Malcolm Harris, Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World (2023)
Why a pricey suburban college town is the dark heart of the American empire
Malcolm Harris' Palo Alto is not exactly a book about Palo Alto. Or rather, you won't come away from it having learned as much about Palo Alto as its 720-page bulk might have you imagine. I don't mean that as a criticism, since the book has greater ambitions: indeed, its very subtitle promises A History of California, Capitalism, and the World, which the text does go on to deliver. If you were just looking to read about Palo Alto, you'd probably put it down after a couple hundred pages. I myself picked it up expressly to write about as a city book, but despite the square-peg-round-hole category fit, one factor that kept me reading (and taking what came out to nearly 20,000 words of notes) was both my and Harris' being northern California-born millennial writers with an interest in the course of civilization.
In his first book, Kids These Days, Harris made a study of our generation and its tendency toward less-than-impressive personal and professional outcomes. I've been aware of him at least since it came out in 2017, when reviews made it sound intriguing if somewhat ideological and hyperbolic. (One oft-quoted line, perhaps taken out of context: "We become fascists or revolutionaries, one or the other.") Palo Alto, his third book, was published this past February, but I only became aware of it in the summer, when he drew a wave of attention by tweeting about bananas. "Pro-growth lefties accuse their opponents of being out of touch with working-class preferences and focused on consumption instead of production but what do they imagine planning support looks like for, say, 'fresh bananas at every American 7/11' among the world's banana workers?" he asks at the top of the thread in question.
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Even more retweeted was Harris' description of the future that would come after "the expropriation and suppression of Chiquita Corp.": "There need not be any moralism here ('When you eat a banana, you are bad') there just... won't be bananas. Because it doesn't make any other-than-capitalist sense to create a world-spanning daily banana infrastructure for people in Columbus, Ohio." Some of the negative responders seemed to regard Harris as an angry socialist come to take away the bananas whose year-round supply is their inalienable birthright; some of the positive responders asserted that the world will be better off on balance without the industrial systems that keep developed countries in bananas, or that the agriculturally viable alternatives in those counties would actually taste better than the (quite literal) fruits of global monoculture to which we've become joylessly but inflexibly accustomed.
This is, in any case, not a thread easily parsed by common reader; both the exposure it received and the semi-comprehending arguments it set off exemplify the social-media phenomenon of "context collapse." Those unaware of the relevant debates (or lines of discourse, as the current parlance has it) will wonder why anyone would tweet so seriously about bananas in the first place, much less about their patterns of availability in a theoretical future. Equally mysterious is exactly how the position of "pro-growth lefties" on the matter differs from that of (presumably) "anti-growth lefties," though that implied opposition does shed a some light on where Harris is coming from: the online left, a realm complexly riven with and made volatile by countless subtle differences of — depending on how you see it — either philosophical or doctrinal differences, many of them tied up with attitudes toward capitalism.
Something similar to the banana thread is going on, at much greater length, in Palo Alto, throughout which Harris diagnoses what's wrong with the current order of things, and in the process carefully articulates his own location on the ever-more-elaborately divided map of leftism. He does this as a son of Palo Alto who retains a few vivid memories of his time in the city's highly regarded (and proportionately home-price-inflating) public schools. In his telling, they come no more vivid than the day in fourth grade that a substitute teacher "sat us down on the carpet and tried to tell us something important. 'You live in a bubble,' she said, her voice strained and urgent. 'The rest of the world isn’t like this. Do you know that?' Two dozen wide-eyed children looked back at her. We did not know that."
I, too, remember a few such incongruous incidents, vaguely similar in their discomfiting thrill, across the nearly unrelieved tedium of my own schooldays. Harris doesn't mention whether his substitute was young or idealistic, but in my recollection these figures tend to be both, and what they seemed to want to instill in us was an awareness of the relative affluence of our coastal middle-class milieu. In the story Harris goes on to tell thereafter, which spans the mid-nineteenth century to the beginning of this decade, Palo Alto becomes not just rich, but — through the establishment of the railroads, of Stanford university, of Silicon Valley — the red-hot engine of American wealth and global military-industrial-technological dominance from the Second World War on. "If California is America’s America," as he puts it at the other end of the book, "then Palo Alto is America’s America’s America."
