Philosophical and Literary Representation of Capitalism
Progress & Technology in Capitalism
John Steinbeck wrote the social The Grapes of Wrath during the interwar years, just after the Great Depression harrowingly illustrated the power of unchecked capitalism. His novel takes the position that revolutionary change is needed, is inevitable, and that a just and non-exploitive society can only come about when capitalism is eliminated. Steinbeck is reported to have made clear his intentions as he prepared to write The Grapes of Wrath. In his words, "I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this" [the Great Depression and its widely destructive effects]." Steinbeck's collectivist-leaning voice at the time of his writing The Grapes of Wrath would become so altered over the course of three decades that it hardly seemed to belong to this writer who created on the very edge of moral fervor. Marxism acquired as decidedly Stalinist hue after the death of Lenin, further solidifying Steinbeck's skepticism about philosophical and political systems.
Despite the collectivist theme that is threaded throughout The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck considered socialism to be "simply another form of religion and thus delusional" (). The path that Steinbeck took to a practical -- if not moral -- acceptance of the capitalist-fueled Vietnam war stands as a microcosm of a view of capitalism which argues that workers are both the victims and the creators of the capitalism that damns them. With the industrialization o the nation -- and the laboring of American culture, as Denning (1996) put it -- people from the working class entered culture industries, becoming both subjects and producers of culture. In the cultural expressions of progress, which invariably engaged big business, workers could be compelled to sell their labor and, in effect, have their power co-opted against their own class's interests. Steinbeck saw clearly that poor migrants he wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath and the class of readers to whom he intended to most appeal -- were at once workers and victims of the same social processes. His understanding of production was decidedly Marxist -- in the words of the narrator in The Grapes of Wrath, "Men made it, but they can't control it…all of them were caught in something larger than themselves" (Steinbeck, 1939).
The Great Depression engendered a new receptivity to ideas from the political left. In 1939, Granville Hicks, a Marxist literary critic and editor of the communist cultural magazine, The New Masses, proclaimed The Grapes of Wrath a proletarian novel. Hick's 1939 review praised Steinbeck saying his "insight into capitalism illuminates every chapter of the book" and that "No writer of our time has a more acute sense of economic forces, and of the way that they operate against the interests of the masses of the people" (Hicks, 1939).
Steinbeck's social critique novel goes beyond a reformist argument that unchecked capitalism can bring about devastating conditions. His view is more radical and "attacks the logic and consequences of private property itself -- including a description of how it damages the psyches of capitalists" (Cunningham, 2002).
This is the beginning -- from "I" to "we." If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into "I," and cuts you off forever from the "we" (Steinbeck, 1939, Chapter 4).
Interestingly, the very attributes that Steinbeck railed against were being touted as desirable by Ayn Rand, in her collection of essays titled, The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, which was published in 1971. The notion of selfishness as a virtue, as promulgated by Ayn Rand, is based on her belief that people must look out for their own interests. She argued that people erroneously equated selfishness with evil, and that this notion had caused "the arrested moral development of mankind" and must be corrected (Rand, 1964). Rand's essays argued that the growth of humanity was harmed by religion. Her political orientation tended toward individual rights and property rights, which led her to believe that laissez-faire capitalism would serve to protect those rights. To her way of thinking, capitalism was the only moral social system. Given that Rand's father had his successful…