WE LIVED IN CALIFORNIA for the better part of a decade. Moving from the American Midwest, my partner and I had to learn how to dread a new, geographically particular set of futures. First, there were the earthquakes. Everyone assured us that earthquakes were no big deal—except when they were, like during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. But there was nothing to do about earthquakes since they just happened. You could buy over-expensive insurance to help rebuild a home, but everyone assured us that any significant earthquake would necessitate the U.S. government getting involved, and FEMA would save us since we had the benefits of structural racism and wealth on our side, unlike those pulverized by Hurricane Katrina. Then there were the ever-looming wildfires, evidence of which we could see hovering over the mountains to the north of us in the summer of 2008, and which we would sometimes catch a glimpse of as we flew home from out of state, far from the coast, high in the mountains. But, again, there was nothing to be done about wildfires since they just happened. You could clear the dry brush from your yard; you could make sure that your home stood apart from anything that might catch it on fire. Someone else built our house, and we did our best to keep the yard clear, but a fire always seemed like a looming possibility, since the grass was so dry and the undergrowth so brittle. And then there was the possibility of a tidal wave or sea-level rise, but we seemed well protected in our mountain home, some four hundred feet above sea level. Sure, we’d be living in a new archipelago, and would have to take up sailing to commute to the grocery store and work, but at least the house would be intact. Over time, we attuned ourselves to a much more manageable catastrophe: invasive plants.
Through national tragedy and personal good fortune, we were able to buy a home in Santa Cruz County. The Great Recession led to homes being marginally less expensive, and the combination of inheritance and parental support made it possible to buy a home with an affordable mortgage. For my partner and I, this would be the first time we were homeowners rather than renters, and we took to the care of our property with a seriousness that we had previously lacked. Not that we were disrespectful to our earlier landlords, but rather we could now invest in creating a domestic vision, including landscaping our yard and gardening. Moving to California from the Midwest meant attuning ourselves to a very different environment of plants. Seduced by the arboretum at the University of California, Santa Cruz, we first started to experiment with plants suitable to the climate that were imports from similar agricultural zones—from South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. Their alienness was alluring. Through our own ineptitude, many of these early investments in our yard failed—too much or too little water, and not enough protection from local pests (including gophers, who I would learn to truly hate). We were slowly steered toward what we learned were “native” plants by the horticulturalists we met. Native plants have a long history that dovetails with nativist, ethnocentric movements in the United States and elsewhere, but we were unaware of those histories when we started to plant native buckwheats and lilacs in our yard. We imagined that we were helping to foster a return of sorts for our yard and for the local environment. The flipside of our active planting efforts was staying attuned to possible invasive species. French broom, Chinese Trees of Heaven, black locust. We learned to spot their sprouts, and yank them from the soil before they could gain too strong a footing. The future, we were told by our local gardening experts and fellow landowners, was at risk: if we failed to be vigilant about these invaders, not only would our yard be overcome with undesirable aliens, but the natives we had grown in our affection would lose their place as well. We came to see the native plants in our yard and in our local environment as precariously holding on. In that way, these modest plants and our modest domestic project became metonymic of life in California. Everything felt so precarious, so subject to change. More than once, while walking our dogs through the neighborhood, I stopped to pull an errant French broom. The future, after all, was at stake.
