Reading The Grapes of Wrath in 2010: Capitalism and Immigration

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The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
published 1939 during the last Great Depression.

Arizona SB1070, signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, requires Arizona’s local and state law enforcement to demand the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally, and arrest them if they lack documents proving citizenship or legal residency. Effectively making racial profiling into state policy, this law is the latest in a series of attacks on Latin American immigrants, as well as the entire Latino community, who must live with the fear of being interrogated by police for their brown skin. Then on May 11, Arizona went one step further, outlawing the teaching of ethnic studies classes, or any classes that “are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity”. This same law also states that schools must fire English teachers who speak with a “heavy accent.”

Perhaps these new laws make sense if we imagine that undocumented immigrants are merely “aliens”, a danger to the good, mostly white citizens of this great country. But suppose we look at the problem of immigration from the perspective of the immigrants? Why are they risking life and limb to come to a foreign land, far from their home and families? Why aren’t they deterred from making this trip no matter how many walls we put up, no matter how many police collaborate with ICE, no matter how many angry armed “Minutemen” vigilantes are conscripted to guard the border?

John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, following the Joad family as they migrate to California during the “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s, sheds light on these questions in a way that perhaps every American can relate to. One of the most popular and well-written American books of all time, The Grapes of Wrath gives a very human perspective on the harsh lives of migrants, personified by the Joads – a family of poor sharecroppers from Oklahoma. Evicted from their family farm, just as the millions of Mexicans who have suffered enclosure from their land and become homeless and jobless because of NAFTA, the Joads travel to California in a desperate search of work, only to encounter the harassment of authorities and the hatred of the local population.

There are important differences between the “Okies” who traveled to the Southwest in the 1930s and Latino inmigrantes of the 2000s. The Joads, of course, were white, and did not cross a national border when they made their exodus. But at its core the story of the Joads is the story of the migrant workers, their troubles, their fears, but also their humanity, and their hope. It is a story that can inspire us to recognize the historic nature of the moment in which we live, understand why these enormous transformations are occurring, and recognize that justice for the immigrants is justice for everyone, regardless of color or citizenship status.

Enclosure

In order to understand the inmigrantes we first have to understand the story of their displacement, or the enclosure of their land, which has left them homeless and with no other options than to leave their homeland in search of a wage. What can The Grapes of Wrath tell us about this reality?

People usually do not resort to risky and desperate moves unless they have nothing left to lose. Steinbeck begins the Joads’ story with the loss of everything they had: the small farm on which they had sustained their family for generations by growing cotton. Young Tom Joad, fresh out of prison, returns to his home to find it deserted. “The Reverend Casy and young Tom stood on the hill and looked down on the Joad place… Where the dooryard had been pounded hard by the bare feet of children and by stamping horses’ hooves and by the broad wagon wheels, it was cultivated now, and the dark green, dusty cotton grew… ‘Jesus!’ he said at last. ‘Hell musta popped here. There ain’t nobody livin’ there.'” (51).

Mexican farmer with corn / image courtesy of "© Juan_de" on flickr

Whether as tenants or small landholders, either for subsistence or for markets, the vast majority of the poor inmigrantes now coming to this country are fleeing the loss of their farms and their livelihoods, just as the Joads. Perhaps for generations, maybe hundreds or even thousands of years, they had lived in connection with the land and had been able to depend on it for the survival of their families and culture. The loss of this land is devastating to those cultures, but larger forces stand to gain by driving these people into homelessness.

The phenomenal book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (Autonomedia 2004) details the violent origins of capitalism in 15th-17th century Europe. In it, author Silvia Federici defines the “enclosures” that were necessary for giving birth to capitalism by divorcing the European peasantry from their traditional lands and leaving them with no other choice but to sell their labor for a wage in the emerging industrial economy.

“In the 16th century, ‘enclosure’ was a technical term, indicating a set of strategies the English lords and rich farmers used to eliminate communal land property and expand their holdings. [In the footnote she quotes E.D. Fryde:] ‘[p]rolonged harassment of tenants combined with threats of evictions at the slightest legal opportunity’ and physical violence were used to bring about mass evictions…” (69).

