This is the Beginning–From “I” to “We”

I’m wrestling with something I read in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath this morning. He writes:

The Western Land, nervous under the beginning change. The Western States, nervous as horses before a thunder storm. The great owners, nervous, sensing a change, knowing nothing of the nature of the change. The great owners, striking at the immediate thing, the widening government, the growing labor unity; striking at new taxes, at plans; not knowing these things are results, not causes. Results, not causes; results, not causes.

He then describes the growing anger and conflict between those that were living on, and farming the land and the banks that would end up owning the land, becoming “land banks.” When the depression and dust bowl hit, the farmers would default on loans, and the banks would send a tractor to knock down their houses and turn the land and “turn them off of the land.” He continues:

This is the zygote. For here ‘I lost my land’ is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate—‘We lost our land.’ The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first ‘we’ there grows a still more dangerous thing: ‘I have a little food’ plus ‘I have none.’ If from this problem the sum is ‘We have a little food,’ the thing is on its way, the movement has direction…This is the beginning—from ‘I’ to ‘we.’

As I continue to reread Grapes of Wrath, I am continually struck by the anger and fear that motivates all of the characters. They all seem stuck in a system that is beyond their control and even their understanding at times. And then that anger and fear leads to marginalization and exploitation. The land owners in California distribute handbills advertising for workers. The dispossessed head west for the abundance of jobs and promised high wages only to find it was essentially a ruse. By flooding the market with desperate workers, the employers can now drive down wages so low that the fruit pickers cannot earn enough to be more than indentured servants. This leads to anger among the workers and fear of employee organization among the employers. This is what Steinbeck was writing about when he wrote:

If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I,’ and cuts you off forever from the ‘we.’

I don’t think that Steinbeck is advocating communism or even socialism. At least that’s not my take. My take is that he is highlighting the danger of division of wealth and with it power. At the time he wrote Wrath there was never such a divide of wealth and power. That divide has returned, and with it anger. And I think we see two groups expressing anger, but unfortunately the media, with only surface level discussion and analysis lumps both these groups together. One group is angry due to seeing their share of wealth shrink (for an increasingly larger segment of the population) while another group is anger and fearful because of the potential rising “we” who might take some of the wealth. The California fruit farmers of the 30s accused the organizing workers of laziness and wanting something for nothing—just like those demanding higher wages, access to affordable (not free) education and healthcare are accused of today.

I also believe it is a straw man fallacy to scream the evils of socialism whenever there is a stirring of the marginalized. We must always acknowledge that we already have a great deal of socialism in our system—and it isn’t where you might think. It is embedded in our capitalism, and provides the means for those that have gained the most from capitalism to continue to gain the most. Our system has routinely socialized infrastructural investment (roads, power grid, internet, defense, public health) while privatizing profit and socializing unexpected loss (see “too big to fail”). History tells us that the end result of this kind of division of wealth and power never leads to sustained prosperity.

The causes lie deep and simply—the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times; a hunger in a single soul. Hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times. The last clear definite function of man—muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need—this is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself, and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house, the dam; to take hard muscles from the lifting, to take the clear lines and form from conceiving. For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments. This you may say of man—when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back. This you may say and know it and know it.

So, as the presidential politics really begin to heat up with Super Tuesday tomorrow, consider participating now and not just in the general election. And when you participate, consider supporting the candidate that you feel will do the best job of facilitating discussion and movement of politics for the “we” as opposed to representation of the “I.” I’ll let you decide who that might be.

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