Apr 25, 2023, 05:55AM

Malcolm Harris Writes a History of Silicon Valley

Palo Alto is a grandiose failure.

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Malcolm Harris is a Millennial with an axe to grind. Disenfranchised (by late capitalism), then (probably) belittled by older people from previous generations, Harris has furiously churned out books. In most respects they’re exactly like David Graeber and David Wengrow’s recent bestseller, The Dawn of Everything. Just like Graeber and Wengrow, Harris takes on gilded institutions and their sacred institutional histories. Harris is fearless. He’s always ready to raise his middle finger to the status quo. When Harris begins his study of the 1850s in California, all of a sudden, just like in that disappointing Star Wars movie, The Rise of Skywalker, “THE DEAD SPEAK!” Dead Chinese laborers complain about being forced to abandon their gold claims. Dead Mexican laborers describe being “proletarianized,” a word Harris apparently invented for victims like them. (To summarize Harris’s lengthy theorizing, when somebody protelarianizes you, you end up beholden to The Man.)

Harris’ newest book, Palo Alto, tries to turn that city (which is, by the way, located in “Silicon Valley”) into a plausible Patient Zero for every social ill our country has nurtured or endured since it reached the Pacific Ocean. Palo Alto rose to visibility fast, winging its way on ardent praise from Amazon.com (which named it an official Editor’s Pick in History) and The New Yorker, where Jared Leavitt got so breathless reading Harris’s book that he wouldn’t, he announced, be satisfied until somebody laid out before Harris “a whole new array of scandals… [just] to get [his] take.”

Anyway, if we did get his take, then it would, like I said, savor of Graeber and Wengrow. There are even some moments in Palo Alto that sound like Jaron Lanier. (Lanier’s given us one great book, entitled Who Owns the Future? It’s about the dangers of ugly inequalities, capable of costing lives, that get hidden from our view by glossy technology.) Yet the difference between Harris and writers like Jaron Lanier or David Graeber is simple: Harris refuses to concede that every truth has its limits. He pushes every diatribe as far as he honestly can, and then he just keeps on pushing.

The Dawn of Everything, for example, only appeared after its two authors were finished devoting years of their lives to refining their arguments and checking facts. Lanier also paid his dues; he abandoned a lucrative, cutting-edge career in Silicon Valley in order to write books that attacked it. Harris, meanwhile, hasn’t done a thing except get really loud, and strident, in his ongoing bid for relevance. As he roams carelessly from era to era, unveiling an enormous list of unwept atrocities, Harris reveals himself as an amateur scholar who’s read exactly one book—and not a page more—on every historical subject he intends to understand. Standing history on its head, which has cost other scholars so much time and trouble, has started looking legitimate just because it’s angry.

When America’s cultural curators, megaphones in hand, start legitimizing books like Palo Alto, what does it matter that his facts are rotten, or that his “through-lines” to the present moment are a bunch of wispy fictions? The constant, noisy effort Harris makes to restore equitableness to American history pays, it seems, all of those debts for him well in advance. I’ve yet to see a single page of his work called into question.

Which it should be. The mistakes trickle in slowly. One of them concerns pioneer John Sutter’s bell, which he rung somewhere in the Sacramento Valley of California. This terrible device, according to historian Albert L. Hurtado, had the power to “[herald] the arrival of a modern sense of time in the Sacramento Valley… [Now] some Indians were wedded to a concept that proclaimed that time was limited and that it had economic value… the arrival of the modern sense of time coincided with the establishment of market architecture.” Harris quotes Hurtado credulously, despite the fact that Spanish missionaries had already begun colonizing Alta California almost a century earlier. Sutter may perhaps have managed to ring his own personal bell first, before any churches did it, in that part of the Sacramento Valley, but he certainly didn’t introduce Western notions of linear time to anyone in California—Native-American, Mexican, or American. Americans weren’t the first people there; they weren’t even the first Westerners. Everyone, including Indigenous natives, had also had a chance to see goods being purchased, and goods being sold, thanks to a wholly Spanish “market architecture” that arrived via new roads linking settled missions together. But Harris sacrifices any discussion of California’s immense debt to the Spanish in favor of a fanciful image—John Sutter ringing his bell. Yet the bell, in reality, is unworthy of mention, with none of the significance Harris attributes to it.

Then Harris just starts to exaggerate, whenever doing so will create a slightly louder “BANG” at the end of some sentence he’s dying to amplify. Having reasonably established the cultural diversity and biological richness of California, he suddenly calls it “the world center of cultural and biological diversity,” which it wasn’t then, and isn’t now. (The “world centers” of biological diversity, as most schoolchildren know, are our planet’s tropical rainforests. As for cultural diversity, the winner is anyone’s guess; all I know for sure is that I haven’t succeeded in living there, and I’m a native Californian.) He begins referring to Sutter as a “psychopath.” He transforms a boring labor surplus into incandescent prose by writing that “Chinese labor …supercharged the trans-Pacific labor contractors,” a process that seems like it should’ve killed the labor contractors instantly. In reality, since the word “supercharged” doesn’t mean anything, they survived.

