My informal survey of early 20th century social protest fiction – because that’s what it’s shaping up to be – now includes Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, a populist vehicle for the author’s “group-man” theory. As Doc Burton explains it:
“A man in a group isn’t himself at all, he’s a cell in an organism that isn’t like him any more than the cells in your body are like you.” *
Depending on circumstances and leadership, the group-man can be a force for good or evil, an efficient machine or a ravenous animal, but either way it has a mind of its own, and needs of its own that can be sharply at odds with those of its constituents. As Burton explains elsewhere, scratching an itch feels pleasant to the body at the same time that it wreaks mortal havoc on thousands of individual cells.
Which offers helpful perspective on voters who vote against their own best interests. Gay Republicans, for example. Or pro-Clinton progressives.
On the day I finished reading In Dubious Battle, I found waiting for me in the mail an invitation with headline as follows: “DO YOU HAVE THE COURAGE TO RETIRE RICH?” It included two “VIP tickets” (“$147 value” each!) to a house-flipping seminar hosted by a pair of perky-looking millennials I don’t recognize, but who the invitation says are “stars of America’s favorite real estate reality TV show.”
“The hell?” thought I. “Don’t they know who I am? Don’t they know what I am?”
No and no, of course. Nor would they care if they did. Nor would “it” care, I should say. The capitalist body politic reaching out to scratch an itch or prick a boil. Or worse.
*John Steinbeck, In Dubious Battle (New York: The Modern Library, 1936), 144.