Kill the Poor: the Death of Satire and the Sociopathy of the Rich

In 1980, punk rock supergroup The Dead Kennedys recorded their debut LP Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. This classic 12” featured what was to become one of many classic tunes, including their third single, ‘Kill the Poor,’ a humorous pillorying of the sociopathy of elites. ‘Efficiency and progress is ours once more,’ crooned lead singer Jello Biafra in his idiosyncratic trill, tongue practically poking a hole in his cheek, ‘Now that we have the Neutron bomb / It’s nice and quick and clean and gets things done.’

In later years the Dead Kennedys were to release similarly themed material, from which they sold millions of records and became easily one of the most recognizable names in the punk rock underground spanning the four corners of the globe. Perhaps one of the better examples was ‘Kinky Sex Makes the World Go ‘Round,’ a spoken word piece from the Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death LP delivered over a live recording of their song ‘Chemical Warfare’ from Fresh Fruit.

In Kinky Sex, Biafra adopts the persona of ‘the Secretary of War at the State Department of the United States,’ making an international call complete with sound effects to the British Prime Minister. For their part, the latter gurgles throughout in spasmodic fits of barely contained delight as Biafra as Secretary of War outlines a proposition. ‘We have a problem,’ he starts:

The companies want something done about this sluggish world economic situation. Profits have been running a little thin lately and we need to stimulate some growth. Now we know there’s an alarmingly high number of young people roaming around in your country with nothing to do but stir up trouble for the police and damage private property. It doesn’t look like they’ll ever get a job. It’s about time we did something constructive with these people; we’ve got thousands of ’em here too. They’re crawling all over. The companies think it’s time we all sit down, have a serious get together, and start another war.

Satire of this kind has been described as Juvenalian (MSN), after Juvenal, the Roman satirist who mimicked the voice of his targets amongst those in high places and carried their jaundiced operating assumptions to their logical conclusion. In this way did Juvenal look to expose the grandiosity and incompetence of the powerful, regarding their base and corrupt conduct not as simply mistaken or an error of judgment, but as profoundly wrong and immoral.

By employing irony and sarcasm, Juvenalian satire sought to make social commentary through savage ridicule of power structures, those in power and the societal mores of a civilization in which the dominant ideas were those of its ruling classes, as a way of beginning the process of effecting much needed change. As Todd Podzemny notes, the famous satirist Jonathan Swift ‘borrowed heavily from Juvenal’s techniques’ in his Gulliver’s Travels.

Fans of this brand of ascerbic satire will be disappointed to learn then that Juvenalian satire existed only up until a year or two ago, at which point an Australian neoliberal think tank killed it. This constituted a crime against humour that paved the way for the government of Tony Abbott, which then proceeded to to trample over its corpse. The think tank concerned was known as Menzies House, after second-longest serving Australian Prime Minister and Tory spiritual Don Robert Menzies.

In 2012, Menzies House published on its website an article by one Toby Ralph, a PR specialist and 20-year veteran of Liberal party election campaigns described by others in the industry, according to Crikey, various as a ‘mercenary’ and a ‘bounty hunter’ and ‘to the right of Ghengis Khan.’ Ralph by his own admission seeks and enjoys narcissistic supply; he is quoted as saying, ‘I like working for things where people’s first reaction is to say: ‘that’s wrong.’

Ralph’s love of infamy has seen him accept commissions from the likes of the Australian Constructors Association to ‘develop a strategy to unleash a “politically damaging campaign” against Labor unless it watered down its opposition to WorkChoices.’ Given that he worked on every one of former PM John Howard’s election campaigns, Ralph also had a hand in the scare campaigns that Howard used to polarize and manipulate public opinion; not least of these were the Tampa Affair (2001, right before the election) and the Northern Territory Intervention (2007), the latter a old-fashioned land grab carried out in the name of defending indigenous children from abuse.

Considering all of the above, it comes as little surprise then to find the title of the article for which Ralph and Menzies House were culpable in killing Juvenalian satire shared a title with a certain Dead Kennedys punk rock single from 1980. The government should perform a ‘modest cull of the enormously poor’ to release itself from its welfare obligations, said Ralph. This would ‘directly release a recurrent $25bn, which would almost cover overspending by the Gillard government.’

‘This bold initiative would rid us of indolent students, hapless single mums, lower-order drug dealers, social workers, performance artists, Greenpeace supporters and the remaining processing personnel in our collapsing yet heavily subsidised manufacturing industries,’ he wrote. ‘Traffic would move faster unhampered by windscreen cleaners, streets would be cleared of pavement artists and beggars while homeless shelters in our better suburbs could be turned into agreeable gastro pubs, cafes and wine bars . . . Think of the inner city investment opportunities.’

‘Hospital waiting lists would plunge, reality television would evaporate due to shabby ratings and social benefits could be distributed as a short term safety net only, with six weeks dependency triggering automatic termination in the broadest possible sense.’ Such ‘humour,’ Ralph felt, was justified on the grounds that, ‘In contrast to the fabulously rich, the enormously poor make little useful contribution to society.’ ‘They consume more than they contribute,’ he claimed, ‘putting tremendous strain on the national budget.’

