“Blood That Trots Young”: Malcolm Harris’s History of Silicon Valley Exploitation

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5u-LmR_QI8

Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World

By Malcolm Harris

Little, Brown & Co., 2023

Malcolm Harris opens this sweeping history of his hometown of Palo Alto with a personal anecdote: In fourth grade, a substitute teacher dramatically revealed to his class of wide-eyed kids that they lived in a bubble, that most places were not like Palo Alto. The class was later apologetically assured that their teacher was banned from ever working in their school district again. That wake-up call, along with a well-publicized wave of suicides by Palo Alto High students, seems to have gotten Harris thinking about what exactly is not so normal about this small suburb.

Spanning 1850 to the present, the book’s expansive social history is more about how Palo Alto changed the world than it is about the suburb itself. The tone is unapologetically irreverent toward supposed Great Men, from the “unexceptional” Leland Stanford to the “relatively unimpressive actor” Ronald Reagan, who capitalists selected as their presidential candidate not to be a thinker but a “cartoon hammer formed from a buzzing hive of advisory bees.”  Tech moguls don’t get off any easier: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs “had poor personal hygiene, didn’t play sports, and were both noted jerks.” 

Instead of treating such figures solely as individuals—for good or ill—Harris asks us to recognize the forces acting through them. If, for instance, A.P. Giannini had not founded what became Bank of America, “California would have found another such outsider. The impersonal force that animates… this state, this country, this period of world history isn’t fate or human nature; it’s capitalism.” It’s a theme supported by reference to Friedrich Engels, the novelist Frank Norris, and a candid admission by Uber founder Travis Kalanick.

Lurking behind California capitalism is a second, ever-present force: white supremacy. The state of California owed its political existence to the systematic murder of Indigenous peoples, and the new state joined the federal government in incentivizing settlers to go out and murder on its behalf. When capitalists needed cheap labor to work their mines, and later their farms, they relied on Chinese, Indian, and Japanese immigrants, but race laws and intimidation ensured that those workers couldn’t get an economic foothold the way European immigrants did. It’s monstrous stuff, and Harris won’t let us forget that it’s been there from the beginning.

Palo Alto’s own Stanford University became a lab for defining whiteness. “Scientific” racism blossomed at Stanford under its first president, David Starr Jordan. Jordan was a proponent of the field of “bionomics,” which held that degenerate races needed to be pruned from the evolutionary tree for the good of humankind. At first, those degenerate races included Italians, a reminder of how the arbitrary boundaries of whiteness have shifted over time. Although the name “bionomics” didn’t stick, much of the racial pseudoscience did. As Silicon Valley semiconductor firms tried to keep up with Japanese competition in the 1970s, they preferred to hire Asian women into manufacturing roles based on a belief that they were innately less susceptible than Chicanas to organizing efforts. As recently as 2016, Palantir founder Peter Thiel made a lucrative early bet on an unlikely presidential candidate: Donald Trump. At a time when many elites thought Trump was too racist to get elected, Thiel, whose company would go on to win contract after contract from the new administration, understood that “the race-nation is not the capitalist system’s vestigial tail but its right leg.” 

Much of Palo Alto is labor history filtered through capitalists’ efforts to restore and protect their supremacy. One capitalist in particular, Herbert Hoover, emerges as the main character of the book. For Hoover, anti-communism was personal: the Bolsheviks took over the czar’s mines, in which he had a number of interests, having been business partners with the czar at an earlier point. And U.S. communists played key roles in a militant strike on the farm he owned. Before I read this book, I thought that when Hoover lost the presidency in disgrace, that was the end of the story. Not at all. Ensconced in Palo Alto, the former president continued to exercise influence through his business contacts and was even brought in by Harry Truman’s administration to consult on the economy of occupied postwar Japan. In that role, he helped shift blame away from Japanese elites and smother hopes for reform.

Hoover feared that public housing was a step toward economic democracy. As president during the Great Depression, he proposed publicly financed private homeownership as the solution. Homeowners, “no matter how humble they may be,” wouldn’t threaten the property regime; they would have too much to lose. Hoover was long out of office when his plan started to yield fruit in the suburban home building boom of the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1978 “taxpayers’ revolt,” Californians voted for Proposition 13, the first of a series of measures strictly limiting taxes on real estate, which continue to stymie efforts to fund housing, public transportation, education, and single-payer healthcare in California. Much has been written about the role of anti-tax measures, zoning laws, and anti-public housing measures in blocking fair housing in California. Harris cites Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law and the late Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, to which I would add the essential American Babylon by Robert O. Self. But Harris’s account is the first I’ve seen that traces these developments back to Hoover, for whom creating a base of conservative homeowners was a deliberate project.

The Hooverites were right to be scared. Palo Alto is largely a history of capitalist and white-supremacist domination punctuated by sparks of resistance. In 1911, Indian nationalist Lala Har Dayal got hired at Stanford as a cover for revolutionary organizing. Sam Darcy and Caroline Decker led a 1933 strike on Hoover’s farm. The April 3rd Movement occupied Stanford’s Applied Electronics Lab in 1969, demanding that classified military research be removed from campus. That occupation received sympathetic support from Stanford literature professor H. Bruce Franklin. It was difficult for the Stanford administration to rid themselves of him, because he had tenure and a respectable academic output, but they eventually found a way.

The beauty of this sprawling book is that, although you can open it anywhere and begin reading, its scope draws connections over a vast period of time. Nowhere is that more evident than in the discussion of the Palo Alto system, Leland Stanford’s approach to his pastime of breeding racehorses. In search of “the blood that trots young,” the railroad boss overturned traditional wisdom by pushing his horses to their limits at a very young age. If the harsh treatment broke some yearlings for life, then so be it. The analogy to venture capital tech funding today is obvious. Harris writes that the Palo Alto system reached its apex when executives of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft met with newly elected President Trump. Here in one room, five of the six most valuable companies in the world were represented. All five were less than a half-century old, all the founders’ first companies, and in most cases, the founders’ first real jobs.

But there is a darker reflection of the Palo Alto system today: the train-track suicides of students at Palo Alto High. Kids are expected to excel academically here in Stanford University’s backyard and, like Leland Stanford’s horses, some are broken by the pressure. “Even the winners can’t stop the train,” Harris writes, “even when their own kids are in the way.”

It’s a poignant summary, but it’s more fatalistic than the book’s actual message. Palo Alto covers 170 years of right-wingers working hard to shut down resistance to capitalism. The extreme inequality of our time isn’t the natural state of things. It requires the elites’ constant maintenance to keep it that way. We should take heart and keep organizing in spite of setbacks, knowing the capitalist system—and the Palo Alto system—aren’t as invulnerable as they sometimes seem.