Palo Alto — the California enclave the place all of it went unsuitable?

Palo Alto in 1915, when it was rising as a hub of innovation

How a lot blame can one small California city take for a lot that’s unsuitable with our world, from white supremacy and neocolonialist oppression to the exploitation of marginalised staff and gaping wealth inequality?

An terrible lot, if Malcolm Harris is to be believed. To an informal customer to the leafy enclave of Palo Alto, within the coronary heart of Silicon Valley, the wealth and privilege are virtually palpable. After you stroll previous the retailers on University Avenue (YouTube’s giddy early days have been above a pizza restaurant on the appropriate, whereas Google and PayPal started in a small workplace additional up, and Facebook briefly squatted throughout the road), the highway leads you to the center of Stanford University. In the countless California sunshine, it appears like a rustic membership for the subsequent would-be billionaires, and a spot of just about unworldly complacency.

According to Harris, one thing way more sinister is occurring. This is floor zero for a type of hyper-capitalism that’s devouring the planet. In the identical approach that California’s early capitalists rode on the backs of the state’s authentic native inhabitants, together with later waves of Chinese railway staff and Hispanic agricultural labourers, at the moment’s tech titans are exploiting your complete world’s labour power.

A dog sits by a road as a 1920s style car drives past
El Camino Real, 1920’s © Palo Alto Historical Association

The subtitle — “A History of California, Capitalism, and the World” — provides a way of the guide’s ambition and scope. A sweeping historical past of some 700 pages, it extends far past Palo Alto in an try to elucidate how a very unfettered type of capitalism, combined with racist ideology, has received out.

Harris pursues his diatribe with gusto. A political activist who acquired his begin within the Occupy Wall Street motion, he writes with passionate advocacy. One criticism that has been levelled in opposition to this guide is that it doesn’t recommend any options for the issues it claims to explain. But amid the present backlash in opposition to the tech business, it feels sufficient to put out the indictment. The model of libertarian capitalism displayed by Silicon Valley at its most excessive dangers stirring up highly effective historic forces. The techies can’t say they weren’t warned.

Thanks to Harris’s good eye for a personality research and sharp flip for a phrase, the guide isn’t boring. But for all that, he crams his story right into a rigidly Marxist polemic, the place each episode in the end comes all the way down to capital’s exploitation of staff. You don’t need to be a daily Financial Times reader to search out this evaluation overly simplistic.

Palo Alto begins with railway magnate Leland Stanford, who left San Francisco (in Harris’s telling, to flee “the howling winds of class conflict”) to settle in rural peace some 30 miles to the south. This “pseudo-feudal” idyll was interrupted when the 15-year-old Leland junior died immediately. The grieving monopolist and his spouse, Jane, based Stanford University within the boy’s reminiscence.

A black and white photograph of a bearded man
Railway magnate Leland Stanford, founding father of Stanford University © Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group through Getty Images

For Harris, every little thing is related, whether or not throughout time (the identical themes echo again and ahead) or between totally different realms of human expertise. Take the best way the ageing magnate settles all the way down to growing a brand new and extra scientific methodology for breeding horses. His trainers are glad to push a younger colt to its limits and past, snapping its tendons, if meaning discovering a weak point sooner. It’s all about “data and control”, says Harris, who dubs this the Palo Alto System. With sufficient cash behind it, he says, it’s the blueprint for every little thing that follows: “All a man needed to improve the world was an uncompromising dedication to profit and capital to realize the necessary scale.”

Eugenics and white supremacy are a essential a part of this undertaking. Stanford’s widow dies from an unexplained poisoning that Harris has no qualms blaming on David Starr Jordan, president of the college, and Jordan is left free to stamp his personal mark on the establishment. His abiding pursuits are in science, and particularly in an all-encompassing principle often called bionomics that bolstered a perception in racial superiority and the necessity for selective breeding.

“Though it didn’t last long under that name,” writes Harris, “bionomics, with its vision of ‘degenerate’ races and outstandingly normal heroes, underpins Palo Alto’s ethos until the present day.” An implicit perception within the superiority of the white race, he concludes, was essential to justify the exploitation of California’s native inhabitants then, simply because it helps the exploitation of Asian staff at the moment.

Science and expertise have a lot to reply for all through this guide. Most histories of California’s tech business make a degree of highlighting the yin and yang on the coronary heart of digital applied sciences: the best way they’ll each empower the person (the private pc and the early web) and in addition result in the centralistion of energy and management (mainframe computing, at the moment’s web monopolies, the cloud).

Book cover of Palo Alto

Harris doesn’t recognise this rigidity. For him, any impetus in the direction of self-realisation and the private are simply distractions from the intense enterprise of sophistication battle. Tech’s solely position, as he sees it, has been to plot instruments for mass exploitation and to assist army aggression (he dwells at size, and properly, on the wave of Pentagon cash that floated California’s tech business after the second world battle).

The techies, in the meantime, are prepared handmaids to the rapacious capitalism, beginning with the individuals who fuelled the state’s gold rush: “California engineers became the heralds of proletarianization around the world, the shock troops of global enclosure, drawing the lines that so many others were forced to follow.”

This clumsy foreshadowing units up Harris’s critique of the tech business of at the moment. The historical past of Amazon is lowered to the story of 1 firm’s efforts to take advantage of a non-unionised workforce. And in the event you thought Apple’s huge earnings had one thing to do with Steve Jobs’ brilliance at turning expertise into must-have devices, suppose once more: “The returns [in California] are higher, because Apple has forced its contractors’ margins to the ground and found a way to extract monopoly profits from what should be a commodity object.”

There is nothing delicate about it. Capitalists do what capitalism calls for. Harris makes the system itself his important character. In this studying, Jobs and Bill Gates have been merely personifications of historic forces. If they “hadn’t been themselves, some other guys would have been them instead”.

Black and white photo of shop fronts
University Avenue — later to change into the house of YouTube, PayPal and Google — within the Nineteen Twenties © Palo Alto Historical Association

For Harris, the last word villains are those who intuit the historic forces flowing by way of them and willingly make themselves its instruments. His record contains Jordan, the eugenicist Stanford president; Herbert Hoover, the Republican president and founding father of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, the think-tank that helped to form Ronald Reagan; and William Shockley, Nobel Prize-winning co-inventor of the transistor and “one of the most infamous American bigots of the Twentieth century”. You received’t be stunned to listen to that Peter Thiel, the tech business bête noire for at the moment’s progressives, completes this record.

Harris’s deeply jaundiced view of at the moment’s tech business matches with the temper of the occasions. In attempting to puncture the self-serving myths that Silicon Valley has created about itself, he actually scores some hits. But his dismissal of your complete California enterprise oversimplifies a posh historical past.

Palo Alto is prefaced with a quote from Marx asking a pal for materials about California’s financial system, as a result of “nowhere else has the upheaval most shamelessly caused by capitalist centralization taken place with such speed”. Many readers might discover themselves tiring of the creator’s anti-capitalist try at a solution. But with Silicon Valley’s model of capitalism already feeding excessive wealth inequality and the danger that the subsequent wave of AI and automation will solely make issues worse, it’s a reminder that historical past can lurch in surprising instructions.

Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World by Malcolm Harris, riverrun £30/Little, Brown $36, 720 pages

Richard Waters is the FT’s West Coast editor

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