I recently read this book for a class I will be teaching in the coming semester. I found it interesting and disturbing. In many ways, it embodies a false dichotomy that I see stretching all across the twentieth century (at least) and on into the present. Here the dichotomy appears as "capitalism" vs. "socialism" -- with the capitalist being a profit-seeking thug and the socialist being a saint who believes in and supports values that cannot be monetized.
The novel's portrait of evil capitalism (profit-seeking by Chicago's ruling business class) is gripping, historically accurate, and very damning:
It was a war of each against all, and the devil take the hindmost. You did not give feasts to other people, you waited for them to give feasts to you. You went about with your soul full of suspicion and hatred; you understood that you were environed by hostile powers that were trying to get your money, and who used all the virtues to bait their traps with. The storekeepers plastered up their windows with all sorts of lies to entice you; the very fences by the wayside, the lamp-posts and telegraph-poles, were pasted over with lies. The great corporation which employed you lied to you, and lied to the whole country -- from top to bottom it was nothing but one gigantic lie (74).There is a good deal of truth here. I myself have lived out a little, tame version of the monstruous evil that devours Jurgis Rudkus and his family in Sinclair's book. In the course of scratching other's backs so that they might scratch mine, I have done some things of which I am not altogether proud. And I have certainly believed the noble lie of Plato, a lie that effaces the bad that our social institutions do so that we may love them -- and the good that they also do -- more.
For me, one of the most painful passages was the one describing how modern food processing works (if you do some research, you will see that while some things have improved since Sinclair's day, the fundamentals have not really altered that much: processed food is still mostly crap that no one should eat as a staple, unless he wants to die early and in pain):
There were many such dangers, in which the odds were all against them. Their children were not as well as they had been at home [in Lithuania]; but how could they know that there was no sewer to their house, that all the drainage of fifteen years was in a cesspool under it? How could they know that the pale blue milk that they bought around the corner was watered, and doctored with formaldehyde besides? When the children were not well at home, Teta Elzbieta would gather herbs and cure them; now she was obliged to go to the drug-store and buy extracts -- and how was she to know that they were all adulterated? How could they find out that their tea and coffee, their sugar and flour, had been doctored; that their canned peas had been colored with copper salts, and their fruit jams with aniline dyes? And even if they had known it, what good would it have done them, since there was no place within miles of them where any other sort was to be had? The bitter winter was coming, and they had to save money to get more clothing and bedding; but it would not matter in the least how much they saved, they could not get anything to keep them warm. All the clothing that was to be had in the stores was made of cotton and shoddy, which is made by tearing old clothes to pieces and weaving the fibre again. If they paid higher prices, they might get frills and fanciness, or be cheated; but genuine quality they could not obtain for love or money (75).Here is a neat little illustration of how profit simply does not work as a motivator. People should make and get food for nourishment, not for money. When money is the reason for dinner, we forget that quality is actually a concern -- that it cannot be made up for in terms of quantity or cheapness. (I don't care how cheap wood-shavings are, or how much more I can get if I buy them for my kids instead of real food: they aren't palatable. They produce death instead of life. The cheap dinner that they provide isn't worth anything, no matter how much money someone else may make off it.)
Sinclair's description of the jailbirds worn down by society rings true today too, when the USA imprisons more people than any other nation on earth, and will do anything to save its morally bankrupt captains of industry (pillars of society, lords of creation, etc., etc.):
This jail was a Noah's ark of the city's crime -- there were murderers, "hold-up men," and burglars, embezzlers, counterfeiters and forgers, bigamists, "shoplifters," "confidence men," petty thieves and pickpockets, gamblers and procurers, brawlers, beggars, tramps and drunkards; they were black and white, old and young, Americans and natives of every nation under the sun. There were hardened criminals and innocent men too poor to give bail; old men, and boys not yet in their teens. They were the drainage of the great festering ulcer of society; they were hideous to look upon, sickening to talk to. All life had turned to rottenness and stench in them -- love was a beastliness, joy was a snare, and God was an imprecation ... They could tell the whole hateful story of it, set forth the inner soul of a city in which justice and honor, women's bodies and men's souls, were for sale in the market-place, and human beings writhed and fought and fell upon each other like wolves in a pit; in which lusts were raging fires, and men were fuel, and humanity was festering and stewing and wallowing in its own corruption. Into this wild-beast tangle these men had been born without their consent, they had taken part in it because they could not help it; that they were in jail was no disgrace to them, for the game had never been fair, the dice were loaded. They were swindlers and thieves of pennies and dimes, and they had been trapped and put out of the way by the swindlers and thieves of millions of dollars (159-160).In many ways, Sinclair's portrait of Chicago riff-raff reminds me of what many Mormons think about apostates from the faith, who are sometimes caricatured as utterly immoral, dangerous people merely because they are no longer members of the LDS church or do not believe simply in the truth of certain historical and/or intellectual propositions. But Mormons are by no means the only people to separate the world into good and evil along false fault lines. Many others among us, including many Americans today, turn a blind eye to immoral behavior when it occurs among "our set" as opposed to "the enemy" (who may be Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, homosexuals or heterosexuals, wealthy or poor, people of faith or people who explicitly renounce traditional faith). The fact is that we are all human, and we all behave humanly. No one is above his own humanity, no matter what group he belongs to. And dressing crimes up in pretty clothes and legal language doesn't make them less criminal, any more than slandering your enemy with false charges makes him a guilty wretch worthy of whatever vile fate you may wish for him.
