The Great Recession, the Rust Bowl, and the New Okies - The Grapes of Wrath Redux
Today, eight years after the Crash of 2008, we are witnessing a somewhat less brutal echo of the desperate decade of the Great Depression. The echo is only "somewhat less brutal" due to the few bits of New Deal legislation that remain intact, not yet having been stripped from the books by the rabid government haters and profiteering privatizers.
As the title indicates, I want to talk about the striking similarity of the economic inequality between then and now. I do not want to be distracted by arguments about which group today is in the most desperate economic straits. So I am going to use the "Okies" of the Great Depression to examine what is happening to all desperate unemployed people today.(Footnote 1) "Okie" started as an insult, like "mick", "kike", "wop", etc. The stereotypical Okie was an ignorant hillbilly who was lazy and liked to drink and fight. Sound familiar? Today we hear that millenials are lazy, stupid, expect too much. Bernie Bros are "violent". According to TPTB, expecting to find work to pay off your student loan is expecting too much.
Disparaging an Okie wasn't about race: Oakies were white. It wasn't about gender: they treated men, women, and children with equal cruelty. The sneering was about MONEY. The same kind of sneering directed at "losers" and "moochers" today by stone-hearted neoliberal ideologues.
Like most terms that disparage specific groups, it was applied by the dominant cultural group what native Californians failed to realize at the time was that these Okie migrant farm workers had not always lived in the conditions that the Dust Bowl left them in. In fact, often these families had once owned their own farms and had been able to support themselves.
- Wikipedia Okie
The Dust Bowl was a natural/manmade (Footnote 2) disaster that happened in the midwest at the same time as the depression. To the Okies, it was like being hit by a car after your house burned down. After half a decade of families going broke, farms getting foreclosed, and health getting worse from breathing the dust that hung like a pall for literally years, people had enough. (Can you say "enough is enough"?) They were either already evicted, or they abandoned their worthless property. They packed their worldly possessions into their cars and trucks and struck out for California, which handbills touted as a land of opportunity and jobs. They wound up as migrant labor.
The Rust Bowl and the mirage of the sharing economy
In America today, the former Rust Belt has gotten even worse, as factories and jobs continue to be shipped overseas en masse, as entire states are bankrupted (and their infrastructure left to rot or be privatized) by radical rightwing economic theories, put in place by right wing gangsters like Scott Walker and Sam Brownback. Those people (young, old, of all races and genders) who have had enough of the thirty year long Rust Bowl - people whom I shall label the New Okies - have heard that the "gig economy", a.k.a. "the sharing economy" was a wondrous place where you could find jobs, and by sheer hard work become rich.
Of course, if you have a degree from Stanford and billions of free cash (see "unicorns") from the Venture Capital industry, these fairy tales might come true. But if you are trying to make a living as an Uber driver or renting your house via AirBnB, or cooking meals for EatWith - or any of the other illegal-on-their-face schemes to simply vaporize regulations and reimpose completely unregulated capitalist predation - you will find yourself working for chump change.
Meanwhile, as a customer of these unregulated businesses, you may be raped or robbed by an Uber driver, you may get bedbugs from your "hotel room", or the rentor may suffer vandalism, theft, or violence, or you may get food poisoning or hepatitis from a "take-out joint". If you try to sue Uber, they dump all the blame onto their "independent contractor", thereby dodging any legal liability. Such are the wonders of unregulated capitalism.
The conditions of the workers
The "sharing economy" is really a share-cropping economy - in the same league with the migrant camps that the Okies were forced into upon arrival in California. The gig workers are just another variation on migrant workers, waiting desperately at the collection point for some strawboss to pick them out of the lineup for a day's work.
Because of the minimal pay, these families were often forced to live on the outskirts of these farms in shanty houses they built themselves. These homes were normally set up in groups called Squatter Camps or Shanty Towns Due to this lack of sanitation in these camps, disease ran rampant among the migrant workers and their families. Also contributing to disease was the fact that these Shanty Town homes that the Okie migrant workers lived in had no running water, and because of their minimal pay medical attention was out of the question.
In the "somewhat less brutal" Great Recession, the New Okies live in their parents' houses, try to piece together some dead-end jobs, try desperately to pay off non-dischargable student loans, and generally watch their lives slip through their fingers. They are forced to postpone starting families. Even with ACA, healthcare is precarious. The 2010s, in some ways, more cruel than the 1930s. Many of the New Oakies have college educations. They can look things up on the Internet. They did the things they were told should give them a shot at a good life. They know what they are missing. They know they have been robbed.
The Grapes of Wrath
The New Okie generation has yet to have a movie of the quality of "The Grapes of Wrath"(GoW) to describe the organized wretchedness imposed on an entire population for the benefit of a few landowners, and to appeal to the public for justice.
Steinbeck wrote: "I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects]."
The non-existence of such a movie is hardly surprising. Hollywood wouldn't make any money from such a movie, given the movie audience are 12-year old boys who like sex and violence. Besides, who can afford to go to the movies anymore?
The movie version of GoW itself was self-censored, leaving out some of Steinbeck's more devastating critiques:
the producers decided to tone down Steinbeck's political references, such as eliminating a monologue using a land owner's description of "reds" as anybody "that wants thirty cents an hour when we're payin' twenty-five," to show that under the prevalent conditions that definition applies to every migrant worker looking for better wages.
