Context: Read this on my e-reader while walking to and from work. First book I’ve read on my 5 min commute.
Wow. What a book! And not just because of the raw subject matter that it deals with. While I was deeply impressed with Sinclair’s description of the Chicago of Jurgis and his family, I was not prepared for the turn the book takes about 3/4 of the way through. That took me by surprise and made me wonder deeply at the political history of the US.
Immigrant family sells all and arrives, eventually via the usual stomachs of a few sharks, in Chicago. The only work they can get is in the most horrendous meat-packing factories you can imagine. They are duped into buying a house they cannot afford and fight tooth and nail just to survive. The odds are stacked heavily against them. The injustice is stomach-turning.
The fact that this takes place in a country that now triumphantly vaunts itself as the purveyor and guardian of freedom makes this book even more special. I’ve watched a few documentaries and read a few other books and I don’t believe that for the poor in the US, a great deal has changed.
What has definitely changed though is the fact that Sinclair could not have got away with the last quarter of his book twenty years after he wrote it. Arguably, he wouldn’t get away with it now.
About 3/4 of the way in, the central character Jurgis encounters socialism and it transforms his entire outlook. Sinclair was obviously promoting socialism as an alternative fairer society to capitalism and of that there is, at least in theory, no doubt for anyone open-minded enough to admit it. Yes, both systems are open to abuse. But a socialist democracy is a better alternative to the capitalistic dictatorship which was the US of the time of The Jungle.
In fact, you only have to scratch a little bitty bit below the glossy sheen of the US to encounter stuff that makes you wonder how much freedom there really is there at all. I’ve also just finished Shane Claiborne’s book Jesus for President and it has not a dissimilar rallying call. Certainly, the description of Jesus that I’ve excerpted below in my quotes is not a million miles away from Claiborne’s emphasis and it has caused me to re-evaluate how I see him and how this impacts my politics.
And it also made me wonder what the motivations for the Red Peril clampdown on socialism in the US after WW2 were really about. There’s no doubt in my mind that socialism threatens the very core of capitalism in the US because it puts control of wealth in the hands of the people rather than in the hands of the very few who manipulate the system to their advantage. So, it stands to reason to paint socialism as a destroyer of society in a similar way to how Hitler painted the Jews.
More and more, watching the capitalist US is making me a fan of socialism. Good work guys!