Over the weekend, billionaire venture capital pioneer Tom Perkins complained to the Wall Street Journal that the growing concern with inequality in America portends a persecution of the so-called 1% akin to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. In language he later reiterated to Bloomberg News, Perkins suggested that American attitudes toward the wealthy—especially in his San Francisco—represent a dangerous “drift” in American thinking. “Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?”
In Kristallnacht 1938, a challenge to many of the dominant interpretations and studies of the pogrom, Alan Steinweis succintly described the events Perkins apparently anticipates suffering:
Late in the evening of November 9, 1938, Germany erupted into violence. Through the night and well into the next day, marauding Germans destroyed many of the country’s synagogues and vandalized thousands of Jewish homes and Jewish-owned businesses. They killed dozens of Jews and physically abused many more. As the riots raged, the police rounded up tens of thousands of Jewish men and shipped them to the concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen, where hundreds of them would perish in the following weeks.
Only in retrospect can we recognize that the Kristallnacht was an important step in a process that culminated in genocide. At the time of the pogrom, the goal of the Nazi leadership was to compel the Jews to leave Germany, preferably with as little of their wealth as possible. Concrete plans to commit mass murder of Jews first emerged more than two years after the pogrom, in the middle of World War Two, as Nazi leaders contemplated what they might do with the millions of Jews inhabiting the regions of eastern Europe that Germany had conquered. Only in 1941 when it initiated the “Final Solution”—the mass murder of the Jews—did Nazi antisemitism become sui generis.
Much of the Bay Area discontent to which Perkins was responding is driven by the ways in which Silicon Valley employees are turning San Francisco into a dormitory town where the dorms go for millions. That pattern has dramatically changed San Francisco, which, in the falling dominoes of gentrification, causes similar processes to hit Oakland and environs.
At the center of it all has been the “Google Bus,” unmarked private coaches that ferry tech workers back and forth from the Bay to Silicon Valley. The writer Rebecca Solnit has been one of the most prominent chroniclers of this new San Francisco; here she is on the Google Bus in the Times Literary Supplement last year:
The Google Bus means so many things. It means that the minions of the non-petroleum company most bent on world domination can live in San Francisco but work in Silicon Valley without going through a hair-raising commute by car–I overheard someone note recently that the buses shortened her daily commute to 3.5 hours from 4.5. It means that unlike gigantic employers in other times and places, the corporations of Silicon Valley aren’t much interested in improving public transport, and in fact the many corporations providing private transport are undermining the financial basis for the commuter train. It means that San Francisco, capital of the west from the Gold Rush to some point in the 20th century when Los Angeles overshadowed it, is now a bedroom community for the tech capital of the world at the other end of the peninsula.
All this is changing the character of what was once a great city of refuge for dissidents, queers, pacifists and experimentalists. Like so many cities that flourished in the post-industrial era, it has become increasingly unaffordable over the past quarter-century, but still has a host of writers, artists, activists, environmentalists, eccentrics and others who don’t work sixty-hour weeks for corporations–though we may be a relic population. Boomtowns also drive out people who perform essential services for relatively modest salaries, the teachers, firefighters, mechanics and carpenters, along with people who might have time for civic engagement. I look in wonder at the store clerks and dishwashers, wondering how they hang on or how long their commute is. Sometimes the tech workers on their buses seem like bees who belong to a great hive, but the hive isn’t civil society or a city; it’s a corporation.
The national attention to inequality is expected to be boosted by President Obama’s State of the Union Address tomorrow night. With the forthcoming publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century poised to spotlight the issue even further, Perkins can surely expect to be joined in his irrational fears of persecution, if not in their utterly offensive expression.