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The Monster

I was asked recently by a friend about my thoughts on the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. While people a heck of a lot smarter and more articulate than me have weighed in, most of it has been focused on finger-pointing (who’s to blame) and judgment (do they actually stand for anything, “its the Tea Party of the Left”).

JohnSteinbeck_TheGrapesOfWrathAs corny as it sounds, my first thought after hearing about “Occupy Wall Street” wasn’t about right or wrong or even really about politics: it was about John Steinbeck and his book The Grapes of Wrath . It’s a book I read long ago in high school, but it was one which left a very deep impression on me. While I can’t even remember the main plot (other than that it dealt with a family of Great Depression and Dust Bowl-afflicted farmers who were forced to flee Oklahoma towards California), what I do remember was a very tragic description of the utter confusion and helplessness that gripped the people of that era (from Chapter 5):

“It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster.”

“Sure,” cried the tenant men, “but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours—being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.”

“We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.”

“Yes, but the bank is only made of men.”

“No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.

And therein lies the best description of the tragedy of the Great Depression, and of every economic crisis that I have ever read. The many un- and under-employed people in the US are clearly under a lot of stress. And, like with the farmers in Steinbeck’s novel, its completely understandable that they want to blame somebody. And, so they are going to point to the most obvious culprits: “the 1%”, the bankers and financiers who work on “Wall Street”.

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But, I think Steinbeck understood this is not really about the individuals. Obviously, there was a lot of wrongdoing that happened on the part of the banks which led to our current economic “malaise.” But I think for the most part, the “1%” aren’t interested in seeing their fellow citizen unemployed and on the street. Even if you don’t believe in their compassion, their greed alone guarantees that they’d prefer to see the whole economy growing with everyone employed and productive, and their desire to avoid harassment alone guarantees they’d love to find a solution which ends the protests and the finger-pointing. They may not be suffering as much as those in the “99%”, but I’m pretty sure they are just as confused and hopeful that a solution comes about.

The real problem – Steinbeck’s “monster” – is the political and economic system people have created but can’t control. Our lives are driven so much by economic forces and institutions which are intertwined with one another on a global level that people can’t understand why they or their friends and family are unemployed, why food and gas prices are so expensive, why the national debt is so high, etc.

Now, a complicated system that we don’t have control of is not always a bad thing. After all, what is a democracy supposed to be but a political system that nobody can control? What is the point of a strong judiciary but to be a legal authority that legislators/executives cannot overthrow? Furthermore, its important for anyone who wants to change the system for the better to remember that the same global economic system which is causing so much grief today is more responsible than any other force for creating many of the scientific and technological advancements which make our lives better and for lifting (and continuing to lift) millions out of poverty such as those who live in countries like China and India.

But, its hard not to sympathize with the idea that the system has failed on its promise. What else am I (or anyone else) supposed to think in a world where corporate profits can go up while unemployment stays stubbornly near 10%, where bankers can get paid bonuses only a short while after their industry was bailed out with taxpayer money, and where the government seems completely unable to do more than bicker about an artificial debt ceiling?

But anyone with even a small understanding of economics knows this is not about a person or even a group of people. To use Steinbeck’s words, the problem is more than a man, it really is a monster. While we may not be able to kill it, letting it rampage is not a viable option either — the “Occupy Wall Street” protests are a testament to that. Their frustration is real and legitimate, and until politicians across both sides of the aisle and individuals across both ends of the income spectrum come together to find a way to “tame the monster’s rampage”, we’re going to see a lot more finger-pointing and anger.

(Image credit – Wikipedia)

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