In a letter to the French surrealist André Breton, the obscure, if influential provocateur Jacques Vaché wrote: “Nothing kills a man quite like being forced to represent his country.” Though we do not pretend to speak for anyone but ourselves, we do feel the burden of a certain form of representation acutely. Our political horizons are global—the scope of our problematics, borderless—but they are shaped by a distinct vantage point: Los Angeles.
We are leftists and internationalists; we are also Angelenos.
Approaching the city by air at night, descending from the Nevada border to the sea, the onrush of the urban landscape dumbfounds and enthralls in equal measure. Threads of light—the highways—wind their way through the receding desert, the first hints of the looming city. For a moment, these intimations of overextension yield to the mountains surrounding and wildering the built environment’s progress. Nature, however, ultimately gives way. Los Angeles now unfolds untrammeled before the traveller:
“A sort of luminous, geometric, incandescent immensity, stretching as far as the eye can see, bursting out from the cracks of the clouds. Only Hieronymus Bosch's hell can match this inferno effect. The muted fluorescent of all the diagonals: Wilshire, Lincoln, Sunset, Santa Monica. Already, flying over San Fernando Valley, you come upon the horizontal infinite in every direction. But, once you are beyond the mountain, a city ten times larger hits you. You will never have encountered anything that stretches as far as this before. Even the sea cannot match it, since it is not divided up geometrically. The irregular, scattered flickering of European cities does not produce the same parallel lines, the same vanishing points, the same aerial perspectives either. They are medieval cities. This one condenses by night the entire future geometry of the networks of human relations, gleaming in their abstraction, luminous in their extension, astral in their reproduction to infinity.” 
Los Angeles is sometimes considered a sui generis exemplar of American excess—a trope prevalent in pop culture and in some of its most famed intellectual treatments. Its urban sprawl, its ecological degradation, its congestion, its racialized disparities and tensions, its short memory—culturally, artistically, architecturally. These characteristics, though undeniable, neither delimit the city nor are they particular to it. No monochromatic treatment will suffice for a metropolis stretching across 5000 square miles, a gridded sea of thirteen million souls and eleven million vehicles.
Insofar as it strikes a dissonant chord with progressives, socialist or liberal, it is because Los Angeles holds a mirror to the remorseless logic of American history.
We live in a region riven by the legacy of class conflict, vicious expropriation and capitalist contradiction; one haunted by the genocidal violence of settlerism and its consequences in the racial divisions of its peoples. These processes have been intertwined from the beginning. In the century prior to the onset of the Gold Rush, the brutality of Spanish colonialism resulted in the halving of the Native population of California. The arrival of American colonists after the country’s victory over Mexico in 1848 accelerated the barbaric destruction of Native peoples in the name of expansion and capitalist development. Peter Burnett, the first American governor of California, called for “a war of extermination ... until the Indian race becomes extinct”—making real the claim that California was terra nullius. Within a decade of his pronouncement, the Native population had declined a further 80 percent. The Mexican population, indigenous and Mestizo, continued to face violent suppression and the theft of their landholdings. Meanwhile, the state’s economy and the size of the Anglo settler population grew.
The expansion of industry, the arrival of the railways and the discovery of oil—by the 1920s, Southern California produced one-quarter of the world’s total oil output—brought with them an increased labor militancy. Organized attempts by the city’s political, economic and media establishment to destroy organized labor and impose the ‘open shop’, often through police violence, operated in tandem with the growth of cheap immigrant labor from Mexico and beyond. The onset of the Depression and rising anti-immigrant sentiment across the country eventually led to the expulsion of Mexican immigrants—setting the tone for future xenophobic spasms against immigrant peoples. The waxing and waning of the region’s economy, and the insatiable thirst for cheap labor, continues to structure the flow of people from Latin America, Asia and beyond.
Migration—and the backlash against it—has been at the heart of this region’s history from the very beginning. This is a city founded by brown and black settlers from Northern Mexico. But it is also a city whose schools and neighborhoods were institutionally segregated well into the twentieth century—one re-segregating in the present. A city in which Spanish street names abound has also been the site of vociferous opposition to, and the continued exploitation of, Hispanic peoples. A city that symbolized opportunity for Black Americans leaving the South during the Second Great Migration was also the city of William H. Parker and Daryl Gates, father of the infamous CRASH program. It is a city which twice captured the world’s attention through the revolt of its black and brown residents in the twentieth century.
Today, our highways are the most congested in the world, the tents of the homeless line our streets in increasing numbers and a significant segment of the working class lives under the daily threat of newly emboldened immigration officers. After the malaise of the 1990s and the economic crisis in the first decade of this century, Los Angeles is once again growing, amidst a crisis of affordability and the displacement of marginalized communities.
