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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It IS Happening Here

Recent mural in San Francisco

There’s a lot of hand-wringing these days over the likelihood of Trump’s return to power. I find it hard to imagine that a majority of voters would choose him. Then again, I find it hard to believe that anyone thinks well of Joe Biden or the Democrats, given their blind support for the fascistic Netanyahu and their active participation in the genocidal campaign in Gaza, and their belligerent expansion of hostilities across the Middle East in the past months. The cash cow of arms expenditures unleashed by the Ukraine-Russia war is yet another example of the Democratic Party’s dependence on “military Keynesianism,” an economic program going back to WWII. I wrote about the war-mongering reality of the United States a couple of years ago, but I’m taking it up again after a few recent books I read.

In The Jakarta Method, Vince Bevins does a great job of summarizing the wholesale mass murder that was at the heart of U.S. Cold War policies.

…in the years 1945-1990, a loose network of US-backed anticommunist extermination programs emerged around the world, and they carried out mass murder in at least twenty-three countries. There was no central plan, no master control room where the whole thing was orchestrated, but I think that the extermination programs in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, East Timor, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Iraq, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, the Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Taiwan, Thailand, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Vietnam should be seen as interconnected, and a crucial part of the US victory in the Cold War. (p. 238) …this loose network of extermination programs, organized and justified by anticommunist principles, was such an important part of the US victory [in the Cold War] that the violence profoundly shaped the world we live in today. (p. 239)

It’s a gripping claim and I think it’s indisputable. What Bevins does not try to do, but his book provides an important piece of foundational continuity for, is to show how the extermination campaigns under the aegis of “anti-communism,” while barbaric and largely ignored, denied, or immediately forgotten, were built on the same logic that has been running through U.S. history since its founding. The genocidal slaughter of American Indians begins well before the founding of the country in the late 18th century (not to mention the role of slavery in providing the capital to launch the industrial revolution). But as the post-Civil War wars were unleashed by the newly victorious and industrializing federal government, systematic extermination was the result in California and elsewhere.

There’s a wonderful exhibit of Bonnie Ora Sherk’s work at Fort Mason right now.

Jonathan M. Katz’s 2021 book on General Smedley Butler, Gangsters of Capitalism, fills in another chapter in this sordid history. Butler started out a teenage Quaker anxious to earn his manhood by going to a “good war” to “liberate” Cuba from Spain in 1898. From there his life as a Marine goes on, most immediately being sent to the Philippines where a war of national liberation that the United States had initially claimed to support soon became an extended counterinsurgency effort for the U.S. military. During the next three decades, Smedley Butler climbed the ranks of the Marines while being put in the middle of one horrifying U.S. intervention after another. He was in Panama when with U.S. support they broke away from Colombia and became a separate nation just in time to sign a treaty giving the United States sovereign control over the Canal Zone (where they then built the Panama Canal). He was among the troops invading Nicaragua in the 1910s and installing a U.S.-friendly leader. He participated in the attack and invasion of Mexico in 1915, he became the defacto military leader of Haiti in the late 1910s and early 1920s. He was in China a couple of times, first to protect U.S. businesses during the Boxer Rebellion in early 1900s, then in 1927 as the forces under Chiang Kai-Shek unleashed a force of criminal gangs to carry out a wave of mass murder against the Communist Party of China in Shanghai. He even helped set the stage for the militarization of domestic policing during a stint as the head of Philadephia’s police. And there’s more (but you’ll have to read the book).

Katz sums up Butler’s role:

Smedley Butler had led troops on the bankers’ behalf to overthrow presidents in Nicaragua and Honduras, and gone on a spy run to investigate regime change on behalf of the oil companies in Mexico. He had risked his Marines’ lives for Standard Oil in China and worked with Murphy’s customs agents in an invasion that helped lead to a far-right dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. In Haiti, Butler had done what even the Croix de Feu and its French fascist allies could not: shut down a national assembly at gunpoint. (p. 325)

Butler’s most lasting mark on Haiti was the Gendarmerie. Following the example Trujillo set with the expansion of his Guardia Nacional in the Dominican Republic, near the end of the occupation the Gendarmerie was reorganized into a new national army, the Garde d’Haiti. “We cannot overemphasize the fundamental political difference between the Garde and the army that was dismantled by the Marines,” [Haitian historian] Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote. While Haiti’s original army “saw itself as the offspring of the struggle against slavery and colonialism. . . the Haitian Garde was specifically created to fight against other Haitiians. It received its baptism of fire in combat against its countrymen. And the Garde, like the [new] army it was to sire, has indeed never fought against anyone but Haitians. (p. 250)

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