The Ghosts of Progress

Parasite Parallels Life in Silicon Valley’s Self Proclaimed Capital: San José

Editor's Note:

A reflection on the similarities that life in San José has to the award winning film Parasite set in South Korea. The writer declares, "we have more in common with poor Koreans than we ever will with the powers that marginalize us both here and there."

If you haven’t watched the winner of Best Picture at the recent Academy Awards, Parasite, or read the analysis of the film by former Bay Area resident Ju-Hyun Park, do both. Bong Joon-Ho’s film is a masterwork that harkens to the ongoing state of war and occupation on the Korean Peninsula, US imperialism and colonialism. Park’s brilliant analysis helped me pull together loose threads and opened my eyes to new ideas altogether, and provided the inspiration to put these thoughts down.

Last year at the Lumiere Festival of Lights in Lyon, France the director offered his interpretation of the film’s appeal: “When I made Parasite, it was like trying to witness our world through a microscope. The film talks about two opposing families, about the rich versus the poor, and that is a universal theme, because we all live in the same country now: that of capitalism.”

Parasite Parallels Life in San José 

Watching Parasite, the parallels to life in San José and Silicon Valley are obvious. Inequality, gig work and – as I write this looking up at new luxury housing construction on Communications Hill – the clear demarcation of privilege is more distant and alienating with every passing day. The rich family in the film lives in a fortress-like home with high walls and sharp features, as if designed for the prevailing state of war between the social classes. It is a bland, modern, militarized structure much like the homes rising up all over gentrifying neighborhoods in the Bay Area. The western-looking palace embodies the very violence that maintains some in comfort, while standing on a forgotten bunker – a symbol of a buried unresolved conflict (a la North Korea). Looking past the opulence reveals the hidden cost demanded by it, much like studies that reveal the struggles families face after being displaced from their communities. This is the erased bunker of devastation our Tech Economy is built on.

The growing number of us being priced out of our homes and communities are turned into ghosts, either invisibilized by means of displacement and deleted from the history books of our homes, or condemned to haunt the conscience of privilege with homelessness and poverty. Is it any wonder then that the ghosts of progress – those who are driven into houselessness, unemployment or driven out of town altogether - are demonized and criminalized so mercilessly? The endless harassment and sweeps the unhoused are subjected to, the small businesses strangled out of existence, the worker who commutes from Los Baños and is blamed for congesting roads and polluting the air – all of them are treated like pests requiring extermination. Aiding these processes is the carceral infrastructure, which grows parallel to inequality and greater centralization of power and resources. More cops to deal with turmoil, more jails to hide it. Who wants to look back at the trail they’ve blazed to find devastation? It is easier to forget and with every encampment dismantled & eviction from San José, the Tech Industry, capitalism and their long list of allies & dependents are exorcising demons of their own creation.

Just as noticeable in Parasite is the violence inflicted by the poor characters against other impoverished people to uphold the lie of peace on behalf of society’s “winners.” It brings to mind images of brown Border Patrol agents taking part in the terrorization and imprisonment of people who look like them. Makes me remember the black & brown crews hired to clean up encampments or remove belongings from foreclosed homes. I also remember the 2014 SFPD slaying of Alex Nieto. An execution carried out because white newcomers to Bernal Heights felt threatened in proximity to a life so alien to them despite Alex being in the neighborhood he had spent all his life in. The scenes in Parasite of characters deemed worthless by the needs of the colonial capitalist economy, at odds with each other also took me back to interactions with people on the opposite side of the argument of whether or not Google should be able to build a campus in San José.

World Powers

The Google project enjoys support from the usual suspects: real estate, developers, landlords, business associations and City Council – however, at ground level there are divergent views on the matter. Working class and POC community support is almost always rooted in what Ju-Hyun Park identifies as “the neoliberal ethos of hard work and constant striving” such as job programs or school pipelines to the tech industry. Such proposals raise questions about who gets in and who gets left behind, and also who decides. The ensuing competition for these coveted but limited opportunities only reifies our position as players in what amounts to a lottery, and reproduces the inequality and merit-based social structures that strangle us in the first place. Even the best-intentioned campaigns for community benefits from a private development project represent a buy-in to the notion that some of us are expendable. In San José, this has played out openly in the benefits process for the Google project; labor groups and non-profits are positioning themselves as the whole community, excluding hundreds of thousands with no relationship to them and attempting to negotiate benefits they will never see. Community benefits agreements are inherently exclusionary and therefore antagonistic to the equity and dignity they claim to seek.

