“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
–Bette Davis, All About Eve (1950)
SUFFOLK COUNTY, NEW YORK, October 2000 was my introduction to the brutalizing racist blood sport of “beaner-hopping.” I spent one early morning being chauffeured around small Long Island towns by Mike Davis. He took me to corners where dozens of Latino men gathered, shoulders hunched in the chilly, autumn morning air, waiting for vans to pull to the curb, size up the muscle available, and direct a chosen few labourers to cram themselves into what space was left inside the vehicle. They would then be taken to various job sites, paid off the books a minimalist wage for a day of drudgery, hauling, heaving, hammering, and handling whatever they found themselves tasked to work with. Mike explained how these largely undocumented workers would make their way to these 5:00 AM, modern-day “shape-ups” week-after-week, many times returning to their cramped, unsanitary living quarters empty-handed. Their thoughts were of home, knowing that mothers and extended kin in Mexico or Guatemala might go hungry that week for lack of a remittance.
Violence against this floating, reserve army of labour, which subsisted beneath the surface relations and visibilities of dominantly white, seemingly affluent, communities, was on the rise. Youth gangs from privileged high schools had taken to randomly targeting the immigrant, largely Spanish-speaking poor, running the often bicycle-riding newcomers off the road, taunting them and pelting beleaguered human targets with beer bottles tossed from tire-squealing cars. The harassment and physical intimidation, according to Mike, was escalating: pepper-sprayings, beatings with baseball bats, even pot-shots with BB-guns were not unusual. He told me this with anger and despair as we discussed his most recent book, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US City (2000). That study explored the consequences of putting the new Latin American immigrants “where they clearly belong: in the center of debate about the future of the American city.” It ended with Mike’s characteristic belief that class struggle and class organization could overcome the burden of oppression carried by all people’s of colour, including Suffolk County’s 21st-century “tired, poor, huddled masses” of downtrodden, displaced labourers. They would rise, he felt, as they had to, creating a “labor-Latino alliance” like that which surfaced in Los Angeles in the late 1990s. “Class organization in the workplace,” Mike concluded in Magical Urbanism, was “the most powerful strategy for ensuring the representation of immigrants’ socio-economic as well as cultural and linguistic rights in the new century ahead. The emerging Latino metropolis will then wear a proud union label.” But Mike knew full well that Suffolk County, and much of America, was a long way from L.A. As he glanced out the window at the often forlorn-looking street-corners, their massed “menials” desperate for just one day of miserably-remunerated labour, his shoulders drooped and his countenance darkened. There was in his demeanor worried acknowledgment of what Suffolk County’s Latino immigrants were up against.
Cause for concern was clearly warranted. As I would later learn, the inevitably inadequate official crime statistics suggested that between 2003-2007 anti-Latino hate crimes jumped 40 percent across the United States. In 2008 an Ecuadorian immigrant, Marcelo Lucero, was murdered in Suffolk County’s, Patchogue, New York. The killing of Lucero, a 37-year old dry-cleaning store worker who wired money home to his relatives regularly, was carried out by a marauding mob proclaiming themselves the Caucasian Crew. They assailed their victim for hours, stalking him, frustrated when he evaded their intimidations and racist slurs. Eventually Lucero’s tormenters came across him again, cornered the middle-aged man menacingly and, when he struck back with a belt, a 17-year old star football and lacrosse player pulled a knife and fatally stabbed the Ecuadorian worker. The “beaner-hopping” Mike told me about in 2000 became national news. “I don’t do this very often,” one of the killers told police, “maybe once a week.” Well, at least it was not a daily routine.
I was with Davis because of a tragic death of a different kind. The Humanities Institute of the State University of New York at Stony Brook was hosting a conference on “Radical Ideas in Conservative Times,” commemorating the life’s work of Michael Sprinker. I was attending the gathering and giving a talk in honour of Sprinker, whose support of my writing in the late 1980s and 1990s meant a great deal to me. A Marxist literary critic of breadth, indefatigable editorial outreach, and boundless generosity, Sprinker was the co-founder, with Mike Davis, of Verso’s Haymarket publications, dedicated to expanding left-wing understandings of the North American experience. His death, in 1999, before he reached 50, of a massive coronary brought on by an almost decade-long battle with multiple myeloma, an affliction in which cancerous plasma cells accumulate in the bone marrow and overtake healthy blood cells, hit his comrade Mike Davis particularly hard. Davis thought Sprinker “the best friend “I’ve ever had”; his death he considered “simply an obscenity.”
