Review: Richard A. Walker, Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity In the San Francisco Bay Area (2018)

…Silicon Valley fever is a disease of a social body infected with the overheated pursuit of riches and expansion.

—Richard Walker

Richard Walker says in his exceptional book Pictures of a Gone City that someone who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the decades following World War II would not recognize the place today. As one such person, who fled the gentrification of the area decades ago, I can only agree. Walker is an emeritus professor of geography at uc Berkeley and seems to have made the social, political demographic and environmental history of the Bay Area his life’s work. He also uses a Marxist framework of analysis, though is a bit weak on real class struggles and strategies looking forward. He also seems to treat some official state and local institutions with more respect than I would, presenting them as partial ramparts capable of slowing or correcting the negative trends at work, at least under pressure “from below.” He is no fan of the Democratic Party, but also no mass strike theorist, and this blind spot is one main flaw of the book. But I’ll take Walker and this flaw, along with all his rich layers of analysis, rather than neither. (He takes his title from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “Pictures of the Gone World” which opens the book.)

The Bay Area after 1945 was a unique “scene” in the United States, something of which I only became fully aware when I left it. What happened (or at least accelerated) there after the mid-1970s was the superimposition of a fictitious, artificial, culturally and historically ignorant, self-satisfied and narcissistic tissue over most aspects of the previously lived reality, as if those driving the process were using Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle as a counter-insurgency manual. Not to jump ahead, but the fact that almost no ordinary black people any longer live in San Francisco, says just about everything.

Based on Walker’s title, I for one opened the book expecting more of a portrait of postwar Bay Area Bohemia and its general demise. The San Francisco/Berkeley core of the region was something of a refuge for 1930s and 1940s leftists keeping their heads down during the worst (late 1940s/early 1950s) years of McCarthyism, for which payback came in the 1960 riots against the notorious huac (House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings in San Francisco, which effectively killed it off. The working-class Italian restaurants in San Francisco’s North Beach, frequented by radical longshoremen and poets alike, the cafés, the jazz clubs, the (black) Fillmore district, night clubs such as the Hungry I or the 1960s satirical review The Committee, art cinema houses, Pacifica Radio, bookstores such as City Lights (founded by Ferlinghetti in 1951) or Cody’s in Berkeley, the affordable rental housing in the pre-hippie Haight-Ashbury and elsewhere in pre-yuppie Victorians, were all part of a “scene” that tilted left, building on Kenneth Rexroth’s post-1945 circle of poets and anarchists. Beat poets and writers such as Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac later animated this scene, in which writers and artists and musicians and political activists could live cheaply and pursue their work. It was a scene of a time and a place, about whose broader social and economic limits those who breathed its heady atmosphere did not think too much, until gentrification wiped it out or neutered it, leaving behind little except icons (as with City Lights bookstore or the Cafe Trieste at Vallejo and Grant Streets) of a bygone era. It was the exact opposite of rank apologist Richard Florida’s “creative classes” of web site designers and the startup capitalists who displaced it.

Walker is aware of this demise, and critiques it, but not quite as forcefully as the money-driven forces that buried Bay Area Bohemia and working-class radicalism deserve.

Meanwhile, at the south end of the bay, those money-driven forces, associated with Silicon Valley high tech (or simply “tech”) were preparing to turn parts of the region into one of the wealthiest areas in the world, one which had little or no place for the left Bohemian and labor scene sketched above. Much has been written about the role of the hippie counter-culture in the rise of Silicon Valley, embodied in its best-known icon Steve Jobs of Apple, who traveled barefoot in a saffron robe in India before becoming an entrepreneur. So be it. Walker argues that this counter-cultural background of Silicon Valley tech partially explains its triumph over Boston’s more staid Route 128, being more inclined to “think outside the box.”

This “high tech” scene had origins in the South Bay region (Palo Alto and environs) as early as the 1940s, but truly took center stage in the 1970s, ultimately giving rise to most of “tech’s” contemporary “fangs” (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google and Snapchat). To the high tech “campuses” of the South Bay, however, outfitted with everything from exercise rooms to free gourmet food to childcare available 24/7, Walker counterposes the three or more million proletarians, increasingly Latino and Asian, who do the unglamorous scut work that keeps the region moving, and who are immune to the hype surrounding Silicon Valley since, as he puts it, “so little of the manna from tech heaven fell their way.” Nor does he neglect to mention the extra-long hours that tech workers themselves put in, in between their extra-long commutes. (Some of them merely sleep under their desks.)

Walker gives a “thick description” of the dot.com scene of the 1990s, notorious for such short-lived meteors as pets.com, or others, described by older, less sanguine figures such as banker and onetime Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker, marveling at multi-million dollar ipos (Initial Public Offerings) of startups that had never turned a profit, all of it culminating in the dot.com meltdown of 2000. The 1990s were the era of the “New Economy,” presumably one which had transcended the grey-on-grey laws of capitalist accumulation, until it hadn’t. This was similarly the era of the Bill Clinton mini-boom of the late 1990s, the only uptick to date for workers’ wages in a (briefly) tight labor market since the long stagnation began in the early 1970s. It also saw the ephemeral beginnings of a pay down of the Federal deficit, with “surpluses as far as the eye could see.” It seemed too good to be true, and it was. In a new expansion after 2000, hundreds of millions were again “pouring in to back up start-up Wag Labs, whose app connects dogs owners and dog walkers.” “In the end,” Walker writes, “the ideology of plucky start-ups ran into the hard realities of commerce and capital…”

Given the intrusion of the big tech firms into every aspect of life, as has, for example, been coming to light in Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, it is hardly surprising that disillusionment “with the lords of the Tech World…has been exploding in the last few years, taking the shine off the image of once shining knights of liberty, equality and information for all.” Walker demystifies the “much ballyhooed entrepreneurs and start-ups of today” who in reality draw on a century of earlier electronics technology development. They cannot be reduced to the “discoveries of modern science and men in white coats.” He does not forget the “cold bath of governmental assistance”: World War II purchases of radar and sonar tubes “made” by Hewlett Packard and Varian; the Department of Defense dominated digital computing right through the 1960s. Not to be forgotten was the National Science Foundation, funding research at Stanford and Berkeley: “The original internet was a DoD project…”

The theory of the creative class, writes Walker, “leaves out the majority of workers in the industry.”

The tech industry may be the pinnacle of modern industrial sophistication, innovation, and profitability, but it still rests on a mountain of ordinary labor…the tech industry could not function without a host of people doing manual, routine and unglamorous jobs. Counting such workers is made more difficult still by widespread subcontracting, primarily of people of color, Filipino, Vietnamese and Latino. This goes together with the failure to mention all the labor done in and for the tech industry overseas. The global reach of the Bay Area’s tech giants is motivated by one thing above all: access to cheap labor.

These include Foxconn’s workers making iPhones in Shenzhen, where a wave of high-rise suicide leaps in 2010 led the company to “install nets outside dormitory windows.” Contrary to the dominant ideology touting “risk takers,” writes Walker, “the success of the region rests on broader foundations, which are too often missing from the story of Silicon Valley fever: industrial clustering and urban agglomeration, the base technology of electronics nurtured in the region, and the labor of thousands of skilled workers and millions of others.” The fangs and the tech elite also engage in massive tax avoidance though the usual venues of “the Bahamas, Luxembourg and the Channel Islands.”

For all this wealth, Bay Area tech has been slammed by two major stock market routs, in 2000 and then in 2008. The region lost “half a million jobs, and only crept back to the employment level of 1999 by the end of 2015.” These meltdowns “bankrupted thousands of homeowners”; two million state employees lost their jobs and unemployment hit 12 percent. Commenting on the post-2009 expansion still underway when his book went to press, Walker writes:

The mainstream press rarely delves into the cumulative consequences of recessions, other than quoting unemployment figures. Reports on growing homelessness, poor health, and rising divorce rates are rarely connected to the hidden costs of economic recession crashing down on the heads of ordinary folks. But when the current economic wave breaks on the reef of capitalist excess, a huge amount of wreckage will be revealed on the shores of the Pacific Coast’s star performer.

In the Bay Area work force, the area “may be a high average wage region, but millions of people still go home with middling to lousy paychecks… People in humble jobs, such as custodians, security guards, and nursing aides, are not feeling the buzz.” As for comparative national income differentials, “the four counties of the West Bay come out much worse, ranking somewhere on a par with Guatemala, putting the heartland of High Tech neck and neck with a nation of latifundia…Low-wage work employs well over a third of the labor force, or around 1.3 million people, which translates into 3–4 million in those working families. This is only slightly better than the proportion of low-wage work in California and the nation…the well-off elite and salaried workers depend every day on the labor of millions of ordinary workers who are overwhelmingly not white and not male.” Inequality, Walker points out, “literally makes people sick and unhappy… Not surprisingly, among rich nations, the United States and Britain—where inequality is greatest—come off as the worst in measure after measure, from longevity to obesity, mental health to physical ailments.” The two countries also have “the weakest social safety nets and the harshest attitudes toward personal failure… The glow of the Bay Area’s success is deeply tarnished by the tragic residue of thousands of homeless people on street corners, living out of cars, and camping under freeways.” One troglodyte member of the tech elite did not mince words:

Every day, on my way to and from work, I see people sprawled across the sidewalk, tent cities, human feces and the faces of addiction. The city is becoming a shantytown… The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it… I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle and despair of homeless people on my way to work every day.

Cities such as San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland have ramped up the war on the homeless, ejecting (among other things) tent encampments. A “society that allows so many people to fall into public destitution in the face of abundance is a moral failure of the first order.”

“A truly shocking aspect of work in the bay metropolis is how many lousy jobs there are in such a high-flying, sophisticated economy.” Walker identifies these in retail, hotels, cleaning services, food preparation and domestic services. When high costs price such workers out of housing, “a chorus of howls about their absence goes up from employers, politicians, and upper-class households.”

“The postwar regime of stable, full-time and lifelong employment is a thing of the past.” The new normal is flexible or contingent employment, subcontracting, temp work and self-employed “consultants.” These latter make up between one-quarter and one-third of all jobs, culminating in the “Gig Economy.” The latter is “the antithesis of collective responsibility and class solidarity.”

Walker is presenting an ongoing process of class formation: “A new American working class is coming into being and it is heavily weighted with people of color…something unprecedented is happening here in the Bay Area and across the state… The working population has been transformed from majority White to majority Brown, with a touch of other colors.” Day laborers are undocumented immigrants “from native Indio groups in Southern Mexico and Guatemala who do not always speak Spanish, let alone English.” They stand on street corners and work in “heavy landscaping, debris clearing, crawling under houses, and other nasty jobs.” One quarter of all Californians are foreign born, coming from all over the world. This “overlap between immigrant rights and labor organizing” has made California a national vanguard while “the rest of the United States is still trying to get its collective head around mass immigration.” Nevertheless, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump have deported millions, and the current amplified hysteria around “illegal and criminal” immigrants is feeding the raids of ice (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and Homeland Security around the country.

There is much more to Walker’s book, far more than can be included in a (relatively) short review. I urge Bay Area (and other) militant comrades to bracket Walker’s shortcomings as a Marxist and to use this book for more incisive interventions of their own. The hard left would do well to produce its own, improved version of such an exposé.

August 2018

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