High-Level Thoughts

More about capitalism than the meat packing industry, it's an entertaining book, but fails to make a compelling case for socialism.

Summary Notes

In June 1906, four months after the publication of The Jungle, the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Meat Inspection Act were passed by Congress. Although industry pressure had watered down some of their provisions, these two bills marked a turning point in the role of the federal government. For the next seventy-five years, the police power guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution was used to protect ordinary consumers from corporate misbehavior.

Today the American beef industry is more centralized and more concentrated than it was when The Jungle first appeared. At the height of the beef trust, the five largest companies controlled 55 percent of the market. Today the four largest beef companies control more than 80 percent of the market.

Today just thirteen slaughterhouses process most of the beef consumed in the United States. Food safety problems at a single slaughterhouse can cause outbreaks that extend not only nationwide, but worldwide.

Sinclair’s imagination had betrayed him; the feverish pursuit of the cluster of false lights—Art, Beauty, Inspiration, Poetry, Love—had brought him to ruin: his marriage, romantically undertaken, had already become a nightmare; his attempts at “pure” literature had failed to impress either publishers or the public; he was alienated from his family, virtually friendless, and living in poverty.

He is a beef-boner, and that is a dangerous trade, especially when you are on piece-work and trying to earn a bride. Your hands are slippery, and your knife is slippery, and you are toiling like mad, when somebody happens to speak to you, or you strike a bone. Then your hand slips up on the blade, and there is a fearful gash.

Leave it to me; leave it to me. I will earn more money—I will work harder.

Jurgis, too, had heard of America. That was a country where, they said, a man might earn three roubles a day; and Jurgis figured what three roubles a day would mean, with prices as they were where he lived, and decided forthwith that he would go to America and marry, and be a rich man in the bargain. In that country, rich or poor, a man was free, it was said; he did not have to go into the army, he did not have to pay out his money to rascally officials—he might do as he pleased, and count himself as good as any other man.

Jurgis turned away, and then in a sudden rush the full realization of his triumph swept over him, and he gave a yell and a jump, and started off on a run. He had a job!

If you were a sociable person, he was quite willing to enter into conversation with you, and to explain to you the deadly nature of the ptomaines which are found in tubercular pork; and while he was talking with you you could hardly be so ungrateful as to notice that a dozen carcasses were passing him untouched.

So guileless was he, and ignorant of the nature of business, that he did not even realize that he had become an employee of Brown’s, and that Brown and Durham were supposed by all the world to be deadly rivals—were even required to be deadly rivals by the law of the land, and ordered to try to ruin each other under penalty of fine and imprisonment!

It was a sweltering day in July, and the place ran with steaming hot blood—one waded in it on the floor. The stench was almost overpowering, but to Jurgis it was nothing. His whole soul was dancing with joy—he was at work at last! He was at work and earning money! All day long he was figuring to himself. He was paid the fabulous sum of seventeen and a half cents an hour; and as it proved a rush day, and he worked until nearly seven o’clock in the evening, he went home to the family with the tidings that he had earned more than a dollar and a half in a single day!

The houses lay to the south, about a mile and a half from the yards; they were wonderful bargains, the gentleman had assured them—personally, and for their own good. He could do this, so he explained to them, for the reason that he had himself no interest in their sale—he was merely the agent for a company that had built them. These were the last, and the company was going out of business, so if anyone wished to take advantage of this wonderful no-rent plan, he would have to be very quick. As a matter of fact, there was just a little uncertainty as to whether there was a single house left; for the agent had taken so many people to see them, and for all he knew the company might have parted with the last.

Any man who knows anything about butchering knows that the flesh of a cow that is about to calve or has just calved is not fit for food. A good many of these came every day to the packing houses, and, of course, if they had chosen, it would have been an easy matter for the packers to keep them till they were fit for food. But for the saving of time and fodder, it was the law that cows of that sort came along with the others, and whoever noticed it would tell the boss, and the boss would start up a conversation with the government inspector, and the two would stroll away. So in a trice the carcass of the cow would be cleaned out, and the entrails would have vanished. It was Jurgis’s task to slide them into the trap, calves and all, and on the floor below they took out these ‘slunk’ calves, and butchered them for meat, and used even the skins of them.

Cheap as the houses were, they were sold with the idea that the people who bought them would not be able to pay for them. When they failed—if it were only by a single month—they would lose the house and all that they had paid on it, and then the company would sell it over again.

