Golden State

The death foretold in the early months of the economic crisis was that of high finance. It has turned out instead to be California’s. Like the larger recession, the crack-up of the country’s wealthiest, most populous state has been long in the making. After many years of disguising its financial frailty with housing booms, California seems poised to collapse. At the time of this writing, the legislature is three months late in passing a budget. The state’s education system, once the envy of nations, drowns its students in tuition bills; the pension fund, long used as an excuse to deny wage increases in favor of benefits to come, reneges on old promises; voters sick of legislative inaction threaten their representatives, long settled into gerrymandered districts, with the boot and worse. The few remaining newspapers can’t afford to tell anyone what’s going on: they’re too poor.

Yet flitting through this long slow disaster was the sense that the crack-up offered an opportunity; that what was left of the state could be reclaimed. The governor was a disgrace, and so were the gubernatorial candidates; no one had much faith in elected officials to do anything. Power, at least a little of it, might be left lying in the streets. Who would pick it up? The usual wealthy interests, no doubt — those who could afford to capitalize on others’ financial distress; those who could spend enough to push through fiendishly crafted ballot initiatives. But the fragments of California’s once-famed left were resolved to try as well.

What you noticed first were the chairs. Behind the chained-shut glass doors of the San Francisco State business school, students had piled and zip-tied enough spindly metal chairs to block the hallways. Through the windows you could see them rising up the building’s wide stairways. There were hundreds, maybe a thousand — as many chairs as protesting students. It was an overwhelming sight, symbolic of a student body sick of taking things sitting down.

At noontime crowds encircled the entire business building, chanting “Walk out, SF State! / Shut it down like ’68!,” but the late afternoon grew quiet and fogbound. A few faint protest songs could still be heard as anemic remnants of the crowd milled around, wary of the arriving police cars. One student had taped a plank of wood to his shoe and clumped along in a ludicrous march all his own. The scene regained some life when representatives from the local hotel workers union arrived with an experienced picket-line leader, who screamed classic chants through his megaphone in a way the younger students never could.

San Francisco State is part of the California State University system, the second of three tiers in the state’s once-fabled system of higher education. Below it are the community colleges; above, the University of California. The UCs have also faced staggering fee increases and budget cuts, but the Cal State system, because of its relative lack of prestige, was hit doubly hard by austerity measures. The total budget of the twenty-three Cal State schools has been cut by $625 million (21 percent); SF State’s budget was cut by 23 percent, while tuition was increased 30 percent, to $5,014 per year. All campuses declined to accept applicants for spring 2010, in hopes of reducing enrollment by forty thousand students. Classes disappeared; the ones that remained bulged at overcapacity, with many students, as they tried desperately to finish their degrees and exit the ever more costly system, forced to sit on the floor. The Mario Savio who denounced a university administration as the “operation of the machine” might have been chagrined to see how anxiously his successors clung to the gears and wheels as these were sold off.

The afternoon lull was finally broken when the occupying students emerged onto the school’s balcony, spreading a banner along the edge of the building that read:


One of the students, his voice muffled by a bandanna, announced through a megaphone the first demand — that the heat be turned back on in the building. More elaborate demands — composed quickly, no doubt, while sitting on the floor in the cold — ensued. “We demand the following,” cried the student, “or we will occupy this building indefinitely”:

That the imperialist wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Gaza are ended, and that the money be used to feed and clothe the poor.

That the university system be run by the students, faculty, and staff. Not administrators.
That education, from kindergarten to PhD, be free of charge.

That a permanent space be established on campus for students to use, free of surveillance or control, to organize this struggle.


That no disciplinary action be taken against us for our action.

Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible! (Be realists, demand the impossible!) was one of the slogans of May ’68, and it began to seem as if the students had interpreted this old injunction rather dogmatically. But toward the end of the list, the demands — there were thirty-one — began to depart the ether (“that prisons are closed and defunded”) and to come down to earth, and even the vicinity of the university: “That all laid-off lecturers be rehired”; “Cancel the proposed Recreation and Wellness Center that would cost $93 million while we have no classes”; “We want the Ethnic Studies Resource Center to be reopened.”

Each of these elicited cheers, of varying degrees of enthusiasm. An improvised chant followed, as one of the students beatboxed a Bo Diddley rhythm and another sang a series of verses to the tune of “I Want Candy”:

We’ve got unity
The fa-cul-ty’ve got unity
The stuu-dents have unity
The sta-aff have unity

“We’ve been reading some Henry David Thoreau,” the same student announced. He held up a pocket paperback. “‘All men,’” he began to read, “‘recognize the right of revolution . . .’”

