Displacement as Sea Change


July 1, 2020

I.

“Si tienes fe serás feliz en mi pueblito San José…”
- Los Rockin’ Devils, “Conoces el Camino a San José”

One spring day in 2017, the city council of the self-proclaimed “Capital of Silicon Valley” was gathered in a downtown parking lot. Sam Liccardo, former district attorney and now mayor of San José, California, stood in the crisp air behind a podium staffers had wheeled in for the morning press conference.

San José is the home of eBay and Adobe, nestled at the southern end of the San Francisco Bay. By average income of its residents, it is the richest city in the United States. But stark inequality means that San José is not one but two cities, though the working-class Vietnamese and Latino East Side is just two miles from the $400 million edifice of City Hall. A week and a half before city council’s parking lot appearance, a local school district voted to leave three eastside elementary schools without air conditioning for yet another year, even though, in the words of one teacher, “absolutely boiling” classrooms leave kids “like melted cheese” in the daytime sun. One government report had just counted 10,000 Silicon Valley residents without a home. Another announced that the previous six years had seen 1.5 million Bay Area residents leave in the face of rising rents. And a study released the month before found that you would have to work an average of 24 years before being able to put a 20% down payment on a San José home.

Any announcement momentous enough to bring local government to an empty lot would certainly pertain to such distressing realities—though perhaps not in the way that San José’s majority of working-class residents would hope. In front of rolling cameras, Mayor Liccardo proclaimed that the city was in negotiations to sell over 200 acres of public land to Google for a new campus. It would be twice as large as the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, and it would bring 20,000 highly paid tech employees to a city where working-class people were already being forced out. “We will transform this collection of industrial parcels and parking lots,” the mayor said, “into a dynamic, vibrant epicenter of technology and creativity.”

The mayor’s words seemed a little strong. By his telling, there was no question that “the parcels and parking lots” would be “transformed” into a technology epicenter. There was no room in his statement for the possibility that rezoning the area and coordinating the sale of land from multiple public agencies would not be successful. There was certainly no concern that San José residents would oppose a project that would bring tens of thousands of well-compensated tech workers into a gentrifying city. The mayor being flanked by his city council only added to the sense of finality. Though on paper this was the very first public announcement of preliminary discussions for a potential project, the effect was to make Google San José feel like a done deal.

In fact, starting almost four months earlier, seventeen San José city employees began signing non-disclosure agreements with the company, preventing them from publicly discussing negotiations for the next five years. And two months before that, Google purchased the huge Pacific Bell building right next to the proposed site. The inclusion of the public in this process was an afterthought, and from this point on it continued as a bumbling, absurd tragicomedy of managed democracy.

A week after the parking lot press conference, city council began closed-door negotiations with Google. Though California’s Brown Act required such sessions be recorded, the recordings disappeared through an unfortunate technical error. A week after that, the city voted to begin negotiations with Google over the land sale, though Google was evidently confident enough in the negotiation’s eventual outcome to have already spent $100 million on downtown land acquisitions. Later that summer, one city staffer opined to another that discussing the project’s impacts would be “to [sic] much to give the Council or public at this stage of the process.”

In February of 2018, a year after politicians began signing NDAs and eight months after the formal start of negotiations, it was time to drum up some popular support. The Station Area Advisory Group (SAAG), composed of “stakeholders” like developers, tech-funded non-profits, and the company itself, began meeting to “listen to concerns.” Their meetings were immediately disrupted by outraged community members, who at one meeting held the floor for 45 minutes chanting “San José no se vende, ¡se ama y se defiende!” until removal by police. The city took to announcing SAAG meetings with only a day’s notice to preempt further disruptions.

But the high point of San José city government’s buffoonery came that December, when the council was scheduled to sell the city’s share of land to Google. For hours, armed police officers looked on as one person after another spoke against the campus, outraged that acres of land would be used for a tech campus instead of affordable housing. Between these testimonies, the odd developer voiced support for the development, along with non-profit executives who praised the company for their recent strategic financial donations. Groups of protestors organized as Serve the People San José rose from their seats to chant “San José is not for sale!” until police escorted each of them from the council chambers.

