Monday, January 5, 2009

Proletarians in the Cafeteria, Fontana, 1945

Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.
-Jean-Paul Sartre

In Ronald Reagan, Jean-Paul Sartre and the Tennessee Valley Authority I wrote about Sartre’s visit to Fontana Village during the construction of the Dam. I'm fascinated with how that brief stopover shaped his thinking about the United States, considering how Fontana was so unrepresentative of "typical" life here. One commentator addressed Sartre’s focus on the transitory nature of 1945 America, and how Fontana Village exemplified that:

Manhattan, he wrote, was a vast "rock desert" in which thousands of houses built of brick, wood or reinforced concrete appeared to be "on the point of flying away." Indeed, all the American cities Sartre visited seemed to him touched by a sense of impermanence or lightness. The prefabs he saw in Fontana, on a tour of the Tennessee Valley Authority, were American dwellings par excellence, fragile and provisional; and even in New York, he was struck by the "flimsiness of the building materials used."

Sartre seemed amazed and bemused by what he observed in the United States. In an article published in the June 9, 1945 issue of Combat, Sartre reflected on the economics of working – and dining - at Fontana.

The American Worker Eats Just as Well as His Boss
And Heinz Produces 57 Varieties of Canned Foods for Its Fellow Citizens

New York: Here people say regularly that the poorest American believes deep down that he can become a Rockefeller or move into the White House. Perhaps this is somewhat less true since the 1930s depression, but up until then this feeling was indeed quite widespread.In this respect people pointed out a very important fact to me: at the beginning of that terrible depression, when millions of workers and employees found themselves out of work overnight, it was very difficult to persuade many of them to register at the unemployment office: they were ashamed. They were so used to counting on themselves that they were unable to see themselves as innocent victims of a collective catastrophe. It seemed to them that their misfortune was their own fault and that they had not been sufficiently clever or hardworking.

Unable to grasp the meaning of collective property or of a collective event, how could they have been aware of the collective nature of their condition?

The Minimum Wage

I must admit that their standard of living, especially today, blinds them to their real problems. Of course, one must not exaggerate: there are still, if one includes the blacks, millions of workers whose wages are below the poverty line. About a month and a half ago, the federal government raised the minimum wage to 55 cents per hour; it had been 50 cents, which means that there were still a lot of people in America who made less than $100 per month. This is especially the case for workers in small shops and department stores as well as laundry workers, etc. But the "real" workers: the steel workers, the miners, mechanics, and so on, enjoy a much higher standard of living and they are far more numerous than those underprivileged ones.

One Unmarried Worker in Fontana Village

Take as an example the Fontana Dam being constructed by the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority]. Its workers make on the average six dollars per day. The legal work week is 40 hours and overtime is paid at one-and-a-half times the regular rate. The monthly wages range roughly from $330 to $360 a month and they are far from being the highest in America. At the official exchange rate of 50 francs to the dollar, they are making between 16,500 Frs. and 18,000 Frs. per month. But since life is nevertheless more expensive in America than in France (if one ignores for a moment the black market), it is better to evaluate the buying power this income confers on the worker.

Let us suppose he is unmarried because today everybody works in America, and if he is married, his wife’s pay is added to his. He lives in Fontana Village, an artificial community made up of those "prefabricated houses" [in English in the text] which I talked about elsewhere. It is furnished and has three bedrooms, a kitchen, and bathroom, and he pays $31 per month rent. The furniture is ordinary, but completely new: it reminded me of the furniture from Dufayel, Bûcheron, or the Galeries Barbès. There are couches, leather arm chairs, an electric oven, and a fridge.

This "housing" [in English in the text] policy is advantageous to the bosses: they are not out of pocket, because their enterprise is profitable and the workers rent from them and live on their property, which allows them to better control them. But it is also to the workers’ advantage: they live in the most amazing comfort and it does not cost them too much.

Our "proletarian" buys his groceries in general food stores situated in the village itself and set up in agreement with the industry boss, and those stores sell him their wares at very low prices. If he prefers to eat out, he can eat for 40 cents in the enterprise’s cafeteria.I have often eaten in these "cafeterias": there is lots of food and it is good. At the entrance, there is a reminder that the country is at war and the customers are asked not to order more food than they can eat: a clear indication that no one is starving to death.

Life is so standardized here that I found no significant difference between the menus of the luxury restaurants and the canteens. In restaurants, you pay mostly for the cutlery, the service, and the atmosphere, but no matter where you go you find, whether it is in the "Automats" or the dining room of the great hotels, the same green peas whose color is so garish that you think they were hand-painted, the same unsalted white beans which are served in little dishes, the same brown and odd-looking gravy; it is semi-sweet, semi-salty, and they spread it on a refrigerated piece of beef, and especially the same canned foods Heinz provides to all of America—its 57 varieties of canned foods allow it to play a great role as equalizer. To finish up, the worker, just like his boss, eats a big piece of sponge cake with cream or an "ice cream" [in English in the text]. They drink the same chlorinated ice water and the same bad coffee.

The Worker’s Budget

As a consequence, the worker seldom has the dim but haunting notion that the rich bourgeois American eats luxurious meals that he has to do without. For $30 or $40 a month he can eat the same food as "everybody" else, that food that is so American and that one finds from one end of the United States to the other and at all levels of society and which is presumably rich in vitamins but has so few that after their meals most people take vitamin pills apparently made especially to be swallowed rapidly and casually by people in a hurry. Now we have spent $60 to $70; take out $20 to $30 for taxes, $60 to $70 for war bonds (the worker considers buying war bonds a patriotic duty and spends regularly 15 percent to 20 percent of his wages on them). This still leaves the worker $180 to $200 for clothes, miscellaneous expenses, and going out. If he wants to, he can become a shareholder and participate, to a certain degree, in the life of American capital.

View from future site of Fontana Dam, Little Tennessee River, 1938

1 comment:

Western North Carolina Writer's Underground said...

Its truly amazing just how wide and deep (in places) that the Little Tennessee was. What a river. I hope TVA does another big draw-down in '10. I'm going to canoe it this time!