Around 4 AM, police broke past a barricade of students, climbed through a smashed-in window, and arrested twenty or so students who had sequestered themselves in a classroom. Several were charged with misdemeanor trespassing offenses; many would be fined around $700 by the university. Protests against the fines took place; they were smaller and unsuccessful.

“The short-lived occupation of the Business building at San Francisco State University on Dec. 9 by protesters was not a peaceful sit-in,” wrote SF State President Robert Corrigan two days later, “not a student demonstration, and not an expression of free speech but an illegitimate takeover that denied thousands of students their educational rights”:

The demands listed by the protesters 
demonstrated how far from the very real needs of students and the campus they had strayed. . . . [The list] included such items as closure of all prisons, a 50 percent tax on multinational corporations, and the dissolution of the CSU Board of Trustees.

The protesters also demanded that no disciplinary action be taken against them. If you are going to engage in an act of civil disobedience, then you should have the courage of your actions. Civil rights activists — and I was one — did not demand immunity; they acted and changed our nation.

As haughty and dismissive as Corrigan’s statement was — the students of the ’60s would justly have called him an “establishment type-head” — on the question of the more extravagant demands he was more correct than the occupiers should have allowed him to be. In the flightiness of their demands, they were representatives of a student left, and a California left more generally, that has been torn from the roots that once made it the hope of the rest of the country.

In 1949, Carey McWilliams, the state’s greatest journalist, called California “the great exception” among states: no textbook or precedent existed to explain its monstrous growth, its powerful labor movement, its superb education system, or its abundance-creating, super-exploitative farm system. “California has not grown or evolved,” McWilliams wrote, “so much as it has been hurtled forward, rocket-fashion, by a series of chain-reaction explosions.” Every discovery or forward movement in California — whether the Gold Rush or the San Francisco Waterfront Strike of 1934 — seemed to coincide magically with national developments that turned it from a local incident into an “explosion.” The Gold Rush, for example, took place precisely when advances in transportation made a real “rush” of people possible, and with no prior claimants to the land, a “truly amazing democracy in production” prevailed. This had its terrible consequences: the Native American population in California, larger than elsewhere in the West, was exterminated with unprecedented speed. For better and for worse, the early Californians displayed an omnipotent confidence that, McWilliams suggested, could only be compared to a kind of gambling:

To understand the spirit of California, one really needs a sociology of what is called “good luck.” . . . Californians have traditionally been reckless and self-confident gamblers; they have never hesitated to make high wagers against heavy odds and, on more than one occasion, have staked the future of the state on a throw of the dice, a turn of the cards.

California’s reputation for being irredeemably liberal began to take hold in the ’60s, when three groups, all in frequent conflict with each other, held sway over the image of the state: liberal administrators, students, and labor. The last of these, relatively powerful ever since the Gold Rush, had developed its strength to the point that corporations tended to submit to its demands, and often suffered grievously when they did not. Professional administrators and politicians meanwhile sought to expand the public realm in prosperous California by any means necessary: agriculture would be heavily industrialized to feed the poor with cheap produce; under the auspices of a “Master Plan” for education, universities would be turned into tuition-free “multiversities”; cities would have their slums cleared for arenas, entertainment complexes, and mega-housing projects. Students, many of whom had served as Freedom Riders in the South, first demanded free speech rights, and then used these rights to demand others.

People moved to California in droves during the War to join armaments industries; by the early ’60s, it had surpassed New York as the country’s most populous state. Governor Pat Brown (1959–67) called this demographic explosion “the greatest migration in the history of the world.” Brown was given to piques of liberal fervor, and on occasion he would enumerate, like a latter-day Byron listing the locations of his trysts, all the state projects he planned to complete: “We’ll build the water project, and we’ll build new universities and new state colleges and new community colleges, and elementary schools, too. We’ve got plenty of money and we’ve got to do it.” Optimism raged like an epidemic. California, journalist Peter Schrag writes, “bought and developed thousands of acres of new parklands, nurtured public institutions that were unmatched anywhere on earth, and never thought that it had to make tough fiscal choices.” Meanwhile, the hippies in the north, and the film industry in the south — both drawn by warm weather and the abundance of beautiful outdoor spaces — cemented the out-there reputation of the Left Coast, a phrase popularized in the ’70s.

Yet extraordinary and inimitable as California was supposed to be, it was equally supposed that the rest of the country would soon model itself after the state — the rule, rather than the exception. Boom cities like Houston and Atlanta would look less like Boston and New York and more like Los Angeles; public universities would successfully compete with Harvard and Yale for talent as Berkeley did with Stanford; farming would resemble the “factories in the fields” (McWilliams’s phrase) in the San Joaquin Valley. The left, too, would find its models in California, whether among the love-ins in San Francisco, the student tables near Sather Gate at Berkeley, or the Lamppost in Oakland — a bar owned by the Black Panthers. In all these respects, California was the harbinger of whatever utopian future the United States had in store: every outsider’s casual dismissal of its strangeness concealed a desire that the rest of the country might turn out to be, one day, just as strange.