The recent recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” Davis was teaching at Stony Brook and asked me to lecture to his class, where he was using a pre-publication version of my Cultures of Darkness: Night Travels in the Histories of Transgression (2000) as a basic text. After our reconnaissance of Suffolk County we went to lunch at a suburban diner and, done with the fare, we departed for his afternoon class. As Mike pulled out of the parking lot on to a two-lane thoroughfare, I realized we were going in the wrong direction. I was about to say something when I heard, “Hold on!”, saw an arm jerk the steering wheel, and before I knew it the truck bounced over a medium. We were travelling across a grassy boulevard and, after a few seconds of uneasy rattles and a final clanking descent, we were back on the road, proceeding in the opposite direction.
The truck was apparently none the worse for wear. I was probably more scathed, although I tried not to show it. With Mike it was always a bumpy ride. He did not just “Question Authority.” He abhorred it. All the more so if it originated in bourgeois power. Rules were there to be broken; risks taken; there was little if any reverence for strictures and conventions, unless they related to traditions associated with family life, or had been laid down to advance struggle and revolutionary resolve.
Mike & the Mythologies of Mercurialism
This did not always wear well at the Soho digs of the New Left Review/Verso Books (NLR) where I first met Mike in 1981. At that point, virtually all of Mike’s writing was ahead of him, certainly his most celebrated texts. I knew him, by reputation, from his articles in Radical America, and in Review, the journal of the State University of New York at Binghamton’s Braudel Center. The latter essay, a 60+ page critical analytic excursion through Michel Aglietta’s regulation school of capitalist crisis in the United States, caught the eye of Perry Anderson who, assured by comrades in the International Marxist Group that the young American was the real item, convinced Mike to come to work at the offices of NLR. The ride soon got bumpy.
Robin Blackburn, NLR’s collegial face, thought Mike’s “robust, American working-class style” charming, but acknowledged, understatedly, that “tact wasn’t his strong suit.” This surfaced when the Marxist historian of the American slave south, Eugene Genovese, sent a letter complaining that the NLR had not accorded his books their radical, reverential due. “Dear Professor Genovese, Fuck you,” responded Davis. Things got rather raucous toward the end of his 1980s tenure in the NLR offices. In the midst of a heated sit-down, Davis, whose terraria housed a collection of exotic reptiles, overturned the glass containers. As snakes, lizards, and various amphibians slithered across the carpeted floor, his NLR colleagues took refuge atop a lengthy reading table. Their shrill pleas for Mike to return the serpents and assorted other strange species, which I believe included a carnivorous toad, to their captivity bounced off books by Lucio Colletti, Chantal Mouffe, Sebastiano Timpanaro and other Verso authors. It wasn’t his finest hour, as Mike later noted with some regret: “If anyone was guilty of wild or outrageous behavior, it was me,” he confessed.
Mike appreciated his colleagues at theNLR, but he was often at odds with them. Davis’s more plebeian origins and the politics and persona that he was crafting out of them existed in a constant tension with Anderson and others, however much they might agree on any number of important matters. Later in life Mike would describe his 1980s years as “totally wrapped up in the whole strange world of New Left Review.” Not one to mince words, Mike insisted these were some of “the worst years” of his life, and he considered that he was basically “forced out of Verso” after an internal split and the publisher closed down the Haymarket series without bothering to consult with him or Sprinker. “Ultimately,” he claimed, “you could not really understand” the Etonian clique around the journal and left-wing publishing venture unless “you’d taken showers with them when you were ten.” Still, there was much good that came out of Mike’s London years, including the ways they put him in touch with ex-patriot NLR royalty residing in the United States, like Alexander Cockburn. Mike and Alex, himself a boarding school boy and Oxford graduate with a distinguished literary family pedigree, would be fast friends in New York and California, collaborating on CounterPunch. As Davis left the NLR/Verso offices to return to the United States, he remained a valued and diligent contributor to the journal’s team and, for decades to come, a star in Verso’s stable of distinguished writers. Bumpy ride or no, Mike Davis was increasingly appreciated as sui generis, an irreverent, resilient, romantic, revolutionary voice whose originality, pugnacious panache, and brio were as unrivalled as they were, in certain circles, venerated.
In this he shared something with another figure who prefigured Davis’s rocky relations with the NLR. Although he differed from a predecessor like Edward Thompson in myriad ways, Mike Davis shared with Thompson a capacity for defiant refusals and adamant stands that shocked many at the same time they were exalted by others. Both Thompson and Davis insisted that anger, so often considered as a deforming lapse among those in erudite circles who should be striving for objective and judicious intellectual contributions, was a legitimate emotion, one capable of expressing, even driving, the necessary passion of research and writing, as well as principles of political opposition. Davis was blunt in a 2020 interview: “What you need is a deep commitment to resistance and a fighting spirit and anger. Anybody who mortgages their activism to something like the success of a Sanders campaign, that isn’t commitment.” Thompson early railed against the language of the academy which he thought softened distortingly Raymond Williams’s appreciative assessment of an elevated “Tradition” of British literary life. The communication of anger Thompson thought a genuine response to a history that so often demanded indignation.
