 1920s and details the economic and political effects of the dramatic fall in international commodity prices.

It also covers Australia’s fate as a “voracious borrower” on British and US financial markets.

It introduces the key figure of English banker Otto Niemeyer, “who had the power to dictate a bitter deflationary medicine” and helped out economic burden to grow.

Beaumont quotes Niemeyer on Australia’s irresponsibility:

“As Australia has borrowed abroad something like £200,000,000 since the date of the war loans, and has always represented her prospects and conditions in glowing terms on those occasions, it is quite ridiculous of her to suggest there is any reason why she should not pay a pittance for her prior war debts.
This is an odd country full of odd people and even odder theories.”

Funny that I understand exactly what Otto means almost a century later.

Niemeyer arrived in mid-1930 convinced that bitter medicine needed to be administered. He was certain that a profligate country was living beyond its means.

During this time, it was Labor Prime Minister James Scullin’s bad luck to come to office in 1929 as the New York Stock Exchange crashed, presaging “the implosion of the international economic order on which Australian recovery depended”.

The similarities between this period and our current period are stunning.

The year 1930 saw a peak in male suicides. Unemployment peaked in 1932.

Men seemed to suffer more than women: “the men seemed to sag … They looked more beaten than the women”, observed one contemporary.

Protests began against ‘filthy camps’ — the appalling conditions in which men were expected to travel and undertake “relief work” — and the introduction of work for the dole.

“Slave Labour for Coolie Wages” was denounced by the Unemployed Workers’ Movement, which organised many protests, including against home evictions during this time.

The main value of the men’s protest was, according to Beaumont, that it gave them a sense of “agency and a voice”. Their resilience meant that they still had the ability to fight and organise.

In her Epilogue, Beaumont returns to her argument about national resilience.

Democracy survived; there was no revolution.

People accommodated the humiliation of unemployment and the reduction in their standard of living.

Through this transition, we can ultimately observe that new visions of freedom were born in the experience of degradation and the knowledge of fear, argues Beaumont.

In Depression dreaming, there was a new day dawning.

We must also learn to accommodate and adapt to our modern changes by letting go of the tentacles that bind us, and focus on envisioning what our new reality will look like on the other side of this transition.


Pick up a copy of the book for yourself below:

 Australia’s Great Depression by Joan Beaumont


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