Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Vines of Wrath Still Yield Fruit

I recently buckled down to read a book I have meant to since I saw (and loved) the movie a few years ago, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.  I'm about two thirds through it, and keep coming over passage after passage that still applies every bit as much today, and so many things he saw and pointed out that we only recently rediscovered as problems with laissez-faire capitalism.  I've been flagging those pages so I think it worth expending a few posts to highlight some of them.  On the one hand I sort of regret that I never got to read this in high school or something, but on the other I'm glad I can really appreciate the things he's talking about. 

Paul Krugman recently pointed out in the NY Mag profile of him that he thinks the basic divide in comtemporary US politics is whether you like the social welfare state and I think that's basically true as far as where the fight actually lies.  If we can't save the New Deal, it could be another 100 or 200 years before liberalism gets another chance.  Living in the shadow of the Great Recession, in which we were all saved from it being another Great Depression because of the fruits of the New Deal and its cousins around the world, I think it worth reminding ourselves what the Depression really meant for the people who lived through it.  The Yellow Dog Democrats are almost all gone, so books like Steinbeck's can carry the narrative of the horrors of that day in our collective memory.  That Steinbeck actually toned down his retelling of the horror in order to preempt the backlash he expected only makes the story so much more valuable as a learning tool.  The real Joads of the day suffered worse than our beloved Tom, Ma, Ruthie and the rest.

I picked this first one to riff off another great point of Krugman's, in his righteous objection to treating health care as a mere consumer transaction.  Among the great failures of uber-capitalism is the presumption that everything can be valued and measured and turned into a financial number.  In some grand philisophical sense of the ultimate nature of reality that might be true, but in our practical imperfect world we almost never actually have enough information to turn the most intricate and important features of our lives into raw financial worth in a useful way.  The intangibles pile up and it is always the ones you don't notice that you end up missing once you've tried to boil something into dollars.  Einstein is said to have had a sign over his desk that read "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."  Steinbeck brings us some of this as applied to what happens when the agribusinesses of the day started gobbling up all the small farms:

[The farmers] arose in the dark no more to hear the sleepy birds' first chittering, and the morning wind around the house while they waited for the first light to go out to the dear acres. These things were lost, and crops were reckoned in dollars and land was valued by principal plus interest, and crops were bought and sold before they were planted. Then crop failure, drought, and flood were no longer little deaths within life, but simple losses of money. And all their love was thinned with money, and all their fierceness dribbled away in interest until they were no longer farmers at all, but little shop-keepers of crops, little manufacturers who must sell before they can make. Then those farmers who were not good shopkeepers lost their land to good shopkeepers. No matter how clever, how loving a man might be earth and growing things, he could not survive if he were not also a good shopkeeper. 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 wagers. Why, look how they live. Why, look what they eat. And if they get funny—deport them.
 It is probably unrealistic to think we could return to a world of micro-farmers feeding the world on a series of 50 acre plots, and one could accuse Steinbeck of romaticizing the brutal labour involved in sharecropping a plot of Oklahoma land in the 1930s without machinery, but given what happened to many of these farmers once they were evicted in the fallout of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, I'm fairly sure many of them did prefer the hard grind.  No, I'm not against economies of scale or mechinization of farms, but the farmers paid a real price in the rapid transition from micro-farm to agribusiness and many important things were lost in going from many small farmers planting and harvesting their own crops to the unending acres of monoculture that agribusiness preferred.  This was among the problems that the New Deal had to address and part of that response still survives today in a little heralded part of the Department of Agriculture now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service.  Does anyone think the NRCS would survive Paul Ryan's $6 trillion dollar knife?  Apparently it wouldn't (and little thanks to the lacklustre defence from its own Democratic Secretary of Agriculture).

Digby and many of the other big voices will do a fine job fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare, as rightly they should, but the New Deal is much bigger than that and it all needs to be protected against the barbarians at the gate.  Meanwhile there's plenty more Steinbeck worth quoting to come.

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