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New Social History ‘Palo Alto’ Tells a Story of Laborers and Exploiters

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Brightly colored book cover reading 'Palo Alto' in all caps sits against green-hued image of the city taken from the SF Bay
In 'Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World,' Malcolm Harris writes from a Marxist lens in this grand-in-scope history. (Photo by Bill Dally/iStock; Cover from Little, Brown; Illustration by Sarah Hotchkiss)

We’ve all seen a version of the domino effect meme. In it, a man (YouTuber Stephen Morris) crouches low to demonstrate how a small domino can knock over a larger domino which can knock over an even larger domino and create a chain reaction. The meme has been used to explain how the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand lead to WWI, or how an apple falling off a tree in the 1600s could be responsible for the tears of high schoolers in math class four centuries later.

In his new book, Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and The World, writer Malcolm Harris positions the foundation of Silicon Valley as a small domino that unleashes the true final domino, the destruction of the world. It’s a bold claim that, after reading the argument laid out over the book’s 700-plus pages, is not entirely unearned or unconvincing.

Harris is also the author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, a formal account of the birth, promise and maligning of the millennial generation which counts him as a member. Harris, who is based in Washington, D.C., began his writing and research for Palo Alto in 2020 — although in many ways, the seeds of this story were planted in childhood, which he partly spent in Palo Alto.

The book opens with an unexpected data point: teen suicide rates from the early 2000s. Beginning in the 2000s and extending well into the 2010s, a pattern of teen suicides began to occur on Caltrain tracks, the railway line near Palo Alto High School where Stanford University’s founder, Leland Stanford, helped establish the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.

Red haired white man in glasses smiles with arms crossed
Author Malcolm Harris. (Julia Burke)

“You have this historical confluence between this suicide wave that is coextensive with my own childhood,” Harris explains, “as well as the story of the railroad and so, the connection between those two is the foundational violence that led me into the subject.” Rather than use this data as an entry point to a memoir about surviving one of the world’s most famous bubbles, Harris uses it to open a line of investigation into the heart of a city that has achieved so much and at such a great cost.


Palo Alto is divided into five sections that cover significant time periods of roughly 20–50 years, the last of which is 2000–2020. Both in subject and tone, Harris’ writing merits comparison to the work of anarchist archivist David Graeber, a man described by The New York Times as a “caustic critic” in his 2020 obit. Harris’ sentences are accessible but packed with information — the footnotes of this book could form another book — and very pointed. Some readers may be unprepared to hear him casually declare the state “a whiteness cartel” or the decidedly un-reverential way he speaks of key figures in Silicon Valley’s history (Noyce, Packard, Jobs, Wozniak, Gates) who are most often written about in hagiographic terms.

But, as Harris will openly admit, the book is written “from a Marxist lens.” He adds that as a Marxist, “the closest to an objective understanding of history as we can get [is] by plotting this history through the struggle of classes.” In his own words, his book strives to keep company with and follow in the mold of writers who took part in the histories they documented and “whose rigor I aspire to” like Cedric J. Robinson, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, H. Bruce Franklin, Mae Ngai and the late Mike Davis — “a North Star” and fellow Marxist — whose books City of Quartz and Prisoners of the American Dream are considered among the definitive histories of power and class struggle in urban America.

The field of social history emerged as a response to the popularity and obliqueness of political history, which focused on elites and “great” (read: rich and white) men, and erased, through omission, the lives and experiences of the masses. “So much of our reception around history books and social history books and social commentary books is siloed sometimes and particularly by race,” Harris explains. “This book isn’t sold as an Asian American history book, but that doesn’t mean that Asian American history isn’t a central thread of the whole story.”

Black and white illustration of future Stanford campus
An illustration depicts an aerial view of ‘Senator Leland Stanford’s Farm at Palo Alto, California’ in 1888. (Interim Archives/Getty Images)

To tell the whole story, Palo Alto wrangles together seemingly disparate threads: railroad colonialism, the founding of the Bank of California in 1864 (the nation’s first commercial bank), Japanophobia, forgotten Black Beat poets, an interracial coalition of striking farm workers, the invention of the microchip, and the post-9/11 information arms race.

Palo Alto, exceedingly deliberative and grand in scope, is a social history of a city via the people who built it — both the laborers and the people who exploited them. In this way, Harris lays out a clear corollary for how the history of one zip code is the story of California, which, “with its high profits and bifurcated labor force,” he writes, “modeled capitalist discipline for the nation.” The second concept in the book’s descriptive title is actually its main player, as Harris argues nearly everything that has happened has been propelled to happen by the perennial winds of capitalism.

Harris writes about capitalism like it’s an invading, occupying force that has only gotten hungrier and more territorial as time goes on: “Capital hit California like a meteor, alien tendrils surging from the crash site.” The book’s central framing device is the refrain, “forces, not men.” Repeated, the phrase reiterates the primacy of forces like capitalism over the capitalists that enact them.

If the great men associated with Palo Alto hadn’t been present, Harris writes, capitalism would have summoned other men to take their place. In his view, Palo Alto was inevitable.

Harris avoids a propagandic tone by working from historical points that are objectively true — Palo Alto has become the most consequential suburb in the world, we live in a capitalist world system — and connecting dots throughout history that not only create a picture of California, but also offer persuasive explanations for why California looks the way it does, wields the power it has and espouses the toxic achievement philosophies that have become its trademark and albatross.

Despite compiling a detailed litany of “the series of plagues visited upon California” throughout history, Harris eschews fatalism in favor of something approaching optimism. “To think about life this way is not to surrender to predetermination,” he writes in the book, “only by understanding how we’re made use of can we start to distinguish our selves from our situations.”


Palo Alto is not a prescriptive text; this isn’t a how-to book about fixing California. It’s a book determined to detail what’s wrong with it and how it all went so wrong. Ultimately, the success of Palo Alto will not rest in the number of converts it produces but in whether it gets readers to think about the subject and their situations differently.

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