Finally, a group of eight began chanting and refused to stop. When police tried to pull them from their chairs, they found that all eight had locked themselves to their seats with heavy metal chains. The cops cleared the entire chamber as they waited for someone to bring bolt cutters so they could take the protestors to jail. And then, in an empty hall at two in the morning, with a row of armed police blocking the doors, the council voted unanimously to sell the land to Google.

The company has said it will take a decade to complete the campus, and though the land was sold, community members have vowed to continue the struggle for however long is necessary. They are at the forefront of a struggle against displacement most closely tied in the public mind to the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley, so we will use the Bay to illuminate aspects of what we believe is a change not only in the composition of our cities but the economic formation we operate within and the variety of strategies it presents to us. Its three major cities of San José, Oakland, and San Francisco allow us to see different components of this change, some of which tie us to the struggles of our parents and grandparents, some of which place the marginalized and oppressed of today on entirely different ground. We also hope to show, however, that this is not a story of merely regional interest. As Amazon’s HQ2 showed, the scourge is spreading, and those blocking tech buses and locking down in city halls on California’s Pacific Rim are but the tip of a spear.

II.

“I ain’t worth shit to them
Strain to breathe and pay my rent
You out of pocket thinking you can help the youth
Proof that there is nothing changing but a higher salary for you”

- Miguel Kultura, “Trabajando”

San José was once the site of vibrant fruit orchards, the “Valley of Heart’s Delight” where a young Cesar Chavez lived as his parents worked the fields. World War II urbanization intensified as the emerging Silicon Valley built great plants for the manufacture of computer components. As late as the 1990s, one in every five workers were employed in low-wage electronics assembly. The concentration of exploited workers right next to the wealth of tech magnates spurred formal and informal organizing efforts. In the 1980s, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America organizing committee of Silicon Valley factory workers numbered 500. When a committee leader at a Versatronex plant was fired, workers brought up in the Mexican student and union movements launched a plantón (occupation) and hunger strike.

It was a time where capital needed masses of low-wage workers even in wealthy areas (like the Silicon Valley already was). Workers moved to cities like San José and were brought together in factories, which spawned struggle at the point of production against the same employer. It was a world where the words of Engels and Marx still rang true:

The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralized the means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands…
But with the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more…
Thereupon, the workers begin to form combinations (Trades’ Unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots.”

In that world, there was a figure increasingly concentrated spatially, in the world’s wealthiest cities, and economically, working for the same growing companies. Her impoverishment gave her reason to revolt, her convergence with others of the same condition gave her the means to do so, and her strategic position in key industries in the centers of the global economy meant that her revolt could stop the world. These three factors gave rise to the theory that this figure was the one who could therefore truly transform the world by virtue of being a member of a class named proletariat.

And in 1871, the members of this class held Paris for two months, declaring the Commune in the city Walter Benjamin named the 19th century’s “capital.” It was their struggle which provided the tactical toolbox of all branches of the Left: the commune, the union, the general strike, electoral socialism, the revolutionary party.

Today we are told that the capital of the 21st century is the Bay Area, a region with the GDP of Saudi Arabia. And its politicians are helping corporations expel thousands of low-wage workers out of brute economic interest. The capital of the world has moved, and we are no longer needed in it. The working class is priced out of highly productive cities and employed at an industrial patchwork of small restaurants and nursing homes and bars and nail salons, if not working as independent contractors in the gig economy. To go on strike at a Manchester textile factory in the 1800s dealt a blow to the capitalist class; to strike at an independent restaurant in the Silicon Valley today is largely irrelevant to capitalism at large. The elimination of some small businesses under COVID-19 restrictions is indeed a pressure towards recentralization, and Amazon and Whole Foods strike actions evidence a revival of labor militancy. But this does not a concentrated urban proletariat make.

The world has been turned on its head, and it has gone unnoticed. Those who are centralized in large firms and rich cities are not the laboring masses. Those who occupy the most strategic positions from which to struggle have precious little incentive to do so, for they are the domestic labor aristocracy of highly-paid, “skilled” workers. In the Sun Belt they work largely in biomedicine and trade, in Phoenix financial services, and in the Bay Area as techies. The degree to which they are compensated for their work allows them to pay exorbitant rents, pushing up the cost of living until everyone else is priced out, especially Black and Brown people already suffering from the legacy of red-lining and ongoing housing and job discrimination.