That was another thing, Grandmother Majauszkiene interrupted herself—this house was unlucky. Every family that lived in it, someone was sure to get consumption.

‘But we don’t have to pay any interest!’ they exclaimed, three or four at once. ‘We only have to pay twelve dollars each month.’ And for this she laughed at them. ‘You are like all the rest,’ she said; ‘they trick you and eat you alive. They never sell the houses without interest. Get your deed, and see.’ Then, with a horrible sinking of the heart, Teta Elzbieta unlocked her bureau and brought out the paper that had already caused them so many agonies. Now they sat round, scarcely breathing, while the old lady, who could read English, ran over it. ‘Yes,’ she said, finally, ‘here it is, of course: “With interest thereon monthly, at the rate of seven per cent per annum.”’ And there followed a dead silence. ‘What does that mean?’ asked Jurgis finally, almost in a whisper. ‘That means,’ replied the other, ‘that you have to pay them eight dollars and forty cents next month, as well as the twelve dollars.’

How could they know that the pale blue milk that they bought around the corner was watered, and doctored with formaldehyde besides? When the children were not well at home, Teta Elzbieta would gather herbs and cure them; now she was obliged to go to the drug store and buy extracts—and how was she to know that they were all adulterated? How could they find out that their tea and coffee, their sugar and flour, had been doctored; that their canned peas had been coloured with copper salts, and their fruit jams with aniline dyes? And even if they had known it, what good would it have done them, since there was no place within miles of them where any other sort was to be had?

The general average was six hours a day, which meant for Jurgis about six dollars a week; and this six hours of work would be done after standing on the killing bed till one o’clock, or perhaps even three or four o’clock, in the afternoon.

And so on Christmas Eve Jurgis worked till nearly one o’clock in the morning, and on Christmas Day he was on the killing bed at seven o’clock.

All this was bad; and yet it was not the worst. For after all the hard work a man did, he was paid for only part of it. Jurgis had once been among those who scoffed at the idea of these huge concerns cheating; and so now he could appreciate the bitter irony of the fact that it was precisely their size which enabled them to do it with impunity.

A man might work full fifty minutes, but if there was no work to fill out the hour, there was no pay for him. Thus the end of every day was a sort of lottery—a struggle, all but breaking into open war between the bosses and the men, the former trying to rush a job through and the latter trying to stretch it out.

He had heard people say that it was a free country—but what did that mean? He found that here, precisely as in Russia, there were rich men who owned everything; and if one could not find any work, was not the hunger he began to feel the same sort of hunger?

It seemed that they must have agencies all over the country, to hunt out old and crippled and diseased cattle to be canned. There were cattle which had been fed on ‘whisky-malt’, the refuse of the breweries, and had become what the men called ‘steerly’—which means covered with boils. It was a nasty job killing these, for when you plunged your knife into them they would burst and splash foul-smelling stuff into your face; and when a man’s sleeves were smeared with blood, and his hands steeped in it, how was he ever to wipe his face, or to clear his eyes so that he could see? It was stuff such as this that made the ‘embalmed beef’ that had killed several times as many United States soldiers as all the bullets of the Spaniards; only the army beef, besides, was not fresh canned, it was old stuff that had been lying for years in the cellars.

When Jurgis had first inspected the packing plants with Szedvilas, he had marvelled while he listened to the tale of all the things that were made out of the carcasses of animals, and of all the lesser industries that were maintained there; now he found that each one of these lesser industries was a separate little inferno, in its way as horrible as the killing beds, the source and fountain of them all.

Worst of any, however, were the fertilizer-men, and those who served in the cooking rooms. These people could not be shown to the visitor, for the odour of a fertilizer-man would scare any ordinary visitor at a hundred yards; and as for the other men, who worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting—sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard!

This was in truth not living; it was scarcely even existing, and they felt that it was too little for the price they paid. They were willing to work all the time; and when people did their best, ought they not to be able to keep alive?

When they were at work they could not even wipe off their faces—they were as helpless as newly-born babies in that respect; and it may seem like a small matter, but when the sweat began to run down their necks and tickle them, or a fly to bother them, it was a torture like being burned alive. Whether it was the slaughter houses or the dumps that were responsible, one could not say, but with the hot weather there descended upon Packingtown a veritable Egyptian plague of flies;

Here was a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation, and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave-traders; under such circumstances immorality was exactly as inevitable, and as prevalent, as it was under the system of chattel slavery. Things that were quite unspeakable went on there in the packing houses all the time, and were taken for granted by everybody; only they did not show, as in the old slavery times, because there was no difference in colour between master and slave.

