I am reading John Steinbeck’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
Written at the height of the era of the “Dust Bowl” at the tail end of The Great Depression and the beginning of World War II in Europe, Steinbeck addresses the issue of migrant workers being evicted from their “property” and out of their homes in rural Oklahoma by wealthy landowners and large, cold, blindly capitalistic, impersonal Eastern banks.
As I read this landmark novel, the parallels with today are striking.
Allow me to share a passage from the novel…
“There is the door – our children born here. And Pa had to borrow money. The bank owned the land then, but we stayed and we got a little bit of what we raised.”
“We know that – all that. It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster.”
“Sure, cried the tenant men, but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours – being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.”
“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 are 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.”
The tenants cried, “Grandpa killed Indians, Pa killed snakes for the land. Maybe we can kill banks – they’re worse than Indians and snakes. Maybe we got to fight to keep our land, like Pa and Grandpa did.”
And now the owner men grew angry. “You’ll have to go.” “But it’s ours”, the tenant men cried. “We” –
“No. The bank, the monster owns it. You’ll have to go.”
“We’ll get our guns, like Grampa when the Indians came.”
“Well – first the sheriff and then the troops. You’ll be stealing if you try to stay, you’ll be murdering if you kill to stay. The monster isn’t men, but it can make men do what it wants.”
“But if we go, where’ll we go? How’ll we go? We got no money.”
“We’re sorry”, said the owner men. “The bank, the fifty thousand-acre owner can’t be responsible. You’re on land that isn’t yours. Once over the line maybe you can pick cotton in the fall. Maybe you can go on relief. Why don’t you go west to California?”
These words jumped out at me and literally riveted me to my chair as I read them:
“The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
The eerie similarity to today is alarming. In a nation where forty of the wealthiest people in the nation control more wealth than the poorest eighty million, and in a world where the richest nine men have more combined wealth than the poorest four billion, Steinbeck’s narrative should be a siren call for us all to heed.
Jeff Bezos has the real potential to become the world’s first trillionaire. Yes, you read it correctly, a trillionaire. His net worth now approaches $110 billion. There seems to be no end to his wealth. The question in my mind is, is there an end to his potential influence?
At the turn of the twentieth century, President Theodore Roosevelt recognized the danger and the consequences of extreme concentrated wealth. He sought out public policy to address the unchecked power of people like J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller through his “trust busting” approach.
Is there anyone today who has the determination, vision, and guts to do what Roosevelt did more than a century ago? Is there anyone today who has the determination, vision, and guts to do what his cousin then did thirty years later to forestall the impact of The Great Depression? Will anyone today have the will to check the growing influence of Bezos and his small business-destroying enterprise, Amazon?
In addition to this alarming growth of monopolistic business practices and income inequality, artificial intelligence and robotics are at the cusp of displacing millions of working class Americans, throwing them into unemployment lines and an astonishingly bleak economic future. Left unregulated, this “Digital Dust Bowl” is a threat to us all.
Yes, the unemployment rate nationwide has plunged below four percent for the first time in several decades. This is a very misleading statistic in light of the fact that the unemployment rate for African Americans is twice that level and the underemployment rate for others, including blue-collar working class Americans is surely in the 20%+ range. And, yes, the stock market has risen thirty percent since the election of Donald Trump, yet only about half of all Americans have any vested interest in the stock market.
There is a growing underclass in America that is threatened by exploding income inequality and technological advances that outpace society’s ability to train workers for the future. The implications of this ongoing, unchecked “monster” are, in the words of John Steinbeck, dire, because “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.”
As always, I welcome your civil, educated thoughts and comments.