Ralph cited various figures purporting to demonstrate that ‘Only the top 20% of earners actually top up our $120bn tax reservoir while the other 80% drain it,’ asking of his readership, ‘Is it fair that those who have underwritten our national prosperity should now stump up even more?’

It has been a couple of years now since Toby Ralph penned Kill the Poor. Not very surprisingly, it was subject to widespread opprobrium at the time it was published in 2013, then treasurer Wayne Swan for one denouncing it as a ‘disgraceful rant.’ Responding to enquiries from Fairfax about its meaning by claiming that his ‘bloody prescription for national economic recovery’ was written ‘strictly as satire,’ Ralph counterattacked by claiming that ‘some people want to be offended.’

Naturally, this included everyone except himself. The unsympathetic observer on the other hand might have interpreted his vitriolic attack on the poor as taking sadistic pleasure in self-serving moral offense at the perceived shortcomings of the poor, in a manner not much different to the kind of narcissistic supply to be had in upsetting other people for the sake of the resulting infamy. Furthermore, where one might assume that satire that failed to amuse was a failure, Ralph again assumed failure on the part of his audience. We were all just too stupid to get it.

This seemed to be the basic operating assumption of then-Menzies House Editor in Chief Tim Andrews, who responded to the Fairfax article and Wayne Swan by claiming, ‘It’s a satire in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ and, as such, I do not see any cause for persons to be offended.’ As Ben Jenkins has pointed out, however, ‘When Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal, he did so to make a point about the exploitation of the Irish under English rule and the ineptitude of the Irish politicians to do anything about it.’

Kill The Poor would be in the tradition of A Modest Proposal if Swift had published several other, non-satirical articles about how much he disliked babies and what a drain they were on society – lazy as they are rolling around and being fed by their hard working parents – and then written a silly piece about eating them. People would ask Mr Swift, and rightly so, what point exactly he was trying to make.

And so the same question clearly remained in the case of the Menzies House piece. Was it Swiftian satire, strongly influenced by the Juvenalian tradition, or was it a ham-fisted screed that unintentionally betrayed what many have long suspected about those who subscribe to the operating assumptions associated with neoliberal ideology in particular — long pilloried by the true inheritors of the Juvenalian and Swiftian traditions, the Dead Kennedys?

We can analyse the Freudian meanings of Toby Ralph’s purported humour until the cows come come. Really though, events that have transpired in the year or two since tell us as much. While Ralph, and by extension Menzies House, spoke of such concepts as ‘those who have underwritten our national prosperity,’ data released by the ATO at the end of 2015 revealed that one in three large companies pay zero tax in Australia (approximately 600 overall). At the same time, new reports show that wealth inequality continues to increase, the rich getting richer and the poor staying poor. In contrast to the myths entertained by Menzies House, The Guardian reports that most of the growth in the last few years has gone to the wealthiest 20%.

Furthermore, and while it’s okay to joke about killing the poor, any suggestion that this wealthiest 20% might contribute more to ease the burden on the rest of the country of supporting their privileged lifestyles immediately meets shrieks from the Murdoch Press in particular about class warfare. These come even despite the notorious comments on record and in print from Warren Buffet, one of the wealthiest men in the world, that ‘There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.’

Examples of the latter appear to include the 48 billion dollars spent on the gold plating of the power grid and the 24 billion to be spent on Joint Strike Fighters that ‘can’t fly, can’t climb, and can’t run.’ Then there is also the issue of unpaid work by women in the home to consider, which provides a massive free lunch to the corporate sector — up to somewhere in the region of 60% of national GDP if ABS statistics are to be believed. And yet ‘hapless single mums’ still end up on the ‘funny list’ of non-contributors. It’s things like this that kill Juvenalian satire dead.

What to make then of this crime against humour and reason? As Ben Jenkins again argues, the problem with Ralph’s article wasn’t so much that it was malevolent, as that it was stupid. One might argue as against this that the two are different sides of the same coin — that malevolence breeds willing ignorance of the true condition of Australian society within the larger context of what Jason W. Moore calls the web of life.

The stupidity is certainly there, but it is a willing one. It is the militant ignorance of the malignant narcissist who denies reality where it refuses to temper itself to service his or her rampaging sense of grandiosity. It is the militant ignorance that scapegoats and blame shifts, and morally disengages by blaming the victims of its own contempt for the rights and freedoms of others on the grounds that they lack a sense of humour. It’s the one that informs election campaigns and government policy.

It certainly appears to influence conservative politics, although the Menzies House website has now disappeared completely — a testament perhaps also to the changing political fortunes of one of its backers, Senator Cori Bernadi, whose Senate Inquiry into certified foodstuffs turned up zip de doo dah on purported links between Halal foods and terrorism (though not before wasting millions of dollars of taxpayer funds).

All that remains is a link from Quadrant noting, in a tone now somewhat reminiscent of Ozymandias, that ‘Menzies House, a shiny new and wildly enthusiastic website for “conservative, libertarian and centre-right thinkers” has just opened its doors. A welcome addition to the Australian internet world.’ Toby Ralph is AWOL. Former editor Tim Andrews is now writing for the Institute of Public Affairs, one of his online articles beginning,Unintentional self-parody has long being a forte of governments around the world.’

Being at least partly responsible for the killing of Juvenalian satire, he would be one to know.

Ben Debney is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).