CHRIST IN CONCRETE: The Sacrifice of Immigrant Labor to the Pagan God of Capitalism

Christ in Concrete (1939) by Pietro di Donato

concrete good

          1939 saw the release of two celebrated works about the experiences of downtrodden American migrants to California during the Depression: John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath and William Saroyan’s drama The Time of Your Life. Both would go on to win Pulitzer Prizes in their respective genres and enter the canon as classic American works of the proletariat in the Depression-era. Both would be mythologized in Hollywood films — the former starring Henry Fonda and the latter James Cagney. Equally celebrated in that year was a work of fiction that also would be turned into a film ten years later, Give Us This Day, directed by the blacklisted Edward Dmytryk. The novel’s author didn’t win any awards or achieve the canonical status of Steinbeck or Saroyan, despite his novel’s passionate prose, timely narrative, and (as almost eighty years of time has confirmed) timeless themes.

          The novel was Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete, which focuses on the struggles of urban immigrants back east who risked their lives for starvation wages in the 1920s to help build the sprawling cities that drove an American economic boom that would come crashing down in 1929. Like The Grapes of Wrath and The Time of Your Life, Christ in Concrete is a critique of the mythical American Dream — an idea that fuels the capitalist exploitation of immigrants, migrants, ethnic minorities, and the working poor for the prosperity and comfort of the upper classes, thereby excluding from advancement the very American citizens who drive the economic engine. It is a novel in which the stark, bitter reality of the American promise becomes clear to the Italian immigrants who toil as bricklayers: their labor, their bodies, and their blood are used to develop a nation whose laws, justice system, and business practices not only preclude them from the profits of their labor, but dehumanize them at every turn — or simply refuse even to acknowledge their existence.

          The novel opens with the death of a bright and skilled bricklayer named Geremio, the patriarch of a large family of Italian immigrants who assume that their father’s hard work and honest living will help them soon to achieve the American Dream: a steady job, their own home, financial stability, upward mobility, security for their children, etc. In truth, Geremio and his Italian-American co-workers are treated as expendable tools, whose safety is the last thing of concern to either the construction corporation or the law.

give us this day

Give Us This Day (Christ in Concrete), dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1949

          Geremio’s horrific death due to the negligence of uncaring bosses at his construction site is a brutal, visceral wake-up call: these immigrant laborers are not free and equal citizens in the American capitalist system. They are, instead, the Christs in concrete who sacrifice their lives for the pagan god “Job.” All that matters is Job. They live and die for Job. Job is their master.


His train of thought quickly took in his family, home and hopes. And with hope came fear. Something within asked, “Is it not possible to breathe God’s air without fear dominating with the pall of unemployment? And the terror of production for Boss, Boss and Job? To rebel is to lose all of the very little. To be obedient is to choke. O dear Lord, guide my path.”

–Pietro di Donato


          Commentators often comment on the so-called “personification” of “Job” in the novel. However, it is not so much a personification as a deification. Job is another word for the pagan god of Capitalism (or even more specifically, Corporatism) with the owners functioning as high priests, the foremen as deacons, and the immigrant labor force as the flock, ostensibly “saved” by the holy auspices of Job, but ultimately guided to their demise like lambs to the slaughter. As the sacrificial offerings to the pagan god of the New World, the men are martyrs to a nation whose economic system exploits their sweat, steals their blood, and gives them only the hope of some better life in the future — the “American Dream” as an eternal promise for their suffering. I would even suggest that the designation “Job” is a textual connection to the Biblical Job. Di Donato’s novel, like the Old Testament book, grapples with the injustice of innocent humans suffering purely on the faith of a silent god. In di Donato’s novel, that silent god is extended to include the pagan god of Capitalism.

          Set against this pagan god of the New World is the joyous, pastoral, communal celebrations of the Italian immigrants, as documented in the section titled “Fiesta.” Their Old World rituals are a stark contrast to both the stifling dominance of Job and the impotent emptiness of the Catholic Church, whose presence in the novel is epitomized by the Irish priest who dismisses a dire request for aid from Paul with a slice of “rich-rich cake.” Unable to nourish the spiritual needs of the immigrants or provide charity relief in their times of deep misfortune, the Church is the Old World equivalent of Job: taking from the people in the distant, empty promise of some mythical “better life” in the future. As a result, the working-class must rely on each other — as workers and as neighbors — drawing strength from their ancient, pre-Christian rituals of sharing food and song in a sense of communal bonding.

