Political Theory

The Ghost of Tom Joad: Property, Guns, and the Law

Susan Liebell Saint Joseph's University
As contemporary Americans grapple with divided politics, mistreatment of displaced people, and, in particular, the challenges posed by gun violence, The Grapes of Wrath -- one of the most widely read and burned books in the U.S. -- provides a vital political text. Contemporary gun narratives claim that armed citizens thwart tyrannical government and injustice. Yet Steinbeck tells a very different story about individual gun ownership. Despite almost universal ownership of guns among male farmers, guns are rendered impotent and irrelevant for protest. Instead, guns are the instruments of power that sustain corporate agriculture by intimidating workers, discouraging unionization, and enforcing laws that limit the movement, health, survival, and dignity of the dispossessed migrants. In the context of corporate agriculture and large-scale property ownership, privately and publicly deployed guns erode the legitimacy of the police, rule of law, and government -- triggering collective rebellion.