This may sound like a great success story, but as Harris tells it, it's more a tale of demonic possession. The malign force in question is capital, the blind, unquestioning service of whose growth has laid waste to countless natural landscapes, once-thriving communities, and indigenous lifeworlds (a term Harris at no point defines, which says something about his assumed audience). And he emphasizes that it is a force, or rather a set or forces, centrally positioning an idea expressed in Frank Norris' 1901 novel The Octopus: A Story of California (a Penguin Classics paperback of which I remember seeing on the desk of my stoner junior-year college roommate). "RAILROADS BUILD THEMSELVES," declares its rail-baron character Shelgrim. "The Wheat is one force, the Railroad, another, and there is the law that governs them — supply and demand. Men have only little to do in the whole business."
In Harris' interpretation, Shelgrim "urged readers (and writers) to think of the world’s transformation at the end of the nineteenth century in terms of forces rather than men, and indeed that explains how a man as insubstantial as Stanford could come to occupy such an important historical place." Harris writes with unveiled disdain for not just Leland Stanford, eighth governor of California and founder of Stanford University, but most of the major players in the development of Palo Alto in particular and California in general, a rogue's gallery of bigots, cranks, gamblers, thugs, and failsons (a word I'm surprised he never uses, given his penchant for "clusterfuck"-type millennial slang). In modern times, "Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are very important characters in the story, but they’re more meaningful as personifications of impersonal social forces"; if they "hadn’t been themselves, some other guys would have been them instead."
That doesn't stop Harris from taking personal jabs at them, and especially at Jobs, whose unpleasant body odor and callous personality come in for reference after conspicuous reference. "If Jeff Bezos was a well-trained capitalist, then Jobs was a jaw-dropping natural talent," he writes. "He was so good at escaping his obligations and foisting them onto other people that as a young founder he threw his pregnant girlfriend out of the house and successfully abandoned her and the child for years, only relenting and paying $385 a month in child support after a DNA test." This passage brought to mind the time I stayed at an Airbnb (a service founded by what Harris calls "the Airbnbozos whose defining feature is an eagerness to unleash forces they don’t understand onto as many people as they can, as fast as possible") run by the sister of that very girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan.
Brennan had then recently published a memoir called The Bite in the Apple. "Everybody thinks Steve Jobs was such a good guy," her sister said, "but this book tells the truth about him." I didn't reply that, as far as I could tell, almost nobody thought Steve Jobs was a good guy. There was, of course, a widespread respect for his sheer success (which can reach idiotically worshipful heights here in Korea), but seldom did I hear it expressed without acknowledgement of his profane tirades, his parking across three disabled spaces, and so on. Some speak admiringly of his "reality distortion field," which could be a manifestation of what Harris calls his "instincts for exploiting people, for getting the most out of them without putting too much into them, for implementing harsher deadlines than workers would otherwise accept," which happened to be "exactly the qualities history was ready to elevate."
Despite a fascination with early personal computing, I never got interested in Jobs, who, like many American titans of industry, always stuck me as an absolute void of joie de vivre. A similar deficiency afflicts practically every human being involved in Palo Alto, no less the reckless, rapacious capitalists than the ultra-earnest activists and revolutionaries. But in the analysis on offer here, they're not characters in themselves, but rather human expressions of civilizational-scale processes. "What interests me is not so much the personal qualities of the men and women in this history," Harris declares up front, "but how capitalism has made use of them." Adam Cadre, a writer whose work I've long enjoyed, once memorably articulated this kind of worldview: "What are you if not the sum of your contexts? What is a human being if not a locus for history and biology and statistics to play themselves out?"
I can't imagine that Cadre, who's avowedly left-leaning enough to have described large swaths of his own writing as "socialist propaganda," would find much political disagreement with Harris. (This is underscored by his essay on The Social Network, in which he writes positively of the Occupy Wall Street movement in which Harris made his name.) Nor can I imagine that either would find much political agreement with, say, the conservative libertarian venture capitalist Peter Thiel, one of the villainous specters looming over Palo Alto's later chapters. "It’s not precise enough to say that Thiel has been at the right place at the right time," Harris writes. For capital, he is the right place. The historical forces acting through Thiel are much larger than his intentions; if there’s anything that sets him apart from his peers it’s that he understands that fact better than they do. Forces, not men."
Such is "the Palo Alto System," whose train is still "barreling down the tracks." Harris invokes railroads as both metaphor and brute physical actuality: the "octopus" that connected California to the rest of the continent, of course, but also the commuter train that has ended the lives of a fair few bright young Palo Altans. "The suicides started in 2002. That year, a Palo Alto High freshman stepped in front of the Caltrain, the same locomotive line on which Leland Stanford built the town." A string of similar incidents followed over the next dozen or so years, some of them not without distant echoes. "In January of 2010, a Foxconn worker" — that is, an employee of the Taiwanese company known for fabricating iPhone parts — "jumped to his death the day after a teenager in Palo Alto died on the tracks. In January of 2011, it happened again."
