Palo Alto, Marxian nightmare | Business Standard News
Malcolm Harris’s Palo Alto starts with a grim reality: A spate of youth suicides in the titular small city where he spent much of his childhood. Many of the young people who killed themselves stepped in front of the CalTrain, a railroad formerly owned by the Southern Pacific, the once all-powerful monopoly co-owned by Leland Stanford, the founder of Palo Alto and Stanford University.
This sprawling book is his account of those crimes, and of the larger “system of domination and production” that the so-called “Palo Alto System” epitomises: Capitalism. Since “California has a privileged place” in the capitalist story, and capitalism controls the world, this book aims to explain, well, pretty much everything. It does not succeed.
Palo Alto is nominally a history, but it is really a work of grand theory, in this case a familiar one: Marxism. Karl Marx’s long shadow darkens every page. For Harris, as for Marx, capitalism is the root of all societal evil, an amoral “superintelligence” that relentlessly turns those caught in its thralls into either moneymaking machines or oppressed victims. “Capital by its nature dominates labor,” Harris writes, “and if it fails to accomplish that, it ceases to exist.” It is inherently racist: “The human-capital production system was hostile to everyone except certain white men, as eugenicists designed it.” It is a totalising system that represses human agency and offers no escape: We are “like butterflies, pinned live and wriggling onto history’s collage.” Harris finds hope in such rare outbursts of wing-flapping as the brief heyday of the Black Panther Party, which he asserts was the most important American political group of its time. If enough butterflies flap their wings, they could shatter “history’s display case.” But what should replace this capitalist horror show once it’s been shattered? Harris never tells us.
To make his eviscerating critique of capitalism, Harris cherry-picks the history of California in general and Palo Alto in particular. He finds plenty of ugly stories, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Japanese internment camps of World War II to the depredations of Leland Stanford’s Southern Pacific Railroad, the eugenicism of the Stanford University president David Starr Jordan and the exploitation by tech companies of low-paid Asian factory workers. Harris weaves these threads into a tapestry of systemic injustice and world doom. But it’s a cartoonishly negative and over-theorised portrait that bears little or no resemblance to the complex realities of California, capitalism or the world.
Time and again, Harris asserts that things which have but a distant or metaphorical connection with his capitalist bête noire are in fact structural components of it. For example, he claims that the “Palo Alto System,” based on Jordan’s obsession with “bionomics” (a holistic, racism-tinged version of evolutionary theory) and the “progressive breeding” manifested in Leland Stanford’s horse-breeding farm, is essential to capitalism, driving its racist exploitation of non-whites and providing pseudo-scientific support for its myth of individual achievement by Great White Men.
This leads him to such “structural” Marxian insights as the following: Stanford University is a “human capital” factory, a “breeding and training project.” The computer pioneer Doug Engelbart was “built” by the military to be the “human half of a hybrid man-machine radar apparatus.” Harris compares him to “an especially quick colt at the Palo Alto stock farm.”
Even technological revolutions, like the Hewlett-Packard vacuum tubes that helped give birth to Silicon Valley, are part of the same malevolent history: “HP devices pumped test signals through user machines just as a hydrolicker pumped water through a mountain. The gold was information, the same type of information Leland Stanford hired Eadweard Muybridge to generate from his horses.”
Harris repeats such claims again and again, but unless you are a true believer in the quasi-theological universe from which they emerge, repetition does not make them more convincing. Instead, Harris’s seamless, all-explanatory narrative feels increasingly and weirdly teleological, like a cult belief system. Every fact fits perfectly into a truth that is already known; exceptions only prove the rule.
Harris also leaves out historical realities that might disrupt his narrative. Despite the fact that his entire book is a Marxian critique of capitalism, Harris never mentions the fact that the 20th century’s two major attempts to create alternatives to that economic system were horror shows that left tens of millions dead.
At times, Harris seems to acknowledge that some developments that have taken place under capitalism, such as FDR’s New Deal, are actually better than others. “If wealth is controlled by a minority, but political power is controlled by a majority, then the majority is liable to vote the minority’s wealth away via taxation and redistribution.” Sounds like — horrors — a liberal Democrat! But Harris quickly returns to denying that capitalism can reform itself, and that only by ending it can we achieve justice.
How can we begin to build an alternative to our capitalist nightmare? Harris’s only concrete proposal is for Stanford University to give back the 8,000 or so acres it owns to the descendants of the Ohlone, the Native people who once lived there.
“Returning the land strikes me as downright pragmatic,” Harris writes. If you believe, as he appears to, that all non-Native, or at least all white, inhabitants of California are still illegitimate “settlers,” I suppose this makes sense.
As a piece of capitalist branding (hey, don’t blame Harris, he’s just an impaled butterfly like the rest of us), Harris’s subtitle is in the hyped-up, “insanely great” tradition of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. But the intellectual product he rolls out is more like Elizabeth Holmes’s Theranos than Apple’s iPhone.
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