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The Bread of Conquest

Sasha Lilley is a journalist and producer of “Against the Grain,” a program of radical ideas and politics on Pacifica Radio.

Richard A. Walker, The Conquest of Bread: 150 Years of Agribusiness in California (New York: The New Press, 2004), 382 pages, hardcover $27.95.

The agony and the ecstasy are intertwined in California’s countryside. Artichokes, freestone peaches, and Gravenstein apples are but a few of the vast number of crops grown in the Golden State, which were it a country, would be the sixth leading agricultural exporter in the world. For the workers whose hands create wealth out of nature, the agony has been ever-present, from the bloody repression of the 1913 Wobbly-led Wheatland hop pickers strike to the recent attempt by Southern California grocery workers to hold onto their health care and pensions.

For over a century and a half of labor unrest, crop booms and busts, California has remained at the vanguard of agricultural production, leading many to wonder what accounts for its tremendous and sustained dynamism. That question is explored by Marxist geographer Richard Walker in The Conquest of Bread, an insightful, overarching look at California agribusiness that draws its name from the 1892 tract La Conquète du Pain by the Russian anarchist thinker Pyotr Kropotkin. Walker traces the golden thread of production from the cultivation of seeds, the manufacture of pesticides and fertilizers, to the processing and canning plants, slaughterhouses and refineries, and to grocery chains like Safeway and Lucky.

All the while Walker keeps in sharp focus the class of capitalists who own the machine that is agribusiness, the financiers that keep the cogs oiled, and the workers that make the wheels turn. His elegantly written narrative spans the conquests of capitalists like cattle and meat-packing kings Henry Miller and Charles Lux, the Hungarian aristocrat Agoston Haraszthy who introduced wine grape cultivation to the state and whose attempts as sheriff of San Diego County to tax the native population led to an Indian uprising, and the Italian immigrant A. P. Giannini, founder of the Bank of America, who built his empire lending to farmers. It’s also the story of millions of unnamed workers, as well as union leaders from Dorothy Healey to Dolores Huerta, who fought for basic labor rights in the fields, canneries, and grocery stores of California in the face of union-busting vigilantes, la migra, and coercive gang bosses. In the process of telling it, Walker takes a number of sacred cows firmly by the horns and, while careful to flag the exceptionalism of California, many of his conclusions are germane beyond the bounds of the American West.

At the heart of the state’s success, argues Walker, has been the capitalist imperative: the drive to increase profits and accumulate capital. California agriculture was, as Walker puts it, “forged in a crucible of absolute capitalism.” It was capitalist from the get go. Almost since its inception in 1848, following the U.S. seizure of the state from Mexico, California agriculture was intensive, industrial, and based on hired labor and the unfettered sale of land. Agrarian capitalism took root without being forced in a hothouse or transplanted from an exotic clime. In contrast to agriculture in parts of the Global South, all that is solid melted into air in the face of this new mode of production.

Popular wisdom has it that the success of agriculture in California springs from the natural abundance of the state’s Mediterranean climate and alluvial soils. But an argument made popular by Marc Reisner, in Cadillac Desert, and menacing in Roman Polanski’s film noir Chinatown, holds that the motor behind California’s growth has been the massive federal and state water projects that have diverted millions of gallons of water to irrigate the fields of California’s farmers. The munificence of nature and bounteous irrigation have undoubtedly ratcheted up the level of dynamism of California’s agriculture, contends Walker, but neither has been the catalyst for it. Water in particular lacks explanatory power as the driving force behind the state’s double-edged vitality since irrigation projects were not in the forward guard of the growth of California agriculture, but trailed behind it.

Agrarian capitalism and the dynamism of the region, Walker argues, have been undergirded by the twin commodification of land and labor—that is, the transformation of nature and human activity into objects that could be bought and sold on the market. Following California’s annexation by the United States, Gold Rush–engorged speculators grabbed large tracts of the countryside, by expelling Native American tribes from their land, snapping up property from Mexican rancheros, and benefiting from the largesse of the privatization of federal lands. Within a generation, land could be exchanged on the market without constraint.

