Autonomy, the State, and Authoritarianism in the United States Presidential Election of 2016


     After the first week of the Trump administration and its rapid succession of executive orders to overturn the Obama legacy and set a right-wing, demagogic tone for the next four years, liberal Democrats, leftists of various stripes, moderate Republicans, and even some neoconservatives are currently speaking loudly and publicly about the new administration’s prerogatives on the domestic and international fronts. The political forces and party faithful on the liberal-democratic and traditional American Left currently engage in the best traditions of democracy and the project of autonomy in responding to the rightward trend of political events. They have organized mass protests such as the country-wide Women’s March and instantaneous mobilizations at our nation’s airports to support detained foreign visa and green card holders against the Muslim immigration ban. These radically democratic mobilizations show what Cornelius Castoriadis called “magmatic social imaginary significations.” This is a political praxis or social action that crystallizes the thoughts and democratic, political principles of a mass of citizens into direct social action, and both safeguards and realizes democracy from incursions on autonomy (in Greek, meaning “self-law,” one who gives oneself one’s own law in relation to common life) by authoritarianism. Magmatic social imaginary significations, where the psyche and the social-historical creatively birth democratic social action, cannot emerge among conservative or right-wing citizens and social movements, since the content and basis of their social and political principles aim to restrict democracy, freedom, and liberty to deprive it from other citizens, rather than promote its expansion and growth to cultivate an open society where autonomy can flourish. The term for right-wing and conservative social and political mobilizations is thus known as “false consciousness” that falls under “mass persuasion,” or the manipulation of citizens by political demagoguery. The Trump campaign has told its supporters that things must get worse before they become better, that the need for restricting freedoms and the lack of governmental transparency will lead to its growth. Their political message lacks serious thought and belies ethics. Or in the words of political theorist John Homer Schaar, “Giving thought to what we are doing might reduce damage and confusion. Remember that US officer in Vietnam who said ‘We had to destroy Ben Tu in order to save it.’ When standard ways of thinking and acting reach such depths of bewilderment and destruction as that, then it is time for rethinking.” The United States currently has a new Republican administration that is promising the American people that they must suffer worsening conditions before those conditions become better. This is nothing less than demagoguery and deceit.[i]

As heartening as these political mobilizations appear, they are the same political strategies employed by the liberal social movements of the 1930s and 1960s, which in the last 60 years have been a history of key victories but also a “semi-failure” to create a rights-based social welfare state. Perhaps this is simply a brief socio-historical period of an open society in a longer history of human autonomy. Liberals and Leftists must hope this current mobilization of mass protest does not result, again, in the lack of political imagination to move beyond a postmodern political conformism that has governed the two-party system in the US since the 1960s. It has allowed a non-GOP party candidate to win the 2016 presidential election, backed by a shadow party of extreme and radical Libertarianism supported by the funds of Koch Enterprises, the DeVos family network in western Michigan, among others. Neoconservative fellow-travelers and their SuperPacs, and the motely factions of the far right-wing White Power movement also fed into the revolution within the GOP. The political operators from the fascist “Alt-Right” have infiltrated the GOP, and is actually a fascist, political and social formation. John Boehner, the former Republican Speaker of the House, refers to them as “cannibals.” For liberals and the Left, this has been an adherence to the fundamental precepts of globalized, free-market capitalism in either its liberal-democratic or conservative-traditional form. The embrace of unrestrained and lightly-regulated capitalism is the main problem of the Democratic Party and the liberals and leftists that constitute its party faithful and leadership. However, it is true that Obama’s democratic legislative agenda from 2011 to 2016 was blocked by the GOP majorities in Congress, and Democrats cannot blame the administration or the Democratic Party for this unhappy fact. Liberals and the Left must translate current Liberal-Left political action into Social Democracy rather than a variant of the reigning Liberal-Democratic order that emerged from the New Deal in the post-World War Two Era; a corporatist, semi-welfare State governed by Labor, Business, and the State predicated on a permanent, war economy.[ii] The Democratic Party must prioritize “economic security” policies as the primary-core party principles, replacing its emphasis on “social mobility” policies since the Party mid-term convention in 1978, which saw the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council that moved the party to the center of the political spectrum. In the “liberal-democratic international order” the United States is at the very bottom of the social mobility-economic inequality index, followed upwards by the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and then the social democracies of Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway at the very top where both social mobility is high, and income inequality is low. Despite the gains of the rights revolution of the 1950s to the 1970s, the United States has the lowest rate of social mobility and the highest economic inequality in the liberal-democratic order.[iii]

In 1989, Castoriadis wrote that of liberal-reformist political and social movements “none of them have been able to propose a new vision of society and to face the overall political problem as such. After the movements of the 1960s, the project of autonomy seems totally eclipsed” and might seem only a short-term, conjunctural development socio-historically. This has been exacerbated and grown worse since Castoriadis first formulated the problem, particularly the economically unstable and authoritarian political systems that emerged in some countries of the former Soviet Bloc during the new era of free-market capitalist globalization after 1989. This is likely due to the current neoliberal consensus around multinational capitalism that supports a global “race-to-bottom,” where corporate enterprises and the very wealthiest citizens drive a global economy predicated on declining wages, pressure on suppliers and manufacturers for highest net margins, evasion of corporate taxation, and seeking the greatest influence for their interests in the political process of respective nation-states that inhibits the project of autonomy. “But the growing weight, in contemporary societies, of privatization, depoliticization, and ‘individualism’ makes such an interpretation [for autonomy] most unlikely,” and Castoriadis noted this was due to the intellectual pauperization of the liberal-democratic and socialist left, as well as conservatives in the embrace of economic liberalism. The corrosive shift to liberal-democratic ideas of social mobility as core political principles is described as well by Agnes Heller and Ferenc Feher: “The transition from traditional class cultures to modern culture was destined to give birth to the most violent generational conflict modern men and women had ever known, and this dramatic process repeats itself wherever there are still traditional class cultures.” With social mobility embraced as the core party principles of both the Democratic and Republican parties, it is no wonder that voter discontent is high, voter participation is low, and the electorate is susceptible to demagogic and polarizing political rhetoric in the face of great income inequality and elusive social mobility. The Democratic Party’s central message was one, albeit minor, problem in an election of multiple, detrimental factors that led to electoral defeat. These key factors were Russian hacking of the DNC and Clinton campaign, and email and document disclosures on Wikileaks; interference by FBI probes into Clinton’s private email server and announcements of new email revelations (of Anthony Weiner’s) one week before November 8, 2016; the spread of fake news and allegations against the Clinton campaign by non-credible news organizations and individual fake-news trolls; and potentially by uncorroborated reports of assistance and coordination of a misinformation campaign against Clinton between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence services. Taken together, these contingent developments in the last six months of the 2016 election disallowed the Democrats to position their message effectively with voters and kept its voters from the polls on election day.[iv]