pietro

Pietro di Donato

          As the narrative shifts from Geremio’s concrete crucifixion to the coming-of-age of his 12-year-old son Paul, the reader shares in Paul’s gradual awareness of his friends and family not as the recipients of the blessings of the Land of Plenty, but rather as the burnt offerings to this new pagan god. Although di Donato was drawing from his own personal experiences as the son of a bricklayer who died in an accident on the job, one can’t help but be reminded of Marx’s theory of surplus value from the first volume of Capital, in which he uses bricklayers as an example of highly skilled workers whose labor generates new value well beyond the labor-cost: “The distinction between skilled and unskilled labor rests in part on pure illusion, or, to say the least, on distinctions that have long since ceased to be real, and that survive only by virtue of a traditional convention; in part on the helpless condition of some groups of the working-class, a condition that prevents them from exacting equally with the rest the value of their labor-power. Accidental circumstances here play so great a part, that these two forms of labor sometimes change places. Where, for instance, the physique of the working-class has deteriorated, and is, relatively speaking, exhausted, which is the case in all countries with a well developed capitalist production, the lower forms of labor, which demand great expenditure of muscle, are in general considered as skilled, compared with much more delicate forms of labor; the latter sink down to the level of unskilled labor. Take as an example the labor of a bricklayer, which in England occupies a much higher level than that of a damask-weaver. Again, although the labor of a fustian cutter demands great bodily exertion, and is at the same time unhealthy, yet it counts only as unskilled labor.” Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete is one of the purest fictional depictions of Marx’s theory of surplus value. As Paul begins his bricklaying career, he soon comes to realize that the fruits of his labor far exceed the value of his compensation.


“Mister Rinaldi, if you don’t mind — I’d like to say something to you –”

Rinaldi bent his ear a little toward Paul but did not look at him.

“Mister Rinaldi, we can’t do anything with my five dollars — oh, please, Mr. Rinaldi, am I not worth more than five dollars? Oh please, I can’t go home with only five dollars…”

“You see, Pauli, I don’t run the corporation by myself. Understand?”

“But, Mister Rinaldi, don’t you think I should get more than five dollars…?”

“…I — say you are.”

“So, Mister Rinaldi…please…?”

“I can’t fight with the corporation.”

“But they knew my father and worked for him — they know I am worth more than five dollars — why don’t they help me? Mister Rinaldi, why?”

Rinaldi looked for the first time at Paul, and kindly, then said with a shrug:

“I’m sorry, Paulie…That’s the way the world is.”

–Pietro di Donato


          Di Donato’s deeply empathetic portrait of the Italian immigrant laborers is both humanizing and glorifying: like Paul, the reader comes to see these men as martyrs, whose gruesome deaths on the scaffolding of the new cathedrals of the pagan god Capitalism are preserved in concrete like the saints who adorn the stone parapets of medieval cathedrals — monuments in stone that were created, not coincidentally, by the guilds of Old World working-class stonemasons, carpenters, and metallurgists who were the forefathers (perhaps even literally) of these Italian immigrants.

          It cannot be coincidental that di Donato names his young protagonist Paul. Like St. Paul the Apostle, he witnesses a “crucifixion” and undergoes a spiritual transformation, accepting his role as an apostle of the new labor movement by testifying to the Christs in concrete who have suffered and died so that their families may one day secure a better life in a New World. Paul’s conversion roughly follows the new spiritual awakening described in the Pauline epistles, culminating in Paul’s mystic dream-vision  — not in subjugation to the false gods of Job or Church, but in service to the very human sacrifices of his fellow laborers. Paul’s dream details his conversion to a new faith in socialism and the labor movement.


He looks about Job. He is in a huge choir loft with scaffolding about the walls. In niches are Saints. They wear overalls and look like paesanos he dimly recalls. They step down and carry hods and push wheelbarrows. But what Saints are they? The little fellow and the curly-headed and the mortarman look like Thomas and Lazarene, and the Snoutnose who once visited the house.

— Pietro di Donato


          Paul’s allegiance is now with his working-class brethren, whose martyrdom he has witnessed on the scaffolding of Job. Paul’s mother, a devout Catholic, soon makes the heart-rending decision that her faith must be born anew, not in the “plaster man and wooden cross,” but in her fellow man: “Follow him,” she tells her children of this newly transformed Paul. His mother’s blessing is a testament to his new faith, which is documented in Christ in Concrete much like St. Paul’s own conversion was recounted in his First Epistle to the Corinthians.

Almost eighty years after its publication, di Donato’s autobiographical portrait — testifying to the sacrificial burden of new immigrants in a nation that purports to welcome them, while simultaneously exploiting their labor and dehumanizing their struggle — remains, unfortunately, all-too-relevant. The American conceit of being a land of hope and plenty for tempest-tossed refugees is belied by every new generation’s attempts to deny immigrants the same opportunities granted their ancestors. As we have learned from the fiction of so many great American writers who emigrated to the United States in the twentieth century — Yezierska, Cahan, Saroyan, Rølvaag, and di Donato, among them — the success of immigrants is won in the face of overwhelming challenges and hardships. For them, the promise of the American Dream exists at the expense of their struggle, rather than as a safe harbor from it. Their triumph is an overcoming of adversity built into a system that actively denies them its loftiest ideals.