The great majority of the women who worked in Packingtown suffered in the same way and from the same cause, so it was not deemed a thing to see the doctor about; instead Ona would try patent medicines, one after another, as her friends told her about them. As these all contained alcohol, or some other stimulant, she found that they all did her good while she took them; and so she was always chasing the phantom of good health, and losing it because she was too poor to continue.

There was a ‘run on the bank’, they told her then, but she did not know what that was, and turned from one person to another, trying in an agony of fear to make out what they meant.

A time of peril on the killing beds was when a steer broke loose. Sometimes, in the haste of speeding-up, they would dump one of the animals out on the floor before it was fully stunned, and it would get upon its feet and run amuck. Then there would be a yell of warning—the men would drop everything and dash for the nearest pillar, slipping here and there on the floor, and tumbling over each other. This was bad enough in the summer, when a man could see; in winter-time it was enough to make your hair stand up, for the room would be so full of steam that you could not make anything out five feet in front of you.

But there was no work for him. He sought out all the members of his union—Jurgis had stuck to the union through all this—and begged them to speak a word for him. He went to everyone he knew, asking for a chance, there or anywhere. He wandered all day through the buildings; and in a week or two, when he had been all over the yards, and into every room to which he had access, and learned that there was not a job anywhere, he persuaded himself that there might have been a change in the places he had first visited, and began the round all over, till finally the watchmen and the ‘spotters’ of the companies came to know him by sight and to order him out with threats.

For an unskilled man, who made ten dollars a week in the rush seasons and five in the dull, it all depended upon the age and the number he had dependent upon him. An unmarried man could save, if he did not drink, and if he was absolutely selfish—that is, if he paid no heed to the demands of his old parents, or of his little brothers and sisters, or of any other relatives he might have, as well as of the members of his union, and his chums, and the people who might be starving to death next door.

knew it, and yet could not help approaching the place. There are all stages of being out of work in Packingtown, and he faced in dread the prospect of reaching the lowest. There is a place that waits for the lowest man—the fertilizer plant!

a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together

There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage.

Jurgis, being a man, had troubles of his own. There was another spectre following him. He had never spoken of it, nor would he allow anyone else to speak of it—he had never acknowledged its existence to himself. Yet the battle with it took all the manhood that he had—and once or twice, alas! a little more. Jurgis had discovered drink.

‘Ona lies in her room all day,’ the boy went on breathlessly. ‘She won’t eat anything, and she cries all the time. She won’t tell what is the matter, and she won’t go to work at all. Then a long time ago the man came for the rent. He was very cross. He came again last week. He said he would turn us out of the house. And then Marija—’

‘She’s cut her hand!’ said the boy. ‘She’s cut it bad this time, worse than before. She can’t work, and it’s all turning green, and the company doctor says she may—she may have to have it cut off. And Marija cries all the time—her money is nearly all gone, too, and we can’t pay the rent and the interest on the house; and we have no coal, and nothing more to eat, and the man at the store, he says—’ The little fellow stopped again, beginning to whimper.

Their home! Their home! They had lost it! Grief, despair, rage, overwhelmed him—what was any imagination of the thing to this heart-breaking, crushing reality of it—to the sight of strange people living in his house, hanging their curtains in his windows, staring at him with hostile eyes! It was monstrous—it was unthinkable—they could not do it—it could not be true! Only think what he had suffered for that house—what miseries they had all suffered for it—the price they had paid for it!

They had cast their all into the fight; and they had lost, they had lost! All that they had paid was gone—every cent of it. And their house was gone—they were back where they had started from, flung out into the cold to starve and freeze!

‘The child?’ he echoed in perplexity. ‘Antanas?’ Marija answered him, in a whisper: ‘The new one!’ And then Jurgis went limp, and caught himself on the ladder. He stared at her as if she were a ghost. ‘The new one!’ he gasped. ‘But it isn’t time,’ he added wildly. Marija nodded. ‘I know,’ she said, ‘but it’s come.’