In California, the future seemed so perilous. And yet it was also so abstract and unknowable. Yes, most of it was mediated for us—through videos of earthquakes and wildfires, in viral magazine pieces about the looming tidal wave that would devastate the Pacific Northwest, in economic measures that made clear what risks California was becoming more exposed to, like bankruptcy due to the cost of fighting wildfires. Meanwhile, we slowly became aware of the very real economic disparities in the state and the impacts these had on everything from public education to housing. We slowly became aware of how the risks associated with all of the coming catastrophes were unevenly distributed across the population, based more on economic comfort than geography or preparedness. I reflected from time to time on a tour of the area that I had been given by a senior coworker: as we drove through a part of town called Beach Flats—which was literally that, a near sea-level neighborhood adjacent to the beach—she told me that mostly Latinos lived there. What she didn’t say was that with sea-level rise the neighborhood would turn into a lagoon, and those families would all be displaced. Our once-mountain, future-archipelago home would be largely immune from the same event. Similarly, the families who couldn’t afford costly private schools were forced to send their children to increasingly crowded public schools or homeschool them. The culprit at the root of it all was Proposition 13, a law passed by California voters in 1978 that capped property tax at 1 percent of the value of a home and also stopped the reassessment of home values unless they were sold. As long as the same owner retained a property, the property tax was assessed at 1978 levels, with minor changes for inflation over time and market forces. Homes could pass down through families to avoid being reassessed, with parents transferring titles to children. Meanwhile, those new to the state paid market value for homes—and the reassessed cost of property taxes. Economic disparity was written into the very legal basis of the state and perpetuated the inequities and precarities unevenly distributed across communities.
“Neoliberalism” is what we call it (Harvey 2005). At once, the term is used to describe the economic policies that have led to the privatization of once-public goods—from state universities and public health care to national parks now seen as untapped oil reserves—and the modes of subjection that increasingly focus on the importance of the individual and his or her powers of self-determination. These transformations, or intensifications, built upon the turn toward financialization of the market in the 1970s—away from the dependency on material, industrial production and toward speculative investment markets. It also followed on the flight of white urbanites to the growing suburbs, divorcing themselves from the city centers and the diverse communities—economic, sexual, ethnic, and racial—and entrenching elite families in the need to maintain their suburban property values through ensuring that the right kinds of people populated their suburban idylls—no “zombies,” thank you very much! The decline of industrial labor also led to a recoding of value in professional preparation: no longer could a high school degree guarantee a lifetime of economic comfort; instead, a college education was now necessary. Individual worth increasingly could be measured through standardized tests mandated by states of students in public schools, and tests like the SAT and ACT helped to ensure that students were properly sorted—based on their intellectual capacities masking their economic privilege—into the right universities, and, eventually, into the right professions. The Prosperity Gospel found itself materialized in the everyday politics of racial and class distinction, meted out through education, property, and the increasingly disparate exposure to risk (Bowler 2013).
About ten years before moving to California, I had read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy, a loose set of novels depicting parallel possibilities for California, mostly focused on Orange County, south of Los Angeles. The first, The Wild Shore (1984), imagines a postapocalyptic California, returned to an agrarian state as a result of a Soviet attack; the second, The Gold Coast (1988), offers what feels like the more realistic future—one in which suburban sprawl has conquered the landscape and people jet from place to place in guided vehicles; and the third, Pacific Edge (1990), an idyllic ecotopia that posits a future changed through financial regulation. At the root of each book is a conception of capitalism as a failed cultural and economic system—one that divides nations from each other, individuals from their social and natural environments, and individuals from each other. If there can be said to be a thesis to the trilogy, it is that capitalism is predicated on the economic value of the catastrophe, from the individual to the social to the global. Capitalism, for Robinson, a child of California, is alienating—just like Marx always argued (1992)—and in that alienation gains a foothold into capitalizing on catastrophes.
This is not merely “disaster capitalism”—the ways that capitalist value is produced through the uneven and negligent investments in conditions that expose particular communities to risk (Klein 2007)—but, rather, the situations that capitalism produces through alienation allow for the production of value. Disaster capitalism is procedural; catastrophic capitalism is ontological—it is the basis of capitalism itself. This returns capitalism to the original conception of Marx’s understanding of “second nature”: the production of the commodity as an industrial product that separates humans from their natural environment and replaces it with an understanding of nature as mediated through industrial production and capitalist exchange. Marx’s reimagining of the Edenic fall from grace is one that is predicated on economic transitions in the relationships between individuals, and in the constitution of society itself: it divorces nature from the human realm, fundamentally. And that’s the problem across Robinson’s Three Californias. Nature has become a resource to be mined, to be built upon, to be capitalized on, and in so doing these human processes further alienate individuals and communities so that when the catastrophic occurs, capital is the only possible solution. This isn’t merely making money for some at the expense of others; this is making a worldview meaningful through its ability to save lives, to cohere social relationships, and to restore some sense of order to the world.
