Saturday 14 May 2016

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

After having it on the shelf for many years, I've finally got round to reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. It's a socialist classic every bit as vital and necessary as the more celebrated The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. As such, I'm not going to give any spoilers away, as much as one can spoil a book that's knocked around for 110 years. But I will make the case for you to read it.

It follows the tribulations of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant to the United States. Lured then as now by the promise of work and high wages, his illusions are quickly dashed as he settles into Packingtown (Chicago's New City district). Bringing with him an extended family, it is a remorseless tale of woe in which tragedy is heaped on misfortune piled upon yet more tragedy. It is a story of how working for the city's meat packers is fraught with precarity, exploitation, alienation, and destitution. As the book works through, circumstances and skulduggery break the family, break self-respect, and break the human spirit. Jurgis's career has him as a meat packer, a hobo, a beggar, a footpad, a political fixer, a scab, and finally achieves a redemption of sorts via socialist politics.

What can readers take away from an old propagandist novel aimed at early 20th century audiences?  Firstly, there is the burning sense of grievance. It's not the blind operation of the market serving Jurgis and his family a diet of misery. At each moment, the invisible hand has its strings pulled by the plotting of the beef trusts, the rigging of the city's politics and legal system, the criminality of capital's lieutenants, the corruption of union activists, and the calculations made to maintain this state of affairs. Injustice radiates off the page - only the most stone-hearted could fail to be moved. And what stirs is that the tyranny, cruelty, and brutality of the packing houses doesn't belong in the history books. It's in the semi-criminal factories and warehouses stuffed with migrant labour, legal and otherwise, across the advanced countries. It's the lot of the millions crammed into China's "special economic zones", of the Bangladeshi garment worker, and Brazilian child labourer, all the members of our class who continue to bear the crushing load and grinding iniquity of capital in circumstances not at all removed from The Jungle's meat packers.

There's something here for accelerationism. Early on, Sinclair relates the elaborate organisation of the vermin-infested meat packing plant, from the conveyor belt of cattle and pigs through the process of killing, cutting, boiling, freezing, packing, and the disposal of leftovers. Even the scamming, the strategies of waylaying the food standards inspector, the cutting and selling of winter ice from the stagnant waste pond, all are the fruits of scientific management techniques. In the whir of industrialised slaughter, each man, woman, and child is a cog whose activity is absolutely determined by the momentum of machinery driven by the maximisation of all possible profit. It's a regimented ordeal captured with a sense of horrified wonder, of how an enterprise can be so ingenious, so stupendous, and yet so inhuman. The Jungle isn't as pithy as Marx's praise and condemnation of capital in The Manifesto, but Sinclair's praising of the packing industry as a means of burying it has a rhetorical force rare even among radical literature.

If there are downsides to The Jungle, I think the party scene of the first chapter is out of place. And the final section of the book, where Jurgis is introduced to socialist politics, could come across a touch preachy (indeed, Sinclair himself later disowned it). But for comrades new to socialism, especially the more enthusiastic Jeremy supporters, this is vital reading. Like the experience of the newly radicalised, the scales tumble from Jurgis's eyes as the story of his life finally makes sense. He's seized by the zealotry of the convert and attempts his damnedest to recruit family members and acquaintances. Yet he's mystified that others cannot see what he sees, despite going through the same backbreaking, soul-shattering traumas. This teaches him patience and gives the book chance to explore the psyches of those resisting the socialist proposition. This is an ideal primer for the frustrations of radicalism, and is one I could have done with when I was an annoying 18 year old.

Publication was met with a ferocious scandal around food hygiene and adulteration, and new standards legislation was imposed on the beef trust. As Sinclair put it at the time, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." While this was a happy, if unintended consequence, The Jungle's radical edge is yet to be realised.

No comments: