Silicon Valley organizer Andrew Lee reviews Richard A Walker’s Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area
The tech boom brought more to the Bay Area than fleets of Teslas gliding past ever-growing homeless encampments. Despite its self-branding as an unsentimental force of rational disruption, the tech industry carried with it a set of half-truths and analytic fantasies. For instance: that its products represent innovation, connection, human betterment. That it is well-paid ”creatives” (read: gentrifiers) who are the true motor of the economy. That the housing crisis is in fact the fault of working-class communities who question the development of luxury condominiums on top of the remains of affordable housing. That the richest companies of today started from nothing in rented garages so today’s displaced and unhoused have nobody to blame but themselves for their plight.
These are the facts of life as dreamed up by some of the most profitable corporations in the world, companies who are turning more and more cities into homes for their campuses and distribution centers.
Theirs is a narrative that starts in board rooms and public relations firms but trickles down to everyday people in the streets below. It’s a perverse ‘new common sense’ that cuts off resistance at the root. If we accept that an industry employing a minority of the population is truly the key to all future wealth, magnanimous and inevitably victorious, it’s no surprise that working people turn away from collective resistance to pin hopes on somehow joining the new elite. Why organize with our neighbors or coworkers if what will really save us is our kids’ schools getting programming classes and Chromebooks? It might just be the ticket to ensure not all of the next generation lives in squalor, working two jobs to afford rising rents on fractions of rooms.
To engage in struggle requires replacing such seductive mythologies with a sense of one’s bearings, one’s resources and one’s opponents. The greater San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose metropolitan area is a terrain of struggle, though elites like LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman would prefer we think of Silicon Valley as “a mindset, not a location.”
Puncturing the myths
It is by skewering these myths that Richard A. Walker’s Pictures of a Gone City does such a service to the residents, militants, and observers of a critically important region. An exhaustive, spatially rooted survey of past and present economic and political trends in the area, the book includes a wealth of information in chapters focusing on the class divide, the housing crisis, the environment, local social movements and more. Prodigious amounts of data, maps, charts and tables – much previously hidden in academic literature or dispersed on the web – are presented in one readable text, ready to be picked up by people doing movement work around a variety of issues. Whether it’s figures on inequality, overviews of the property development corporations active in each city, or histories of political groups and politicians reshaping the Bay through the decades, the compilation of information makes Pictures of a Gone City an invaluable resource for those engaged in struggle in particular.
In the book, Walker argues that wrapping our heads around a new industrial geography is key to understanding gentrification. Displacement is not simply due to exploitation by property investors or the white yuppie proclivity for “authentic” urban neighborhoods. It also crucially stems from the ability of tech firms to pull capital investment and skilled workers to the region while sharing infrastructure, resources, and a common labor pool. This is simultaneously a refutation of the boosterist notion of the “creative class,” which states that young urban gentrifiers themselves are the source of regional wealth. The Bay Area’s economic boom has less to do with Millennial productive ingenuity than with industrial agglomeration and easy access to venture capital and Pacific Rim supply chains. And the tech industry’s claims to innovation mask the fact that their profits largely accrue from the time-tested practices of selling advertisements and designing and branding products manufactured by subcontractors in outsourced sweatshops.
Expanding daily both in size and wealth, the new economy arising in the Bay leaves behind the 90% or so of local workers who don’t work in tech. Making up the vast majority of the area’s workforce, they are progressively impoverished by rising rents rather than sharing in the region’s prosperity. Despite the riches flowing to the Bay Area, the winners of this arrangement are far outnumbered by the losers. To speak of the winners, Pictures of a Gone City makes a convincing case that though a the highly paid techie may be a worker in the literal sense of receiving a salary, his stock benefits and political dispositions tend to align him with the capitalist class far more than with other workers. It is an unfortunately necessary corrective at a time when “tech workers are workers too” is becoming a well-intentioned but empirically and strategically stillborn refrain masquerading as materialist analysis among a small sliver of ideologically progressive programmers.
These hard-hitting points manifest a central theme in a broad book whose title’s visual metaphor is quite fitting. Pictures of a Gone City offers a sketch of the Bay Area’s place in a global economy; an overview of businesses, social and political forces affecting its development; and theoretical interventions to help us think through how they all fit together. Itallows us to visualize all these moving parts, placing ourselves and the area in a historical and global context. As such, it fulfills a vital task.
Class struggle on new ground
Despite its many virtues, Pictures of a Gone City does begin to drag as it goes on, with later chapters losing the brisk pace and theoretical coherence of the early book; a very good chapter on environmentalism feels nonetheless disconnected from those surrounding it. A more significant issue is whether Walker’s read of local movements is as astute as other parts of his political geography. Praise for the liberal electoral advocacy group Indivisible as an example of cross-class collaboration that includes the tech elite is puzzling. Likewise, a mention of land trusts includes conservation-focused wildlife preserves to the exclusion of more relevant projects like the Oakland Community Land Trust, which preserve affordable housing units by moving them off the speculative market. Finally, Walker describes the work of union-led groups like Working Partnerships and Silicon Valley Rising as “innovative,” though their most recent campaign has involved negotiating conditional support for a new Google campus development in San Jose, the very kind of project Pictures of a Gone City identifies as one of the chief causes of inequality and displacement, community benefits agreement or not.
The latter endorsement points to one theoretical question left hanging. Walker is optimistic about the continued growth of militant working-class resistance in the Bay Area, especially given its character as overwhelming female and people of color. It is commendable that he therefore identifies movements against racialized criminalization and unequal distributions of unpaid housework, for instance, as sites of class struggle. He also stresses that there remain differences in wages, race, nationality, and gender that provide obstacles to collective class struggle.
At the same time, the class struggle of today is not the class struggle of yore. Walker’s account describes but fails to fully explore a motion diametrically opposed to that of nineteenth century Europe, which continues to provide a model for contemporary leftist thought. Then, capitalist production pulled peasants into growing cities, concentrating an impoverished urban proletariat whose conditions of labor disciplined them into a unified force and whose strategic position allowed them to shut down society through the withdrawal of labor. In the Bay Area of today, it is a new aristocracy of labor, the software engineers and product developers, who are concentrated. And it is the masses of working people who are dispersed, both geographically, as they are pushed to outlying towns, and in terms of production, as they work precarious, short-term, non-union jobs in the service industry or subsist off of gig work as “independent contractors.” Though unions still stuck in the model of ‘business unionism’ may represent a few thousand service workers on area tech campuses, they will never capture the majority of workers affected by this new movement of labor and capital. Little wonder endorsing new tech developments in exchange for representing some of the few remaining concentrations of low-wage workers in their cafeterias and on their shuttle bus lots seems a plausible, profitable alternative for union campaign directors. It is not, however, a solution for the class.
A movement with real power will require new forms of resistance, forms which today might only appear in nascent form. Logistical strikes on tech shuttle buses, Black Lives Matter blockades on the cities’ highways and community efforts to decommodify housing through land trusts may prove to be premonitions of fruitful tactics yet to come. We cannot entirely fault Pictures of a Gone City for failing to sketch this strategic question more clearly, for its answer will only emerge through the continued practice of displacement and exploitation on one hand and struggle and community defense on the other. The latter efforts would certainly be aided by a text as rigorous as Walker’s book, required reading for those who wish to intervene in an economy whose seedbed lies in Silicon Valley but which now looks to root itself in more and more metropolises around the country and the world.