All the conditions that nurtured a powerful left in California have virtually disappeared. Today, the educational plans of the Sixties administrators read like fables, while California’s legendary liberal consensus has unraveled to the extent that no Orange County conservative would identify with the Ronald Reagan who, as governor, signed into law the largest tax increase in California’s history. The collapse of California’s education system is the sign of California’s collapse more generally. At the time of this writing, the state has an official unemployment rate of 12.3 percent (as high as 18-19 percent in some rural counties), and a budget deficit — even after two years of savage cuts — of $19.1 billion, with no solution to either problem in sight.

Fiscal crises, due to a careless article of the state’s 1879 constitution that requires a two-thirds majority for the passage of any budget, are familiar to Californians, but the current situation transcends all that. A crisis at least suggests a possible transformation; California’s problems seem terminal. Confidence — the attitude my shallow, beaming state supposedly lacks least — has all but disappeared. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (a trio of words it still pains me to write) enjoys approval ratings of 22 percent; approval of the Democrat-controlled legislature has reached a historic low of 9 percent. People have finally begun to believe in “bad luck.” California remains a harbinger for the country; only now it has come to represent not progress and creativity but social immobility, ecological catastrophe, and legislative hopelessness.

California’s problems have long been foreseen; only the will to face them honestly has been lacking. For one thing, the state is running out of water: the Colorado River has been dammed and sucked out, and as the effects of global warming mount it yields ever less. The water problem is part of a larger demographic problem: too many people have moved to California, a place that, given its resource constraints, its seismic instability, and its tendency toward massive brush fires, should have never been settled so densely. The right manipulates this situation to the utmost, distracting people from these ineluctable problems with the specters of undocumented immigrants and public pension costs. The tactic does double duty: it creates a dynamic of Us vs. Them that makes people more unwilling to fork over tax dollars for public welfare, while painting the hapless left, itself only partly concerned with demographics and natural resources, as having little interest in and no solution for true issues.

Nor does the gubernatorial race (ongoing when this piece went to press) inspire confidence. Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, is the Republican candidate, thanks partly to her reputation as an intelligent executive (John McCain once called her one of the “wisest people” he knows, along with civil rights leader John Lewis and General David Petraeus), but mostly thanks to her extravagant spending: as of mid-September she had spent $119 million of her personal fortune, the largest private amount ever spent on a single campaign and  expressed a willingness to go to $150 million. Far to the right of Schwarzenegger in nearly every way, Whitman opposes the state cap on carbon emissions, is against gay marriage, wants to cut school spending (California ranks 45th in per-pupil spending) and every other public service, and, of course, wants to reduce taxes so as to raise revenues (per the miraculous but unconfirmed predictions of the Laffer curve). She follows in the Schwarzenegger-Reagan tradition of citizen-politicians, but outstrips all her predecessors in a dogmatic commitment to supply-side economics, coupled with a strategic social conservatism that alienates a few of her Silicon Valley comrades but not, for example, the majority of Californians, who remain against gay marriage.

Her Democratic opponent, Jerry Brown, is troublingly familiar. Governor from 1975 to 1983, mayor of Oakland from 1998 to 2006, and at present the state’s attorney general, his nomination represents a total failure of imagination for the state’s Democratic Party. Residents of Oakland recall Brown’s mayoral tenure as one in which he shed the dreamy liberal image he had acquired as governor and embraced “realism” in urban policy. He encouraged the expansion of charter schools, enlargement of the notoriously unhinged police department, and speculative real estate development of the most reckless kind — most notably, the “Uptown project,” a mixed-use complex of luxury condos that was intended to attract wealthy white residents to a majority black community. The promise of these development schemes didn’t last beyond the collapse of the dot-com bubble, and few residents have forgiven Brown for his ham-fisted attempt to remake Oakland in the image of the richer city across the Bay.

But Brown’s biggest misstep — the one for which he may live in infamy — was his failure as governor to combat the unsustainable rise of property taxes, which led to the creation and passage of the nefarious Proposition 13 in 1978. Property values in California, assessed every two to three years by county officials, rose to colossally high levels in the mid-’70s, as millions of people bought and built bought homes in the expanding suburbs and exurbs. The corresponding tax rates, set by the municipality (not the county) in which the property was located, rose as well. Homeowners feared that their tax burdens would render them unable to afford their mortgage payments. Proposition 13 (“The People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation”) was created by the hard-right Jarvis-Gann Taxpayer Association to exploit this specific dilemma, in order to curb the growth of the California government. It rolled back property values to pre-1975 levels, allowed a maximum 2 percent yearly increase for inflation, and prohibited reassessments except in the case of property transfer or resale, while instituting a two-thirds majority requirement for raising other kinds of taxes. The night the bill passed (by a huge margin: 65 percent in favor), Howard Jarvis, its coauthor, celebrated it as a populist victory that heralded a general revolt. “Excessive taxation,” he said at the time, “leads either to bankruptcy or dictatorship.”

