John Steinbeck's the Grapes of Wrath Various essay

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John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, various references to the structures on which capitalism works are scattered, and usually not lovingly, throughout the story. Written about the Great Depression a good few years into it by a skillful writer with a fine grasp of human suffering, the depictions and descriptions of capitalism's organisms -- industries, farm organizations, and even retailing -- make the point that capitalism run amok is soul-deadening at best. At its worst, it kills people, and inhumanely at that. There can be little doubt, in the era of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, that Steinbeck would have been a champion of efforts to take the edge off capitalism with more regulation, and perhaps even institute a few -- or more -- socialist reforms.

It is in this setting that the Joad family was forced to leave Oklahoma's Dust Bowl to find work in California. Along the way, of course, they would be bound to encounter just about every sort of commercial enterprise America had to offer, as well as participating in some.

By the time the family is rolling along the already built-up Route 66, in Chapter Fifteen, the first of five forms of U.S. market structures is introduced to the story, with -- knowing Steinbeck's predilections -- predictable effect.

Steinbeck uses imaginary conversation in a diner owned by Mae and Al to introduce a business that, at the time, might be considered to display pure competition.

See that La Salle? Me for that. I ain't a hog. I go for a La Salle.

A ya goin' big, what's a matter with a Cad'? Jus' a little bigger, little faster.

I'd take a Zephyr myself. You ain't ridin' no fortune, but you got class an' speed. Give me a Zephyr.

Well, sir, you may get a laugh outa this -- I'll take a Buick-Puick. That's good enough. (Steinbeck, 1939, p. 210)

This imaginary conversation is likely a composite of the sorts of discussion one might hear among the truck-drivers Mae favors as customers. It is also representative of the pure competition in the automobile industry at the time. There are names of automobiles that have disappeared, except for Buick and Cadillac (elsewhere, reference to the Cord is made). It was the more expensive cars that disappeared, the La Salle's and Zephyrs.

That conversation segways into one about expensive women's face creams, and expensive Hollywood hotels, and about the people who have all the fruits of the capitalist society, and yet don't seem to appreciate them, but rather have "lines of weariness bout the eyes, lines of discontent down from the mouth," (Steinbeck, 1939, p. 211) that indicates that although their stomachs and thighs are so well fed as to require girdles, their souls are malnourished. Clearly, though, the competition they are speaking about is pure: various face creams looking for a share of the market, banking on their greater appeal for one reason or another, and so on.

Amazingly enough, this is a piece of the American business landscape Steinbeck's characters do not participate in as consumers, although by Chapter 26 it is clear they are participating in it, and being abused by it, as employees.

The Joads and their compatriots do, however, encounter another market structure, monopolistic competition quite frequently. By Chapter 20, the Joads are in dire need of work. Tom sees how much produce is growing out west, all around him, and says he's sure there must be work. He has apparently not fully understood that when there is an oversupply of labor and an undersupply of jobs needing to be done, it's bad for the labor. Knowing this, the few large farm owners print handbills for distribution to the would-be workers; the more they attract, the less they will have to offer in wages. In the competition for labor, it is a near-monopoly, with the few big farms competing with each other for prices at market, but also for the most work at the lowest wages back on the farm. For the men, with limited means to travel, each farm might as well be the only one, as it is the only one they can sell their labor to. His 'advisor' notes that "You can print a hell of a lot of han'bills with what ya save payin' fifteen cents an hour fer fiel' work." (Steinbeck, 1939, p. 334) Later in the same conversation, he lays it out even more clearly for Tom:

If ya don' wanta take what they pay, goddamn it, they's a thousan' men waitin' for your job. So ya pick, an' ya pick, an 'then she's done. Whole part of the country's peaches. All ripe together. When ya get em picked, ever' goddamn one is picked. There ain't another damn thing in that part a the country to do. An' then them owners don' want you there no more. (Steinbeck, 1939, p. 335)

In short, there is an oversupply of labor in what is basically a one-crop area, which would make it act like a monopoly even if there were a dozen or more farms. While the farmers ideally would make enough money on the crop to keep them in style all year, the hands won't be able to save a thing, meaning they will have nothing to keep them all year. If this situation was not the beginning of the 'throwaway' society, it certainly could have been. In any society in which men are expendable because of peaches, Steinbeck seems to say, something is wrong with the way things are arranged.

One of the reasons the migrants can't put even a nickel away might be traced in part to the monopoly they deal with for everything they want and need, the company store. By Chapter 26, the Joads have left the government camp and have ended up at the peach farm. They entire family works all day, earning only enough money together for their evening meal, the ingredients for which they must buy at the company store. Although they have a car, they can't buy their goods elsewhere because they are paid in scrip, not money, and the scrip is only good at the company store. Needless to say, that store can put any price it wants on anything it sells, and will get it. Ma has a conversation with the shop owner, who is described like a vulture: "He was completely bald, and his head was blue-white" and "His nose was long and thin, and curved like a bird's beak...." (Steinbeck, 1939, pp. 509-510)

Ma doesn't like the price of the meat he's selling for five cents more per pound that she had paid when she bought it last in a regular store. And she doesn't like the quality, either. "It looks al full a fat an' gristle," she says. But she takes it anyway. She takes the 12-cent loaf of bread he sells for 15 cents. She can't understand why he's so mean, but he explains that he just needs a job, too. In the end, while he won't break the rules and give her the sugar she wants 'on account' for the next days' scrip, he does buy it for her with his own dime, and will later take a dime of her scrip in return.

Besides the monopoly, the Joads run into an active monopsony at the peach farm, the structure hinted at in the 'handbill conversation' held earlier.

By Chapter 28, the Joads are picking cotton. It is, in effect, the same 'market structure' as every other agricultural industry in which they worked.

If one considers the pickers to be the sellers, then at every single farm, there are a number of sellers and only one buyer, the farm owner. Because these workers are not employees, but rather contract day labor, each is an independent contractor in his or her own right. Their income-once they have been signed on, which happens through pure competition (first come-first served) -- they sell their best labor to the single buyer. Therefore, the buyer can set the price. In some ways, the system is fair; each picker is paid according to the amount of cotton (or peaches or anything) he or she picks. The unfairness is in the fact that they cannot sell their labor in a more favorable market because, with so few other markets (the monopolistic capitalism factor), they would not be paid much, if any, more anyway. The pickers knew this. At day's end, "The pickers clustered disconsolately back to he barnyard and stood in line to be paid off." (Steinbeck, 1939, p. 585) One man got 22 cents, another thirty and so on. Some got as much as 90 cents, but no one seemed happy: "The line moved past slowly. The families went back to their cars, silently. And they drove slowly away." (Steinbeck, 1939, p. 585)

Perhaps the most interesting market structure Steinbeck uses is the oligopoly, exemplified in Chapter 22 by the Farmers' Association material. It is clear that…[continue]

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