Global Crisis and Opportunity

Against the Current, No. 134, May/June 2008

Ben Terrall interviews Mike Davis

MIKE DAVIS IS a veteran writer and activist who cut his progressive teeth in the 1960s civil rights and antiwar movements. He has worked as a meat cutter, long-distance trucker, and currently teaches history at UC Irvine.

His first book, Prisoners of the American Dream, is a trenchant, thoroughly researched history of the U.S. labor movement; he is most famous for 1990’s City of Quartz, a modern history of Los Angeles that drew a wide audience. His cautionary book The Monster at Our Door: the Global Threat of Avian Flu has been translated into German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Arabic and Swedish.

Mike Davis was good enough to give me a phone interview in early February. In the background, Mike’s twin toddlers scurried around his San Diego home as he graciously let me pick his brain for an hour.

Ben Terrall: In your 2006 book Planet of Slums [reviewed by Ron Warren in ATC 130, September-October 2007], you write, “Cities in the abstract are the solution to the global environmental crisis: urban density can translate into great efficiencies in land, energy, and resource use, while democratic public spaces and cultural institutions likewise provide qualitatively higher standards of enjoyment than individualized consumption and commodified leisure.” Could you say something about how the current trends in urban America can be pushed to move in that direction, as opposed to the way things are going now?

Mike Davis: First of all we need to recognize that we’re probably witnessing the de-housing of millions of Americans through a combination of the subprime crisis and increasing unemployment. I think that we’ve been handed on a plate an extraordinary opportunity to solve the housing crisis in America, if not greatly reduce it.

[An earlier opportunity] was during the savings and loan meltdown during the beginning of the 1990s, when the federal government came into possession of more than a million units of housing through defaulting on bankrupt savings and loans. And all the government did was simply sell those off at a discount on the market. What could have been done with the housing stock?

Secondly, military base closure across the country has provided extraordinary opportunities for cities. To be honest with you the only example I can think of a positive outcome is the Presidio in San Francisco. Here in San Diego the Naval Training Center was given away at a dollar an acre to a private developer who developed market-rate upscale condominiums — leaving not only civilian San Diego families, but Navy families, still facing an acute housing shortage.

We need to address the problem of a national housing crisis that’s going to get worse suddenly. We’ve seen a new spurt of gentrification that’s touched even what were considered formerly ungentrifiable neighborhoods, right into inner-city neighborhoods in places like Houston and Newark, downtown Los Angeles, almost always heavily subsidized one way or another by the public sector.  Yet at the same time exurbs continue to grow and sprawl into countryside, more environmentally and socially expensive than ever.

The size of new homes has increased by 50% in 30 years, the environmental cost of exurban development is higher than ever. So the fundamental pattern of market-driven urbanization, becoming more and more inefficient, making more people’s housing situation precarious, forcing working-class people into longer commutes, all this remains in place.

The big difference is that over the last 30 years the center of gravity of the urban crisis has tended to migrate from the inner cities per se to the older suburbs, the ‘50s inner-ring suburbs, where working-class people, people of color move in the expectation they’ll find better schools and jobs. But like a mirage in the desert, the better schools and jobs have already moved further out.

BT: You wrote in your book Magical Urbanism that “only powerful extra-electoral mobilizations, with the ability to shape agendas and discipline candidates, can ensure the representation of grassroots socioeconomic as well as ethnic-symbolic interests.” In a similar vein, JoAnn Wypijewski recently wrote on the Counter- punch website: “The problem now isn’t whether (Barack) Obama can be president or what kind he’d be, where he’s false and where he’s true. The problem now is, Who has got it together to hold his or anyone’s feet to the fire? And what’s likely to spur engagement, sturdy advocacy and resistance?”

Given the need for government action to achieve what you were talking about, and so many other things, I wonder what you see in terms of grassroots ability to “hold politicians’ feet to the fire” — especially since you recently wrote a great piece in New Left Review about the financial sectors behind the current Democratic Party.

MD: [In that article] I may be wrong in some ways, to the extent that a lot of those sectors seem to have gravitated more to Obama this election cycle than Clinton. But yes, I think the shame of the whole primary process has been that the unions, by and large, with the exception of the SEIU, ran away from (John) Edwards. And Edwards had the platform, whatever you think of Edwards personally, that most conformed to what unions claim to want, definitely one of the most progressive platforms since the Rainbow Coalition.

I think ultimately it’s self-defeating because if Edwards [had been] able to stay in the campaign and take more delegates to the Democratic convention, then perhaps you could argue that those [pro-labor] positions would have greater clout and would ensure that they were integral parts of the final election…

The great danger is that we’ll have a presidential election exclusively devoted to the war on terror, security and pumping the economy for the middle classes, and the question of the working poor and poverty in general will again disappear.

