Wednesday, August 19, 2015

I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked by Upton Sinclair

_I, Candidate for Governor:  And How I Got Licked_ by Upton Sinclair
Berkeley, CA:  University of CA Press, 1934, 1935
ISBN 0-520-08198-6

(vi)  "I say positively and without qualification, we can end poverty in California...  I know exactly how to do it, and if you elect me Governor, with a Legislature to support me, I will put the job through - and I won't take more than one or two of my four years."

The new government would establish a network of cooperative colonies for the state's 700,000 unemployed, basing them in idle factories and vacant farmland, which the state would seize under its powers of eminent domain or through confiscatory taxes.  The state would capitalize and manage these cooperative, which would exchange their products within a giant, cash-free network.  Modeled, although Sinclair did not say so, on Soviet collective farms, the EPIC colonies were not envisioned as temporary projects.  They were to be the seedbeds of a new cooperative economy, an economy of "production for use" that would ultimately supplant the old economy of "production for profits" as workers, farmers, and even businessmen realized the efficiency and numerous personal and social advantages of cooperation.

(xiv)  The barter clubs that had sprung up by the score in Southern California in the early Depression were a still more important source of ideas, for it was there that Sinclair saw the basic model for the cooperative network that would be EPIC's answer to unemployment and California's gateway to socialism.

(xv)  Master of the clever phrase and powerful slogan, Sinclair was unmatched in his ability to bring ideas down to the level of common sense, while persuading his audience that no other level was valid.  The intellectuals of his day found his style annoyingly egocentric, but for hundreds of of thousands of modestly educated Californians, his self-presentation as a teacher-with-all-the-answers was powerful and self-affirming.  He was the teacher, but taught that they were the experts, insisting that the so-called economists were fools, and that the only kind of economics that made sense had to be based on common sense.  Thus he set up his appealing equations:  that cooperation was more efficient than competition; that capitalism begot overproduction, which in turn begot unemployment;  that putting people to work made more sense than giving them handouts;  that state management and planning would balance production and consumption;  that "production for use" would end the Depression.  It was all so straightforward.  "I have spent my whole life studying the idea of production for use,"  he assured his audiences.  "It is to me as obvious as arithmetic, as certain as sunrise.  If you give hungry men tools and access to land, they will grow food;  if you give them access to factories, they will turn out goods.  Who but a lunatic - or a hireling - would question it?"

(12-13)  It is easy to imagine the unemployed of California in a system of production for use because of the efforts which they have made to establish such a system for themselves.  All over the State self-help and barter groups have sprung up.  There have been literally hundreds of them, and for a year or two I had been hearing stories of their achievements.  In Compton, an industrial town south of Los Angeles, they served 19,745 meals at a total money cost of less than one-half cent a meal.  My friend, Hjalmar Rutzebeck, author of "Alaska Man's Luck," was active in the UXAA (Unemployed Exchange Association) of Oakland, and told me marvelous tales about the complicated procedure whereby a group of several thousand hungry men would manage to make something out of nothing.  They would find a farmer with a crop of peaches rotting on the trees, and who needed to have his barn painted.  They would find a paint merchant who would accept some canned peaches in return for paint.  Some of these operations were extremely complicated, involving an elaborate circle of activities with a dozen different participants.

One would have expected such efforts at self-support to be welcomed by the entire community.  The cooperatives of Los Angeles county maintained 150,000 members for five months on a cash expenditure by the Government of only seventeen cents per family per month.  Since a family is found to average 3.6 persons, this was less than one-sixth of a cent per person per day.  Here was Los Angeles county drifting into bankruptcy;  here was the board of supervisors being besieged one day by hungry men demanding doles, and the next day by taxpayers clamoring against further taxes.  For persons on the dole who did not belong to cooperatives the State of California was paying out in one way and another forty-five cents per person per day, or 270 times  as much as the cooperatives were costing.  One would have expected that everybody in the county would hail the cooperatives as the most progressive, the most American, the most helpful of all the developments of these depression years.

But it was not so.  The cooperatives were handicapped and hamstrung in a hundred different ways.  Their funds were cut off, their leaders were bribed, they were broken by dissentions deliberately fostered.

A story was told to me by one of the leading society ladies of Los Angeles.  a self-help group had got hold of some old baking machinery and got it to working and were turning out several thousand loaves of bread per day.  Another group had got some land and grown some vegetables.  They had an old truck and were exchanging bread for vegetables;  but the bakery concerns objected to the bartering of bread, and the produce concerns objected to the bartering of vegetables, and the politicians forced the relief workers to cut off the gasoline supply of the truck, and so the operation was brought to an end.

This is how it is in our blind, anarchic society.  When the State gives money to the unemployed and they spend it for bread in a store, that amounts to a subsidy for the stores;  and in their greed for that subsidy the store-owners are willing to see the taxpayers driven out of their homes and the State driven into bankruptcy.

