The Grapes of Wrath and the gig economy

This summer I read a classic novel. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath earned him a Nobel prize in literature. The book was controversial when it came out. It was labeled as communist propaganda. It was burned and forbidden. It was even challenged in court as late as 1986 for its use of the phrase “God damn”! I read the book as a summer pastime. But when I was finished, I thought I would write a review for EUSSET. This book had so much to teach me, and I want to tell you why in my short review.

John Steinbeck wrote the Grapes of Wrath in 1939 (my copy was published by Penguin in year 2000). It depicts the family saga of the Joads, a poor Oklahoma farmer family forced to leave their farm due to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The book is about their journey from Oklahoma to California searching for jobs and happy life. As such, the book depicts the fate of the numerous families who came to be known collectively as the Dust Bowl refugees, refugees in their own country hated by their countrymen. These refugees became gig workers in California, chasing small jobs on mega-farms for negligible salaries. Farm owners creating an inhuman competitive environment among the workers. The suppression was amplified by the police and other authorities, and by local workers who did not wish the refugees welcome.

In the book, Steinbeck masterfully describes how a capitalist market economy works. He describes an endless struggle by the poor families stuck in a nerve-racking situation, not knowing whether they will have enough food on their table for the night. Steinbeck not only masterfully describes their feelings as human beings, but he also explains, in poetic ways, how the system plays out against them. When writing the book, Steinbeck used several ethnographic sources in addition to his own field studies of immigrant camps in California.

So what does this book have to do with EUSSET? For starters, the Grapes of Wrath is a classic description of the gig economy, whose modern technological means, such as labor platforms, are currently being studied by EUSSET researchers and are discussed in our journals and conference proceedings. For many of us, the gig economy is associated with these modern platforms. Steinbeck’s masterpiece shows us that such platforms are merely new digital incarnations of age-old market mechanisms, mechanisms that, without safeguards in place, can easily suppress and take advantage of whole groups of people.

Steinbeck’s masterpiece shows us that such platforms are merely new digital incarnations of age-old market mechanisms

Moreover, Steinbeck’s book demonstrates the fact that the technological phenomena we study in our research do not exist in isolation, are not deterministic and are always part of complex societal and historical systems. While reading the book, I could observe surprising similarities between what the farm owners were doing to the gig workers –through well-organized infrastructures –and what we now see in the form of e.g. “algorithmic management” in modern labor platforms. Maybe Marshall McLuhan was right after all regarding technology as an extension of our senses and desires! Labor platforms are, in this way, nothing more than powerful amplifiers of age-old capitalist market mechanisms. Paying attention to such historical similarities might also hold the solution to how we can regulate modern labor platforms, and I believe many EUSSET researchers have the knowledge to contribute to such developments.

Finally, I just enjoyed and was inspired by Steinbeck’s writing! The book reads like a poetic case study report, switching between “thick descriptions” of the Joads’ lives and struggles and abstract “theoretical” reflections about why they ended up going through all that struggle. Academic writing is often dull. Maybe we can learn how to write more enjoyable papers from this and other literary books? For instance, this is what Steinbeck writes about the bank –the new owner of the poor Oklahoma farmers’ land –and why the farmers cannot have a year of postponement for their loans because of the drought:

We can’t depend on it. The bank –the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.

Isn’t that to the point, concise, and beautiful? I don’t mean to imply that we should call banks for monsters in our papers. But maybe we can learn how to use metaphors effectively?

It is funny how a book that I explicitly chose to be a summer pastime turned out to inspire my research. Does that make me a nerd? Maybe. But for me, it merely means that inspiration can and will come from unexpected sources.

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