Waste and Want: Grapes of Wrath revisited

July 15, 2010

In his famous novel The Grapes of Wrath (Chapter 25), John Steinbeck described how food was destroyed during the Great Depression:

Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people come for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges if they could drive out and pick them up? And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges… A million people hungry, needing the fruit – and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains.

And the smell of rot fills the country.

Burn coffee for fuel in the ships… Dump potatoes in the rivers and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out [with nets]. Slaughter the pigs and bury them…

And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates – died of malnutrition – because the food must be forced to rot.

A few more facts. In 1933 alone, the federal government bought 6 million hogs and destroyed them. Vast quantities of milk were poured down the sewers. 25 million acres of crops (the area of a square with sides 200 miles long) were ploughed under. In Brazil, 69 million bags of coffee, equivalent to two years’ output, were destroyed. All to keep up prices.
What about this time round?

The current depression seems set to be at least as deep as that of the 1930s, but it is still at an early stage. As real wages continue to fall and austerity measures bite harder, there will be further decline in “effective demand”, which is determined mainly by workers’ ability to buy back what they have produced. Falling prices and profits will then lead to new scenes reminiscent of those portrayed by Steinbeck.

The process has already begun.

In March 2010, reports appeared that Florida strawberry growers, faced with a flooded market and a sharp collapse in wholesale prices, were leaving huge tracts to rot in the fields. Most of these farmers did not allow people in to pick fruit for themselves. They were afraid that cucumbers and other new crops they were planting between the rows might be harmed.
Not only the strawberries went to waste but also the water used to grow them. Cultivation of the wasted strawberries drained the groundwater and caused local water shortages.

Bulldozing houses

There have been reports from around the United States of the destruction of houses, many of them newly built. Most foreclosed houses can no longer be sold at auction, even for prices as low as $500. They end up in the hands of banks that see no medium-term prospect of reselling them and conclude that the cheapest solution is to tear them down. This happens not only to individual houses but often to whole streets. In May 2009, a bank decided to bulldoze an almost finished housing complex in California rather than spend the few hundred thousand dollars needed to complete it.

Meanwhile the ranks of the homeless continue to swell. They are in desperate need of housing but generate no “effective demand”.

Slashing clothes and shoes

In early January 2010, The New York Times ran a story about two major retail chains, H&M and Wal-Mart, throwing out unsold clothes in trash bags. First they are made unwearable: employees are told to slash garments, slice holes in shoes, cut sleeves off coats, fingers off gloves, etc..

The response to this article included internet testimony from ex-employees of other large stores, revealing how widespread these practices now are.

Cheryl: “I worked at Dillards for several years. They do the same thing. Their logic was that if they donated it [to charity] people would try to bring it back to exchange for other merchandise.”

Martha: “Yeah, I used to work at a store where they would rip the bed sheets, blankets and pillow cases if they couldn’t sell them, then throw them away… I thought it was dumb. I wanted to take it and donate it, but they didn’t let me.”

Nat: “I used to work for H&M and hated to cut the clothing [that] I knew we could have given away to those who needed it. We destroyed EVERYTHING and I found it so stupid. It was such a waste and sad!”

Maryliz: “This just makes me sick. How terrible, especially right now with people freezing to death. They could have been saved if they had sufficient warm clothing. Shame on the companies that do this.”

Maggie: “I got so mad that my managers wouldn’t box up [unsold food] and take it to shelters that I called corporate headquarters… They wouldn’t let the food be donated! Some blather about how that would devalue the brand, because people would just go to that shelter to eat the food instead of coming and paying for it.”

The vintage

Steinbeck finishes Chapter 25 with the passage that gives his book its title:

“In the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

There is ample cause for wrath. But wrath is not enough. The managers who got Maggie so angry have to act as they do. (Otherwise they won’t remain managers.) They have to pursue the commercial logic of maximising profit or minimising loss. The idea of giving people what they need, simply because they need it, is inconsistent with this logic. It expresses a different, human logic, which will come into its own once we reorganize society on a different, human basis.

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