She goes on, revealing that this enclosure process remains a core element of the capitalist economy we live in:

“In the same way in which multinational corporations take advantage of the peasants expropriated from their lands by the World Bank to construct ‘free export zones’ where commodities are produced at the lowest cost, so, in the 16th and 17th centuries, merchant capitalists took advantage of the cheap labor-force that had been made available in the rural areas to break the power of the urban guilds… As soon as they lost access to land, all workers were plunged into a dependence unknown in medieval times, as their landless condition gave employers the power to cut their pay and lengthen the working-day” (72).

Enclosure is precisely the part of the story we never hear about in the mainstream immigration debate in America. It is never questioned why hundreds of thousands of workers are scrambling to come to the U.S., other than for “our freedom” or to “take our jobs.” But Steinbeck boldly begins The Grapes of Wrath by highlighting the enclosure process as it operated in rural America during the Great Depression.

This famous photograph shows a family of homeless migrants fleeing the "Dust Bowl."

In the 1930s, Oklahoma was ground zero for the “Dust Bowl“. Unsustainable industrial farming practices such as the monoculture of cotton without crop rotation caused the soil to die, then be picked up by the wind and create enormous dust storms. On page 41, Steinbeck laments, “You know what cotton does to the land; robs it, sucks all the blood out of it.” The settling layers of dust killed the crops and made it harder for small farmers to earn a living, and many were driven into debt and became tenants on land that was then technically owned by the bank. At the same time, large, wealthy landowners were able to use tractors and other new farming machinery to replace the many tenants who had previously been needed to work the land. “Pa borrowed money from the bank, and now the bank wants the land. The land company – that’s the bank when it has land – wants tractors, not families on the land” (193).

In this passage, Steinbeck brilliantly exposes the evictions as part of the normal functioning of capitalism, as a land owner arrives to evict a tenant family:

“Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves…
If a bank or a 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… [T]he owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were. A man can hold land if he can just eat and pay taxes; he can do that. But – you see, a bank or a company can’t do that, because those creatures don’t breathe air, don’t eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat… The bank – the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size” (40-42).

As far as capitalism is concerned, whatever will maximize profit is the arrangement that must be pursued, regardless of the human consequences. The situation in Mexico today resembles that of Oklahoma 75 years ago. Small family farms are no longer profitable enough, and people are being thrown off their land every year by the thousands.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed into law by Bill Clinton on December 8, 1993, created the largest “free trade” zone in the world: Canada, the United States, and Mexico. The treaty stipulated that there could be no “barriers to trade”, such as a tariff/tax on foreign products. In this video MIT professor Noam Chomsky, interviewed by Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha, explains how the modern enclosures in Mexico are a result of NAFTA, which has not had the effect it was promised to have for the U.S. and Mexican economies.

As mentioned by Prof. Chomsky, one direct result of NAFTA was the flooding of the Mexican market with artificially cheap agricultural products from the United States, such as corn, which is heavily subsidized by the U.S. government. From 1990-2000, the price of corn in Mexico fell by 58 percent, and as there is simply no way for the vast majority of Mexican tenant farmers to compete with this artificially low cost of American corn and other products, millions were driven into poverty and debt, and soon faced eviction.

This excellent article from the Institute for Food & Development Policy states that “Since NAFTA, 80 percent of rural Mexicans live in poverty, with 60 percent living in extreme poverty.” It also points out that as of 2004, a total of 1.7 million subsistence farmers had been pushed off their land because of NAFTA. So it should be no surprise that the number of Mexican immigrants entering the U.S. increased by 75 percent in the 5 years after NAFTA became law. The form of the enclosures has changed, but the fact has remained. People driven from their land will search for work in other places.

Xenophobia

The second great lesson The Grapes of Wrath reveals about the immigrants is how they are feared and hated, by the local population as well as the authorities, and what it means to endure and overcome this xenophobia.

