On the Shelf
Palo Alto: A Historical past of California, Capitalism, and the World
By Malcolm Harris
Little, Brown: 720 pages, $36
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Malcolm Harris had the nice luck to develop up in Palo Alto, a blessed piece of actual property within the American economic system, lit by each the solar of Silicon Valley and the rosy sandstone glow of the Stanford College campus.
He additionally had the nice luck to make it out alive. Within the years Harris attended Palo Alto Excessive, college students killed themselves at a price between four and five times the nationwide common, strolling to their deaths on the practice tracks that Leland Stanford constructed to flee the labor unrest of San Francisco greater than 100 years earlier.
Harris’ takeaway from the strain cooker of Paly excessive was that fixing it required revolution, or one thing prefer it.
In highschool, he was arrested on campus for handing out leaflets telling youngsters they didn’t must take the state standardized check. He marched in opposition to the Iraq warfare and spun up a brand new chapter of Students for a Democratic Society when he acquired to varsity on the College of Maryland. There, he and his comrades started to occupy issues — faculty buildings, oil firm headquarters, political conventions.
By the point he acquired to the primary assembly of Occupy Wall Street, in 2011, Harris had already began researching and writing concerning the exact methods through which the world is tousled, particularly in training and scholar debt. His first e-book, “Kids These Days,” tracked how millennials turned millennials via the double ratchet of education and finance — pressured to do extra homework whereas the establishments assigning it stored elevating tuition.
However he knew he’d finally flip again to his hometown to elucidate our fashionable world, now dominated by tech firms and their attendant billionaires. That sooner or later he would come to jot down his newest e-book, out subsequent week — “Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism and the World.”
We met on a winter day in Washington, D.C., to spend a chilly afternoon wandering via the capital. Harris has lived on the East Coast since faculty (largely in Philadelphia), however nonetheless carries himself with the Northern Californian combo of chill stoner vibes and a tightly wound core. He has a shock of pink hair, like a cartoon model of a left-wing firebrand, however clothes like a person who’d relatively disappear right into a crowd. Ask a dumb query, as I usually do, and he’ll properly sidestep, then inform you what was incorrect along with your premise and advocate one thing to learn.
He spent a lot of the previous couple of years studying lots of of pages for analysis, eight hours a day — typically on a park bench in Philly, extra not too long ago at a battleship of a desk within the Nationwide Gallery, the place the workplace of the museum’s president has been was a abandoned sitting room. His first iteration of the challenge was virtually a memoir, however as he stored studying, he discovered extra materials that had been largely untouched — or at the very least unwoven right into a sweeping historical past.
Just like the story of the Palo Alto System: The railroad baron Stanford first used the land that might develop into his college as a horse farm, the place he skilled younger steeds to the brink of bodily collapse. Both the colt would break down early — and be shot — or it could survive the regime and stay to progress the bloodline — and create extra worth for its eventual house owners.
“When I’ve talked to my siblings and other people who grew up in Palo Alto” concerning the system, Harris mentioned, “they find it chilling, the way they talked about young horses and early potential, and the way we saw kids in Palo Alto kill themselves because they didn’t measure up.”
“Palo Alto” follows the monitor from these early days to Silicon Valley now, tracing the way in which the eugenics of horseflesh and the frothy capital behind gold and railroads constructed a permanent machine that spits out scientific racism, hard-line anti-labor politics and excessive returns on funding irrespective of the human price. It’s a sprawling story, overlaying juicy tales just like the possible assassination of Jane Stanford by the college’s first president; racialized labor wars; the campus’ midcentury communists; the college’s position within the Bay Space cocaine commerce; and hyperlinks between high-tech companies and worldwide CIA plots.
Harris handles all of it with dizzying element and charmingly crazy metaphors — the latest classic of tech moguls are described as each “slack-limbed puppets who have nailed their hands to these historical forces” and “Mickey Mouse [surfing] the wave in his stolen wizard hat, flashing a four-finger hang ten.” And that’s only one passage.
Harris describes himself as a communist, and that evaluation is peppered via the textual content, however he has a knack for boiling down sophisticated dynamics to their blunt fundamentals. “As workers have always been quick to understand, maximizing output tends to suck,” he writes early on; “if we see this process from labor’s point of view, it’s not the owners who generously split the proceeds of their investment with the workers, it’s the workers who split the proceeds of their extra output with the shareholders.”
However, Harris got down to write a closely footnoted historical past, not an anti-tech screed. “The book is not polemical. I’m a Marxist, I wrote a Marxist book because I think that’s the best way to get at the truth of this historical situation.”
The reality that Harris finds is wrapped round just a few central characters, largely massive males on Stanford’s campus.
Herbert Hoover looms massive as a graduate of Stanford’s top quality in 1895, a world mine proprietor and supervisor and the core of a right-wing political cabal primarily based at his eponymous institute on campus. Lewis Terman, the genetics-obsessed Stanford professor who popularized the IQ check, and his son Fred, who turned Stanford right into a public-private powerhouse, observe swimsuit. William Shockley, who invented the transistor and have become a strident eugenicist within the Nineteen Seventies and ‘80s, carries the ball another few decades. George Shultz runs it all the way to the 2000s, blessing Reagan and George W. Bush from the Hoover Institute throne. Meanwhile Stanford boys such as Dave Packard, Vinod Khosla and Peter Thiel kept investment flowing into the neighborhood with a dense web of companies spun out of Stanford research.
“I thought I was going to have to be more metaphorical” to connect those dots, Harris said, but the lines were already there: “Those horses were war instruments, as were the kids raised in Palo Alto for 100-plus years, according to the same concepts of efficiency.”
The playbook remains the same, whether it’s Stanford and Hoover or Thiel and Elon Musk on the sphere: Enhance earnings by squeezing labor and ignoring regulators; take up huge capital and authorities funding; justify your success after the actual fact with pseudoscientific theories about your innate superiority.
However it’s not precisely the identical because it ever was. Harris admits in “Palo Alto” that the story will get, in his phrases, “dumber” as time marches on. The expertise will get much less transformative, and the winners of the sport appear to be randomly chosen by venture-capital lottery. Funding companies equivalent to Andreessen Horowitz have declared that “it’s time to build” actual world-changing firms, solely to pour billions into crypto-hype vaporware.
If you wish to perceive at this time’s Palo Alto, Harris mentioned, watch “Shark Tank.” “It’s such a moment-by-moment feeling of how capitalists are vibing at that moment,” Harris mentioned. “It was so fun during the pandemic — the first episode back, every one of them was completely foaming at the mouth, money was free. You’ve got a workout ball? Make it happen. And now they don’t care if someone has a perfectly logical business plan; if they don’t see it exploding they pass.”
So what’s to be executed? The e-book ends with a name for the official dissolution of Stanford College, at the very least in Palo Alto, and a return of the campus to the Indigenous individuals of the Bay Space. Harris sees it as an inexpensive demand, contemplating the alternate options.
“I don’t think that’s any less realistic than full employment; it’s not less realistic than Medicare For All, depending on your understanding of the situation,” Harris mentioned. “So what’s the point of issuing that kind of transitional demand? It’s to delegitimize the sovereignty of the United States over the territory.”
Leland Stanford, grieving the loss of life of his son in 1884, determined to discovered his college with the sentiment that “the children of California shall be our children.” Harris is just taking him at his phrase: “Children of California? Well that’s me, so f— you.”