In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck explains how unemployment rose in the 1930s in America because of the introduction of tractors. Tractors are expensive but are more suitable for larger pieces of land. They cause a decrease in the cost of production in the long run and increase profits because the cost of labour falls. Further, they also cause supply to increase and reduce the prices of products. However, farmers who do not have large pieces of land still have to rely on manual labour. Hence, as competing farms become more productive, the profits for labour-intensive farms reduce and these farmers are forced to sell their land. And in the 1930s selling land meant having no land to stay.
This is not just a story. It was a reality for a lot of people living in parts of America like Oklahoma. People were forced to move out of their homes, hit the road, and live in caravans for days on end. The government was working closely with farmers who had large chunks of land to extract cheap labour out of those with small chunks of land.
This may sound similar to the story of socialism. This is actually one of the ways in which socialism erupted in America. The people who had no homes or food, were forming unions and they began living in structures where the work was equally distributed between them and they all ate equally. One poor man may not be able to stand up to a lot of rich people, but a union of men together, even if homeless, are capable of being very strong.
Socialism is hence the story of forgotten and lost land. Had these farmers had land, they would not have felt the need to form unions because they would have tractors to satisfy themselves. Moreover, if there had been no industrial revolution, there would not be any need for socialism because the land would be easily available and labour would be respected.
John Steinbeck famously said, “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this.” during his Nobel prize speech on the great depression. The great depression, to a large extent, happened because society was not prepared for the industrial revolution. The rich could afford it, but the poor paid the price. The only word which struck my mind constantly when I was reading this book was “struggle”. The struggle that this family faces during their journey which shows the importance of security for a family. Hence, it reflects on the importance of people having jobs that assure them their needs.
This is very relevant in the world even now. Right now, the biggest fight isn’t between the poor and the rich, or between socialism and capitalism. In the labour market, the competition is between artificial intelligence and middle-skilled workers. It is difficult to remove the high skilled workers because the work that they do cannot be done by AI very easily considering the coding it requires. However, artificial intelligence is eradicating many jobs which were relevant until some decades ago. There is an entirely new class of people who are now unemployed. Sure, the levels do not match those during the great depression in the 1930s, but there are many countries which are not prepared for this. Not all countries have unemployment benefits and welfare programmes. A whole new wave of unions can be anticipated with middle-skilled workers losing their jobs.
We need more industries which have a greater demand for workers. It is just speculation, but can the next socialists form a union over the fight for skills or higher level of education. The importance of education is becoming more and more evident asmiddle skilled workers being replaced by AI.
We can’t be certain about what the future holds, but we can turn to the past and reflect on the future. The Grapes of Wrath was a great book which helped me to peek into the past and perhaps even the future.