Landscapes and Labor in California By: Joshua Mandell
October 7, 2014
“What It’s Like to Live on Low Pay in a Land of Plenty.” Narrated by Laura Sydell. Morning Edition. NPR.
This NPR Morning Edition piece is part of a series about the effects of income inequality on the San Francisco Bay Area. This installment focuses on the disparities that exist within Silicon Valley offices. The narrator interviews Jose Cardenas, a young security guard at Google, about his experiences with income inequality.
Cardenas works for a security contractor, so he cannot enjoy many of the well-known perks that Google offers its employees. He can get lunch at Google's free buffet, but he cannot take food home like a regular employee. With a maximum monthly income around $1,400 and no benefits, Cardenas and his daughter could use the extra food; he sometimes has to visit a community food pantry after work.
Santa Clara County has a median household income of $91,000 and a high cost of living. But 38% of jobs created in Silicon Valley in 2012 paid $18 an hour— not enough to support a family there. This piece makes listeners and online readers aware of the difficult circumstances that low-wage laborers are facing in the heart of California's lucrative technology industry.
Mitchell, Don. The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape. (Minneapolis, MN:
University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 1-109.
In the opening chapters of The Lie of the Land, Mitchell explores the concept of "landscape" in California. He describes the relationship between how the state's landscapes have been perceived in the imagination, and the labor that actually created them. He argues that social structures in California have attempted to alienate workers from their labor and "naturalize" capitalism and the power of the elite (2,7).
In Chapter 1, Mitchell presents scenes from John Steinbeck's classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, to illustrate the disparity between the "California Dream" and the harsh reality that makes this vision possible. Mitchell argues that the perception of the California landscape as "morally neutral" is false; the landscape is both beautiful and damned, and "beautiful because it is damned" by the struggles of the people who make it (17).
Chapter 2 tells the story of the 1913 Wheatland Riot, focusing on how the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the California Commission of Immigration and Housing (CCIH) responded to it. CCIH leaders believed that the migrant workers of IWW were biologically unfit, and saw strikes and riots as a Freudian "inferiority compensation." (46-51). After the riot, CCIH brought about improved conditions at the labor camps, reshaping the landscape to exercise "benevolent repression" (57).
In Chapter 3, Mitchell explains how IWW sought to control space through "subversive mobility" and free speech (66). IWW was not a union but a mobile movement that appeared wherever poor industrial conditions existed (65). It exercised power through threats and acts of sabotage (70-73). However, the U.S. government successfully repressed the movement during the First World War (74-82).
In Chapter 4 examines the racialization of labor after the IWW's decline. When the number of white migrant laborers in California decreased during the war, growers brought Mexican and Asian workers to their farms. Mexican workers were often held captive and threatened with violence (90). Growers and government officials both believed that Mexicans, like IWW workers, were biologically inferior; the former saw them a stupid and docile (91), the latter believed they were "prone to being stirred up by agitators" (102). Mitchell describes the objectification of Mexican bodies that "made them represent only labor power" (109).
While California is still known for its agricultural riches, Silicon Valley is now California's most famous "land of plenty." The technologies invented there have transformed daily life and made thousands of people wildly rich. Recent films have presented Silicon Valley as a place of limitless opportunities to acquire wealth, and sometimes as a futuristic utopia. Low-wage workers like Jose Cardenas are absent from this vision, even though their labor is essential to the building and maintenance of the Silicon Valley landscape. This is quite similar to the formation of landscape that Mitchell describes in The Lie of the Land. Americans in the early 20th century were fascinated by California's verdant and fruitful landscapes, but ignored the migrant workers who created it with their labor (14). What's more, these workers were considered a burden to society despite their essential contributions of labor (104). As Kate and Karen noted last week, this attitude towards foreign workers persists in California today. Clearly, the disassociation of landscapes from labor is still a fundamental process of capitalism in California, from grape farms to the Googleplex.
Mitchell's theories about landscape are broadly applicable. Can we apply them to the landscapes of elite universities like Yale?
Mitchell describes California fruits and vegetables as "their own advertisements of the California Dream as reality" (19). Do you think Silicon Valley technology carries a similar message throughout the world?
Since low-wage workers are generally not involved with most aspects of producing Silicon Valley technology, is their labor even less visible than that of the migrant farm workers century ago? Is this still a concern when labor conditions have improved so greatly?
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Discussion of "Landscapes and Labor in California By: Joshua Mandell"
Landscapes, technologies, and the labor cyborgIn response to Josh's blog post, I am in full accordance with the idea that, like the landscapes engendered in California's central valley idealized notions of the Silicon Valley as a technological "land of plenty" belie the acts of labor whose experiences are not ideal. In thinking through what constituted the imagined and veritable built environments we discuss, I am also curious by the impact of technologies in shaping perceptions of the landscapes we inhabit. Drawing inspiration from Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto, I wonder how we can imagine labored bodies as not only deliberately presented or erased, but as synergistically linked to the technologies of a given environment. Both the article and book demonstrate how the mechanical apparatuses imbedded in landscapes extend to corporeal freedoms and living standards. In offering this dimension, I hope our class discussions invoke more recognition of reflexive practices in landscape and labor formation.