It was Proposition 13 — a starkly ideological response to a real dilemma — that brought California near bankruptcy, and instituted the budget crisis as a permanent structural problem. Almost immediately after it passed, all summer school classes were eliminated. Eventually thousands of state employees were laid off, and the state’s infrastructure began a slow decline. The decrease in state revenues was exacerbated in the ’80s, when the Reagan Administration — inspired by Prop 13 — cut federal funding to the states, and subsequent Republican governors, notably George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, and Schwarzenegger, equally inspired, set about dismantling California’s once impressive public services.

There were also two less obvious, though no less momentous, consequences of Prop 13. One was the rapid increase in direct democracy initiatives, many of them conservative, backed by those wealthy enough to field large groups of signature-gatherers, and posing, like Prop 13, as “populist” circumventions of the supposedly out-of-touch legislature. Since 1978, voters have passed laws restricting legislative term limits, forbidding undocumented residents access to social services, instituting stricter sentencing laws for repeat offenders (the “three strikes” law), curbing bilingual education, and stripping same-sex couples of the right to marry. Twenty-two initiatives appeared in the 1970s; there were forty-five in the 1980s, sixty-two in the 1990s, and ninety-four in the last decade. Such a “plebiscitary” democracy not only tends to favor super-rich interest groups (to cite one journalist’s list: “insurance companies, railroads, banks, auto manufacturers, car dealers, oil refiners, utilities, drug companies, Silicon Valley millionaires, realtors’ associations, and trial lawyers”), who can afford the kind of numb and manipulative TV ads that helped pass Proposition 8 (against gay marriage) and others like it; it also makes private the act of voting on legislation. Since no one knows which item you cross in the polling booth, no one can hold you — unlike an elected representative — accountable for your vote. Making savage cuts in public services that meant your own son or daughter couldn’t afford college, denying emergency care to immigrants, and so on: Californians by the millions walk around with these votes — acts of violence, really — secreted in their hearts.

The other consequence of Prop 13 (and of the neoliberal turn more generally) was the extravagant growth of the California prison system. As prison activist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore tells it in her book Golden Gulag, the “prison fix” made its first appearance during Jerry Brown’s difficult second term. As disappearing revenues destroyed his plans for growing the state, and with the state’s crime rate at an all-time high, Brown decided to replace two of the state’s legendary prisons, San Quentin and Folsom. His twin aims were to humanize these famously violent and miserable places, in response to the antiprison activism of the 1970s, and to defuse the Republican strategy of using crime as a campaign issue.

As it happened, neither worked. In 1976, the California legislature passed the dismal Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act, which excised the explicit goal of rehabilitation from the law while mandating longer sentences for certain felonies. Meanwhile, Prop 13 finished off the state’s faltering attempts to educate and employ its growing mass of poor, and many acres of farmland fell idle due to a major drought. Most important, the California Public Works Board developed a new instrument for financing prison construction, called Lease Revenue Bonds (LRBs). Unlike traditional General Obligation Bonds, which required approval by popular referendum and thus were legally backed by the state, LRBs were backed by a revenue stream supposedly produced by the project itself, in the form of rent paid by the developer. In other words, they had only the implicit backing of California’s full faith and credit. They cost the state more to issue, because of the higher risk of nonpayment, but took virtually no time to approve.

An excess of population, land, and finance capital; the devastation of state financing; and the notion that “crime” was a permanent problem that required the “incapacitation” (the word that came to replace “rehabilitation”) of criminals: all served to make prisons irresistible. California embarked on the biggest prison-building program in human history — or at least, as Peter Schrag put it, “since the death of Stalin.” Beginning in 1982, twenty-three maximum security prisons were built, at $280 to $350 million apiece. By 2000, the prison population had increased by 500 percent. In depressed rural places like Kings County — a cotton-producing hub, one of the six richest agricultural counties in the country, and yet a place where poverty is rampant — prisons were shilled as job-creators. Community colleges within spitting distance of prison facilities, their tuitions already climbing higher than many could afford, began to offer prison guard training degrees — the guards had a powerful union, and so enjoyed possibly the most secure career path in the state.

