The Children of California Shall Be Our Children: On Malcolm Harris’s “Palo Alto”

February 14, 2023   •   By Ben Beitler

Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World

Malcolm Harris

IN 1969, DURING its occupation of Stanford’s Applied Electronics Laboratory, the April Third Movement published the following statement:

The university is deeply involved in production for private profit. It produces, often at public expense, skilled labor and scientific knowledge. [Stanford] isn’t a temple of the intellect or a place where disinterested scholars examine the world. It is a center for the development of knowledge and resources for human use.

The question was, who controls these resources, and to what use are they put? The laboratory was known to be researching “electronic countermeasures” (radar jamming) to aid the US bombing campaigns in Vietnam. Opposing what they understood as an imperialist war and Stanford’s role in it, the Movement’s student radicals held the site for over a week, during which they received a supportive visit from no less than the Black Panther Party’s Bobby Seale. Their action resulted in the removal of classified research from campus. (This ban apparently remains controversial.) Interpreting the occupation’s legacy, Malcolm Harris describes it in his new book as “a powerful real-world example” of technology becoming an object of class conflict. The American military and the capitalist interests it defended had access to the Applied Electronics Laboratory — and then they didn’t.

This scene takes up a page and a half in Harris’s 720-page Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World. As Harris recounts in a section entitled “Shoot the Computers,” the April Third Movement’s occupation was but one in a series of assaults on the United States’ vulnerable data-processing infrastructure during the Vietnam War, much of which was located on the campuses of research universities. These included bombings of computer centers at Boston University, Fresno State College, the University of Kansas, and the University of Wisconsin, as well as a computer “kidnapping” at New York University. Motivating these attacks was an analysis not unlike the one that guides Harris’s own writing: by the latter half of the 20th century, the US university system had become integral to “military re-armament Keynesianism,” a program of economic growth in which the state funds defense-related research to develop technology industries, which in turn provide weapons for war against anyone who challenges the right of American capitalists to exploit resources around the world. To the members of the April Third Movement, “the struggle at Stanford” was a “microcosm” in a much larger fight against such imperialism: “We are engaged in a conflict with the kind of men,” they wrote, “whose interests got us into Vietnam, and whose disenchantment with the rising costs of that conflict will eventually get us out.” Harris agrees, presenting the April Third Movement within a panorama of the era’s radical California groups that, directly inspired by the Panthers, positioned themselves on the domestic front of a worldwide anti-colonial struggle.

By the time Harris reaches the 1970s, it is clear why Stanford would seem an appropriate target in this fight. The book presents a polemical but thorough history of the school and the town where it is located. Drawing upon archival research and a wide-ranging bibliography of secondary sources, Harris details Palo Alto’s evolution within a California economy about which Karl Marx commented in 1880 (in a passage that serves as the book’s preface): “[N]owhere else has the upheaval most shamelessly caused by capitalist centralization taken place with such speed.” Harris sees in this “upheaval” patterns that continue into the present.

Preeminent among these is class conflict, conditioned by chronic labor shortages and frenetic mechanization in all California industries, with the state’s elite training its “techno-scientific maximizing gaze on the land” from the moment it arrived. Another important pattern, imbricated in the first, is “white racial formation.” Harris presents Stanford’s founding in 1891 and the early struggles to direct its future as a battle between the Stanford family and David Starr Jordan, “an ichthyologist and school administrator committed above all to the genetic future of the white race.” Following the mysterious poisoning of Jane Lathrop Stanford, Jordan took power, setting the university’s course as a factory for the workforce and forms of knowledge demanded by a budding tech sector. “In a mere 25 years,” writes Harris, “Jordan’s plan transformed [Palo Alto] from a frontier university hamlet to a post-industrial center where men invented the tools that shaped the aerospace, communications, and electronics sectors and the era of American global domination they enabled.”

But these weren’t just any “men.” Even as they positioned Stanford at the center of the region’s new high-tech economy, Jordan and his colleagues pursued research in “bionomics,” a racialist vision of the human species. In the early 20th century, when the citizenry was increasingly being considered a state resource, Stanford’s leaders pursued rational methods for producing a white technocratic class that would administer an economy ordered by the very technologies they had invented. Harris claims that bionomics “underpins Palo Alto’s ethos into the present day.” His book offers a history of its monuments, both local (the mid-century ghettoization of Black and Brown populations within the separate city of East Palo Alto) and global (the tech industry’s systematic exploitation of immigrant and offshore labor in manufacturing).

Like the April Third Movement’s tract, Harris’s work thus proceeds from a critical inquiry into the purposes of American higher education. This is not a new project for Harris, who for a decade has consistently backed up a loud Twitter presence with compelling analyses of American economic conditions and their ramifications in social life and culture. His debut, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials (2017), historicized that generation’s particularities in the workplace, making the argument — evident in retrospect — that what older bosses saw as quirky behaviors (a seeming willingness to blur the separation of work and leisure, an eager use of social media, etc.) were only symptoms of a lifelong adaptation to economic precarity. Millennials were not a cohort of individuals freely choosing their paths through life but so much “human capital,” refined from childhood in such a way that their very anxieties could be put to the service of employers demanding ever more labor for ever less pay.

