A couple of weeks ago I read John Steinbeck‘s The grapes of wrath. In the very same days I was engrossed in the American writer’s masterpiece while at home, I gave several library instructions at work: one of the issues we addressed during the workshops was the importance of words when searching for literature on a given topic, and how several different words might describe the very same idea or key concept, yet from different points of view (of an individual researcher, a whole academic discipline, or a cultural background). “What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of populism?” was the question students were asked to answer in order to consider (once again) words’ variety and the way subject specific terminology, and scholarly databases when available, can help in setting up an effective search strategy.
Which brings me to the way ‘populism’ (which I had intentionally chosen, counting on students’ critical approach to one of the major political issues of our time) and Steinbeck sort of ‘short-circuited’, leading to the idea of this post and the populism-related ‘keywords’ of its title. Here follows Steinbeck’s quote (from chapter 21; several editions of the book are available at the UvA Library), in all its powerful and somehow disturbing topicality (despite being the place and time described the United States of the Great Depression, and ‘Okies’ the derogatory term used in California to describe people from Oklahoma):
«They were migrants. And the hostility changed them, welded them, united them—hostility that made the little towns group and arm as though to repel an invader, squads with pick handles, clerks and storekeepers with shotguns, guarding the world against their own people.
In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. Those goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights.
And the latter was true, for how can a man without property know the ache of ownership? And the defending people said, They bring disease, they’re filthy. We can’t have them in the schools. They’re strangers. How’d you like to have your sister go out with one of ’em?
The local people whipped themselves into a mold of cruelty. Then they formed units, squads, and armed them—armed them with clubs, with gas, with guns. We own the country. We can’t let these Okies get out of hand. And the men who were armed did not own the land, but they thought they did. And the clerks who drilled at night owned nothing, and the little storekeepers possessed only a drawerful of debts. But even a debt is something, even a job is something. The clerk thought, I get fifteen dollars a week. S’pose a goddamn Okie would work for twelve? And the little storekeeper thought, How could I compete with a debtless man?
And the migrants streamed in on the highways and their hunger was in their eyes, and their need was in their eyes. They had no argument, no system, nothing but their numbers and their needs. When there was work for a man, ten men fought for it— fought with a low wage. If that fella’ll work for thirty cents, I’ll work for twenty-five. If he’ll take twenty-five, I’ll do it for twenty. No, me, I’m hungry. I’ll work for fifteen. I’ll work for food. The kids. You ought to see them. Little boils, like, comin’ out, an’ they can’t run aroun’. Give ’em some windfall fruit, an’ they bloated up. Me, I’ll work for a little piece of meat.
And this was good, for wages went down and prices stayed up. The great owners were glad and they sent out more handbills to bring more people in. And wages went down and prices stayed up. And pretty soon now we’ll have serfs again».