April 24, 2013

The Ghost of Tom Joad

A week and a half ago, I took a trip down south to visit my grandpa. My connecting flights were short but spread out across most of the day. So when I arrived in Arizona, after being in transit for 10 hours, I found myself well into a book I'd long meant to read. I can now finally say that I've read John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath. There are all kinds of reasons why a book like this deserves to sit on high school and university syllabi, and Bruce Springsteen's 1995 album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, wasn't off the mark when it linked Steinbeck's courageous protagonist to the rights of migrant workers and the broader working class in the mid-90s. But for me, the haunting presence of the novel isn't so much the figure of Tom Joad, who, following the murder of Casey, the preacher, departs from the family to fight as a vigilante for workers' rights. Rather, as the novel's conclusion again highlights, it's the nameless mother (simply "Ma") that has been the real source of endurance for the Joads as they struggle to survive the constant horrors of the depression.

It's an incredible scene. The rain is pounding and the family camp has been flooded out; in the midst of this, Rose of Sharon has given birth to a stillborn child. Fearing pneumonia, Ma Joad pushes the family to higher ground and they happen upon an open barn. Here, Ma gets Rose of Sharon out of her wet clothes and sees to another child who has taken shelter there with his starving father. With the flood looming, she clears out the family and directs Rose of Sharon to nurse the dying stranger. It's with this bleak image that the novel ends.

My experience of reading Steinbeck's novel was also conditioned by another current reading project: I've been slowly working through the first volume of Marx's Capital with some friends here in Edmonton. The chapter we've discussed most recently is "The Working Day," which features a host of memorable quotes, metaphors, and allusions. Along with his famous comparison of capital to "dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour," I was struck by Marx's explication of so-called equal rights, which articulates much of what's going on in The Grapes of Wrath:
We see then, that, apart from extremely elastic bounds, the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working-day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class. 
Here's Springsteen performing the Grapes of Wrath-inspired title track from his 1995 album.


  1. Would you care to say more about working through Capital? Is it a little tedious but necessary; or surprisingly fresh; or "I could have been more selective; or etc.
    I am thinking of bumping it up soon. I would likely read it alongside Harvey as well.
    - David D

  2. Perhaps tedious at points (how could a 3 volume, 2500-plus page project not be?), but absolutely necessary and surprisingly engaging. If you do dive in, you'll soon realize how crucial the organization and method is to Marx's analysis, which is my way of discouraging a selective reading process, at least at the beginning. As a group, we're only a third of the way through the first volume but the ground that's we've covered (and the order in which its been covered) has been really useful in thinking through contemporary political economy (and the chapter I mention in this post--"The Working Day"--seems especially pertinent given what just happened at a clothing factory in Bangladesh and the way that the Western media have responded). I verge on hyperbole, but I think Marx's analysis of capital is crucial for any attempt to speak about the commodity, the money form, surplus value, labour-based politics, etc. I could go on. Harvey is good guide (I've tried to keep up with his video lectures) but at times he tends to move pretty quickly.

    I also should mention that I have blogged some "notes on Capital" back in March and February, so if you haven't given those a look, please do.