Grieving Redness in the West: Reading Malcolm Harris After Mike Davis

May 20, 2023   •   By Michael Docherty

Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World

Malcolm Harris

MALCOLM HARRIS’S Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World came out this February, for the most part to deservedly warm notices. Harris served prominently in the Occupy Wall Street movement, wrote Kids These Days: Human Capital and The Making of Millennials (2017), and maintains an enjoyably caustic presence on social media and in interviews. As such, he has acquired a reputation as a spokesperson for his (and my) pissed-off, left-behind, left-wing generation, chewed up by the 2007–08 financial crisis and spat out to despair of the world as it is, while alternating between hope and grief over the possibility of a better one. Palo Alto, Harris’s third book, was therefore greeted with much anticipation. It promised a history of a single California town, rooted in Harris’s own experiences of growing up there, but one which would locate Palo Alto first as the grubby skunkworks where contemporary global capitalism’s early prototypes were built, and then as the place where its most dreadful perfection might be witnessed.

Settler colonialism, the transistor, eugenics, the moving image, monopoly capital, the failure of the American Left—if it is fundamental to the conditions of life as we know it, either Palo Alto was built on it, Palo Alto birthed it, or Palo Alto imbued it with particular world-transforming capacities. Harris lands his ambitious claims alarmingly convincingly. In a less doggedly completist book (Palo Alto runs over 700 pages), Harris’s project of seeing Palo Alto in everything and everything in Palo Alto might prompt the reader to caution that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Instead, the chains of connection that Harris traces accumulate gradually into a web of persuasive and often shocking revelation that this wealthy Bay Area enclave really might be the economic, cultural, and moral epicenter of our universe—less a shining city on a hill than a hideous Lovecraftian maw.

Palo Alto’s subtitle is not inaccurate, but it does risk circumscribing a remarkable book within a hyperbolic framing gimmick that has become ubiquitous in how popular history is marketed. It’s a tendency that perhaps began with the rise of “the year of” and “the year that” books: pick a year in which some things happened, then extrapolate a series of claims that those things had hitherto overlooked significance in determining the contours of later history. The years 69, 1000, 1421, 1491, 1816, 1956, 1974—they’ve all had the treatment. The trouble is that, as Alan Bennett once wrote, saltily paraphrasing a line attributed to Arnold Toynbee, history is “just one fucking thing after another.” Thus, as “great year” history becomes a more palatable replacement in the popular imagination for “great man” history, we might play this parlor game indefinitely, though years are arbitrary divisions and none are without consequence. “Great year” history is a subcategory of “how X explains Y” history, where the conceit is that X appears far smaller than Y, but the historian turns mathematician to show how the tiny and easily overlooked part in fact equals the vast and complex whole. Publishers seem to think history needs to be packaged with a Pixar movie’s sense of causality.

Harris, by contrast, though invested in how something smallish might explain, exemplify, or crystallize phenomena far larger than itself, manages to avoid glib narrative gambits, with their pitfalls of arbitrariness and teleological fallacy. Harris makes his case with both the robustness of evidence and ardency of argument required to persuade a reader that there really is something in what appears an unlikely focalizing device for a “history of the world.” However, he never permits this necessary ambition to creep toward a claim that his subject is a key to all mythologies—or, at least, the only key to all mythologies. That is a fine line to walk, and walking it is perhaps Palo Alto’s greatest achievement. It is also in watching Harris walk that line that we can see most clearly how closely he follows in the footsteps of Mike Davis.

In Palo Alto, the city that grants Harris his sociogeographic frame is less expansive than Los Angeles, Davis’s subject in his two best-known books, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990) and Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (1998), but all three books share a method. They each express a pair of concentric, dialectic stories in a single California place. Both authors articulate a history of their chosen site in such a way that the place in turn articulates a history ranging far beyond itself. These are all books about how the absolute aberrance of somewhere paradoxically enables its culture to permeate everywhere: in one sense, one could not imagine a book more clearly “about” Los Angeles than City of Quartz or “about” Palo Alto than Palo Alto, yet it would feel a reductive misdescription to call either of them so.

Davis writes in City of Quartz that “Los Angeles in this instance is, of course, a stand-in for capitalism in general. The ultimate world-historical significance—and oddity—of Los Angeles is that it has come to play the double role of utopia and dystopia for advanced capitalism.” One need only swap the place names to be left with a perfect descriptor of what Harris seeks to demonstrate about his own subject-city. It feels appropriate to California’s all-consuming greed (for water, for gold, for oil, for ideas, for capital, for human life) that it should host not one but two places so adept at playing advanced capitalism’s Janus-faced avatar.

