Wendy Liu is the author of Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism. She lives in San Francisco and is working on a novel.
The following is an interview with Malcolm Harris, author of this year’s national bestseller, Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World. Palo Alto is a dense and intensely-researched work of historical reportage that delves into the history of this region in northern California which has had an outsized role in the global economy, particularly in the development of the modern technology industry.
This interview was conducted on September 14, 2023 for Hard Crackers.
Wendy: To me, what’s special about your book is that you’re grappling with the history of Palo Alto and what it represents in the world in a way that acknowledges the role of the powerful. You’re telling the stories of the as yet unnamed masses while also incorporating the more traditional, ‘great man’ history. The result is a sort of critical history which doesn’t ignore the achievements – such as they are – of these so-called great men. You’re not neglecting the perspective from above, but you’re making it more complete by also telling the history from below. And I think that gives your book a lot of power.
There’s a quote that I think sums up your perspective very well. You write, ‘Capitalists were winning because their workers were losing, a reality well camouflaged by the whizbang excitement Silicon Valley produced.’ Could you talk about what you mean by that quote and what you’re trying to achieve with your book?
Malcolm: It means you tell the story of both sides, I mean, as a history of capitalism, which is what I tried to write, that means talking about the relationship between capitalists and laborers. Because that’s what produces capitalism. And that relationship is one of production and one of conflict. And so I talked about both of those aspects – how workers were being brought into this place, and how they made the things that make Silicon Valley into the world landmark that it is.
And then from the other aspect, I discuss their conflict with the capitalists. This conflict exists just as long as – and in fact longer than – production itself. Palo Alto is directly a product of this class conflict, as the working men’s party chased the Stanfords off Nob Hill [a neighborhood in San Francisco in which the Stanfords owned a 50-room mansion] and into the suburbs. So it’s born in this moment of class conflict, but also immediately goes into the production of horses.
Those are the two aspects that I’m constantly looking at in the book. I try to resist the temptation to do either ‘Great Men’ history or history from below, because I’m trying to talk about an object that includes both of those actors and is in fact the relationship between those actors.
Wendy: You mentioned the Stanfords just now. Could you talk more about Leland Stanford, who features prominently in your book? How did he become such a pivotal figure in the history of California?
Malcolm: Leland Stanford didn’t really make sense to me as a historical character until I began to understand that California, in the mid-19th century, was really an overseas colony of the United States. It was! To get there you had to – if you were lucky – go overseas. You went to the Gulf of Mexico, overland through Central America, and on another boat up the coast, which is a long sea voyage and a less direct one than someone was taking say from the Pearl River Delta to California, which is a pretty direct shot even though it’s long. So, it was no easier to get to California from New York – where Leland Stanford was born – than it was to get there from China.
And when you think about it as an overseas colony, it makes sense that somebody like Leland Stanford, who is this sort of petty bourgeois, tavern keeper’s son with a little bit of education and a little bit of ambition, becomes a grand capitalist. The colonies are where things like that happen, not just for the United States but throughout the Imperial World. You send your petty bourgeois young men out to the colony. Some of them die; some of them get rich.
Leland Stanford was one of the ones who got rich. His older brothers had set up these dry goods stores, and he’s the younger brother who gets a hardware store which, because of its proximity to the Gold Rush, grows and grows. Eventually, he becomes part of a consortium of four midsize capitalists that take on the project of a Transcontinental Railroad. And then they try to get out of it as soon as they get into it since it’s way above their heads and it wouldn’t have happened except that the Civil War breaks out and suddenly a northern railroad route becomes important. They had bought this route from Theodore Judah, who had died.
Leland Stanford is the least capable of these four capitalists that come to dominate Northern California industry and that’s why he becomes the front man. The other three are smart enough to stand behind him because they know they’re pulling all sorts of shady deals to get where they are. But he more or less gets away with it, and comes to stand for the oligarch class in the West very quickly. He becomes one of the richest, most famous, influential men in the world. He becomes the governor of the state for a little while; he becomes a senator for a minute, but we mostly know him now because of Stanford University, which bears not his name but the name of his son (Leland Stanford Junior).
