In the article below, written by Gifford Hartman, capital’s war against the ecological is couched within a rich history of class struggle in California. California’s economy transformed from its early days as center of raw mineral extraction (primarily gold and, later oil), to one based on agriculture, and then became the site of the pioneering suburban sprawl model of housing development. The earth was abused and re-abused through every cycle of accumulation right along with the indio slaves, mexicano laborers, chinese contract workers, okie migrants, black longshoremen, and the rest of us who were drawn by the dynamic economy at the Pacific rim of US imperialism.
Crisis in California: Everything Touched by Capital Turns Toxic
I should be very much pleased if you could find me something good (meaty) on economic conditions in California…. California is very important for me because nowhere else has the upheaval most shamelessly caused by capitalist centralisation taken place with such speed.
- Letter from Karl Marx to Friedrich Sorge, 1880
In California toxic capitalist social relations demonstrated their full irrationality in May 2009 when banks bulldozed brand-new, but unsold, McMansions in the exurbs of Southern California.
Across the United States an eviction occurs every 13 seconds and there are at the moment at least five empty homes for every homeless person. The newly homeless are finding beds unavailable as shelters are stretched well beyond capacity. St. John’s Shelter for Women and Children in Sacramento regularly turns away 350 people a night. Many of these people end up in the burgeoning tent cities that are often located in the same places as the ‘Hoovervilles’ – similar structures, named after then President Herbert Hoover – of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The tent city in Sacramento, California’s state capital, was set up on land that had previously been a garbage dump. It became internationally known when news media from Germany, the UK, Switzerland and elsewhere covered it. It featured in the French magazine Paris Match and on The Oprah Winfrey Show in the US. Of course this publicity necessitated that Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s governor, and Kevin Johnson, mayor of Sacramento, shut it down. When we visited in March 2009 to investigate, we met Governor Schwarzenegger and Mayor Johnson there by chance. Johnson told us the tent city would be evacuated, saying, ‘They can’t stay here, this land is toxic.’
Almost half the people we spoke with had until recently been working in the building trades. When the housing boom collapsed they simply could not find work. Some homeless people choose to live outside for a variety of reasons, including not being allowed to take pets into homeless shelters or to freely drink and use substances. But most of the tent city dwellers desperately wanted to be working and wanted to be housed. In many places people creating tent encampments are met with hostility, and are blamed for their own condition. New York City, with a reputation for intolerance towards the homeless, recently shut down a tent city in East Harlem. Homeowners near a tent city of 200 in Tampa, Florida organised to close it down, saying it would ‘devalue’ their homes. In Seattle, police have removed several tent cities, each named ‘Nickelsville’ after the Mayor who ordered the evictions.
Yet in some places, like Nashville, Tennessee, tent cities are tolerated by local police and politicians. Church groups are even allowed to build showers and provide services. Other cities that have allowed these encampments are: Champaign, Illinois; St. Petersburg, Florida; Lacey, Washington; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Reno, Nevada; Columbus, Ohio; Portland, Oregon. Ventura, California recently changed its laws to allow the homeless to sleep in cars and nearby Santa Barbara has made similar allowances. In San Diego, California a tent city appears every night in front of the main public library downtown. Continue reading