Gentrification is commonly understood as a pattern of consumption: who chooses to rent or purchase which housing unit. From this perspective we can ask many questions: why white people wish to live in “gritty” neighborhoods, why they have the opposite attitudes of their parents whose white flight bankrupted cities, whether it is the yuppies or hipsters who are to blame.

But there is also the question of how. Regardless of any person’s desire to live in an expensive condominium, there is the matter of being paid enough to afford it. In addition to the immorality of profiting from the expulsion of a community, there is the question of why an exploited urban working class in rich cities is no longer the engine of capitalist profit but a hindrance. To understand gentrification as a pattern of consumption, we must look at the economic formation that produces it.

III.

“Bitch there ain’t no gold out west
We just grow up stressed
You know there’s more out here
But all we know is less”

- Andrew Bigs, “Silicon Alley”

To the west of San Jose at the base of the San Francisco peninsula sits the largest landowner in Silicon Valley. It is not Apple or Google or Netflix or Intel. In fact, the largest landowner in the Valley is not a tech company at all, but Stanford University, which owns thousands of acres beyond its sprawling campus Its dominion contains a research park, a shopping mall, a hospital, and housing for its professors. Aside from being the largest landowner in the Valley, Stanford is the largest owner of both commercial land and single-family homes, as well. Of the university’s 8,180 acres, a full 2,000 are undeveloped entirely, a green oasis of wealth in the midst of a housing crisis.

“People think of Stanford as a university with a football team and two basketball teams, I guess,” said Lenny Siegel, former mayor of the neighboring city of Mountain View. “But it’s a corporation with enormous land ownership, and it functions in its relationship to the surrounding communities as a corporation.”

And an enormously successful corporation, at that. Stanford has a $27.7 billion endowment, with billions invested in income-generating properties. Though it received its land holdings when it was founded by robber baron Leland Stanford, the university has reaped huge financial benefits from a long enmeshment with the tech industry. The relationship dates back to 1937, when two Stanford students founded Hewlett-Packard. Faculty members, quite a few of them millionaires, frequently invest in students’ startups. Venture capitalists teach classes. And when students–whose median family income is $167,500 to begin with–get high-paying tech jobs and donate to their alma mater, the endowment grows.

But alumni generosity isn’t the only benefit Stanford gets from the industry. The Office of Technology Licensing asserts ownership rights over technology developed at Stanford. Companies like Google, Yahoo, Netflix, VMWare, and Sun Microsystems were all started by Stanford affiliates or using Stanford technology. In fact, Cisco’s first router was based directly on the Stanford University computer network. The Office of Technology Licensing received $336 million when Google’s stock grants were sold in 2005. As of 2012, the office had netted Stanford a staggering $1.3 billion in royalty payments.

A full 97% of good jobs created since the Great Recession have gone to college graduates. As the new economy incentivizes hubs of highly educated workers, universities stand to make a killing. And when they expand campuses to attract more elite students, they become not only the facilitators and beneficiaries of gentrification, but its agents as well. In Orlando, UCF-Valencia will be the center of a 68-acre development to be called Creative Village. Wayne State University’s private police force enforces security across the gentrified core of post-industrial Detroit. In Philadelphia’s University City, university development has caused housing prices to more than double and the Black population to be cut in half.

Perhaps the fact that universities are key actors in gentrification helps to explain why there is disproportionately little academic focus on the topic. True, there are professors and departments around the country investigating the subject, some quite well, alongside others creating work with precious little value to communities in struggle on the ground. It remains the case that in most gentrifying cities, it is virtually impossible to even find “reputable” sources on how many people have been displaced. We are left on one hand with the “objectivity” of rising median incomes and better-performing schools, and on the other with the “anecdotal” evidence of thousands of working-class people, mostly people of color, about how their lives and communities have been torn apart. The Richmond Federal Reserve published an evidently non-satirical paper touting the benefits to be had if the entirety of San Jose were to pack up and move to Las Vegas. We are told that our displacement is good: for the community, for the city, for ourselves.