The essential transformation of liberal and leftist political strategy must radically move beyond its nostalgia for its reformist, liberal-democratic, and New Deal past given its historic defeat by a non-establishment Republican political campaign. The Trump campaign defied both the GOP “shadow parties” and RNC party discipline by its own shadow party of fascist political operatives coming from the fascist “Alt-Right” and its right-wing racist, Neo-Nazi, and isolationist-nationalist core constituency.[v] This is crucial given that Stephen Bannon, the chief political advisor to the Trump Administration, is a far-right-wing political extremist with fascistic strategies and misinformed social and political philosophies. His overblown claims that the Trump presidency involved a “populist” political resurgence around patriotism, jobs, security, and traditional values was a ruse and belies the reasons for its actual triumph. Rather, the Trump victory was solely a case of political demagoguery that entailed the myths and mysteries of a “corrupt Establishment” that spread fears among the electorate that the amorphous “Establishment” (read Congress and the federal government) would ship jobs overseas, close U.S. factories and mines, promote an immorally open-society, and allow immigrants and political refugees into the country that posed internal security threats as well as job competition for white workers.[vi] The Trump campaign pitted its supporters against the very institutions that sustain and cultivate their fundamental well-being through the variety of government services at the municipal, state, and federal level. In the most general of terms, the primary message was that the “Establishment” had sold out the interests of the “American people” across the political spectrum. With the spread of non-credible news organizations and individuals that produce journalistically sub-standard “alt-news” or “fake news” without the standards of truth, and Russian cyber-interference through trolls littering the internet with precisely-directed fake news misinformation about the Clinton campaign, the 2016 presidential election met the criteria for a phenomenon of “mass persuasion” towards both conservative and liberal voters that echoes the conclusions of earlier studies of authoritarianism and political demagoguery by scholars in the Frankfurt School for Social Research after World War Two.[vii]

Bannon is currently consolidating his power and driving policy formation in the Trump Administration aimed at going to war with the federal bureaucracy, the entire Democratic and Republican political “Establishment,” and civil society, particularly the nation’s free press and credentialed media. With much ignorance, he has described himself a “Leninist”[viii] who, in his poor understanding of Lenin, hopes to “destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” He also recently told the media in a New York Times interview, “You’re the opposition party…Not the Democratic Party. You’re the opposition party. The media’s the opposition party.” He also said “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and listen for a while,” deriding the media and liberals as having “no power.”[ix] He now sits on the National Security Council with the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, since a Trump executive order recently removed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence from the NSC. There is every indication that his misinformed views in domestic policy formation, international trade, and foreign relations will prove to be destabilizing, illegal, and dangerous to US interests. He is a disturbing figure with an astonishing contempt for the political institutions of the United States, however, it shows him to be a master, political strategist that must not be underestimated by any means and given no more power. This entails an entirely new, Democratic political strategy based around core principles of economic security and the growth of a social democratic and fully-developed social welfare state that provides basic entitlements such as full employment policies, free higher education, and free health care. Such policies will give successive generations of young, adult Americans a sense of well-being and financial security as they embark for employment in the occupations and professions of the 21st Century.[x]

The Trump Administration, under Bannon, has devised prerogatives ranging from anti-immigrant and political-refugee sentiment and restrictions; the assault on multiculturalism and racial equality; wresting reproduction rights from American women to control their bodies; and state-levels bills to restrict peaceful protest and the right to assembly, free association, and free speech. On the international front, the Trump administration is re-evaluating its long-standing alliance with NATO; realigning trade policy towards bilateral rather than multilateral free trade agreements; stepping up efforts on the “war on terror” through new military alliances and nativist immigration restrictions on Muslim countries and Mexico; and sending warm signals to right-wing and right-leaning governments like Britain, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Philippines, and Pakistan. The Trump administration admires these countries for their racial-nationalist political agendas, and a return to a political and cultural traditionalism that runs counter to the current liberal-democratic international order and are hostile to open societies and the individual rights revolution across the West.[xi] With so many actions and messages coming from the White House, this is nothing less than a “divide and conquer” strategy devised to confuse American liberals and the Left around the various aspects of the “legal and individual rights” revolution with each executive order, to inflame the Democrats’ many diverse constituencies and cause infighting and chaos in its ranks. The Trump administration has also been under the pall of a U.S. five-agency counterintelligence investigation looking into Trump campaign-Russian diplomatic and intelligence coordination against the Democratic National Committee and the presidential campaign of Hilary Rodham Clinton, as well as  Senate and House Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian meddling in the election, and also Russia-Trump campaign communications, with early calls spearheaded by Republican senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham.[xii]