But time after time, rural towns found that prisons didn’t bring jobs; other businesses were scared away, and prison workers themselves preferred to live in towns that weren’t dominated by giant prisons. Joblessness drove many to crime, which fed the need for more prisons. By 2003, one could read Joan Didion claiming that California spent more on its prisons than on education. It wasn’t true, but it was — like much of what Didion writes — more true than the truth. Education increasingly resembled the prison system: it too relied on Lease Revenue Bonds, backed by ever increasing tuition bills, to finance endless expansion and construction. Only the most obtuse government — of the kind that California voters elected again and again — could fail to recognize the unsustainability of the situation. When Governor Schwarzenegger recently suggested that, as a solution to the budget crisis, California privatize its prison system, students in the increasingly privatized education system recognized the bitter parallel.

A decade of antiprison activism had led to a prison construction boom and a decade of student activism had led to the devastation of the public school system: to anyone living in California, the rightward turn of the state’s politics, and the general failure of the left, was clear. But to hear the rest of the country tell it in the ’90s, the place — after years of choosing Republicans (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush) for the presidency — had become a moony left-wing irrelevance. Fred Barnes, in a Weekly Standard column, noted that “California was more Democratic, more pro-President Clinton, and more pro-abortion than the rest of America. Its population was more Hispanic and Asian. Its business community was more culturally liberal.” In 2003, during the early stages of both the Iraq invasion and the recall campaign that put Schwarzenegger into office, the Economist sniffed that California was a “left-out coast” and had been “out of the loop ever since the Clintons moved out of the White House.”

While Los Angeles (where I was born) has long been unknowable and politically diffident, with a dull habit of electing right-wing mayors, San Francisco (where I live) has proved quite reliable — if not in its progressivism, then at least in its position as a punching bag for the right. Its last Republican mayor left office in 1964; its last Republican Board of Supervisors member was elected in 1981. During Obama’s campaign and since, San Francisco has served as a brush with which to tar his socialism and his “gay mafia” agenda. It was in Marin County that Obama made his tin-eared comments about working-class voters “clinging to guns and religion.” (Sarah Palin: “We tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco!”) And Bill O’Reilly produced a memorable San Francisco dispatch, intended as a preview of things to come in the Obama presidency, depicting its transformation from a working-class enclave to a den of mostly black transsexual marijuana addicts (San Francisco has the lowest percentage of black residents of any major city).

San Francisco’s supposed radicalism runs deep, having much to do with the luck of its geography. When gold was discovered near present-day Sacramento in 1848 — the same year that Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto of the Communist Party — San Francisco guarded the narrow entrance to the nearest bay, making it the de facto capital of the Gold Rush and the subsequent mining boom. By the time the railroads connected California to the East, San Francisco had the first unionized waterfront in the country, and the organization of nearly every other trade followed. A series of powerful socialist groups — the International Workingmen’s Association, the Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”), and finally the Communist Party — dominated the city’s unions in turns of about twenty years, each era culminating in spectacularly violent confrontation with government officials.

Yet by the mid-’60s, when another kind of Bay Area radicalism based largely in the universities began to arouse people’s attention, labor had long settled into its somnolent postwar truce with capital. This meant that, for all the time Didion spent during her Goldwater phase showing us the horrors of the young people — amnesiac about their parents’ stories, unable to form complete sentences — the real story of San Francisco lay elsewhere: namely, in the politics of urban development, which the left would ignore until it was too late. Since 1945, San Francisco has gone through three phases of development: the first was that of urban renewal, led by the planner Justin Herman; the second, running from about 1975 to 1990, focused on the creation of new office space (this was called “Manhattanization”); the third, which persists today, envisions the city as a tourist center and “bedroom community” for Silicon Valley workers. In every stage, the urban left failed to find common cause with labor, as the latter — particularly the building trades — sought to secure jobs in development projects that the former opposed. It is a rift that has never been healed.

San Francisco’s era of urban renewal, as for many cities, proved traumatic: most notably, it resulted in the destruction of the city’s largest black neighborhood, the Fillmore District, once the center of jazz on the west coast. (Neither jazz nor the black population have stayed.) A signal failure was the co-optation of labor by developers and City Hall. In 1967, unions including the city’s once radical International Longshore Workers’ Union, which by then had become majority black, threw their support behind Mayor Joseph Alioto, a centrist Democrat who brought urban renewal to vicious completion. (Alioto was a special foe of the Bay Area–based Black Panthers, who had failed to engage labor in their struggles.) The unions contributed campaign workers and organized fundraising, while Alioto placated police during pickets, mediated strikes, and cravenly solicited development projects that promised union jobs. As elsewhere, victims of urban renewal, most of whom no longer live in the city, have received something like an official apology, via the designation of historic districts and the granting of historic status to a few remaining Victorian houses, which help to cover for the luxury condominiums being built next door.

