[Marxism] Imperial San Francisco: A Book Review

Anthony Boynton northbogota at yahoo.com
Thu Mar 30 13:26:23 MST 2006

Reaching Backwards for New Ideas
A Book Review
Anthony Boynton
Imperial San Francisco
Urban Power, Earthly Ruin
By Gray Brechin; University of California Press;
Berkeley, CA USA, 1999, ISBN 0-520-22902

When you think about San Francisco, you might think
about the recently revived 60’s song, “When you come
to San Francisco
. wear flowers in your hair
. You’re
gonna find some lovin’ people there.” 

You might think about the city that is the gay capital
of America, formerly the hippie capital of America, an
anti-war Mecca, and the power base of the liberals in
the Democratic Party. It’s the place that almost
elected a Green Party candidate as mayor a couple of
years ago.

Maybe you just think of restaurants, the Golden Gate
Bridge, fog, and nice hotels.

But probably not Imperial San Francisco. (Is it a
Chinese Restaurant?) What is this book about?

For starters it’s about the environmental devastation
that was required for the creation of the city by the
bay, and about how that devastation spread from
California throughout the Pacific basin, and then - by
means of the mining engineers trained there, and the
mining companies owned by San Franciscans – around the
world from Australia to South Africa.

The book’s author Gray Brechin is ambitious. He tries
to pack a lot of forgotten, covered up, and otherwise
not-often-talked-about history into this book. He
tries to reveal the ugly truth about many of the more
important institutions and families of San Francisco
and the Bay Area. 

The book is big and sprawling. It is about mining,
war, mining and war, war and mining 
. and also water,
cities, culture, propaganda,  the military-industrial
complex, political power and corruption, the
avaricious manipulation of the press and news media by
greedy land barons and mine owners, nuclear power and
atomic bombs, and more. 

19th Century Environmentalism Revived

Attempting to rise above the level of simple
description of environmental destruction and
journalistic history Brechin revives (and tries to
develop) the 19th century environmentalist ideas of
Lewis Mumford as a theoretical explanation for all of
the infamous deeds the book describes.

Munford’s ideas are among the many 19th century
critiques of capitalism, industrialism, and
imperialism that fell by wayside as Marxism rose to
dominate left wing thought even before October, 1917. 

Marxism’s fall from grace at the end of the 20th
century, or at least it’s exit from a domineering
place in leftist thought, has allowed some of those
other critical ideas about capitalism to leap (or
creep) back onto the stage in search of an audience.

Gray Brechin´s recent book Imperial San Francisco is
one of the more interesting and  thought provoking of
these efforts. As history the book is fast moving and
fascinating. (This is true even though Munford’s
theory is too unbalanced and too thin to be a likely
candidate to ever become the theoretical underpinnings
of a future left.)

Brechin, a geographer by education, a writer and TV
producer by trade, hangs his tale on the framework of
Munford’s ideas. 

Munford’s view of human history sees the rise of
cities as the central aspect of the process, and
mining as central to the rise of big imperial warlike
cities.  Here’s how Brechin summarizes Mumford:

“Mumford proposed that a constellation of five
activities has operated from the appearance of the
first cities down to the present to give humanity its
growing dominion over nature, and a few control over
the many. This ‘Megamachine’, as Mumford called it, is
largely invisible and designed to be so by those who
build and run it, since its working parts are human
bodies driven by carefully inculcated belief systems.
Such a machine is easier to visualize as a pyramid,
whose base consists of mechanization, metallurgy,
militarism, and moneymaking (or finance) and whose
apex is mining. All five points on this pyramid are
connected with one another, yet mining retains a
seminal and dominant role over the other four
activities. From that most fundamental of industries
issue the others, and from the union of the five,
joined in a crystalline lattice of enduring stability
and hierarchical organization, the pyramid derives its
accelerating power to transform both human society and
the organic world, to its growing peril and to that of
all those who unwittingly constitute its motive

Brechin sees mining as the antithesis of agriculture,
which he views as beneficent. Here’s how Brechin puts
it on pages 16 and 17.

“Agriculture and mining represent the two prototypical
human activities from which towns first sprang. Until
recently, they stood for opposite ways of regarding
and transforming the natural world.

“Literally rooted in organic reality, the life of the
farmer was traditionally tied to the rhythms of earth
and sun, changes and vagaries of seasons, and, above
all, cultivation and replenishment of the soil for
human ends. Cities first arose upon the surplus biotic
energy that the Agricultural revolution made possible

 The city served above all else as humanity’s great
transformer. As long as it remained small and close to
the land, it furnished the tillers with a nitrogen
rich  source of fertilizer that they returned to the
soil in a closed organic loop.”