The unions that left the AFL-CIO [to form “Change to Win”] of course did so on the basis of criticism that the AFL-CIO was just promiscuously spending all of its money on Democrats, who often didn’t fight for the interests of labor, rather than organizing. But the unions that left still seem to embrace those politics.

Years ago I was very impressed by the example in Los Angeles of the Industrial Areas Foundation-related organizations, United Neighborhood Organization and so on. These were organizations that largely mobilized church bases, beginning with the Catholic Church.

Father Luis Olivares of La Placita in downtown Los Angeles was the leader of this movement. Their traditional policy was not to trust any politician, but to hold everyone’s feet into the fire. And during this period, the issues were socioeconomic ones like discrimination in car insurance and supermarket prices. It had a whole economic populist content, and also interacted with and supported the more dynamic unions, particularly those organizing amongst immigrants.

But then Olivares was displaced and these organizations mainly began to express the moral, pro-life politics of the Cardinal, rather than the economic needs of working-class families.

So I must confess that I don’t really believe that we live in a new age where everything has to be done on the model, and the internet — and that organizing is outmoded. And I think we have powerful organizing models that have been developed in the last 10-20 years, but I don’t see them consistently applied to the purpose of a platform.

In the case of Los Angeles, it’s been clear for almost a generation that really what this city needs is a coalition of organizations built around an essential human needs platform, that puts children first, that addresses the crisis of the working poor, health coverage, etc., that is not mortgaged to either the career of any charismatic Democratic politician or to the inscrutable rivalries with which the Democratic Party is rife — and also a coalition that is not simply part of a Democratic Party alliance.

Obviously if you read my books you realize that I’m not a supporter of the Democratic Party, but I do believe that social reform in this period requires relentless pressure on Democrats by people who still believe that the party is the principal agent of reform.

BT: In various places in your books you talk about the need for the government to invest in jobs, to rebuild infrastructure, to address human needs. There’s a project that the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights has called the Green Collar Jobs Campaign. Do you know about this or similar initiatives, and can you speak to them — and about the problem of the environmental movement still being largely a white phenomenon? How might this green jobs campaign broaden that base?

MD: I think that every environmental demand should be linked to a social justice demand. In particular in California, I think most environmental demands should have to do with youth employment and extending the opportunities for the enjoyment of nature and participation in green politics to people in the inner cities. You have things like the California Job Corps which have proven track records, almost to the point of Head Start, but are kept on the back burner, little boutique-like programs that are part of the shards of another age when there was serious talk about addressing core issues.

But I think much of the environmental movement has walled itself off from enormous pro-environmental constituencies represented by the immigrant population, which is the section of the population that most intensively uses public space and green spaces. And of course the movement has become entrapped in special causes, I think to the detriment of a larger regional or state-level view.

In one of my books I [asked if] saving Santa Monica basin is entirely worthy — it kind of ended up being a major and sole investment of Westside environmentalists, to the detriment of serious environmental or open space needs in interior parts of Los Angeles.

There obviously are a lot of people in the environmental movement who understand this, but I’m not talking about just embracing this in principle or in your manifesto of social justice and environment, but linking every environmental demand to a specific proposal that improves quality of life in working-class areas — i.e. that employs people, that creates more parkspace, that addresses what I think is the most single profound crisis in California, which is that in a rich state our children are poor.

Any forward progress for the Green Party or progressives in California depends on getting labor more involved in issues of land use planning, of water, of environment, of climate change, of housing.  It’s been the absence, in a way, of the labor movement as the single largest progressive constituency from these issues that allowed developers to run the state, sometimes to the narrow benefit, temporary benefit, of a few construction unions.

But increasingly unions have to face the fact that their members can’t find housing within an hour and a half from work, that the environment’s deteriorating, that Southern California, at least, is becoming gridlocked to an extent that it will cause a massive loss of jobs from the region. The labor movement has to get interested in questions about urban and regional planning, conservation, global warming.

BT: How do you see the problem of corporate greenwashing in not only advertising, but media coverage? It seems skewed towards this very wishy-washy pro-business way of looking at the impending environmental disasters.

MD: I think there are two components here. One, the companies who are just throwing up an enormous smokescreen and want to be able to buy carbon credits and essentially deceive people. But then I think there is also an aggressive sector of venture capital that really is thinking that it can make profits through alternative energies and so on.

