[OPE-L] Richard A. Walker, The Conquest of Bread: 150 Years of Agribusiness in California (New York: The New Press, 2004)

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Fri Mar 03 2006 - 13:36:59 EST

Volume 57, Number 9
Monthly Review

February 2006
The Bread of Conquest
by Sasha Lilley

Sasha Lilleyis a journalist and producer of 
"Against the Grain," a program of radical ideas 
and politics on Pacifica Radio.

by Sasha Lilley
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 
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 
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.

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