Who can forget Thompson’s outrage at the complacent claims of one of the Capitalism and the Historians (1954) crowd that child labour in the Industrial Revolution necessitated little in the way of anguished reflection, it meriting only recognition as a common-place happening? The modern reader, suggested R.M. Hartwell, in a 1959 article in the Journal of Economic History, “well disciplined by familiarity with concentration camps,” was left “comparatively unmoved” by the spectacle of youngsters employed in dangerous workplaces. Thompson’s rejoinder was cuttingly curt: “We may be allowed to reaffirm a more traditional view: that the exploitation of little children, on this scale and with this intensity, was one of the most shameful events in our history.” Davis, if anything, could be even more acerbic, as this comment on the much-maligned Los Angeles Chief of Police, William H. Parker, in Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (2020) reveals: “1966 was a grim year for social justice, but it had one bright spot. At a testimonial dinner in July and in front of hundreds of guests, Chief Parker keeled over dead.” Outrage at the tens of millions killed by Empire’s constructed famines animated the writing of Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (2000). The book that Perry Anderson regarded as “Mike’s masterpiece,” was written to establish that “imperial policies toward starving ‘subjects’ were often the exact moral equivalent of bombs dropped from 18,000 feet.”
Conservative historians found this kind of thing disquieting. Gertrude Himmelfarb, for instance, excoriated Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963), declaring: “Thompson is not merely engagé … he is enragé.” Rather like some might describe Mike. Both Thompson and Davis were well-known for tearing strips, most well-deserved, a few not, off comrades whom they felt “had gone astray. Yet these eruptions were generally absolved, and not only by seemingly like-minded friends, but by declared adversaries.
Kevin Starr, something of an official historian of California, with elite credentials that Davis pilloried in City of Quartz, likening him to a modern-day Hubert Bancroft, came to befriend and charm Mike. This was in spite of his writing being assailed for offering “a hubristic coda for today’s mercenary intellectuals to claim that they [were] designing the state’s future.” Starr managed to see in Davis’s presentation of the history of Los Angeles much to admire, even as his own considerable historical commentary was dismissed as encouraging “contemporaries in the conceit that they too are fountainheads of the ‘Southern California dream’.” Starr, who debated Davis in the 1990s, no doubt always thought his rival’s presentation of L.A.’s character jaundiced, unduly damaging. In 1999, he expressed a dismay common in Californian literary and historical circles: “A lot of writers are tired of Mike Davis’s being rewarded again and again … for telling the world what a terrible place L.A. is.” Well aware that his own writing had been summarily put down by Davis, Starr managed to get past pique, joking that Mike castigated him as a Whig apologist. Starr found a way to respect Davis’s prodigious research and his brilliant insights, enjoying his company. He invited Mike to Bohemian Grove, a 2,700-acre stand of virgin redwoods north of San Francisco that served as a men’s-only retreat for the Reaganite rich to unleash their iron-man selves. Mike, whose first response was that he wouldn’t be allowed to get close to the place, was assured by Starr that as long as he promised to never write about it, he would be a welcome guest among the billionaires playing at being bohemian. “Too bad,” said Davis, declining the invite with characteristic irreverence. He would pass on an opportunity to hobnob with George Shultz and other plutocrats, whom he was convinced spent their time at the elite Californian wilderness spa “peeing on redwood trees and acting like 7-year olds.” Eric Hobsbawm, in a moment of reflection that was perhaps touched with jealousy, commented on Thompson that he had the gift of genius, and for this his “admirers forgave him much … . His friends forgave him everything.” Again, not unlike Mike.
Just as Anderson could extol Thompson’s strength as a socialist writer, but find considerable fault with his ostensibly impoverished political analysis, so too were there those who judged Davis politically suspect. Tariq Ali, somewhat distanced from his street-fighting repute of 1968, commented on Davis in the late 1990s: “Mike is an exceptionally astute analyst of the enemy, but if I were an American trade union leader I wouldn’t go to him to ask which way forward.” Davis, of course, was little inclined to see in such bureaucratized officialdoms very much in the way of strategic, forward-looking discernment. He cast his lot, not with the “effete intellectuals” whom he was more than happy to disparage, but with a long line of revolutionary critics of the ossified layer of conservative trade union tops, from Albert Parsons and William Z. Foster, to James Connolly and James P. Cannon. There was always a sense that Mike’s politics were just too out there for some in NLR circles. As Davis grappled with impending ecological disaster, Ali expressed bewilderment in 1997 at “the turn to millennial catastrophism,” suggesting that Mike should be studying “politics and geography” instead of warning of the dangers of planetary crisis. In 2022, Davis’s prophetic inclinations seem less incredulous than insightful.
