The Palo Alto System

System Failure

The world Palo Alto made.


I met Malcolm Harris once, back in 2011. He was part of an escort of young activists who helped me navigate making a brief address, by means of a “human megaphone,” to the crowd at the People’s Library in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. I’d been living in California, and it was the first time I’d visited the park. Harris and some others steered me in, and afterward we ate Vietnamese food. I was able to place Harris as part of the crowd around a magazine called The New Inquiry. He made an impression.

This was a time of a kind of collective awakening for the US left. It was for me as well. A politically depressed 47-year-old carrying in his body a family legacy of revolutionary disappointment, I was at that time closer to an inactivist. My own awakening was to the simple thought that if the left could wake up, I might be foolish to be depressed. The moment made me vulnerable, and those who’d invited me to experience it with them were kind. They indulged my playing the role of mentor, but really I was there to learn.

After Occupy, Harris became a prolific journalist, one who rapidly diversified his venues from The New Inquiry and Jacobin to legacy outfits like The Nation and The New Republic. He became something of a generational spokesperson with his 2017 book debut, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. Read as a bid to become his cohort’s Chuck Klosterman, the book might suggest that Harris had lowered his revolutionary ambitions. But Kids These Days featured a galvanic thread of anger at all the right neoliberal suspects, and it worked as a bait-and-switch: Come for the generational hand-wringing, stay for the call to the barricades. Harris’s quicksilver colloquial wit helped seal the deal: “For the nonprofit sector and its volunteers to force a fundamental change in direction for corporate America…would be something like a magician’s bunny devouring him alive: It would be a stunning reversal in character, for one thing, but more important, a rabbit’s mouth is way too small.”

Harris’s 2020 follow-up, Shit Is Fucked Up And Bullshit: History Since the End of History, was a collection of essays (including one killed by The New York Times) and originally self-published manifestos like “Lego Marx” and “The Singular Pursuit of Comrade Bezos.” Better than a holding action, the book squared Harris’s circle: from Occupier and millennial defender to a theorist of a robust, nonsectarian 21st-century Marxism. He offered a class-based analysis that was capable of binding to contemporary social justice uprisings and eluding woke-controversy traps, without chewing off its own leg in the process.

In “Lego Marx,” which takes its inspiration from Christine Delphy’s “A Materialist Feminism Is Possible,” Harris declares his project: “The answer to problems with Marxism is more, better Marxism.” If that was inspiring, even more so is the way that, in his third and latest book, Harris has dug deep into the task. The scheme here is history as microcosm: Palo Alto works outward from scrupulous specifics to an epic panoramic recasting of our whole dire situation. The book should be of urgent interest to anyone living inside its ambit—that being, according to its subtitle, California, capitalism, and the world.

Sometimes the best way to start is by assuming nothing about a subject. “Palo Alto is nice,” Harris begins, and it serves as a mirror: We come in with assumptions, do we not? “Palo Alto is haunted,” he adds soon enough. Then: “Palo Alto is a bubble.” This is more than another instance of Harris’s dry, somewhat gnomic humor. The writer’s invocation here is of the mystery that lurks inside the taken-for-granted; he asks the reader to park all the wearisome junk we believe we already know and to suspend any doubts that one city’s history can serve as a container for all the sorrowful and outrageous implications that he will methodically, hypnotically unpack from it. Harris grew up in the place, and he plainly takes it personally. But Palo Alto isn’t a memoir. After laying claim to our attention with a brief personal overture, the author ducks into the wings.

The book begins before Palo Alto has even been awarded its name, painting a sweeping view of the special violence and velocity of settler colonialism on the West Coast, and how it worked in tandem with national mandates. For Harris leaves no doubt that by the time the frontier imperative reached California, it was hardly fumbling Pilgrims in boats who carried it forward.