In antiquity, the city was the people in it, so to displace a people from the city would be a contradiction in words. Displacement (Spanish: desplazamiento) is removal from the plaza, the place. Both plaza and place come from the Greek word for a wide street. The plateia was the broad road in which the annual processions of Zeus Alseios and Zeus Polieus displayed the social order of the city in objective form which is to say: a place is where things make sense. Where things make sense to us, and where we make sense to others. A site of memories, of secret knowledge, of sights and smells and ghosts. The house where your aunt lived before she died. The park where you had your first kiss. That street whose real name is different than the one on the street signs. A place, Yi-Fu Tuan says, is “an object in which one can dwell.” Displacement rips people from their dwelling places not only physically but socially. Culturally. Spiritually, for those inclined to the word. It is a violent act before the sheriff ever draws his gun. To commit such an act against someone because of the prosperity of those who will replace them is an abomination. It is killing the city for the benefit of its owners.

To hear the right say it, this is a time where hoodwinked undergraduates are indoctrinated into believing in the false violence of words, of stereotypes, of slurs, where colleges are laboratories for the identification of fictitious violence. But there are no mandatory freshman courses on the people the new dorm building forced out. Breitbart is not writing outraged screeds about how some poor child was “called out” for their techie parents. And tech companies themselves promote their liberal multicultural bona fides, their commitment to diversity and local hiring and putting their logo in Pride colors one day a year while they push more and more working people out.

Many have taken the road of tailing universities and corporations, celebrating their language in favor of “diversity” as steps in the right direction. This ignores the fact that behind such statements, Google’s Black workforce remains at 3.3%, save for the cafeterias staffed and bathrooms cleaned by a subcontracted Black and Brown underclass. Others have taken another road by retreating into a class-reductionist enclave, claiming that any attention to the realities of race, gender, and sexuality is somehow a counterrevolutionary distraction. This enclave is surrounded by a fantasy world in which the fact that those displaced are disproportionately people of color, or that queer kids and domestic violence survivors unable to afford rent in gentrifying cities are among the first to become unhoused, are somehow frivolous details, irrelevant to the social struggle. To examine a third, less taken road, we can move back in time and up the peninsula to San Francisco to examine one of the forges of modern “identity politics.”

IV.

“And all the way from the East to the West
We want our people to sit and protest like
It’s been a long time coming with this renaissance
Trying to find something in this struggle that was meant for us”

- Las Dueñas, In Lak’ech

San Francisco State College was already in the grip of a struggle against the school’s information sharing with the Selective Service Office when the 1967-68 school year began. In April, 100,000 marched against the war in San Francisco, and in May, on the same day the Black Panther Party entered the State Assembly in Sacramento, sixty students held a sit-in in the school president’s office.

A lot can happen in a summer, and the summer of 1967 was a long, hot one. There were 159 urban rebellions across the nation, including five days of revolt in Detroit that only ended with the intervention of 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, accompanied by tanks and machine guns and the National Guard. So in October, when Black students got charges for allegedly assaulting the author of a racist screed in the school magazine, the conditions were ripe for resistance to grow. Dropping the charges against these students became a demand alongside an end to the war, and by the spring of 1968 a campus group formed calling itself the Third World Liberation Front.

On March 23rd, 1968, TWLF occupied the YMCA office on campus, calling for an end to on-campus ROTC and the hiring of nine faculty members of color, as well as the admittance of 400 working class students of color for the following year. And the college gave in. Not only were those 400 students admitted, but they were taught introductory English by newly hired teaching assistant George Mason Murray, graduate student and Black Panther Party Minister of Education.

But less than a month later, Murray was suspended from his post. And on the 6th of October 1968, the Black Student Union and Third World Liberation Front began the longest student strike in US history. Their requirements included Murray’s reinstatement as well as the creation of a Third World college, and after five months of sabotage, mass arrests, and running skirmishes with the police, most of the strike’s demands were met. The college began an Educational Opportunity Program that continues to this day, as well as founding the College of Ethnic Studies and with it, Ethnic Studies as an academic discipline.

It is clear from the statements of those involved in the strike that gaining a foothold in academia was an instrumental goal. In the words of one communique:

“The Third World Liberation Front and Black Student Union demands stress our human rights to self-determination according to the needs of our community… We must attack from all levels those institutions and persons that have kept us fighting each other and forgetting the real enemy. We must come back to our ‘grass roots,’ understanding that we are all brothers and sisters, and extensions of our communities.”

