Nov. 15, 2000
Econ in Film
Feudalism in a “Capitalist” Society
The movie Grapes of Wrath was set in the era of the Great Depression. In this movie it was discovered that feudalism could exist in a capitalist nation. The Joads found this out the hard way. As it was, they didn’t own their land, they didn’t have the land deed right in their hands, instead they re sharecroppers. Tommy Joad finds the severity of not holding this land deed when he comes home to a deserted house. He finds out that people left and right have been given notices that demand that they get off the land. This is quite startling for most of the sharecroppers around the Oakland are because they had lived on the land for many generations in some cases. They are being forced off the land because they aren’t producing crops. It is during the time of the dust bowl where the land has turned uncultivable. Tommy finds all this out from his friend Eulie, one of the men who had refused to leave this feudal situation. Because they don’t own the land they must pay the owners a certain amount, some of their crops or income has to go to the owners, yet at any second the owners can take their land away. The owners are the lords and the families are the serfs, some of whatever they produce must go to the owners because they can’t own the land. This is different from capitalistic renting entails a contract where the people can rent the land for a certain amount of time and can’t just be forced off at any time. The lords own the houses, land, and tools, while collecting a lot of the farmers’ crops. Eulie said that his family had been there for generations and he wasn’t going to get forced off by men with suits and tractors. Representatives from the Shawnee Land and Cattle company drove up one day in their shiny cars with their expensive suits and ordered Eulie and his family (and every other family in that area) off their land. A little while later the men with tractors rolled up. Eulie encountered one of them who turned out to be one of his neighbors. He asked how this man, his neighbor who had been forced off the land right next to him could be aiding this process. Eulie couldn’t fathom how this man could turn his back on his people and help the men in suits who only thought about profit. The man retorted by saying that he had a family too and that by taking this job he was thinking about them. The Company was paying him about two dollars an hour so though he may be going against his people (fellow sharecroppers) he was taking care of his family. For every one tractor, fifteen farmers became out of work. Superintendents and men with guns patrol the area from squatters (people who won’t get off the land) like Eulie. Eulie explains that he is now a ghost. His family worked and died on “their” land and he wants to do the same.
Eulie then explains that people are going to California for work. Tommy finds his family all together and well, and compared to a lot of other families, quite wealthy. They had just purchases a truck so that they could all migrate to California for these dream jobs they heard about and have fliers for. Picking peaches in the sun and making money didn’t seem so terrible so the family kept their spirits up. They had about two hundred dollars in spending money minus the fifty dollars for the truck. They had planned out their trip mile for mile, dollar for dollar. Unfortunately they hadn’t accounted for the fact that the owners of the plantations used advertising tactics; they needed a limited amount of people (800), but they send out fliers (20,000), and then a ton of people go in hopes to get the jobs (about 5000). When the Joads are packed up and ready to go the grandfather says, “It’s my dirt- ain’t no good, but it’s mine” illustrating how attached to the land these people are. They actually have to sedate the grandfather to get him on the truck, but soon after he dies. This may be a metaphor for how much people are attached to their land – that they’re truly part of it since they put their sweat and blood into cultivating it. The Midwest in this ear was dying. When the people on the farms started to go so did the stores. The Midwest was clearing of people getting thrown off their land and going to California for a new start and what they thought were guaranteed jobs. All over the Midwest and the west camps were set up for vagrants and that was where all the people tended to gravitate because the land of the Midwest was turning to dust and uncultivable. The Joads start to realize this when they stop at one of the camps. A man explains to them, since he had been to California, of the true situation; that the plantations have sent out so many flyers that thousands of people go for jobs that only need a few hundred workers. He also explains that since there is such a demand for work, there will always be more people who are starving and will work for almost nothing so the owners can keep lowering wages. As an owner, the dust-bowl created an easily exploitable population of former farmers. Why should they pay a higher price than what the workers would work for. The workers were in such desperation that they would work for almost nothing.
As the Joads progress they find the truth to what this man was saying. They finally enter California where they meet a fellow Oakie has become a police man. He warns them not to be in the city after dark because they’ll be arrested because there are so many Oakies. The policeman also says that the people that sent out the flyers should be locked up. The Joads enter a camp in California and truly realize how “rich” they were for their positions. The camp was packed with vagrants who couldn’t find work and the majority of them were starving. Throughout the entire trip so far, the Joads had food, they had money for gas, they were “rich”. Children from the camp came and begged for food. Ma was totally shocked at how starving these children were that she let them have the leftovers. It made the Joad family feel kind of guilty for having food. Land Contractors come to the camp the next day and offer jobs of which they didn’t set wages; the majority of the people at the camp stay, having been exploited like that before. The cops show their power at this time by arresting “agitators”, people who don’t want to get exploited, recognize the exploitation, and warn others about it. After this the Joads and their travelling friends decline in number. Both the grandparents have died at this point, Connie runs off because he didn’t think leaving was a good idea from the beginning, and Casey (the former preacher) decided to take the blame for agitation and got arrested.
The situation gets darker when the Joads continue on the quest to find a job. To the north there is no work and to the south workers who are protesting exploitation and are striking or who have been fired are blocking the way because they know that more workers coming in to work for the scarce wages will escalate the exploitation. Finally the Joads find a job at a ranch. They are told that they’ll get five cents a box (of peaches), they’ll get a tiny shack (which they don’t own) to fit their family of six in, all family members must work, and to ask no questions. This is another form of feudalism. People loose part of their freedom when they enter one of these camps. They can’t walk around at night, they can’t talk to certain people or ask questions, and they have to shop at the company store. The workers had no choices (there were no jobs, they had to survive on what they could get. They were also not paid for their time like a capitalist labor market, they were paid for their tonnage, how much they produce in a day. The camp also has knights; they keep the workers trapped and away from any talk of agitation. The Joads experience and understand the feudal exploitation (which all the people outside the camp trying to keep incoming workers away understand) that the camps can say they’ll pay five cents a box and then lowers the tonnage rate to two and a half cents if they want. The workers can leave them (like the Joads did), but a lot of people just stay and deal with the exploitation because it was so hard to find a job in the first place. Casey wanted to organize a walk out, a strike, but he is then killed for trying to organize.
The Joads then find another camp; a Department of Agriculture camp. Things start looking up for the Joads, the camp is clean, they pay their one dollar/week rent by cleaning and doing chores, there are dances, modern amenities, and people seem friendly and happy. The camp is sanitary and people elect their own “cops”. So the question on the Joads’ minds is, “Why aren’t there more of these camps?”. Tom is very curious though why so many people are in such a devastating position. He perhaps wants to start a movement, or a union. The only people who can learn things are deemed outlaws because they try to learn too much and question the owners and might try and educate those who are also exploited on their position. The family finally leaves and gets a twenty day job in Fresno.
It seems for most Oakies and vagrants, those who have been kicked off their land because of desertification, that feudalism is the only place they can turn to in such mass quantities.
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