Posted Monday, October 31st, 2011 at 5:37 pm under books, me, politics.

The Grapes of Wrath & Occupy Wall Street

I’m reading The Grapes of Wrath for the first time. I can’t believe it took me so long to finally read it. It’s great.

Below is a section I just ran across that I imagine will resonate strongly with the people involved in Occupy Wall Street. I’ve long been fascinated to watch how power tries to maintain itself by attempting to enforce isolation and to restrict information flow, and, on the contrary, how increased information flow between the subjects of power naturally undermines this basis. Awareness of these opposing forces, even if not explicitly understood, is what I think accounts for the tenacity and ferocity on both sides of the OWS (and many other) movements, even (especially) when the movements are still only tiny. The occupiers experience the surge of energy and determination and self-identification that comes from solidarity, while those in power recognize the danger and act in heavy-handed ways to try to crush it, usually after trying to ignore and then ridicule. The consistent characteristic of the reaction against these movements, as Steinbeck notes, is that those in power do not understand what’s going on. So in their efforts to snuff out the protests they instead fan the flames, which they then have to react even more violently to. It seems an extraordinarily difficult task for power to successfully manage to defuse a popular movement without resorting to extremes. Hence the absurd justifications of needing to clean (often already cleaned – by the protesters) public spaces, to make the public spaces once again available to the public, etc. Disperse, ridicule, isolate. If the gentle pretenses do not work, then we’ll do what we can to get rid of or evade the media (in all its forms), and then come in and beat the shit out of you.

So for all those out there in the OWS camps around the world (don’t forget there were protests in almost one thousand cities worldwide), and especially for those in the US, here’s some beautiful Steinbeck:

One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the West. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I’m alone and I am bewildered. In the night one family camps in a ditch and other family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here’s the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate — “we lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from his first “we” there grows a still more dangerous thing; “I have a little food” plus “I have none”. If from this problem the sum is “we have a little food”, the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours. The two-men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mothers blanket — take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb. 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”.

The Western states are nervous under the beginning change. Need is the stimulus to concept, concept to action. A half-million people moving over the country; one million more restive, ready to move; 10 million more feeling the first nervousness.

And tractors turning the multiple furrows in the vacant land.

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  • Thanks!  I’ve read Orwell’s Wigan Pier diaries, but not the others. I’ve been curious about Upton Sinclair for some time.

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  • Jean Jordaan

    Not all of them great literature, but with similar stories to tell: Upton Sinclair (The Jungle), Jack London (The Iron Heel, The People of the Abyss), Orwell (The Road to Wigan Pier) …