Sometimes the interests of the two aren’t the same. I’m sure there are big debates in some of the energy companies.  But it is, at the end of the day, simply flim-flam, particularly when you give away the ability to make specific locational decisions — in other words, to tax and regulate specific sources of emissions — and instead let them plant trees in the Amazon.

In Southern California all this is anchored by a kind of vivid testimonialism by people who otherwise have enormous environmental footprints. I just read something by Julia Roberts, who seems to be a very, very nice person, but massively into recycling while owning I don’t know how many homes. But I think it’s part of a larger deception that philanthropy, with socially responsible business, can solve the world’s problems.

BT: Could you talk more about biofuels?

MD: We now have a whole series of reports on the future of agriculture in the light of climate change. One of the most disturbing of these comes out of the Peterson Institute, which is one of the most prestigious, most Wall Street-oriented Washington think tanks. Their expert, William Cline, has run a very complicated simulation of climate and crop models, which comes up with data similar to other reports — that we’re going to see declining productivity across the world by the end of the century.

India in particular is going to be particularly hard hit; Mexico’s going to be hard hit. The natural factors of production are changing, and they’re changing in a bad way for everybody, except maybe Canadians and Northern Europeans. Secondly you have this livestock revolution and urbanized populations demanding more meat protein, which is increasing the pressure on grain production and diverting it to animals.

Then you have the fact that agriculture is so dependent on fossil fuel, and the price of fossil fuel is rising. And now all of a sudden here we have biofuels, which is essentially using anything, not just corn but anything, grown on arable land as opposed to plants grown on non-arable and desert terrain.

This, I think, poses exactly the kind of process that so many people have warned us about, including Fidel Castro: All this is a scenario for famine. Weakening food security, and particularly basic food group security in essential grains for human needs, remains close to the most important issue in the world.

What’s novel and troubling here is this alliance between Brazil and the United States. It’s part of the Brazilian plan to leverage Brazil into a kind of semi-superpower. It’s an alliance between big farmers in Brazil and agribusiness in the United States, and it does nothing to address the needs of the movement of the landless in Brazil. In fact, the whole direction that biofuels is going just accelerates the displacement of small grain producers everywhere.

BT: Have you seen anything recently about any pressure to regulate air travel, since so many specialists say that one of the key ways to control the adverse effects of global warming is to cut down on air travel?

MD: This has been done to some extent in Europe, partially because air travel there has been more expensive. France in particular now offers fast rail as a substitute to regional flying. But with immigration [there is] more flying to preserve the fabric of family life, and package tours tend to grow.

Some alternatives are even worse. I’ve become very interested in the second-home phenomenon, which is a social and environmental disaster across the world, where basically local people lose affordable housing so that the wealthy can keep millions of seasonal homes on the Coasta del Sol and Hawaii.

All these things that we’ve talked about today require degrees of planning, democratic planning, and the ability to link investment decisions to environmental and social consequences that are really totally outside of any political discussion going on.

It’s just taken as a matter of course that maybe the market needs to be modified now, maybe we need a more humane version of neoliberalism. But it’s still a world of Darwinian super-corporations and on the other side philanthropists and large NGOs …which is why there are a few eccentrics like myself who still believe in more traditional forms of left organization — the need to build explicitly socialist groups. I have a lot of young friends who disagree with that, and I respect their differences, it’s just a debate we have.

There are many wonderful NGOs, but really what has happened across the world, and this is partly the result of deliberate policies of the World Bank, which very much likes working with NGOs, is the sponsorship of what you might call mega-NGOs, a certain minority of NGOs who control the dispersal, the allocation, of World Bank, philanthropic or state funds.

It is a little reminiscent of the politics of the 1960s war on poverty as these organizations substitute themselves for the struggle, taking rank-and-file organizers and turning them into bureaucrats.

Parties of the left can do the same thing. I think there’s a reasonable question to be asked whether parties of the left in power on a municipal, regional and national basis don’t just tend to organize their own base, because they transform people into full-time functionaries. These are quite ancient questions about the sociology and the institutions of social movements.

Very clearly there are NGOs and there are NGOs, there are wonderful fighting indigenous rank-and-file groups, but they tend to live off scraps from the table.You have far more bureaucratic NGOs that tend to be the ones dispersing the funds and making the key decisions.

The interview closed with a discussion about the great leftist science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, whose future histories of Orange County Davis called “very shrewd stuff.”

Mike told me, “I’d love to teach a class on this stuff, use his [Robinson’s] books, use a couple of Octavia Butler’s, [and] William Gibson’s Virtual Light. I think there’s much more meat in this kind of stuff than most of what passes for social theory these days.”

ATC 134, May-June 2008