The Grapes of Wrath Revisited

How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him—he has known a fear beyond every other.

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck published his famous book in April 1939, several months before the outbreak of World War II put an end to a long economic depression in a devastating battle for world domination. He describes the flight, from the state of Oklahoma, of thousands of tenant farmers who had been struggling for many years with massive drought and dust storms that caused harvests to fail. They risked the difficult journey of about two thousand kilometers to California in dilapidated cars, in which they piled their families and their meager possessions. In this “promised land” they hoped to find work, land, dignity, and a future for themselves and their children, but they mainly encountered exploitation, low wages, and contempt.

Michael Gubi, Budapest Keleti (flic.kr/p/ym3LdC) used under (CC BY-NC 2.0). Desaturated from the original.

Today again the world—the world of “ordinary people”—is ravaged by an economic crisis, and once again ever-larger groups of people are set adrift. They see no other possibility than to leave their homes, however poor and miserable they may be. They are fleeing war, bombing, widespread rape, poverty, hunger, and thirst. At the end of 2014 more than 19.5 million people had left their countries as refugees; in addition, there were more than 38 million people on the run in their own countries. The sharp increase that began in 2011 has continued. It is therefore very likely that the refugee problem is becoming unmanageable.

The social oppression and wars in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East—conditions that seem endless and hopeless—are forcing more and more people to flee. From Syria, 3.8 million people are on the run; from Afghanistan, over 2.5 million; from Somalia, over 1 million; more than 660,000 people have left Sudan; over 610,000 South Sudan; from Congo, over 500,000; from Burma, more than 470,000; from the Central African Republic, over 410,000; from the rest of the world, yet another 4 million; in addition to this, for many years now there have been 5.1 million Palestinian refugees.

Furthermore, climate change is making it increasingly difficult in many areas, such as South America, to live from the land. The Fertile Crescent, comprising parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, is likely to disappear by the end of this century as a result of climate change caused by human interference. In Central America it is also the violence of the drug mafia that forces large numbers of people to flee. Another example of refugees who in recent years have made headlines is the Rohingya, a Muslim population from Burma. They are stateless and their persecution now resembles genocide. Many of them have drowned or died of hunger and thirst after months on ships in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea; in July 2015, a group of them were temporarily admitted into Indonesia. Yet another group are Cambodians, of whom more than 500,000 are working abroad, with a third of them sold into slavery by human traffickers.

The vast majority of these refugees now reside in neighbouring countries. Millions of Afghan refugees live in Iran and Pakistan. About 95% of the approximately four million Syrian refugees are trying to survive in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. However, because governments in the “rich” countries do not provide enough money to organizations such as the UNHCR—the refugee agency of the United Nations—the food rations are decreasing rapidly and many refugees who can still afford it financially and physically see no other option than to leave for Western Europe. This is also the explanation for the sharp increase in refugees from the Middle East to Western Europe since the summer of 2015. Everywhere a large proportion of refugees fall prey to human traffickers. There are an estimated 1.7 million victims of human trafficking in Asia, half of the world’s total.

The civil war in Syria that started in 2011, which is causing increasing political and social tensions and unrest in the world at large, was strongly influenced by the drought of the previous years. This is the conclusion of a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.1 As a result of the drought that lasted from 2007 to 2010, agricultural production in northern Syria dropped dramatically. Many, many farmers lost all of their crops and cattle; some 1.5 million people fled to cities that were already overpopulated as a result of an influx of some 1.2 million Iraqi refugees between 2003 and 2007. Food prices surged to unprecedented heights. The authors of the Proceedings study quote a Syrian farmer who said, in 2013, “of course. The drought and unemployment were important in pushing people toward revolution. When the drought happened, we could handle it for two years, and then we said, ‘It’s enough.’”They convincingly show that the drought preceding the outbreak of the civil war in Syria “was made worse by human-induced climate change.” Already in 2008 the American Embassy in Damascus had warned of a “social destruction” of the country after prolonged drought in many parts of Syria (we know this thanks to documents released by WikiLeaks).

Over eight years ago, on June 16, 2007, Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, wrote in the Washington Post about the war in Sudan: “Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change. Two decades ago, the rains in southern Sudan began to fail.” For many years farmers used to “welcome herders as they crisscrossed the land, grazing their camels and sharing wells. But once the rains stopped, farmers fenced their land for fear it would be ruined by the passing herds. For the first time in memory, there was no longer enough food and water for all. Fighting broke out.” Ban Ki-Moon concluded, “By 2003, it evolved into the full-fledged tragedy we witness today.” At the same time, as Ban Ki-Moon pointed out, the violence in Somalia grew “from a similarly volatile mix of food and water insecurity,” as also did “the troubles in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.”

Understandably, people flee to “rich” countries—to Europe, the USA, and Australia—resulting in a growing pressure on the local population. The costs of the reception and integration of refugees are huge, and among the locals there is an understandable fear of people from unfamiliar cultures with different religions and customs. Added to this, at least in the Netherlands (where I live), people from lower income groups are most confronted with the refugees, who are housed in or near their neighbourhoods. The misery of traumatized refugees is stacked on top of their own economically weak position. Moreover, the locals are hardly involved in the decision-making process about the care of the newcomers, adding to their dislike of the ruling political elite. The business community in Europe, however, sees an opportunity to counter the shortage of highly skilled workers due to the aging of the population in Europe.