Posted on 8 October 2014, 8:36 am by Christofer Rodelo | Permalink
Low-Wages in Urban SpacesI completely agree with some of the points that came up in this review because coming from a community in Los Angeles that is very underserved, I have been a first hand witness of the economic disparities that exist between spaces in urban landscapes like the LA. Just looking at East Los Angeles and North-West Los Angeles, there are a lot of differences based on opportunity and resources. I vividly remember having a conversation in a bus from SouthEast Los Angeles to Westwood with a domestic worker who would commute from SouthEast Los Angeles to Westwood in order to earn some money. Her job in Westwood however was not her only one since she needed enough money to support her 3 children without a father. She had to take a total of three buses to get from point A to point B and although the bus for a single ride is not very expensive, the combination of the round-trip tickets on a daily basis adds up. She is not wealthy enough to live by the costly neighborhoods of Westwood and so spends most of her morning commuting by busses to get to her job. Low-wage workers definitely are the people that suffer the most since they are often the most underserved and are forced to live in areas that are underfunded and this perpetuates a cycle of poverty.
Posted on 8 October 2014, 7:23 pm by Alfonso Toro | Permalink
Come to Yale; the lawns are always mowed, and the tables always clean!I think this Morning Edition article was an awesome choice to pair with Lie of the Land. While reading all about the history of agricultural laborers in California, it was very easy to get caught in the idea that Mitchell’s musings on the duplicitous appearance and representations of landscape apply only to beautiful open fields or stretches of healthy crops. However, after reading this article and analysis, I would definitely agree that we can apply Mitchell’s landscape theory to institutions like Yale. In Yale’s view-book, and in pictures of our pristine campus online, there are no shots of the maintenance crews who help this place to stay as breathtakingly manicured and clean as it is all the time. People even wash the black boards every night so that they are crisp and ready for teaching the next day! While those who work at Yale do not endure the abysmal treatment received by immigrant workers in the 20th century California, and while the beauty of our campus is not hopelessly entwined with or the direct result of the damnation of all those who work to bring about its aesthetic, we definitely do not champion these people with the credit they deserve, and their hard work on our living space in no way ensures them the means to obtain and keep up an equally beautiful dwelling of their own. Mitchell comments on the tendency of those who exploited migrant laborers to simultaneously complain about them, and, on a smaller scale, I’ve known Yale students to get upset over maintenance sounds running at 8 in the morning, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone taking a photo of a verdant, perfectly mowed Cross Campus didn’t want a man or woman sitting on a lawnmower in the foreground of the shot.
Posted on 8 October 2014, 7:58 pm by Katherine Lee Berry | Permalink
Love the Labor, Leave the BodiesI think that the NPR piece ties in really well with the subject of the objectification of bodies as labor power that Mitchell describes. Manny’s narrative is only one of many that describes being part of the erecting a community but being negated the benefits of such a community. I think that a similar effect is evident in gentrification happening in urban settings throughout the country. Poor, migrant workers and families are being displaced to accommodate for wealthier tenants. Not only does this provide concern in terms of creating class segregated neighborhoods, but also in the erasure of the roles these migrant groups have held in the history of the community. The idea that Mexican bodies would represent only labor power is another way of dehumanizing the working migrants, just like we’ve seen throughout the course.
Posted on 8 October 2014, 8:51 pm by Karen Lazcano | Permalink
Security as Estranged LaborIn Lie of the Land, Mitchell applies a Marxian analysis to the relationship between the laborer and the landscape that he/she produces. As long as the landscape itself is stabilized, Mitchell claims, then the worker will continue to be oppressed. As long as capital is being reproduced through the underpaid and exploited labor of marginalized bodies, then the landscape is oppressive in and of itself. This is relatively easy to conceptualize in terms of manual labor, but in thinking of the NPR piece and low-tier occupations at corporations, how does the relationship between labor and capital operate? Does this economic relationship require materiality? Can we think of Google as a virtual landscape that perpetuates a dialectic of inequality between capital and laborer? How is this relationship complicated if it does not involve physical "nature", such as agriculture? Mitchell prompts us to think of landscape as both material and ideological (pg. 34). But when the evident materiality is removed (we don't think of Google as a physical space), it is harder for us to think about how labor operates in relation to capital. The NPR piece is important because it proves that capitalism can be damning even if the labor isn't producing materiality.
Posted on 8 October 2014, 9:38 pm by Ivonne Gonzalez | Permalink
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