How California cursed the world
A great new book about Palo Alto by Malcolm Harris, who comes through talking bogus utopianism, pro-social copping, ruling-class drip & more
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If you’re looking for a beautifully written, continually surprising, deeply researched book about why so much of life is, on balance, so f**ked up right now, get your hands on Malcolm Harris’s Palo Alto, which just came out last week. Across ~700 Spyplane-certified Dope Engrossing Epiphany Packed (D.E.E.P.) pages, Harris crafts a monumental counterhistory of Silicon Valley — and how the world has been steadily warped in its (cursed) image.
You may already suspect that the Bay Area — in addition to being a gorgeous place home to many wonderful people, cool animals AND Blackbird Spyplane — is also a swagless h*llmouth where forces of intense human wackness have been mounting a sustained assault on the planet, amassing wealth and power through technologies of theft, social atomization, violence, worker immiseration, environmental ruin and straight FLIMFLAMMERY…
Harris methodically makes the case for how the h*llmouth does its d*mn thing, and how it came to be. Starting with the Gold Rush-era expropriation of Indian land, he traces the birth, refinement and spread of a distinctly Californian brand of colonialist-capitalist-militarist economics. Along the way there’s a ton of wild, sad, funny, and ultimately demystifying stories about the “uses that power puts us to” — and countervailing attempts at resistance & liberation.
The other day I (Jonah) was stoked to chop it up with Malcolm about bogus Cali utopianism; the revolutionary need for vibey coffee shops; grim continuities between Silicon Valley and the garment industry; possible upsides to the current wave of tech layoffs; the difficulty of divesting from a global system of exploitation, and more “unbeatable topics.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You begin Palo Alto by invoking deeply cursed energies that have collected in the Bay Area since the late 1800s, organizing life in cold, domineering, depressing ways — and, as you put it, “haunting” the soil. That cuts against the way California tends to figure in the popular imagination as this sunny, blissed-out, fundamentally world-bettering place. Reading the book, I started to think that the utopian spin on California is a sublimation of — and maybe even a kind of marketing cover for — the actual history, which, as your book demonstrates, is so much harsher…
Malcolm Harris: “I think the utopianism has been vastly overstated. It’s more that those are the stories some people were interested in telling, and those are the stories that keep getting repeated. But I didn’t deal with that stuff at all in the book, because some of it happened, sure, but in terms of the important things that were going on historically in this place and in relation to the world, I basically just don’t believe those stories.
“And yeah, there’s a settler fantasy that gets sublimated into a tech ideology that’s, like, ‘No frontiers, we’re always the pioneers, there’s always open space for us somewhere, we’re gonna take it, and there’s no downside to our pioneering nature.’”
Blackbird Spyplane: One fascinating thing you describe is how, early in the history of LSD — which we tend to understand as this intrinsically revolutionary substance, at least in the pre-microdosing era — Bay Area tech and defense execs dropped acid explicitly to help them “ideate” more powerfully at work…
Malcolm Harris: “Willis Harman, the guy doing those corporate LSD experiments, is actually the same guy who invented the idea of microdosing as we talk about it today. There’s no break, it’s literally the same dude. So we definitely rewrite the story of LSD to say, ‘Later it became a productivity hack,’ but it was a productivity hack from the beginning. I found this amazing anecdote about a RAND analyst who dropped acid as part of these experiments and said, like, ‘This was the best trip ever: I plotted all these bombing routes across Maoist China — I saw them all in my mind, in front of my eyes.’”