Exaggeration is a broad and tempting road; once taken, it leads to bigger problems, including the ability to contradict yourself. For example, Harris loves diversity, and this makes him very hostile towards cereal grains. “Miners planted wheat, barley, and oats,” he writes angrily, and then blames these “generic” crops on whiteness and capitalism. Later on, he notes that California also produced “grapes and apples,” because “the best way to get gold miners to eat fruit was to squeeze it into alcohol.” After that, he describes Chinese laborers growing strawberries in Santa Clara County, “ground zero for the wheat boom.” They also grew raspberries in Santa Clara County. Blackberries, too. There was even enough room—at the ground zero of generic, racist wheat farming—for the widespread cultivation of gooseberries, a rare fruit now found only in recipe books. Harris finally decides that “California wasn’t a monoculture; it was still one of the most diverse places in the world.” That’s another exaggeration, but he’s right that “monoculture” never took over, which means he’s wrong that “wheat weakened the landscape.”

From this point on—in the middle of the first chapter—Harris’ Marxist history of California falls apart completely. He’s right that “unpredictable returns [on wheat farms] pulled the rug out from under a whole cohort of small West Coast Anglo settlers,” which means that there never was, properly speaking, some kind of cancerous “wheat boom” led by white farmers making outrageous profits but destroying their lands. Harris is right that many California settlers, after purchasing land, sought to become “gentlemen farmers.” That means he’s wrong that “California’s agriculture was ranch-based… so there was no significant yeoman tradition.” Mexican ranch owners had, in fact, been nothing other than California’s original yeomen. When California passed into American hands, after the Mexican-American War, white immigrants took their place. California’s history, despite what Harris says, is replete with smallholders. Did that make it a more tolerant, sustainable, or equitable place? Not really. So why can’t Harris just stick to the facts? They’re awful enough without embellishment. Every part of California that isn’t named in its entirety, like Stanford University, after some villain with blood on his hands, is lined with busy streets that are.

Harris isn’t content to write a true history of Palo Alto because the source of his anger isn’t buried in the bloody details of America’s transcontinental railroad. He’s angry about a rash of suicides that plagued one generation of Palo Alto teenagers, as he says in the book’s introduction: 

[S]ome people earned whatever they got… We all got the message. The suicides started in 2002… The official tally undercounts the victims by at least half because it excludes young people who killed themselves after graduation, even when they returned to the tracks to do it. The community experienced not two clusters but a constant flow of tragic deaths in the twenty-first century. It continues: a month before I finished this manuscript, a twenty-two-year-old Gunn High graduate ended his life on the tracks.

Then Harris admits something profound. “I write about myself like a bad bowler anyway,” he confesses, “always headed straight for the gutters of historical context rather than for the pins of personal revelation.” This is his way of introducing us to a book where, without a trace of irony, he delivers an unbelievably tedious 709 pages of supposedly relevant historical context without returning to those suicides until the book’s final pages. At last, in those final paragraphs, Harris pulls back the curtain: “Even if Palo Alto itself looked down the long list of its dead children and saw the light, there’s not much anyone can do. The beauty of the design is that the rewards call forth the winners, and the winners create the losers.” This is the vision he’s been quietly nursing all along. Harris is horrified by our country’s indifference to anyone who can’t find a way to get ahead.

Yet he is, himself, a monster of indifference and presumption. Instead of including the Spanish and Mexican history of California, he ignores and belittles it. Instead of sympathizing with the desperate hopes of the “forty-niners,” who risked everything to sift a tiny piece of gold-rich territory, he mocks them. He also mocks Irish-Americans, and then he exoticizes Chinese-Americans. He has nothing but sobs and tears for California’s helpless, faceless Mexican-Americans. (His book has an entire chapter on Leland Stanford, Jr., but doesn’t devote a single sentence or footnote to Cesar Chavez.) Harris generalizes about Indigenous tribes as if they contained only identical, noble savages, all of them enjoying a utopian existence of plenitude and peace.

The fact that he considers himself an “ally” of the disenfranchised, ironically, creates precisely the right conditions for Palo Alto’s mixture of Olympian detachment and overblown critique. Harris delivers compassion at arms-length, curiously numb to the specificity of individual suffering, and fascinated by precisely those individuals (like Sutter or Stanford) he finds most odious. Every other paragraph, it seems, Harris is trading some piece of California’s history for the right to imagine capitalism in the language of a trashy horror flick: “Capital hit California like a meteor, alien tendrils surging from the crash site,” Harris writes, instead of describing people prospecting for gold. But he’s no better at doing that: “Gold called out to the settlers like Sutter’s bell, begging them to find the shining flakes and kill anyone who got in the way.” In a world like this, where gold whispers to settlers like Sauron’s Ring, people commit suicide pretty easily, just like all those extras walking off rooftops in The Happening. But for all of Harris’ collectivist pathos, I never believe he’s managed to get inside the mind of a single Palo Alto suicide. These weren’t people who saw themselves richly prefigured in the narrative of Californian history. These were people, copycats included, who experienced Palo Alto as a place where they’d grown up feeling terribly, permanently alone. They weren’t dying of too much history, pressing down like a weight; they were asphyxiating in the middle of a whitewashed, gleaming modern city where history gets persistently scrubbed away.

Harris grew up in that same air-conditioned nightmare. Perhaps the reason why we’re never invited to think like a suicidal teenager is that his book, as a whole, is sick with the same illness that killed some of his classmates. He turns the pages of Californian history, biased and angry, making a collage of ghastly things. He gets angry; he gets rhetorical. But he never manages to completely identify with the story that he’s telling. Harris never looks into the story of another person’s life, and feels moved to utter those important words, why, that’s my story… that’s me! He can’t bear to tell the truth because he doesn’t feel entitled to claim it for his own. In a book where Harris is everywhere, his feet never touch the ground; he’s missing from his own book. In a grandiose failure on the scale of Palo Alto, the author wanders the earth, immune to the humanness of the past, crying brotherhood until his poor reader is shivering all over.


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