California Is Coming for You

It would appear that Joe Biden will have his honeymoon period after all. I’ll confess, I was ready for it to be vanishingly small, largely because Trump and his millions of minions were on the offensive, however increasingly embattled they felt. Now in the aftermath of January 6th they’ve scattered, in some cases turning on each other and Trump. They’ll be back, and sooner than we might think, but for now they are frustrated and chastened, unable to build on their success. Trump is, compared to even a month ago, isolated. His staunchest supporters in Congress are starting to get a sense of what they’re up against, relying on increasingly performative batshit to keep themselves in the headlines.

Meanwhile, the pomp of the newly-minted Biden administration is glaring so bright it’s difficult to keep our eyes open. Much of the media’s liberal wing are no small part in keeping up the blinding light. Take, for example, this article from the Guardian. Large parts of the post-war imaginary have always wanted America to be more like California. Anyone who’s read any amount of Mike Davis can clearly see that’s never been quite as benevolent a desire as it might at first appear.

Case in point during the Trump years. California – particularly SoCal and the Bay Area – were looked at as a kind of counterweight to Trumpism, more eloquent and compassionate and sane. It became particularly evident in the opening of the Covid pandemic. While Trump disregarded every insistence that he initiate a national testing program, Gavin Newsom with the help of liberal mayors were able to roll out a fairly impressive testing regiment. It was for a time touted as an alternative model. Newsom’s allusions to California as a “nation-state” indicated that he took this role seriously, or at the very least was caught in the glamor of it.

It’s not quite as easy to look at California as a counterweight now. Not since Los Angeles, its largest metropolitan area, became one of the country’s worst hotspots. The most recent and disastrous spike, the one that took hold just as the holiday season was gearing up, was aided by a “lockdown” so porous and mish-mash, with so many exceptions designed to keep the Christmas commerce flowing as to be more or less meaningless.

Barely a week ago, LA had to lift its clean-air limit on the number of permitted daily cremations. Now Newsom has lifted the stay-at-home order. The Los Angeles Times, characteristically, is presenting the move as a trade-off. Yes, cases are declining, and precipitously at that. Yes, we have a vaccine. But those two truths by themselves don’t make it safe enough to loosen restrictions. It’s an argument that keeps being made time and time again, but never seems to break through the clouds of capital accumulation. Take, for example, the recent models from scientists at Columbia University. It shows that even with cases declining and a vaccine (slowly) making its way into the population, opening businesses back up will cost lives.

This is simply the latest fold in the broader contradiction of California, the gap between the perception of it as a sunny liberal paradise and the place where the American empire turns in on itself. We hear of this state as a bastion of forward-thinking environmentalism, but fail to wonder if Newsom’s doling out fracking contracts like candy play a role in our worsening wildfires. We hear that this is where notions of peace-and-love blossomed. Yet it is also where the neoliberal prison boom was innovated and allowed to flourish. Kamala Harris, now vice president, played a key role in the evolution of this model during her time as San Francisco’s attorney general. Though the prison population shrinks, the logic of the carceral state has been redistributed downward, and Harris’ own truancy policy is a key example of how this has worked.  

What does it mean for Joe Biden, a politician who has forcefully rejected the banning of fracking, with a long history of blocking pushes for police reform, to expand this blueprint beyond the Golden State’s borders? Will it be enough to keep climate change at bay or fundamentally transform policing? Will it be enough to rebuild the lives destroyed by pandemic? Will it be enough to neutralize the far-right, preventing the anxious middle-class and small business owners from going full Proud Boy? On all of the above, I have my doubts.

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