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Author Malcom Harris' version of Palo Alto: a microcosm of a capitalist system


There's one narrative about the rise of Silicon Valley in Palo Alto, Calif. - that it's a place where the entrepreneurial spirit roams free, nurtured by fine schools and open minds, whose progeny go on to create things that make the world better for everyone. And then there's Malcolm Harris' version in his buzzy, sprawling new book. It is a microcosm of and a metaphor for a capitalist system that advantages the few at the expense of the many, that extracts as much as it can as fast as it can, leaving exhausted soil, bodies and souls in its wake. His book is called "Palo Alto: A History Of California, Capitalism, And The World." And when I spoke with Harris, he told me that the idea for the book came from his thoughts about his childhood in Palo Alto.

MALCOLM HARRIS: So I'm born in 1988. The Soviet Union project ends in 1991, and so my existence is almost coextensive with this unipolar capitalism. I've really grown up near it and in it. And in Palo Alto - I moved there at age 8, which is in the mid-'90s - I really got to see the sort of dot-com rise, the rise of the internet. And I think we're all living in that world and the consequences in that world more and more every day.

MARTIN: So one of the things that's so interesting about the book - you spend time on the so-called great men, people like Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford University. These are the famous people who so often dominate historical narratives. But you weave their stories into a view of the larger forces that you call the great man under global capitalism. So what is the role of the great man under global capitalism, like, somebody like Leland Stanford? And of course, at some point I need you to tell us who he was and why does he matter so much.

HARRIS: There's a lot of debate about where and when capitalism starts and how, but there's not a lot of debate about where and how it becomes a world system. And that's at the second half of the 19th century with the incorporation of California, Australia, China and Japan and this link that closes this chain around the world to establish, for the first time, a true global system of production. And Leland Stanford is that guy. He's the front man for the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. He really is our first Silicon Valley tech baron. But this was a time of really great class conflict.

And so in the 1870s, when the workers are mad at him, showing up outside his house, threatening to drag him from his mansion on Nob Hill, which is a hill in San Francisco where all the richest guys lived at the time, he takes his family and he moves to the suburbs. Except the suburbs don't exist yet, so he has to create the suburb in order to move his family away from this class conflict, and that's how Palo Alto was born.

MARTIN: I mean, you do pin a lot of focus on the cruelty that underlies some of these central figures and the companies that they made. You know, look, I'm certainly not going to defend the cruelty that underlies many great fortunes throughout history. Many of the great inventions of our time - I mean, you think about, like, some of the great libraries, some of the great collections, some of the great art. Most people weren't getting the benefit of that. Is this era really so different?

HARRIS: Well, I think it is different because we're talking about a very limited amount of time - right? - between the end of the 19th century and now. Even in terms of American history, this is a relatively short period of time. In that period of time, those technologies and forces that we've invoked since then - you know, that Palo Alto represents to the world - have been incredibly destructive. So when we're talking about nuclear missiles for the first time - right? - we're talking about the power to destroy the Earth.

And that was a power wielded consciously out of Palo Alto on purpose with this idea that equality was at stake - right? - that Palo Alto's place, an unequal perch on top of the world, was at stake and that these people had to come up with some way - some tool to secure that position for the 20th century. And now that we're in the 21st century, we can look back and say they succeeded. They did that. So that's not just moving money around, right? That's serious. That's war, right? That's a lot of bombs you have to produce, a lot of chips to go in those bombs that you have to produce.

MARTIN: The book has gotten, I think, a lot of buzz. On the other hand, the criticism that I've seen so far is that you talk about capitalism's many ills, but you are indifferent to the alternatives. Like, how many people have been slaughtered by communist regimes throughout history, right? And, I mean, I don't know if that's a fair criticism in the sense that most historians don't necessarily write a history book and then end it with a manifesto about what should happen next. I mean, they're reviewing what has already happened. But I don't know. What do you make of that argument?

HARRIS: Yes, I'm a Marxist. I understand history as the history of class conflict. But that doesn't mean that my project is the weighing of hearts, right? I'm not saying this guy's a capitalist, so he's bad. This guy's a communist, so he's good. That's not the project of the book. It's to try to understand this history. And the best way I can understand that history is as a history of class conflict, and that's the argument I put forward. Now, when someone writes a history of the Soviet Union and they critique Stalin, do they then have to list, you know, how many people died in the Vietnam War that were killed by American bombs? Of course not.

And so this is a pretty well-worn practice called redbaiting, and it's like bearbaiting - right? - is that you throw out these poorly made arguments with the idea that someone like me is going to have to spend all of their time responding to, well, what about Venezuela? Well, what about the Soviet Union? - and doesn't actually get to put my argument out there in terms of the interpretation of the history. And that's a way to marginalize these sort of critical voices about capitalism.

MARTIN: It's fascinating. Do you have a hope for how people will use this book? I mean, I do take your point that it arrives at a moment where there's so much going on in the tech industry right now - just these kind of waves of layoffs, and people are looking about whether the costs and the benefits equate. I'm just - I'm curious about how you hope people will use this work.

HARRIS: For me, the purpose of the book isn't to say, you know, the emperor has no clothes because we figure that out about Silicon Valley every 20 years, every 15 years, whatever. The same cycle repeats and we say, hey, look, these guys aren't geniuses after all. And so what I'm trying to get at in terms of how we can put this to use and put an understanding about this history to use is that if you point out that the emperor is naked, it doesn't necessarily make him not the emperor anymore. If people have a deeper memory for these cycles, hopefully they can look underneath the sort of bubble phenomenon to the mechanism that's causing those bubbles in the first place.

MARTIN: That's Malcolm Harris. His new book, "Palo Alto: A History Of California, Capitalism, And The World," is out now. Malcolm Harris, thanks so much for joining us.

HARRIS: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.