On The Dust Bowl

Historians studying the Dust Bowl crisis and its aftermath have debated how it affected the working class in both the American rural and industrial sectors. While some analyzed the causes of the Dust Bowl migration during the time that Capitalism expanded into agriculture in Oklahoma, others studied its effects in the states they migrated to, as well as the strategies used by different groups used, based on their agencies and powers. However, they missed entirely examining how a lack of strong organizations of their own and links with other groups having similar interests ultimately allowed the displacement of the farm workers.

Carey McWilliams, in his book Ill Fares the Land; Migrants and Migratory Labour in the United States, analyzed the influence the Dust Bowl had on this class and the groups that comprised it, by looking at the forces that compelled them to leave the Dust Bowl states following the expansion of Capitalism in the early 1900’s. The more Industrialism expanded into the farms, and they become larger, mechanized and more profitable, he argued, the less necessary the skilled farmer became, and his uprooting from the land became a reality, rendering him either an emigrant or a tenant: “Fewer farms, fewer farmers, greater production.” (190) This process results inevitably not from economic development, but rather, from “grab and greed as much as dust and tractors.” The illusion of the last frontier turned into a nightmare for farmers, trapped in too-small lots of land with lack of education or assistance of government institutions combined with an abundance of land speculators and middlemen. The problem of soil erosion, a consequence of drought, plus mechanization brought about by concentration of capital, contributed to “internal, or intra-state” migration. These processes caused by the implementation of the Industrial Revolution crushed the farming class. Mechanization resulted in the displacement of workers, to the benefit of the large corporations, which favored large, industrialized farms to increased production. Industrialization swallowed old concepts of agriculture, forcing farmers to either become businessmen, concentrating on cash crops, increased production, and decreasing costs, or suffer displacement or transformation into being tenants. A chemical revolution in farming aided this process, creating new commercial and industrial uses for agricultural products[1].

McWilliams approached the topic of the influence of industrialization on farmers at the time of the Dust Bowl and their consequent removal from the land using the perspective of a Marxist/Progressive historian. In his analysis, historical events had a cause, manifesting themselves mainly through economic processes, that ultimately determined political, cultural, and individual trends.  As Capitalism expanded into agriculture, in order to maintain competence and expansion, it had to push for larger farms that would justify investments in technology and mechanization. This also greatly decreased the need for an agricultural labor force, producing unemployment for field workers and the disappearance of small, viable farms. His division of structured society ran, then, through class, through the place of groups of people vis a vis economic relationships, separating owners, tenants, farmers, and corporations. As a result of economic changes, these classes entered into conflicts and contradictions: industrialization resulted in a redrawing of the relationships between employers and employees. The demise of the small farmers or peasants conditioned the advance of the Capitalist class. To survive in these new conditions, farmers had to adapt by cutting costs, growing cash crops and increasing production, or perish as a class.

The flaws in McWilliams revolve around the ambiguity found in his work.  Perhaps this reflects the pressure exercised on intellectuals like him during the McCarthy era. While his assumptions about the eradication of farmers from the Dust Bowl states bear an internal logic, he did not say how this actually happened.  This point of view comes from above, as he requires the reader to believe his assumptions. While using a Marxist division of society in class conflict, the only class that (according to Marxism) can change the situation, the class of the industrial workers, is absent.   How did this class interact with the farmers? Was there ever any project of cooperation between combative sectors in both groups? Also, even if we accept the displacement of farmers as the end result of industrialization, including the expansion of capital, increased mechanization, farmers’  failure to turn into “businessmen”, the greed of the speculators, and soil erosion–not an economic factor but geographic, resulting from drought—he does not provide us with an indication of the leading factors and why. Thus, his chapters suffer from some of the same limitations of other Marxist/ Progressives: the economic factor, while important, cannot appear as the only one. This school privileges division among economic classes, but belonging to groups often crosses classes. The resources of social history historians such as adjudicating agency and potential for resistance to the workers could overcome these limitations and shed light on processes not seen by McWilliams; considering groups rather than whole classes could have illustrated with more detail and clarified the causes for the events described.

\James Gregory, in American Exodus. The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California, did just that.  By studying groups and their different agencies, and the survival strategies used to cope with their situations as displaced immigrants, Gregory looked into the influence the Dust Bowl had on rural workers by studying the challenges diverse groups of immigrants from Oklahoma faced in California, including rejection by the native population and being regarded as a separate group in an heterogeneous environment.  To regain a social position, he explained, “Okies” adopted various strategies, including going back to their home state, maintaining strong attachments to their original home settings and culture, or assimilating and accommodating. Those who stayed either assimilated — through intermarriage and adopting a California accent- or turned inward, focusing on their own group and developing a unique and separate, subculture. Indeed, most poor Southwesterners opted for disengagement from the mainstream rather than conforming culturally and experiencing hostility and prejudgment. As they could not avoid confrontations with other children or with teachers and school personnel, the conflict appeared more evident among the youth. For them, the alternatives to the self-denial inherent in assimilation seemed defiance and withdrawal in the form of absenteeism and high drop-out rates, as well as insubordination, fighting and delinquency[2].

