Steinbeck defines dignity in The Harvest Gypsies as "[…] a register of a man's responsibility to community" (39). This sense of responsibility is of the utmost importance, according to Steinbeck, for maintaining the human spirit and a sense of decency and ethics. The atrocious, inhumane treatment of the migrants, ranging from forced starvation to terror tactics, results in the complete "destruction of dignity," which Steinbeck calls "[…] one of the most regrettable results of the migrant's life" (39). Steinbeck warns such a loss results in a sullen anger that makes men prone to lashing out at the social system. He writes, "A man herded about, surrounded by armed guards, starved and forced to live in filth loses his dignity; that is, he loses his valid position in regard to society, and consequently his whole ethics towards society" (39).
Repeatedly Steinbeck advocates the restoration of the migrants' dignity as the number one priority of relief efforts. Integral to that restoration is re-establishing a sense of civic duty and responsibility. Steinbeck champions the "responsible self-government" of the federal camps as the answer to successfully integrating the migrants into California life and eliminating perceived threats of violence, labor organization, and disease. He writes, "The sullen and frightened expression that is the rule among the migrants has disappeared from the faces of the federal camp inhabitants. Instead there is a steadiness of gaze and a self-confidence that can only come of restored dignity" (41). Steinbeck reminds readers that the migrants are American citizens, having come from a proud agrarian history of civic and church duty. Abject poverty and the constant threat of starvation have destroyed the migrants' spirit as they are overcome by first shame, then hopelessness, and ultimately indifference. Steinbeck concludes that replacing that indifference with a renewed sense of community responsibility is crucial for restoring the migrants as functional citizens of the United States.
As does In Dubious Battle (1936) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), The Harvest Gypsies characterizes vigilante violence as a terrible scourge that threatens the very social and political fabric of the nation. Steinbeck shows how the powerful growers, in their arrogance, flout the laws of the United States and employ vigilante violence as a means of cowing the migrants. He argues the growers, in their proliferation of vigilantism, are in direct violation of criminal syndicalism laws that prohibit the use of organized violence in industry. Steinbeck quotes Hugh T. Osburne, representative of the Imperial Valley Associated Farmers, as saying: "In Imperial Valley we don't need this criminal syndicalism law. They have got to have it for the rest of the counties that don't know how to handle these matters. We don't need it because we have worked out our own way of handling these things. We won't have another of these trials. We have a better way of doing it. Trials cost too much" (37).
That better way, according to Steinbeck, is herding the migrants about under the constant threat of violence designed to keep them in a perpetual state of fear. In turn, that fear feeds increased suspicion and anger between the land owners and migrants perpetuating a cycle of escalating violence and oppression. It is a situation, Steinbeck argues, that cannot persist, for it "[…] has accomplished nothing but unrest, tension and hatred. A continuation of this approach constitutes a criminal endangering of the peace of the state" (37). Steinbeck concludes that growers and vigilantes must be brought to justice under the nation's laws in order to protect that integrity of the government.
Steinbeck argues the primary problem with the agricultural industry in California is that, historically, the growers have assumed that they "[…] require a peon class to succeed" (44). That view, which emanates from the growers' traditional reliance on oppressed foreign labor, has created a pervasive attitude of prejudice towards agricultural labor and as such, the migrants arrive in California only to be treated as subhuman. Steinbeck writes, "Arriving in a district they find the dislike always meted out by the resident to the foreigner, the outlander. […] The migrants are needed, and they are hated" (20). He characterizes this attitude as both hypocritical and despicable. He explains, "The unique nature of California agriculture requires that these migrants exist, and requires that they move about" (20). However, the surrounding society does not seem to acknowledge that migrant farm laborers fill a necessary social function and that in their absence, California agribusiness and its entire economy would flounder.
Instead of acknowledging any merit in their contributions, the growers, as Steinbeck describes them, always seem to be looking for new ways to further exploit and degrade the migrants. Knowing that the migrants barely exist hand to mouth and that they will have spent all of their resources to get to a job, the growers will lower wages or raise prices of goods in ranch stores, aware that the migrants, terrified of starvation, will work "[…] at any wage in order that the family may eat" (21).