“Once California belonged to Mexico and its land to Mexicans; and a horde of tattered feverish Americans poured in. And such was their hunger for land that they took the land – stole Sutter’s land, Guerrero’s land, took the grants and broke them up and growled and quarrelled over them, those frantic hungry men; and they gurarded with guns the land they had stolen… And as time went on, the business men had the farms, and the farms grew larger, but there were fewer of them.
Now farming became industry, and the owners followed Rome, although they did not know it. They imported slaves, although they did not call them slaves: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos. They live on rice and beans, the business men said. They don’t need much. They wouldn’t know what to do with good wages. Why, look how they live. Why, look what they eat. And if they get funny – deport them.
…
And then the dispossessed were drawn west – from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Caravans, carloads, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless – restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do – to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut – anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live…
They had hoped to find a home, and they found only hatred. Okies – the owners hated them. And in the town, the storekeepers hated them because they had no money to spend… The town men, little bankers, hated Okies because there was nothing to gain from them. They had nothing. And the laboring people hated Okies because a hungry man must work, and if he must work, if he has to work, the wage payer automatically gives him less for his work; and then no one can get more.” (297-300)

Throughout the book, as the weary Joads meander west on their old jalopy, their eagerness and optimism about finding decent work and a better life in California is dashed against the rocks of poverty and hatred. Early in the book, Tom’s pregnant sister Rose of Sharon Joad goes on about her expectations about life once the family arrives in California.

“Well, we talked about it, me an’ Connie… Connie gonna get a job in a store or maybe a fact’ry. An’ he’s gonna study at home, maybe radio, so he can git to be an expert an’ maybe later have his own store… An’ Connie says I’m gonna have a doctor when the baby’s born; an’ maybe I’ll go to a hospiddle. An’ we’ll have a car, little car…” (212).

But shortly after crossing the border into California, the Joad family encounters the authorities, who are less than pleased by the arrival of more migrants into their state. After setting up camp by a river, Ma settles down for a nap in the tent, only to be disturbed by a law enforcement agent who gives her a threatening welcome.

“‘Well, you ain’t in your country now. You’re in California, an’ we don’t want you goddamn Okies settlin’ down.’
Ma’s advance stopped. She looked puzzled. ‘Okies?’ she said softly. ‘Okies.’
‘Yeah, Okies! An’ if you’re here when I come tomorra, I’ll run ya in.’ He turned and walked to the next tent and banged on the canvas with his hand. ‘Who’s in here?’ he said” (275).

"Minutemen" vigilantes patrol the U.S.-Mexico border / picture courtesy of boinboing

It becomes clear through the story that the California police and authorities tolerate the presence of the “Okies” so they can be exploited for their extremely cheap labor. Sheriffs and rangers even guard the grounds of large private farms where migrants are bussed in. However, the cops maintain a close eye on the Okies, and are not afraid to resort to violence when they step out of line.

The Joads arrive one night in a “Hooverville,” the name for the slums on the edges of towns during the Great Depression where unemployed would set up camp. Here a contractor comes to find desperate workers, escorted by a deputy sheriff with whom Tom Joad gets into an altercation.

“The contractor turned to the Chevrolet and called, ‘Joe!’ His companion looked out and then swung the car door open and stepped out…
‘Ever see this guy before, Joe? He’s talkin’ red, agitating trouble…’
‘Hmmm, seems like I have. Las’ week when that used-car lot was busted into. Seems like I seen this fella hangin’ aroun’. Yep! I’d swear it’s the same fella.’ Suddenly the smile left his face. ‘Get in that car,’ he said, and he unhooked the strap that covered the butt of his automatic.
Tom said, ‘You got nothin’ on him.’
The deputy swung around. “F you’d like to go in too, you jus’ open your trap once more. They was two fellas hangin’ around that lot.'” (338-9).

The goal of the authorities in the story, as in the country today, is to keep immigrants in a constant state of precariousness, where they cannot make waves for fear of being imprisoned or deported. This climate of fear is the real effect of Arizona SB1070, not to actually deport all the undocumented workers from the state, because that would hurt the economy that depends on their cheap labor. In fact, this CNN video documents that SB1070 has already driven away too many workers from the state and hurting the businesses that had employed them. It seems it has backfired so much that even Russell Pearce, the author of the legislation, has now reversed his stance and is supporting “guest worker” legislation to invite undocumented workers back into the state.

