Book Review: Slaves of the Farm U.S.A.
Seldom do town workers have an opportunity of seeing for themselves the conditions of life of their fellow beings, the farm’ workers. Mr. C. McWilliams, in “Ill Fares the Land” (Faber and Faber), gives valuable information regarding the conditions obtaining in rural U.S.A., that great land of “opportunity, freedom and democracy.”
The author was a member of the La Follette Committee, which was self up to investigate the disclosures of another book, “Grapes of Wrath,’ by J. Steinbeck. That book was fiction, whereas this one is an authoritive statement on the effects of large-scale big-business farming on the agricultural community.
Until the development of the internal combustion engine had made its mark on agriculture, it was possible for the small farmer and share cropper to compete with the great bonanza farms, because the methods and tools of production were identical. The small farmer, together with his usually large family, toiled long hours, and if there was a hired labourer or two, they lived as members of the family. It is true that after paying mortgage interest or rents the return for their labours was little more than subsistence level, but they had a sense of independence.
In the early twenties it was possible to observe a gradual change taking place in farm production methods with the advent of the “ armall tractor ” in 1924, and other new machinery. following closely in its wake.
An industrial revolution in agriculture had taken place and farming was clearly being drawn into the vortex of industrialism. Big business was taking a hand in this hitherto backward section of the producing community and it was now possible to establish factories in the fields with mass-production methods.
With the depression of 1929, banks, insurance companies and other lending agencies foreclosed on thousands of farms and, in consequence, a large proportion of American farming became highly industrialised by the creation of large-scale enterprises, equipped with the most efficient technical brains and modern machinery.
The dispossessed farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers were not allowed to carry on as managers for the farm factories, because they might be swayed by personal and local considerations in the management of affairs, so “Professional Farm Managers” came into being. These men were thoroughly trained in the new farming technique, and to them the profit motive justified any amount of human suffering.
Here are two examples of the companies that operate throughout the U.S.A. producing fruit, cotton, grain, sugarbeet, etc. Earls Fruit Co. operates under central management, and as one unit, 27 farm properties in California, and lease 11 additional properties. It also owns 11 packing houses, the Klamath Lumber and Box Co., two vineries, one of which is the largest in the U.S.A., the Baltimore Fruit Exchange, and has important holdings in auction houses in Chicago, New York, Cincinatti, and Pittsburgh. Through subsidiary companies it owns 13,833 acres in other states. In 1938 the book value of lands and improvements was 10,955,418 dollars. The type of corporation which obtained land by foreclosure is California Lands Inc., a subsidiary of the Bank of America. The company boasted in 1936 that it had the largest diversified farming organisation in the world, owning and operating 600,000 acres of land.
In 1937 the company’s income from farm operations was 2,511,643 dollars. The figures do not include farm mortgages held by the Bank of America on 7,398 farms, totalling 1,023,000 acres, amounting to 40,340,000 dollars, nor do they include finances to crop pools and marketing programmes, which give them a large measure of control over agriculture generally.
What of the dispossessed farmers and their families, the army of farm workers no longer required under the new order of things? These became the mobile rural proletariat, moving from nowhere lo nowhere in search of casual work on seasonal crops, ft was estimated in 1940 that from one to two million men, women and children move from state to state seeking farm jobs and that 8,500,000 people in American agriculture are trying to struggle along on an average income of 2 dollars per week each.
The migratory workers are usually recruited by labour contractors in excess of the number required, so that wages can be kept down. They are herded into labour camps, mostly shack towns or squatter camps, by the roadside, under the most appallingly squalid conditions. Disease is rampant and the mortality rate for young children is very high, with pneumonia, diarrhoea and enteritis being common among them.
In one instance thousands of cotton pickers poured into a district and cold rain set in, so picking could not proceed. These families had no means of shelter and the growers would do nothing for them as they couldn’t earn money until the rain stopped. The official report said that it was never known how many children died from exposure. Workers do not sing in the cotton fields, except in the mind of the film producer.
The growers have a strike-breaking organisation known as the Vigilantes, which deals very ruthlessly with any attempts by the workers to improve their conditions. One occasion, when the workers attempted to organise themselves, they were set upon by mounted Vigilantes, armed with rifles and shotguns. The strikers battled with fists and stones, and, needless to say, were beaten down and made to walk like cattle ten miles to the gaol.
Although few were actually charged, about 200 were imprisoned from August until the following spring.
In his summing up, the author points out that, although the committee took thousands of words of testimony from the best of experts in every field on the question of what should be done about agricultural migration, the six volumes of testimony are likely to stand as an enduring monument to the bankruptcy of ideas.
Nearly every witness confined his suggestions to what is possible within the existing framework of society.
He concludes that our economic order—industrial, agricultural, financial—is neither owned nor administered democratically. It breeds poverty and want, scarcity and insecurity, not by accident, but by necessity. It can no more eliminate unemployment than an engine can run without fuel. We agree, but what of the solution? The author says we need to refashion society to a more democratic one, but there he leaves us to form our own conclusions.
Finally, we must emphasise the fact that the slave of the farm, no matter what country he may be in, will never change his status until the slaves of industry in general have changed theirs. Workers on land and in industry are enslaved by the capitalist system and will only attain their freedom when they have replaced the present system by one in which the land, machinery and other means of production are commonly owned and administered for the equal benefit of all mankind.
A. E. P.