The five-agency counterintelligence investigation definitively found that the Russians engaged in a covert misinformation campaign against the Clinton campaign and hacked DNC headquarters. The Russian intelligence services hired internet trolls to spread misinformation and fake news about Hilary Rodham Clinton in order to damage her credibility as a presidential candidate and to favor the Trump campaign. The hacked DNC and Clinton campaign emails revealed internal communications from John Podesta, HRC’s campaign manager, and the DNC, released on Wikileaks. More alarmingly, a day after the Director of National Intelligence’s report, a 35-page campaign intelligence dossier surfaced publicly through Buzzfeed, which alarmingly detailed alleged kompromat (compromising information) against Trump by Russia’s FSB (its federal security bureau) indicating sexual blackmail through video tapes of sexually-perverted escapades. The dossier recounts uncorroborated allegations of secret meetings between key Trump campaign advisers and Russian officials that guarantee close diplomatic and economic relations between the countries by lifting sanctions imposed by the Obama administration after Russia’s unlawful invasion of the Ukraine, and its support for the repressive Assad regime in Syria. The assessment findings were issued by the DNI’s task force and the dossier was compiled by a well-respected and credible US intelligence asset, a former senior MI6 intelligence officer working first for anti-Trump Republicans, then anti-Trump Democrats, and then by himself after October 2016 because the intelligence he received was both astonishing and disturbing in its treasonable implications. The former MI6 officer went underground after his identity was revealed because he feared for the safety of himself and his family, given the FSB’s penchant for assassinating its opponents abroad, similar to the KGB from the 1930s to the 1980s.[xiii]

Unfortunately, this turn of events has manifested in intense political polarization initiated by the Trump administration towards both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, sowing political discord within both parties. For Democrats and the American Left, unfortunately, this has devolved into intra-party strife and finger-pointing on the election loss, and credible allegations about Trump campaign-Russian collusion in determining the election, which could be seen as succumbing to mass persuasion, but subsequent unbiased reporting in the mainstream media seems to corroborate. Such infighting deters Democrats from the critical need for realigning party priorities in the face of the fascist, far-right political operation in the White House under Stephen Bannon. Democrats have engaged in party in-fighting by claiming the DNC and the Clinton campaign was corrupt, the DNC “Establishment” sold out the party faithful, or that Clinton was not a viable candidate for the Democrats. The appalling amount of Democratic “anti-Establishment” rhetoric and perceptions of “corruption” within the party resembles the same bogeyman typology of “anti-Establishment” rhetoric espoused by the likes of Bannon and other far-right extremists. In fact, there is no indication that campaign strategy, campaign planks and public speeches, or overall  Democratic National Committee campaign strategy revealed a corrupt “shadow party of money” existing outside the DNC during the campaign to sever the demands of the Democratic Party faithful from the Clinton campaign’s message.[xiv] Democrats blame Clinton’s campaign strategy nationally for being weak or ineffective in reaching white, working class and lower middle class voters, the voters that emerged as the so-called “populist” resurgence allied behind Trump through mass persuasion. The Clinton campaign spoke very directly to America’s working people and how the Democrats planned to attend to their grievances and expectations. Clinton immolated Trump in every single, televised debate on all political issues. Some commentators have erroneously termed this a “working-class political movement,” when in fact those voters existed primarily in the $50,000 to $99,000 income bracket and signals that the lower middle class (petty bourgeoisie) overwhelmingly voted for Trump in those rural counties. The Trump campaign also spent less on voter communications than the Clinton campaign, but hired the “big data” company Cambridge Analytica to precisely target both GOP voters and Democratic voters with psychometrically-designed internet and social media campaigns to either mobilize voters, or deter them from the polls. Cambridge Analytica was subsequently revealed to have approached Wikileaks several times about the Clinton emails as subsequent news reporting has shown. Russian trolls and their cyber-interference of misinformation also did the same on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, as well as the comments sections of major urban dailies as subsequent news reports have shown through analysis of fake social media accounts. This strategy signals a shift of the use of voter demographics as a campaign tool by internet social profiling on social media platforms. It is this strategy of targeting that caused a phenomenon of mass persuasion to confuse swing voters and spread doubts about Clinton’s candidacy among Democrats. The Trump campaign also took all income brackets above $99,000 in the election, indicating that the Democratic Leadership Council’s “suburban strategy” also did not work in swing or contested states as well. This class of voters turned out in significantly higher numbers in rural counties in swing states such as Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida to tip the electoral vote to Trump. The Trump campaign also took Pennsylvania and North Carolina, traditional Democratic strongholds, with this out-sized rural, Republican vote. Hilary Rodham Clinton took the popular vote by close to 3,000,000 votes, but the demographic distribution nationally of Democratic voters could not stanch the losses in swing and contested states, losing the electoral vote to Donald Trump and thus the presidency. Given the reliability of our political polling institutions and their social scientific methodologies for forecasting both the popular and electoral vote, the Clinton campaign led by 6% to 11% in the most well-respected polls into late October 2016, until the FBI claimed it had additional Clinton emails one week before the election, and then called the investigation off shortly thereafter. This kept Democratic voters away from the polls due to the perception of a Democratic Party win, fanned polarizing intra-party rhetoric of corruption by the elusive “Democratic Party Establishment,” and revealed the susceptibility of Democratic voters to intentional foreign-directed misinformation against the Clinton campaign through the phenomenon of mass persuasion.[xv]

In the end, the Democrats lost the election due to multiple factors that had less to do with the strategies and message of the Clinton campaign or the DNC, and more to do with the realpolitik actions of the FBI and its director James Comey, the massive proliferation of non-credible news organizations and individual “fake news” trolls, the untruthful claims against Clinton from the Trump campaign, and Russian interference in the presidential election in the form of a campaign of propaganda and misinformation. The Democratic Party’s core platform of a suburban and big labor strategy around social mobility rather than economic security could not cut through the multiple factors to mobilize the party faithful effectively to the polls on election day in key swing states and Democratic strongholds. With the encouraging mass mobilizations of Democratic voters in the past week, now is the time for a realignment of party strategy against a wholly new political animal and fascist shadow party that controls the White House.

[i] Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (MIT Press, 1987), 340-373; Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman, Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator (Harper Brothers, 1949); Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Robert Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd edition (WW Norton, 1978), 594-617; John Homer Schaar, Legitimacy in the Modern State (Transaction Books, 1981), 9.

