A personal and unorganized commentary on Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and modern day Corporate America
I just finished reading Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle. One of the better books I have read this year, The Jungle is best known for inspiring creation of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug act. However, the true aim of Sinclair was to throw light on the failings of capitalism and to inspire a socialist revolution. And while reading the book and being appalled at the inhuman working and living conditions depicted, I couldn’t help see some similarities between 1900’s life in the meat packing warehouses and modern life in the stockades of corporate cubicles.
You might say, “How can life in an office cubicle be similar to a meat industry warehouse?” Yes, it is true I rarely see horrors such as limbs being crushed, workers freezing in pools of cow blood, hands rotting off due to skin diseases, and men falling to their death into vats of chemicals. And it is true I do not have to worry about starving to death on the streets, freezing to death in a blizzard on the walk home, dying from inhaling powdered cow bones, or getting so sick I could not survive. In these respects, yes, we have come a long way.
However, the similarities I started to observe were not so much the physical hardships these men and their families endured, rather, the mental and spiritual abuse which were part and parlay of the capitalist jungle they lived in where the powerful preyed on the weak and where everyone was in a constant battle for survival. This unseen spiritual damage may have been greater than any of the outwardly visible damage. Man can endure physical hardships as long as his spirit is intact, but break his spirit and you have broken the man. This fact is demonstrated time and time again in Jurgis, the main character of the book, as he and his family are slowly annihilated by the unjust political, economic, and social system that was depicted in Sinclair’s book.
In the beginning of the book Jurgis arrives in America full of dreams and pride. Although he sees the old and beaten workers that have been used up in the factory and tossed aside, he is blinded by youthful ambition and a devotion to his family. Of course, this does not last as he himself becomes just another cog in the “machine” and is quickly used up. Towards the end becomes another worn out hand that cannot find employment in the very factories he helped build and is summarily discarded, thus fulfilling the vicious cycle of work and wear.
Now this cycle, I say, is not so different from modern day corporations. So often we are asked to “take one for the team”, or “give a little extra for the company”. But aren’t we tossed aside as soon as we become a burden on the bottom line? Aren’t we just as summarily “let go” after putting our soul into the company? It is a common practice to place more and more responsibility and work on an employee, in a way like adding more and more rocks to a pack, until that employee reaches the breaking point. All the while saying, “do it for the company”, and, “we care about our employees, we’ll take care of you”. After time though just as in the book, once the youth and energy has been mined and depleted, the tired and worn employee is tossed aside like a used up rag in place for younger, more eager workers.
To be continued…