 

BREAD AND WINE: The Reconstitution of Faith as Individual Resistance to the “Collective Stupefaction” of Fascism

Bread and Wine (1936) by Ignazio Silone

 

silone bread cover good


“Do you remember the fantastic plans we used to make?”

“To me you seem to be recalling prehistory,” Nunzio said.

“When we went out into the world,” Pietro went on, “we found ourselves in a society that was totally unforeseen, and each one of us had to make his choice — to submit or to put his life in jeopardy. Once upon a time there may have been middle ways, but for our generation after the war they were closed. How many years have passed since then? Barely fifteen, and anyone who saw the two of us here now would never imagine that up to the age of twenty our lives ran parallel and we nursed the same dreams for the future.”

Nunzio seemed nervous and upset. “It’s true that we now belong to two different parties,” he said.

“Two different humanities,” Pietro corrected him.

— Ignazio Silone


          Bread and Wine is Ignazio Silone’s moving 1936 novel of the Italian socialist resistance to fascism in the early twentieth century. After only recently adapting to the industrial age of the long 19th century, the agrarian proletariat found themselves confronting the challenges of an emerging global age in the years leading up to World War II. It was an era ushered in by disasters: from the natural (including devastating earthquakes in the teens and twenties that killed tens of thousands of Italians and a flu pandemic that ravaged Europe) to the man-made (most notably the mechanized horrors of the Great War and a global depression in the 1930s). In the face of a rapidly advancing mechanized (and weaponized) society and the advent of mass communication, the former institutions of authority — from a myriad of local and regional assemblies to the all-encompassing Catholic Church — were shaken to their core. Suddenly, the methods of power to subjugate the masses (consolidation of wealth, control of the means of production, allegiance to rigid social/economic hierarchies, vilification of individuality, restrictions on public spaces/speech, adoption of a ritualized/mystical folk mythos, and the exploitation of cultural in-group/out-group dynamics) were harnessed by nationalists in Italy towards a new political force: fascism.

          Cast against this backdrop of a bleak modern age were the cafoni — poor, rural Italian peasants who, like their fellow working class brethren throughout Europe, were trapped by the threefold masters of fascism, communism, and capitalism. The hero of Silone’s novel, Pietro Spina, emerges from the peasantry to become a revolutionary, trying to balance the theory of Marxist intellectualism with the gritty reality of the day-to-day lives of the cafoni as they gradually succumb to the nationalist indoctrination of their new fascist masters. On the run from authorities and finding himself at odds with his communist comrades who are too rigidly adopting a similar type of authoritarian dogma, the atheist Spina must take the disguise of a Catholic priest and become Don Paolo Spada. Under this name, he lives among the cafoni, attempting to keep a low profile while simultaneously continuing his resistance to the Blackshirts. As the Catholic Church looks the other way when the political climate shifts to fascism (or, at worst, becomes complicit in its rise), “Don Paolo Spada,” ironically, becomes a saint-like hero to the cafoni as he tells them direct, honest truths that neither parrot the empty platitudes of religious doctrine nor placate the burgeoning fascists. In an age of “alternative facts” and magical thinking, the resistance fighter’s words become a source of comfort. In short, the atheistic revolutionary becomes the one who “keeps Christian honor alive in these parts” through acts of individual resistance to the authoritarian dogmas (political and theological) that had been crushing the spirit of the people. Through his resistance, Spina/Spada acts as the living embodiment of the most Christian virtue: individual sacrifice for the love of the oppressed.


Our love, our disposition for sacrifice and self-abnegation are fruitful only if they are carried into relations with our fellows. Morality can live and flourish only in practical life. We are responsible also for others.

If we apply our moral feelings to the evil that prevails all round us, we cannot remain inactive and console ourselves with the expectation of an ultra-terrestrial life. The evil to be combated is not the sad abstraction that is called the devil: the evil is everything that prevents millions of people from becoming human. We too are directly responsible for all this…

I believe that nowadays there is no other way of saving one’s soul. He is saved who overcomes his individual, family, class selfishness and frees himself of the idea of the resignation to the existing evil.

— Ignazio Silone


          Spina/Spada comes to understand that it is not enough to be passive when confronting evil on earth while maintaining faith in some later mystical “better world” in the afterlife. That type of thinking has led to the hypocrisy of religious institutions buttressing the political regimes and economic policies that represent true evil precisely because they cause widespread harm. In this new century, a person’s faith must be placed in (and derive from) the people. If the prevailing social structure perpetuates evil, then the only moral action is to actively resist those institutions. Instead of symbolically celebrating the mythical sacrifice of past religious figures (the “bread and wine” of passive religious ritual), one must be willing to sacrifice oneself in the here-and-now to create that better world on earth by ensuring the safety of the masses against such overwhelming evil (in other words, breaking bread and sharing wine with those who depend upon it for their survival). 


