Changing forms, changing agency

Steinbeck is known for writing from the vantage point of those who struggle on the edges of society. In The Grapes of Wrath, the reader travels along with a convoy of Americans fleeing the dust bowl-ridden southern states for better opportunities in California. The estimated three hundred thousand people who traveled across the country were of little means. They would simply pull over to the side of the road at the end of a day of driving and camp for the night.

In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream. And it might be that a sick child threw despair into the hearts of twenty families, of a hundred people; that a birth there in a tent kept a hundred people quiet and awestruck through the night and filled a hundred people with the birth-joy in the morning. A family which the night before had been lost and fearful might search its goods to find a present for a new baby. In the evening, sitting about the fires, the twenty were one. They grew to be units of the camps, units of the evenings and the nights.

The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck

This passage effortlessly describes a transformation that occurs when people share the same mission and experiences. While in route the families keep their possession to themselves and head west. Once they gather for the evening, the individuals meld into a group. This impacts how resources are shared.

The families learned what rights must be observed–the right of privacy in the tent; the right to keep the past black hidden in the heart; the right to talk and to listen; the right to refuse help or to accept, to offer help or to decline it; the right of son to court and daughter to be courted, the right of the hungry to be fed; the rights of the pregnant and the sick
to transcend all other rights.

The use of the word ‘rights’ probably has some of you cringing as it parallels the language of today’s activists. Others are about to be dismissive of this depiction as it is one of a simple commune. After all, experimentation with communal living in the 60s and 70s proved repeatedly to be a failure. But transformation into a group of one is only a temporary situation. And at times groups with similar interests are better to ban together and share resources under provisional rules.

The agency of the group becomes more important than the agency of the individual, at least while they are on the road. Every morning each family unit gathers up their few possessions and straps them onto their truck. And in the evening, they rejoin the other travelers. In this morphing of individuals, small groups, and mass immigration of the recently destitute there is a non-pecuniary tumbling of resources in order to pull everyone forward.

Consider another example of resource distribution. It is notable in its discord with traditional economic thinking and is used by clergy to offer another avenue of economic reasoning. The parable in the bible describes how a landowner chooses to compensate his workers.

Matthew 20:1-16
New International Version
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like(A) a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.(B) 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

8 “When evening came,(C) the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble(D) against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat(E) of the day.’

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend.(F) Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’(G)

16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”(H)

A current vision of the workplace challenges this story as compensation does not correspond to hours worked. Each worker is an individual and each hour worked is a unit to peg on a tally sheet. And this is often the most productive way to accomplish workplace projects.

But I think here, the message is that the landowner has a different goal in mind. He challenges those that say it isn’t fair as he lived up to the bargain he struck with them at the beginning of the day. The motivation behind the landowner continuing to hire workers until the last hour cannot be judged from their perspective. I feel the story asks you to consider the workers as a set, where each one is offered the daily wage.

Forms and agency of a communal nature have always, and will always, be a part of our economic landscape. They play an integral part in the progress made toward goals such as pollution reduction, safety, and thousands of social and cultural objectives at play in our lives. The goal is to understand their shape and impact on the process.

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