Steinbeck and the world of today


And the clerks who drilled at night owned nothing, and the little storekeepers possessed only a drawerful of debts. But even a debt is something, even a job is something. The clerk thought, I get fifteen dollars a week. S’pose a goddamn Okie would work for twelve? And the little storekeeper thought, How could I compete with a debtless man?

“This here’s a nice place. We could be happy here awhile.”

“If we could get work.”

“Yeah! If you could get work.”

These texts seem to describe the situation of Mexican immigrants in the United States, especially intensified after the Trump election. But no, they are not. They are quotes from the novel ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ which is published in 1939. Now in 2018 we are repeating the same dialogues that was presented almost 80 years ago. It’s not the problem of Mexicans, nor any immigrants that it seems to face these days. The problem is the structure of how medias and institutions blame a targeted group in the era of political and economic credit crunch. Robert DeMott, an expert on Steinbeck literature, mentioned that “the Grapes of Wrath is a prophetic novel, rooted in the economic and environmental tragedies of the Great Depression, but speaking just as directly to the harsh realities of our own time.

Furtherly, borrowing Steinbeck’s perspective, professor DeMott “warned against runaway materialism, institutional imperialism, intellectual hypocrisy, and rampant greed – all inevitable and regrettable by-products of an advanced industrialised capitalist society.” The wheel of capitalistic development has been rolling faster than ever, allowing his concern to spread more predominantly to the global society. Steinbeck’s prophecy would remain valid, even after 80 years from now on.

What we can learn from the past then, is merely that it’s not about immigrant problem. As Steinbeck’s description of 1930s was about former farmers flooding into California after they lost their farms, it’s more about the economic crisis that leads people to fell in social and personal conflicts. I believe his insight was brutally accurate, in that the fear of people receiving immigrants was because the storekeeper was in debt and that’s the reason this storekeeper didn’t want to compete with cheaper labour only to lose his job.

We have several reports, including that of scholars like Piketty or that of professionals like United Nations, confirming the inequality has risen globally even though the extreme poverty may have been reduced. In this global trendy, should we expect that in 80 years later we will be experiencing the same dialogue that Steinbeck has presented? The literal lesson here might be clear; maybe migration conflict is not the cause but the outcome, and when the political institutions blame immigrants it’s to distract the public from the economic malfunction.

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