Per another:

“We urge strikers to reaffirm their commitment to the struggle! Tighten up the picket lines! Fight even harder against racism and for the self-determination of all oppressed people! The people will win!”

As a San Francisco Chronicle retrospective said, “Black students and the Third World Liberation Front were following revolutions in Africa, Latin America and Asia in leading the strike at what was then San Francisco State College.” The purpose of ethnic studies on campus was not to gain recognition from the institution, but to take power back to the community, and the purpose of building power in the community was to bring the revolution closer. As George Murray himself explained, “We’re not just attacked because we’re Black Panthers, we’re attacked because we’re Black people striving to politically educate the masses of the people here in America to create a new system of government that will be beneficial for all persons involved.”

It is no longer fashionable to talk of self-determination in many circles. The key problem for marginalized peoples is no longer power, we are told, but visibility. Our primary strategic objective must be to be represented: on screen, in text, in the boardroom. Which raises the question: to what end?

This is not to say that stereotypes are banal or the existence of positive role models is a triviality. The mystery is not why representation matters, but why it is said to matter so much to the exclusion of so much else. The idea of representation has eclipsed the question of liberation for marginalized people in popular discourse, perhaps because it sounds less absurd coming from the mouths of corporate executives or their ad agencies. To speak of representation in a college as a stepping-stone towards building collective resistance is a plan. To speak of representation in elite college admissions, in Hollywood blockbusters, and upper-management positions as ends in themselves is not. The lingering question is how such representation would materially help the majority of people of color or women or queer people who, we must remember, will never be in such roles. For this is the very nature of representation, that it is not you but someone else who has status. Then, by some metaphysical trick, that person stands in for you: you partake in their status as well, though never in a way that pays your rent.

Sometimes, institutional representation is held as an end in itself. Who, after all, could want to be unrepresented? A slightly more sophisticated tack is that once some members of an oppressed group make it to the top, they can use their power to improve conditions for others, ignoring all of the conditioning and self-deception and compromises such a social climb entails. One of the clearest expositions of this latter perspective is in Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, where she writes, “Women will tear down the external barriers once we achieve leadership roles. We will march into our bosses’ offices and demand what we need, including pregnancy parking… We can ignite the revolution by internalizing the revolution.”

But upper management gets reserved parking anyway. And a mile from Facebook’s campus, pregnant women live in RVs after being priced out of their homes.

An observation: the substitution of representation for power has occurred at the same time that huge segments of the economy have become precarious labor. We know in our deepest hearts we will never become a mogul or go viral or perhaps even have a retirement account, but perhaps we might be represented by those who can. In San Jose, a councilmember spoke of the irony that anti-gentrification organizers dared critique Google spokesperson Javier Gonzalez, for like many of them he was Latino and from the East Side. Shouldn’t he be lauded, the councilmember asked, as a success story? Is his success not the very thing the protestors should want? The sheer audacity: to be given a modicum of token representation and want your community to survive, as well.

As the San Francisco State strike was underway, a sister movement began across the Bay at UC Berkeley. Also calling themselves the Third World Liberation Front, they secured the development of a Department of Ethnic Studies after weeks of tear gas and police beatings. One organizer was the daughter of a restaurant owner who risked her scholarship to support the Delano grape boycott. She joined the Asian-American Political Alliance, formed by Richard Aoki as the Asian-American version of the Panthers, and after graduation became a labor organizer who fought to stop the eviction of elderly Filipino farmworkers from the International Hotel. Her name was Jean Quan. And during the height of the Occupy movement, she was the mayor of Oakland.

V.

“I just want to see all the injustices you don’t return
So few living lavish off the masses, they ain’t never earned”

- Maleik Dion, “AristocRats”

One evening in 2011, thousands poured into the Port of Oakland. They blocked the entrances and climbed on top of shipping containers and an hour later, thousands more were still arriving. A week earlier, the Occupy Oakland encampment was cleared at gunpoint. Scott Olsen, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, suffered a skull fracture and frontal lobe damage after police shot him with a beanbag round. So on November 2nd, tens of thousands of people shut down the third largest port on the West Coast. That night, there were 103 arrests when the cops repelled a takeover of the old Travelers’ Aid Society building. But Oscar Grant Plaza was retaken.