Gregory examined this issue of migrants from Oklahoma in California from the point of view of a Social History historian. As such, he viewed history from the bottom up, analyzing a very specific group, California Oklahoma immigrant workers, and not the whole class as McWilliams had. An important part of his analysis includes personal, specific experiences that members of the group forcibly endured, i.e. hostility against these immigrants usually reserved for non-whites, or the experience of traveling back and forth to Oklahoma. Or, that of immigrants adopting the name “Okie” as a form of self-identification. He also stressed resistance –the manifestation in action of these agencies- of this group to their rejection, oppression, and exploitation, a resistance found in their insistence in maintaining their own subculture. This gave them some empowerment and dignity. Most poor Southwesterners opted for disengagement from the mainstream rather than trying to conform culturally and suffer prejudgment. Workers and especially students, had agency; some power or potential, to resist, refusing victimization. Students provided the strongest example of resistance as they could not avoid the confrontation with other kids or teachers; some of them acculturated, others resisted and some even utilized violence at schools against the discrimination and injustice. Gregory also faced opposing some groups like the students and their teachers or other pupils in an effort to clarify the conflicts inherent to their situation.

While both wrote about the reasons for labor migration from Oklahoma, as a part of the history of the working class in America, and both saw conflict between those workers and other groups, for McWilliams this conflict had economic and violent aspects, but for Gregory they looked social, cultural, and subtle, not manifest.  McWilliams seems like an economic determinist, leaving little for initiative and explaining the currents and processes as imposed by economic forces. In this situation, the workers appeared as passive victims, joads, while Gregory saw them as actors of at least some power and capabilities–agencies–to organize, resist, and empower themselves. This resistance, which in McWilliams represented the last resort of desperation, in Gregory underscored a possible act of control meant to change the lives of the active protagonists.  While Gregory looked at the experience of groups and their members, studying the immigrants as economic and cultural groups without their correlation with other groups, especially with other working class people in California, McWilliams provides a more general analysis of the working class as a whole, identifying the placement and interest of workers, tenants, land owners, and venture capitalists.

Gregory solved the McWilliams flaw of the workers appearing as lacking agency. But even he lacks sufficient clarity, sticking to vague assumptions and logic. He does not examine each of the distinct groups of immigrants –those who went back, those who acculturated, and those who created a culture of their own–and their specific experiences. He does not explain why their different experiences caused them to react differently. He does not tell us about the organizations these groups had and how they interacted with each other and with other groups. Ultimately, we do not know the causes of the events surrounding immigrants, but only their reactions. A problem in his approach lies with the assumption that he considered everything the “Okies” did as resistance, the manifestation of agency: either going back to Oklahoma, or accommodating to Californian society and norms, or folding into a group culture of their own. Only in the case of the children actively and intensely resisting the attacks on them we find real resistance, not in the surrender of the immigrants by returning to their points of origin. Furthermore, while Gregory correctly acknowledges and stresses the agencies, he fails to look into the organizations that will translate those agencies into resistance. Oklahoma workers did not exist in a vacuum and they did not live as individuals but in groups, who surely organized.

Instead of these approaches, historians need to examine how farm workers resulted ultimately displaced from the land in Oklahoma because they lacked the organizations and the necessary links to other groups with similar interests. The owners controlled industrialization processes without any influence by the organizations of workers –either industrial or rural–in a context of clash and of competition. This brought on them defeat and demise. The strategies that Oklahoma immigrant organizations in states like California used resulted likewise influenced by their relationships with other groups in similar conditions. A better understanding of the reaction of the American working class to the Dust Bowl could be thus achieved by examining farm worker organizations and these organizations’ interactions with various classes and groups, both during the years of the Dust Bowl and Depression, further industrialization in Oklahoma, and in the period of immigration to states like California.  Neither author does that.  Studying this type of organization and their interactions with each other, cooperative projects toward a common end using their agencies and resisting their detractors, would demonstrate important lessons about this part of American history.  An account of these organizations and their interaction in California –or even lack thereof and the reasons for this– would enable to better understand the roots of the failure for those who returned, and the fate of those who remained and either acculturated or remained isolated. In the study of the Dust Bowl crisis this would better serve the goal of understanding how the events of that period influenced the American rural and industrial working class.

[1] Carey McWilliams, Ill fares the land. Migrants and Migratory Labour in the United States (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1945), 87-98 and 176-192.

[2] James N. Gregory, American Exodus. The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) 114-136.