Conflicts of Interest

There is a scene in Chapter 5 of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (which is repeated further along in the narrative) where it is revealed that some of the company workers employed in bulldozing the tenant farmers to forcibly evict them from the Oklahoman farmland and force them to migrate west to California are local men. They are confronted by the farmers, and explain that their families are also starving; but this is work, it provides a decent wage and allows them to keep roofs over heads and meals on tables. It makes the farmers angry but they know they cannot take it out on the ploughmen; their real enemy is a faceless corporation whose only motivation is a profit margin.
In 1938, I expect three or four dollars a day was an exceptionally good wage for a man with little education, so it is very hard to lay any blame on those local men who took the work and forced friends and neighbours from their homes and into large faceless camps where they are no more than a number. Steinbeck isn’t asking us to blame anyone – except the corporations who foreclose their mortgages and refuse to answer to anything but money. It is clear, as one reads on through the novel, that Steinbeck has taken sides – anyone with a business interest is slightly demonised to reinforce the political point that he wishes to make (the salespeople selling unroadworthy and overpriced cars in Chapter 7, the merchants taking entire houses of furniture for next to nothing in Chapter 9 are examples of this). But I find myself repeatedly thinking about the man in the bulldozer. How did he make that decision? How would I make that decision if I were him?
Fortunately, it isn’t a position I anticipate being in, but if I were truthful, I would put my family above loyalty to friends and neighbours. I would take the money, feed my family and get out just as soon as I could. I may never be trusted by my friends and neighbours again, but I would know that I made a decision I could live with. And I expect anyone with children would say the same thing. Sometimes you cannot afford to be sentimental. And interestingly, the tenant farmers tend not to blame to the bulldozer drivers – until one decides to become a Deputy Sheriff and a little drunk with power. They know that if they had had the same opportunity, they would have done the same thing.
But it does show just how callous the banks and corporations are in the world that Steinbeck portrays. They think so little of their tenants that they will play one off against the other by making them offers impossible to refuse and stepping back to watch the fireworks. That is the real conflict that Steinbeck wants us to look at here – and one that, in its own way, still operates eighty years later.


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