Pictures of a Gone City in AAG Review of Books

Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area

By Jason Henderson
AAG Review of Books
Fall 2019

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx ([1869] 1998) recounted the 1848 socialist uprising against the French monarchy, right wing backlash, and the installation of Louis Bonaparte as dictator of France. This significant episode in European history certainly had lessons for subsequent revolutions and counterrevolutions, but the lasting and important value of The Eighteenth Brumaire was the detailed map of class and ideology that Marx provided. For Marx it was not the iron fist of Bonaparte shaping French society and rebuilding Paris, but the European haute bourgeois (financiers and industrialists) and the petit bourgeois (shopkeepers and traders) who, allied with the army, clergy, rural land owners, and peasants, were
Bonaparte’s enablers.

In Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area, Richard A. Walker sketches a kind of Eighteenth Brumaire for Silicon Valley. Rather than fetishizing the Sergey Brins, Elon Musks or Mark Zuckerbergs, rich as they might be, Walker shows, with exhaustive and painstaking detail, how Silicon Valley’s grip on the Bay Area and arguably the world is not about technology, but class and ideology. His goal, as was Marx’s ambition 150 years ago, is to unpack the schismatic and deeply inequitable capitalism. Today this schism undergirds the proliferation of private information technology companies like Google, Facebook, and Uber (aka tech), and Walker scrutinizes the enablers of
tech as well as the exploited.

On one side of the schism are the superrich (billionaires and multimillionaires) and a cadre of propertied and salaried upper class managers together forming (according to Walker) the top 20 percent of income earners in the Bay Area. These modern-day haute and petit bourgeoisie exploit tech’s multicultural and stratified “invisible workforce” (read: everyone else, including, e.g., teachers and public-sector employees, janitors, retail workers, bus drivers, and the broad swath of the U.S. working class) who crowd the other side of this schism. Meanwhile the new gilded elite of tech extract additional wealth from a rapidly expanding worldwide precariat in the guise of a “gig” economy.

Throughout Pictures of a Gone City, Walker seems to channel Marx’s determined confidence that contesting and transforming capitalism begins with fully understanding all of its moving pieces. That makes the book dense, and Walker synthesizes classic economic and industrial geography, standard urban geography, and a provocative regional geography showing how Silicon Valley is increasingly coordinating, at a global scale, many of these moving pieces of modern capitalism. The expansive multifaceted geographies of Bay Area tech are cross-cut by a radical geography of class and power, which, not surprisingly given Walker’s
past work, is the strongest thread of the book.

Published by the radical PM Press, Pictures of a Gone City is aimed at both academic and nonacademic audiences. Although it is an encyclopedic tome of the Bay Area, the potent class analysis travels well beyond academia and well beyond the Bay Area. Silicon Valley’s class stratums mirror, albeit in variegated manners, similar class alignments in cities from Bangalore to Beijing. If anything, reading Walker’s analysis suggests that the Bay Area is beginning to resemble a developing world megalopolis with a wealthy core surrounded by an expansive low-income periphery. This shapes the book for an audience beyond the Bay Area, and the analysis is transferable globally.

Walker’s delineation of the economic geography of Silicon Valley as an industrial agglomeration, mainly in Part 1 of the three-part, nine-chapter book, is solid. He especially revises and updates previous textbook studies of the Silicon Valley industrial district, for example, with new veins of venture capital and new forms of app-based wealth generation. Walker reminds readers of the historical geography of Cold War–era defense contractors and industrial foundations that new tech moguls inherited, and, to their consternation, did not invent. Walker does not provide a new revelation here, but with the popular press’s superficial celebration of tech bravado, Walker’s reminder of historical contingency is timely and puts contemporary tech in ap-
propriate context.

The urban geography in Pictures of a Gone City centers on diagramming race and class in the Bay Area, and also prosaically builds on Walker’s (2007) equally important book The Country in the City, which excavated the intersection of environmentalism, city building, and social status. Like his economic geography, Walker’s urban geography is not new except that it emphasizes that compared to two decades ago, class strata in the Bay Area is more rigidly ensconced and inequitable today. As the title of Pictures of a Gone City suggests, the progressive urban visions of the 1960s and through the 1980s were under siege in 2018. Yet although the moving pieces of economic and urban geography are salient, these are not what make Pictures of a Gone City hard-hitting. The regional and radical geographies are what make this an important book.

Two chapters make significant contributions to contemporary regional geography. In Chapter 5, “The New Urbanism: Remaking the Heart of the City,” and Chapter 7, “Metro Monster: Size, Sprawl, Segregation,” Walker grapples with defining the San Francisco Bay Region. A native of Silicon Valley, Walker is at times whimsical about the definition of the Bay Area, remarking that the region is definitionally challenged and debatable. Looking beyond the narrow corridor of concentrated technology corporations and the upper classes, ultimately Walker expands the Bay Area outward to encompass the invisible workforce that keeps Silicon Valley running, and includes a vast Northern California megaregion of more than 12 million people. For urban and regional geographers, it is a thought-provoking exercise that, with affordable housing and transport crises, is generalizable across the United States and in megacity regions worldwide.

One organizational weakness in the regionalism thread is that Walker does not finally settle on a definition of the Bay Region until Chapter 7, meaning that one is not always sure of the geography presented in the first six chapters, although footnotes sometimes help. Awkwardly, at several points early in the book the reader is prompted to jump to Chapter 7 to sort it out. To be fair, the region is fragmented, multiscalar, and the pace of dispersal due to gentrification so fast, that definitions can be elusive. Yet nailing it down earlier might have been helpful.