Blackbird Spyplane: Along with the tech industry, California has the highest concentration of garment workers in the U.S. — primarily women from Asian and South American countries that the U.S. worked to destabilize, overtly and covertly. There are stories you can dig up from the ‘70s of, like, North Face founder Douglas Tompkins calling the cops on his workforce of mostly Asian women when they went on strike in San Francisco to protest wage theft & a daily toilet-paper ration he had them on. Real slimeball s**t. Until last year it was actually legal for factories here to pay garment workers in “piece rates” rather than hourly wages — a pay-suppressing move the workers successfully fought — and you write about a bunch of bummer echoes in Silicon Valley, like Apple’s early use of an unseen network of Filipina immigrants paid piece rates to assemble boards…
Malcolm Harris: “Yeah, it’s not that manufacturing in that period totally leaves the U.S. It’s that manufacturing moves to places with more immigrant workers, less histories of labor protection and less organized labor. Companies were looking for new, lower-cost workers abroad — there’s obviously a lot of offshoring during that period — but also at home, with immigrants who were compelled to migrate here to then do that work. A main example I give is Hewlett Packard. David Packard was Nixon’s Deputy Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, and after the war he ended up with 4,000 Vietnamese employees in California — a direct result of this war that he helped conduct, and that HP was an important part of.”
Blackbird Spyplane: I think the typical Spyplane reader would love to divest from that system of production if they could, because beautiful, carefully made, ingenious things are obviously cooler than shoddy characterless s**t mass-produced in horrible conditions. But “small batch,” “artisan” clothes can functionally feel like a luxury market at this point, so there’s a frustrating sense in which the impulse to move oneself away from this global glut just leads to another, more-rarefied consumer category…
Malcolm Harris: “I think the key word there is onself. When you try to tackle that as an individual consumer — like, I don’t have any answers! There’s no clothes I buy that I feel really good about where they come from.
“But this is something I’ve been trying to understand more because, yes, I have a hostility toward the idea of employing people, period, and the idea that there might be any sort of business you could do that would be good — haha. But at the same time, we have to find ways to create social arrangements that allow people to reproduce their lives on a daily basis, in a communal way, that strengthens our position in this capitalist society before it’s gone. We can’t just wait until this system collapses to try to figure out a way to build power.
“I think the left has this idea right now that, you know, we all have to have jobs, and that’s irrelevant to your activism. And we all have to buy things, and that’s irrelevant to your activism. It’s true to a degree, but — OK, is it morally better to go to the left-wing coffee shop than the Starbucks? I don’t know, that’s an individual consumer question. But is it important that we have that left-wing coffee shop as a place where people can meet? Yes. And will that thing exist if you don’t support it? Probably not. So it’s about trying to think about consumption not just as an individual question but as something that’s organized collectively, and how we can try to do that in a better way.
“I wrote an article last year about the notion of ‘No Ethical Consumption Under Capitalism’ (link below) and how we can get from that to, ‘Well, yeah, but we need coffee shops to hang out in that aren’t Starbucks, where the barista can read a book under the counter and give their friends free coffee.’ It’s important that those places exist, not just because I like getting my coffee there, but because that creates a potential for a different society. It’s a question of organizing.”
Blackbird Spyplane: In Palo Alto you write about how some workers are encouraged to see themselves as aligned with ownership because of higher compensation, stock options and their class position generally. In that context, do you think the recent tech layoffs might be ‘useful’ on some class-war s**t in the sense that they send the message to tech workers that they are still, when push comes to shove, workers, with fundamentally different interests from management’s?
Malcolm Harris: “I think that’s straight-up true, but even more than them sending that message to the workers, they’re sending that message to investors. Because the investors, in this downturn, they don’t need to look at the numbers very hard or even look at them at all. They just say, ‘We’d really like to hear some Labor Discipline Talk. We’d like to get the sense that you’re in control of your labor costs.’
“Because when you look at the stock bumps these companies got from these layoffs, it’s not like the future-predicted-flow of funds is better because they controlled their labor costs, and therefore the stock is worth this much more. They’re just betting on vibes, and the vibe of ‘Don’t worry, we can still lay off thousands of people whenever we want’ is a vibe they want to invest in.
“Also they’re gonna have to hire all those people back, and pay contractors — it’s not necessarily a good business strategy to lay off a bunch of workers after you hired too many. Because it’s not like these companies want to shrink their business activities.”
Blackbird Spyplane: The layoffs are theater for the stock market.
Malcolm Harris: “Exactly.”
Blackbird Spyplane: All right, finally, you kindly sent along a bunch of PALO ALTO FIT PICS where many figures from your book — ruling-class & radical alike — come through dripping. What story do you see told in these clothes?