Along the way toward redemption (as a Socialist!), Jurgis encounters a preacher, whose spiel puts me in mind of the old Mormon endowment ceremony (before it was changed in 1990):
The evangelist was preaching "sin and redemption," the infinite grace of God and His pardon for human frailty. He was very much in earnest, and he meant well, but Jurgis, as he listened, found his soul filled with hatred. What did he know about sin and suffering -- with his smooth, black coat and his neatly starched collar, his body warm, and his belly full, and money in his pocket -- and lecturing men who were struggling for their lives, men at the death-grapple with the demon powers of hunger and cold! -- This, of course, was unfair; but Jurgis felt that these men were out of touch with the life they discussed, that they were unfitted to solve its problems; nay, they themselves were part of the problem -- they were part of the order established that was crushing men down and beating them! They were of the triumphant and insolent possessors; they had a hall, and a fire, and food and clothing and money, and so they might preach to hungry men, and the hungry men must be humble and listen! They were trying to save their souls -- and who but a fool could fail to see that all that was the matter with their souls was that they had not been able to get a decent existence for their bodies? (218)Jurgis' experience here is an exaggerated version of mine. He was in desperate physical need. I had desperate psychological (spiritual) needs. Neither one of us did very well with the earnest testimony of the preacher who refused to be answerable in practice for the doctrine he preached. Theory has to evolve with practice, or both become useless. Really useful doctrine is the kind that evolves when circumstances require it to. The doctrine of more wood on the fire works fine, until I have exhausted the capacity of my fireplace and am burning down my house. I hold unshaken faith in that doctrine at my own peril, and whatever short-term warmth I provide in burning my house down by it is insignificant compared with the long-term harm (smoke inhalation, serious burns, homelessness, etc.). Few successes can compensate for failure to survive. I confess I don't appreciate commandments from people who have not been where I am and yet presume to dictate to me unilaterally from their experience, as though it were some kind of authoritative blueprint for mine. My life is not a plan for yours, and yours is no plan for mine. Don't tell me that I have to live precisely as you would or be damned: that is a lie, no matter how fervently you believe it, and it is also offensive (even when you studiously avoid "strong language" in presenting it to me: nothing says fuck you! like the kind of patronizing condescension that too often passes for Christian charity). I am not saying that preachers should be rude, only that there is more than one way to be rude -- and that in my view, the greatest rudeness is to assume that other people are helpless morons whose vision of reality will never be worth anything until it coincides perfectly with that of the preacher.
At one point, Sinclair introduces a senator singing the praises of "capitalism" (which Sinclair consistently portrays in a patently demonic light):
The eloquent senator was explaining the system of Protection; an ingenious device whereby the working-man permitted the manufacturer to charge him higher prices, in order that he might receive higher wages; thus taking his money out of his pocket with one hand, and putting a part of it back with the other. To the senator, this unique arrangement had somehow become identified with the higher verities of the universe. It was because of it that Columbia was the gem of the ocean; and all her future triumphs, her power and her good repute among the nations, depended upon the zeal and fidelity with which each citizen held up the hands of those who were toiling to maintain it. The name of this heroic company was "the Grand Old Party" -- and here the band began to play, and Jurgis sat up with a violent start. Singular as it may seem, Jurgis was making a desperate effort to understand what the senator was saying ... (271)So capitalists are incoherent morons who advocate eating the poor for breakfast (and tell the poor to get over it and enjoy the process because it's good for them!). But socialists, in Sinclair's view, are entirely different. Cue the Socialist orator who converts Jurgis with this speech:
"It will be a movement beginning in the far-off past, a thing easy to ridicule, easy to despise: a thing unlovely, wearing the aspect of vengeance and hate -- but to you, the working-man, the wage-slave, calling with a voice insistent, imperious ... With the voice of all your wrongs, with the voice of all your desires ... The voice of the oppressed, pronouncing the doom of oppression! The voice of power, wrought out of suffering ... The voice of Labor, despised and outraged; a mighty giant, lying prostrate ... And now a dream of resistance haunts him, and in a flash the dream becomes an act! He starts, he lifts himself; and the bands are shattered, the burdens roll off him; he rises -- towering, gigantic; he springs to his feet; he shouts in his new-born exultation --" ... The audience came to its feet with a yell. And Jurgis was with them, he was shouting to tear his throat; shouting because he could not help it, because the stress of his feeling was more than he could bear ... There was an unfolding of vistas before him, a breaking of the ground beneath him, an upheaving, a stirring, a trembling; he felt himself suddenly a mere man no longer -- there were powers within him undreamed of, there were demon forces contending, age-long wonders struggling to be born ... And when he could shout no more he still stood there, gasping, and whispering hoarsely to himself: "By God! By God! By God!" (291-292)This passage describes a patently religious experience (much like many of my own personal religious experiences: here too I can identify with Jurgis, who is utterly swept away by the beautiful words from Sinclair's prophet of Socialism). Further investigation confirms Jurgis in his new-found faith, whose tenets Sinclair lays out more matter-of-factly later on:
And so all over the world two classes were forming, with an unbridged chasm between them, -- the capitalist class, with its enormous fortunes, and the proletariat, bound into slavery by unseen chains. The latter were a thousand to one in numbers, but they were ignorant and helpless, and they would remain at the mercy of their exploiters until they were organized -- until they became "class-conscious" ... Every Socialist did his share, and lived upon the vision of the "good time coming," -- when the working-class should go to the polls and seize the powers of government and put an end to private property in the means of production (296-297).Jurgis is swept away with the wash of understanding that frequently accompanies religious conversion (again, in my experience too). He gets the world now. Everything makes perfect sense:
Until long after midnight Jurgis sat lost in the conversation of his new acquaintance. It was a most wonderful experience to him -- an almost supernatural experience. It was like encountering an inhabitant of the fourth dimension of space, a being who was free from one's own limitations. For four years now, Jurgis had been wandering and blundering in the depths of a wilderness; and here, suddenly, a hand reached down and seized him, and lifted him out of it, and set him upon a mountain-top, from which he could see it all, -- could see the paths from which he had wandered, the morasses into which he had stumbled, the hiding-places of the beasts of prey that had fallen upon him ... To Jurgis the packers had been equivalent to fate; Ostrinksi showed him that they were the Beef Trust. They were a gigantic combination of capital, which had crushed all opposition, and overthrown the laws of the land, and was preying upon the people ... What they wanted from a hog was all the profits that could be got out of him; and that was what they wanted from the working-man, and also that was what they wanted from the public. What the hog thought of it, and what he suffered, were not considered; and no more was it with labor, and no more with the purchaser of the meat. That was true everywhere in the world, but it was especially true in Packingtown ... it was literally the fact that in the methods of the packers a hundred human lives did not balance a penny of profit (299).There is much to be said for Sinclair's (and Jurgis') Socialism. The bit about profiteers devaluing life is demonstrably true (in history). That "capitalist" society has problems (and had them, in Sinclair's time) is not something I would dispute. But I am not convinced by the solution. I instinctively gravitate toward the kind of skepticism exemplified by Jurgis' mother-in-law Elzbieta:
Jurgis was destined to find that Elzbieta's armor was absolutely impervious to Socialism. Her soul had been baked hard in the fire of adversity, and there was no altering it now; life to her was the hunt for daily bread, and ideas existed for her only as they bore upon that. All that interested her in regard to this new frenzy that had seized upon her son-in-law was whether or not it had a tendency to make him sober and industrious; and when she found he intended to look for work and to contribute his share to the family fund, she gave him full rein to convince her of anything (301).I believe in good people, but I don't know about good systems, good dogma, good -isms. They all sound so good when their most persuasive prophets present them. Out here in the real world, Socialists aren't the only good speakers, and the rosy portrait Sinclair paints is belied by history, which has crushed every Socialist experiment in the last century with ruthless disregard for the religious fervor of men like Jurgis. Where was Sinclair's Socialism when the Soviet regime collapsed, when former Yugoslavs began murdering each other pell mell? These days, Sinclair's book strikes me as rather an accurate portrait of disease than any reliable sort of cure. (Lewis Mumford comes closer to offering a kind of Socialist cure in Technics and Civilization, but even he was overly optimistic about the Soviet experiment.)
I think it is more useful to consider how capitalism and socialism are the same than to imagine how they are different. As historical entities, both regimes exist as large organizations of human beings vying for power. The twentieth century is not the story of how capitalism works and socialism doesn't: it is the story of how large associations of people become fragile and go bust, no matter what kind of -ism they carry around as their one true gospel. The Soviet regime collapsed, yes, but so did Wall Street -- and the Eurozone is not far behind. (In my view, the bailouts are all failures: the only safe future for the market is outside of monstruous companies whose survival depends on coerced input from clueless taxpayers, who might as well be held at gunpoint.) The twentieth century is not about evil socialists losing out to righteous capitalists: it is about companies becoming too big not to fail. You can call the tendency of companies to outgrow safe bounds whatever you please (capitalism, socialism, crony capitalism, protectionism, monopolism, free market economy, etc.), but it is what it is. Dame Fortune doesn't care what you call your obese company (be it a government, a multinational, or a church) or what kind of rhetorical mumbo-jumbo you use to sell it to the saps who own shares (because they want to or because you forced them to pony up): she's gunning for you.