Another strong regional chapter, Chapter 6, “Bubble by the Bay: Anatomy of a Housing Crisis,” takes the reader through the Bay Area housing crisis, which then becomes a kind of proxy for a map of a vast Northern California megaregion. The metropolis expands with “violent upheaval” (p. 193) as ordinary workers are in disarray and the “falling dominoes” of gentrification and displacements compel long-distance supercommutes rippling through the Bay Area (p. 209). The vocabulary might seem hyperbolic at times, but it is warranted. The Bay Area’s housing crisis is truly disproportionate and deeply unjust, with almost four-fifths of households priced out of the inner core.

The radical geographic analysis of tech in Chapters 3 and 4, titled “Gold Mountain: Wealth, Inequality, Class Divide,” and “City at Work: Making and Fighting for a Living,” are the core of Walker’s Eighteenth Brumaire. Here he outlines class stratifications in the Bay Area that are transferable to global cities everywhere, but especially peer cities in advanced capitalist regions. After sorting through various definitions and measurements based on income or employment classification, and acknowledging no perfect way of total seamless categories, he presents a grounded understanding of uneven development.

Two class strata make up the elite of the Bay Area. The superrich make up the top 10 percent of income earners. These are the property class, the haute bourgeoisie of the Bay Area and, arguably, of the planet. Their wealth is through ownership, not wages, stocks, or work. Increasingly, the superrich do not just own property or the means of production, but as Zuboff (2019), elucidated (and Walker implies), they own our human experience. The remaining elite are the upper middle class who amount to the top 20 percent of Bay Area income, and who work in coordinating global tech and finance for the top 10 percent.

Although brief, Walker’s discussion of the election of President Trump and the class resentment toward the Bay Area by “flyover country” continues Picture of a Gone City’s approximate mirror image of the Eighteenth Brumaire. Today’s attachment of middle- and working-class voters to Trump mimics historic allegiance of French rural peasants and petit bourgeois to Louis Bonaparte. In both cases, the strong man promised to defend the lower classes against the excesses of the elite and to punish the sinful city (nineteenth-century Paris, twenty-first-century San Francisco), yet only to instead help further elevate the elite and their power.

Forensics of the 2016 elections aside, Walker’s breakdown of the Bay Area’s invisible or ordinary workers is by far the strongest part of the book, and will be the lasting contribution to economic, urban, regional, and radical geography. The discussion of the invisible workforce in Chapter 4 is one of the best overviews of the working class around and will certainly make an extremely important contribution to Bay Area studies while resonating worldwide.

Pictures of a Gone City is a lengthy (480-page) text, and there are some occasional shortcomings in the dense but sometimes choppy mix. Walker is widely known as a Bay Area booster and it shows here, but at times Walker’s elevation of Bay Area exceptionalism undermines useful generalization, which is unfortunate, because much of the class and ideological analysis, as stressed earlier, is in fact transferable. Yet from the onset Walker positions the region as narrowly peculiar, referring to it as the “tech capital of the world” (p. 13), the heartland of global tech and the leading edge of capitalism that is globalizing from the Bay Area. The tone is provocative and this might draw the reader into the book, but by claiming that there might be no other place like the Bay Area, some might conclude that the lessons of the book only apply to the Bay. Sifting through all the fragments of boosterism can be distracting. Although the Bay Area is a special case study, it is also a harbinger. Marx would insist that critical lessons must not be lost in the peculiarity of place.

Walker’s goal of dispelling myths of Silicon Valley as a special generator of technology and individual innovation is accomplished. Through scores of data and analysis he reveals that the core agenda is wealth generation by way of commercialization of everything that is not yet commodified. It is a powerful discussion about the Bay Area (and arguably global) permanent underclass, which he identifies as invisible because it is often overlooked, even as it makes the region function. Walker’s quip that “Blaming the state of America on the robot apocalypse is an easy way to let the rich, the right, and the market system off the hook” (p. 347), is an important point to consider, not for ignoring automation, but for highlighting who controls and benefits from automation.

One final observation about Pictures of a Gone City is how it leaves the reader with a dark hopelessness. A key part of radical geography is to provide hopeful direction. It should not terminate at a despairing critique of everything that is wrong with capitalism and not offer pathways. Walker mimics Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire again by providing skimpy direction for how to proceed. Walker hitches hope onto an inevitable downturn in the Bay Area tech economy, which if past business cycles are an indicator, should eventually occur. For this to be a hopeful downturn, however, the Bay Area’s legacy of a progressive, multicultural, tolerant, welcoming region with strong environmental and labor commitments must be poised and ready to take the mantle.

Walker leaves the reader thinking that this is not the case. He urges that a multiracial labor struggle might be the best hope but it is deeply fragmented and disorganized, and “unable to launch” (pp. 381–83). He laments that the historic and “distinctly progressive political culture” (p. 350) of the Bay Area is far from capable of challenging the neoliberal tech hegemony or the national right wing. This is debatable given that there are some lively pushbacks in the Bay Area on housing and jobs.

Some might argue that were it not for the State of California blockading progressive change, the Bay Area, or at least parts, and especially San Francisco, might have made more strident policy changes based on the same multicultural labor movement Walker celebrates. In many cases these movements were set back not locally, but by the California State Legislature or California voters, and by regulatory capture of the state by tech. All of this means that Pictures of a Gone City should be a wake-up call to arms, there are movements on the ground ready for battle, and Walker himself hopes that an upsurge in radical organizing (and scholarship) materializes.

Jason Henderson


Marx, K. [1869] 1998. The eighteenth brumaire of Louis
Bonaparte. New York, NY: International Publishers.

Walker, R. 2007. The country in the city: The greening of
the San Francisco Bay Area. Seattle, WA: University of
Washington Press.

Zuboff, S. 2019. The age of surveillance capitalism: The fight
for a human future at the new frontier of power. New York,
NY: Public Affairs.

Back to Richard A. Walker’s Author Page