Leland Stanford Senior had a lot of different wacky ideas. He thought co-op economics was kind of cool. He’s really what I see as the prototype for today’s tech oligarchs, who say all sorts of stuff, despite not knowing what they’re talking about. Some of those things end up being correct just because we’re in a time of great change. You can throw a dart at a board with enough money behind it and maybe you’ll hit something. The economy needs men like that to put large amounts of capital to work even if they’re scammers and con men, and in fact needs them to be scammers and con men. It’s a need that has persisted through this whole time period. We can see it in Leland Stanford as much as we can see it in someone like Elon Musk.
Wendy: I was definitely thinking of the modern-day parallels when you were talking about Stanford. A lot of what you’re saying about him applies so well to contemporary tech oligarchs.
Malcolm: If you look at things he was interested in and plans he had and ideas he had, a lot of them amount to nothing. And then some of them amount to the invention of motion pictures or whatever. But he didn’t exactly come up with that himself – he hired engineers. That’s the same as Steve Jobs or Elon Musk or any of these people. Steve Jobs didn’t actually invent the iPod, but he had something to do with it. Same with Leland Stanford and Eadward Muybridge inventing the motion picture on his farm.
Wendy: It seems to me that capitalists in Silicon Valley are really good at shepherding large groups of people–including many with technical expertise – and finding a way to take credit for their work. Not just the engineers, but everyone involved in assembling these products, including those working for much less pay and under much more constricting conditions.
Going back to Leland Stanford, I think it’s notable that a lot of his wealth came from the railroad, which obviously involved a ton of workers, many of whom were Chinese immigrants working for little pay under grueling conditions. Unsurprisingly, like many men of that age, Stanford himself held fairly racist views, especially when it came to the Chinese. Could you talk more about that?
Malcolm: Mae Ngai’s most recent book (The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes, Chinese Migration, and Global Politics) is really good about Chinese immigrant workers in this period throughout the world. She looks at California as one of the main examples and one thing she really does a good job of getting across is that these workers were not serfs. These were middle-range workers who actually got paid pretty well compared to what their salary might have been otherwise. Their consumption level was relatively high.
They did conduct labor actions and were able to improve their wages. They were not paid as well as the white workers they were replacing, but the key was more that they were dependent on the jobs than that they were particularly badly paid. But also, that they were capable.
And so, there’s this discussion among the railroad capitalists: they can’t figure out a solution for a reliable labor source because the indigenous people, that they try to get to work, work when they feel like it and, when they don’t feel like it, can live off the land. And that doesn’t really work if you’re constructing a railroad. And then the white settlers that they wanted to work for them basically did the same thing, except that it wasn’t living off the land, it was going to work on gold and silver strikes. So, they would work until there was some better opportunity at some mine, and then they’d ditch you.
They [the railroad capitalists] needed a group of workers who were going to be dependent on these jobs. And they came up with this idea … there were already Chinese workers in Northern California who’d been pushed into a marginal labor market position, out of the mines and into employment in the gold industry – but not like proprietorship, through something called the foreign miner’s tax, which was a tax foreign miners had to pay if they wanted their claims respected.
This presented an opportunity for the railroad capitalists to bring in a bunch of these workers to be dependent on them. There’s a discussion that looks like: Well, they’re Chinese, can they build a railroad? Well, they built that big wall, it’s like the largest construction project in the history of the world. And, in fact, it was the case that the Chinese had advanced construction techniques and were more familiar with the use of explosives and construction through mountains and cliffs. So, the railroad owners were dependent on these Chinese workers not so much because they could be paid so little, but that they provided a comparative advantage to the white workers, both in their dependability and in their skills.
