The New Yorker published a story, "Sam Altman's Manifest Destiny" (or "SAMD" for short) about Y Combinator et al. I tried to livetweet my reactions to it, but was so frustrated that I gave up about a thousand words in. Nearly every paragraph has a whole essay's worth of hidden assumptions, value judgments, and straight up errors of fact. So, I'm going to try to pull it apart a few paragraphs at a time and see where it takes me. I'll try to keep each post under about 1000 words. Let's get started!

The Title

Yes, it literally starts with the title. Wikipedia says this:

In the 19th century, manifest destiny was a widely held belief in the United States that its settlers were destined to expand across North America.

There's a whole lot of history and ideology in that sentence, so let's dive right in. Spoiler: it's slavery and genocide.

Texas

Unlike most of the rest of the American Southwest, we did not actually take Texas from Mexico in the Mexican-American war. Texas had actually rebelled and seceded from Mexico in the mid 1830s. Contrary to the Texan mythology around its history, this had nothing to do with rugged independence or whatever. Like almost everything else in what became the Confederacy, it all came back, at least in part, to slavery.

Mexico banned slavery in 1829. When Texas rebelled in 1836, one of the reasons given for the rebellion was:

[Mexico] has demanded us to deliver up our arms, which are essential to our defence, the rightful property of freemen, and formidable only to tyrannical governments.

You have to know a little bit of Southern 19th century code here, but "essential to our defence" and "rightful property of freemen," mean they were scared of slave rebellions. You can see this further in the Texan Constitution, which explicitly legalized slavery.

Astute readers will notice that this means Texas actually rebelled twice to maintain the right to own human beings, but that is neither here nor there. The point is that Texas was settled by Americans looking to expand slavery[1], and they carried out a rebellion with the goal of extending the US to do it. This, then, was Texas' contribution to "expand across North America."

Andrew Jackson

There's a lot of ways to approach the "genocide" half of manifest destiny, but the easiest way is to just talk about the grandpappy of all American genocide. Andrew Jackson set out to completely eliminate the Native presence anywhere whites were interested in settling. There's no precise count on how many people died as a result of his mass forced-migrations, but there's a reason it's called the Trail of Tears.

On this side of things, "expand across North America" had an implied "without regard for anyone there already," and that was enforced at gunpoint. This was where American imperialism got its real start.

So...?

I could go way deeper here, because just talking about manifest destiny in detail can fill a semester-long history class. But you get the basic picture here: the title positions Altman and Y Combinator as the new American settlers, spreading slavery and carrying out genocide. Tad Friend probably doesn't intend that, because he probably didn't really think about what "manifest destiny" actually means. But ideological spillage like this tells us a lot, so it's worth teasing out. Literally from the first 4 words, we're being told Y Combinator is imperialism for the internet age.

Paragraph 1

Okay, the title alone took 550 words. Moving right along...

One balmy May evening, thirty of Silicon Valley’s top entrepreneurs gathered in a private room at the Berlinetta Lounge, in San Francisco. Paul Graham considered the founders of Instacart, DoorDash, Docker, and Stripe, in their hoodies and black jeans, and said, “This is Silicon Valley, right here.” All the founders were graduates of Y Combinator, the startup “accelerator” that Graham co-founded: a three-month boot camp, run twice a year, in how to become a “unicorn”—Valleyspeak for a billion-dollar company. Thirteen thousand fledgling software companies applied to Y Combinator this year, and two hundred and forty were accepted, making it more than twice as hard to get into as Stanford University. After graduating thirteen hundred startups, YC now boasts the power—and the peculiarities—of an island nation.

This is actually one of the least ideologically-loaded paragraphs in the whole article, but there's still some bits to pick at.

Stanford

Thirteen thousand fledgling software companies applied to Y Combinator this year, and two hundred and forty were accepted, making it more than twice as hard to get into as Stanford University

The comparison here is apt, but not in the way Friend thinks it is. Stanford was founded as a tuition-free university, and remained that way until 1920. It was meant to be a public good, not a means of individual enrichment. In the 2016-2017 school year, the Stanford cost of attendance is $66,696.

