Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle: 100 Years Later

by CONTRATIEMPO

In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was published. Almost immediately, it had an impact on U.S. society that no other book since Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, had.

A few short months after its publication, The Jungle arrived in the halls of power in Washington and at the dinner tables of the middle class. In the history of the U.S., few books have achieved the social and political impact that The Jungle had.

In the novel, the protagonist Jurgis arrives in Chicago, works in the Packington district and lives in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. At the dawn of the 20th century, and before Jurgis departs for the U.S., he has the choice of emigrating to Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and other countries in the Americas where there is strong demand for labor.

He could just as well have emigrated to Buenos Aires, working in the meat-processing plants in the El Matador district and lived in a rooming house in a working- class suburb. What would have connected the Jurgis living in El Matador to the Jurgis of Packingtown is that both would have worked for Swift-Armour, the meat packer headquartered in Chicago.

Let’s use the story to envision this character’s life. The Chicago Jurgis comes into contact with workers of other nationalities, including Mexican workers and Blacks who have migrated from the South. The Buenos Aires Jurgis would also have met workers of other nationalities, as well as cowboys (gauchos) who had moved to the city from the plains.

Both characters would have found themselves involved in the workers’ movements of 1919 that shook both Chicago and Buenos Aires. It’s very likely that they would have joined the massive campaigns for unionization that took place during the 1930s and 1940s, decades in which unions in both countries attained a certain level of power.

Thanks to that power, the workers of both countries enjoyed 25 years of prosperity and social welfare (1945-1970) before entering a long period of unemployment, falling salaries and decaying social services. It’s very possible that both would have suffered repression against the workers’ movement and rifts with their communities and families. In that way, they would have lost all that they had gained.

This most recent period has lasted to the present day. There’s no sign that it is nearing an end. What has changed is that today Jurgis doesn’t come from Europe, but rather from Latin America. His only destination is the United States, and his name isn’t Jurgis, but José and Maria (Joseph and Mary).

José and Maria belong to a swelling army: "Globalization’s losers." And they are losers by virtue of the legal status that today’s economic model assigns them: Neoliberalism, the economic system that allows the market to select the winners and losers.

In their attempt to survive in the jungle of neoliberalism, José and Maria work under conditions that are very similar to those that Sinclair described exactly a century ago.

In this New Jungle, José and Maria understand clearly that they are needed to work, but at the same time, they are rejected as neighbors. Moreover, they have discovered that politicians, journalists and nationalist groups like the Minutemen use them to sow fear in the rest of U.S. society, accusing them of "tropicalizing the United States."

However, José and Maria begin to realize what their labor represents and what it would mean if this society had "a day without Latinos."

Throughout the month of March, immigrants took to the streets: a half million in Los Angeles, 300,000 in Chicago, 40,000 in Milwaukee and New Mexico staged the biggest mobilizations ever.

Although the nationalists attacked immigration and immigrants, above all through the English-language media, José and Maria acted with great dignity during all the marches. They didn’t stay quiet and now they’re part of a new social movement that has spread rapidly around the country. It began last July when more than 50,000 marched in the Back of the Yards, the neighborhood Sinclair made famous 100 years ago.

A century after the publication of The Jungle, it would seem that history is repeating itself. It’s yet another time when the poorest and most oppressed offer a way out of the jungle: demanding dignity, equality and justice for all.

CONTRATIEMPO, A monthly Spanish-language review of political and cultural issues published in Chicago, printed this editorial in its April issue, noting the 100th anniversary of Upton Sinclair’s classic novel exposing the meatpacking industry, The Jungle.

Translation by Lance Selfa.





 

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal
Bill Yousman
The Fire This Time: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”
Scott Parkin
Katrina Plus Ten: Climate Justice in Action
Michael Welton
The Conversable World: Finding a Compass in Post-9/11 Times
Brian Cloughley
Don’t be Black in America
Kent Paterson
In Search of the Great New Mexico Chile Pepper in a Post-NAFTA Era
Binoy Kampmark
Live Death on Air: The Killings at WDBJ
Gui Rochat
The Guise of American Democracy
Emma Scully
Vultures Over Puerto Rico: the Financial Implications of Dependency
Chuck Churchill
Is “White Skin Privilege” the Key to Understanding Racism?
Kathleen Wallace
The Id(iots) Emerge
Andrew Stewart
Zionist Hip-Hop: a Critical Look at Matisyahu
Gregg Shotwell
The Fate of the UAW: Study, Aim, Fire
Halyna Mokrushyna
Decentralization Reform in Ukraine
Norman Pollack
World Capitalism, a Basket Case: A Layman’s View
Sarah Lazare
Listening to Iraq
John Laforge
NSP/Xcel Energy Falsified Welding Test Documents on Rad Waste Casks
Wendell G Bradley
Drilling for Wattenberg Oil is Not Profitable
Joy First
Wisconsin Walk for Peace and Justice: Nine Arrested at Volk Field
Mel Gurtov
China’s Insecurity
Mateo Pimentel
An Operator’s Guide to Trump’s Racism
Yves Engler
Harper Conservatives and Abuse of Power
Michael Dickinson
Police Guns of Brixton: Another Unarmed Black Shot by London Cops
Ron Jacobs
Daydream Sunset: a Playlist
Charles R. Larson
The Beginning of the Poppy Wars: Amitav Ghosh’s “Flood of Fire”
David Yearsley
A Rising Star Over a Dark Forest
August 27, 2015
Sam Husseini
Foreign Policy, Sanders-Style: Backing Saudi Intervention
Brad Evans – Henry A. Giroux
Self-Plagiarism and the Politics of Character Assassination: the Case of Zygmunt Bauman