July 31, 2014
By James Anderson
An oft-forgotten scene in the 1939 John Steinbeck novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” describes an encounter protagonist Tom Joad and his brother Al have with a “one-eyed man” they meet after stopping at a wrecking yard on their way to California.
The Joads, evicted from their family farm when they could not pay back the money owed to the bank because the Dust Bowl destroyed their crops, met the man with the missing eye when they stopped to ask for a new part to fix their broken down ’25 Dodge.
Upon arrival, Tom asked if the “one-eyed man” ran the shop. The guy with the one “raw, uncovered socket” and squirming muscles in place of an eye ball replied that he worked for the boss. The man went on to vent his frustrations about his condition and his boss.
“He got a way—he got a way a pickin’ a fella an’ a-tearin’ a fella,” the character told the Joads. “He—the-son-of-a-bitch. Got a girl nineteen, purty. Says to me, ‘How’d ya like to marry her?’ Says that right to me. An’ tonight—says, ‘They’s a dance; how’d ya like to go?’ Me, he says it to me!”
In front of the man who said he had not been with a girl since he lost his eye, the boss had also asked the girl to go out to his yacht. The character resentfully recounted this as he threatened to whack the boss man with a pipe wrench, before feeling his way to a mattress on the floor and crying after the Joad brothers left.
In a few pages Steinbeck illustrated the effects of interlocking internalized oppression. The relationship of power-over in the hierarchically-organized workplace exacerbated the insecurities of the “one-eyed man,” related to his disfigurement. Likewise, the low self-worth and powerlessness experienced as a result of perceiving his self as inferior and unloved because of the missing eye, made his institutionally-imposed subordination unbearable, especially given the boss’ teasing. That teasing, enabled by ownership of the productive property and the expropriation of surplus associated with the boss’ capacity to purchase the labor power of the “one-eyed man,” as well as the wealth and greater social power that accompanied those relations, dehumanized the worker but also the boss.
Such social relations are not relegated to the past or found only in pages of award-winning novels.
When I received my last Southern Illinois University Carbondale bursar bill for $1,141.48, due August 10, and considered it in relation to my last monthly paycheck for my graduate assistantship of not quite $1,500, I felt powerless as well.
At its best, labor militancy has historically transformed people’s sense of powerlessness, mitigating the power-over relations at work while stoking the oft-denied power-to of workers.
Labor strikes increased in the 1930s, from 2,014 in 1935 to 4, 740 in 1937, although many were not officially union-sanctioned, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward point out in “Poor People’s Movements.” Not only the outcomes, but also the collective action undertaken to disrupt the oppressive arrangements workers faced, recuperated people’s power and humanity.
To overcome a pervasive sense of powerlessness today means addressing attitudes of indifference, exhibitions of shadenfreude, and belief systems precluding comprehension of reality – all animating the rising ratios of disparate income not seen since the Great Depression.
For example, when Graduate Assistants United emailed out our first newsletter at the beginning of the fall semester in 2013, we received a non-specific fault-finding response from one graduate student exemplifying those aforementioned obstacles to overcome.
“As up and coming academics, you should know that your writings should be concise and accurate,” the student told us, suggesting lack of concision and inaccuracies in our writing, which were never specified.
Reflexive ideological rejection of our efforts to communicate and organize in ways that overcome the dehumanizing affairs described by Steinbeck in his novel – affairs unfortunately experienced by too many Graduate Assistants subjected to intensified and demeaning work – reinforce our powerlessness.
Likewise, always adhering to conditions of concision demanded by the technical structure of most media precludes providing the kind of context, analysis, explanation, theoretical frameworks and compelling narratives necessary for understanding. There’s only so much you can fit into a 450-word article or a 30-second sound bite – let alone a 140-character tweet. Yet for many today, if it isn’t a meme that can be shared on social media, it doesn’t exist.
Our first newsletter featured a contextualized news analysis I wrote about Detroit, after the city declared bankruptcy. I recently co-wrote a news story, featured at Truthout, with a friend after witnessing a massive demonstration in downtown Detroit on July 18. The demo followed other direct actions in response to the thousands of water service shutoffs in the city. Not everyone has been as concerned about the situation, however.
“The fact those people can’t pay their bills even with the money me and every other American (or should I say citizen paying taxes gives them), I’d say not my problem,” one person wrote to me with that parenthetical comment included, undeterred by the United Nations referring to the water disconnections as potential human rights violations. If there exists “genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections,” the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation said.
To the point, water rates in Detroit increased 119 percent in the past decade, making it harder for people to pay, especially considering the city’s poverty level stood at 38 percent as of 2012, compared to 16 percent for Michigan as a whole and 14.9 percent for all persons in the US.
Yet, while a select few exercise power from above and over others in Detroit, others in the city are “joining millions of people from around the world in their power from below – horizontal and direct action power,” wrote Marina Sitrin.
Indeed, “people together are blocking and chasing away the trucks that come and try and disconnect the water,” wrote Sitrin, whom I admire and have an unabating intellectual crush on. “They are also reconnecting water once disconnected.”
Protagonists in Detroit, acting to create a different story for the city, said some unions have been involved in the direct actions, but not enough.
“I think unions are going to have to step up more to the plate,” said Cecily McClellan, who spoke at the rally in Hart Plaza on July 18 and served as vice-president of the Association of Professional and Technical Employees in Detroit. “I have not been satisfied with their activities, and as a result of that I think there’s been an assault on the unions.”
Bill Wylie-Kellermann, a pastor at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit where he facilitates a restorative justice center among other community self-managed projects, admonished historical attempts “to narrow the focus of the unions to very narrow self-interest,” resulting in “bureaucratic unionism,” focused on institutional self-preservation at the expense of workers.
“The struggle is to keep unions alive and radical,” he added. “It’s very similar to trying to do that work in the church as well.”
Greater numbers of rank and file on the streets – perhaps also self-organizing together – are needed, said Wylie-Kellermann, who was arrested in two different blockades in Detroit organized to prevent a private contractor from shutting off residents’ water.
Recognition of shared struggle with Detroit should be obvious everywhere, especially at universities across the country where inflation-adjusted tuition and fees have increased some 46 percent since 2003, while the number of campus food pantries have also shot up in response to growing numbers of students going homeless and hungry in college.
Graduate Assistants at SIUC, who pay almost two months of their (low) wages back to the university, similarly struggle, in more ways than one. We struggle to survive, but also struggle to transform the institutions exerting power over us.
Toward the end of his novel, Steinbeck provides further inspiration for struggling against domination and power-over. Tom Joad, the story’s protagonist, tells his Ma that he is going to follow the lead of a former preacher and friend of the family, Jim Casy, who helped organize a union in response to the exploitation of labor and later died participating in a strike.
“Then I’ll be aroun’ in the dark,” Tom answers his Ma when she asks what to make of her son’s assertion that we are all part of a collective whole. “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.”
James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee. He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.