And here lies the final post of my mini blog which looks at the system of capitalism within American culture through the lens of Modern Times, The Grapes of Wrath, and various Youtube clips of varying academic standing.
The capitalist value system is entrenched in American society. In the End of Capitalism blog, there is a post called “Capitalism Against Care”: http://endofcapitalism.com/2013/03/07/capitalism-against-care/#more-1985 which looks at how the capitalist mindset is so engrained in our population that it even impacts how we conduct our interactions and relationships in terms of profitability. Society’s intense focus on profits causes some important human elements of relationship to be ignored in every day relationships. It states:
“we can’t fully divorce our sense of identity from the economic conditions of capitalism; even the language we use for relationships is conditioned by the marketplace. We speak of “investing” in a relationship, we try to measure love as though it can be numbered, or exchanged like money, with a tally of debts owed and paid. With this fear of scarcity, we become competitive and insecure. We see love as limited, conditional, and rare–something to be earned, and like any other commodity, something that can be lost or stolen.”
“ No human could survive or thrive without touch, affection, nurturing, attention, compassion, validation, or empathy–yet the need for these acts of care (which are often gendered as feminine, no matter who provides them) has been subsumed into necessary invisibility by a system that depends on depriving us of the means to tend to our own lives” (Alex Knight).
The capitalist system in many ways aligns with the mechanical and sterile machine and monster presented by our texts. Thematically, we can see the correlation between the machine of Chaplin and the money eating monster of Steinbeck. Both are mathematic, sterile, and non-human, though made and fostered by humanity. These systems were meant to drive society forward, but seem to actually ensnare society, barring the few elite on top who are represented as robotic and nonempathetic as these systems. The Tramp and the Joad family both desperately fail to make it in the capitalist system, however these characters’ removal from Capitalist success seems to place them in a situation where all they have left is relationship and humanity. I think both Chaplin and Steinbeck show in their characters “man’s proven capacity of greatness in heart and spirit” (Steinbeck, Nobel Prize Speech).
Yet, can capitalism be all so bad and inhumane? Capitalism pushes the economy, has great rewards when played right, and as the New York Times Opinionator blog suggests upon America’s capitalism (as it alludes to an article, “Can’t We All Be More Like Scandinavians?”) that “the world is dependent on American leadership in technology and innovation to sustain global growth. In order to maintain its position at the forefront of global innovation, the authors contend, the United States must maintain an economic system that provides great rewards to successful innovators, which ‘implies greater inequality and greater poverty (and a weaker safety net) for a society encouraging innovation’” (Thomas B Edsall) .
The article goes on to suggest that this cut throat capitalist society may be near its end as the hardworking lower class Americans gain more voting power. You can check it out here: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/29/why-cant-america-be-sweden/?_r=0 But that is just a thought of what the future may be. Our texts by Chaplin and Steinbeck deal with a different time of unfettered capitalism during the Great Depression.
The Great Depression raises questions on the value of people, the enforcement of suppression, and the unrealistic American dream, which is used to subdue people into trusting that the system works in a way that you can have it all if you just play your cards right. Ultimately however, some people are dealt a royal flush in life, and others don’t even get a high card, and will never have the opportunity to move forward. The system does not boast equal opportunity, but exceptional opportunity. This is the reality that our texts conclude upon as our protagonists do not succeed in the system or in the American dream. They never even have the opportunity to ever approach “the dream”.
Throughout this short series, I have approached capitalism from different angles, looking at how it is represented through my chosen texts in metaphor, and supplementing these views with other resources. This has been a probing investigation looking mostly at the problems of capitalism, as experienced from the lower classes.
The texts do not give us answers. Capitalism has many faults, but there are inherently good sides to capitalism. Beyond that, it is a system so complex, entrenched and interwoven in society, that a simple answer would be near impossible. So, while the texts illuminate reality, they don’t give answers. They do, however, ask questions. By placing capitalism, and the power structures of society, into refreshing metaphor, the texts reiterate commonplace elements of society that have become mundane, normalized and accepted.
Instead of “This is the way things are” we ask, “Why is this the way things are?” and “Why is it allowed and accepted to be this way?” Perhaps this is the greatest accomplishment of these texts. In Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize speech, he said:
The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.
Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit – for gallantry in defeat – for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally-flags of hope and of emulation.
In conclusion, both Chaplin and Steinbeck have taken up their commission (I include Chaplin in the role of a writer), and have enlightened – exposed – American society, warts and all, for the world to see. Entering my American literature class for which this blog is written, I knew very little about American history and the politics surrounding the Great Depression, but these authors provided a glimpse into that reality; they have refreshed the idea of capitalism and bared its harsh faults, but they have also bared the greatness of the human spirit. Although my focus for my blog was not on this positive note which pulls both Modern Times and The Grapes of Wrath from their tragedy of context into their celebration of humanity, both works, in my opinion, are balanced between these elements, and expose what’s really important.