Leland Stanford, like men of his age, was constantly trying to come up with racial typologies that fit the empirics of that situation. He was held up by white supremacists as an example of how capital was undermining the white race by bringing in non-white workers, which is why the Workingmen’s Party – which was a white supremacist party in addition to being a workers’ party – targeted him in particular for bringing Chinese workers. At the same time, Stanford was not a soldier for racial equality. He was profiting from the marginalization of those workers. That’s what made them worth hiring in the first place.
Wendy: Everything you’re saying about these Chinese railroad workers makes me think of the modern tech industry, and especially the engineering class, who are often racialized – a lot of them are from China or India and are often here on restrictive visas. It seems like there’s a certain difficulty in common parlance in thinking of these workers as workers in the more traditional sense. This historic example you’re providing, of railroad workers who were skilled workers – engineers in fact – and had reasonably high consumption levels but were still able to conduct disruptive labor actions despite that, makes me wonder if that could be an interesting blueprint for the modern tech industry.
Malcolm: It’s definitely been a blueprint for the tech industry in terms of employment. I think California’s proximity to Pacific labor flows out of the Asian continent, the way it acts as an entry point for the whole country, have as much to do with the state as any group of immigrants or any geographic relation period ever. Whether it’s from China and Japan and the Philippines and Korea and Vietnam, you can keep going through different groups of immigrants that California is relying on to have churn in the labor market. It’s asking different things from each group of immigrants over time, who the country wants because it’s selective about that even as you’re bringing in lots and lots of people throughout this whole period and has used immigration law consistently to direct labor flows, whether that’s to exclude or to include or to predatorily include which is the sort of result of the synthesis of those two things.
Today you have H1B visas. You’ve got workers who are dependent on their employer, formally and legally dependent on their employer for their right to work in the country and their right to be in the country. But, we should also think back to the 20th century and the investments in education that produced those workers in the first place, especially out of India and South Asia. Huge amounts of resources were dedicated by those societies to producing a cohort of skilled tech workers. They built a series of technical universities. And absolutely the same thing in China – huge amounts of social investment in education, with the idea of catching up to the consumption levels of other societies after being pushed down by imperialists for decades.
Now what is the result of that? You have tech companies in the United States picking off talent from around the world to assemble the labor force that it needs to build Facebook or the next Facebook or the Metaverse or whatever.
That doesn’t mean that someone who immigrates from India to take a tech job in California is bad. But we can see this flow of value, from what was called the Third World when these investments were being made, going into California once again, siphoned from the rest of the world. You could also see it with the collapse of the Soviet Union – you saw tons and tons of tech talent that the Russian society had spent huge amounts of resources creating being siphoned off into the United States and California in particular.
Wendy: In the history that you’ve been looking at for this book, what do you think is relevant for people who are trying to understand what the possibilities are for themselves? You cite a few examples of revolutionary communists and different types of disruption that have occurred in Palo Alto as a place as well as the broader tech industry. Are there any that stand out to you that might serve as useful reference points?
Malcolm: I think if you look at the anti-war movement during Vietnam – which did include a fair number of tech workers or would-be tech workers at the time, and included internal critiques of tech systems that are very resonant with what we’ve heard now from tech workers who don’t want to see their work going towards drone systems or artificially intelligent combat systems. I think this is going to be a huge issue in the next decade and is already a huge issue. These were workers who deployed their research skills to figure out what their work and the work going on at the institutions around them was being used for in the world, and what it had to do with what was happening in the world, and they took responsibility for that.
And I think we’ve seen – especially since the Project Maven protests at Google – some real intention from tech workers to do that kind of work, to look at what’s going on in their industry and to look at the products of their labor and say, are we building the world we want, or are we being compelled to build a world we don’t want? And how can we intervene in our workplace? How can we take workplace action to change what our industry is doing in the world? And to what degree can’t we? You’ve got to figure out what those limits are and where they are and how to work around them or transcend them.