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A History of California, Capitalism, and the World: Malcolm Harris on New Book “Palo Alto”

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We speak with author Malcolm Harris about his new book, Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World, in which he writes how his hometown in the heart of Silicon Valley and home to many tech billionaires has helped to reshape the economy by exporting its brand of capitalism to the rest of the United States and around the world. “It’s important to see the internet and its history as this relation between capital and the government,” says Harris in a wide-ranging interview.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As we continue our look at Big Tech and the internet, we’re joined by author Malcolm Harris. He has just published a fascinating new book called Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World. It’s a history of Silicon Valley and so much more. Malcolm Harris grew up in Palo Alto. As the Los Angeles Times put it, quote, “He also had the good luck to make it out alive. In the years Harris attended Palo Alto High, students killed themselves at a rate between four and five times the national average, walking to their deaths on the train tracks that Leland Stanford built to escape the labor unrest of San Francisco more than 100 years earlier.” Malcolm Harris joins us now from Washington, D.C.

Malcolm, it’s great to have you with us. Congratulations on your book. You just heard our first segment, where we looked at the Supreme Court cases last week that could redefine what these Big Tech companies can do. Can you put this all in a historical context for us? Because you’re not just talking about the internet, you’re looking at these Big Tech companies and talking about the history of capitalism in this country.

MALCOLM HARRIS: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s important to see the internet in its history as this relation between capital and the government. And it’s often told as this just Cold War story, a defensive plan for America, but the internet really was an offensive tool to coordinate American affairs abroad and corporate affairs within the United States. And so, it’s important to see this link as primary and constitutive of the internet.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the history of Palo Alto. Talk about the history of Leland Stanford, the history of the companies that would lead to the number of billionaires, the surge of billionaires that we’re seeing today, and why that affects everyone.

MALCOLM HARRIS: Well, it’s a long history, but you can start in the 1870s, where Leland Stanford, who’s the frontman for the railroad and, really, capital in the West, is facing a situation where workers are yelling outside his house all the time. And he lives on Nob Hill in San Francisco, on the biggest house on the fanciest hill, and the workers know just where to find him. And so, like many other rich people trying to escape class conflict, his solution is to move his family to the suburbs. But, unfortunately for him, the suburbs don’t exist yet in the 1870s, and so he has to create a suburb to move his family to in order to escape this class conflict that he’s created. And that’s really the original story of Palo Alto. And you can follow that line through the next 150 years.

AMY GOODMAN: So, take us through that line, right through to, well, you growing up in Palo Alto and that quote I just read from the Los Angeles Times talking about the number of kids taking their own lives on the railroad tracks that Leland built.

MALCOLM HARRIS: Yeah, this is a tension that I really point to at the heart of the town, which is this contrast between the greatest wealth explosion in the history of man, which happens over this 150 years, and not just in the ’60s and not just in the ’80s and not just in the 2000s, but really over this whole period — California and Palo Alto stands for huge amounts of wealth. And at the same time, it builds this haunted patina and culture of tragedy that I saw firsthand.

AMY GOODMAN: Go back to Reagan’s time. Talk about the Attorney General John Ashcroft.

MALCOLM HARRIS: Yeah, so, John Ashcroft is the attorney general for George W. Bush in the —

AMY GOODMAN: I mean George W. Bush. Sorry.

MALCOLM HARRIS: Of course — in the early 2000s. And when we talk about Section 230 or the Telecommunications Act, we talk about the ’90s, we talk about the Atari Democrats, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and we sort of let George W. Bush and Ashcroft and that administration off the hook. But if you go back and look at the record, when George W. Bush gets elected and he appoints Ashcroft, the tech industry is super excited. They could not be more hyped about the naming of John Ashcroft, which, for those of us who were involved politically at the time, is surprising, because John Ashcroft is this hard-right-wing Christian conservative character, you know, famous for the 10 Commandments fight. But he was also really well known as being pro-tech, down back to the Betamax case in the

And so, when he came in, he was very, very friendly with the tech companies. The first thing he did was drop the antitrust suit against Microsoft, which was a huge decision for the Justice Department at that point and really sets the stage for the internet as we understand it now. He also targeted file sharers for individual prosecution. And so, he set up the internet situation we have now, where individual users might be liable, if they post the wrong thing, to an FBI raid, but the large tech companies themselves are insulated even from monopoly questions.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the specific billionaires that were created in Palo Alto, in Silicon Valley.

MALCOLM HARRIS: Well, there are so many, you can’t even list them all. But one I think it’s really important to look at, especially around this historical hinge, is Larry Ellison at Oracle, who made his money as a CIA contractor for Oracle and, after 9/11, really leads the tech industry into a new patriotic pose, a new patriotic position. And he goes to the government and says, “I want to create a national ID program for you. I want to put every — and require immigrants to have national ID cards, and have a national database.” And he gets Democratic support for this policy, and it’s very close. And it’s this last moment of libertarian-right and left-wing association that defeats this proposal. But since then, it’s men like Larry Ellison who have really been running things.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about others.

