From Frank Norris to Us

The farmer—he who raised the wheat—was ruined upon one hand; the working-man—he who consumed it—was ruined upon the other. But between the two, the great operators, who never saw the wheat they traded in, bought and sold the world’s food, gambled in the nourishment of entire nations, practised their tricks, their chicanery and oblique shifty “deals,” were reconciled in their differences, and went on through their appointed way, jovial, contented, enthroned, and unassailable.

Those are the last lines of Frank Norris’s story “A Deal in Wheat,” now over a century old but still as fresh in point as ever. “Unassailable”? It does seem so.

Our worship in the market, however, is as questionable as our faith in paper money: neither is anything but mechanism, means for assisting in the moving of items to meet needs. Yet, neither the things in themselves nor their utilization, offering nothing on their own, they remain (unstable though they may be) the foundation beneath real wealth.

And, as Norris shows so simply, they also were and remain the means for keeping both creators and consumers from wealth. They are the real “redistributors” of wealth.

Seeing this, some of us have changed our approaches to what we do… especially those of us involved in creation, be it of farm products or of anything else. It is no longer enough to be proud of skill, of craft. Less and less of our time is spent on craft, more on the intangibles that represent wealth.

We have discovered, over the past generation, that it is not sufficient to be a creator—one also has to trade in one’s craft, if one is to participate in parlaying it into fortune. Norris’s Sam Lewiston merely wants to sell his wheat—and so, loses his farm. These days, a musician makes a deal with a record company—and finds he or she no longer even “owns” their own “sound”—as happened to John Fogerty, who was sued by a music publisher for sounding too much like himself (the publisher owned rights to his early music). The smart musicians—Ray Charles, for example, who negotiated for ownership of his masters—now make sure they are part of the trade game, not simply creators.

In fact, we have reached the point where no one is a “real” artist unless one makes money out of art. What’s odd about this is that it moves us towards a point where it is David Geffen who will be the artist, not Joni Mitchell, whose song about Geffen, “Free Man in Paris,” has him speaking of “Stokin’ the star-maker machinery/Behind the popular song.” The machinery, not the artist, not the song, becomes the center. Ray Davies found this out long ago:

Everyone take a little bit here and a little bit there
Do they all deserve money from a song that they’ve never heard
They don’t know the tune and they don’t know the words
But they don’t give a damn

Today, though we make all sorts of excuses for the rise in housing prices, in fuel, and in food, the real reason for the quick and steep increases is speculation. Speculation unchecked by regulation.

Prices go up? Someone gets rich.

The rest of us, even (for the most part—not counting the few creators who have learned how to play the game) just make do with less.

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