How Silicon Valley Millionaires Stole Progressivism
On a Saturday afternoon in early February, more than 600 residents of San Francisco gathered at the Tenderloin Elementary School for a citywide tenants’ convention. The attendees—an eclectic mix of old and young, veteran activists and political newcomers—came from neighborhoods all over town. They joined together to fight the soaring rents and mounting evictions that have accompanied the tech incursion into San Francisco, and that are threatening to turn a city famed for its inclusive, liberal character into an enclave of wealth and privilege.
These days, San Francisco has the most expensive housing in the nation. In late March, 43.5 percent of the homes listed for sale in the city were priced at $1 million or more, by far the highest such percentage in the United States. Residential rents are soaring: as of last October, the median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $3,250—also the highest in the country.
The backlash against dispossession has earned national and international notice via the blockade of Google buses, the mammoth vehicles that transport about 35,000 tech workers every day between their Silicon Valley workplace and San Francisco home. But the media have paid relatively little attention to the less showy tenants’ movement, which has become a major political force in the city.
The San Francisco Chronicle didn’t bother to send a reporter to the convention. But the day after the meeting, the paper’s lead editorial fretted:
So here we are again, staring at the seeds of a cultural and political revolution, with the old guard and new guard trading places. This time, the old guard is not the buttoned-down bankers and pillars of blue-blood society, but the progressives who are fearful that a dramatic infusion of new wealth is chasing out the city’s residents and distorting its values. This time, the new guard is not the hippies and gays who are transforming neighborhoods and challenging society’s mores but tech-savvy young minds who are drawn to a city that nurtures avant-garde thinking and lifestyles.
As the Chronicle recognized, the current conflict is not just a struggle about social justice; it is also a fight over political and cultural legitimacy—one that shakes up the conventional wisdom about progressivism, if not progress itself.
The paper would have us believe that the left’s identity is the only thing on the line, its supposed vanguardism and liberality contravened by the dynamism of the tech industry, whose beneficence the editorial takes for granted. But the antagonisms unleashed by the tech industry’s latest descent on San Francisco also unsettle assumptions about conservatism: defenders of democracy are denounced as reactionaries, while agents of global capital are lauded as revolutionaries.
This ideological churn embodies profound yet elusive shifts in historical consciousness, enabling aspersions from the right while compromising the left’s customary stands. Throwing these transformations into high relief, the discord roiling San Francisco merits the scrutiny of progressives.
Start with the attacks. In the Chronicle’s tidy formulation, it’s “prosperity” that “allows this city to be progressive,” enabling policies like “health care mandates, elevated minimum wages and regulations…that would be unthinkable elsewhere.” And it’s “progressivism”—“San Francisco’s reputation for tolerance and nurturing of creativity”—that “allows this city to be prosperous,” serving as “a prime driver of innovation migration from the Silicon Valley.” Those who decry the changes wrought by that influx should bear in mind that “hundreds of Detroits, Allentowns and Fresnos…would gladly trade their problems with San Francisco.”
Admonitions against left parochialism have also emanated directly from the corporate lobby. The city does have an affordable-housing problem, opined the San Francisco Business Times, “but the scapegoating of the tech industry as the source of San Francisco’s urban ills, particularly regarding housing, is…misbegotten.” The real culprits are “[n]eighborhood NIMBYs and the city’s enthusiastic anti-development activists.”
But the strictures against progressive insularity aren’t coming just from the usual apologists for big business. In March, one of the city’s most prominent affordable-housing advocates and developers, Randy Shaw, noted that the influx of gays and lesbians into the Castro, Noe Valley, and other neighborhoods in the 1970s and ’80s also raised rents, but “progressives never suggested—as some are now doing with tech workers—that new arrivals get out of town.” Instead, they assailed the housing speculators who were victimizing tenants across the board, as well as the media that covered for them. What we’re seeing now, Shaw contends, is “a new nativism.”
A few weeks earlier, SF Weekly, which calls itself politically independent, featured a sweeping dismissal of the anti-tech movement. “Any human can stand in the way of a bus,” wrote Rachel Swan. “But he can’t stop the engine of progress behind it.” Today Google, Apple and their ilk are “embedded in our everyday lives.” Protesting their effects is a “quaint,” purely “symbolic” way to “purge anxieties about change that’s inevitable.”
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