Fortress L.A. in the 21st Century


This essay was first published almost two years ago in August of 2016 by a friend of the project. We re-publish it here as we feel it is more timely than ever as the struggle grows against ICE, borders and, more generally, against this whole carceral society.

“Positioned increasingly as a ‘capital of capital’ in the Pacific Basin, Los Angeles has been surging toward the ranks of the three other capitals of global capital, New York, London, and Tokyo (its Pacific Rim cohort). […] Los Angeles broadcasts its self-imagery so widely that probably more people have seen this place – or at least fragments of it – than any other on the planet. As a result, the seers of Los Angeles have become countless, even more so as the progressive globalization of its urban political economy flows along similar channels, making Los Angeles perhaps the epitomizing world-city, une ville de venue monde.

Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory1

Our Present Material Conditions in Los Angeles

“Los Angeles is barely treading water while the rest of the world is moving forward. We risk falling further behind in adapting to the realities of the 21st century and becoming a City in decline. […] Los Angeles is sinking into a future in which it no longer can provide the public services to which our people’s taxes entitle them and where the promises made to public employees about a decent and secure retirement simply cannot be kept. City revenues are in long-term stagnation and expenses are climbing. Year by year, our City – which once was a beacon of innovation and opportunity to the world – is becoming less livable”

The Los Angeles 2020 Commission (Dec. 2013)2

This bleak outlook is from no comrades of ours, but an independent review board commissioned by the Los Angeles city council in early 2013 to study the region’s fiscal stability and prospects for job growth heading into the second decade of the century. By no means anticapitalist in its intent, this mainstream study adopts a fatalistic literary tone, rife with odd rhetorical gestures to Dickens (“Like the hapless Mr. Micawber in Dickens’s ‘David Copperfield,’ our wishful response to continued economic decline and impending fiscal crisis has become a habitual: ‘Something, my dear Copperfield, will turn up.’) and extended metaphors relating to drowning. The commission’s study reads like a Victorian tragedy set in 21st century L.A. – a point we find not just amusing, but materially significant.

The overt allusions to Victorian society in the commission’s rhetoric is significant insofar as we polemically contend, following the world-systems approach of Giovanni Arrighi, that just as the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century saw a systemic cycle of capitalist accumulation (the British hegemon) based on finance (C-M’), so too are we now firmly entrenched at the beginning of the 21st century in a systemic cycle of capitalist accumulation also based on finance. The shift from “productive” cycles of accumulation (M-C) to those based on finance ostensibly results in a sharp decline in manufacturing in the cycle’s hegemonic nation-state (the U.S. in our current context). While “productive” manufacturing has been continuously diminishing in the United States as a whole since capital’s restructuring after 1971, very few critical studies (let alone anarchist or communist analyses) exist which specifically focus on the ramifications of deindustrialization in the L.A. region and the social implications of the attendant shift from a production-centric cycle of accumulation to a finance-centric one. We find this odd, given the central position Los Angeles and Southern California more generally occupy within U.S. manufacturing and the Pacific Rim economies.

Many people, including many Angelenos, are unaware that the L.A. region is currently the largest manufacturing hub in the United States. We include this fact not to suggest that Los Angeles County has been immune to the forty-year ravaging of deindustrialization that is most often associated with the metropolitan areas in the Rust Belt (this is simply not the case), but rather to begin to articulate a position about what makes Los Angeles such a significant node in commodity production, circulation, and consumption and more specifically what this centrality means in relation to the “era of riots.”

According to the State of California Employment Development Department (EDD) there were 615,500 manufacturing jobs in Los Angeles County in 2000. This figure decreased to 358,300 jobs by the end of 2015. This decline of 41.8% over a fifteen-year period reflects the same national trends of decreasing productive labor in the United States, and finds its inverted corollary in the high unemployment rates of the L.A. region. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of December 2015 the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim metropolitan statistical area ranked 45th out of the 51 large metropolitan areas in terms of unemployment rates in the U.S. – the lower on the index the higher the unemployment rate. Only five other major metro areas had unemployment rates higher than L.A.’s 5.4%. It is important to additionally note here that the Inland Empire came in at 49th on the index, meaning that two of the three major metro statistical areas present in Southern California accounted for the 3rd (I.E.) and 6th (L.A.) highest unemployment rates in the country in terms of regions with over one million inhabitants. Thus, a decreasing manufacturing work force (arguably the last large concentration of industrial workers in the U.S.) and increasingly high unemployment rates are creating conditions of misery for both those still trapped in the wage-relation and those entirely excluded from it – it is the hard edge of capital cutting both ways.