[ii] The New Deal initiated the Democratic Party’s embrace of the international financialization of the US economy, leading to its post-WW2 hegemony of international monetary policy and global trade. See Thomas Ferguson, “Industrial Conflict and the Coming of the New Deal: The Triumph of Multinational Liberalism in America,” in Gary Gerstle and Steve Fraser, ed., The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980 (Princeton University Press, 1989), 3-31; Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class (Verso, 1986), 231-313; Mike Davis, “What’s Wrong With America?,” in In Praise of Barbarians: Essays Against Empire (Haymarket Books, 2007), 42-60

[iii] Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream, 256-261; Tony Judt, Ill Fare the Land, (Penguin, 2010), 14-21; Angela Monaghan, “US Wealth Inequality – Top 0.1% Worth as much as the Bottom 90%,” The Guardian UK, 13 November 2014..

[iv] Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Retreat from Autonomy: Postmodernism as Generalized Conformism,” in David Ames Curtis, ed., World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination (Stanford University Press, 1997), 36-38; Oxfam International, An Economy for the 99% (January 2017); Agnes Heller and Ferenc Feher, The Postmodern Political Condition (Columbia University Press, 1988), 136-137. Heller and Feher note that modern cultural movements are embedded within three modes of generational political praxis, existentialist, alienation, and postmodern in the post World War Two era, giving rise to a weak sense of political identity and praxis in liberal-democratic systems.

[v] Heather Gerken, “The Real Problem with Citizens United: Campaign Finance, Dark Money, and Shadow Parties,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 159.1 (March 2015): 5-16.

[vi] See Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History, revised edition (Cornell University Press, 1998); Michael Kazin and Joseph McCartin, ed., Americanism: New Perspectives on the History of an Ideal (University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

[vii] Lowenthal and Guterman, Prophets of Deceit; For an earlier period of anti-Communist demagoguery that shows continuity with the 1930s, see Ellen Schrekcer, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Princeton University Press, 1998), 42-153; David Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower (Simon & Schuster, 1978), 41-110)

[viii] Bannon’s ridiculous remarks about Lenin and Leninism show his ignorance of Russian and Soviet history. See Stephen Cohen, Buhkarin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938 (Oxford University Press, 1980); see also the highly-biased biography of Lenin by Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Lenin (Simon & Schuster, 1964). Lenin’s NEP and Buhkarin’s basic continuation of NEP through the “market road to socialism” expanded rather than destroyed the State. Payne notes the rapid expansion of the Soviet bureaucracy through centralized planning and state industry working within the private sector; see also Tamas Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography (Monthly Review Press, 2015).

[ix] Ken Stern, “Stephen Bannon: Trump’s New CEO, Hints at Master Plan,” Vanity Fair, 17 August 2016; Ronald Radosh, “Steve Bannon, Trump’s Top Guy, Told Me He Was ‘A Leninist’ Who “Wants to Destroy the State,’” The Daily Beast, 22 August 2016; Michael Grynbaum, “Trump Strategist Stephen Bannon Says Media ‘Should Shut its Mouth,’” New York Times, 26 January 2017.

[x] Perry Anderson, “American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers,” New Left Review 83 (Sept/Oct 2013).

[xi] In particular with Russia, Bannon and Trump are enamored of their nationalist “Eurasianism.” See Marina Mogilner, Homo Imperii: A History of Physical Anthropology in Russia (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 185-296; Anton Weiss-Wendt and Rory Yeomans, ed., Racial Science in Hitler’s New Europe, 1938-1945  (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 1-34.

[xii] Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller, “US Counterintelligence Officials are Examining Possible Ties between Russia and Trump Associates,” Washington Post, 19 January 2017; Abigail Tracy, “The Trump Presidency Begins Under the Pall of Russian Intrigues,” Vanity Fair, 20 January 2017; Jordain Carney, “Senate Committee Moving Forward with Russian Hacking Probe,” The Hill, 24 January 2017; Gareth Davies, “Ex-KGB Chief Who Helped Compile Trump Dossier is Found Dead in Car, Daily Mail UK, 28 January 2017.

[xiii] The Office of the Director of Intelligence, Background to ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections’: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution, 6 January 2017; Orbis Business Intelligence, 35 page intelligence dossier, at

[xiv] Gerken, “The Real Problem with Citizens United; Heather Gerken, “Slipping the Bonds of Federalism,” Harvard Law Review 128, no. 85, 85-123; “2016 Democratic Party Platform,” 21 July 2016, The American Presidency Project, University of California, Santa Barbara, available in PDF online.

[xv] John Huang, Samuel Jacoby, Michael Strickland, and K.K. Rebecca Lai, “Election 2016: Exit Polls,” New York Times, 8 November 2016; Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Grogerus, “The Data That Turned the World Upside Down,” Motherboard/Vice Magazine, 28 January 2017.

Ghosts of the San Diego Rialto



This was first published in Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew, ed., Sunshine/Noir: Writing from San Diego and Tijuana (San Diego City Works Press, 2005). Other contributors were Mike Davis, Roberta Alexander, Marilyn Chin, and Mark Dery.

Downtown San Diego today has become the faux historical stage set for the city’s nouveau-riche and young members of Idiot Nation. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, crowds of college students, underage revelers, urbane wannabes and White suburban gangsters cruise the streets of lower Broadway. They make their way west of 7th Street down south into the Gaslamp Quarter, the city’s answer to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. Do not get me wrong, the crowds that frequent San Diego’s downtown share enthusiasm for an exciting evening on the town after a week committed entirely to work. However, one has to wonder if all the slickness, bright lights, and consumer dreariness of the bars and clubs will wear off one day. Unlike the street-level gravity that absorbs tourists who view the historic structures of New Orleans once they leave Bourbon Street, the Broadway Street and Gaslamp Quarter historic districts serve as mere decoration for the distraction offered by chain retailers, gawdy bistros, frat bars and sorority sister clubs, and MTV-like street life. For locals and tourists alike, there is simply little of historic interest beyond the consumer pageant that is now downtown San Diego.

