Introducing Tom Joad

At the culmination of Steinbeck’s 1939 masterpiece, Tom – now an outlaw after having taken to fighting back against the property owners, union-busters, and police forces whose sole purpose is to protect privilege – recognizes that there is more at stake than his personal well-being.  While the forces of oppression seem insurmountable, the plight of the oppressed necessitates action, whatever the cost to the individual:

“Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one…Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there…I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there” (p. 463).

This way of thinking, unfortunately, remains as necessary today as it was amidst the Depression.  The present era of “globalization” is marked by rising corporate power, the increased militarization of social relations, continued racial and gendered anxieties, intensified hyper-nationalism, a deeply ingrained free-market ideology, and myriad other forms of social oppression.  And yet, beneath this disheartening surface also lie myriad forms of resistance; alternative ethical, cultural and political economies; calls for new modes of becoming and new ethics of living-in-relation to Others.

This blog is a space to reflect on the ideas that lie at the roots of contemporary oppression, and to imagine what alternative ways of thinking and acting might look like.  In a moving quote near the end of the novel, Steinbeck’s politics are stated with an eloquent simplicity:

“And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”

Yet amidst an even greater concentration of property and institutionalization of inequity, the oppressed seem more divided than ever.  What might an effective resistance look like today? The Paris Commune? Early labor struggles? May ‘68? Echo Creek and Tierra Amarilla? The Zapatistas? Or something more gradual and reformist ?

One thing seems certain…we need Tom more than ever.

(header photo by Robert Frank, side photos by Dorothea Lange)

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~ by iamtomjoad on May 4, 2010.

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