Similarly, the purported value of Silicon Valley is its ability to change the world for the better, and to support the betterment of humanity as a whole. But who was Graham meeting with? InstaCart, DoorDash, Stripe, Docker...? These are the companies lifting all of humankind up, and breaking our chains? Give me a break. It was supposed to give us a better world, and instead it gave us a big bill.

Unicorns

Y Combinator [...] a three-month boot camp [...] in how to become a “unicorn”—Valleyspeak for a billion-dollar company.

Notice what's valued here. It's not about helping people. It's not about improving the world. It's not even about the "make cool stuff" cliché. Y Comb is focused on one thing, and one thing only: getting a few men (every founder at each of those companies is a man) very, very rich. It's pure capitalism. See what I mean about ideological spillage? They can't get through even the first paragraph without breaking (disrupting, you might say) their own smoke and mirrors game about social good.

Corporation as Nation

YC now boasts the power—and the peculiarities—of an island nation.

This is Peter Thiel bullshit, literally.

Powers

A company is not a nation. It is not accountable to any population other than its owners or shareholders. As such, it does not, and must not, have the powers of the state. A company cannot jail you for violations of its rules. A company is not permitted to maintain the monopoly on violence, because that is the role of a state beholden to its people. A company may not, no matter how appropriate it may judge it to be, forcibly redistribute the property of its constituent individuals.

Peculiarities

A nation-state is formed, ultimately, by a social contract. Reasonable people can and do disagree about the exact mechanism and the details of that contract, but clearly some kind of contract is involved.[2] It has a huge range of implied duties and obligations of a state to its people. Most people agree it also has implied duties and obligations among the people, i.e. not only does the government have obligations to the people, but the people have obligations to each other. Part of the contract may be a written document such as a constitution, but that is not necessary and no founding document is exhaustive.

A company is not formed via social contract. It is formed via an ordinary, no-adjective contract. That contract necessarily exists within the bounds of the broader social contract. It is both constrained by and defined in terms of the broader social contract.[3] [4] The contract itself does not even make sense without the broader social contract.

Unlike the state, a company does not have obligations to the people.[5] The "peculiarities" of a state are its obligations to its people, so without that, a company cannot be a meaningful state analog.

Corporatist garbage

The ideology here is standard corporatist crap, and it's extremely common in the American center and especially on the American right. It fundamentally rejects the authority of the state, but not on any principled anarchistic grounds. American corporatists don't consider the state's authority legitimate because they don't recognize legitimate constraints on capital and capitalism.

The reason Friend sees Y Combinator as having "the powers and peculiarities of an island nation" is that he sees capital as, at least ideally, a power co-equal with or even dominating the state. This is a seriously radical ideology, "centrist" or not: even the most milquetoast liberal sees some restrictions on capitalism as good, necessary, and proper. The US Constitution, hardly a fanatically leftist document, very explicitly grants the state a position above commerce, with the authority to regulate it as needed.

Placing companies above the state is one of imperialists' favorite tricks, because it lets them exercise power without any oversight by or accountability to the people. We're only just brushing up against that dynamic here, but don't worry, it'll be back in a serious way soon enough. Keep that Thiel glorious libertarian paradise article in the back of your mind as we move through "SAMD".

Wrap-up

Well, I was originally aiming for 750 words, then bumped it up to 100, and still ended up 600 over. Oh well! We got through "SAMD"'s first 129 words. At this rate, it'll only take 143,000 words to unpack the whole thing. Should be fun! Next post we'll cover (briefly) worker exploitation and (much less briefly) knowledge and expertise.

(Forward to Part 2)


  1. Mexico saw this coming and actually passed laws limiting American immigration to Texas. By the time Texas rebelled, much of the population was there illegally. Don't tell any Texans this. ↩︎

  2. I'm not going to debate basic political philosophy with you, do not @ me. ↩︎

  3. I'm not going to argue nuanced contract theory either. I'm already hundreds of words over and we're 1 paragraph in. dont friggin @ me ↩︎

  4. All of this is extremely simplified, obviously. If you want more detail and nuance, read up on political philosophy, social contract theory, etc. ↩︎

  5. Again, it's more nuanced than this, but at least IMO, the short version is "the people who make up the company have obligations, the company itself doesn't. The state, on the other hand, in and of itself has obligations independent of the obligations of the people who compose it" ↩︎