Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World
By Malcolm Harris
(Little, Brown and Company, 720 pages, $36)
Some might wonder why a conservative would choose to read and review California native son Malcolm Harris’ Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World. After all, the millennial journalist and Occupy Wall Street alumnus has repeatedly expressed his dystopian view of the world and disdain for corporate America, especially organizations spearheaded by Republicans, not to mention his flair for the vernacular in his past books Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials (2017) and Shit is F**ked up and Bullsh*t: History Since the End of History (2020). Color my glasses rose tinted — I was intrigued by Harris’ ambitious decision to put 150 years of California history under a microscope and so approached his latest oeuvre with an open mind.
Weighing in at a sprawling 720 pages, Palo Alto is not for the slow reader nor for the thin-skinned. After I completed the section about personal computing and software development, with detailed portraits of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, I thought the end was near, but then I realized that I still had 50 years to go. That being said, the book’s sheer massiveness and its wonkish detail about everything — from orchards to printed circuit boards, to military computers, to personal computing, to the internet, to Google, to social media, to Amazon, to Uber — are quite engrossing. Harris has an engaging narrative voice and a marvelous command of language despite his propensity for peppering his work with expletives.
Harris’ thesis in a nutshell is that California’s wealth engine, or what he refers to as the “Palo Alto System,” is based on a bifurcated (a word he overuses) master plan whereby the rich (especially the white rich) become richer by exploiting the poor and the disenfranchised minority populations. More specifically, he pinpoints Stanford University and its connections to Republican President Herbert Hoover as the evil root that produced the military-industrial complex, conspicuous consumer consumption, venture capital, etc. His extensive commentary on how the graduates of elite institutions like Stanford and its East Coast peers, such as Harvard, gain the prize spots in government, industry, and academia is hardly revolutionary. Yet, he feels the need to drumbeat this bleak worldview for 720 pages, with comments like this assessment of contemporary society:
[I]nstead of making progress toward the widely prosperous (if not equal or egalitarian) society that capitalism promised[,] [t]hings are getting worse. The series of socioeconomic phenomena I’ve called bifurcation continues to accelerate as growth decelerates and the domestic class struggle becomes increasingly zero-sum. For every app billionaire, job quality deteriorates.
Palo Alto’s most informative chapters are the early ones, where Harris provides a detailed background on the historical milestones of the area that we now refer to as Silicon Valley. The sections dedicated to the establishment of the Bank of Italy (now Bank of America), which initially provided loans to the fruit growers and for the creation of Stanford University, were particularly diverting. I also found the section where he discusses Stanford’s more recent internal political dichotomy to be interesting. While the university has become increasingly more progressive over the past seven decades, it still maintains its thriving conservative bastions, such as its Hoover Institution think tank arm and the campus’s chapter of the long-standing conservative group Young Americans for Freedom.
Harris’ anti-capitalist biases along with his doomsday perspective undercut the power of his narrative.
Although the writer takes a few minor potshots at left-leaning capitalists, like Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, he reserves his best verbal ammunition for the Right. He describes President Richard Nixon as “an avatar of the Los Angeles white power missile suburb” and President Ronald Reagan as “a fink” and “an empty-headed actor who distinguished himself from his fellow liberals by testifying to HUAC against communist influence in the film industry.” Harris must have run out of creative sobriquets by time he got to President Donald Trump, upon whom he bestowed the well-trodden moniker of “clown.”
The book’s biggest weakness is that Harris offers no real solutions to the problem that he has so eloquently, if selectively, depicted. He does make a half-baked suggestion that perhaps Stanford University should return its 8,000 acres to the Muwekma Ohlone Indian Tribe, which “asserts an aboriginal claim” to Palo Alto. However, he fails to even demonstrate what this token gesture would accomplish. Furthermore, he does not acknowledge the many positive byproducts of capitalism, such as the rise of meritocracy and self-made wealth.
Malcolm Harris is to be commended for undertaking such a comprehensive study of the Golden State. Unfortunately, his anti-capitalist biases along with his doomsday perspective undercut the power of his narrative. While capitalism may be responsible for some of the dark chapters in the state’s history and present-day status, it also is responsible for creating a myriad of opportunities for social and economic empowerment for many people.
California deserves a better historian than Harris.
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