Besides forcing them into a state of semi-starvation, Steinbeck argues, the growers have created an organized system of terror and fear to ensure that the migrants can never successfully overcome their inferior social position. This system of oppression, Steinbeck writes, does nothing but increase suspicion and hatred, leading to additional exploitation of workers and heightened threats of violence: "It would almost seem that having built the repressive attitude toward the labor they need to survive, the directors were terrified of the things they have created. This fear dictates an increase of the repressive method, a greater number of guards and a constant suggestion that the ranch is armed to fight" (36). Thus the growers spend all their resources and energy on further repressing their much-needed labor, rather than using them in an effective and humane manner to raise the migrants' standard of living.
The Harvest Gypsies contrasts California's industrialized agriculture to the more traditional farming practiced by the migrants prior to their emigration. As he does in The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Steinbeck laments the loss of connection between people and the land that is the inevitable result of such a system. Steinbeck defines the new migrant as a "land man" (22). He writes, "They are small farmers who have lost their farms, or farm hands who have lived with the family in the old American way. They are men who have worked hard on their own farms and have felt the pride of possessing and living in close touch with the land" (22). The industrialized agricultural practices in California are completely alien to the migrants' understanding of land use:
Having been brought up in the prairies where industrialization never penetrated, they have jumped with no transition from the old agrarian, self-containing farm where nearly everything used was raised or manufactured, to a system of agriculture so industrialized that the man who plants a crop does not often see let alone harvest, the fruit of his planting, where the migrant has no contact with the growth cycle. (23)
The system as Steinbeck describes it, besides alienating humans from their close connection to land, prevents the migrants, who come to California with the desire to once again own or tend their own farms, from relying on their traditional agrarian knowledge and experiences to overcome their poverty. Essentially, all of the agricultural land in California is already owned and the days of subsistence farming there are over. Though Steinbeck advocates the leasing of public lands to migrants as an answer to their poverty and homelessness at the end of his series, that is not what ultimately what saves them.
Charles Wollenberg explains in his introduction to The Harvest Gypsies that after the nation entered WW II, "[…] the labor surplus of the Depression […] transformed into an extraordinary wartime shortage of workers" (xvi). He writes, "Migrants who were not subject to military service found well-paying jobs in California's booming ship-yards, aircraft factories and other defense plants. [The migrants] ultimately found economic salvation, not in the small farms they dreamed of owning, but in urban industry fueled by billions of federal defense dollars" (xvi). The migrants end up leaving their agrarian roots in the past and joining the industrialized world and the system of industrialized agriculture that relies on cheap labor persists. California once again turned its attention to foreign labor, reinvigorating its efforts to import Mexican labor, resulting in the perpetuation of an oppressed underclass of agricultural workers.
Though Steinbeck was accused of being a Communist and spreading anti-American propaganda, The Harvest Gypsies advocates a uniquely American vision for the salvation of the migrant people. He repeatedly emphasizes that the migrants are "American people" who come from traditional, self-governing rural communities, which were once the backbone of American democracy (23). He writes of the migrants, "They have come from the little farm districts where democracy was not only possible, but inevitable, where popular government, whether practiced in the Grange, in church organization or in local government, was the responsibility of every man" (23). According to Steinbeck, participation in community responsibility provides the dignity and ethical code that is necessary for living a humane and worthwhile existence.
He celebrates the propensity of the migrants for community cooperation in his discussion of the Federal government camps, where the once downtrodden and broken-spirited people thrive when presented with the responsibility of civic duty, for their "place in society" is restored (41). He writes, "The result of this responsible self-government has been remarkable. The inhabitants of the camp came there beaten, sullen and destitute. But as their social sense was revived they have settled down. The camp takes care of its own destitute, feeding and sheltering those who have nothing with their own poor stores" (40). Far from advocating Communism, the text relies on advocating the unique combination of democratic individualism and civic duty that is at the heart of American political history.