People know California for its ripe agricultural land, its legacy of gold, ongoing waves of migration, earthquakes, beacons of arts in the south and tech in the north, drought, and wildfires. In the Bay Area, schools, street names, universities and public art bear the names of historical figures who shaped the Golden State into the capitalistic Eden it remains to this day.

In his new book “Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World” (Little, Brown and Company, 720 pages, $36), journalist Malcolm Harris argues that no supposed California genius is ever as capable and gifted as history would lead us to believe—not Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg or A.P. Giannini or Leland Stanford or Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. They owe their success to capitalism, and capitalism owes its success to those who embrace the system.

Harris, an unabashed Marxist, has explored millennial ennui and oppressive systems of capitalism in his work with Occupy Wall Street and “Kids These Days,” his first book. He now turns his scrutiny to his hometown, Palo Alto, and Silicon Valley for an exhuming of its phases of capitalistic greed and exploration of what can be done to prevent the next mutation.

It’s a place he remembers more for the suicides of former classmates than the lacquer of tech innovation and societal advancement.

This behemoth, at over 700 pages, covers centuries of Palo Alto history—its players, its deceits and its enduring influence not only on the rest of the United States, but the world. What becomes clear from Harris’ first pages is that Palo Alto and Silicon Valley are not real, and neither are the reputations they’ve bestowed upon themselves. They are stories that capitalism and its players have fed us, and they cannot last.

The book cleaves history into decades-long eras, starting with a brief overview of the Ohlone people and how incompatible their way of life was with colonialists and their plans for profit. It’s when the Gold Rush begins that capitalism and its long talons take hold of the Golden State and begin to shape it into a bifurcated (a favorite word of Harris’) economy and social system.

These early years of California and the Bay Area were a scramble, so Harris narrows his focus to disinterring the life stories of a select few representative characters to get his points across, starting with Leland Stanford Sr., the founder of Palo Alto and the eponymous university.

Stanford would go from an unfocused, “unremarkable” youth in New York to one of the “Associates,” a coalition of Bay Area capitalists who helped manifest the Southern Pacific railroad and reap its reward via a complex system of stocks, loans and exploitative human labor—foreshadowing. Stanford founded Palo Alto as a racehorse farm not out of passion, but to escape those he wronged in San Francisco. His horses, bred more for the speculation of their potential than proven value, formed the basis of what Harris calls the “Palo Alto System,” a “regimen of capitalist rationality and the exclusive focus on potential and speculative value.”

Stanford is also the first example of Harris’ autopsy of a “Great Man.” These men are not inherently superior or preternaturally gifted. He writes, “This story is not a product of men’s choices,” but that “the new system coughed up another man to stand for the larger forces pulling his strings.”

Despite the university bearing his name and funds, Stanford’s idea for Stanford University as an accessible trade school died with him, two years in. After his wife Jane was poisoned soon after, the university’s inaugural president David Starr Jordan (a possible culprit for Jane’s death) swiftly rebrands it as a “bionomics” (read, eugenics) hub. Thus, all future honors, merits and accomplishments of Stanford, from facilitating the invention of the vacuum tube and its contributions to war technology, the burgeoning computer industry and later tech utopia, cannot be excised from Japanese internment camps, exploitation of immigrant labor, and endorsements of white supremacy.

In “Palo Alto,” Malcom Harris argues that figures associated with the wealthy city gained fame as a result of capitalism, not talent. (Courtesy Little, Brown and Company)

“Competition and domination, exploitation and exclusion, minority rule and class hate,” Harris writes. “These aren’t problems capitalist technology will solve. That’s what it’s for.”

As Harris moves into the 20th century, he loses this character focus and by extension his narrative grip, relaying a plethora of information, dates and names with little space to resonate before bleeding into the next. He offers an accurate reflection of the era’s scramble for the next big thing to be sure, but the period between World War I and the 1970s shift to software becomes harder to parse. The internet and dot-com boom come into focus by reintroducing the character allegories, with overviews of Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes, Mark Zuckerberg, and, in a bookend parallel to Stanford, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, “the son of resentful losers” who is worth more than $4 billion.

There are large swaths of history largely untouched in Harris’ account, namely when it comes to the tension between Silicon Valley and the arts—women are few and far between. LSD makes an appearance, but as a tool for entrepreneurs to harvest new capitalistic endeavors rather than connecting with the universe.

Even crypto and its exhausting disciples go largely untouched. Anti-capitalists and the proletariat pushback come and go, most notably in Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, but with less publicized acts of resistance by people of color as well. Harris offers counterpoints to Stanford’s model, such as San Francisco State University, a public institution with a holistic approach to education and equity, alluding to his closing arguments on how to pull the tech baron plug.  

But Harris’ focus remains largely on the bad guys. If you recognize a name at the beginning of a section, it’s likely you are about to learn about the people they screwed over and the money burned to earn that recognition. These figures are rendered not in the dramatic fashion of a Hulu series or David Fincher film, but as opportunists who pursued the promise of Silicon Valley over its reality.

Harris’ history is compelling, though. Arguments he makes about capitalistic undergrowth in just about every aspect of Northern California track the severity of the situation in varied economic and social contexts. Understanding that the power players responsible for the Southern Pacific Railroad directly influenced legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act, for example, illuminates how present-day Silicon Valley institutions can drive their foreign employees to suicide with inhumane working conditions.  

But the meatiest parts of the book come from how Harris applies his critique of capitalism to undress revered players of the Palo Alto System.

Neither Stanford, nor President Herbert Hoover, nor Steve Jobs nor Thiel pass muster to deserve their pedestals. Or rather, their pedestals are merely circumstantial: “As long as capitalists have capital,” Harris writes, “they have to find somewhere to put it, and capital will always find its capitalists…Silicon Valley is best understood as a particular expression of this impersonal drive: geographic, historical and imaginary…defined by a refusal to stop or even slow down.” Like Dorothy and the Wizard, Harris implores readers to peel back the curtain to see the strings, and then figure out how to cut them.

While places like Palo Alto and people who benefit from it are direct products of capitalism, it’s nonetheless almost a relief to see that such prominent men were not superior, but merely enforcing a system that had them in mind.

In his parting words, Harris offers solutions from leftist and socialist circles: giving the land back to the Ohlone people, taking down ladders that allow for a select few to loom over the masses. That leaves the rest of us to dismantle the system.