San Francisco was once a city famed for its diversity. Angel Island, in the middle of the city’s bay, was to the West what Ellis Island was to the East. Home to working class Californians who had their origins not only in the Bay Area and around the state, but from the four corners of the world, San Francisco was also known as the heart of political activism in the Golden State.
In the era of Citizens United, San Francisco remains the city of political capital, but the nature of that capital has changed. Instead of representing the intellectual investment of its quirky neighbourhoods and the muscle of its labour force, the city’s political contributions are increasingly represented by the financial power of the elite who are increasingly monopolising access to the city by the Bay.
This has been well illustrated by President Obama’s treatment of the Bay Area. He regularly swoops into the City, Marin, and Silicon Valley, vacuuming up the cash of the financial and tech elites while avoiding what remains of the working class in the city with the highest median rent in the nation. He is also practised at dodging those who have sought to be the conscience of leftism in America and who would hold the President’s feet to the fire by asking him to address the inequality which is redefining their city.
The New York Times recently published a story (“Backlash by the Bay: Tech Riches Alter a City”) describing how the tech industry(capable of producing 1,600 millionaires and precisely nothing of value overnight) is transforming San Francisco. According to the Times, “income disparities have widened sharply, housing prices have soared and orange construction cranes dot the skyline”, spawning the visible material trappings of an indulgent class, unaware and frankly indifferent of the effects its actions have on others, having convinced itself of its own indispensable, apolitical nature. “For critics”, the Times went on, “such sights are symbols of a city in danger of losing its diversity—one that artists, families and middle-class workers can no longer afford”.
The city, its moral fibre corrupted by the riches flowing north from Silicon Valley, and the lure of attracting young MBAs who will inexorably price out San Francisco’s working class, is loathe to defend its historical diversity and progressivism, and looks set to buckle before the lucre of the tech and financial sectors.
A mere “14 percent of homes [in San Francisco are] accessible to middle class buyers”, and the median rent is a mind-boggling $3,250 per month for a two-bedroom apartment. The Times article describes how the newcomers to the city not only drive up the cost of living, but bring with them behaviours which are disrespectful and anti-social, breaking down the bonds that once created solidarity within neighbourhoods.
The Times quoted historian Kevin Starr saying, “There has to be some kind of public support to make sure you don’t just have a city of the very wealthy, but people to make the city run. You can’t have a city of just rich people. A city needs restaurant workers, a city needs schoolteachers, a city needs taxi drivers”.
But that is precisely the kind of city San Francisco is becoming. It is well on its way to becoming an elite enclave, surrounded by a poor labour reservoir which is being pushed further outwards, towards the suburbs and the valley, foreshadowing an era of segregation and economic apartheid. But whereas apartheid in South Africa were driven by the ideology of a twisted state, this new segregation in the U.S. is being driven by monied interests which have captured the reins of government. It is the creation of the “free market”, which in reality is anything but free, driven as it is by those with the money to purchase influence in politics.
Working class citizens, who remain the majority in California, would expect that California’s government, and the governments of cities and counties, would intervene to put a stop to this inequality which is killing communities and transforming social relations. But those governments have been bought by the very sectors whose behaviour is tearing our society to pieces.
At night, San Francisco loses its soul as the people who labour there get on BART, a bus, a rideshare, or their car, and head home in the hours-long commute that reduces their quality of life, but which is necessary now that they have been turfed out of the city that their labour shapes. Those are the people who President Obama never sees when he punches in his pin number in the city that functions as his political ATM, and who remain largely invisible to the elite caste who is slowly remaking the city in its own amoral image.
We should all be disturbed by the segregation emerging in San Francisco, because if we fail to react, it represents the logical conclusion of the inequality which is growing as a result of our naive trust in the capacity of capitalism to preserve a moral, equal, just society. Such a society requires intervention and regulation by a form of democratic politics which is strikingly absent today.