Labor in California was turned into a commodity through a process which Marx, borrowing from Adam Smith, termed “primitive accumulation.” American Indians who had been peons or hunter gatherers were now turned into “free” wage workers to toil on the farms of California’s new capitalists. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, California moved from production of grains, garden crops, and cattle grazing, to a revolution in horticulture, growing a plethora of oranges, lemons, apricots, almonds, and figs. Large numbers of workers were needed in the orchards at harvest time and recruiters rounded up U.S.-born and immigrant workers, poor town dwellers and footloose fruit tramps, in order to ensure a glut of labor and pittance wages.

The dawn of wage labor did not preclude growers from harnessing unfree labor under fully capitalist conditions, as with the notorious bracero program. An arrangement put in place during the Second World War, the bracero program institutionalized a form of indentured labor in which more than four million Mexicans were brought to the United States to work as farm laborers stripped of the freedom to leave employers. It was eventually abolished in 1964, after having lowered farm wages and given capital accumulation a large shot in the arm, but it illustrated the very active role of the state as a handmaiden of the interests of agrarian capitalists in procuring cheap, yoked labor.

Walker maintains that the process of “primitive accumulation” is not a one-off phenomenon in the transformation of pre-capitalist social relations to full-blown capitalism, but rather a continuous process that partially accounts for the weakness of the labor movement in California. Growers and processors have depended on successive waves of dispossessed or foreign workers—Native Americans, Basques, Chinese, Japanese, Italians, Portuguese, Mexicans, Punjabis, Mixtecans, Hmong, and Vietnamese—many of whom are later deported and replaced by new immigrants. Such a strategy undermines the ability of workers to build alliances and unify themselves as a conscious class (although not impossible, as Harry Bridges and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union demonstrated, successfully organizing native Hawaiian, Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese plantation workers in Hawaii in the 1930s and 40s).

Land, too, is continually recommodified—sold or leased to new growers over and over—but with a crucial difference, reflecting the lopsided balance of power between California’s growers and workers. With land, the profitability of California agribusiness is reflected in the ever increasing value of real estate. But in the case of labor, rising profitability has no effect on the poverty wages of the workers who cultivate the land.

The point of transforming land and labor is, of course, to create a plethora of agricultural commodities. In what seems like a paradox—a monoculture of diversity—California intensively produces a vast array of crops in unrelenting swathes of sameness. The drive for capital accumulation impels growers to constantly introduce new high-value fruits and vegetables into the market, generating steep returns for exclusive products and introducing ever new tastes to consumers. Particularly in food conscious Northern California one sees an ongoing march of rarified produce such as spiraling Japanese cucumbers, romanesco broccoli, pluots, and edible chrysanthemum, while formerly exotic fruit like fuyu and hachiya persimmons become commonplace in California supermarkets.

How should we understand the classes at work behind this ever-growing cornucopia of commodities? Conventional wisdom on the left holds that California agribusiness is dominated by multinational corporations that have monopolized land and driven out small, family-owned farms. While solidly in the radical camp, Walker takes a dim view of these conclusions.

As Walker makes clear, in its one hundred and fifty year history, California never was the domain of family farmers, but instead was characterized by large landholdings from the time of the Gold Rush. If anything, the path toward monopolization unfolded in reverse, as large ranchers subdivided their lands during the late-nineteenth-century horticultural revolution, which required more intense cultivation on smaller plots. Today 87 percent of farms in the state are owned by family proprietorships and corporations that started out as small farms. Multinational corporations, when they exist in California agriculture, are clustered on the distribution end of the commodity chain.

Walker convincingly argues that equating the size of farms with social relations and social justice is a red herring, blinding us to the economies of scale and scope that are at work both in industry and agriculture, and the thoroughly capitalist nature of all farms in California. Unlike the vision of small and large producers locked in a struggle to the death, which would have had resonance in late-nineteenth-century populist debates, Walker points to the social division of labor between large and small farms, depending on scale-appropriate functions. In the case of California agriculture, dairy, poultry, orchards, and vineyards are the province of small farms, while large farms tend to raise sheep and cattle or cultivate grains. Scale does not point to the level of capitalization or intensification of farm production, in which a small farm cultivating one crop may be more profitable than a large farm growing a less lucrative one.