With a mood reminiscent of a perpetual spring break, the new San Diego signals the revitalization of downtown after 50 years of unlimited suburban land development. With the completion of Petco Park, John Moore’s $453.4 million extortion scheme to deliver a spanking, new downtown baseball stadium to his Padres, hefty returns roll-in as the dreams of former mayor Pete Wilson and San Diego’s downtown, old money are realized. The coffers of the bars and clubs, restaurants, real estate developers, and city tax-base flourish as well. With the backdrop of history only 80 to 100 years old, Broadway and the Gaslamp district are commuter fun zones for the newly entitled: relatively empty and business-like during the day; choked full at happy hour and beyond to last call.

Will it last? Perhaps, but maybe the restaurant and entertainment zones of Hillcrest, Middletown, North Park, or Mission Hills will lure the revelers away. With more attention to history that is actually local, these areas will seal the fate of Broadway and the Gaslamp district in the near future. Downtown San Diego’s revitalization differs little from other efforts across the country: it is the site for global consumer and real estate capitalism. Over the years that I lived in San Diego (1976-1999), I’ve seen the center city transformed from a ghost town for homeless Vietnam veterans, the mentally-ill (50% of vets), and the working poor to a shining exemplar of urban gentrification. The old “sailor town” I knew as a teenager lives only in memory. Downtown had its theaters, libraries, art galleries, and symphony hall that shared an urban environment rife with funky street life, SRO hotels, check-cashing places, modest department stores, go-go bars, book stores, cafeterias, liquor stores, massage parlors, and porn movie houses. San Diego used to be a real city. The heart of this glorious San Diego Rialto used to be Horton Plaza until the suburban-type mall at that site was completed in 1987, defended and turned inward from the fabric of the city. In only twenty years, downtown has become an “upscale” leisure zone of luxury apartment blocks with little housing for the working poor.

San Diego joins other cities in urban gentrification to erase the diverse social networks of urban living, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Albuquerque, San Antonio, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Gentrification is the velvet glove of class warfare. Public policy formulated to redeem downtown San Diego has not been able to integrate the older constituents who depend upon center city with new economic and cultural enterprises. Should not this redevelopment benefit the broader public that calls downtown its home, since municipal bonds, public tax subsidies, and public policy shapes the new urban environment? With development in eastern San Diego County at capacity, downtown real estate becomes valuable once again. With real estate interests historically serving as the private government of the city, the public interest has been subsumed to private profit.

The diverse social networks of downtown San Diego are the casualty of progress, like every major American metropolis today. Through the efforts of the Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), charged with public/private urban redevelopment since 1975, much of sailor town and its citizens have been cleansed through the exerted pressure of the private sector. By the 1980s and 1990s, the variety of businesses and people who had fully sustained downtown San Diego since 1900 were defined as “criminal” and a “nuisance” during the latest land grab. Similar to so many other American cities, the homeless, the working poor, and the Rialto economy held downtown San Diego “hostage.” It is without question that this older sailor town economy had at least anchored the tax-base of center city during its most trying times from the 1950s to the 1980s. All American cities depended upon the economy of the marginal during this era as federal housing policies pushed new development to cheaper suburban lands after WW2. However, San Diego’s new cheerleaders of progress, with their pet city councils, will never acknowledge the favor. Once the critical lifeblood of a vital, although poor, downtown, the current urban renaissance has been built upon the ashes of SRO hotels, homeless shelters, and working class economic and entertainment institutions. Perhaps it is built upon more. Recent investigations show that the city’s pension fund suffers a $1.15 billion deficit with possible accounting fraud. The city manager and council are under SEC and grand jury investigation. As of this writing, no city official can explain where all the money went. Of course, we can guess by all the recent downtown development. If historic preservation has been the organizing principle for downtown revitalization, private interests have piggy-backed on the city’s history to great profit to erase the vital social networks of San Diego.

Until the late twentieth century, the history of San Diego town development always catered to a variety of social classes, and people of vastly different cultural heritage and racial ancestry. Indeed, one might say that the founding of San Diego in 1769, like Los Angeles to the north, was christened with the mixed racial origins that are the hallmark of cultural fusion in the southwestern borderlands. San Diego has never had the equivalent of Carey McWilliams to document it diverse origins. But Harry Crosby reveals that the Serra Expedition of 1769 brought españoles, mestizos, color quebrados, mulatos, and indios to the frontier of northern New Spain to settle Alta California.* In the first fifty-two years of the new settlement, the mission, presidio, and pueblo community emerged as a racially-mixed society engaged in agriculture, cattle raising, and illicit trade with British, American, and French merchant vessels. During the Mexican era after 1822, Old Town San Diego became the center of commerce, politics, and trade, but remained a territorial outpost of southern North America. As the pueblo attended to its daily activities around the plaza, there were Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos engaged in a profitable hide and tallow trade with New England merchants. Richard Henry Dana and other Euro-American travelers in the early nineteenth century noted significant populations of Hawaiians (known as Kanakas), desiccated Anglo adventurers, and Christian and gentile Indians who worked on the ranches, ships, and wharfs engaged in trans-Pacific and Atlantic trade. With powerful creole sons and their wards closely bound together, town development relied, historically, on social networks of great diversity.

After the Mexican-American War, William Heath Davis, a hide and tallow merchant, and rancher Miguel Pedrorena developed a “new town” San Diego several miles south of the pueblo on San Diego Bay, believing the town would be a terminus for Southern cotton shipping. It failed with the Lost Cause. In 1867, Alonzo Horton, a wealthy San Francisco furniture merchant, bought Davis’ failed town site and the coastal plain south of Old Town, known as Horton’s Addition. He built a pier and warehouses that lined Fifth Street south to the bay and a luxury hotel at Third and D Streets (renamed Broadway in 1910). Again, San Diegans were promised a direct railroad link from the East, but the spasmodic economy of the post-bellum period halted these plans, it seemed, indefinitely. The boom of the 1880s rekindled hope for a railroad and civic greatness, but the land boom turned to bust with spurious fortunes lost. Nonetheless, New Town resembled the frontier outpost of westward expansion. It was a get-rich-quick environment. Chinese fishermen had left railroad work and the mines of the Sierra to dominate the local fishing industry and settled in an area known as “Stingaree Town,” the city vice district.

