Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The 'R' Word and the Grapes of Wrath (Update)

(Update - For the most recent comment on the 'R' word see today's post at I Cite)

I experienced an interesting and quite meaningful convergence of readings recently.
First, I am reading The Grapes of Wrath for the first time and have been following the Joad family for some time as they were driven off their farm in Oklahoma during the Depression and head out west to California and the promise of land and work. As they near and reach California they are confronted with the reality that there are scores more people who have flocked here than there is work. These 'immigrants' are not welcomed by the locals as their impromptu tent villages are frequently raided and there wages are lowered as people will fight just to make enough to eat. Tom Joad (who was recently released from prison) catches a whiff of something in this mix,

When you're in jail - you get kinda - sensin' stuff. Guys ain't let to talk a hell of a lot together - two maybe, but not a crowd. An' so you get kinda sensy. If somepin's gonna bust - if say a fella's goin' stir-bugs an' take a crack at a guard with a mop handle - why, you know it 'fore it happens. An' if they's gonna break or a riot, nobody don't have to tell ya. Your sensy about it. You know. . . . Stick aroun'. Stick aroun till tomorra anyways. Somepin's gonna come up.

The next day a young man confronts a contractor trying to take advantage of cheap labour. An accompanying police officer tries to arrest him and struggle ensues among a number of them. After this scene Steinbeck includes one of his shorter interpretive chapters interjected within the narrative. Here is a selection,

The great highways streamed with moving people. There in the Middle- and Southwest had lived simple agrarian folk who had not changed with industry, who had not formed with machines or known the power and danger of machines in private hands. They had not grown up in the paradoxes of industry. Their senses were still sharp to the ridiculousness of industrial life.
And the suddenly the machines pushed them out and they swarmed on the highways. The movement changed them; the highways, the camps along the road, the fear of hunger and the hunger itself, changed them. The children without dinner changed them, the endless moving changed them. They were migrants. And the the hostility changed them, welded them, united them - hostility that that made the little towns group and arm as though to repel an invader, squads with pick handles, clerks and storekeepers with shotguns, guarding the world against their own people.
In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. . . . And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights.
We can't let these Okies get out of hand. And the men who were armed did not own the land, but thought they did. And clerks who drilled at night owned nothing, and the little storekeepers possessed only a drawful of debts. But even a debt is something, even a job is something. The clerk thought, I get fifteen dollars a week. S'pose a goddamn Okie would work for twelve? And the little storekeeper thought, How could I compete with a debtless man?
And the migrants streamed in on the highways and their hunger was in their eyes, and their need was in their eyes. They had no argument, no system, nothing but their numbers and their needs. When there was work for a man, ten men fought for it - fought with a low wage.
And this was good, for wages went down and prices stayed up. The great owners were glad and they sent out more handbills to bring more people in. And the wages went down and prices stayed up. And pretty soon we'll have serfs again.
And now the great owners and the companies invented a new method. A great owner bought a cannery. And when the peaches and pears were ripe he cut the price of fruit below the cost of raising it. And as cannery owner he paid himself the low price for the fruit and kept the canned goods up and took his profit. And the little farmers who owned n canneries lost their farms, and they were taken by the great owners, the banks and the companies who owned the canneries. As time went on, there were fewer farms. The little farmers moved into town for awhile and exhausted their credit, exhausted their friends, their relatives. And they too went on the highways. And the roads were crowded with men ravenous for work, murderous for work.

And the companies, the banks worked at their own doom and they did not know it. The fields were fruitful, and starving men moved on the roads. The great companies did not know that the line between hunger and anger is a thin line. And money that might have gone for wages went for gas, for guns, for agents and spies, for blacklists, for drilling. On highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. And the anger began to ferment.

Now compare this to a section from Brian McLaren's new book Everything Must Change. He is responding to those who may still be apathetic towards the growing economic gap between rich and poor.

People who ask such question often haven't seen what I've seen: huge factories where people - mostly women, and often, mostly young girls - work harder than any CEO has ever worked, running sewing machines for eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, earning them pennies an hour. They are glad for these jobs because they are better than having no work and no income at all. But their labor enriches, not them, but already rich people in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London, or Hong Kong. This kind of inequity can only lead in one direction: revolution.

Brining up the 'R' word reminds him of an earlier conversation with a man from South Africa who used to be a part of violent revolutionary actions. In jail he later became a Christian and responded to McLaren's visit. Notice also that like Tom Joad he had spent time in prison and begins to sense what is going on.

He had heard my speak on these matters a few days before our dinner. "I was home the other night after you spoke," he said, "and picked up Das Kapital by Marx. I hadn't read it in over twenty years. Your lecture made me realize that we have to think about economics again. Marx's prescription was faulty, but at least he diagnosed a problem: the exploited and excluded poor won't abide their marginalization forever. We escapted a bloody revolution in 1994 when we peacefully dismantled apartheid. But if we can't dismantle the inequity of our current economic system, we will have an explosion of violence that nobody can imagine. The sheets will run red. I feel it. I feel it when I walk in the slums. Its like a volcano, ready to explode - the anger of the poor, the hopelessness of the poor."

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