June 2012

The Nation Reviewed

The Fat Man in History

By Nick Dyrenfurth
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Capitalists in the popular imagination

Any day now billionaire Clive Palmer, the Queensland mining magnate, will appear clad in spats and a morning coat, adorned with a top hat, chomping on a garishly elongated cigar. One minute our plutocratic whirling dervish is duelling with federal Treasurer Wayne Swan, the next he is claiming that the CIA is working in cahoots with the Greens in order to cripple Australia’s coal industry. His pastimes include issuing daily lawsuits and devising Titanic II.

Palmer, who once “retired” at age 29, is now officially a “national living treasure”. And he is a delight, albeit in an altogether unintended manner. Palmer, you see, appears hell-bent on breathing life into ‘Mr Fat Man’, the fin-de-siècle labour movement’s caricature of capitalism and big business as a grossly overweight, top-hatted older man lording it over the toiling masses.

Fat Man, or simply ‘Fat’, was, in large measure, the creation of radical nineteenth-century cartoonists. He made his debut in the now defunct Bulletin during the mid 1880s, courtesy of its star overseas imports, the American-born Livingstone ‘Hop’ Hopkins and the Englishman Phil May.

Fat Man actually originated in American magazines of graphic humour and political satire that same decade, notably the New York trio of Life, Puck and Judge. Drawing on biblical allusions to gluttony, Mr Fat was pictured oppressing downtrodden, powerless workers and yeoman farmers. Hop, an Ohio-born civil war veteran (and creator of the iconic ‘Little Boy from Manly’), carried this tradition to Australia.

In Australia, however, American readings were tenuous given organised labour’s strength. Thus, when radical cartoonists such as Monty Scott and Claude Marquet adorned the front covers of the Worker newspapers with images of corpulent villains, the Australian working man was depicted as a muscle-bound hero courageously confronting, and often vanquishing, a gargantuan Fat Man.

In the age of Twitter and Facebook, and the ever-shrinking world of print, we are inclined to forget that in the late nineteenth century a newspaper-based political cartoon was the perfect means of distilling quite complex messages. As Eric Hobsbawm, the British historian, noted of the European socialist iconography of the period, while representations of heroic labourers battling villainous fat capitalists were improbable, they carried with them an entertaining and serious message of political education.

Proletarian propagandists gleefully took up Fat’s linguistic version, with Fat Man rhetoric used to illustrate free-market capitalism’s iniquity and immorality, the very raison d’être of Labor politics. When English socialist Ben Tillett addressed the Melbourne faithful in 1897, he bluntly warned: “By putting the Fat man in parliament you get no good.”

Providentially, the tendency to corpulence among the older generation of anti-Labor politicians at the end of the century also laid them open to humorous characterisation as Fat Men, including George Reid, Thomas McIlwraith and Thomas Bent, the premiers of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria respectively.

The generic figure of Fat undoubtedly carried understandings antithetical to a rigorous analysis of society’s ills. All too often, Fat Man was cloaked in anti-Semitic tropes and imagery, appearing as a hook-nosed Shylock type symbolising the ‘Money Power’, or conniving to destroy White Australia via the introduction of ‘cheap’ Asian labourers.

“The Labour Press is nothing if not extreme,” huffed the Brisbane Courier, in 1895. “How utterly weak is such writing by its very exaggeration!” Such sensitivity only encouraged the labourites. In 1894 the Hobart-based Clipper published a sardonic editorial, ‘In Defence of the Fat Man’:

 

The term Fat Man is an obnoxious one – to Fatmen. Still we can’t help but think that whoever coined the phrase was a genius … and deserves a statue … despite all drawbacks it is a handy phrase to describe the stupid, unreasoning hog-like attributes of capitalism … perhaps when the fatman ceases to threaten our children’s lives we will cease to tickle him up with forked figures of speech. Besides, there is nothing to prevent the rich men of the body politic referring to the aggregate poor as the Lean Man. 

 

The Fat Man tag was never fair or realistic, but it was effective. His cultural ubiquity within Australian political rhetoric by the 1900s had no parallel in English or American discourse. Today, the stereotype should be a thing of the past. A wealthy capitalist is more likely to be a gym junkie in a tight-fitting Armani suit, whereas the worker is now typically battling the bulge. The Palmers and Andrew Forrests have wised up, too, styling themselves as larrikin nation-builders, as if they were the worker’s best friend.

The public profile of our leading fat cats, in the absence of a Labor Party intellectually able to enunciate the ills of free-market fundamentalism, or possibly of an electorate willing to hear about it, may yet mean that they serve a useful purpose. As British author Stewart Lansley argues in his penetrating new book, The Cost of Inequality, the growth of a global super-rich elite threatens the very prospect of a post-GFC economic recovery. 

But don’t expect our Clive – or Gina or Twiggy for that matter – to be much fussed. In his recent Australian Story appearance, Palmer noted the former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, had once made some “fat jokes” about him. Palmer boasted that he then called upon “on all fat people to band together to throw the Prime Minister out of office. And I went off to China and I got back on Thursday and they’d done it. So fat people rock.”

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of 12 books spanning history, politics and children’s fiction, including Getting the BluesThe Write StuffA Little History of the Australian Labor PartyMateship: A Very Australian HistoryA New History of the AWU and All That’s Left

@dyrenfurth

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