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Philosophy of Socialism in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle

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Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle goes through a series of intense struggles experienced by a Lithuanian immigrant family who have migrated to the United States in hopes for a better life. Sinclair encompasses the realities the working-class experiences in the Urban America, he creates a sense of familiarity with the migrant family, making the struggles more deeply felt, ensuring that we empathize with the victims of the capitalist society. In his writing, Sinclair does not necessarily go through the concept of capitalism, instead he reveals all the evils it creates, from the exploitation of individuals in need, to the low-quality products they carelessly sell to the public.

After going through most of the struggles that have been endured, Sinclair introduces a Character, known as Nicholas Schliemann, who discusses and advocates the political philosophy of Socialism. Sinclair’s strategic arrangement of the events in the book, gives the readers a chance to connect with the characters, empathize with them, and understand the evils of capitalism and the benefits of socialism, when it comes to the characters that have endured so much struggle. The reality that a book which was written in 1905, can still be applicable in todays world, makes The Jungle an eye-opening read, that reminds us despite our constant advancements, we are still far behind when it comes to equality. By using his book, this paper will analyze the circumstances and experiences of workers more than 100 years ago, and compare them to the current situation of workers in Urban communities, and argue the benefits of socialism.

Urban growth over the years, has been credited to natural population growth and rural to urban migration, contributing to sustained economic growth, while still somehow increasing economic equalities. The cities have provided opportunities for many, especially the poor who are attracted to better job opportunities, the availability of services, and in some cases, an escape from their constraining environments, yet they have also presented conditions of overcrowding, unemployment, inequalities, and violence.

Many of those who transition, benefit from the opportunities of an urban lifestyle, but some, fall behind, struggling with the daily challenges of the Urban transition, as was depicted in Sinclair’s novel. These people, become referred to as the “Urban Poor.” The urban poor are an outcome of economic expectations that went wrong, and they are on a rise, more than ever before. Considering the high growth predictions for most cities in developing countries, the challenges of the urban poor and the community as a whole, will only get worse and be impossible to manage. The solutions have revolved around investing in their settlements or investing in the poor themselves, but the discussion of socialism has been avoided or considered absurd for the longest time. Knowing that socialism stands for an equal standard of living for all, it is important to understand what it would truly mean for those struggling the most.

Today, those who are recognized and identified as “Urban Poor,” are people who live in urban spaces that lack basic services, such as potable water, sewers, electricity, or public light. This also includes lack of pavement streets, sidewalks, security and often lack of good public transportation. The Urban poor live with many deprivations and face many daily challenges, considering the limited access they have to employment opportunities, income, and acceptable housing and services. They are often also used to living in violent and unhealthy environments, with little or no social protection mechanisms, and limited access to adequate health and education opportunities.

We witness these people’s lives in so many different countries, especially in developing countries such as, Brazil, Kenya, and India. In Brazil, which has six to eight million fewer houses than what is needed, the outcome has been a proliferation of slum settlements occupying more than fifty million Brazilians. In Kenya, there are over two million people living in informal and inhabitable settlements within urban areas with unreliable access to electricity. The settlers have to resort to “illegal” alternatives, because they have been neglected the right to basic infrastructure by their own governments. In India, the urban poor live in slums that literally border the middle class neighborhoods. Most of them are migrants from native villages and go as an effort to create a better life. Instead they live a life where they have minimal or no access to sanitation, earn minimum wages, and in some cases, sleep in the streets, since they are unable to afford housing.

The similarity of neighborhoods in economic crisis are the hub of the poor and neglected, unlike the rich who have the means for relocation. Urban isolation creates strict divides between the poor and the rich, further results in the division of opportunities leading to social integration. Simultaneously, capitalistic states enable this social isolation for the fact that the system itself is dependent on individualism. In this environment, the urban poor who are a product of the capitalistic regime, involuntarily plays a self-destructive game. We see all of this in Sinclair’s book, where the family agrees to move into an affordable house filled with hidden costs, increasing their living expenses, pushing Ona and fourteen-year-old Stanislovas to look for jobs that eventually destroys them. The characters are all expected to work in impossible conditions, one where Ona is sexually harassed by her boss, one where Stanislovas loses fingers to frostbite due to the unmaintained work environment, and one where Dede had to pay part of his pay to his own boss and push himself to his own death in effort to make any amount of income.

With the Capitalist state, the highly competitive and consumer-driven economy disables the integration of the urban poor since it in fact, creates the urban poor. Economic causes of the urban poor date from industrialization to the technological revolution, as seen in The Jungle and today. Technology today, enables high production with less labor, and as such causes rise in unemployment, and, due to increased outsourcing, the employment demand has begun concentrating on high-educated individuals. Considering that the urban poor is often a result of perpetual poverty, they cannot afford higher education. This can be seen in Stanislovas case, where although Jurgis had high hopes for him attending school in America, he had to be put to work to help make ends meet.

