January 10, 2016
As I continue reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath I continue to be startled by the parallels to the present moment in the United States. With just slight alterations —a word here and there, a phrase— Steinbeck’s narrative could be easily be inserted in a paragraph in an article in any current media venue today, without missing a beat.
Steinbeck was writing of the great migration west of 1930s dustbowl farmers during the period of the great depression and the economic disparities that drove some to starvation while others prospered. What he portrays is a society starkly divided between rich and poor which is not unlike that in which we live where most wealth floats to the top 1% while the rest spiral down more deeply into poverty, non-living wages and homelessness. Then as now it was all about jobs. The conditions causing joblessness may not have been the same then as now but the motivation of elites like the Koch brothers, big bankers, corporate and hedge fund managers, etc. to drive wages down stems from the same profound greed. And the method used to drive wages down was, then as now, to pit the poor against the poor *(or, in 2016, to pit the diminishing middle class against the poorer). This is now done on both a national and global scale, of course, pitting foreign workers against domestic workers through trade pacts such as NAFTA and the current TPP, but the method portrayed by Steinbeck is precisely the same:
“And the migrants streamed in on the highways,” Steinbeck wrote, “When there was work for a man, ten men fought for it—fought with a low wage. If that fella’ll work for thirty cents, I’ll work for twenty-five…If he’ll take twenty-five, I’ll do it for twenty…No, me, I’m hungry. I’ll work for fifteen. I’ll work for food. Me, I’ll work for a little piece of meat.”
It was like that, and still is. At a time when the stock market remains high and corporate profits soar into the millions and billions while wages remain stagnant, or fall, it’s as if we’re caught in an echo of past events, a cruel déjà vu engineered by politicians and lobbyists (especially of one party) and owners of private interests fattening themselves on the misery and angst of others.
“And this was good, for wages went down and prices stayed up. The great owners were glad and they sent out more handbills (read: pushed more trade agreements) to bring more people in. And wages went down and prices stayed up. And pretty soon now we’ll have serfs again.”
And then as now there was consolidation —acquisitions and mergers to get an even bigger piece of the pie:
“And…the great owners and the companies invented a new method (they) bought a cannery. And … cut the price of fruit below the cost of raising it. And as cannery owner he paid himself a low price for the fruit and kept the price of canned goods up and took his profit. And the little farmers who owned no canneries lost their farms, and they were taken by the great owners, the banks, and the companies who also owned the canneries. As time went on, there were fewer farms. The little farmers moved into town for a while and exhausted their credit, exhausted their friends, their relatives (and fell into homelessness). And the roads were crowded with men ravenous for work, murderous for work.”
And, as if predicting the anger that elevates bigots and egomaniacs like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to the position of saviors, Steinbeck goes on to give us our current circumstances as a sequel of America Past:
And for the companies and the banks it worked: “The fields (profits) were fruitful, and starving men moved on the roads, Steinbeck wrote. “Their granaries (portfolios) were full (while) the children of the poor grew up rachitic, and the pustules of pellagra swelled on their sides. The great companies did not know that the line between hunger (or extreme inequity) and anger is a thin line. And money that might have gone to wages went for gas, for guns, for agents and spies, (for lobbyists, for media companies)… On the highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. And the anger began to ferment.”
And that anger, coupled with ignorance and hate, is not only splitting apart one of our two major political parties, but may well split apart the nation and turn us in a direction starkly away from the ideals set down in our constitution as demagogues, like lice, prospered.
*Parenthetical remarks, mine.