During the era of “Manhattanization,” city officials worked closely with developers and the unions affiliated with the Buildings and Trades Council to ensure a steady level of office construction, which for construction workers meant constant employment. By 1981, the city had nearly quadrupled its annual increase in office space, to 2,156,500 square feet from an average of 573,000 in 1964. At the time, only Boston had a higher proportion of office space to population. Changes in waterfront technology had led to the dilapidation of the docks — Oakland took on San Francisco’s role as a port — and the erosion of the blue-collar base. The multitude of skyscrapers pounded into the downtown area signaled the role the city hoped to assume in what was known then as the “Pacific Rim” economy.

San Francisco’s left was undergoing a concomitant transformation — one that made it more visible, and more unpalatable to the state’s hardening right, even as its political power diminished. In addition to the counterculture nestled around the edges of Golden Gate Park and the students at Berkeley and SF State, the Castro sent Harvey Milk to the Board of Supervisors office in 1977 — the first openly gay man elected to any public office anywhere in the country — only to see him shot just two years later, by one of the last representatives of the city’s counter-counterculture, Dan White, who also served on the Board of Supervisors from 1976 until his resignation in 1978. White’s campaign literature had adopted a rhetoric with which the right would feel increasingly comfortable: “I am not going to be forced out of San Francisco by splinter groups of radicals, social deviates and incorrigibles. You must realize there are thousands upon thousands of frustrated angry people such as yourselves waiting to unleash a fury that can and will eradicate the malignancies which blight our beautiful city.” The students and hippies suffered violence as well — some of it internally generated — and the left that emerged from these convulsions was inward-looking, even nostalgic, concerned with conserving the diversity of particular neighborhoods against the homogenizing onslaught of hyperdevelopment.

This was the urban “antiregime,” as Richard DeLeon called it in his classic analysis, Left Coast City: San Francisco Politics, 1975–1991. “Its first priority is not revolution,” DeLeon wrote, “but protection — protection of the city’s environment, architectural heritage, neighborhoods, diversity, and overall quality of life from the radical transformations of turbulent American capitalism.” This loose amalgam of progressives — consisting mostly of overlapping groups of traditional liberals, environmentalists, and community organizers — drew on the city’s rich history of revolts against freeways and urban renewal projects, gathering the strands of resistance into an organized coalition. Rather than articulating a progressive future, it hunkered down to fight the pro-growth agenda of developers and City Hall. Given the hostile forces arrayed against it, this was the best the left could do in those years, and its victories would provide models for antidevelopment fights in cities all over the country, including Chicago and New York.

While statewide ballot initiatives tended to be proffered by conservatives, in the ’80s the antigrowth coalition put forth a series of citywide initiatives that sought to place limits on development, and finally scored a victory with the passage of Proposition M in 1986. Prop M was a “slow-growth” rather than “no-growth” initiative: it placed restrictions on annual construction, reserving most of the quota for relatively small buildings; in particular cases, it limited the height of buildings, and restricted the level of shadow a building could cast on surrounding green space. In 1988, the antiregime succeeded in putting a progressive candidate, Art Agnos, into the mayor’s office. A recession in the late ’80s, combined with the new legislation and the new administration, made it seem that the left had been granted breathing room to recuperate and remake itself. But that remaking never happened.

What happened instead, in the third postwar era, was the remaking of San Francisco as a satellite of Silicon Valley. First the Agnos administration proved a disappointment, caving to developers so thoroughly that his base deserted him when he ran for re-election. Then progressives were taken by surprise when the dot-com bubble of the late ’90s expanded beyond anyone’s imagination. Jobs were created by the thousands, some for highly trained engineers from India on temporary H1-B visas, others for anyone with a brain and a college degree, along a corridor of scattered oaks and sprawl that ran from San Francisco all the way to San Jose, traversed by a train line and two freeways. In commuter parlance, this was the Peninsula; in the language of investors, “Silicon Valley.” At its perfervid height, the bubble was creating nine new jobs for every new unit of housing. Warp-speed gentrification seized low-rent neighborhoods that offered easy commutes to the Valley, particularly the mostly Hispanic Mission District, where longtime residents still swap stories of startup founders competing for apartments by offering months or years of advance rent. Meanwhile, reinvigorated pro-growth advocates found ways to skirt the building restrictions: by 1999, 1.6 million square feet of office space were under construction; 600,000 square feet had been approved; and 2.2 million more had been proposed and were under review.