Malcolm Harris: “So, we often tell the story of this period as a series of hard aesthetic changes — like, on the ruling-class side, we hear about how the old suit guys got surpassed when the bad-a** black t-shirt guy showed up one day. But when you look through the pictures, you see much more continuity…
“So you’ve got David Packard (B above), 6’5” Stanford football player, radio-age college boy and co-founder of HP, and if he wore that fit in San Francisco right now he’d be better dressed than most people. Then you’ve got the Fairchild Semiconductor founders (C), and we’re in the midcentury, Big Science, guys-in-suits age…”
Blackbird Spyplane: In the ‘80s there’s Steve Jobs, not rocking the ur-normcore black Issey mockneck with the 501s and 992s but suited up, too, and weirdly looking kind of like Tucker Carlson…
Malcolm Harris: “He looks exactly like Tucker Carlson, doesn’t he? So much so that I wonder if Tucker Carlson is trying to dress like Steve Jobs (D). But that’s what Jobs dressed like in the ‘80s. He had a hippie phase in the beginning, but when he becomes a businessman, he dresses like a conservative bowtie business dude — that was his thing until he softened it later.
“And if you look at the Google founders (E), they’re right on the edge — there’s the gray t-shirt but it’s tucked in, and an untucked black t-shirt but with a blazer over it. They’re trying to find the line between formal business-y and new-tech whatever. And if you untuck Sergey Brin’s shirt and f**k up his hair he looks like Sam Bankman-Fried (F). So it’s not revolutionary jumps: we’re seeing the slow transition of Silicon Valley business style.”
Blackbird Spyplane: And moving to these radical-left kings & queens…
Malcolm Harris: “If you look at this picture of [‘30s Communist leader] Elaine Black Yoneda (A) she’s with a bunch of sharp-dressed guys in suits and she’s wearing a black leather trench coat and a black beret but she fits in. That’s the Old Left, and when we get to the Panthers in the ‘60s (B), it’s their uniform. You see how it didn’t come from nowhere. With Bruce Franklin (C), the Stanford professor who was probably the leader among the campus left, there’s the AK-47 banner behind him, because they’re not messing around, but he’s in a t-shirt under a button-up, tucked into his jeans with a belt. The idea that the New Left was primarily an aesthetic movement is belied by this photo: He looks kind of cool, but he’s not making an aesthetic point. The outfit isn’t part of the message he’s sending.
“Now when you look at Aaron Manganiello (D), he and Franklin were buddies and political partners in this project and, clearly, it’s not that the left didn’t have style — he looks so dope, he’s got the AK button on his giant-a** coat, but he could be a steelworker on the weekend at the bar. Then you’ve got Bob Kaufman (E), the greatest Beat poet, and he cares about aesthetics, but he’s not drawing attention to his outfit, he’s pointing to his broken toe where a police officer stomped on it.
“In the ‘80s there’s Tim Yohannan, who founded Maximum Rocknroll (F), with the buttons and, again, the tucked-in button-up. This is what a punk looks like, foundationally — and his shirt is tucked. The continuity between him and Bruce Franklin and the New Left era is pretty straight. And in the background you can see flared jeans, a guy in a blazer — the idea that punk was primarily a style movement that we can understand through its clothes is hard to square with this photo. And you see something similar with the punks of today, protesting the Google buses (G). They could probably swap outfits with anyone on the bus and no one would notice, because, again, you see how punk is a social movement more than an aesthetic movement.
“You’re not punk based on the clothes you’re wearing. It’s that you all hang out together and care about the same things, you read stuff, you talk about it — and you get out and do stuff together.”
Malcolm Harris’s Palo Alto is at yr local library and coppable here. He’s on Twitter here. His article for The Drift about the possibility of “Ethical Consumption Under Capitalism” is here.
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Just lovely thx
I can't wait to read this whole thing. A couple recommendations to support the Harris book:
1. Dardot and Laval, the New Way of the World: provides necessary context on neoliberalism
2. Dean and Zamora, The Last Man takes LSD: Foucault in California