In Parasite the social status of characters is informed by their proximity to what I interpret as the title character: The United States of America. English is wielded to venerate and is weaponized throughout, underscoring the conditions of colonization that structure Korean society. Once again Bong’s notions of capitalist universality ring true in that here in Silicon Valley we have world powers – because that is what the biggest tech corporations are – that fundamentally set the terms of power in our communities and cities. Those who work in tech are catered to and preferred for their purchasing power and the perceived boost provided to the tax base, while workers employed in other sectors, if at all, navigate an increasingly hostile terrain of inflated rents, depleted social services, militarized police and complicit municipal leadership. At a global scale the picture is even clearer. Back in 2017 studies revealed that of the top 100 largest economies 78 were corporations and only 22 were countries. Statistics like this make it harder to believe in the great democracy we supposedly live in.

Google’s Colonization

Google’s dealings in San José have already demonstrated this power imbalance via the authoritarian manner in which the proposed downtown campus has been presented to communities, with city officials centering discourse on project details instead of examining whether to run with it at all, robbing people of agency to determine outcomes in their own communities. The result is a general sentiment of inevitability that has been fomented deliberately; a resignation that makes us spectators in our own lives. Colonization of physical space is complemented by the institutionalized paralysis of the mind to the degree that we are unable to collectively imagine our lives without a Google to give us work to pay our rent, much less an alternative to the parasitic for-profit housing industry. Hoping to negotiate the best deal from a position of zero advantages legitimizes a process that from the start has been characterized by the subjugation of anything not aligned with the narrative of the necessity of Google. But the reality is there is no happy ending for the thousands of rent-burdened families, students and non-tech workers with Google, only a reenactment of the violence of capitalism and colonialism. What good are the urban decorations that will adorn Google’s shiny new campus, when the constant attack on already weak renters’ protections all but guarantee we won’t be here to enjoy them? Why must investment in our communities be preempted and conditioned by a campus for a multinational corporation, and contingent upon our willingness to participate in the invalidation of our needs and ideas?

The need to break free of these paradigms calls out to us all.

 We must dream bigger. That is the challenge I walked away with from Bong Joon-Ho and Parasite co-writer Han Jin-Won. Liberation will not be achieved by warring on each other, nor would the tech powers ever allow enough of us to join the ranks of the chosen to threaten their hegemony. Capitalism has a fundamental requirement for misery that is placed squarely on the backs of the masses. To borrow from the legendary Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano “It is a big load of rottenness that has to be sent to the bottom of the sea… the task lies in the hands of the dispossessed, the humiliated, the accursed.” Grassroots initiatives like the South Bay Community Land Trust are examples of the autonomous organizing that is already taking place in San José and represent alternatives to the corporate-wedded scheming that reigns supreme. Too many times to count I’ve watched so-called community leaders and elected officials disregard proposals from the grassroots as unrealistic or utopian, when in fact believing in reform of the capitalist and neoliberal projects that have created the inequality and environmental destruction threatening our very survival is the true fantasy. Perpetual corporate expansion on a finite planet is a recipe for disaster, and we are on the precipice.

The path to a reconstruction starts in our collective awareness that we are neither expendable nor incapable of directly organizing our communities. Nothing is more necessary right now. Like so many others in San José I am battling for the realization of another world. One that recognizes the only true progress begins with stewardship by the original peoples of these lands, and prioritizes the well-being of all living things and lands over the extraction of profit from them. I joined Serve the People San José to oppose the Diridon Google Project because it is the Trojan horse from which a heightened war will be waged on us.

My participation in this struggle has put me in situations I never anticipated, but also revealed the vulnerability of the existing order. These projects, much like everything else in capitalist democracy, derive legitimacy from alienation. They are sanitized in the top floors of city halls in private meetings and then narrated publicly in the language of elitism and exclusion. Designs that discourage scrutiny and reinforce the logic that we should leave it to the qualified, all of it an illusion. The magician that cannot control every aspect of the interaction with the audience has no magic. The recent achievements of Moms4housing remind us that when we don’t comply the machine has no choice but to react and cut its losses. It will do what it can to undercut the proliferation of more rebellions, but it can never eliminate them.

Long ago corporations figured out how to be everywhere and nowhere, so they could profit everywhere and be accountable nowhere. To fight them we too must make our struggles global. Politics try to divide the world up into “us” – the nation or city - and everyone else, so one of my favorite things about Parasite is that it shows us we have more in common with poor Koreans than we ever will with the powers that marginalize us both here and there. Solidarity in our struggles has the potential to be boundless, and cross borders even when our bodies cannot. We are complex, beautiful and powerful, but we are united by our cause. The machine has no answer for us.  If we give it too much it will crash. 

Related Media:
The Google Billion Deception
Why I Chained Myself to a Seat in Protest of Selling San José to Google
Defying Google and A City Council Disregarding its People