The antiregime, strong during the economic downturn of the first Bush years, was all but obliterated by the dot-com blitz. Its preservationist agenda had helped to keep San Francisco’s hilly parks surrounded by attractively quaint Victorians — the same cheery Full House image that sucked in the dot-commers. Many of these houses were in the Mission, which had an impressive history of organizing against the early stages of gentrification; successful fights had fostered a diverse neighborhood of Irish and Italians as well as Hispanics. Yet there as elsewhere, the antiregime was not equipped to counter the plans for live/work lofts, nor the landlords’ creative use of loopholes in tenant law to evict more residents than ever before the in the city’s history. A Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, composed of a dozen advocacy groups, formed in 2000 and conducted some high-profile antigentrification events. By then it was too late.

While gentrification was slowed by the recent crash, it has by no means halted. San Francisco is still the fourth most expensive city in the country — in part because the antiregime remains in effect. A movement whose only goal is to fend off capital necessarily has difficulties creating new housing, which requires some form of capital one way or another. The city’s most visible social problem, its homeless population (counted in 2009 at around 6,514 people, nearly 1 percent of the total population), testifies to this colossal civic failure. The recent financial collapse only modestly lowered housing prices, while increasing unemployment and further devastating the city’s capacity to help its needy. It doesn’t help that the current mayor, Gavin Newsom, an impossibly handsome man with greased-back hair who represents the city’s wealthier small businesses, has fought against more affordable housing initiatives than any mayor in the city’s history. His smooth image corresponds to an equally facile bourgeois politics: his latest proposal, the sit/lie law, would criminalize the act of sitting or lying on the sidewalk — which the homeless are forced to do because they have nowhere else to go.

Meanwhile, San Francisco has ceased to be the economic center that it once was. With the migration of professional-managerial and engineering jobs to Silicon Valley, the city proper has become something like a suburb from which people commute to Mountain View and Palo Alto, returning at night to consume and sleep. The city’s biggest generator of revenue is tourism, and even the residents — essentially uninvolved with the making of their own city — treat it as tourists do.

For San Franciscans and Californians in general, the last few years have been the darkest yet for “California exceptionalism.” But such is the hardheadedness of the state that in spite of — or perhaps because of — longstanding accusations of chronic forgetfulness, we persist in remembering boom times. The recent protests at SFSU overtly recalled 1968; UC students constantly remind their administrators how far tuition hikes have carried the system from the goals outlined in the Sixties; hotel workers on strike for higher wages chant “Shut it down! Shut it down! San Francisco’s a union town!” The old is dying, the new cannot be born; the occupations and the picket lines — protests of desperation — are signs that the identities granted in the liberal era were never fully assumed. Activist students supporting “the multiversity,” or clamoring just to keep existing classes, would have been unthinkable in 1968; the unions, in those days, had no need to remind anyone that San Francisco belonged to labor.

Students and labor, thoroughly at odds forty years ago, have recently, in their tattered and diminished states, found common cause. In 1969, members of SDS joined the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers in picketing Standard Oil, turning a small wage strike into a significant disturbance, such that the company called police, who relished the prospect of beating and arresting a group of students and workers more than one of workers alone. But a real student/worker alliance never materialized, not only because their interests were differently exploited by the media and political elite, but also because, beyond a handful of odd instances, there was little attempt at a serious exchange of ideas and experiences. That long-delayed exchange is now taking place. Labor walked with students at all of last spring’s campus actions, while union representation was strong at the last major antiwar protest — and the San Francisco LGBT parade.

Elsewhere in San Francisco, more comprehensive efforts at reform are ongoing. On August 14 and 15, community organizations held a congress called the “New New Deal for San Francisco,” at the University of San Francisco, the task of which was to create a plan that candidates for citywide office could endorse or use. Thirty-five years ago, community organizers drafted the first such plan, which had a significant impact on city government: among other things, it laid the foundations for rent control and installed (in place of proportional representation) district-based elections for city supervisor positions — a change that helped put Harvey Milk in office.

Calvin Welch, a longtime housing activist in the Haight-Ashbury district who cuts an appropriately Lebowskian figure, introduced the conference with a stentorian address that somberly recounted San Francisco’s decline from a city with extreme economic diversity to “a residential center for commercial office building.” Where the 1975 Congress confronted the end of urban renewal, the 2010 Congress was taking place after an end of another kind: the collapse of what he called “credit capitalism,” which had caused the loss of 60,000 jobs. “The Newsom administration at best is interested in creating temporary construction jobs,” he later told me. “We are simply the bedroom for Silicon Valley.”

The choice facing San Francisco couldn’t be starker: renew the city’s place at the head of a progressive movement for social justice, or supinely embrace its transformation into a consumer paradise for venture capitalists. For all that, the meeting participants — a mix of labor and community organizers, liberal lawyers, Green and Democratic party activists, representatives from the Newsom administration, members of the Board of Supervisors, and city government candidates — tried hard to steer between utopian gestures and incremental reforms. San Francisco is a relatively small town, where community groups sometimes exert real influence. During one working group meeting, I sat next to Eric Mar, a city supervisor, who said nothing but was inspired to fill an entire pad with notes in his loopy handwriting; candidates popped in and out of working groups to garner support, and seemed honest when they said they were looking for ideas.

