"Grapes of Wrath" Holds Lessons for Survival
This may not look like the 1930s, but the current economy is even worse for millions of middle class families than during the Great Depression.
And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: When property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: When a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: Repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. -- John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck wrote his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath at the age of 37 in 1939, at the tail end of the Great Depression. Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize for literature. John Ford then made a classic film adaption in 1941, starring Henry Fonda. It's considered one of the top 25 films in American history. The book was also one of the most banned in US history. Steinbeck was ridiculed as a communist and anti-capitalist by showing support for the working poor.
Some things never change, as the moneyed interests that control the media message have attempted to deflect the blame for our current Depression away from their fraudulent deeds. The novel stands as a chronicle of the Great Depression and as a commentary on the economic and social system that gave rise to it. Steinbeck's opus to the working poor reverberates across the decades. He wrote the novel in the midst of the last Fourth Turning Crisis. His themes of man's inhumanity to man, the dignity and rage of the working class, and the selfishness and greed of the moneyed class ring true today.
Steinbeck became the champion of the working class. When he decided to write a novel about the plight of migrant farm workers, he took his task very seriously. To prepare, he lived with an Oklahoma farm family and made the journey with them to California. Seventy years later the plight of the working class is the same. If Steinbeck were alive today he would live with a Michigan auto manufacturing family making a journey to Iowa.
The working class bore the brunt of the Great Depression in the 1930s and they are bearing the burden during our current Greater Depression. Steinbeck knew who the culprits were 70 years ago. We know who the culprits are today. They are one in the same. The moneyed banking interests caused the Great Depression and they created the disastrous collapse that has thus far destroyed 8.5 million middle-class jobs. Steinbeck understood that the poor working class of this country had more dignity and compassion for their fellow man than Wall Street bankers out for enrichment at the expense of the working class.
Okies and the Land of Milk & Honey
How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can't scare him -- he has known a fear beyond every other. -- John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath
The America of 1930 was different in many aspects from the America of 2011. The population of the US was 123 million, living in 26 million households, or 4.7 people per household. Today the population is 310 million, living in 118 million households, or 2.6 people per household. The living and working structure of the country was dramatically different in 1930. The percentage of the population that lived in rural areas exceeded 40%, down from 60% in 1900, as the country rapidly industrialized. One-quarter of the population still worked on farms. Today, less than 20% of Americans live in rural areas, while less than 2% live on farms. In 1935, there were 6.8 million farms in the US. Today there are 2.1 million farms. The family farm has been slowly but surely displaced by corporate mega-farms since the 1920s, with 46,000 farms now accounting for 50% of all farm production today.
The sad plight of the American working farmer did not begin with the Stock Market Crash of 1929. The seeds of destruction were planted prior to and during World War I. Automation through technology allowed for more cultivation of land. Agricultural prices rose due to strong worldwide demand, leading farmers to dramatically increase cultivation. With food commodity prices soaring, farmers fell into the classic trap that McMansion buyers fell into from 2000 through 2006. Farmers took on huge amounts of debt to acquire more land and farming equipment as local banks were willing to feed their illusions with loans. It was a can't-miss proposition. Jim Grant in his book Money of the Mind: Borrowing and Lending from the Civil War to Michael Milken described the end result:
Like bull markets in stocks, the bull market in farmland engendered the belief that prices would rise forever. "Speculators who had no interest whatever in farming bought land for the 6% or 8% annual rise that seemed a certainty throughout the early years of the century…" The rise in farm prices had only begun. The price of wheat was 62 cents a bushel in 1900. It was 99 cents in 1909, $1.43 in 1916, and $2.19 at the peak in 1919. To put $2.19 in perspective, it was not a price seen again until 1947.
The collapse of prices in the early 1920s would have been devastating enough, but the damage was compounded by debt. By the summer of 1921, crop prices were down by no less than 85% from the postwar peak. Nebraskans, finding that corn had become cheaper than coal, burned it. As it does in every market, the fall in prices revealed the weaknesses in the structure of credit that had financed the rise.