The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

As I’m trying to cultivate a habit of reflecting on whatever information I consume I’m trying to write a blog post on each book I read. Recently I completed “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair which I started to read with no knowledge about the author or plot apart from phrase that “this book propelled author’s political career” or something like this.

I allowed myself a bit of Wikipedia reading once I done with the book and it is interesting to see that there was a “Federal response” to the book by President Theodore Roosevelt who described this book as a “crackpot” because of the writer’s socialist positions. And to quote author of the book on socialism, he said in 1951:

“The American People will take Socialism, but they won’t take the label.”

Upton Sinclair, Letter to Norman Thomas (25 September 1951)

Irrespectively on whether you think socialism is a crackpot or not the book is worth reading unless you are that type of “oversimplify it” person who would never read anything like “Das Kapital” and employ the joke that “this book would have better to be burnt before it had seen the light as it had produced too many bloodshed, revolutions and couple of evil empires” as an excuse to not reading what that bearded guy meant to say to begin with.

First quarter or even half of this book is amazingly vivid description of squalor and hardships of wage worker at the time where wage slavery was a commonplace. But book take you through couple of cycles and unexpected turns through the eyes of naive Lithuanian immigrant to US who hoped to find his happiness doing decent work in The Yards.

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Union Stock Yards, Chicago, 1947 (source)

My initial impression was that it you lack enthusiasm or excitement about your current job or workplace you should read this book it with switch your perception a little bit I’m sure. But as the story goes on and book elaborates on unscrupulous practices of business owners and world of politics you gradually will be returning back to reality thinking that in a way world does not changed as much as our shiny media channels present it to us (and given the fact that you have an ability to select your media channel you may end up living in “echo chamber” of reality of your choice where your view of the world supported by media and evidence which you selected just because it supports your view). Anyhow I had a chance to work on production line just a little bit at some point in my life and thanks god it was not meat production (but there was a chance to end up there at one point of my life 🙂 ) and yes conditions are better but not radically as essentially the model is the same and with overwhelming win of consumerism and demonstrative consumption in society you may feel divide between wage worker and office staff even sharper: I still remember interesting feeling when while signing off from short stitch as a worker on production line I had to get some sign off from person responsible for personal’s food and on that occasion I had to visit administrative personnel canteen donned in my dirty working suit causing glances from neatly dressed administrative personnel. This is one thing to know that some people have separate canteen and sitting in clean office while you doing your shift in the noisy and and dusty environment of production line, and completely another to be exposed to such contrast – I kind of felt the divide and that type of “you don’t belong there” attitude back then. In short working conditions definitely way better nowadays but not as radically different as some dreamers or careless optimists never caring to look around them may think.

After author almost reaches the peak of his depiction of how poor life conditions may destroy one’s optimism, health and even system of values in life book takes unexpected turn. And here I can quote the book I guess:

“They were trying to save their souls—and who but a fool could fail to see that all that was the matter with their souls was that they had not been able to get a decent existence for their bodies?”

The first turn is towards showing dirty politics and defunct society system which I guess would be amazing read for somebody who takes for granted American hyper efficient image of dream state of freedom and equal opportunities which it projects masterfully with barrage of Hollywood movies and what not else. I guess I can recommend “Detroit: An American Autopsy” by Charlie LeDuff for those who need more up to date reality check to contrast image with reality.

And quite unexpectedly (for me, as I don’t read anything neither about author or about the book), our fallen and corrupt by the life on the bottom of Chicago’s society protagonist, which it seems about to die because of his miserable life conditions within a few pages or so, discovers new wonder and purpose and hope – socialism. And this is what is being uncovered in the last quarter of the book giving it a sort of almost happy end if you can call it so giving what had happened to our hero in the first half of the book.

And apart from socialism last jump or twist is on public healthcare in general and eating meat in particular – quite an interesting to see a passage arguing that meat producing industry is largely profit-driven attempt to earn on poor species whose brains not only programmed to be “pattern recognition machines” but, alas, also “pleasure seeking machines” and in more healthy “socialist” society moving away from meat consumption would be sort of natural and unavoidable.

Anyhow this was a strong book which worth reading and to conclude just one more quote from the book to spark your interest maybe:

“And now in the union Jurgis met men who explained all this mystery to him; and he learned that America differed from Russia in that its government existed under the form of a democracy. The officials who ruled it, and got all the graft, had to be elected first; and so there were two rival sets of grafters, known as political parties, and the one got the office which bought the most votes.”

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