Davis was, as Harris has noted on Twitter, a “giant of the California communist tradition,” in which he also locates himself. In that tradition, Harris has found, like Davis before him, that a personal praxis that refuses to disentangle the roles of “activist” and “writer,” or pretend that a view from nowhere is either possible or desirable, garners divided reactions. Fans see getting one’s hands dirty as a sign of authenticity, a promise of a history unafraid to declare its political commitments with rigor and force. Skeptics find only evidence that biased social critics cannot be honest brokers, because miserable Marx is always bound to have his thumb on the scale. But in their shared methods for showing that the whole might be located in the fragment, both Harris and Davis are effective, where so many “how X explains Y” histories are flimsy and unconvincing, precisely because the strategies of these two are expressions of a Marxist dialectic.

Gabriel Winant has observed that Davis’s work is defined by a conviction that, “while the social world could be—and ultimately had to be—grasped as a unified totality, this totality could at the same time only be understood as a complex system of differentiated parts, each of which in turn had to be comprehended in its own specificity.” I have written similarly that the maximalist ambitions of Davis’s work reflect a “thoroughgoing desire to practice Marxism’s totalizing principles in a critical method that is also a way of life—an attempted intellectual compassing of the world in all its dimensions.” This is why it never feels like a pat conceit when Davis insists, for example, that we can do nothing less than “excavate the future” or understand “the imagination of disaster” by studying Los Angeles. He knows, like Marx, that “a primordial condition explains nothing; it merely pushes the question away into a grey nebulous distance.” He never seeks such a thing, even when he attributes a clarifying power to Los Angeles that at times feels almost as mystical as it is materialist. Harris knows this too. For all his confidence in Palo Alto’s singular significance, he does not make it some Aristotelian unmoved mover in the world he depicts. In City of Quartz, Davis excoriates even such master dialecticians as Adorno and Horkheimer for mythifying Los Angeles as “the crystal ball of capitalism’s future.” In the same way, Harris locates the whole in the part without professing that the part can ever completely contain the whole. For both writers, the imperative is to be totalizing but not limiting, syncretic but not reductive—always on the move.

Harris has explicitly acknowledged Palo Alto as, in part, an attempt to continue Davis’s work as the torchbearer of a longer line of Californian Marxist writer-activists: “I’ve been trying to do something similar” to what Davis did, he told the Cleveland Review of Books, “to take up that obligation.” Palo Alto is, indeed, partly a history of the “weird California communists” whose banner Harris seeks to wield. Kōtoku Shūsui, Har Dayal, Sam Darcy, Caroline Dwofsky, Pat Chambers, Karl Yoneda and Elaine Black Yoneda, Bob Kaufman, Aaron Manganiello, Angela Davis, and more entwine across time and tendency throughout the book, a discordant countermelody that continually spoils capitalism’s ever more cacophonous tune, even if it can never be drowned out. California’s ills have also long been critiqued by a similarly idiosyncratic tradition of assorted rabble-rousers, trouble-chasers, and muckrakers on the noncommunist left. Among them can be counted Carey McWilliams, Louis Adamic, Carlos Bulosan, Upton Sinclair, and Frank Norris, all of whom (except the more Southern California–oriented Adamic) receive approving mention in Palo Alto. (I think being a “wacky socialist,” as Sinclair is described, is on balance a positive thing for Harris.) Such figures might represent a more ideologically heterogeneous crew than Harris would be entirely comfortable joining, but he and Davis stand in their lineage too: they all share a conviction that we cannot hope to understand what’s wrong with the world without understanding what’s wrong with California.

Given the transparency of Palo Alto’s intellectual and ideological bloodlines, as well as Harris’s own explicit acknowledgment of the tradition in which he is operating, it is not an audacious act of critical unmasking to note Davis’s influence. That is precisely why, though, I found it increasingly odd, as I read review after review of Palo Alto, that Davis was scarcely mentioned. I’m certain I have not read all of Palo Alto’s reviews, but among various outlets from across the ideological spectrum, Federico Perelmuter’s brief but astute comparison between Harris’s book and City of Quartz, in The Washington Post, was the lone invocation of Davis. It was strange to me that folks tasked with explaining the kind of work Harris does in Palo Alto had not picked up on what seemed such a clear and essential presence throughout the book—or, if they did, they had not deemed it important enough to mention. A reader’s understanding of what Palo Alto has to say does not depend on the invocation of Davis as paratext, but a critical understanding of the kind of history Harris has written is inadequate without reference to Davis’s work as its clearest precedent. I wonder, therefore, why so few reviewers chose to note it.

