War Is the Air We Breathe

I’m sitting in an old 1830s farmhouse near the border between New Hampshire and Massachusetts. It’s over 90° and quite humid, as it has been since I arrived five days ago. It seems the heat wave will only intensify in the next days. I spent a lot of time here in the 1980s and early 1990s before my daughter was born and then when she was a child we spent most summers here. I passed through once in the early 2000s, but haven’t spent time here for more than 25 years. It’s delightful to be with my granddaughters, who are now 7 and 4 and at the peak of enjoyment for a lazy summer in New England on a sprawling farm with a swimming pool, birds and bugs galore, and plenty of attentive adults to engage with as needed. I feel quite blessed to have this time with them, it passes SO quickly, and they are growing emotionally and intellectually by leaps and bounds. It’s great fun to watch it up close.

Salisbury Beach on a 90 degree day in July…

Discovering a baby bird in the barn…

Meanwhile, I’ve been groping towards writing something for my blog. I haven’t felt uninspired exactly. More that I’m lacking focus. I’ve read another ten books that I think deserve discussion and analysis as I usually do here. But unlike some times when the connections between the books seem clear and what I have to say helps link them into a larger (hopefully cohering) essay, my thoughts have not been gelling this time.

I attended a gathering of neo-Luddites at the Blue Mountain Center in the first week of June. Perhaps I should clarify that Luddism doesn’t mean what most people take it to mean: an uncritical knee-jerk refusal or rejection of all technology or “progress.” That would be a meaningless position. As Brian Merchant makes clear in his excellent Blood in the Machine that I talked about in a previous post, the actual workers in early 1800s England who attacked various factories and machines were quite selective. They went after machines that they identified as worsening their lives and making their exploitation more extreme. They did not attack all machinery, and actually were adept at choosing technologies that improved their lives and made their work lives more pleasant, more endurable. It was primarily a class struggle against those who owned the new factories and were imposing new machinery to speed up and intensify the work process without taking into account the effects on those who would run the machines. Ultimately the original movement (under the name of a mythological General Ned Ludd) was brutally crushed by the British government using capital punishment for all sorts of relatively trivial property crimes. Since the 1810s, the term ‘Luddite’ has been thrown at any and every group or individual who suggests that the decisions about technologies, labor processes, economic organization, etc. are misguided and should be critically considered. The idea that we have taken wrong paths again and again in the interests of private profit can hardly be controversial at this stage in history. And yet, every challenge that arises from anyone who doesn’t own enough wealth to make unilateral decisions that affect us all is met with derision and the dismissive term “Luddite!” In its slightly watered down version, critics are accused of standing in the way of Progress. (Read my “The Progress Club: 1934 and Class Memory” for a clear look at how this worked in San Francisco’s 20th century history.)

I anticipated meeting super interesting people at the Blue Mountain Center meeting—which I did—but I did not imagine we would find enough commonality that we’d leave there with a shared mission. As it turns out, most of the attendees endorsed a two-part agenda to follow through on. Part one, that I participated in, focused on finding a way to document and record the history of the past half century of tech criticism and neo-Luddite actions. This might include an extensive internal bibliography (since so many of the folks in the larger community already have huge libraries and have produced so much interesting writing and other works of tech criticism), as well as an annotated selected bibliography to publish online that would be a convenient “one-stop shop” for those who are beginning the exploration of these themes. The future website should include histories of past conferences, past anthologies, past publications, as well as documenting the ongoing campaigns that are fundamental challenges to the direction of technological development in our current era—I frame it as a battle over the direction of the General Intellect. Whether we’re talking about the overarching challenge to the petro-chemical industries who are primarily responsible for the unfolding climate catastrophe, cancer epidemic, and much of the biodiversity collapse too, or the burgeoning efforts to challenge the rollout of AI in the context of a rapacious surveillance capitalism dominated by a few monopoly tech firms, or the global (and tech worker) rejection of Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza using state-of-the-art armaments paid for by U.S. taxpayers or produced by the only dynamic sector in Israel’s domestic economy, war tech. There are many more examples of movements “from below” contesting the design and uses of technologies, the purposes to which our shared technosphere is put. Biomedical research is another area that is presented as a benign series of technological breakthroughs, but simmering within and without are social actors who reject the resurgent eugenicist agendas bolstering much of this work, who recognize the absurd patriarchal and heteronormative assumptions that underly all of modern medicine. Peasant movements connecting with agroecologists are crossing the global north-south boundaries to contest the multinational grain and drug companies who dominate an unsustainable and ecocidal industrial agricultural system. And so on.

My granddaughters’ great-great-grandfather was Al Capp, cartoonist of the L’il Abner strip that was extremely popular from the 1930s to the 1970s. Here in 1948 he introduced his metaphor for generalized abundance, the Shmoo!

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Silicon Valley: A Living History

Googlers Against Genocide, several dozen of whom were fired recently after some inspiring protests mounted in and against their venal employer.