This is not merely our anarchist or anti-state communist bias here, as even the municipal-sponsored Los Angeles 2020 Commission came to the conclusion that:

“As the result of two decades of slow job growth and stagnant wages, 28% of working Angelenos earn poverty pay. If you add those out of work, almost 40% of our community lives in what only can be called misery. The poverty rate in Los Angeles is higher than any other major American city. Median income in Los Angeles is lower than it was in 2007.”

It is also worth noting here that Los Angeles is unique in the types of manufacturing that still exist in the region. Whereas the other smaller manufacturing hubs in the U.S. tend to utilize high-skilled labor and processes that are heavily dependent on technological advances aimed at increasing the efficiency of the extraction of relative surplus-value, L.A. still possesses large sub-sectors of manufacturing that lag behind the more general tendency of the organic composition of capital to rise. There are certain sub-sectors like “cut and sew apparel manufacturing” (42,900 jobs) that still depend on large injections of variable capital in relation to constant capital. All of this to merely claim that large segments of L.A.’s inhabitants are: 1.) rendered superfluous to the formal economy whether as an industrial reserve army or relative surplus population; and 2.) manufacturing workers that still labor in low-skilled sub-sectors that are not as dependent on technological advances or automation as is the case in other manufacturing hubs in the U.S.

The latest prevailing mythology perpetuated by capitalist ideology that the downturn in manufacturing jobs and the increase in unemployment in L.A. is somehow tied in pure correspondence to the 2008 crisis only (in isolation), ignores the structural reality of the decades-spanning history of this “long downturn” in the real economy. The L.A. 2020 Commission surprisingly gestures towards this negative continuity as they claim:

“When it comes to job creation, Los Angeles has not kept pace with the nation or other cities. Our unemployment rate is among the highest for any major city. This is not just a consequence of the Great Recession. We have lagged behind in each of the three business cycles since 1990. Los Angeles is the only one of the seven major metropolitan areas in the country to show a net decline in non-farm job employment over the last decade.”3

The 2008 crisis is both a result and exacerbation of capital’s restructuring via a new phase of the current systemic cycle of accumulation, but its roots extend further into the past.

These are our current material conditions in L.A. Our social anarchist and programmatic communist detractors will claim that we have too readily ignored the potential for formal working-class organizing at the point of production given that Los Angeles is the largest manufacturing hub in the country. Aside from any of the oft-repeated rebuttals we could level at such claims – such as the history of proletarian betrayal by union co-optation and recuperation, or the increased competition and depression of wages due to expanding labor reserve pools as a result of the rising organic composition of capital, or the oppressive role of ideology in placating proletarian solidarity (all positions we hold) – we choose here to focus on one location-specific counter to why we are skeptical about the possibility to formally organize struggle at the point of production in L.A.: Los Angeles County has the highest number of undocumented immigrants in all of California.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, Los Angeles County is home to 814,000 undocumented immigrants and, as a whole, “California’s labor force includes about 1.85 million undocumented immigrants—the second-highest statewide share of undocumented workers (9.4%) in the nation.”4 The PPIC goes on to report that in California, “undocumented immigrants work disproportionately in the farming, construction, production, services, and transportation/materials moving industries.”5 In the very same manufacturing sub-sector mentioned above – “cut and sew apparel” – some estimates claim almost a third of apparel laborers are undocumented immigrants. The Marxist critical geographer Edward Soja writes:

“Not only has the ‘high technocracy’ settled in extraordinary numbers in Los Angeles, but so too has what is probably the largest pool of low-wage, weakly organized, easily disciplined immigrant labour in the country[…] Unionization rates are low and infringements of minimum wage, overtime, child labour and occupational safety laws are endemic. Sweatshops which provoke images of nineteenth-century London have thus become as much a part of the restructured landscape of Los Angeles as the abandoned factory site and the new printed circuit plant. And they can be found not only in the garment industry but in many other manufacturing sectors as well.”6

The classical “right” to collective bargaining is effectively denied this class of manufacturing workers, for the undocumented laborer is in the most precarious of situations. We cannot help but be skeptical of the recent attempts by mainstream unions such as the AFL-CIO to reach out to undocumented immigrants given historical union policies that were explicitly racialized and anti-immigrant. For this reason and those briefly mentioned above, we argue that it is highly unlikely that we will ever see the remaining 358,300 manufacturing workers in L.A. collectively organize along specifically anticapitalist lines. Just as the era of manufacturing in the Global North is coming to a close, so too is the era of the strike at the point of production giving ground to the era of the riot at the point of consumption.

