Review of “Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World” by Malcolm Harris

Before I write my review of this long book (629 pages), I have to rename it.

“Palo Alto: The Legacy of American Hypercapitalism in the Twentieth Century.”

This is a convoluted story about California, but it isn’t a history of the world or capitalism. However, as the author demonstrates through many quotes and facts, Palo Alto and the Bay Area in general, exemplify what went right and wrong when capitalism was allowed to run amok. As such it dovetails nicely with “The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order” by Gary Gerstle.

The author tracks many social and economic trends through the prism of Palo Alto and Stanford University, telling the story in an entertaining and often amusing style. I learned a lot about the origins of what became the Neoliberal Order and how it crushed any who opposed it during the second half of the twentieth century. This book ties many social movements together in a unique manner that isn’t quite historical, nor is it simply investigative reporting. I enjoyed seeing the connections between what I’ve always thought of as unrelated events and movements.

At times the author makes it sound like there is a conspiracy at work in America, but that isn’t so because everything that was done occurred in the light of day and was reported in the press throughout. As Harris puts it (I’m paraphrasing), it was a historical trend and some people jumped to the head of the crowd. I tend to agree. Once the wheels of “progress” were unloosed on an unsuspecting world, they rolled over any who didn’t jump on the train. I got that metaphor from the origin story of Palo Alto.

I don’t want to forget grammar and punctuation. The author uses lengthy sentences and paragraphs, which gets him into trouble; sometimes the subject was forgotten by the end of a sentence. I know because I read these sentences (there were a lot of them) several times. Some sentences got so twisted that they made no sense. I don’t know why people do that in nonfiction; it’s fine in a novel to have a thought go on and on and morph into something else. It adds realism (stream of consciousness etc.) but it has no place when the purpose is to communicate ideas as clearly as possible. I guess it makes some writers feel smart.

Nevertheless, I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the legacy of unconstrained progress on the fabric of society.

But it is a long book, full of tangential stories and occasional rants (okay, not so occasional).

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