If I read Harris right, the suicides of students in Palo Alto's best-and-brightest pressure cooker (one of whose early products was Stanford graduate Herbert Hoover, whose epoch-reflecting exploits take up many pages) and the those of the manual laborers at Foxconn are both not by-products but essential characteristics of the economic system established during the "American century." Though this doesn't strike me as implausible conclusion, it is somewhat difficult to evaluate, despite (or because of) the voluminous information Harris marshals on his way there. Even so, I am on some basic level sympathetic to it: channeling a global elite through a handful of American universities does seems to be one of the deranging conditions of our time. Not long ago I read a mock college-application letter written by a friend's teenage daughter, 5,600 miles from Palo Alto, that expressing her all-consuming desire to be accepted to "Standford University."
I'd be lying if I said I was aligned enough with Harris to find his book wholly convincing. (As I said in my piece on Owen Hatherley's Trans-Europe Express, I have my doubts as to whether the word "capitalism" identifies a real ideology, or for that matter anything at all.) I did, however, enjoy it more than Gary Kamiya, who reviewed it for the New York Times. "Palo Alto is nominally a history, but it is really a work of grand theory, in this case a familiar one: Marxism," he writes. "For Harris, as for Marx, capitalism is the root of all societal evil, an amoral 'superintelligence' that relentlessly turns those caught in its thralls into either moneymaking machines or oppressed victims." Harris himself held up this part of this passage for ridicule on Twitter, and Kamiya does indeed seem to have given his book an ungenerous reading.
Still, I don't know that Marx makes for so inapt a comparison. What he "got right," to my mind, is his understanding of political and economic history as an interplay of larger forces (a word with whose necessary overuse in this essay I'm beginning to make peace). The smartest of his descendants in "left" writing of various stripes have retained and refined this understanding, a quality I value enough that in these spheres I seldom read anyone to the right of, say, Perry Anderson. But this has also made me more sensitive to the common left-writing failure modes, which include a tendency to miss of the trees for the forest, as it were, as well as a reliance on charged theoretical jargon, oscillation between portentous despair and irresponsible fantasy, and a po-faced disregard for the distinction between sneering sarcasm and genuine wit.
These vices don't manifest in Palo Alto as unrelentingly as in the work of a writer like the late City of Quartz author Mike Davis. Harris quotes Davis a few times, and gives the impression of having learned much from the latter's most astute analyses, not least of the political and economic ills resulting from the kind of permanent mass suburbanization for which California provided the model. The bitter undercurrent running through both City of Quartz and Palo Alto is too strong to credit either book with a sense of humor per se, though Harris does have a way with bizarre metaphors, as when he describes a Reagan-style president as "a cartoon hammer formed from a buzzing hive of advisory bees." But as with much in the book, it's difficult to imagine any reader laughing at it, much less being persuaded by it, without already sharing most of Harris' worldview.
It isn't hard do see why Palo Alto failed to win over a reader like Gary Kamiya, whose political Weltanschauung we can perhaps infer from the fact that he co-founded Salon.com. No animosity could erupt more naturally than that between a middle-of-the-road boomer California liberal and a revolutionary millennial "California communist" (as Harris describes himself in his Twitter bio). Kamiya also happens to have published a book about a northern Californian city: Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco, which I read with interest, but which validated my suspicion that love is the least interesting emotion out of which to write about a place. Kamiya may be right to point out that Harris gets carried away in tracing great modern evils back to his hometown, but at least it keeps him at a safe distance from the embarrassments of reverie and rapture.
Not that Palo Alto is likely to inspire such states of mind in the first place. Somehow the zenith of the mightiest civilization in history — "America's America's America" — has taken the shape of a painfully expensive suburban college town infested with chain stores, a place unable even to contend, on those best-cities-in-the-world rankings, with the likes of Porto and Wellington. My own strongest impressions of Palo Alto date from 2007, when I stayed there for a two-day seminar by Edward Tufte, the information-design guru best known for his opposition to PowerPoint. Though the event was held just across the street from my hotel, crossing that street to get there was such a dull, cumbersome affair that I despaired of my chances for exploring the city. Palo Alto doesn't have a subway system, and in my book, that constitutes a more-than-sufficient indictment by itself.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His current projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.
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