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The effect of all of this is to drive away those who actually worked the land because they loved it, replacing them with hired hands running machinery, neither of which is likely to be kind to the land.
Perhaps the most familiar form of business except for perfect competition, monopoly situations result when there are many potential buyers for a product or service, but only one seller.
In the Grapes of Wrath, a monopoly situation is created as the banks decide to remove tenant farmers, preferring to sell the land to a single large conglomerate of landowners or even a single corporation.
Steinbeck could hardly have painted a harsher picture of this monopoly-in-progress, with scenes of huge bulldozers razing all evidence of the tenant farmers from the land. However, he also notes that the 'monopolization' of the Great Plains was seemingly an event bigger even than those landowners who stood to gain. Steinbeck wrote:
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 they 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 n something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling (1939, p. 40).
Steinbeck did not leave to the imagination what the effect of agri-business would be on the people it affected directly nor on society. He describes the owner men as half starved, their kids hungry, their families threadbare. Steinbeck painted the advent of agribusiness; "One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop. We have to do it. We don't like to do it" (1939, p. 42).
In an oligopoly, control over the supply of a commodity is held by a small number of producers, each one of whom can influence the price of goods or services and affect the business of competitors.
In the Grapes of Wrath, the most vicious of oligopolies is portrayed in Chapter Twenty-One. Leading up to his description of that oligopoly, Steinbeck tells, in Chapter Nineteen, about the American squatters who wrested land from Mexico, eventually becoming wealthy and defending their own wealth by treating those who came later more miserably than even they had been treated. The workers camps for the current Okies are described, and the viciousness of deputies finding, and destroying, the tiny patches of garden they try to grown on their own also plays a part in the chapter. In fact, the description sounds much like the description of prohibitions in the old Soviet Union against individual farms.
Chapter Twenty returns to the Joad family, and the 'red' connection is made more clear; when Tom wonders why workers begin abused do not organize, he is told they will be thought of as "Reds" merely for talking about it.
In Chapter Twenty-One, the oligopoly is clear. Steinbeck wrote:
When there was work for a man, ten men fought for it -- fought with a low wage. If that fella'll work for thirty cents, I'll work for twenty-five.
If he'll take twenty-five, I'll do it for twenty.
No, me. I'm hungry. I'll work for fifteen. I'll work for food....(1939, p. 364).
Clearly, the oligopoly is the jobs. In fact, Steinbeck exposed that, too:
And now the great owners and the companies invented a new method. A great owner bought a cannery. And when the peaches and the pears were ripe he cut the price of fruit below the cost of raising it. And as cannery owner he paid himself a low price for the fruit and kept the price of canned goods up and took his profit. And the little farmers who owned no canneries lost their farms, and they were taken by the great owners, the banks, and the companies who also owned the canneries. As time when on, there were fewer farms....(1939, p. 364).
In some ways, monopsony, a market in which goods and services are offered by several sellers to only one buyer, appears in several events in the Grapes of Wrath. The junk dealer event comes close. But in this chapter, it becomes clear that the goods and services are the men's work and the one buyer is the disembodied "them" who has dogged the Joads across the nation. Just when they have found a nice camp, well run and interested in keeping families well and fed, the local employer decides to cut wages, not because he is cheap himself, but because he is being forced to by the Farmers' Association. That, in turn, is run by the Bank of the West. "That bank owns most of this valley, and it's got paper on everything it don't own" (Steinbeck, 1939, p. 378), and has just told the owners they must pay lower wages...or else.
The effect of this on the migrants is devastating.
But the effect on society is equally malignant. In the face of the unethically used power of the banks, there is scant economic freedom for anyone, from the large owners to the small owners to the migrants.
In this case, the Farmer's Association even threatens the government camp; it is clear that Steinbeck is making the case that economics has assumed power it shouldn't have and, worse, is misusing it.
It would be easy to conclude, from Steinbeck's portrayals of the economic system as it worked -- or didn't work -- in the 1930s that communism was his preferred mode of production. But the fact that he also castigates those who destroy family enterprise -- the secret garden plots -- shows that is probably not true, either. In terms of what did happen in by the end of the 1930s, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, it is likely that Steinbeck was interested in more government regulation of the economic system, regulation that would allow working people to live decently, at least. If that is what Steinbeck was advocating through his scathing portrayals of the contemporary workings of the economic system, he got his wish. Social Security, one of the 'transfer payment' programs begun at the end of the Depression/Dust Bowl era, is still in place and still growing. Agri-business, however, has also grown. Still, there has been no massive economic disaster for farmers on the order of the Dust Bowl since then, making the case that the increased regulation Steinbeck seemed to imply was needed has done a creditable job of keeping a free market economy, but one not quite as prone to devastating imbalance as was the case before the New Deal.
Cassuto, David. "Turning Wine into Water: Water as…[continue]
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