The Economic Development working group, whose earliest meetings I had attended in July and which I observed the most during the congress, worked the long-est hours and was the most contentious. Its platform was also the most ambitious. Central to the group’s project was the creation of a San Francisco Municipal Bank: structured like a credit union, it would take city reserves of up to $500 million and use them to invest in alternative forms of economic development. Other proposals included the creation of a progressive tax plan and of a public power system to replace the much-reviled Pacific Gas & Electric. Karl Beitel, a researcher for the teachers union, who helped facilitate the group, suggested that full adoption of the proposals would constitute “the most far-reaching program for taking control of development on a local level.”

Enthusiasm for the broad contours did not preclude vigorous, protracted debate about the particulars. Recommendations for policies friendly to undocumented workers and investment in ESL programs were met with a surprising number of anti-immigrant comments, while supporters of Lyndon LaRouche elicited lusty boos when they made a pitch for nuclear power. More divisive was the question of how sympathetic the document should be to organized labor. An item that would require all development projects to be negotiated with the San Francisco Building Trades Council to ensure local hiring was tabled after endless discussion; more than a few participants warily recalled the Council’s role in green-lighting the mega-developments and monstrous skyscrapers of urban renewal and Manhattanization. One participant requested that “providing union jobs” be added to the document’s guiding principles — a proposal that was rejected, in favor of language that loosely supported the principles of the labor movement. Though it was widely acknowledged that labor’s support would be crucial to getting any part of the congress’s platform adopted, a sense of labor as a generally regressive force prevailed. The old divide of the ’70s and ’80s, when much of labor had failed to join the antiregime, persists.

The process proved exhausting, hampered by many participants’ tendency to focus narrowly on pet projects or concerns. When two hours had been spent on three of twenty-seven items, it became clear that proposals would have to be adopted en masse and with increasingly brief discussions. But the next day, when each working group presented its plans to the wider congress, it was clear that something extraordinary had emerged from all the work. Experience in the ramshackle, footloose ways of organizing had led to a document both professional and utopian, whose recommendations vigorously reasserted the importance of public development and a public economy in San Francisco — a document that had the potential to break the “urban antiregime.”

On the other hand, the congress’s plan was so San Francisco-centric that it risked myopia. From affordable housing to health and human services and economic development, all the recommendations proposed centralizing services and decentralizing governance, with the stubborn aim of making San Francisco virtually self-sufficient, and a model for the rest of the country. Admirable enough. But the document seemed to suggest that the city could simply sever or dismiss its connections to Oakland and Silicon Valley and the rest of the state, and emerge as a kind of city on a hill. It isn’t San Francisco’s task to save California, but future congresses will have to acknowledge the city’s dependence on surrounding communities and improve coordination with them. Until then, community groups will continue to focus on their neighborhoods, and keep wider problems — so to speak — at bay.

The topic of revolution came up a lot in the congress. Opening the final plenary session, in a speech that was written “only mildly under the influence,” the writer and activist Christopher Cook said, pouring forth his inner Che, “A revolution must be based on love. I am here because I love San Francisco and we all love San Francisco.”

I was reminded of the SF State students and their quote from Thoreau. It was in “Civil Disobedience” that Thoreau wrote, “All men recognize the right of revolution.” He goes on: “That is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now.” If California isn’t quite ripe for revolution — 2010 isn’t 1934, which in turn never became 1917 — certainly the spirit of revolt is everywhere. Petitions to change the two-thirds majority rule in the constitution and repeal Proposition 13 are being circulated all over the state; San Francisco’s hotel workers have been on strike for nearly a year; another round of student occupations is furtively being planned for the upcoming year. Even the antistatism of Meg Whitman draws on morbid symptoms of real dissatisfaction, while her opponent, however more palatably, suggests calm and serenity in the face of a disaster.

After the approval-by-acclamation of the congress’s platform, the participants departed, exhilarated and weary. The San Francisco weather, cold and moody but always willing to serve as a metaphor, had lightened: the marine layer had broken, and you could see the ferrous, clay-rich red of the Golden Gate Bridge. I figured that this was what the future, if there was one left for California, would look like. But that’s the intoxicated mood of an aesthete, and San Francisco suckers aesthetes by the thousands. In a more sober moment — it came with the first chill blast of Pacific wind — I realized that the congress had seen the future of California and shuddered; that its platform comprised a message to San Francisco, the only message the city was really prepared to receive: Save yourselves.

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