It is inadequate to give an account of the present without taking stock of the avenues and opportunities opening before us. At its core, this project is motivated by the conviction that the struggles in this region can inform, and be informed by movements elsewhere.
In their 2014 report, “The State of the Unions”, the UCLA Labor Center noted that
“On average, workers in California are more likely to be in a union than in the United States at large. The rate of unionization is slightly below 12 percentage points nationwide, but close to 17 percentage points for the other three areas under study. Los Angeles (16.5 percentage points), and San Francisco (17 percentage points) show slightly lower shares than California (17 percentage points) but the differences are not statistically significant. Union density appears to have declined consistently since 1997 in the US, but to have remained basically level in California and its largest regions.”
California’s union density figures have been stable across time, with the state today having more workers covered by collective bargaining than it did ten years ago. Meanwhile, national union rolls have steadily declined over the same period, as right-to-work laws in Republican-controlled states have taken their toll. The consequences of this divergence in American labor are stark, not just on the wages of non-unionized workers but also in our politics. While exit polls during the November 2016 election suggested Donald Trump did favorably with union households, the raw numbers tell a slightly different story:
“The 30 states that Trump won had a total of 5.5 million union members last year (7 percent of their workforce) vs. 9.1 million in the other 20 states and D.C. (15 percent of all jobs.) But in Trump states, union rolls were down 244,000 and up 7,000 elsewhere. Did Trump draw well from the recently unemployed? Look at key swing states like Florida (down 90,000 union jobs in 2016) or Pennsylvania (off 62,000), both won by the new president.”
The relative strength of the labor movement in Southern California is at least in part to do with the emergence of immigrant workers as actors in their own right. The labor movement’s strategic embrace of immigrants—along with the development of novel methods of organizing in key service-sector industries—demonstrates how interlocking struggles for dignity can open new political opportunities. The successes of the last two decades show that organized labor cannot afford to ignore the super-exploitation of immigrant workers if it is to fight and win. It is the task of a materialist-oriented politics to connect these contemporary class struggles at home to an increasingly diffuse mode of production spanning the globe.
Further encouragement can be found in activism outside sites of production, centering the material concerns of marginalized communities. Grassroots movements against the tide of gentrification, ‘art-washing’ and displacement have become adept at using inside-outside strategies to fight against existing public policies and for the expansion of community control. Alongside campaigns for accessible public transit and battles for a living wage, among many others, a city once notoriously conservative, racist and anti-union has come closer to a claimed ‘left coast’ politics than ever before.
Our task is to help shape a critique of the present as a vehicle for a different, liberatory politics. We will do our best to document and interpret the conditions that face us, while honestly evaluating the balance of progressive forces working for a society oriented towards human need.
While our primary work is to produce commentary, we understand the necessity to go beyond mere appraisal and criticism. The material we publish is meant as an intervention not just in the theoretical concerns of the Left but also its organization and strategy. We seek to be embedded in existing sites of struggle, not stand above them.
We believe in the contemporary relevance of historical materialism and its potential to resonate with the working class. We insist that fundamental social change can only come through the development of a working-class movement able to contest all terrains of social, economic and political life. This is the framework not just of our critique of 21st century capitalism, but also our articulation of strategies for its supersession.
It is obligatory for those on the Left to call for unity while often doing very little to help effect it. Of course, these appeals to unity are not just hollow invocations of tradition, but a recognition that unity is a precondition for victory. It is therefore an especially stinging rebuke to the contemporary history of the Left that it seldom appears separable from a vicious sectarianism.
We are hardly the first to suggest that atomization guarantees our marginalization. Socialism as a mass phenomenon is unachievable so long as the Left is organized into competing cadres. It will require a sustained commitment to collaboration and reconciliation among a still fractious Left. Only through collective participation in the heightened struggle can the Left move together towards new possibilities.
Jean Baudrillard, America (London: Verso, 1988), 51. ↩︎
“Treating California as empty land was brutally ironic insofar as the territory at one time probably had the highest density of indigenous people on the continent. The Indian population, estimated at about 300,000 in 1769 when the Spanish built their first missions on the Pacific coast, had been halved by the time of the 1849 gold rush. Over the next decade, it plummeted another 80 percent, to around 30,000 Indians, as a result of murder, disease, famine, and declining birth rates. By 1900 only about 15,000 Indians remained in California.” Walter L. Hixson, American Settler Colonialism: A History, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 123. ↩︎