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The Obscene Invention of California Capitalism

A conversation with Malcolm Harris about his new history of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto, the West Coast’s settler ideology, and recent turbulence in the world of tech. Da The Nation.

When gold was found in the American River in 1848, a brand-new world was born—one that thrust Northern California into the perpetual spotlight, and one in which the market’s insatiable appetite for “innovation” solidified, however ironically, the region’s loyalty to draconian conceptions of racial order. The miners are, in effect, still here—their wash pans have just become iPhones—and still doing their part to uphold a long-standing tradition of the American West: overpromising and under-delivering, all while devouring obscene amounts of global assets in the process. In Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World, journalist Malcolm Harris sets out to identify the origins of Silicon Valley’s doctrine of abundance and rigorously traces its technocratic lineage all the way back to the Golden State’s early opportunists.

Readers of Harris’s earlier books—Kids These Days and Shit Is Fucked Up and Bullshit—will recognize in Palo Alto the author’s biting Marxist critique, deployed here to expose the structural mechanisms of a place so shrouded in its own mythology. I spoke with Harris about the continuous rebirth of the California settler ideology, what a cohesive assessment of the state’s storied tradition of resistance might look like, and what it means that Silicon Valley—especially considering the recent turbulence in tech—exerts dominance in the realm of finance capital. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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