Two weeks later, it was cleared again, in a simultaneous action coordinated between mayors across the country. Then in January of the new year, those attempting to turn the Kaiser Convention Center into a community center were fought off by police tear gas and flash grenades. After 400 arrests, Oakland councilmember Ignacio de la Fuente, former union rep, accused the protestors of “domestic terrorism.” And Jean Quan, third worldist-turned-mayor, proclaimed that “Occupy Oakland has got to stop using Oakland as its playground, and that people in the community and people in the Occupy movement have to stop making excuses for this behavior.”

As “Who is Oakland” puts it, “When Mayor Quan and District Attorney Nancy O’Malley claim that Occupy Oakland is not part of the national Occupy movement, they’re on to something. From the start Occupy Oakland immediately rejected cooperation with city government officials, wildly flexible state and media definitions of ‘violence,’ and a largely discredited argument that police are part of the ‘99%.’” As so, by the time that camps were cleared, 140 years after Paris, it was being called the Oakland Commune. Once again proletarians seized the heart of a major city, called a general strike, and declared a commune, if only for a few weeks.

Since the evacuation of the camps, the conditions that made Oakland such a hotspot of resistance have changed for the worse. From 2000 to 2015, the town lost almost a third of its Black population. From 2000 to 2010, the Oakland Unified School District lost over 10,000 students. And between 2013 and 2015, gentrification accelerated quicker in Oakland than anywhere else in the Bay.

For those techies and professionals who buy into the notion of meritocracy, the wealth and privilege of their white and Asian colleagues are justly deserved, the displacement of “lower-skilled” and darker-skinned communities perversely righteous as well. The economic ethnic cleansing of the Black and Brown working classes from profitable regions must then appear to these meritocrats only as a purification. Little wonder that cliques of far-right tech workers persist despite the highly-publicized liberal face of leading firms.

The winners of the “New Economy” do not, of course, dirty their hands performing their expulsions themselves. Their wealth provides the motive, the landlords who accommodate them the proximate cause, but it is always the looming fear of the policeman’s gun that provides the final incentive for eviction. It is unsurprising that gentrifying cities therefore demonstrate a persistent pattern of disinvestment on public resources like schools and reinvestment in the police. Armed state and paramilitary violence has long been used to coerce and concentrate racialized populations in the US. Now that forced removal is in the interest of corporate and state elites, it should be no surprise that displays of racial state terror and resistance to the same are both boiling over.

Large, militant Black Lives Matter marches swept through Oakland in 2014 and 2015 when the name of one rebellious Missouri town became known throughout the world. Yet during the most recent cycle of revolt following the police murder of George Floyd, it has been the aficionados of liberal reforms who have set the tone of many demonstrations in Oakland’s demographically shifting core. There have been riotous, carnivalesque actions as well, but the resolutely anti-police march in the wake of Erik Salgado’s death this month was in East Oakland, far away from both City Hall and Oscar Grant Plaza and posing little strategic threat to the downtown elites. As yet, there has been no local effort to hold space as has occurred in Seattle or Philadelphia, despite the past militancy of Occupy Oakland and the city’s economically strategic position.

For the oppressed to take the city square, we must be able to reach it. But more and more, we are instead priced out to exurbs of little strategic importance and no city center to speak of. If trends continue, we must wonder, for how many years will the Oakland or Paris Commune be able to be repeated?

VI.

“All I want to do is try to make sense
Love my city but the gentry got it real tense”

- Zion I, “Tech $”

The role of analysis is not to provide a prescription. It is not to provide answers, because only the actions and decisions of communities in revolt can create those answers themselves. The role of analysis, we feel, is to illuminate a clearing, a clearing in which movements may clarify their paths. We therefore only offer five provisional theses followed by three notes based on the already-existing struggles visible today.