Then, a paragraph later, 

“The close association of mining with warfare is more
ancient even than the idealized relationship between
agriculture and morality. A city’s parasitism
inevitably increases with its size and ambition. To
insure that growth, the rulers of cities needed the
metals to make both weapons and currency. Metals
require mines (metalla in Latin), which in turn need
cheap and expendable labor to work them. Mines
likewise demand forests to smelt the ores, power the
machinery, and prop the tunnels. Those requirements
alone spell expansion

To the ideas of Mumford, Brechin adds the political
geographer’s concept of “contado”. This term basically
means the countryside surrounding a city, and
providing the city with food, water, and other
resources. For Brechin, mining transforms the contado
into a widening area of environmental devastation
spreading from the city into the hinterland and even
crossing oceans. 

Reconstructing the History of San Francisco

San Francisco’s imperial, mining based “contado” began
in the “mother lode” in the foothills of the Sierra
Nevada, spread eastward into the state of Nevada and
the  Comstock Lode, and then moved south to Mexico and
South America, and west across the Pacific to the
Philippine Islands. 

Brechin uses his version of Munford’s schema to guide
him in reconstructing the history of San Francisco
from before the gold rush until the present day. 

The gold rush is Brechin’s starting point. He starts
by demolishing the myth of Sutter’s mill and the
‘accidental’ discovery of gold by James Marshall.
Every school child in California is subjected to this
myth repeatedly from kindergarten on. Brechin uses a
wide variety of sources to show that the racist, war
based politics of Manifest Destiny which dominated the
pre-civil war USA always had a glint of gold fever
within it. US diplomats, militarists, and adventurers
all had their eyes on Mexican mineral resources long
before the Mexican-American war. And their eyes were
on resources throughout all of Mexico, not just the
northern half that was eventually annexed by the
United States.

Brechin’s history of the interrelation among mining,
imperialism, environmental devastation, and the rise
of industry and finance in San Francisco is
eye-opening. San Francisco Bay’s ecological balance
was destroyed by the debris which poured downstream
from the hydraulic mines in the Sierra Nevada. It has
never recovered to this day.

California’s first Senator, on the other hand, was
already projecting US conquest across the Pacific just
three years after the gold rush began. In 1852,
Senator William McKendree Gwin, in a report requesting
a deep water navy base and shipyard in San Francisco
Bay, wrote, “California 
 will have the honor of
affording upon her territory a firm resting place for
the fulcrum of the lever of that power of this great
country, which is hereafter to maintain its maritime
rights and peace upon the vast expanse of the Pacific
and Indian Oceans. For all great national purposes
whether defensive or offensive, or in a state of war,
or protection of our commerce and the rights of our
citizens on the ocean in time of peace, if the right
arm of our power is to be put forward from the
Atlantic and the Gulf Coast, the left arm of that
power must necessarily be exercised from the Pacific

The strength of Brechin’s book is that it focuses on
the nexus of imperialist expansion, environmental
destruction, and social and economic history that is
most often ignored. Traditional histories tend to
focus on the construction of the transcontinental
railroad, immigration from Asia, and the rise of
California agriculture. They rarely touch the issues
that Brechin places at the center of his story. 

Brechin also pays a lot of attention to the gory
details of San Francisco’s first families, especially
the newspaper owning families: the Hearsts, the De
Youngs, and the Spreckels. The De Young fortune was
originally built upon their newspaper, the Spreckels
family controlled the Hawaiian sugar plantations and
trade, while the Hearsts were major players in the
Comstock lode of Nevada. 

All three – despite a constant war of words among them
(and at least one gun battle) – were united in
building real estate empires. They did everything in
their power to increase the price of real estate in
and around their base of empire in San Francisco. 
The key was water. While the story of the intimate and
destructive relationship of real estate speculation
and water in Los Angeles is well known, Brechin shows
that the pattern was already well developed in San
Francisco before it was applied in Southern

All three family dynasties tried to extend their real
estate empires beyond San Francisco, and beyond
California. All three newspaper families, but
especially the Hearsts, beat the drums of war and
fueled the fires of racism to expand their personal
empires into Latin America and Asia.

The author’s  examination of the Hearst family’s
mining and real estate interests – the real base of
their wealth and power before and after the
construction of the Hearst media empire - is one of
the most interesting parts of the book. The extension
of that empire into Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and
other parts of the world was - for me - a new chapter
of history. 

Brechin also pays detailed attention to the rabidly
racist and war mongering  ideology promoted by the
mining, real estate, and arms production interests.

