Sunday, May 8, 2011

Steinbeck on the faceless evil machine

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. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. 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. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time. Some of the owner men were a little proud to be slaves to such cold and powerful masters. The owner men sat in the cars and explained. You know the land is poor. You've scrabbled at it long enough, God knows.

We're sorry.  It's not us.  It's the monster.  the bank isn't like a man.
Yes, but the bank is only made of men.
No, you're wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it.

“I built it with my hands. Straightened old nails to put the sheathing on. Rafters are wired to teh stringers with baling wire. It's mine. I built it. You bump it down—I'll be in the window with a rifle. You even come close and I'll pot you like a rabbit.”
“It's not me. There's nothing I can do. I'll lose my job if I don't do it. And look—suppose you kill me? They'll just hang you, but long before you're hung there'll be another guy on the tractor, and he'll bump the house down. You're not killing the right guy.”
“That's so,” the tenant said. “Who gave you orders? I'll go after him. He's the one to kill.”
“You're wrong. He got his orders fro the bank. The bank told him, 'Clear those people out or it's your job.'”
“Well, there's a president of the bank. There's a board of directors. I'll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank.”
the driver said, “Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, 'Make the land show profit or we'll close you up.'”
“But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don't aim to starve to death before I kill the man that's starving me.”
“I don't know. Maybe there's nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn't men at all. Maybe, like you said, the property's doing it. Anyway I told you my orders.”
 The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, John Steinbeck centennial edition (2002), Penguin books.

Despite the advent of so many new economic models and theories, new technologies and vast political change, it is amazing how little has changed and how important Steinbeck's insights remain.  We were told by the Serious People that we didn't need all those antiquated New Deal regulations anymore in the 80s and 90s, and over and over how the public social programs built then were counterproductive and ultimately unnecessary.  But the fundamentals of the system hadn't changed.  The interlocking and overlapping incentives which can so effectively lock everyone into a collective outcome of madness via a series of rational self-interested decisions remains with us, and so far the only means known to be able to break the cycle is democratic intervention into the market through the people's governments.  While there are some new things under the Sun, more and more I find that the economic crises we face stem from forgetting lessons known even in Steinbeck's day, and for all I know, they may have been understood much earlier than that.

Last, note his insight into the psychology of the Owners hiding behind, and worshipping the math that tells them to do such harm to their fellow humans.  Steinbeck doesn't state it explicitly, I wonder if he wanted the reader to draw the inference that they love the math because it absolves them of responsibility for doing what they want to do anyway?  The primary benefit of capitalism is supposed to be that it turns the natural selfish behaviour of many individuals into a collectively beneficial result.  But it also seems to promote and incent that selfishness to levels beyond what would otherwise exist without the system.  Greed is part of the human condition, but whoever said the level of greed is constant?  And when it is clearly possible for those many rational selfish decisions to lead to a collectively bad result, the systemic incentives toward greed and selfishness exacerbate whatever underlying problem is going on, and make solving it via means external to the system nigh impossible.  Rather than self-correcting, under at least these circumstances capitalism accelerates toward its own demise. 

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