There’s a scene from John Steinbeck’s The Pearl that’s been coming back to me over and over again ever since I started writing about US politics. I find it amazing that this scene hasn’t become a political meme yet, given Steinbeck’s fame and given its perfect illustration of the fake two-party system that we see in western so-called democracies.
The Pearl is a short novel about a poor fisherman, Kino, who discovers the titular enormous gem in an oyster and goes to sell it to the pearl buyers in town. What he doesn’t know is that the buyers, while they have multiple offices and pretend to compete with each other, all actually work for the same owner.
“Kino has found the Pearl of the World,” Steinbeck writes. “In the town, in little offices, sat the men who bought pearls from the fishers. They waited in their chairs until the pearls came in, and then they cackled and fought and shouted and threatened until they reached the lowest price the fisherman would stand.”
“And when the buying was over, these buyers sat alone and their fingers played restlessly with the pearls, and they wished they owned the pearls. For there were not many buyers really — there was only one, and he kept these agents in separate offices to give a semblance of competition.”
When Kino brings the priceless pearl to the sellers, they put on a performance, working together to deceive him into thinking it has no value in order to cheat him out of it for a ridiculously low price.
The man behind the desk said: “I have put a value on this pearl. The owner here does not think it fair. I will ask you to examine this — this thing and make an offer. Notice,” he said to Kino, “I have not mentioned what I have offered.”
The first dealer, dry and stringy, seemed now to see the pearl for the first time. He took it up, rolled it quickly between thumb and forefinger, and then cast it contemptuously back into the tray.
“Do not include me in the discussion,” he said dryly. “I will make no offer at all. I do not want it. This is not a pearl — it is a monstrosity.” His thin lips curled.
Now the second dealer, a little man with a shy soft voice, took up the pearl, and he examined it carefully. He took a glass from his pocket and inspected it under magnification. Then he laughed softly.
“Better pearls are made of paste,” he said. “I know these things. This is soft and chalky, it will lose its color and die in a few months. Look-” He offered the glass to Kino, showed him how to use it, and Kino, who had never seen a pearl’s surface magnified, was shocked at the strange-looking surface.
The third dealer took the pearl from Kino’s hands. “One of my clients likes such things,” he said. “I will offer five hundred pesos, and perhaps I can sell it to my client for six hundred.”
Kino reached quickly and snatched the pearl from his hand. He wrapped it in the deerskin and thrust it inside his shirt. The man behind the desk said, “I’m a fool, I know, but my first offer stands. I still offer one thousand. What are you doing?” he asked, as Kino thrust the pearl out of sight.
“I am cheated,” Kino cried fiercely. “My pearl is not for sale here. I will go, perhaps even to the capital.”
Now the dealers glanced quickly at one another. They knew they had played too hard; they knew they would be disciplined for their failure, and the man at the desk said quickly, “I might go to fifteen hundred.”
This is exactly how the two-headed one-party system works, in America and elsewhere. One party owned by one imperialist oligarchic class is placed in two separate offices “to give some semblance of competition,” just like Steinbeck’s pearl buyers. And just like Steinbeck’s pearl buyers they work together to deceive the people into accepting the lowest possible bid, in their case meaning the acceptance of virtually no change at all from the imperialist oligarchic status quo.
You see this kleptocratic dynamic at play regardless of who is in office. When the two-headed one-party system convinced Americans to sell their pearl to Barack Obama, for example, their payment took the form of a corporatist healthcare scam deceitfully labeled the Affordable Care Act and a pathetic temporary band-aid on the sucking chest wound of environmental peril, along with a continuation and expansion of all of Bush’s most depraved foreign and domestic policies.
Then Kino, angry and determined never again to be deceived, sold his pearl to the Republican Party. This time his payment consisted of a tax break for the wealthy and some verbiage about a wall, along with a continuation and expansion of all of Obama’s most depraved foreign and domestic policies.
This pattern repeats over and over and over again, whether it’s the presidency or Congress, and the people never learn their lesson. They’re trained to think of the two parties as competing, when really they’re more like the left fist and the right fist on the same boxer. An orthodox-stance boxer uses the left jab and the right cross in conjunction with each other in one-two punch combinations to accomplish the same goal, namely to leave his opponent staring up at the arena lights and rethinking his life decisions. And in this case, the boxer’s opponent is you.
Ralph Nader, who to this day is still falsely smeared as responsible for George W Bush’s pseudo-victory over Al Gore in 2000, occasionally shares an anecdote about the time he told his father that what America needs is a good third party.
“I’ll settle for a second,” his father replied.
This is the kind of clear seeing we all need to have. We need to not fall into the drama of the two-handed puppet show and mistake what we are seeing for two separate and competing entities. We need to see and be aware of the puppeteer at all times.
Look past the “semblance of competition” and watch what the pearl buyers are actually doing.
Ignore their words.
Ignore their fake pro-wrestling kayfabe combat over impeachment agendas they know will never bear fruit and their Russia conspiracies they know are pure nonsense.
Watch their actual behaviors instead.
Don’t fall for the illusion.
Don’t get sucked into the drama of the two-handed puppet show.
Don’t be deceived, Kino.
Don’t sell your pearl.