Jonathan Lethem, for example, an extremely smart and well-read guy with leftist politics, reflected perceptively and enthusiastically on Palo Alto for The Nation, where Davis himself was a contributing editor and published many memorable essays. I would be amazed if Lethem read Palo Alto without hearing echoes of City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear as Harris explains how a single California place is legible simultaneously as seed, symptom, and symbol of the entire world that capitalism has made. Gary Kamiya, on the other hand, seems, on the basis of his lazy would-be takedown of Harris’s book in The New York Times, neither smart nor well read. Kamiya writes as if performing a feat of damning detection worthy of the great private eyes of California literature when he apprehends Harris and his history as vehemently anti-capitalist. He charges that “Karl Marx’s long shadow darkens every page” of Palo Alto, which is a peculiar way to describe a book by a Marxist. One can query Harris’s method and the intellectual tradition from which he inherits it, but merely to acknowledge the existence of that method and tradition is to recognize that Marx functions here as guiding light rather than malign occlusion. Confident that he has rooted out the specter haunting Palo Alto, Kamiya is oddly stumped by what he regards as Harris’s failure to articulate “what should replace this capitalist horror show.”

Kamiya was a founding editor of Salon, which in December 1998 ran an infamous bad-faith hit piece on Davis, whose polemical method of exposing Los Angeles’s ills had begun to anger a coalition of the city’s great and good. (In the interest of fairness, it should be noted that, in later years, Salon also published essays by Davis.) Jon Wiener, later Davis’s co-writer on his final book, the magisterial Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (2020), called that moment in Davis’s career a “backlash of the boosters.” Veronique de Turenne concluded Salon’s Davis profile by quoting the late Kevin Starr, another great (though undeniably booster-adjacent) California historian, who amiably but entirely point-missingly chided Davis for a failure to consider what was good about Los Angeles alongside the bad. An exhortation to “find balance” seemed to imply not only that radical polemic was a deficiency of method but also that it either engendered or emerged from a lack of inner peace. Lighten up, Mike, you’re catastrophizing again. As a historian of labor, Davis could only have chuckled at Starr mentioning the Lakers as an example of Los Angeles “working as well as it is.” In that period, NBA team owners’ proposed changes to the league’s collective bargaining agreement had plunged the league into its longest-ever lockout. The Lakers weren’t working at all.

A quarter century later, failure to be sufficiently boosterish about the Bay Area is the transgression for which Kamiya, a professional San Franciscan, upbraids another Marxist historian-activist. Though Kamiya is no Kevin Starr, his critique of what he terms Palo Alto’s “selection bias, clearly driven by Harris’s conviction that ‘positive’ stories are simply window-dressing concealing capitalism’s dark reality,” strongly echoes Starr’s belief that Davis’s problem was his unwillingness or inability to acknowledge that there is more to a place than its shortcomings. Even a negative appraisal of Palo Alto thus sits in Davis’s long shadow—one in which interrogators pretend incomprehension that their subject not only harbors left-wing views but also proclaims them openly as the moral and methodological determinant of how one interprets and writes history.

The politics Kamiya declares in his critique of Palo Alto are such that I felt he missed an obvious opportunity to exhume Davis’s influence as further evidence of Harris’s communistic perfidy. But he does not, just as Lethem does not mention Davis as the obvious lodestar for Harris’s “robust, nonsectarian 21st-century Marxism” and the attitude of “pugnaciousness” and “brute glee” he deploys to jolt us “awake from our capitalist-technological inertial dream state.” When I scoured Palo Alto’s reviews and found Davis so scant a presence, my first feeling was one of melancholy, of loss. If a book like Palo Alto had appeared in the late 1990s, when Davis’s peak of fame was teetering into infamy and the boosters were on the warpath, it is hard to conceive that reviewers in even the most mainstream of outlets would have omitted the comparison. Though Davis had become a less contentious figure in recent years, news of his illness and subsequent death had returned him once more, in the months preceding Palo Alto’s publication, to public attention beyond academic and activist circles (where he had never lost currency). So perhaps, I worried, Davis’s minimal presence in the critical response to Palo Alto—the first book that presents a significant opportunity to consider what efforts to continue his legacy might look like—meant we were already starting to forget him.