"Steinbeck was attacked as a propagandist and a socialist from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. The most fervent of these attacks came from the Associated Farmers of California; they were displeased with the book's depiction of California farmers' attitudes and conduct toward the migrants. They denounced the book as a 'pack of lies' and labeled it 'communist propaganda
The Grapes of Wrath
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
In the end, the Okies were rescued by war work in California factories. We could do the same thing with an alternative energy buildout plus a massive infrastructure restoration program. The problem is such work is not going to materialize under today's political leadership. Not under "pragmatic, incremental" Hillary. Not under lunatic Trump.
Understanding that that is reality is why there is a vast anti-elitist sentiment afoot in America today. It crosses all political boundaries. People know they have been robbed - robbed by Wall St. and the WH bailout, robbed by the constant outsourcing of jobs, robbed by Draconian drug laws and massive bills for jails, robbed by diverting half the budget to endless no-win wars that enrich the elite and starve the public infrastructure.
Just as in the 1930s, people are at their economic breaking points. Although right-wingers are willing to support demagogues like Trump and theocrats like Cruz, there are many left wing folks doing the equivalent of labor organizing. I say "the equivalent of" because organized labor has been absolutely shattered by forty years of union-busting laws, union-busting corporations, and union-busting neoliberal ideology. We have strikes without unions (Market Basket), job actions without unions (Fight for $15). We have guerilla pro-worker agitation as an asymmetric strategy against the overwhelming firepower of corporate law.
Where is this all going? I make no prediction about the future; but I see nothing but trouble if we, as is likely, stay on our present course. Just one final point:
The title (Grapes of Wrath) is a reference to lyrics from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", by Julia Ward Howe:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
These lyrics refer, in turn, to the biblical passage Revelation 14:1920, an apocalyptic appeal to divine justice and deliverance from oppression in the final judgment.
Whatever happens is going to be YUGE.
1. Please, please. I am not disparaging the Okies themselves, or the current cohort of totally screwed over people whom I will call the New Okies. I respect the struggles of impoverished workers at all times and in all places. Okie is merely a label. Today, Okie is a badge of pride ("I'm an Okie from Muskogee." Of course, someone could raise the dreaded flag of identity politics to reduce this entire thread to a food fight. I can't stop that; but I can say up front that it is nothing but ratfucking.
2. I say partially manmade because the Southern great plains were too arid for sustainable farming, which had only begun in about 1880 during a wet spell. Fifty years on, mother nature returned to the normal climate and stripped the soil off the parched fields.
In your opinion, is it a good analogy. (I don't care if conservatives don't like the analogy. They didn't like GoW in the first place.)
It was pretty cool seeing him onscreen.
My own family was affluent white California. The roads around here are named after my great grandfather's cousins. My grandma was born in her family's San Francisco house, just after the Great Earthquake. I might have been wealthy myself had not my great grandfather been a dreamer. He knew the aerospace industries and the movie industry would be a very big deal but he died just before the market crashed in 1929, and he'd bet everything on the wrong players. My great grandma held onto three family homes, in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Over the years she sold the San Francisco and San Diego homes. That was her income. The San Francisco house still stands, owned by some Chinese front company and subdivided into tiny apartments. The San Diego home is now a parking lot for a strip mall. I remember the San Diego house. It was gorgeous.
Anyways, many refugees arrived in California from the Dust Bowl and were deeply offended when white California landowner farmers, dairymen, and ranchers didn't immediately discard their Mexican and Mexican-American workers in favor of the white refugees who were utterly inexperienced in California agricultural practices. My own family was generally as racist as most white California, my grandfather even chose to boycott my wedding to, in his words, a "Mexican girl" but they had even less love for the Okies. I've had the pleasure twice of elderly Okies going off in my face about that, and sometimes they write bitter racist letters to the newspapers too, but I haven't seen any lately, as they are now mostly dead. (I can say this stuff, my brother is married to an Okie descendant with similarly bitter ancestors...)
Second, the Japanese internment. My other grandpa, he got beat up by the police for protesting the internment of his Japanese neighbors. He was a pacifist. During World War II he was drafted, refused, and was given a choice of prison or building Liberty and Victory Ships. He was a welder, he built ships.
A lot of Japanese families lost everything to grifters who promised to manage their property while they were interned and then stole it. My mom has a friend who was fortunate. A family in Utah took them in, paid them fairly as ranch hands, and managed their California properties well. After the war the family moved back, everything as it was when they left.
"otherness" is the universal excuse for cruelty; and, with Trump, we are on the way their all over again.
It's like the Civil Rights Movement never happened.
and I'll do so replying to the OP so as to be able to have the source open.
You summarize the history well and I like that you explain that economic discrimination or class discrimination was based on perceived character or moral failings and therefore very similar to all forms of discrimination.
It was interesting that you discussed the politics surrounding the production of the movie.I can't help but wonder what might have happened had both the book and movie been delayed 10 years-in 1949 and 1950 could they even have been produced during the Red Scares?
As to your analogy and analysis...I'm slow to judge them fully but tend to find them believable.
Anyhow a good read for me and a piece that should earn a place in your journal.
About the politics of the movie, it said that it would NOT have been made ten years later. It was made during the war, when slandering the labor/left was put in hold in the name of unity.
Thanks for taking the time.