Fortress L.A. and Fortified Logistics

“Los Angeles, in its usual prefigurative mode, offers an especially disquieting catalogue of the emergent liaisons between architecture and the American police state.”7

The quote above from Davis’s seminal essay “Fortress L.A.” in his milestone materialist history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, refers explicitly to the transformation of DTLA in the late-1980s and the early-1990s from a more democratically cosmopolitan working-class core centered around the Broadway corridor (now on the eastern edge of today’s downtown boundaries) to the hyper-securitized, interiorized, upper-middle class enclaves of finance, corporatism, and consumption centered around the newer Bunker Hill “mega-structures” now dominating DTLA’s skyline. While Davis had this form of securitized “Haussmannization’” in mind when writing about the explicit collusion between “architecture and the American police state,” we would like to wager, and build off of Davis’s work set forth in “Fortress L.A.” that Los Angeles now, “in its usual prefigurative mode,” is also at the forefront of a new type of architectural-carceral logic: the emergence of a fortified logistics infrastructure that further deepens the divisions between public and private space, between those of us who only have our mutual dispossession in common and the capitalist class that dispossesses us.

Today in L.A. the “liaisons between architecture and the American police state” are more likely to take the form of county and municipal urban planners working with various law enforcement agencies and homeland security divisions to build, fortify, and secure the flow of commodity-capital and carceral-capital . Just as Davis claims that the “airborne surveillance and engirding, endless police data-gathering and centralization of communications, constitutes an invisible ‘Haussmannization’ of Los Angeles,”8 so too does the development of massive logistics infrastructural projects like the completion of the Alameda Corridor in 2002 represent a new form of urban fortification. Instead of insulating the capitalist class from the antagonisms of the dispossessed like the earlier development and urban restructuring in Bunker Hill, this new logistics ‘Haussmannization’ secures the shit commodities owned by this very same class, produced by a global proletariat increasingly becoming more destitute.

Davis calls our attention to the way in which the Metropolitan Detention Center in DTLA right off of the Hollywood Freeway is a “postmodern Bastille – the largest prison built in a major US urban center in generations – [and] looks instead like a futuristic hotel or office block, with artistic charms (like the high-tech trellises on its bridge-balconies) comparable to any of Downtown’s recent architecture”9. The Metropolitan Detention Center is architecturally unassuming, easily forgettable, and indistinguishable from the surrounding office buildings, hiding its centrality (along with the Twin Towers facilities at the edge of Chinatown) in creating one of the most significant carceral concentrations hidden in plain sight amongst the mega-structures of financial and corporatist dominance. The dispossessed, here causalities of the never-ending “War on Drugs” waged on L.A.’s black and brown communities, exist right next to (while hidden from view) the very corporate boardrooms that created the conditions for L.A.’s deindustrialization.

This concentrated conflation, between carceral surplus populations and capitalist functionaries, is mirrored in the fortified infrastructure of Southern California’s logistics networks. Commodity-capital flows, with cargo throughput reaching millions of dollars per day, pulse through the below ground-level trench of the Alameda Corridor (while hidden from view) through the very dispossessed South LA communities that many of those incarcerated in the MDC come from. Capitalist goods, dispossessed communities ravaged by deindustrialization, hidden jails, and cloistered corporate skyscrapers. All exist side by side here in Los Angeles, in startlingly combustible proximity. The containment of “disposable” bodies in cells. Disposable commodities locked in intermodal containers. The containment of exploited living labor in the commodity-form. The containment of surplus populations in the form of carceral subjects. Securitized financial instruments. Securitized transport corridors. Securitized prison complexes. The fortress becomes the logic of everyday life. This is the new terrain of the circulation struggles to come.

1Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory

3Ibid. p. 1

7Mike Davis, City of Quartz p. 228

8Ibid. p. 254

9Ibid. p. 257

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s