California & the Fictions of Capital

By George L. Henderson | Go to book overview
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Rural Commodity Regimes

A Primer

It has become something of a truism that after the 1840s, California's development was radically foreshortened--"telescopic," as Carey McWilliams has said ( 1976). From mining to livestock and grain ranches, to irrigated specialty cropping--in a matter of decades it seems that rural California reinvented itself several times over without ever looking back. In reality, these production regimes, the very stuff of California's rise to national prominence, were monetarily and otherwise connected. The crisis of the mining economy in the Sierra foothills in the 1870s, for example, was in part resolved as a massive shift to wheat in the Central Valley, just as profits from the grain economy were pumped into Southern California's struggling ranch lands and then surfaced as fabulously productive orange orchards. Around each of these transitions, each resolution of crisis, arose a new labor system, a new built environment, a new production apparatus, and widening division of labor (including California's highest-grossing industries in the early twentieth century--sugar refining, flour milling, meatpacking, canning, and packing). 1 California was a virtual laboratory for successive rounds of investment, disinvestment, and reinvestment of capital, far surpassing any place west of Chicago and its hinterland (cf. Cronon 1991). 2 Boosted by the periodic migration of new money, California's surplus values not only circulated in place, allowing single commodity sectors to prosper, but were switched from one sector to another in an intensifying brew of rural commodity production and innovation.

No single essay can do anything near justice to the story of these commodity revolutions. The point of this chapter is to simply tease out for unfamiliar readers a thumbnail sketch of rural California's commodity history through discussion of its major features--the shift to and out of wheat; large-scale and sometimes hypercommodified appropriations of land and water; the rise of high-value specialty crops and the economy of land subdivision; the problem of markets; the uneven development of the irrigation apparatus; and the wider social division of labor,

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