“Grapes of Wrath” Revisited

The title sounds a bit dated and strange. But the book’s message could scarcely be more contemporary.

In 1939, Steinbeck lobbed a Molotov cocktail into the fortifications of American complacency. As you’ll recall from your freshman lit course, Grapes follows a Depression-era family of sharecroppers as they battle the human-made ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl that ruined their livelihood and contend with the capitalist forces that threaten to crush their spirit. Through Steinbeck’s unflinching portrayal, we see the Joad family sputtering on dust clouds, chased from their homes by bank reps, fleeced by con men, and beaten down as they search for work in the Promised Land of California.

When an artist challenges society with a fundamental confrontation, things get ugly. Steinbeck was called everything from a Commie bastard to a sex fiend for his trouble. His books were set on fire. But Eleanor Roosevelt leapt to the author’s defense, and her championing of Grapes eventually led to congressional hearings on migrant camp conditions and new labor laws.

As the outrages of the BP disaster gather faster than a dust storm, it’s well worth the effort to revisit Steinbeck for his insight into the contradiction at the heart of capitalism. Reflecting on the brutal response of the banking industry to the plight of the Dust Bowl farmers, Steinbeck noticed that it didn’t really matter whether the financiers were naturally kind or cruel. They shared a common condition:

All of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshipped mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and feeling. If a bank or finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank — or the Company — needs-wants-insists-must have — as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling which had ensnared them.
The Company wants. The Company insists. The Company must have.

This pretty much sums up the detachment, rapaciousness, and short-term vision associated with the modern global Corporation, whose latest poster child is BP (more of a bank, incidentally, than a traditional oil company). No matter what the spokespeople say (very little of which makes any sense), the Corporation is not interested in self-reflection, morality, or the health of our shining seas. It wants profits, period. And it will take us as close to the brink of disaster as it possibly can to get them. Inevitably, it will push us over the edge. The good news for the Corporation is that disaster can actually be very profitable. Most of the executives at BP have already made more money than most of us will see in a lifetime, and there will be plenty of dollars available to those keen enough to recognize the opportunities born of desperation – the payday lenders, the real estate cons, the creators of energy derivatives.

As much as we want to blame a rogue corporation for the hateful stain that is spreading over our consciousness in the form of an oil slick, it’s hard to bury the suspicion that the horror is about something bigger. And that something bigger is our detachment from our own violence.

Even the word “environment” conspires to alienate us from the truth about ourselves. The sterile, scientific-sounding word conjures a laboratory – something external that is subject to our tinkering and control. But what we’re really talking about is Nature. A Big Bad Mother of a force that is greater than we are, but of which we are inescapably a part. Nature is the black dust that blinded the eyes of Oklahoma sharecroppers. And it’s the horrible sludge sending Gulf fishermen puking over the sides of their boats.

The problem is not with the Environment – something outside. Or the even the Corporation – something abstract. The problem is inside us. It is our own Nature we have to contend with if we want to save the world as we know it.

To understand what this means, we need something more than technocrats, corporate chieftains, regulators, politicians, scientists and environmental engineers. What we need is another Steinbeck. We need someone who can show us the pain of the Gulf fishermen and what has happened to the soul of a congressman who can get on his knees and apologize to the Corporation for the government’s temerity in holding it accountable.

It is to the realm of the arts – that world that has been so successfully ghettoized at this late stage of capitalism – that we might look for salvation. It will take the vision of people thinking outside the economic paradigm that is destroying us to help us imagine an alternative. We need a new articulation of what we have become and what we want to be. America has created monsters, to be sure, but we have also produced ideas to tame and fell them.

It’s time for a new Steinbeck. And we had better find her quickly, because what’s coming if we don’t find a new way of relating to ourselves and the world that we are all part of will make the Dust Bowl look like a tempest in a teapot.

Lynn Parramore is the editor of New Deal 2.0, a Roosevelt Institute fellow and the author of Reading the Sphinx.