The strongest pair, The Wild Shore and Pacific Edge, attempts to imagine life after the vagaries of American capitalism at the end of the twentieth century. The Wild Shore depicts a California rebuilding after warfare, and Pacific Edge imagines a California rebuilding after an economic catastrophe. In Pacific Edge, something devastating has happened in the early 2000s leading to the enactment of a set of regulations regarding the size of corporations and the pay disparities allowed within a business. This is all motivated by a growing recognition—it seems—that the Earth provides finite resources, and a more ecologically conscious politics is necessary to steward the planet and maintain the human population. This means limiting the growth of cities based on the resources available, and those resources are controlled by the state. Robinson rolls back the privatization of neoliberalism, creating a communitarian-market society, one in which community members work ten hours in weekly support of the needs of the community, thereby limiting the size of government through volunteerism. But the profit motive is never truly eradicated, and the central tension of the novel is based on the desires of some community members to broker a deal with international real estate interests to sell a nature preserve for suburban development—presumably with kickbacks provided to the American brokers. The idyll of El Modena, where softball and Jacuzzi baths seem to be a way of life, where social mobility is possible and education and health care are provided for all, still isn’t enough for some, who see the possibility for personal enrichment through capital. Capital is the problem, and even when it is reimagined in Pacific Edge, it is still impoverished as a way to relate to one’s community, to other individuals, and to nature.
To keep returning to capitalism as a social form and cultural system when it is predicated on the catastrophic relation of individuals to their world is the very basis of an abusive relationship. Capitalism sets the conditions of catastrophe and yet it is returned to again and again as the basis for understanding social relations and subjectivity—that is the very seed of liberalism, and, again, in neoliberalism, both of which center the individual as the basis for social relations, for identity and self-conception, and as a governing principle. Robinson’s apocalypses aren’t total enough—they don’t extinguish capitalism and its influences on people, including the desires that it creates. Consider Ursula K. Le Guin’s position and solution: she too seems to consider capitalism invidious, and only through its total removal can some form of true communitarianism be developed. This is the basis for The Dispossessed (1994), which, allegorically, depicts Earth circa 1974. The global powers in Le Guin’s novel are locked in a Cold War of sorts, with capitalism on one side of the divide and party socialism on the other, but the socialists are as bad as the capitalists, trapped by their understandings of economics and individual self-worth. Into this bipolar set of ideologies comes Shevik, an emissary from a distant moon, where an experiment in anarcho-communitarianism has taken place over the last two hundred years. Raised on a world where there is no system of economic abstraction—no imposition of exchange or symbolic value over the use value of persons or things—the worst thing you can be on the anarcho-communitarian moon Annarres is self-interested. Despite looking like those around him on the capitalism-trapped Urras, Shevik is a true alien: what he believes, his whole system of conceptualizing the social and an individual’s role within it, is absolutely unknowable for those who have grown up in a world shaped by the value systems of capitalism—which, inherently, reify the role of the individual and the need for self-interest.
It’s hard not to read Le Guin and Robinson as both critiquing the anticapitalist pretenses of California in the 1960s as a leader in the then-counterculture movement. For all the critiques of capitalism that came out of the 1960s, none could unwind the effects of individualism in American society. The individual, as a way to conceptualize the self but also one’s relationship to society and systems of value, was so entrenched that regardless of how the individual was critiqued, by the 1970s, this communitarian alternative had become a “culture of narcissism” (Lasch 1979), one in which self-help had come to replace communes and retreats, and food cooperatives had become “health food” stores. Rather than the state where capitalism went to die, foundering on the edge of the American frontier, California became the state where capitalism became intensified into property-interested libertarianism. The combined forces of Central Valley agro-business, Hollywood and the Los Angeles media industry, and Bay Area Silicon Valley produced wealth enough for Californians to imagine that they could transcend capitalism, or at least secede from the United States. Yet, the actual effect was that above all else, property ruled. And individual relationships to and through property managed the relations between individuals and the world around them.