  1. Gentrification is a plan. Municipal governments bemoan a lack of resources to deal with gentrification as if it were a natural disaster that befell them. The case of San José shows, instead, a conscious, well-guarded plan by state and corporate elites.
  2. Gentrification is a symptom. What incentivizes these plans is a widespread change in production patterns in the imperial core. Displacement is the result, an epiphenomenon of this economic shift.
  3. Gentrification is a network. It is the tech and biotech companies which add value to the new economy, the finance firms that fund them, the universities who train their workers, the real estate firms who house them. It is their workers, not the proletariat, who are concentrated in today’s richest cities.
  4. The lines have changed. There are those inside and those outside. Many of those firms and universities invest generously in “social justice.” It is indeed an investment. What they hope to purchase is complicity. This does not mean every organization that accepts a grant is corrupted by evil. It means the pattern demands attention.
  5. What is needed is not refoundation but reorientation. If the role of the political organization in industrial capitalism was to connect and generalize the strike, what are the concrete actions it must connect and generalize today?

A first note: The economic formation at play in the Bay is converting city after city into hubs of the rich. There is even a name for this pattern: industrial agglomeration. Just as different companies benefit from having their factories in the same city, with access to the same trained workforce and tax breaks and supply lines, so too can companies benefit from having, say, tech campuses in the same city, with access to the same trained workforce and venture capital firms and coding bootcamps. Sometimes, a city of each type forms on either side of a national border to take advantage of a state-enforced disparity in wages and mobility, as in Hong Kong/Shenzhen or Tijuana/San Diego. We also see cities that have shed the need for a neighboring industrial or labor base entirely, as in the Bay Area. Variations on this configuration are emerging in metropoles as diverse as Austin, Taipei, Buenos Aires, and Seattle. Those still needed to serve the food and clean the homes of their replacements are free to commute long hours from the exurbs, but they may no longer call the cities their home. This is a qualitative shift from the demographic patterns of 19th century industrial capitalism, a development which may only be accelerated by an impending wave of COVID-related evictions across the United States.

A second: after the anarchist-inflected Occupy movement proved that your affinity group’s decision making process just might not scale up to the size of cities and the subsequent election of Trump, two American left currents rapidly gained surprising amounts of ground. One lays claim to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy; the other, social democratic electoral pragmatism. Both trace their ancestry back to tendencies built, fundamentally, to ensure working-class benefits from the process of industrial expansion, either in the West or in the colonies, which is the exact opposite of the pattern visible in the contemporary United States. The democratic socialists in particular half-remember that the election of socialist politicians was only ever the rear-guard of advancing militant labor movements, so they cling on to any labor action at hand: a unionized brewery in San Francisco; a (debatably) wildcat strike by teachers, a brave and inspiring action that is almost sure to not stop the gutting of public education.

What is forgotten is that union activity was not celebrated by revolutionaries for its own virtue but for its capacity to be generalized into mass revolt. The overwhelming majority of us work at firms whose overall importance to the capitalist economy is virtually zero. (The one exception to this claim: ongoing left efforts to organize Amazon factory workers.) Those who do work at important firms in tech, or finance, or real estate, are bought off. They will not revolt, and if they did, it would express no generalizable interest. The Russian Social-Democrats stood behind the soviets, the Iberian Anarchist Federation behind the CNT. Without a base, there are only subcultures and futile votes. Clinging to the models of a dead world will not bring the commune closer. We must attend to the sea change if we are to swim among the people.

And a third: We propose a typology of recent revolts.

There is a series of struggles to hold onto the city. Occupy was of this mode, as is the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle. So too are tenant unions and anti-gentrification campaigns, joined by efforts to de-commodify land through community land trusts.

We have seen another series of struggles over circulation in and out of and through the metropolis. As gentrification forces more people to commute long hours back to their urban jobs, transportation infrastructure becomes even more critical. Black Lives Matters protestors find they maximize their impact by shutting down freeways. Chilean and New York public transportation protests were likewise of this type.

As for what the next mode will look like, we can only offer the observation that displacement may be seen as a historic realignment to a continental norm where wealthy cities are surrounded by the poor. It could be the terrain of encirclement, provided one finds the correct focus. But the future is unwritten, and again, this determination will be made by those in struggle. Given seismic shifts in the nature of production and the composition of the cities, however, it is not unreasonable to expect that future convulsions might not be so legible to those who have only buried their noses in tales of revolutions past. We are building the road to the new world, even if the old gods can no longer light the way.


author

Andrew Lee

is a researcher and restaurant worker.