On the southwest corner of Fifth and K Streets stood the First and Last Chance Saloon, the starting point of the Stingaree district which extended westward to First Street and northward from K Street to Market. This lively area was filled with middle class fortune seekers and courthouse politicians, but also husksters and confidence men, painted ladies, retired gunfighters, scallywags and wharf ruffians, saloon kings and queens, and an ever-ready vigilante squad of rural Whites available to San Diego’s leading citizens. They caroused saloons and gambling parlors like the Railroad Coffeehouse and Wyatt Earp’s three gaming joints. The population dropped from a high of 40,000 to 16,000 people by 1890. Portuguese fishermen had arrived in Loma Portal and southern blacks found their way to the Stingaree’s outer reaches at Imperial Avenue in search of freedom. At the turn-of-the-twentieth century, San Diego maintained first-rate establishments, commercial districts, and buildings grouped around the area of Fifth and G Streets, but working class neighborhoods ringed the downtown with an economy of labor power, entertainment, and vice.

The first two decades of the twentieth century saw significant growth in San Diego County, with the downtown moving northward to the intersection of Fifth and Broadway Streets. San Diego held 39,578 people by 1910. The central business district became somewhat respectable with George Marston’s department store, real estate offices, particularly that of Ed Fletcher, and the completion of the luxurious U.S. Grant Hotel in 1910 on Horton Plaza. The Civic Improvement Committee, led by George Marston, hired urban planner John Nolen in 1907 to redesign commercial San Diego into an exemplar of Spanish colonial beauty. With Progressivism flourishing locally, city leaders announced in 1909 their intent to hold the Panama Exposition within Balboa Park. However, the Stingaree district had grown considerably. With business growth and anticipation of the world’s fair, the district attracted ever more numbers of the merchant marine, prostitutes, bunco men, hopheads, and the city demimonde to its vibrant establishments. The Stingaree sported parlors, opium dens, and saloons such as the Old Tub of Blood, Seven Buckets of Blood, the Green Light, the Bullpen, Yankee Doodle Hall, Pacific Squadron Hall, the Legal Tender Saloon, the Turf, and the high-class parlor house run by Mamie Goldstein. The wharf area at Fifth Street was a hangout for San Diego’s guano pirates, a rough lot who worked Baja’s islands on fertilizer ships often owned by esteemed San Diegans.

The Stingaree contained a majority of the radical movement in San Diego that led the infamous Free Speech Fight from 1909-1914, such as Wobblies, anarchists, socialists, and Marxists. The notorious soapbox orations of the local radical movement were located at Fifth and E Streets at Heller’s Corner. The Mexican Revolution spread to the border in January of 1911 when Ricardo Flores Magón and the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM), captured the border town of Mexicali, then took Tijuana. This alarming event created local anxiety until 1917, and led the San Diego City Council to ban street speaking in 49 square-blocks of downtown to silence radicalism. A local vigilance committee composed of leading citizens and their henchmen formed to battle labor militants in the Stingaree. They intimidated local social progressives and labor leaders with terroristic threats and physical harm.

The situation appeared threatening enough from 1914 to 1916 that William Tompkins, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, asked Governor Hiram Johnson to mobilize the state militia, explaining that “here we are convinced that the situation is grave enough and respectfully urge that you take immediate and favorable action for our protection.” Edward Stahle, the new chamber secretary, pleaded with Johnson to protect lives and property in 1916 because of “the imperative necessity of guarding the Mexican border line from ocean to Imperial Valley – Mexicans becoming restless [and] are congregating and growing arrogant.” With an unlikely revolution at hand, the city council empowered Walter Bellon, the city health inspector, to raze the heart of the Stingaree through building and health surveys. To redeem the image of San Diego before millions of tourists traveled to the exposition, the City Health Department demolished 120 buildings and condemned 500 rooms in the Stingaree. Many lucrative and tax-generating businesses, though morally suspect, were forever destroyed. It did not stop working-class entertainments, prostitution, or vice, but merely moved it all “uptown,” or closer to the business district at Fifth and Broadway. Through fervent reform, San Diego Progressives laid the historical foundations for the city’s diverse social networks located along Broadway Street down south to the Gaslamp Quarter.

During the 1920s, San Diego grew significantly as a younger bumper crop of entrepreneurs and Midwestern retirees sought to live the Golden State lifestyle of health and repose. San Diego led the way in 1919 when the All-Year-Club of San Diego, founded by Oscar Cotton, sang the city’s song. And Broadway Street became the premier boulevard of the nouveau-riche. The new men of wealth, however, ceded the city to the Navy Department, remaking downtown San Diego into “sailor town.” But the money generated from the naval infrastructure brought John Nolen back to San Diego in 1925 to plan for downtown and general civic beautification. Writing from Nice, France in October of 1926, Nolen told Marston how southern France reminded him “again and again of Southern California, especially San Diego. That region is full of suggestion for the development of the waterfront, parks, boulevards, play space, public buildings.” From 1925 to 1937, Mayor John L. Bacon, the city council, and the park commission re-instituted piecemeal the 1908 Nolen Plan like the waterfront civic center, preservation of Presidio Hills Park, and a general plan to modernize Balboa Park. With prohibition keeping sailor town at bay until 1933, downtown remained in the hands of the nouveau-riche, with speakeasies, vaudeville theaters, and dance halls barely besmirched the area. But the inter-war years brought significant numbers of Italian and Mexican-Americans to San Diego to work in the local canning and fishing industries, and downtown catered to their daily needs.