The first of what will be dozens of cameo portraits scattered throughout the book is of Amadeo Giannini, a first-generation Italian American who, at the turn of the century, cartelized the Bay Area’s disparate truck farmers to form the Bank of Italy—shortly to be renamed the Bank of America. We are also introduced to Leland Stanford, railroad baron, future governor, and university namesake. At the end of the first chapter, Harris pauses to offer us a statement of general purpose so candid and definitive that I want to quote it at length:

What interests me is not so much the personal qualities of the men and women in this history but how capitalism has made use of them. To think about life this way is not to surrender to predetermination; only by understanding how we’re made use of can we start to distinguish our selves from our situations. How can you know what you want or feel or think—who you are—if you don’t know which way history’s marionette strings are tugging? In the following pages you’ll meet characters who find ways to tug back, who pit themselves against the way things are and come to personify the system’s self-destructive countertendencies. People aren’t puppets, and to pull a person is to create the conditions for rebellion. Maybe we’re more like butterflies, pinned live and wriggling onto history’s collage…. If, as I have been convinced, the point of life and the meaning of freedom is to make something with what the world makes of you, then it’s necessary to locate those places where history reaches through your self and sticks you to the board.

This paragraph is more than a throat-clearing aside; it illuminates a basic tension that energizes his book. Harris is terrific at character sketches. Following Stanford, on through a cascade of names I’d never heard of or had known only as brands or caricatures—David Packard and William Hewlett, Arthur Rock, William Shockley, Allard Lowenstein, and many more—Harris animates a frieze of predominantly deplorable white men of power, influence, and ego in his detailed prose. But at the same time, he has a larger vision, one in keeping with his Marxist analytics: A system like capitalism finds the villains it needs. Many of these guys were simply in the right place at the right time and sufficiently willing to function as exalted cogs in the machine of various genocides, conspiracies, corporations, weapons research projects, and coups. A few might truly have been ingenious scoundrels, but most of them played parts that could easily have been taken up by others had fate—or, rather, the irresistible systemic necessities of capital accrual, commons enclosure, and empire-making—dealt the cards a little differently.

Look no further than Leland Stanford himself. Despite his well-advertised interest in photography and horses (and his sponsorship of the pioneering English motion photographer Eadweard Muybridge), Palo Alto’s foundational great man emerges in Harris’s book as a garrulous but incurious pampered son and brother of sharper men, someone with a flair mainly for fiduciary partnerships and glomming credit. The genius resides in the systems themselves: suprahuman forces converging rapaciously on the opportunities that the nexus of landscape, technology, and ideology in California’s expansion represented.

These forces, Harris reminds us, relied on a series of nonwhite labor populations regarded as disposable: Indigenous Natives and Mexicans, Chinese laborers, migrating Blacks, traded one for the next. To maintain such a labor regime, as the book illuminates, the laws were aligned with crackpot science, from bionomics to bell curves, to enable what Harris calls “bifurcation”: the spoils of progress accruing primarily to white populations, precisely because of their willingness to mercilessly legislate nonwhite working-class people into a limbo of categorical exile from the fruits of their own labor.

The cradle of such notions was the new Parnassus of scholarship founded on the railroad baron’s private land. Stanford University made itself home to such figures as Lewis Terman, the man who put the “Stanford” in the Stanford-Binet IQ test and a eugenicist who believed that the “inherent” deficiencies of Mexican and Black people justified not only segregation but population control. Terman and his cohort specialized in dubiously scientific research in which the “gifted” white children—including Terman’s own—were given every advantage. As Harris writes:

For the bionomists, there was no reason not to lane children [i.e., sort out those who scored exceptionally well on intelligence tests] as soon as they could be found. Their IQs weren’t going to change. Just as the Palo Alto System did, Terman assumed that the adult’s potential was always already observable in the child. The environment could, however, determine whether they lived up to that potential. And for the researchers, that was a question of national security. Though it ruined the scientific validity of what was already a dubious experiment, Terman couldn’t help intervening in the lives of his subjects, helping them along and writing recommendation letters scientifically certifying their immutable genius.

Harris’s revulsion here is infectious.

As the mosaic that Harris builds in Palo Alto accumulates its pieces, readers jonesing for dirt on Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos, and Elizabeth Holmes will not be disappointed. They will, however, be made to sit on their hands for a while. Not until page 439 does the curtain rise on a more contemporary parade of deplorables. Harris first wants to chart the system through which Silicon Valley produced itself, a system long predating the silicon chip. We need to know something about the consolidation of the railroads; the growth of electronics engineering and the invention of the semiconductor; and the origins of “venture” capital speculation. All of these are precursors and models for the Silicon Valley moment. All of these, yes, plus the partnerships between tech innovators and a military-industrial-research complex geared to a eugenicist fantasy. The goal: win World War II while keeping elite, young, white specimens off the battlefields and behind dashboards and consoles, where they’d survive to achieve the careers for which they were preordained.