Even relief itself has become a racket.  As I write, Senator Borah tells the American people that of the money which the Government gives for relief of the unemployed not more than one-half actually reaches the unemployed.  The rest goes to the politicians along the line.  In Democratic States it goes to build up a Democratic machine and in Republican States it goes to build up a Republican machine.  California has been a Republican State for forty years and remains so, and the relief money serves to build up a machine of President Roosevelt's enemies and to bring the New Deal to futility.

(38-40)  I must not forget "Depression Island."  In my book, "The Way Out," written before the EPIC movement started, I had used the illustration of three men cast ashore upon a tropical island;  I imagined what would happen to them while they were free, and then the situation if one of them came to own the island.  I made a story out of it - three or four pages - and when the EPIC movement got going people began begging me to take up this idea and make it into a play or motion picture.  I wrote it as a scenario for a picture, a two-reel comedy.

Since the picture producers refuse any story which suggest any thing wrong with the profit system, we decided to raise the money and make "Depression Island" for ourselves.  I spent five days visiting in the palaces of the rich, begging for a loan of thirty-five hundred dollars.  I was able to get pledges amounting to seventeen hundred - of which five hundred was withdrawn two or three days after it was pledged!  So the motion picture version of "Depression Island" still waits.

Some of our people demanded it as a stage show, which could be made to pay for itself.  So in due course the Shrine auditorium was rented and our clubs were put at work selling tickets.  We borrowed the "set" of a tropical island from a motion picture concern, and one evening an audience of three or four thousand assembled.

The curtain went up on three castaways searching for water and something to eat.  There was an entirely practical cocoanut tree and highly realistic fish, both fresh and dried.  There magically arose a hut.  The three men were happy, because if Abie charged too many cocoanuts for a fish, Bing and Crunk could go out and get their own fish;  and the same with cocoanuts and huts.

The only trouble was they became bored and took to gambling, and Crunk, a realtor from Los Angeles, won the ownership of the island and also the fishing rights.  At once everything was changed, for Crunk put Abie and Bing to work for him, and paid them only one cocanut and one dried fish per day for their labors.  He made them pile up dried fish and cocoanuts for him, and when they had piled up more than he could use, he told them he was very sorry but there was no more work for them.  When they asked the reason, he said there was a depression on the island, and when they wanted to know what they should do about it, he told them that was their problem, not his.  Crunk was a believer in "rugged individualism."

So of course there arose the problem of social unrest.  Abie, a little Jewish song writer from New York, insisted upon helping himself to cocoanuts, whereupon Crunk, owner of the island, hired Bing as policeman and ordered him to put Abie into jail.  When Abie tried to persuade Bing that this was all nonsense, and that he and Bing should take the island away from Crunk, the latter called that criminal syndicalism, and urged Bing not to listen to any of that red talk.  Bing was a taxicab driver from Chicago, and told Abie that he was a Democrat and a patriot, and believed in law and order;  he obeyed the owner of the island, and Abie had to surrender, and be put on a dole of half a dried fish and half a cocoanut a day.

You can imagine how an audience of EPIC enthusiasts roared over these sallies.  The story went on to satirize all the developments of the depression.  When Crunk started to publish a newspaper and hired Abie to write editorials to tell Bing that the social system was ordained by God, the actors had to stop and wait for the audience to get over laughing.

Finally Abie hit upon the idea of persuading Bing to political action.  Bing, a loyal one hundred per cent American, would not listen to red talk, but he was quite ready to hear that they needed an election on that island.  So they founded the Democratic party, and Abie wrote a platform, and elected himself Governor and Bing Lieutenant-Governor, and proceeded to impose an income tax on the rich, to cover the deficit and pay salaries of the public officials.

The master of ceremonies at this show was my friend, Lewis Brown, and he helped in the ending of the play.  I had really been too busy to think up an ending, and had quit at the point where Crunk refused to recognize the government, and he and Bing got into a civil war.  At that point the master of ceremonies came running onto the scene protesting that brawling would not solve the social problem,  The actors said that that was as far as the script went, and it was up to the author to tell them what to do next.  So then there was  a shout, "Author! Author!" and the author of "Depression Island' was dragged onto the stage, and persuaded to tell the audience how this problem of want in the midst of plenty could be solved by majority consent.

(203)  "The future, if it remembers me at all, may forgive blunders caused by a too impetuous desire to stop the starving of men and women, and especially of little children, in a world which has learned to produce more than it can consume."

Final Statement of EPIC Plan:


  1. So relevant today. Thanks for sharing this with us. I loved "Depression Island"

    1. Glad you liked it. Upton Sinclair had a wide range and a sense of humor about himself.

      At some point I'll post a discussion on the NYC Socialist Party platform from the NY Call, the Socialist daily at the time, in preparation for the November 1917 election that saw multiple Socialist candidates elected to the NYC Board of Aldermen, the NY State Assembly, and one to the NYC Municipal Court, probably the first democratically elected judge in the world.

      That is still pretty relevant today too.