The False Commons: A Blue-Bottled World in Palo Alto

There is a coffee shop in Palo Alto, California that encapsulates the entire ethos of Silicon Valley as a cutting approach to life itself. It is not, strictly speaking, simply a cafe, but rather an event space, a conference venue, a place to hobnob amongst other gilded members of the technocracy.

The combined Blue Bottle Coffee Shop and HanaHaus event space, located on 456 University Avenue, makes a dynamic first impression. Located in the transformed Varsity Theater, a California Mission palace originally opened in 1927, the space first welcomes one via an outer courtyard bathed in sunlight. But the interior of the building is where its real interest lies, for one finds therein HanaHaus, a meeting space built by the German software giant SNP that can only be described with one word: guileless. To walk into the space is to witness a minimalist design catalogue unfurl before your eyes: cream wood tables, sleek-L couches, off-white mini tables. Such items are divided by hanging white boards on which one can, ostensibly, plot out the next great civilizational idea. Glass-encased meeting rooms line the back of the main hall, glinting in their smoothness.

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HanaHaus. Photo: hanahaus.com

While HanaHaus declares that “focus, collaboration, and inspiration are the only regulars here,” what their site’s main page conveniently omits is the class segregation that is practiced therein. For HanaHaus is open to only those willing to pay: the chance to work in one of its seats will cost you 3$/hour. Reserving the “Group Table” goes for 20$/ hour. “Semi-private” seating for four goes for 35$/hour. And a fully private conference room will set you back 75$/hour. For those willing to spring for the full conference room, HD monitors and tele-link software await your use. But the analogue option is always available: “All walls can be used as whiteboards.”

While HanaHaus markets itself as a creative commons open to all, it in fact works not on a logic of openness, but the much cruder one of rent: money for time in a particular space. What would make this far less offensive is if HanaHaus didn’t treat itself like a socially altruistic enterprise. In its presentation of a for-profit-business in such inclusive terms, the company hijacks the language of social progress for its own market ends. It would have been more honest to call the space what it truly is- a social club, for members only- instead of presenting itself as a humanistic community center.

In performing this representative bait-and-switch, Hanahaus encapsulates a particular insidious feature of the start-up culture practiced in Silicon Valley and beyond: it is blind to its own hierarchies. It is class, that old, hoary concept, that is the true mark of differentiation here, made all the more insidious for its blatant disavowal. Certainly, there are still incredibly arduous struggles still left to fight in the realm of race and gender in Silicon Valley, as recent lawsuits have shown us. But even with growing consciousness about how racial and gendered discrimination is reproduced in our societies, it seems as if the one unmovable solid, the one central hierarchy that remains more or less fixed in place, is class. In the America of the future, one can at least hope that racist ideology will be challenged at every turn, and that the struggle for gender equality will continue along ever more propulsive lines. But what one cannot seem to hope for, what is indeed unimaginable, is an end to American capitalism itself.

To walk around HanaHaus is to be confronted by an American culture shorn of socialist education of any kind. As venture capitalist and computer scientists sip espressos, discussing the next Uber-in-the-making, as Stanford undergraduates work furiously on their public policy assignments, trying desperately to be noticed by the governance professor sitting next to them, one stands face to face with a culture that was robbed of its more precious resource: an education in the structural dynamics of the world itself. It was as if, amidst the sleek glass exteriors of Silicon Valley, the effortless hipness it exudes amidst the soaring redwood forests of the Peninsular region, history itself was simply air brushed away, cast off as so much ideological nonsense.

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HanaHaus. Photo: hanahaus.com

How many of these young masters of the universe have a critical understanding of the barricades of 1848, the March on Red Square in 1917, the literacy and land campaigns in Yan’an in 1942? How many of them have read their Kant, Plato, Spinoza, Marx, Spivak, or Butler? How many can make a claim that these thinkers are truly theirs, in the sense of these writings having touched them to the very core of their being? How many of them know what surplus value is and what role it continues to play in our contemporary world? Could they describe the consequences of capitalism in its colonial form, and how they have reverberated down to the present day in South Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East?

One does not want to demonize each and every member of this new gilded class. Some of them hold admirable positions on gender and racial emancipation, and they all no doubt hold great concern for others who are less fortunate. But these young masters of the universe lack an education that is both material (grounded in an understanding of capital) and empathetic (grounded in the participation in struggles to achieve the full of humanity of all people). As such, they are a particularly fascinating blend: literate in languages of code, finance, liberal economics, and redistributive policy, and yet totally bereft in the epistemes that actually matter: Marxism (the analysis of capital), post-structuralism (the philosophical deconstruction of the centered self, which in political terms translates into the critique of nation and empire), and aesthetics (the imagination of difference).

 

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Can HanaHaus cultivate this kind of politics?

If in her recent work An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has called for a form of education which recognizes literature’s ability to generate a collective imagination of an “undecidable future” (474), “a future that is not a future present”(66), then the young denizens of Hana Haus exemplify the exact opposite of such a proposition: though they can transform the world in technical terms, they cannot ever assault the structural pre-requisites of the world they live in. Not only can they not assault the wage form and private property, they cannot even critically analyze them. They can produce marvelous new machines, ones that can make ever more powerful leaps across time and space, and yet each of these innovations remain trapped within the commodity form. The destruction of the divisive buildings blocks of our global society- the wage form and private property- remains beyond imagination.

For Spivak, the literary has an irreducible ethical force that can foster an understanding of the effects of material structures (capitalism) as well as allow entry into the performative practices of different cultures. It allows us to grapple with the complicated link between system and (other) subjectivities. Spivak has thus argued powerfully for literary study as an essential element within educational practice. In her words, such reading practices are necessary because “I believe, in an irrational, utopian, and impractical way, that such reading can be an ethical motor that undermines the ideological field” (352).

And yet for the products of liberal American education, an analysis of both system and subject remains out of reach. They have not the analytical concepts to grasp the former, while they do not attempt the hard linguistic and translative work to gesture towards the latter. They see the world not as a series of contradictions leading to periodic crisis, but as a smooth development towards capitalist prosperity. When they look at a person, they see not a human being negotiating their linguistic, economic, and social milieu, but a potential consumer in search of the next form of market-driven liberation.

To walk through HanaHaus, to speak with its customers, to luxuriate in the smoothness of its architecture, is to wrap oneself in a particularly beguiling form of blindness. How can people so educated, good-looking, literate, and well-spoken be so ignorant of the structural dynamics their own labor contributes to?

 

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Can Silicon Valley Support These Workers?

Perhaps the socialism I speak of cannot be fostered in so virulently segregated a space as HanaHaus. But that should hardly be a source of pity. For “focus, collaboration, and inspiration” used to be found in other spaces, ones not so fashionable as HanaHaus, but maybe more practical and enduring. There was an old and hoary term for those other spaces, one much abused in recent years. It used to be called the public university, the public library, the public museum…the public public, open to all, no exceptions.

Socialism may still be found there, if we do the hard work of cultivating it.

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.

 

 

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