Farm size is only one area where the debates of the past overshadow our understanding of agribusiness today. It’s a truism for many scholars of agrarian studies that the biological rhythms and unpredictability of nature exempt farming and agriculture from the laws that govern industry, despite the ever-homogenizing pressures of capitalism. Arguments that date back to the classical controversies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when heavyweights including Lenin and Karl Kautsky faced off against populist and neopopulist thinkers like Nikolaï-on and Aleksandr Chayanov, still rage about whether capitalism is able to develop fully in the countryside and over the potential of agriculture to follow the path of industrial development under capitalism.

Walker asserts that the volatility of nature in California, while creating challenges for growers, has been sidestepped at times and leapfrogged at others, with the use of innovative breeds, irrigation, and heavy doses of noxious fertilizers and pesticides. In many cases the obstacles of nature and geography have created new opportunities for profit making, such as for the agro-industries that manufacture chemicals.

Along with such technologies, the key means of circumventing the constraints of nature has been low-wage labor. The meticulous work of plucking ripe fruit from trees, harvesting wine grapes, and picking vegetables that are not destined for the processor cannot be replaced by machinery without damaging the produce. But who needs mechanization when you can have cheap labor? For this reason, despite the capital-intensive character of much of agribusiness, the number of farm workers in California has not fallen since the 1950s.

Cutting against the grain of received wisdom, Walker shows that California agriculture has a great deal in common with industry. Like the high-tech mecca Silicon Valley, farms and agro-businesses are part of a many-tentacled beast, organized within the matrix of networks and clusters of business districts that link together manufacturers of inputs, contractors who offer services ranging from pollination to hoof clipping, gang bosses who recruit and control labor, cooperatives and trade associations, agro-industrial processors, shippers, bankers, and merchants.

Walker ends his sweeping overview by looking at the Sisyphean labors of workers to win basic rights in the fields and factories of California agribusiness. Valiant battles have been waged by militant workers for over a hundred years, including the United Farm Workers’ grape and lettuce campaigns in the 1960s and 70s, but today the number of unionized farm laborers has fallen dramatically in the wake of aggressive union-busting efforts by growers. Agro-industrial workers, such as cannery workers, and grocery employees have had more luck in the past than farm workers, although many of their gains have also been rolled back in recent times.

Walker points to workers’ lack of success in organizing across sectoral lines, such as laborers on farms, in canneries, and in grocery stores banding together to support each others’ struggles. Attempts have been made in the past, however, to do just that. In the late 1930s, labor radicals formed the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), which endeavored to bring together farm and agro-industrial workers. They were beaten back by vigilantes of the Associated Farmers and sheriffs serving grower interests, but they offer a model that labor needs to revisit in the present. If such a revival of labor militancy were to happen, The Conquest of Bread’s wide-ranging history and penetrating understanding of the nature of agrarian capitalism would provide vital tools to add to the belts of workers in the fields, processing plants, and supermarkets of California.

“I come to bury the agrarian Caesar,” writes Walker, “not to praise him.” Yet for all the brilliance of his analysis, one is left wishing he had dug his shovel deeper into whether agrarian capitalism is sustainable over the decades ahead, both for workers and for an ecosystem that has been strangled by crop monoculture and the application of deadly pesticides and fertilizers. As the soil becomes more depleted, the groundwater poisoned, and chemical-resistant bugs more prevalent, will nature become an obstacle to profit-making that even technical fixes and low wages won’t overcome? Unfortunately Walker does not plumb the depths of these questions.

At turn of the last century, Kropotkin envisaged a cooperative utopian society that would combine the advances of science, agronomy, and a complex division of labor between farming and industry, with a new set of relations of production. Walker’s panoramic investigation leaves one wondering if, despite the ravaging of the environment and the exploitation of labor, there could be such an emancipatory kernel located deep within the knotted “success” of California agribusiness, pointing the way to a post-capitalist agrarian future. It might be expecting too much that he would unearth the radical and conflicting potentialities set in motion by capitalism in the countryside, but Walker has thoroughly laid the groundwork for further tilling of this fecund soil.

2006, Volume 57, Issue 09 (February)
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