Solidarity amongst the Grapes of Wrath

I first read the Grapes of Wrath when I was 17. Re-reading it now I realise how little I understood it then but that, at some level, it must have helped to form a sense of anger at the injustice and inequality in the world.

Of the many causes of this injustice and inequality, I was struck this time by Steinbeck’s description of the anonymity of the banks and companies causing so much misery, and the way in which they are somehow more than the people who make them up:

The Bank – or the Company – needs – wants – insists – must have – as though the Bank or Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These [men] would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and monsters all at the same time.

Steinbeck skewers the supposed helplessness of individuals who work within these monsters (in a way that, to be frank, brings to mind what we often hear people who work in large public sector bureaucracies say):

‘It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster…’

‘… Yes, but the bank is only made of men.’

‘No, you’re wrong there – quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.’

What’s worse, the anonymity of the banks and companies is combined with a lack of understanding of the land, histories and culture their actions are displacing. This picks up a theme Steinbeck covers in a series of seven journalistic essays he wrote in 1936, The Harvest Gypsies, which provided much of the research and material for The Grapes of Wrath. There he notes:

Having been brought up in the prairies where industrialization never penetrated, the [migrant farmer families] have jumped with no transition from the old agrarian, self-containing farm where nearly everything used was raised or manufactured, to a system of agriculture so industrialized that the man who plants a crop does not often see, let alone harvest, the fruit of his planting, where the migrant has no contact with the growth cycle.

There is a sense of hope, though – represented most directly in the character of Tom Joad and more mystically through Rose of Sharon. The contrast between “I” and “we” –

This is the beginning – from ‘I’ to ‘we’… the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I’, and cuts you off from the ‘we’.

– provides through communal effort a basis on which Man will always, somehow, progress:

This you may say of man – when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back.

There is solidarity amongst the grapes of wrath.

Tom Joad is often portrayed as the hero of The Grapes of Wrath, and is given this famous speech (in both the book and 1940 film adaptation):

I think the real hero, though, is Ma Joad. Steinbeck describes her like this:

She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practice denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended on. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess. She seems to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.

She herself describes the role of women compared to men like this:

This seems to me right, and why, perhaps, people “is aimed right at goin’ on… Jus’ tryin to live the day, jus’ the day.”

Links and reading on (1) achieving change, and (2) organising work

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot lately about different ways of doing stuff. By ‘stuff’ I mainly mean (1) ways in which change is achieved, and (2) ways in which work is organised.

I thought it might be useful to put the most influential things I’ve been reading in one place – partly for my own reference, and partly for others to have a look at the source information if they so wish – so that’s what I’ve done below. It’s arranged into two lists (achieving change, organising work) and I’ll update it as and when.

Achieving change

Organising work

“We are not going to be able to fix the problem of increased irrationalism in politics”

I recently pointed to an excellent review by Alex Tabarrok of Joseph Heath’s current book, Enlightenment 2.0: “It doesn’t pay to be informed about politics”.

Heath has written a long ‘response’ which actually elucidates much more of his arguments in the book, and so is worth reading in itself. Take this:

So if you want to know what I really think, it’s that we are not going to be able to fix the problem of increased irrationalism in politics — at best we will be able to limit its most toxic effects. As a consequence, the legislature will increasingly become a sideshow, with the two other branches of the state assuming more and more of the responsibility for actually governing. (That’s actually why I spend my time teaching in a public policy program, training future civil servants. The quality of public administration is far more important than most political theory would leads us to think.)

And, for completeness, Tabarrok has added a response to Heath’s response to Tabarrok’s review of Heath’s book, which itself is worth reading:

Heath has hit on an important similarity and difference in our views. We are both skeptical about democracy as a way of making rational, coherent policy. But in response to the defects of democracy I want to devolve more decisions to the individual and the market while Heath wants to centralize more decisions to the state and expert bureaucracies.

Finally, Heath’s one-minute history of conservative anti-rationalism (pdf) is brilliant. For example:

Who doesn’t like common sense? And yet it is also quite apt at describing the most important unifying idea in contemporary conservatism. If the plan that you’re proposing needs to be explained, then it’s not common sense. If it doesn’t sound right, then it’s not common sense.