Visiting chroniclers, however, painted San Diego as the backwater of the United States, where civilization dropped off the continent. Edmund Wilson, the besotted tastemaker of modern letters, brought his acerbic pen to bear on San Diego in 1932. West Coast cities lacked the emotions and moods necessary for great American cities. For Wilson, San Diego became “The Jumping-Off Place,” the literal dead-end of the American Dream. Walking the streets of downtown San Diego, he believed the city suffered from a cheap re-creation of high culture with its little business blocks, one-star hotels, and real estate offices. Wilson lamented the city had no cultural core, only enervated, status-conscious club women among dying retirees and pulmonary disease patients. With great glee, Wilson dubbed San Diego the “suicide capital” of the United States, where the little men and women “stuff up the cracks of their doors and quietly turn on the gas – drive their cars into dark alleys, get in the back seat and shoot themselves” among other ghastly deeds. Under their sunny dispositions, San Diegans were a morose lot. “Here our people, so long told to ‘go West’ to escape from ill-health and poverty, maladjustment and industrial oppression,” Wilson noted with sarcasm, “are discovering that, having gone West, their problems and diseases remain and that the ocean bars further flight.” Vividly painting the San Diego cultural landscape as pathological, Wilson believed San Diegans had “come to the end of their resources in the empty California sun.”

It was remarkable that a provisional bourgeois radical like Wilson missed the labor turmoil racking San Diego, especially from the local Communist Party, Trade Union Unity League, Unemployment Council, and Cannery Worker’s Union (UCAPAWA). After prohibition, downtown transformed into a hardcore sailor town. The WPA City Guide for San Diego noted that south of Broadway Street was “one of the play areas of the navy enlisted man,” a Trocadero of “hash houses and honky tonks, drinking parlors with jazz bands and tiny dance floors, trinket shops, shooting galleries, and the ever-present pawnshop.” These working class businesses revived the Stingaree district of the 1910s “to make ‘south of Broadway’ a distinct area.” With the coming of World War Two, the honky-tonk of downtown San Diego defined a city turned upside down by Southern Plains migration.

Wartime San Diego grew from 203,341 to 362,658 people from 1940 to 1944. The population explosion of war production created a pressure-cooker social environment in the city. Jim Thompson’s Now and On Earth, a wartime novel of socialist realism, captures the bleak landscape of downtown San Diego under racial violence, anti-communism, wartime housing shortages, and social dislocation. Now And On Earth is a story about a failed “hack writer” and aircraft industry clerk caught in a web of graft whose radical past puts him in double jeopardy. In the summer of 1940, Thompson and his family traveled from Pampa, Texas to San Diego in the Oklahoma Communist Party automobile, a gigantic four-door Plymouth donated by Woody Guthrie. Recently fired as director of the Oklahoma Federal Writer’s Project for his communist politics, he took a job at Ryan Aeronautical scrapping paint off the floor and moved to inventory clerk. He later worked as a timekeeper for Solar Aircraft. The Thompson’s lived in a small Spanish mission duplex in Middletown at 2130 2nd Avenue, a hilly neighborhood wedged between downtown San Diego and Balboa Park. It also had commanding views of San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Despite the natural beauty of the city, San Diego’s diversity and cultural fusion fascinated Thompson under the stress of wartime competition and scarcity.

Often prone to periodic drinking binges in the San Diego Rialto, Thompson described the alienation and the broken dreams of war workers found in places like Eddie’s Bar, the Bomber Café at 849 Broadway, and other downtown jazz clubs, dance halls, and juke joints. With the city filled with sailors at all hours, downtown was a 24/7 environment of cafes, restaurants, and entertainments. Many of the dance halls were fronts for prostitutes and drug dealers, who made their living from the meager wages of young servicemen. For Thompson, the difference between work in the war industry and the leisure found downtown had eroded, offering only new forms of degradation and exploitation. Portuguese and ethnic Mexicans stand as the only redeemable characters in the novel, generous and non-materialistic to a fault. In the end, Now And On Earth opposed the orthodoxies of Marxism to argue that ordinary people deserved social democracy in their own lifetime due to the human indignities caused by a country at war.

Downtown San Diego flourished as an economy for the marginal from 1945 to the 1980s, filled with locker clubs, burlesque theaters, beer bars, cocktail lounges, tattoo parlors, old men’s rooming houses, and pornography shops. The business district at Fifth and Broadway still existed, but shared downtown with the poor, addicted, and unemployed. After WW2, downtown’s underemployed Pacific veterans were often some of the first cases of methamphetamine addiction in the United States. Locker clubs, where enlisted men could change from uniforms to street clothes, could be found on West Broadway, like The Seven Seas, the Four-O, Salty’s, and the Harbor. With an array of entertainments, the locker clubs also took mail for sailors, cashed checks, and offered some social grounding when men came into port. With unlimited suburban land development, some of San Diego’s important businesses moved uptown. West Broadway went into economic decline when the Navy stopped docking ships at the Broadway pier in 1969. The area attracted low-income amusements, like the Green Goddess, Show Place Nudity Dance Hall, and a plethora of massage parlors for the enlisted man.

Working class and marginal institutions symbolized the economic decline of downtown by the 1970s as Vietnam War demobilization shocked the local economy. For mentally-ill or displaced veterans, the Rialto economy and SRO hotels offered a sense of community during an era of political skepticism and high unemployment. Neil Morgan, San Diego’s epic chronicler of social life, called the area “Back of Broadway.” With sensitive eyes, he believed that this Rialto economy, though not upscale nor respectable to some, had a rich history that connected San Diego’s past and present. He described SRO hotels like the Golden West, the Aztec Theater, downtown’s most popular burlesque club known as Bob Johnston’s Palace Buffet, and the cafeterias and other institutions that downtowners called home. Like the days of the Stingaree, these were important cash and tax-generating businesses for the city during times of municipal budget cuts. When downtown redevelopment began in 1981, the city condemned two businesses at 1111 East Broadway. They had anchored the boulevard since 1944: Bob Johnston’s The Sports Palace and the Hollywood Burlesque House. Now it is gone to clean-up Broadway for the Horton Plaza retail mall, with parking garages facing the fabric of the city.