Waiting for the dork titans Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to appear, readers may find, in fact, that they’ve been reading about them all along. What Harris calls the Palo Alto System, with its unholy alchemy of racism, technology, and capitalism, is nothing if not breathtakingly continuous and consistent. Chinese railroad laborers and Mexican orchard pickers are more than premonitions of Apple’s suicidal Foxconn factory workers in China, just as Leland Stanford’s combine benefiting from the “uncompensated expropriation” of land around his railroad by the US government is more than a premonition of Bill Gates’s bold seizure via copyright of what had once been open-source hobbyists’ code; they’re exactly the same thing. Harris’s voice rises thrillingly as he lays out the stakes and begs us to understand them: “Competition and domination, exploitation and exclusion, minority rule and class hate: These aren’t problems capitalist technology will solve. That’s what it’s for. In the proper language, they are features, not bugs.”

Palo Alto’s cover design appears to be based on a tie-dyed T-shirt, teasing an approach to this regional account that centers the allure of the Grateful Dead, the Whole Earth Catalog, and the Burning Man festival. Did Harris’s publisher hope for a different book? More likely, I suspect, they’re on board with their author’s somewhat puckish willingness to bait expectations—the spirit of an organizer who once pranked the Internet into believing that Radiohead was about to play a free concert for Occupy in Zuccotti Park. It’s also the case that boomer and Gen X vanities alike might be stung to discover how uninterested Harris is in repeating any self-flattering, pop-countercultural explanations for the ascent of the digital start-ups.

Sure, some of these fool billionaires grew up reading a lot of science fiction, which, taken literally rather than as allegory, may have caused them to be genuinely confused about their prospects for life extension, space migration, and the uploading of consciousness into the ether. But neither Ken Kesey’s “Acid Tests” nor Wired magazine’s 30-year (and counting) premature victory lap for virtual reality explains how Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon & Co. have made so many thousands of rich people richer and so many billions of poor people poorer, while shamelessly embracing Ayn Rand–style libertarian capitalist directives to frack both our commons and our privacy.

Harris declines to waste time debunking the counterculture smokescreen—Stewart Brand and John Perry Barlow don’t appear in this book. Instead, he sets his sights on an unexpected historical supervillain: Herbert Hoover. This is the most revelatory portrait in Palo Alto’s pantheon. One of Stanford’s first graduates, Hoover is the US president that my social studies teacher (and yours too, I’d bet) encouraged us to believe had been made to stand in history’s corner with a dunce cap on his head while Franklin Roosevelt swept in and fixed the Great Depression.

Harris destroys the notion that Hoover’s story ended with his electoral defeat. With chilling precision, he demonstrates how Hoover’s innovative mashup of international capital partnership and close collusion between the state and corporate interests—beginning in the future president’s private business enterprises, then extended into his government service—set the paradigm for the century that the planet is still trying to survive.Though his popular reputation was in tatters during and after the Depression, Hoover didn’t sulk; he watched as his recipes for marrying tech and capital to deregulation, for strikebreaking and securing state-supported fortunes for shareholders, were cooked in plain sight at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. The think tank’s many operatives fueled and then were buoyed by the fever of Cold War anti-communism, and they helped inspire a right-wing student movement in the 1960s. Hoover himself lived just long enough to offer support to the Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964.

Hoovervilles or San Francisco’s current tent cities—again, it’s all one thing. While it may take you a while to accept the square-headed Quaker as one of history’s real winners, Harris renders this the most gripping of his many gripping tales, and a persuasive one. Hoover endured my social studies teacher’s contempt very nicely, it turned out, just as Thiel, Bezos, and Musk will endure yours and mine. These people are playing the long game; our admiration isn’t required.