Malcolm Harris’s remarkable book, Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism and the World, is not only one of the best histories of California anyone has written, he’s also a fantastic writer. Right from the start he tells us he doesn’t want to write about himself because he’s “like a bad bowler, always headed straight for the gutters of historical context rather than for the pins of personal revelation.” Lest we doubt his ability to perceive the deeper truths about California, already on page 22 he declares: “If European leaders came to see the rest of the earth as their private juice box, then California’s engineers were on the ground aiming the straw.” And a dozen pages later he convincingly asserts “Anglo-American West Coast history is so brief that there is no California fortune we can’t trace back through these original expropriations of land and labor. It takes work not to see it.”

Harris delves into the post-Civil War era decisions that shaped the following century and a half of racist American history. Rather than concede to the liberatory impact of Reconstruction-era federal civil rights legislation, California politicians scratched the back of the defeated South, joining together to solve their linked need for cheap labor. They ceded the South to the Confederate redeemers and gained their support for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. This allowed California’s agricultural capitalists (definitely not small family farmers!) to pedal “the state’s nonwhite labor like a bicycle: When they pushed one group down, another rose to replace it, and the whole contraption moved a little farther down the road. Via this continuous pumping motion they transformed the state’s cropland, from low-value wheat to high-value fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The commodities were expensive and the profits were high, but it’s the land itself where the real value accumulated.” (p. 123)

And this is where Harris really excels: explaining not only the deep history of California, but finding in this land-based accumulation of wealth the beating heart of what becomes today’s Silicon Valley. The directors of the California Real Estate Association met at Palo Alto’s fanciest hotel in March 1964 to plan a ballot proposition to preserve racially restrictive housing covenants, after a Fair Housing law had passed the state legislature and been signed by Governor Pat Brown. Proposition 14 won in every city in the state and passed statewide by a huge majority, only to be struck down a year later by the California Supreme Court as unconstitutional. But the ballot proposition had proven itself an indispensable tool for California’s radical right, “with capitalists mustering white voters into the civic vigilantism that had been part of western settlement since Leland Stanford was paying militias to hunt Indians.

Whiteness intertwined with home values in new ways in the last quarter of the twentieth century, but the California dream was always about land speculation premised on racial exclusion and domination. This relatively populist mode of wealth accumulation provided a safety valve for corporations as they competed to boost profits by reducing their commitments to society. Expanding suburbs bid down their business tax rates to lure industrial jobs, and the state’s tax burden—both in the rapidly growing ‘burbs and in the urban districts that capital abandoned with equal and opposite speed—shifted to individuals. (p. 379)

Encampment to protest Gaza attacks at UC Berkeley.

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And Yet, We Go On

Difficult to sit down and begin writing. Not so much a writer’s block. I just find everything that I might write a bit distant and empty in light of living in a country that is actively supporting the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Waking up to the daily reality of tens of thousands of murdered civilians, ongoing bombing, and aggressive belligerence by Israel in the region, all with the unqualified backing of Biden and his minions, is unacceptable. And yet, we go on.

To be sure, Gaza is only what gets everyone’s attention. The endless war in Ukraine, the unseen civil war in Tigray/Ethiopia/Eritrea, the millions dead in eastern Congo… it’s exhausting. And then the governmental rush to send even more armaments, lubricating domestic war industries, to the wrong people in the wrong places: living in the USA is shameful by definition. And when weapons become obsolete and surplus? Give “grants” so local police departments can buy the excess and become increasingly militarized in their violent assaults on black and brown people, especially on the border. And yet, we go on.

I appreciate my friends and neighbors who have maintained protest camps on campuses, blocked the Golden Gate Bridge and the Nimitz Freeway, and kept the weekly pulse of protest alive during these dark days. I don’t very often show up for demonstrations anymore. I want to believe that they are having an effect. But Bush/Cheney ignored 12 million people marching against war in 2003 before attacking Iraq, and I don’t think the ruling class failed to register that there were no consequences for simply ignoring popular mobilizations. It’s become standard operating procedure. And yet, we go on.

On a more personal note, my daughter just turned 40—a strange sensation in itself—and is off to visit a European friend who has only weeks to live, dying of terminal cancer. A pal I play with every week is going through chemo and radiation for his two cancers. Who doesn’t know someone who has either died, or recently been diagnosed with cancer? We live in a world saturated with countless toxic chemicals, food additives, drugs, radiation, and yet we continue to allow corporations to manufacture and distribute them. The cancer epidemic is not a mystery. Petrochemical plastics are choking waterways and waste systems everywhere. Turning a blind eye, the U.S. government authorized the building of new plastics factories, one of which is slated to produce 2/3 as much plastic in one year as has been produced since WWII! Gotta do something with all that fracked natural gas. Export as much as possible and use the rest to make plastic. And of course keep drilling for oil and building pipelines, as though we were still in the early 20th century. What kind of madness is this? And yet, we go on.

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