One eye opening example is a 1916 Hearst papers
feature article advocating the annexation of all of
Mexico to the United States. The headline is “The
Greater United States”, followed by a sub headline
saying, “If Mexico Is annexed We Will Have 31 New
States and Territories, 15,000,000 New Americans, and
767,290 Square Miles of Picturesque, Historic and Rich
Lumber, Agricultural, and Mineral Lands.”

But this is just a tidbit. Brechin convincingly shows
that the idea of the “Aryan race” conquering the world
was not just a Nazi fantasy, but the daily fare of the
newspapers and magazines of at least the West Coast of
the United States at the end of the 19th century and
the beginning of the 20th.

Part of the book’s examination of ideology focuses on
the universities which help make the San Francisco Bay
Area an economic and intellectual center: the
University of California at Berkeley, and Stanford
University.  These universities are the parents
respectively of the hydrogen bomb and silicon valley.
UC is also famous as a center of the left, especially
for its role in the student and antiwar movements of
the 1960’s and early 70´s.

The central relation of UC Berkeley to the rise of the
military-industrial complex is one of the most
interesting chapters in Brechin´s book. The university
grew under the patronage of Phoebe Hearst, the mother
of William Randolph Hearst and was central to the
development of 19th and 20th century mining
technology. It was also central to the war of the
United States in the Philippine islands after those
islands were taken from Spain. UC provided the
officers, the schoolmasters, and the racist ideology
for the war.

UC’s military related research eventually led to its
dominance in the related fields of particle physics
and chemistry – and to its administration and control
over The Lawrence Radiation Laboratories and the Los
Alamos laboratory where the atomic bomb and then the
hydrogen bomb were perfected.

Good History, but...

As history the book is fascinating. It is however,
more than a little unbalanced. 

Brechin’s thesis that the extension of cities’
“contados” to mining areas and the exploitation of
mineral wealth is the key to wars and imperialism is
both the strength and the weakness of the book. 

Today dwindling planetary oil reserves has given an
impetus for the “imperial contado” of Houston to
expand to include the Persian Gulf, to reach into
central Asia, and to expand in Alaska. 

The idea that imperialism is based on mining, or more
generally the search for mineral resources to exploit
is sound, but it only explains an element of
imperialism. It does not, for example, explain the
westward expansion of the British colonies along the
North American seaboard. New York City’s “contado” was
agricultural, yet New York and all of the original 13
colonies that came to form the United States
avariciously expanded through territorial conquest to
the west. 

(Brechin does make passing note of this when he
explains the application of the “Texas Game” to
stealing California from Mexico. But he does not
consider the broader implications for his version of
the Mining Pyramid. Lewis Munford’s ideas are
particularly well suited to explaining the 19th and
early 20th century history of San Francisco, but they
fall down when they are applied to other cities, or
even to San Francisco in other times, such as the

Still Brechin’s schema is, at the very least, a useful
tool to guide a historian in unearthing the forgotten,
covered-up, or hidden-from-the-start chapters of
history that make Imperial San Francisco a great book
for anyone interested in the city by the bay, the
history of the United States, or for that matter,
anyone trying to understand modern imperialism.

Left Environmentalism and Marxism

It also could become a stepping stone for people
gravitating to the left, especially toward what you
might call “left” environmentalism, to begin to
approach Marxism. The fact that his work clearly shows
the links between racism, imperialism, and
environmental destruction brings his brand of
environmentalism into line with some of the basic
precepts of current Marxist thinking (especially as
represented on this list)

And, although Brechin does not talk at all about
deeper economic issues, his theory of the relation
between mining and imperialism overlaps more than
contradicts with much of classic Marxist thought on
imperialism. For instance, Lenin’s famous little
survey of imperialism at the time of the First World
War - Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism -
includes these lines (in chapter VI. DIVISION OF THE

"The principal feature of the latest stage of
capitalism is the domination of monopolist
associations of big employers. These monopolies are
most firmly established when all the sources of raw
materials are captured by one group, and we have seen
with what zeal the international capitalist
associations exert every effort to deprive their
rivals of all opportunity of competing, to buy up, for
example, ironfields, oilfields, etc. Colonial
possession alone gives the monopolies complete
guarantee against all contingencies in the struggle
against competitors, including the case of the
adversary wanting to be protected by a law
establishing a state monopoly. The more capitalism is
developed, the more strongly the shortage of raw
materials is felt, the more intense the competition
and the hunt for sources of raw materials throughout
the whole world, the more desperate the struggle for
the acquisition of colonies."