The men around the table ate and drank.

“Bread is made of many grains of corn,” said Pietro, “so it means unity. Wine is made of many grapes, so it means unity too. Unity of similar, equal, useful things. Hence truth and fraternity are also things that go well together.”

“The bread and wine of Holy Communion,” an older man said. “The wheat and grapes that are trampled on. The body and the blood.”

“It takes nine months to make bread,” old Murica said.

“Nine months?” exclaimed the mother.

— Ignazio Silone


          One of the main themes of Silone’s novel — that which Spina/Spada must grapple with in his personal writing and interactions with the cafoni — is reconciliation: between theory and practical living, between faith in institutions (including the party) and faith in people, between spiritual renewal and bodily security, and between individual sacrifice and communal strength. Perhaps the most important of those is faith, an issue tackled by many post-Marxist philosophers during and after World War II, and one which Silone offers as the primary metaphor of his novel (the bread and wine of the title). For Silone, the Kierkegaardian leap of faith still constitutes belief as the acceptance of the unreasonable; however, the perception of rationality (and reality) has been inverted, so that the choice to make that “leap” is no longer confined to the spiritual realm. In a world where ordinary discourse has moved beyond reason — where “alternative facts” and magical thinking are not the harbingers of personal leaps of faith, but the concrete norms of public rhetoric — then the power of belief must necessarily shift from (private) acceptance to (public) resistance. When irrationality becomes the norm, its acceptance becomes expected — and is quite often demanded! — by the masses who support those in power. The leap of faith made by Spina/Spada is one that must be made by all critical thinking people during times of widespread authoritarian rule where the public and private spheres are equally regulated, and represents a “faith” in reason, facts, truth, and virtue. It is the “unreasonable belief” that rationality (in the form of individual, public resistance) will prevail in the face of mass irrationality, what Silone terms the “collective stupefaction” of fascism.

silone

Ignazio Silone

          Silone’s novel is a defining text of the emerging democratic socialism of the mid-twentieth century, but also a fictional counterpart to the post-Marxist engagement with Kierkegaard’s philosophy and religious thought. If we, like the atheist Spina/Spada, accept the former but not the latter, then we must also heed what those post-Marxist thinkers — from Lukács to Adorno and beyond — have concluded about faith: that the political and theological crises of the twentieth century have dislodged faith as the cornerstone of any spiritual doctrine. Indeed, for Adorno, faith was an illustration of so-called negative dialectics. Both are born of suffering, but for Adorno (if not so much, perhaps, for Silone) the twentieth century response to fascism and Stalism had disintegrated or fractured faith from theology and reconstituted it as that which (paradoxically) must be both utilized and overcome through engagement with the historical, which Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” rejects, according to Adorno, who positions Kierkegaard’s faith as “leaping” outside or beyond the historical. In a sense, faith is suffering — an existential truth certainly shared by writers and thinkers across a spectrum of centuries and ideologies, including Silone, Adorno, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Camus. Even if Silone’s ultimate message in 1936 is not as bleak as Adorno’s post-war perspective, both writers chronicle the same point at which truth borne out of suffering “leaps” away from spirituality and toward “the denunciation of illusion” (to quote from The Dialectic of Enlightenment).

          For Silone, that denunciation is symbolized in bread and wine, reconstituted symbols of Christian religious faith that now represent a more earthly communion: the peasants who are trampled upon — like wheat, like grapes — and who are redeemed in their suffering through a unifying, life-sustaining collective force: the socialist resistance to fascist ideology. Like individual grains of corn or grapes, they combine to form a new united corpus — let us call them the Corpus Cafoni — whose bonds represent a faith in human unity when humanity is at its bleakest and most divisive.

          In Bread and Wine we see the same set-pieces that have been constructed in our own century around a uniquely American backdrop, even if their ultimate arrangement and performative function have been refashioned to suit the dramaturgy of Trumpism. We might look to Silone’s novel as a text of both comfort and moral orientation as the institutions meant to safeguard our rights are continually placed under siege. Through the testament of Spina/Spada, we come to see that “thoughts and prayers” are meaningless unless we are willing to take action. Our faith must be placed in present realities rather than in spiritual myths, dogmatic institutions, or divisive nationalistic rhetoric. Personal sacrifice in the form of public resistance is required to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable citizens, fostering unity against the divisive forces of power that would rather hope for passive acceptance of their ideology. Only in this active resistance can a renewed faith in a unified humanity fight the violence and lies inherent in the “collective stupefaction” of fascism.