The other factor that limits the poor’s capabilities and makes them easily disposal, is the fact that poverty limits their labor performance and the productivity, determining their employment contracts. The physical performance of a poor person will obviously be weak since they lack nutrition and are incapable of affording a doctor when they are sick or injured. This is evident when Jurgis sprains his ankle and has to spend around three months in bed; despite it being the poor working conditions that caused the injury, the factory cut off Jurgis’s pay till he heals. It is also shown in the case of Dede, Ona and her baby’s death during labor, and the death Kristoforas, Teta’ youngest son.

As the book goes further into the chapters, there is a shift in the behavior of the characters. They initially hold on to the hope of the “American Dream,” believing that the harder the work, the better it will get eventually. However, through the struggles, the values they were upholding seem to fade. This is evident when Jurgis resorts to violence towards Stanislovas to ensure he goes to work, violence towards Phil Conner, who forced Ona to sleep with him. Eventually, Jurgis also begins committing burglaries and muggings, and Marija becomes a prostitute and gets addicted to morphine. This shift allows readers to understand the bad decisions that are being made, are only an outcome of desperation to deal with and overcome their circumstances. The explanation for the circumstances Jurgis’s family was put into, is simply, Capitalism.

Neoliberal policies and reforms which have been an outcome of Capitalism, lead to high discrimination of vulnerable populations, including the urban poor. Neoliberal ideologies favor the private sector and object governmental interventions. These perspectives only contribute to the rich and businesses, while raising inequalities to the poor. Neoliberal policies devastate the poor because they treat them as equal to the rich. The expansion of global trade has shifted the country’s attention from wellbeing to financial profit. As Maas Alan states, “Any concession to priorities other than maximizing profit is an advantage for the other guy. In that sense, the members of the capitalist class — whatever their individual philosophies and sympathies — are disciplined by the iron rules of the free market.”

Although economic growth is considered to be an outcome of a free market, the problem remains in the unfair distribution of these profits, and the expectation of equal contribution and performances from both the rich and the poor. This expectation is now practiced worldwide, discriminates those that live in poverty and under the poverty lines. To understand the urban poor, one must be aware of the social, economic, and political effects capitalism has on the poor specifically. Simply, the capitalist state encourages neoliberal ideologies; neoliberal ideologies encourage and enable discrimination, inequality, and poverty; poverty causes fear, instability, and illness. These conditions force radical survival criminal behaviors, and an increase in the biggest crime that the state can commit to its citizens, poverty.

After illustrating the evils of capitalism, Sinclair offers socialism as the solution to the problems experienced by Jurgis and his family. Jurgis enters the socialist political meeting and there is an immediate shift, it is a sanctuary from the cruel realities of capitalism. As the speaker highlights the abuses and suffering of the laborers, Jurgis becomes an immediate convert to socialism. The speaker understands Jurgis’s experiences and addresses his needs, instead of addressing the needs of the wealthy.

For the first time, Jurgis feels welcomed and gives himself to this concept for equality the same way he gave himself for the failed American Dream. Sinclair’s drive towards socialism only makes sense. Socialism would simply ensure that the resources of society would be used to meet people’s needs. The achievements of the people would then benefit all of society rather than only a few people. The would be to replace the priority of making profit, with the well-being of the people. Consequently, resources would be owned and controlled by everyone, and decisions would be made democratically based on everyone’s needs. The transition would ensure that every single person in society has the necessities to live rich and fulfilling lives, free from violence, poverty, and oppression.

Unfortunately, the message Sinclair tried to get through, did not lead to any significant reactions. Instead, the description of rotten and contaminated meat within the meat industry, led the public to initiate new food safety laws. A passage from his book stated, “There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but 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.” Understandably, it caused a reaction.

The message to be taken however, is that real people are going through all the horrific experiences the characters went through in The Jungle, and unfortunately that book was written more than 100 years ago. The answer for Sinclair was socialism and for good reasons, the answer is still socialism. However, reality is we are too caught up into greedy life-style we’ve been living for far too long. A shift would need more than books, more than the struggles of millions of people, it would need the initiative of the majority, to build a truly equal society.

References

  1. Costly, Andrew. Upton Sinclairs The Jungle: Muckraking the Meat-Packing Industry – Constitutional Rights Foundation. 2008, www.crf-usa.org/bill-of-rights-in-action/bria-24-1-b-upton-sinclairs-the-jungle-muckraking-the-meat-packing-industry.html.
  2. Maass, Alan.The Case for Socialism (Updated). Haymarket Books, 2010.
  3. Martin, et al. “New Evidence on the Urbanization of Global Poverty.” New Evidence on the Urbanization of Global Poverty (English) | The World Bank, 1 July 2010, documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/371511468314708097/New-evidence-on-the-urbanization-of-global-poverty.
  4. Ross, Tracey. “Addressing Urban Poverty in America Must Remain a Priority.” Center for American Progress, 5 June 2013, www.americanprogress.org/issues/poverty/news/2013/06/05/65268/addressing-urban-poverty-in-america-must-remain-a-priority/.
  5. Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Doubleday, Jabber & Company, 1905.
  6. Small, Mario Luis, and Katherine Newman. “Urban Poverty AfterThe Truly Disadvantaged: The Rediscovery of the Family, the Neighborhood, and Culture.” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 27, no. 1, 2001, pp. 23–45., doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.27.1.23.

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