The governments respond with repression, making it as difficult as possible for refugees to reach the West. Wikipedia provides a list of the boundary fences and walls that may be found in the world, with data on the year that construction began and the purpose of the border barrier. The vast majority have been built in this century. The overview does not mention barriers in the Mediterranean Sea, where the navies of Europe try to stop refugees, and similar efforts by the Australian navy to keep refugees away from that continent. One of the most recent examples is the fence that, since September 2015, has been constructed between Hungary and Serbia. Missing from the list: the fences in the French town of Calais that shield the Channel Tunnel to Britain; and the island of Cyprus has been divided for over forty years into a Greek and a Turkish part.

Michael Gubi, Spielfeld (flic.kr/p/AcThTv) used under (CC BY-NC 2.0). Desaturated from the original.

Why are more and more fences being constructed all over the world? What is the need to secure more and more people in place and to keep them where they are? Who is “protecting” whom from whom? Social relations worldwide are hardening, and repression is growing also in the “rich” countries. Surveillance cameras are everywhere, privacy on the Internet has gone up in smoke; Big Brother is watching us all. Why?

The answer usually is that “terrorists” are roaming the streets, planning attacks on innocent people; that we all have to sacrifice a bit of our privacy for the sake of our safety. If you are innocent, you have nothing to hide, do you? Since the exposure in 2013 by Edward Snowden of what governments are really doing, it is obvious that there is more to it than “terrorism;” there is something rotten in not just the state of Denmark. Back in 1978, an excellent book explored the social background of a deepening crisis in British and other Western societies, which concluded that:

The repertoires of “hegemony through consent” having been exhausted, the drift towards the routine use of the more repressive features of the state comes more and more prominently into play. Here the pendulum within the exercise of hegemony tilts, decisively, from that where consent overrides coercion, to that condition in which coercion becomes, as it were, the natural and routine form in which consent is secured. This shift in the internal balance of hegemony—consent to coercion—is a response, within the state, to increasing polarization of class forces (real and imagined). It is exactly how a “crisis in hegemony” expresses itself.2

So it seems that the state is being protected from its citizens, that “we, the people” are more and more regarded as a threat to the existing social order.

In a recent article, Saskia Sassen elaborates on this analysis and puts the displaced by war into a broader perspective, noting that “in the last two decades there has been a sharp growth in the numbers of people that have been ‘expelled’ from the economy in much of the world. The active expanding of a middle class in that earlier period has been replaced by the impoverishment and shrinking of the middle class.” The expelled people are “the growing numbers of the abjectly poor, of the displaced in poor countries who are warehoused in formal and informal refugee camps, of the marginalized and persecuted in rich countries who are warehoused in prisons, of workers whose bodies are destroyed on the job and rendered useless at far too young an age, of able-bodied ‘surplus populations’ warehoused in ghettoes and slums.”3 In her latest book, Sassen also sees the causes of the hardening social relations in the development of capitalism in response to the crises of the 1980s and the Great Recession that spread across the world like a tsunami after the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. According to Sassen, present-day capitalism is marked by “predatory dynamics rather than merely evolution, development, or progress.”4

The information on refugees collected here—and it’s only a fraction of what is really happening—may make their suffering seem like the effect of a natural disaster. Shit happens, as the saying goes. In the press, the human misery and tragedy for those involved is spectacularly imaged, with the photograph of the dead child, three-year-old Alan Kurdi from Kobani, Syria, washed ashore on a Greek island, bringing the human dimension into living rooms. But the disaster is hardly natural, even though a human-influenced nature plays a role. People are forced to leave their homes because of war, persecution, and misery. These can be traced back to an economic system that is only interested in making money and in eliminating competitors, or securing spheres of influence. The governmental managers of the “rich” countries are not really interested in the misery experienced by the refugees. Only when the refugees make it to the “rich” countries—when the shit hits the fence—do they act; if all else fails, by allowing them in and using them as much as possible as laborers in an aging population. Even then, the decision process is very slow, hesitant, performed with much reluctance and indecision, threatening the entire European project with collapse.

It is likely that the coming years will only see a growth in economic problems and thus in the threat of war and actual wars. Climate change will continue to make surviving in more and more places on earth even more difficult. Refugees are here to stay and more are on their way.



  1. Colin P. Kelley, Shahrzad Mohtadi, Mark A. Cane, Richard Seager and Yochanan Kushnir, “Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought,” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), 112: 11 (March 17, 2015),  3241-3246.
  2. Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, and Brian Roberts, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order, (London, 1978), 320.
  3. Saskia Sassen, “Expelled: Humans in Capitalism’s Deepening Crisis,” Journal of World-Systems Research, 19:2 (2013), 198.
  4. Saskia Sassen, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014)

Contributor

Nick Vos

NICK VOS used to work as a professional librarian and is now retired. In 2011 he finished his PhD on the construction of the welfare state in the Netherlands; currently he is writing a book about social relations in the Dutch textile industry during the Great Depression in order to understand the reactions of the factory owners and the workers to this until then unprecedented crisis.

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