Whenever I walk up and down Broadway Street today, from the ferry landing to Highway 5, much has changed from the sailor town of my childhood. During the 1980s and 1990s, high-rise construction reoriented Broadway Street towards business use once again. At the corner of Broadway and Kettner Streets sits the enormous Helmut Jahn building with a downtown trolley hub, right across the street from the Amtrack Station. Back in high school, the spot was a popular skateboarding spot because of the slick, marble sidewalk that lay in front of the beer and go-go bars there. It was also a part of West Broadway that maintained social networks of great diversity; you could sit there on a weekend night and see the spectrum of humanity come and go throughout the evening, rich, poor, and in-between. One of the first times I ever learned about the Vietnam War, from a veteran no less, was on that corner. The neighborhood around West Broadway was a literal camping ground for homeless veterans during the 1980s, after the Jarvis/Reagan revolution cut veterans benefits and sent many onto America’s streets. Now you see commuters coming and going, wealthy professionals from downtown condominiums  walking their dogs, fauxhemians crawling through the nighttime. Although downtown redevelopment has been a financial success, the old was thrown out with the new. There are very few establishments left downtown for a younger person like myself to connect the city’s past and present. Some come to mind, like the Chinese Historical Society at Third and J Streets and many historical structures on the National Historic Register like the Horton Grand Hotel. But downtown’s history is buried under the current consumer spectacle, barely noticeable. With little of historical interest to view anymore, I’ll head into Wahrenbach’s Books at Eight and Broadway, get something to read, and head down to the Hong Kong, an old beer bar. Mona, the Korean manager of the bar, greets me with “nice to see you again.” An old timer will strike-up a conversation with the words, “Let me tell you what is was like in the old days.” With few to tell their story, I put my book down and open my ears to this living history.



Harry Crosby, Gateway to Alta California: The Expeditions to San Diego, 1769, (San Diego: Sunbelt Publications, 2003).

Hiram Johnson Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California-Berkeley, California.

Elizabeth MacPhail, “When the Red Lights Went Out in San Diego: The Little Known Story of San Diego’s ‘Restricted’ District,” Journal of San Diego History, 20, no 2 (Spring 1974).

George Marston Papers, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives, California.

Neil Morgan, San Diego: The Unconventional City, (San Diego: Morgan House, 1972).

San Diego: A California City, (San Diego: San Diego Historical Society, 1937).

Abraham Shragge, “Boosters and Bluejackets: The Civic Culture of Militarism in San Diego, California, 1900-1945,” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, San Diego, 1998).

Jim Thompson, Now and On Earth, (1946; reprint, New York: Vintage, 1994).

Edmund Wilson, The American Earthquake: A Chronicle of the Roaring Twneties, the Great Depression, and the Dawn of the New Deal, (1958; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1996).

     * This caste/race system noted Españoles were “pure-blooded Spanish”; mestizos were Indian and Spanish; color quebrados were “broken color,” Spanish-Indian with dark skin; mulatos were Indian and Spanish, with a trace of African ancestry; and indios were “pure-blooded Indians.”

Brad Hayes, But I Did (2010)


Welcome to my new weblog! I plan on writing about some subjects I have been working on for some time, and also to feature some talks I have given over the last eight years. I hope you will enjoy my contributions and I will begin with my favorite piece of writing about my friend Brad Hayes’ art book, But I Did (2010).

 Brad Hayes: Master of the Mechanic Arts

            You are about to open a very special kind of book when reading Brad Hayes’ But I Did. Hayes and his artistic creations are as old as the days when farmers, mechanics, and other working class craft people (yes, women were quite as able as their husbands in the field and especially in the arts of quilting and weaving) were valued for their specific and somewhat esoteric knowledge about the physical world. Working class people were highly valued members of their society because of their superior skill and knowledge in important avocations like the building arts, the making of hand-crafted goods, or their intuition about the mystical cycles of the seasons that would bring food to the tables of fellow citizens. Since the 1850s, the knowledge gained from doing things has been transferred from the mechanic to the manager, but the self-expression of the craft person still persists today as a way to wed craft knowledge and social labor as the artist embraces the world outside so that they would share it with others. We see expressions of the mechanic arts all around us in customized cars and motorcycles, Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles, and the thousands of self-contracted, home improvements that have transformed mass-produced houses into workingman’s paradises. The message is clear: Do it on your own terms and make it your own.

In the same way, Brad Hayes’ work and life is a reflection of this tradition in the mechanic arts filtered through four hundred or so years of working class traditions, particularly the Philadelphia Mechanics that animated the politics, economy, and craft production of that city in the 1800s. But Brad’s vision has been distilled pure through the underground, or punk rock, music scene and the skateboarding subculture that is very much still intact and flourishing in the face of commercialization. An avid skateboarder, master concrete finisher and ramp/skate park hand, and punk rock aficionado who plays the drums, Brad’s vision of artistic creation is non-elitist and democratic. He moves forward to create art rather than being limited by professional art schooling, by doing rather than studying. His creations in But I Did follow a long line of artists that bucked conventional and commercialized trappings like Jello Biafra and Ian MacKaye in the music scene; Craig Stecyk, Mark Gonzales, and Ed Templeton in the skateboard underground; and the lineage in modern art that runs from New York’s Ashcan School, to 1960s Pop Art, and also recent work in postmodern art that finds personal meaning in the common objects of everyday life. Hayes is a true organic intellectual in the best tradition of the word: well-read, always learning new things, and expressing his new knowledge in the world through his DIY ethic. His work captures the northern Oklahoma region where he was born, but intuitively evokes the color and form of the Dutch artistic movement known as De Stijl during the 1920s. Brad’s work also has links to the Russian Constructivists who embraced the mechanic arts in the early years of the Russian Revolution, infamously captured by architect Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third Communist International that is one of the great tributes to worker knowledge. Brad Hayes wants to inspire others to have art in their lives by just doing it, to make it a feature of everyday life. Rather than being held on a pedestal, art is common and within everyone’s reach according to Hayes. With his non-conformist attitude, Brad Hayes is like a modern day William Morris with a skateboard and cement trowel. And now Hayes wants you to get to work doing some creative stuff, so go do it!

Matt Bokovoy

Lincoln, NE

March 24, 2010