In the case of Silicon Valley’s better-known figures, Harris lingers just as long as his distaste can bear (we’re informed three or four times of Steve Jobs’s noxious body odor). Fortunately, his book isn’t merely a rogues’ gallery. Instead, it’s enlivened by a counternarrative: one of resistance and rebellion, spurred by proximity to the site of the Palo Alto System and its exponential disasters for the human species. Harris supplies fond cameos of a handful of dissidents in the book: the union organizer Karl Yoneda, the poet Bob Kaufman, the Indigenous activist Rosemary Cambra, and the heretic Stanford English professor H. Bruce Franklin, whose canny anti-war and prison reform organizing drew on both his intimate experience as a commissioned officer in the Air Force and his quick study of Marx while visiting Paris in 1966. (Previously, I’d known of Franklin as the great left critic of US science fiction and the debunker of Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” defense fantasies, with their dependence on right-wing space opera.)

Harris also nimbly traces the factions of the Bay Area ’60s left, from the Black Panthers to various Maoist groups to the Third World Liberation Front. He points out that while homegrown protests generated a lot of sentimental lore—“student militants could hardly throw a rock on Stanford’s 8,000-plus acres without hitting some piece of Cold War military infrastructure”—the deeper organizing legacies were founded by theoretically informed internationalists, not self-actualizing hippies:

Positioning the personal revolution against the state is based on a deeply confused set of coordinates, a special kind of convenient distortion native to the United States that involves forgetting that the rest of the world exists…. There is no single line that connects California to the world anticolonial struggle; they are embedded in the same history…. It was colonial exploitation that linked these conflicts in the first place, not the spread of doctrines or encounters between individuals.

Harris is up to more here than just owning the boomers. Linking the Panthers, the Chicano-led multinational militant organization Venceremos, and the Alcatraz-seizing Indians of All Tribes to the Algerian and South African uprisings is typical of his framework-broadening approach. In one stroke, Harris cinches the meaning of the ’60s rebellions to the book’s early chapters on the origins of white rule on the West Coast. When a population of settlers disenfranchises other populations while exploiting them as a disposable workforce—not haphazardly, but with guns, laws, and institutions—in what sense is this not a colony?

Readers will relish Palo Alto for its scope and precision, for its pugnaciousness, and for its sardonic amazement at an emperor who couldn’t be strolling down the avenue any nakeder. There’s a brute glee in Harris’s version of historical materialism; even the book’s title eschews metaphor and abstraction. Harris has done the hard work, and he has done it in a cause: to urge us to awake from our capitalist-technological inertial dream state. The truth may sometimes hurt, but the lies are in bed with collective death.

There’s another form of glee in Harris’s recommendation in his last chapter: that the powers that be, under the guidance of their consciences or our coercion, revert Leland Stanford’s original plot of land to the original Indigenous stewards of the peninsula. It may seem, at first, as though Harris has driven his mighty prose vehicle away to reveal a “Let’s Kill All the Lawyers” bumper sticker on the rear, but this proposition is as well-worked-out as the rest of the book:

Stanford does not need to wait for the U.S. federal government to recognize the Muwékma Ohlone’s sovereign claim. The university has already demonstrated that: In 1989…Stanford worked with [Rosemary] Cambra to return hundreds of Ohlone skeletons to the tribe for reburial. It was a voluntary move made under student-activist pressure…. History already judges Stanford authorities ahead of their time on this count relative to their peer institutions. By recognizing the Muwékma Ohlone, the university set a precedent…. Let’s also assume the courts recognize that Leland and Jane Stanford’s injunction against transferring the land is less legitimate that the ancestral rights of the people they took it from…. If the creatures of the earth are to have a medium-term chance, then at the very least we need some space right now to develop, practice, and deploy new modes of production, distribution, and reproduction—social metabolism. As a fortuitously located, substantial piece of land to which hundreds of identified Indigenous people have a specific claim and where, contrariwise, no individual settler holds a property deed, the acres known during the long twentieth century as Stanford present a unique opportunity for the human race.

Well, why not? As Harris demonstrates relentlessly, the enemies of our flourishing have been willing again and again to alter reality with the boldest of strokes. Why not try to match their impunity? Permit me, then, if you will, with all the bogus authority vested in me as the paid reviewer of his book, to second this excellent proposal. I’ll meet you at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

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