MALCOLM HARRIS: Yeah, I mean, you can draw a straight line from him to Elon Musk to the Google guys to every tech billionaire that we’ve got, is drawn, one way or another, from this big pile of money and the people who got rich on the Y2K bubble at around the same time. They’re just putting their money back into new platforms, new opportunities, and creating more rich guys like themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you started writing this book after being part of Occupy Wall Street. Talk about what most surprised you in your research.

MALCOLM HARRIS: What most surprised me in my research in this book is just how short California history really is, that we’re only looking at 150 years since Anglo-American colonization. And that means the Indigenous people, specifically the Muwekma Ohlone, who I write about, as the ancestral inhabitants of Palo Alto, have been expropriated very recently historically. It’s not the same story as we have on the East Coast. And so, to write one story about American colonization is really to lump everyone together in this inaccurate way. So, if there’s one message I can get across, it’s that how shallow this history is.

AMY GOODMAN: You conclude by arguing that Stanford University should return some of its land to the descendants of the Muwekma people.

MALCOLM HARRIS: Yeah. There are 614 registered members of the Muwekma Tribe. It’s a politically organized group of people. They’re going to be lobbying the government next month, have been continuing to lobby the federal government for the restoration of their federal recognition. And that’s something that Stanford has supported. Stanford has acknowledged them as the ancestral titleholders of this land. So now the question is: How do you move back to restoration? How do you move back to returning that land and returning that federal recognition? And that’s something people can call their congressmen about.

AMY GOODMAN: You continually refer to the “Palo Alto system.” Explain this term that you coined.

MALCOLM HARRIS: Well, I didn’t coin it. It was coined in the 1870s, actually, when Leland Stanford and Charles Marvin, his head horse trainer, were looking for a new way to train the youngest, fastest horses in the world. And this is how Palo Alto really starts, is as a horse stock farm. And that Palo Alto system, where they’re applying new kinds of science and profit-directed tools to create life and monitor the production of life, underlies Palo Alto, even if people don’t know that history.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the suicides of classmates when you went to Palo Alto High. You also talk about the suicides of Apple workers in China. Talk more about that.

MALCOLM HARRIS: And this is something I knew about but, until I was really doing the research, hadn’t connected, that these waves of suicide — and they’re conceived of as waves or clusters — are really happening at the same time, and to young people who tend to be around the same age. These are young workers at the Foxconn plants, for example. And the idea that these are disconnected phenomenons struck me as hard to believe, when we know the connection between Palo Alto and the connection between these iPhone factories is so tight. And it seems like the kind of haunting that’s affected this town from its beginning.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about the roots of eugenics at Stanford University. Explain.

MALCOLM HARRIS: Yeah, Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, was a leading eugenicist, and he helped make the school a real center for eugenics in the United States, including by recruiting Lewis Terman, who refounds the IQ test as a test of human quality at Stanford. And Stanford propagates these ideas of human hierarchy and the hierarchy of races throughout the world in the 20th century, culminating with William Shockley Jr., who is one of the most famous racists of the 20th century, as well as one of the godfathers of Silicon Valley.

AMY GOODMAN: According a Crunchbase News tally, more than 100,000 workers in U.S.-based tech companies have been laid off so far this year — 11,000 Meta workers, 10,000 Microsoft. Talk about the connection between the layoffs and labor organizing.

MALCOLM HARRIS: Absolutely. We saw this wave of layoffs, which really also pales in comparison to all the hiring those same companies were doing in the years previous, as a sort of cosmetic offering to the financial markets to show that Silicon Valley still can control its labor costs, that Silicon Valley is still capable of laying off thousands of people at a time without facing any consequences or any disruption. And so, it’s less the future flow of funds is improved by laying off these workers than that they’re signaling something to the markets. And that signaling has been very successful, and the companies that have done it have benefited on their stock price disproportionately.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Malcolm, if you can talk about the Black Panthers and Palo Alto, this history of California, capitalism and the world?

MALCOLM HARRIS: Sure. The Black Panthers, as a Bay Area-focused or -located, primarily, most important communist party of the American postwar period, really has a huge effect not just on the Bay Area and not just on the country itself, but on the whole world. And this question of why is California a hot spot in the history of anti-colonial revolt in the 20th century asks us to consider California in this real global historical context as opposed to just part of national history. And the Panthers signaled something important about that context.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Malcolm Harris, journalist and author of the new book, Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World.

Coming up, we look at a new bipartisan push to finally ratify the Equal Rights Amendment a half a century after it was passed. Stay with us.

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