An interesting article in The Washington Post by Alexander Keyssar recently invoked Frank Norris’s 1901 novel The Octopus: A Story of California to comment on the growing gap between the very rich and the rest of us. It is becoming increasingly apparent that a large portion of the middle class is being hollowed out. As grim as the situation seems, however, the naturalist author from the progressive era offers us a sliver of hope. I’ll explain how in a moment.
Keyssar sees the United States returning to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. This was a time when robber barons ruled the country and kept up an unrelenting assault on the working class, including their rights to organize and to have benefits and social insurance. Meanwhile, any regulations on business were seen as socialist assaults on capitalism.
Keyssar notes the parallels with today:
The regulation of business is decried now, as it was in 1880, as unwarranted interference in the workings of the market: Regulatory laws (including antitrust laws) are weakly enforced or vitiated through administrative rule-making; regulatory agencies are starved through budget cuts; Glass-Steagall [which regulated banking] was repealed, with consequences that are all too well known; and the financial institutions that spawned today’s economic crisis — by acting in the reckless manner predicted by early-20th-century reformers — are fighting further regulation tooth and nail. Private-sector employers’ fierce attacks on unions since the 1970s contributed significantly to the sharp decline in the number of unionized workers, and many state governments are seeking to delegitimize and weaken public-sector unions. Meanwhile, the social safety net has frayed: Unemployment benefits are meager in many states and are not being extended to match the length of the downturn; Republicans are taking aim at Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and Obamacare. The real value of the minimum wage is lower than it was in the 1970s.
Keyssar notes that the progressive period between the 1890’s and the 1930s was a time when an institutional framework was set up “to balance the needs of the American people with the vast inequalities of wealth and power wrought by the triumph of industrial capitalism.” He calls this “the grand bargain” and believes that Americans need to fight hard to keep the bargain operating. Thank goodness we’re far better off today than we were then, but Keyssar worries that we may slide back.
Now for Norris’s book, which Keyssar mentions. The Octopus is the story of a railroad company that has leased land to wheat farmers and then, after the land has been developed, uses its monopolistic powers to squeeze them. In the bloody struggle that follows, the ranchers are routed and their livelihood and lives are destroyed. By any objective standard, what occurs seems to offer little hope for today. Here are a couple of passages from the concluding chapter:
Yes, the Railroad had prevailed. The ranches had been seized in the tentacles of the octopus; the iniquitous burden of extortionate freight rates had been imposed like a yoke of iron.
Men–motes in the sunshine–perished, were shot down in the very noon of life, hearts were broken, little children started in life lamentably handicapped; young girls were brought to a life of shame; old women died in the heart of life for lack of food. In that little, isolated group of human insects, misery, death, and anguish spun like a wheel of fire.
So, Norris asks, should we just throw up our hands and give up?
Was there no hope, no outlook for the future, no rift in the black curtain, no glimmer through the night? Was good to be thus overthrown? Was evil thus to be strong and to prevail? Was nothing left?
And yet, in words that can buoy us up today, Norris says that good “issued from this crisis, untouched, unassailable, undefiled.” The nurturing wheat, which he associates with the will of the people, will ultimately triumph over the robber barons’ wealth:
BUT THE WHEAT REMAINED. Untouched, unassailable, undefiled, that mighty world-force, that nourisher of nations, wrapped in Nirvanic calm, indifferent to the human swarm, gigantic, resistless, moved onward in its appointed grooves. Through the welter of blood at the irrigation ditch, through the sham charity and shallow philanthropy of famine relief committees, the great harvest of Los Muertos rolled like a flood from the Sierras to the Himalayas to feed thousands of starving scarecrows on the barren plains of India.
In his final paragraph, Norris anticipates Martin Luther King’s assurance, quoted by President Obama, that the arc of history bends towards justice:
Falseness dies; injustice and oppression in the end of everything fade and vanish away. Greed, cruelty, selfishness, and inhumanity are short-lived; the individual suffers, but the race goes on. Annixter dies [the novel’s hero], but in a far distant corner of the world a thousand lives are saved. The larger view always and through all shams, all wickednesses, discovers the Truth that will, in the end, prevail, and all things, surely, inevitably, resistlessly work together for good.
Granted, it’s always a struggle for Truth to prevail. It never happens as quickly as we would like and we can even backtrack. But middle and working class Americans have won this battle before and we can win it again.
Believe it as you work to make your voice heard.
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