The more things change … : Looking back at Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle

By MC Raterman

Last month, as I was selling back issues of The Triumph to raise funds for Feed the People, I found myself cautiously explaining our projects to a patron of the Gifford Park Neighborhood Market. I prudently described the “anti-capitalist” politics of FTP and labeled The Triumph as a “working class publication”. Suddenly, the word “Socialist” slipped out of my mouth, and the person questioned why I hadn’t used that term in the first place. I thought that I had blown it and surely would not be receiving any support for our organizations. The conversation wrapped up, and they went on their way. But an hour later, I had suddenly looked up to see this person handing me a copy of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. They asked if I had read it before and offered to loan it to me. I knew the book was a classic, and I had a vague understanding of its connection to Socialism, so I graciously accepted.

It would not do the novel justice to simply summarize it here, as many may have already read it, and many more ought to seek out a copy for themselves (The Jungle is also in the open domain and readily available in a number of places and forms online). Instead, I’d like to illustrate just how little has changed in the 113 years since its publication. Though vast amounts of world history have obviously occurred since then, and our society has transformed in a multitude of ways, we still live within the same mode of production: Capitalism. Inevitably, this condition produces a number of standards that will last as long as the system itself does.

Not long after the book begins, a reader may notice the period that Upton Sinclair describes in The Jungle appears uncomfortably similar to ours. Many have described this particular moment in history as a “New Gilded Age”. Workers toil for starvation wages, massive monopolies loom large, the gap between the rich and the poor widens, and the Earth is ruthlessly pillaged without consideration for the consequences.

As the book begins, the reader must sit idly by as a family of Lithuanian immigrants signs a deed to buy a new home in a language they cannot read. Only later is it revealed that the home is not new at all, but rather has seen many previous owners who were shut out by an extortionate interest rate on the mortgage. We have seen something similar in our own lifetimes, when millions of Americans lost their homes in the subprime mortgage crisis, while the wealthiest profited and came out unscathed. And the pattern continues.

Soon, each member of the family works their respective jobs in the meat packing industry. They toil day in and day out, working for the most meager wages and barely staying afloat. Throughout the novel, the machines they operate accelerate, their work becomes far more unsafe, and they earn less and less. From every corner, unforeseen costs ring them dry — from housing costs, like coal to heat a drafty house and traps for vermin, to perils like illness, injury, childbirth and death.

Sinclair describes the patriarch of the family, Jurgis, as he lies in bed after an accident: “now he was second-hand, a damaged article…They had got the best out of him — they had worn him out, with their speeding up and their carelessness, and now they had thrown him away! …[the workers were] simply the worn-out parts of the great merciless packing machine; they had toiled there, and kept up with the pace… until finally the time had come where they could not keep up with it any more.” Many of us can empathize with this feeling, whether we are injured, underemployed, have a record, or are simply struggling to stay afloat.

Slowly, the youngest and the oldest members of the family begin to die, and Jurgis sets out on his own. He transitions from being a “hobo” to a grifter and becomes involved in politics soon after. He discovers the truth of the system, where politicians buy votes, voters cast three or four ballots, and a select few personalities control the entirety of political life in a district.

Sinclair writes that the “city, which was owned by an oligarchy of business men, being nominally ruled by the people… Twice a year, in the spring and fall election, millions of dollars were furnished by the business men… The leaders and organizers were maintained by the business men directly—aldermen and legislators by means of bribes, party officials out of the campaign funds, lobbyists and corporation lawyers in the from of salaries…” Still today, though our voting laws have changed, have they become better? Do the wealthy no longer own our politicians? Do our parties now represent us, or still the Capitalist class?

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle cover.

Reading The Jungle in our day and age has appeared to me as a lesson in historical materialism. The practice of historical materialism tells us that social norms arise from particular kinds of material relationships, and each historical period, with its own varied conditions, creates different kinds of social categories and modes of oppression. From this, we can take that Capitalism has created our forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, et cetera, and they will exist until the end of the epoch. We cannot simply assume, like the Progressive, that as time passes our conditions spontaneously improve, or like the Technological Determinist, that improving fields of knowledge will solve the issues that plague our society.

Progressivism seems to be predicated on the lie that history marches in a positive direction and that we move linearly into a better world. Each time before us was worse than the next, and as the older generations — who are racists, sexists, homophobes — die off, they take their backwards ideas with them. The younger generations will fill their place with their new ideas, and just like that, society has been transformed. They suppose that social progress can be made without any substantial change to our material conditions.

On the other hand, the Technological Determinist pays no attention to the power of the social sphere. They believe that as science and technology improve, our society naturally does as well. Poverty, disease, hunger, and war are problems which seemingly arise unattached to social causes, and each of them will be solved just as soon as we have the knowledge and equipment to do so. They do not consider that we have enough money to fill every pocket, enough medicine to cure every wound, and enough food to feed every belly. They do not think that Capitalism decides to starve, deprive, or kill, but that Capitalism will deliver the starving, deprived, and dying.

Additionally, they both fail to realize negative dialectics and the many forms subjugation takes. The fact that phenomena like fascism, policing, redlining, mass incarceration, and the military-industrial complex all appeared in the previous century are lost on them. Both of these tendencies will cling to the most trivial advances in our society whilst ignoring the persistent forms of oppression native to Capitalism. Still, in the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood of Chicago where The Jungle takes place, roughly 30 percent of its population lives below the poverty line and half of its residents between the ages of 20 and 24 are unemployed.

Eventually, Jurgis finds himself involved with a group of Socialists. A comrade of his remarks that “life [is] a struggle for existence… Those who lost in the struggle were generally exterminated; but now and then they had been known to save themselves by combination—which was a new and higher kind of strength… The Socialist movement was an expression of [the oppressed peoples’] will to survive. The inevitability of revolution depended upon this fact, that they had no choice but to unite or be exterminated…” This rings especially true in our time of ecological collapse, where it is clear that the Global South and the working classes will suffer the greatest losses from climate crisis.

However, we should not take all of these parallels as lessons in pessimism, and instead, let them inspire us to fight and end this brutal regime. We ought to break from this cycle and make new societies that serve the many, not the few. Though Upton Sinclair is long dead, his work lives on, and its message is eternal — Workers of the world, Unite!

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