This, then, was the California we inherited from the generations before us. Less a state of “we’re all in this together” than “every man, woman, and child for themselves.” Or, at least, “every family for itself.” That reality could be obscured depending on one’s position, quite literally in one’s geography, but more often through class ideologies. The same community could be cut through along class lines, totally unseen due to the generational gifts of property that sustained families staying in otherwise too-expensive areas. We upper-middle-class academics, buoyed with family inheritance, beneficiaries of centuries of privilege associated with whiteness, found ourselves neighbors to families just scraping by while living in homes they struggled to buy and maintain payments on, other families who had been living in the same home for the past forty years, beneficiaries of Proposition 13, and families that had passed down the same home from generation to generation. On a class level, this made the area highly diverse. And yet, everyone was white. The one black person in the neighborhood was a child adopted by white parents. That nearly complete blanket of whiteness produced the appearance of a shared community, but the reality was that children were being subtly sorted into overenrolled public schools versus the private, $16,000-tuition Montessori elementary schools. Some families were able to maintain the upkeep on their homes, replacing dilapidated roofing or installing solar panels, while other families cobbled together home repairs in an attempt to maintain their property values. You see where this all is going, right? On the one hand there were those who were economically festooned—they were going to be just fine no matter what. On the other, there were those who had much more obviously precarious lives, piecing together work and resources as they could in the hopes that one day their children would be able to inherit their ever-growing-in-value home. But, regardless of who had what, the possibility that a devastating catastrophe could lay them all low lingered; an earthquake, a tsunami, a wildfire—they were indiscriminate in their effects. And then it was every man, woman, or child for him- or herself. Well, unless it was a FEMA-level disaster, and then it would be every man, woman, or child supported by the state—a state that Californian libertarianism would otherwise hold in contempt through a refusal to pay adequate property taxes to support everyone equally.
Yesterday’s countercultural hippies and dropouts had become today’s property value–protecting suburbanites. This wasn’t just young Democrats turning into old Republicans, deeply invested in protecting their social safety net after years of paying taxes into entitlement programs; it was young critics of American capitalism and its construction of the individual turned into old Libertarians, invested not only in the individual as a self that could benefit from “self-improvement” but also one who believed in the intrinsic value of property, the entitlement one has to benefits of property ownership, and the need to protect one’s property from the actions of others. What community might have been spawned by communes and community agricultural programs foundered on the protectionist, individualist logics of those who had seen their property’s value increase steadily over the decades since Proposition 13. Despite liberal social views, the rise in property values drove regressive economic positions that produced and entrenched class relations that benefited those who were landed thanks to the Republican movements in the state in the 1970s—including the governorship of Ronald Reagan, that great neoliberalist, and the middle-of-the-road politics of Jerry Brown. What had the appearance of a liberal social democracy was actually a libertarian experiment in the collective distrust of the state—in refusing taxes as much as it was about determining who could marry whom through marriage equality, and whether it was legal to grow marijuana for “medicinal” use. And yet the two worldviews, social democracy and property-based libertarianism, could—and often did—exist side by side without contradiction, which, especially to the outside, makes it appear as if California is at the forefront of liberal democracy. What it’s really at the forefront of is neoliberalism rooted in libertarian ideologies of the individual and property and a refusal of state power.
By the time we left California, it came as something of a relief. I wouldn’t have to think about the leak in our roof any longer—a worry granted to me by the generations of people who had lived in our home before us, each economically unable to repair the roof completely, and an anxiety that persisted despite the years of drought that we lived through. And, for us, it was always next year’s repair to invest in—if we were, in fact, going to make a life in California in the long term. That’s generationality for you: one generation bestowing unto the next its many burdens, making the next the same as the last in an endless progression of sameness. One generation’s anxiety becomes the next’s, and so on, and so on. I lay in bed, thinking not of nuclear Armageddon but the leak in the roof. Because that was an anxiety I could manage. The catastrophes would catch us all, but maybe I could fix the leak, and make sure that all those invasive plants knew their place wasn’t in our yard. And maybe, on a walk with the dogs, I could take a minute and pull up some errant French broom. For nature. Or for property values.