“It doesn’t pay to be informed about politics”

From a terrific review by Alex Tabarook of what seems a terrific book, Enlightenment 2.0 by Joseph Heath:

In a large electorate, no individual’s vote is likely to change the outcome of an election. As a result, it doesn’t pay to be informed about politics nor to think about politics in objective and rational terms. Consider an individual who spends time and effort to be informed about politics. What does this individual receive in return for their investment? The same thing as the uninformed individual. Since better information doesn’t lead to better consequences, it doesn’t pay an individual to be informed. But while ignorance is rational for the individual it’s irrational for society as a whole, which ends up being governed by ignoramuses.

This was also a strong point:

The problem with modern conservatism, however, is that “it has become a defense not of tradition against reason, but rather of intuition against reason.”

“Develop the virtues and talents with which every child is endowed”

From Rise of the Meritocracy*, by Michael Young:

“In the light of this approach [they] sought to give a new meaning to equality of opportunity.

“[It] should not mean equal opportunity  to rise up in the social scale, but equal opportunity for all people, irrespective of their ‘intelligence’, to develop the virtues and talents with which they are endowed, all their capacities for appreciating the beauty and depth of human experience, all their potential for living life to the full.

“The child, every child, is a precious individual, not just a potential functionary of society. The schools should not be tied to the occupational structure, bent on turning  out people for the jobs at any particular moment considered important, but should be devoted to encouraging all human talents, whether or not these are of the kind needed in a scientific world. The arts and manual skills should be given as much prominence as science and technology.

“[All] schools should have enough good teachers so that all children should have individual care and stimulus. They could then develop at their own pace to their own particular fulfilment. The schools would not segregate the like but mingle the unlike; by promoting diversity within unity, they would teach respect for the infinite human differences which are not the least of mankind’s virtues. The schools would not regard children as shaped once and for all by Nature, but as a combination of potentials which can be cultivated by Nurture.”

*Though the essay is satire, this passage clearly represents Young’s own views.

The Hedgehog’s Dilemma – Freud and “looking for one’s porcupine”

Spiky Hedgehog
(Photo by Theo Carpenter on Flickr)

An article on workplace politics in HBR mentioned something I’d not come across before: the Hedgehog’s Dilemma.

The Hedgehog’s Dilemma, or sometimes called the Porcupine’s Dilemma, is an analogy about the challenges of human intimacy. It describes a situation in which a group of hedgehogs all seek to become close to one another in order to share heat during cold weather. They must remain apart, however, as they cannot avoid hurting one another with their sharp spines.

The dilemma was created by Arthur Schopenhauer in 1851, and was cited by Sigmund Freud in a 1921 essay.

How it applies to office politics in particular is drawn out by William Bouffard – a fascinating if not slightly dispiriting read. For more of a Freudian angle on it there’s a lovely essay in Cabinet. This also reveals the idea of “looking for one’s porcupine”, a phrase commonly used amongst Freud’s circle. It is explained as follows:

Whenever you have some large objective in mind, it’s always good to identify a secondary, less demanding goal on which to focus your attentions in order to detract from the anxiety associated with the search for the true grail.

(Aside: I think the apostrophe could be place before or after the “s” in “hedgehogs” and be accurate either way.)

Why Alexander Hamilton would have celebrated the #barkercomm

Alexander Hamilton was the most precocious of the United States’ founding fathers, and was a man who commanded vision, strategy, policy, administration and pragmatism, as well as fierce and compelling rhetoric.

I was put in mind of Hamilton very early into my reading of the final report of the Barker Commission on the Future of Health and Social Care. Of Hamilton, it was said he “placed political realism at the service of a larger ethical framework”, and that he

Operated in the realm of the possible taking the world as it was, not as he wished it to be, and he often inveighed against a dogmatic insistence upon perfection.

He himself said:

It is perhaps always better that partial evils should be submitted to than that principles should be violated.

Because of these sentiments expressed by and about Alexander Hamilton, above, I think he would have – rightly, in my view – celebrated the publication of the Barker Commission yesterday. I suspect he would have been impressed by the way it straddled vital principles of equity and fairness with a pragmatism of how to get to a new health and social care settlement and the compromises needed along the way.