On reflection, though, I see that the larger failure to recognize Davis in Palo Alto was not that of its reviewers but my own. The genealogy here matters, but if others don’t feel a need to draw attention to it, that withholding is a testament to how profoundly Davis changed the practice of writing history—especially in the fields where Harris is working: capitalism, labor, California, American empire. It is tough to imagine any American social historian writing even vaguely from the left after City of Quartz without manifesting at least some of Davis’s influence—let alone one as “soaked in Marx” as Harris is, by his own description in the CRB interview, let alone a California communist writing about the dark strangeness of a particular Californian place. If we are all Davis’s children now, perhaps there’s no need to acknowledge individual cases of parentage. There is no more to be learned by anointing Harris as a “new Mike Davis” than there was in dubbing every hotshot early-1970s songwriter a “new Dylan”—and I don’t wish to do so. For one thing, there will never be another. Besides, to acknowledge the singular significance of Davis’s contributions to leftist thought is also to remember that vesting the intellectual hopes of a movement in one person would run absurdly contrary to the lessons his work teaches about a politics of collective action. We might further note that, even if we are to speak of intellectual “successors” to Davis (and we do need them), they need not take the form of yet another white man, a truth both Harris and Davis themselves attest to in the complex and vital interethnic solidarities their books often identify.

Moreover, flattering as it might be to any left historian to be declared Davis’s spiritual heir, I don’t wish to ignore what is distinctive about Harris’s work. Much of that distinctiveness lies in a millennial perspective and a millennial voice—a product of the experience of coming of age in the newest crisis of capitalism as well as the manifestation of a born-online style. Harris has a poster’s compulsion for the incongruous image that sneaks through the decorum of his prose to propulsive effect: the image of William Shockley Sr. “bopping around the world dipping his finger into colonially conceded resources” says more than either a more dispassionate description or a more explicit condemnation would. If anything, I would like Harris to use this voice more. He has spoken of writing a book he hopes “history dads [will] buy,” and this ambition is apparent in what is, mostly, radical history written by stealth—the acuteness and bite of its political claims smuggled under a plainness and conventionality of style and form. Harris is direct, unornamented, mostly linear—no mean feat when marshaling the whole world into a place and the whole place into a book—but I do wish his writing would get a little weirder, sometimes, to match its subject matter.

Weird was one of Davis’s areas of mastery. He could bring readers closer to the full strangeness of a subject through prose that alienated generatively. Always lucid and instructive, but circling in digression and allusion, pointing multiple directions at once, Davis’s writing, especially on Los Angeles, maintains something like the “intrinsic alterity” that is Mark Fisher’s gloss on Adorno’s theorization of autonomous art. Davis, as he often protested to interlocutors, really loved Los Angeles in all its tortured beauty, even if he was too dialectical a thinker to fall for clichés about such qualities being “redemptive.” Perhaps that tension licensed—or forced—him to write about the city from a crooked angle. Harris, by contrast, seems to find less to look on with affection in Palo Alto, and his style faces his subject more squarely. Although Harris, contra Kamiya’s misreading, does offer proposals for “collective self-defense” against capitalism and is not fatalistic about the ongoing work of activists, his concluding image—of Palo Alto as the last place capital will cling to after destroying the rest of the world—feels bleaker even than Davis’s most apocalyptic visions of the 1990s. The hour, after all, is later now. Maybe we don’t have time to be weird anymore.

In both what he wrote and how he lived, Mike Davis still has much to teach us about what to do when time is short. Davis testified in one of his final interviews to the strangeness of being asked to reflect on one’s own legacy while still alive, but he was also moved that news of his ill health had prompted an outpouring of “unmobilized love.” The phrase was vintage Davis—warm, but critical. We ought to consider what might be achievable, it implied, if all that love were not “unmobilized.” Palo Alto constitutes one answer. Before Davis’s illness was public knowledge, Harris appealed on Twitter for a way to get an advance copy of the book to him. I hope he found one because, for all the pessimism in its own narrative, Palo Alto responds to Davis as pure mobilized love.


Michael Docherty teaches American literature and culture at the University of Innsbruck and co-edits Post45: Contemporaries. His first book, The Recursive Frontier: Race, Space, and the Literary Imagination of Los Angeles, is forthcoming from SUNY Press.