Brechin’s book also points towards another aspect of
imperialism that he does not directly address, and
that classical Marxists like Lenin did not directly
link to imperialism: differential rents.

Mining - and all exploitation of mineral resources
including petroleum - is a source of differential
rent. Differential rent, like monopoly prices, allows
individual capitalists to achieve rates of profit
higher than the general rate of profit.  The struggle
to achieve high differential, like the struggle to
create monopoly power (which Lenin identified as the
key aspect of the imperialism of his day) is amplified
by the general tendency of the rate of profit to fall
over time. Individual capitalists, or capitals can
“escape” the falling rate of profit by achieving high
differential rent or monopoly profits, or both. 

The expansion of the United States westward from
Atlantic to the Pacific was essentially an all out
scramble to appropriate land, and natural resources,
from which differential rent could be derived. US
imperialism’s subsequent thrust beyond the north
American continent continued to contain a strong
element of this impulse (as Brechin demonstrates in
his book), and continues to do so today in the current
wars for oil.

Capital Vol. III Part VI
Transformation of Surplus-Profit into Ground-Rent
Chapter 46. Building Site Rent. Rent in Mining. Price
of Land

"Wherever rent exists at all, differential rent
appears at all times. and is governed by the same
laws, as agricultural differential rent. Wherever
natural forces can be monopolised and guarantee a
surplus-profit to the industrial capitalist using
them, be it waterfalls, rich mines, waters teeming
with fish, or a favourably located building site,
there the person who by virtue of title to a portion
of the globe has become the proprietor of these
natural objects will wrest this surplus-profit from
functioning capital in the form of rent. Adam Smith
has set forth, as concerns land for building purposes,
that the basis of its rent, like that of all
non-agricultural land, is regulated by agricultural
rent proper (Book I, Ch. XI, 2 and 3). This rent is
distinguished, in the first place, by the preponderant
influence exerted here by location upon differential
rent (very significant, e.g., in vineyards and
building sites in large cities); secondly, by the
palpable and complete passiveness of the owner, whose
sole activity consists (especially in mines) in
exploiting the progress of social development, toward
which he contributes nothing and for which he risks
nothing, unlike the industrial capitalist.."

Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism
V. I.   Lenin


"Typical of the old capitalism, when free competition
held undivided sway, was the export of goods. Typical
of the latest stage of capitalism, when monopolies
rule, is the export of capital. 
Capitalism is commodity production at its highest
stage of development, when labour-power itself becomes
a commodity. The growth of internal exchange, and,
particularly,   of international exchange, is a
characteristic feature of capitalism. The uneven and
spasmodic development of individual enterprises,
individual branches of industry and individual
countries is inevitable under the capitalist system.
England became a capitalist country before any other,
and by the middle of the nineteenth century, having
adopted free trade, claimed to be the “workshop of the
world”, the supplier of manufactured goods to all
countries, which in exchange were to keep her provided
with raw materials. But in the last quarter of the
nineteenth century, this monopoly was already
undermined; for other countries, sheltering themselves
with “protective” tariffs, developed into independent
capitalist states. On the threshold of the twentieth
century we see the formation of a new type of
monopoly: firstly, monopolist associations of
capitalists in all capitalistically developed
countries; secondly, the monopolist position of a few
very rich countries, in which the accumulation of
capital has reached gigantic proportions. An enormous
“surplus of capital” has arisen in the advanced
It goes without saying that if capitalism could
develop agriculture, which today is everywhere lagging
terribly behind industry, if it could raise the living
standards of the masses, who in spite of the amazing
technical progress are everywhere still half-starved
and poverty-stricken, there could be no question of a
surplus of capital. This “argument” is very often
advanced by the petty-bourgeois critics of capitalism.
But if capitalism did these things it would not be
capitalism; for both uneven development and a
semi-starvation level of existence of the masses are
fundamental and inevitable conditions and constitute
premises of this mode of production. As long as
capitalism remains what it is, surplus capital will be
utilised not for the purpose of raising the standard
of living of the masses in a given country, for this
would mean a decline in profits for the capitalists,
but for the purpose of increasing profits by exporting
capital abroad to the backward countries. In these
backward countries profits are usually high, for
capital is scarce, the price of land is relatively
low, wages are low, raw materials are cheap. The
export of capital is made possible by a number of
backward countries having already been drawn into  
world capitalist intercourse; main railways have
either been or are being built in those countries,
elementary conditions for industrial development have
been created, etc. The need to export capital arises
from the fact that in a few countries capitalism has
become “overripe” and (owing to the backward state of
agriculture and the poverty of the masses) capital
cannot find a field for “profitable” investment." 


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