‘How is she?’ echoed Madame Haupt. ‘How do you tink she can be ven you leave her to kill herself so? I told dem dot ven dey send for de priest. She is young, und she might haf got over it, und been vell and strong, if she been treated right. She fight hard, dot girl—she is not yet quite dead.’ And Jurgis gave a frantic scream. ‘Dead!’ ‘She vill die, of course,’ said the other angrily. ‘Der baby is dead now.’

Why had he wasted his time hunting? They had him on a secret list in every office, big and little, in the place. They had his name...

Then all day he was to pace the streets with hundreds and thousands of other homeless wretches, inquiring at stores, warehouses, and factories for a chance; and at night he was to crawl into some doorway or underneath a truck, and hide there until midnight, when he might get into one of the station houses, and spread a newspaper upon the floor, and lie down in the midst of a throng of ‘bums’ and beggars, reeking with alcohol and tobacco, and filthy with vermin and disease.

And then one afternoon, the ninth of his work in the place, when he went to get his overcoat, he saw a group of men crowded before a placard on the door, and when he went over and asked what it was, they told him that beginning with the morrow his department of the harvester works would be closed until further notice!

The end of it was that the young lady sent them a basket of things to eat, and left a letter that Jurgis was to take to a gentleman who was superintendent in one of the mills of the great steel works in South Chicago. ‘He will get Jurgis something to do,’ the young lady had said, and added, smiling through her tears: ‘If he doesn’t he will never marry

The end of it was that the young lady sent them a basket of things to eat, and left a letter that Jurgis was to take to a gentleman who was superintendent in one of the mills of the great steel works in South Chicago. ‘He will get Jurgis something to do,’ the young lady had said, and added, smiling through her tears: ‘If he doesn’t he will never marry me.’

He wrapped his bedding in a bundle and took it with him, and one of his fellow working-men introduced him to a Polish lodging house, where he might have the privilege of sleeping upon the floor for ten cents a night. He got his meals at free-lunch counters, and every Saturday night he went home—bedding and all—and took the greater part of his money to the family.

‘No, no!’ she exclaimed. ‘Don’t go up there!’ ‘What is it?’ he shouted. And the old woman answered him weakly: ‘It’s Antanas. He’s dead. He was drowned out in the street!’

‘I see,’ said the other, ‘that’s what I thought. When you get through working your horses this fall, will you turn them out in the snow?

So it was that one night, as Jurgis was on his way out with his gang, an engine and a loaded car dashed round one of the innumerable right-angle branches and struck him upon the shoulder, hurling him against the concrete wall and knocking him senseless.

This was in the month of January, 1904, when the country was on the verge of ‘hard times’, and the newspapers were reporting the shutting down of factories every day; it was estimated that a million and a half of men were thrown out of work before the spring.

At the saloon Jurgis could not only get more food and better food than he could buy in any restaurant for the same money, but a drink in the bargain to warm him up. Also he could find a comfortable seat by a fire, and could chat with a companion until he was as warm as toast. At the saloon, too, he felt at home. Part of the saloon-keeper’s business was to offer a home and refreshments to beggars in exchange for the proceeds of their foragings; and was there anyone else in the whole city who would do this—would the victim have done it himself?

Since it was Jurgis’s first experience, these details naturally caused him some worriment; but the other laughed coolly—it was the way of the game, and there was no helping it. Before long Jurgis would think no more of it than they did in the yards of knocking out a bullock. ‘It’s a case of us or the other fellow, and I say the other fellow every time,’ he observed. ‘Still,’ said Jurgis reflectively, ‘he never did us any harm.’ ‘He was doing it to somebody as hard as he could, you can be sure of that,’ said his friend.

All of these agencies of corruption were banded together, and leagued in blood brotherhood with the politician and the police; more often than not they were one and the same person—the police captain would own the brothel he pretended to raid, and the politician would open his headquarters in his saloon.

It was Scully who owned the brickyards and the dump and the ice pond—though Jurgis did not know it. It was Scully who was to blame for the unpaved street in which Jurgis’s child had been drowned; it was Scully who had put into office the magistrate who had first sent Jurgis to gaol; it was Scully who was principal stockholder in the company which had sold him the ramshackle tenement, and then robbed him of it. But Jurgis knew none of these things, any more than he knew that Scully was but a tool and puppet of the packers. To him Scully was a mighty power, the ‘biggest’ man he had ever met.