In Palo Alto, Harris deepens and defends this materialist view of education. “[O]nly by understanding how we’re made use of can we start to distinguish our selves from our situations,” he writes. “How can you know what you want or feel or think — who you are — if you don’t know which way history’s marionette strings are tugging?” The question is made poignant by the fact that Harris himself is from Palo Alto and self-admittedly “shot through with its symptoms.” Though it avoids autobiography, Harris’s book is nonetheless as much a product of Palo Alto as the author himself, a result of history tugging its strings one way and Harris tugging back across the page. This work of rewriting stories that saturated the author’s own childhood environment is what makes Harris’s book more than a synthesis and vulgarization of academic histories of Silicon Valley (though it is, in part, also that). Both the earnestness and the acidity of Harris’s prose can be read as signs of an effortful articulation of the historical reality of what has been called “the Californian ideology,” an ideology that shaped Harris’s own education and development.

Writing against this ideology involves breaking its idols, recasting their lives and works against the backdrop of capitalist development. Leland Stanford thus becomes “a happy monkey dancing for history’s organ grinder,” while Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are “the repellent young men” who “got capital from the crisis of the 1960s to the ‘greed is good’ 80s.” Over the course of some 20 lengthy chapters, Harris studies the economic forces for which the lives of these “visionaries” come to seem but fleeting “personifications.”

Harris’s treatment of Jobs is typical. Rather than dwell on biography, Harris pursues an “ecosystem analysis,” placing the early days of Apple “in the context of statewide, national, and global changes in the relations between workers and owners.” He describes Xerox’s contracting with Apple in the late 1970s as motivated by a need, on the former company’s part, to build a personal computer while avoiding its own high labor costs. Jobs was valuable to Xerox because “Apple combined great branding with the worst of Silicon Valley’s labor practices,” contracting piecework manufacturing to a nonunionized workforce largely made up of Southeast Asian women. In the 1990s, “an estimated one-third of the region’s Indochinese immigrant population was employed assembling printed wire boards.” By the time Apple began offshoring manufacturing to China through Taiwan, both its products and its labor practices were typical of an increasingly “bifurcated” economy. In the 2000s, even as immigration to Silicon Valley increased and the hard edges of its whiteness blurred, these continued to largely delineate the region’s class stratification:

America imported a bifurcated cohort of immigrants to fit a bifurcating pattern of employment, and for every Silicon Valley investor or board member or founder from the Third World, there was a family of refugees in a local basement performing the low-wage manufacturing labor that animated the computer industry’s numbers. Neocolonialism provided more than a market for Silicon Valley’s defense-ish electronics; it provided a labor force as well.

Caught up in Harris’s telling, it becomes difficult not to see, in the contemporary success of a company like Apple, the same forces that eventually brought Stanford to crack down on the April Third Movement and its anti-imperialist rhetoric, and that have conditioned the university’s success for a century. Though certainly not the first to name the “consistent, lawlike tendencies” of California’s racial capitalism, Harris’s ability to follow these patterns in the sheer diversity of their results is remarkable. Within this historical perspective, what is the vision of a Steve Jobs?

Evaluating a book that is at once so detailed and so ambitious demands too much of any single reviewer. Professional historians will be better placed to weigh the merits of Harris’s presentation and to say whether it deserves the amount of publicity it has already received. For lay readers, Palo Alto might be judged by its explanatory power. At the time of this writing, two current events seem particularly well illuminated by the models developed in Palo Alto. If OpenAI’s ChatGPT can generate text that mimics human speech and writing, it is only because it has been trained on some thousands of texts whose authors furnish a “corpus” that is rendered invisible in the bot’s responses, thus replicating in stunning miniature the logic of a tech economy that produces information while hiding bodies. And the strike carried out by the University of California’s graduate students, postdocs, and student workers highlights historical stakes that have yet to be acknowledged by all parties: on one side, a university that obeys “tendencies” recalling Stanford’s, doing everything in its power to maintain the brisk production of “skilled labor and scientific knowledge” at as low a cost as possible (notably by not providing adequate housing to students, essentially demanding that they mortgage their current health against whatever value their degree will have for future employers); and on the other side, a union of student employees and scholars, so much human capital aware of itself as a site for the “development of knowledge and resources for human use,” striking to win the money and rights necessary for greater autonomy in the present.

Though occurring too late to be included in Palo Alto, both the achievements of ChatGPT and the UC strike seem but the latest entrants in Harris’s story. That story began with Leland Stanford, in words as unnerving as you let them be, promising his wife Jane that “the children of California shall be our children.” Harris’s book offers no end to this tale, only the possibilities for thought and action that spring from its symbolic parricide.


Ben Beitler is a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s French department. He is from Palo Alto.