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The Stark Political Divide Between Tech CEOs and Their Employees

Is Silicon Valley growing away from its liberal and libertarian origins?

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

Two years ago, two Stanford professors teamed up with a journalist to survey more than 600 “elite technology company leaders and founders” about their political views. The average executive, they found, believes in free markets, supports gay marriage, likes environmental protection, hates unions, and distrusts regulation. He says he wants higher taxes to fund social programs, but he’d prefer it if entrepreneurs ran such programs instead of the government. (This may explain his fondness for charter schools.) Countless newspaper or magazine profiles have described his lifestyle. He microdoses LSD. Each year, he travels to Burning Man. He may well have attended the Women’s March or protested the Muslim ban. These, we often hear, are the politics of Silicon Valley—a distinctive mix of liberalism and libertarianism.

Decades ago, two British media theorists came up with a term that encapsulates this set of views: “the Californian Ideology.” In an influential essay first published in 1995, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron described the politics of Silicon Valley as a synthesis of socially liberal attitudes inherited from the Bay Area counterculture with “an anti-statist gospel of cybernetic libertarianism.” The philosophy “promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies,” Barbrook and Cameron wrote, while mixing “the social liberalism of New Left and the economic liberalism of New Right.” It’s why Wired magazine could run a flattering interview with Newt Gingrich on its cover.

Since the 2016 election, politicians and pundits have begun to question the longstanding assumption that the internet is always and everywhere a force for good. But the “tech backlash” has yet to overturn another assumption: that the Californian Ideology still governs the tech industry as a whole. The upper rungs still clearly subscribe to its tenets. Yet those tenets are nowhere near as dominant among the workers who make up the majority. And a failure to differentiate the people who own the industry from the people who work in it is causing the media to misread the rising wave of rank-and-file rebellion.

Employees at companies like Google and Amazon are challenging their employers to drop contracts with the Pentagon, ICE, and other government agencies. They are organizing for workplaces free from sexual harassment and discrimination. They are demanding better wages, benefits, and working conditions for the contractors who supply much of the labor that makes the industry run.

As they do, they are invoking a very different language than their bosses are. Indeed, they are creating a whole new paradigm.

In their essay on the Californian Ideology, Barbrook and Cameron described the people who worked in Silicon Valley as “digital artisans.” Today they are more likely to be called “entrepreneurs” or “creatives,” but the idea remains the same: engineers, designers, and product managers are driven by passion and purpose. As Steve Jobs exhorted them, they do what they love.

Lately, however, this cohort has begun to talk about themselves in a different way, as “tech workers.” Popularized by organizations like the Tech Workers Coalition—which was cofounded in San Francisco in 2014 by a labor organizer and a software engineer—the term challenges the Californian Ideology at several levels. As we usually understand them, workers are not “creatives,” inspired by a higher calling. Most people are workers by necessity, and sell their labor to make a living. By calling themselves workers, members of the new movement are staking a claim to this common identity.

This common identity, in turn, has enabled tech workers to build alliances across roles with the shuttle drivers, security guards, janitors, and cafeteria staff who make up the industry’s “invisible workforce.” In 2017, food service workers at Facebook voted to unionize after white-collar employees distributed materials on campus, did house-to-house visits, and asked pointed questions at “all hands” meetings. The recent Google walkout—which saw 20,000 people stop work in offices all over the world—also involved both full-time and contract employees. In the months since, the organizers have demanded better wages and benefits for the contractors, who make up more than half of Google’s workforce.

If elite paternalism is the preferred mode of Silicon Valley leaders—evident in their belief that people like them should run social programs—tech workers are taking a different tack. While they recognize that different kinds of workers wield different levels of power within a company, they are forging relationships around what binds them rather than what does not.

As Stephanie Parker, one of the organizers of the Google walkout, explained to Wired, “Seeing the cafeteria workers and security guards at Silicon Valley companies bravely demand access to benefits and respect was a deeply inspiring experience.” The tech worker movement has also drawn inspiration from organizing in other sectors. Leaders of the Google walkout hailed as a model protests by McDonald’s workers against sexual harassment. A Google worker who helped lead the anti-Pentagon campaign last year cited the influence of ongoing teacher strikes: “It’s time for us to join the new labor movement,” the worker told Jacobin.

Tech workers are also claiming greater control over their work—control that the Californian Ideology suggested they should have already, but which recent confrontations with their bosses have made clear they do not. At Amazon, employees have petitioned CEO Jeff Bezos for “a choice in what [they] build, and a say in how it is used.” At Google, they have demanded “a say in decisions that affect their lives and the world around them.” To that end, Google organizers want to create a seat for a worker representative on the board, as companies regularly do in many European countries.

These members of the new tech worker movement don’t sound like the “hippie yuppies” of the Californian Ideology. They are embracing a more collective, worker-driven politics—one that owes less to Ayn Rand than it does to Eugene Debs.

Until recently, media outlets have failed to register this shift, because they have let tech executives speak for the industry as a whole. A piece in The New York Times, based on the Stanford study cited above, purported to express the views of “Silicon Valley.” In the twelfth paragraph, the author revealed that “Silicon Valley” meant executives. It’s roughly equivalent to interviewing a handful of Wall Street hedge fund managers and claiming the results speak for New York.

Several journalists have skillfully reported on the tech worker actions. But their colleagues in the opinion pages have mostly failed to understand these actions’ nature and significance. In The New York Times, Susan Fowler wondered whether the campaigns against the Pentagon and other government agencies reflected “Silicon Valley’s strong libertarian leanings.” An editorial in The Wall Street Journal condemned “the rise of campus-style political activism among Silicon Valley employees.”

These analyses fail to register that the tech worker movements are creating a new paradigm—a paradigm that breaks with the mix of libertarian anti-statism and hippie-inflected liberalism that continues to dominate tech’s leadership class. The leaders of the tech worker movement are making a new and paradoxical gambit—that by claiming a common identity as workers, they can exercise their special power. Rather than waiting to be saved by CEOs, they are threatening the profit engine. They are betting that when tech workers who are expensive to hire and train join in collective action, CEOs must pay attention.