What does the climate of fear surrounding immigrants do for the U.S. capitalist economy and its ruling class?

First, it keeps undocumented immigrants in that precarious state where they will not seek help or point out injustices, nor will they try to organize unions and demand higher pay or working conditions. It guarantees they will mostly toil for less-than-minimum wages and suffer in silence. Most Americans are not even aware that since NAFTA was enacted, at least 3,000 Mexicans have died trying to cross the border. Every wall that goes up on the border drives the immigrants into more remote deserts to reach their destination, increasing the likelihood of injury and death, but precious few U.S. citizens are willing to stick their necks out to help prevent such unnecessary deaths.

Second, the xenophobia encouraged by measures like SB1070 is useful for the ruling class because it drives a racial wedge into the American working class. Instead of uniting to fight for better jobs, affordable education, health care, housing, an end to environmental nightmare and endless wars, the anger of the common people is directed at the scapegoat of the immigrant. Steinbeck illustrates this phenomenon when “a crowd of men” “armed with pick handles and shotguns,” confront the Joads after they flee the Hooverville. Interrogating and threatening the Joad family, these self-styled vigilantes act just as the “Minutemen” who today rove the deserts of Arizona, looking for “illegals.”

Though these people’s anger and fear over the state of the U.S. economy is warranted, they are failing to confront the actual thieves and criminals who have plunged the world into a new Great Depression. Because by identifying “foreigners” and people with brown skin and different accents as the reason why wages are low and jobs are lost, corporations and politicians are able to deflect attention away from the real source of economic hardship: themselves.

Conclusion

The crisis in the Southwest in the 1930s is unfortunately similar to the situation today. Hundreds of thousands of poor migrants, their land enclosed and with nowhere to go, facing long trips through the heat of the desert and the ice of xenophobia, are nevertheless persisting to do what they need to do to feed their families.

There is a tidal wave coming north now, which resembles one that 3 generations ago came west, but like that one there will be no stopping it by putting up walls and threatening people with violence or deportation. Desperate people will always do what they need to do to survive. The only way to stem the flow is to repair the dam that has burst through poverty and enclosure. Latinos need decent livelihoods in Latin America before they will stop coming here, “scurrying to find work to do.” Repealing NAFTA and ending the massive corn subsidies for U.S. agribusiness would be two huge steps in the right direction. Rather than making the United States into a nasty place that no one will want to come to, why not focus on helping Mexico, Latin America and the world as a whole, be suitable places to live, work and raise a family?

The Grapes of Wrath, though it details the hardships of the migrant workers at great length, won the Pulitzer prize and captured the hearts of the nation because it is ultimately a hopeful book that inspires us to act for positive change. John Steinbeck, flexing his radical muscles, argues in the book that by targeting the weak and poor with measures such as those currently being enacted in Arizona, capitalism is only putting off its inevitable demise. “The great owners ignored the cries of history.” “[Especially,] the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”

He explains:

“The land fell into fewer hands, the number of dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression. The money was spent for arms, for gas to protect the great holdings, and spies were sent to catch the murmuring of revolt so that it might be stamped out. The changing economy was ignored; and only means to destroy revolt were considered, while the causes of revolt went on. The tractors which throw men out of work, the machines which produce, all were increased; and more and more families scampered on the highways, looking for crumbs from the great holdings, lusting after the land beside the roads. The great owners formed associations for protection and they met to discuss ways to intimidate, to kill, to gas. And always they were in fear of a principal – three hundred thousand – if they ever move under a leader – the end. Three hundred thousand, hungry and miserable; if they ever know themselves, the land will be theirs and all the gas, all the rifles in the world won’t stop them.”  (306-7)
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[Alex Knight is an organizer, teacher and writer in Philadelphia. He is currently helping Philly mobilize for the United States Social Forum (http://ussf2010.org) in Detroit this June 22-26. On May 26 he will join Sheila Dhand’s Bike Ride for Immigration Justice, which is heading from Philadelphia to New Orleans (http://bikeimmigrationjustice.wordpress.com). He also maintains the website endofcapitalism.com and is in the process of writing a book called The End of Capitalism. He can be reached at activistalex@gmail.com.]