Announcement: Say Hello To "Oligarch Valley"

My journalism outside the newsletter has been increasingly focused on the world of Oligarch Valley. So I’m bringing Oligarch Valley into the newsletter fold.

OLIGARCH VALLEY, CA — If you’ve been following my work, you probably know that for the last few years I’ve been making a documentary with Rowan Wernham about the rapacious oligarch farmers who run California. The film’s working title is Pistachio Wars and it’s inspired by my “Oligarch Valley” reporting — work that I started a decade ago when I first moved back to California from Moscow.

Our film focuses on a Beverly Hills billionaire power couple: Stewart and Lynda Resnick. They’re the most powerful farmers in California. They’re also water barons who control more privatized water than the entire population of Los Angeles uses in one year — that’s 4 million people. But the story is much bigger than them. It’s a journey into the dark heart of California and an introduction to the rapacious oligarchs who run things here. It’s about water privatization, immense wealth, real estate bubbles, global trade, foreign wars, deadly pollution, and environmental collapse. In short: it’s a very American story.

The trailer we released a few years ago.

The film’s been been taking a lot longer to finish than we expected. But the good news is that Rowan and I are now getting a lot closer. We’ve been working on the edit for the past year and plan have it ready to submit to festivals this year.

Which brings me to the announcement: This newsletter is the main outlet for my journalism. And because I’ve been working more and more on the documentary, my journalism outside the newsletter has been increasingly focused on the world of Oligarch Valley. Rather than keep the two things separate, I’m bringing Oligarch Valley into the newsletter fold! So don’t be surprised if you see me writing about and exploring this world here in greater detail in the months to come. 

The two most powerful farmers in California.

It may seem like the weaponization of immigrants and the oligarchic politics of California are two completely different subjects. But they’re actually related.

What is California, after all, if not a state immigrants. Pretty much everyone in the state is from somewhere else: the exploited farm laborers, the Jewish billionaire farmers, the tech oligarchs from the Soviet Union, the old school Anglo elites, and even the guy sitting in traffic next to you on the 405. The politics of immigration and nativism has always loomed large here. (For a dose of recent history: California voters were the first to back a border wall with Mexico. They were chanting “Build the wall” long before Trump arrived in the White House.) And on top of everything, California is a huge component of American imperial power: the internet tech, the agribusinesses, the movies pumped out by Hollywood.

The politics of California sits at the intersection of much of the reporting that I’ve done over the last decade: Surveillance Valley, Oligarch Valley, and now Immigrants as a Weapon. They’re all connected and explore interrelated subjects and themes — which I guess could be described as the “twisted politics of American power.” The fact that California looms large in my mind is not surprising. I grew up here after my family left the Soviet Union. It’s the closest I have to home.

The American Dream in Victorville, California.

One thing that I’ve noticed in this election cycle is how little general awareness there is about about the Oligarch Valley side of California. People focus on Hollywood or Silicon Valley or real estate developers as the state’s most powerful industries. And indeed, they are powerful. But as I discovered, the true power brokers here are the farmers: They’ve been here the longest. And most important: they own the water and they own the land. And nothing happens in California without those two things — not even Silicon Valley or Hollywood can change that.

So you’re going to get a glimpse into this world in my newsletter — a world where a small group of wealthy families run California like their own banana republic. They buy politicians, own towns, import migrant labor, pollute with impunity, and bend everything and everyone to their will. Their story stands, in all sorts of unexpected ways, at the intersection of many of the deadly forces that are assaulting us today: concentrated corporate power, tech utopianism and limitless growth, labor exploitation, global warming and environmental genocide, toxic consumerism, and America’s destructive foreign policy.

—Yasha Levine