Can We Live and Eat Too?

— Eli Jelly-Schapiro

The Conquest of Bread:
150 Years of Agribusiness in California
By Richard Walker
New York: New Press, 2004,
$27.95 hardcover.

IN 1579, THE fleet of British explorer Sir Francis Drake met the coast of what we now call California. Drake, who would dub his discovery “New Albion” (Albion being the Latin name for Britain), thought he had happened upon an island. Though the source of California’s present-day name is obscure, at least one etymological theory suggests that Drake was not alone in imagining the place as a world apart; the first literary reference to “California,” in a 1510 novel by Spanish writer García Ordóñez de Montalvo, Las Sergas de Esplandián, depicts an island in the Pacific inhabited by Amazonian women.

History has since taught us, in often brutal terms, that California belongs to the American mainland, and to the geo-political entity of the United States. Yet even today the name “California” is evocative of apartness. This tendency, what we might call “Californian exceptionalism,” is implicit to The Conquest of Bread, Richard Walker’s remarkable chronicle of California agribusiness.

That agriculture in California is unique, when compared to the agricultural economies of other American states, and indeed other nations, can hardly be disputed. Whether driving through the immense fecundity of the Central Valley, or glancing at a statistical summary of the state’s farm output, the sheer variation and volume of crops produced boggles the mind.

California is the most heavily farmed landscape in the industrialized world, and fully one third of the food consumed in America was born of California soil. Yet as Walker, who teaches Geography at UC Berkeley, reminds us, the myth of Californian plentitude — the popular image of California as a cornucopia from which the whole world might eat — eclipses the hard-edged economic realities of agribusiness in the state.

The Conquest of Bread, which borrows its title from an 1892 book by Russian naturalist and anarchist-communist Peter Kropotkin, succeeds in illuminating the true source of California agriculture’s exceptionality: its singularly capitalist nature. That 200-plus crops are today grown on California farms is owed, Walker contends, not to the innate bounty of earth and climate, but to the fundamental drive of capitalism: to manufacture more and new products at ever-cheaper cost, and to sell these products in expanding markets at ever-greater rates of profit.

Empire of Agribusiness

Of the many contributions to the bibliography of California agricultural studies, the most notable works have tended to focus on one aspect of the agribusiness industry. Writing in the late 19th century, Henry George, in classic works such as Progress and Poverty, focused on the monopolization of land by commercial growers. Carey McWilliams, in his work Factories in the Field (1939), concentrated on the exploitation of migrant laborers on large-scale corporate farms.

A more contemporary study, Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire (1985), highlighted the social and ecological consequences of engineering projects that divert water from southwestern sources to California fields. In accord with this earlier literature, Walker affims the respective importance of land, labor and water to the narrative of California agriculture.

What distinguishes The Conquest of Bread, however, is Walker’s insistence that agribusiness in California, if it is to be understood at all, must be seen in its totality, as a complete capitalist system, the origins or essence of which cannot be reduced to one particular commodity or process.

The era of modern agriculture in California began with the state’s foundation in the mid-19th century, a time when commercial production was rapidly replacing subsistence farming nationwide. Enterprising growers in California were confronted with a largely uncultivated landscape that lacked any pre-capitalist agricultural organization.

With no feudalist structure or subsistence farming tradition to disrupt, the establishment of commercial farms on newly acquired land — land either purchased or stolen from Mexican rancheros, primarily — was a process met with little resistance. In a matter of decades the California landscape was transformed into a cruel grid of commercial holdings, a map upon which the poor had no place — except, of course, as hired labor.

For the grower in pursuit of a profit, it was imperative that this labor be cheap, flexible, and in Walker’s words, “kept in a permanently degraded state.” Over the past 150 years, California growers have depended upon the labor of migrant workers — from the Dust Bowl of the American mid-west, from Japan and China, from the Philippines, and from Mexico and Central America.

The repression and exploitation of migrant (predominantly Mexican) labor continues today; in the absence of a powerful labor movement in the fields, and with the enduring presence of reactionary immigration laws, the emancipation of farm work in California remains a distant prospect.

Finance Capital

If the conflict between capital and labor is embodied, on the farm itself, in the relation between the owners of the fields and those who work them, there is another relationship fundamental to the story of agribusiness: that between growers and their city-based creditors.

While workers are subservient to the growers who pay their wages, growers exist in subordination to urban financiers (and their political enablers): administrators of investment capital and class power who reinforce the basic inequities of the urban-rural divide. Walker incisively explicates the historical relation of countryside to city in California, demonstrating the grip held by finance on the whole of the agribusiness landscape, the intricate commodity chains that reach both forward and back from the farm itself.

Of course, creditors in Los Angeles and San Francisco are themselves beholden to higher capitalist powers — international financial institutions, trade organizations, and the sovereign governments behind them. Although perhaps beyond the scope of his study, one wishes that Walker had broadened his discussion of finance capital in California to incorporate an analysis of the role played by institutions such as the IMF and WTO in shaping the global geography of agricultural production.

However exceptional agrarian California may be, it is not, after all, a place apart; California and California agribusiness exist in the world, and are best understood when situated within the political economies of global capitalism. The agro-industrial ma-chine in California is not simply the product of an indigenous capitalist culture, but has emerged from and in relation to international systems of capital accumulation.

Though The Conquest of Bread may lack this explicit internationalist analysis, Walker convincingly argues that California agribusiness, both in its astounding productivity and in the ruthlessness by which that productivity has been achieved — the seizure of land, the corralling of water, the domination of labor — has no obvious analog in the history of agrarian capitalism. Ultimately, the story of agribusiness in California, rendered in such clarifying detail, has much to teach us about the phenomenon of capitalism in all its generality and plainness.

In the original Conquest of Bread, Peter Kropotkin, writing in pre-Bolshevik Russia, described the human tragedy wrought by both feudalist and capitalist agrarian economies. His great hope, that humanity might one day create an agricultural system that provides food for people without exploiting their labor or expropriating their land, reverberates throughout Walker’s panorama of agricultural capitalism in modern-day California.

If Walker at times seem willing to affirm the old mythologies of an island California — to isolate the tragedy of California from the tragedy of the world — he nonetheless conveys, in rephrasing Kropotkin’s original question, its continued urgency in the present.

“What can we do to stop the juggernaut that cuts through people and countryside alike, while still enjoying the benefits of plentitude from the land? How to halt the conquest and still make enough bread?”

from ATC 131 (November/December 2007)