Now he walked jauntily, and smiled to himself, seeing the frown that came to the boss’s face as the timekeeper said, ‘Mr Harmon says to put this man on.’ It would overcrowd his department and spoil the record he was trying to make, but he said not a word except ‘All right.’

So the men boiled over, and one night telegrams went out from the union headquarters to all the big packing centres—to St Paul, South Omaha, Sioux City, St Joseph, Kansas City, East St Louis, and New York—and the next day at noon between fifty and sixty thousand men drew off their working clothes and marched out of the factories, and the great ‘Beef Strike’ was on.

And Jurgis saw. He went back to the yards, and into the workroom. The men had left a long line of hogs in various stages of preparation, and the foreman was directing the feeble efforts of a score or two of clerks and stenographers and office boys to finish up the job and get them into the chilling rooms. Jurgis went straight up to him and announced: ‘I have come back to work, Mr Murphy.’

Jurgis, overwhelmed with gratitude and relief, took the dollar and fourteen cents that was left him out of all his bank account, and put it with the two dollars and a quarter that was left from his last night’s celebration, and boarded a streetcar and got off at the other end of Chicago.

‘Yes,’ said the other; she was bending over, lacing her shoes as she spoke. ‘He was working in an oil factory—at least, he was hired by the men to get their beer. He used to carry cans on a long pole; and he’d drink a little out of each can, and one day he drank too much, and fell asleep in a corner, and got locked up in the place all night. When they found him the rats had killed him and eaten him nearly all up.’

And was it not plain that if the people cut off the share of those who merely ‘owned’, the share of those who worked would be much greater? That was as plain as two and two make four; and it was the whole of it—absolutely the whole of it; and yet there were people who could not see it, who would argue about everything else in the world.

And then he would go on to tell you that Socialism was ‘Paternalism’, and that if it ever had its way the world would stop progressing. It was enough to make a mule laugh to hear arguments like that; and yet it was no laughing matter, as you found out—for how many millions of such poor deluded wretches there were whose lives had been stunted by Capitalism that they no longer knew what freedom was!

The working man was to fix his hopes upon a future life, while his pockets were picked in this one; he was brought up to frugality, humility, obedience—in short, to all the pseudo-virtues of capitalism. The destiny of civilization would be decided in one final death struggle between the Red International and the Black, between Socialism and the Roman Catholic Church; while here at home, ‘the stygian midnight of American evangelicalism

First, that a Socialist believes in the common ownership and democratic management of the means of producing the necessities of life; and, second, that a Socialist believes that the means by which this is to be brought about is the class-conscious political organization of the wage-earners.

Of intellectual and moral things, on the other hand, there was no limit, and one could have more without another’s having less; hence, ‘Communism in material production, anarchism in intellectual’, was the formula of modern proletarian thought.

As soon as the birth-agony was over, and the wounds of society had been healed, there would be established a simple system whereby each man was credited with his labour and debited with his purchases; and after that the processes of production exchange, and consumption would go on automatically, and without our being conscious of them, any more than a man is conscious of the beating of his heart.

After the revolution, all the intellectual, artistic, and spiritual activities of men would be cared for by such ‘free associations; romantic novelists would be supported by those who liked to read romantic novels, and impressionist painters would be supported by those who liked to look at impressionist pictures—and the same with preachers and scientists, editors and actors and musicians.

after the abolition of privilege and exploitation, anyone would be able to support himself by an hour’s work a day.

So one by one the old, dingy, and unsanitary factories will come down—it will be cheaper to build new; and so the steamships will be provided with stoking machinery, and so the dangerous trades will be made safe, or substitutes will be found for their products. In exactly the same way, as the citizens of our Industrial Republic become refined, year by year the cost of slaughter-house products will increase, until eventually those who want to eat meat will have to do their own killing—and how long do you think the custom would survive then?

the majority of human beings are not yet human beings at all, but simply machines for the creating of wealth for others.

We shall have the sham reformers self-stultified and self-convicted; we shall have the radical Democracy left without a lie with which to cover its nakedness! And then will begin the rush that will never be checked, the tide that will never turn till it has reached its flood—that will be irresistible, overwhelming—the rallying of the outraged working men of Chicago to our standard! And we shall organize them, we shall drill them, we shall marshal them for the victory! We shall bear down the opposition, we shall sweep it before us—and Chicago will be ours! Chicago will be ours! CHICAGO WILL BE OURS!’

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