Some at NLR thought “Mike could be psychotic … very-in-your-face … .” Certainly one NLR Marxist author, Fredric Jameson, if he did not necessarily agree with this harsh clinical assessment, wrote Davis off perfunctorily. Jameson, whose 1991 discussion of late capitalism appeared at almost the same time as Mike Davis’s first truly best-selling Los Angeles book, >City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990), shared an interest in the metropolis of the west coast, which provided him with endless examples of the postmodern condition. He found little to like in the writing of his fellow NLR/Verso author, brushing Davis aside as little more than a militant sound-bite of a seemingly inconsequential workerist-obsessed Left. The two clashed over the meaning of the Californian city, which Davis would present as a capitalist cul-de-sac of coercion, a Chinatown-like reservoir of repression. Jameson’s postmodern-inflected readings of LA’s art and architecture, in which sensuality seemingly triumphed over a more gritty social reality, infuriated Davis. He insisted that the City of Angels was actually ruled by Lucifer: a mélange of ominous trends, in which security systems, segregated spaces, brutalizing and intrusive policing, and ecological irrationality all contributed to the lethal oppression of a multi-ethnic working class. Los Angeles was carceral, not cultivated.
In interpretations of iconic authors and landmarks, from Raymond Chandler to the Hotel Bonaventure, Davis and Jameson constituted a dueling duo. But in this confrontation over Los Angeles and its meaning, unlike that which saw Davis and Starr cross swords over analyses resting on counter-posed empirical claims, the two New Left Review-associated Marxists never quite touched down on ground where they could walk in tandem. As the antagonistic pair raised their analytic weapons, the aesthetics of the city and its historically-constituted class war separated and clashed. For Davis, Chandler represented a “generalized petty-bourgeois resentment against the collapse of the Southern California dream,” his characters symbolizing “the small businessman locked in struggle with gangsters, corrupt police and the parasitic rich (who were usually his employers as well) – a romanticized simulacrum of the writer’s relationship to studio hacks and moguls.” Jameson’s Chandler is quite something else: “Raymond Chandler’s novels have not one form, but two, an objective form and a subjective one, the rigid external structure of the detective story on the one hand, and a more personal distinctive rhythm of events on the other, arranged, as is the case with any novelist of originality, according to some ideal molecular chain in the brain cells, as personal in their encephalographic pattern as a fingerprint, peopled with recurrent phantoms, obsessive character types, actors in some forgotten psychic drama through which the social world continues to be interpreted.” Form and content loom large in the sensibilities that Davis and Jameson brought to Los Angeles as a subject, but they could not be more at odds with one another, as indeed their respective languages of interpretation conveyed.
Born Under a Bad Sign
Michael Ryan Davis, always known as Mike, was born 10 March 1946 in Fontana, California, a “gritty blue-collar town” with an “unsavory reputation in the eyes of San Bernardino County’s moral crusaders and middle-class boosters.” Birthplace of the Hell’s Angels, Fontana’s destiny, in Davis’s later depiction of it as a junkyard of plebeian aspiration, was a reflection of “the fate of those suburbanized California working classes who cling to their tarnished dreams at the far edge of the L.A. galaxy.” Hunter Thompson described the setting in which Davis would be steered toward his teenage years of drag racing, beer guzzling, car stealing alienation, within which were shadowed a precocious, if suppressed, intellectual attraction to natural science, books, and ideas. Post-World War II Fontana, according to Thompson, was founded on a class quest, not for order, but for privacy, a need to “figure things out. It was a nervous, downhill feeling, a mean kind of Angst that always comes out of wars … a compressed sense of time on the outer limits of fatalism.” Fontana was a “loud, brawling mosaic of working-class cultures,” where “Designer living” meant a Peterbuilt rig “with a custom sleeper or a full-chrome Harley hog.”
This was a background that would stay with Davis for decades. In a 2003 tour of San Diego’s El Cajon Boulevard, where the Davis family would relocate in the 1950s, Mike steered a bemused journalist interested in his story towards Dumont’s Tavern, a biker hangout in which the bartender sported his Hells Angels colours. “You don’t mind if we get beat up, do you?” asked Davis impishly as he settled into a comfortable beer. The figure from the “Fourth Estate,” sweating buckets in the hot San Digeo sun, came to the conclusion that Mike “stands with those of whatever stripe who picket, subvert, refuse allegiance to and revolt against the corporate, cultural, and political interests that control our lives.” This included biker outlaws, with whom the celebrated radical author shared a “kindred vision.” A founding Fontana member of the Hell’s Angels offered a pithy rendition of that oppositional optic: “We’re bastards to the world, and they’re bastards to us.” Or, alternatively, in Milton’s Paradise Lost poetics, which seems a fitting inscription on the tombstone of Fontana’s asphyxiated aspirations: “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” The El Cajon that Davis grew up in mimicked this miasma: a racist frontier, one part white cowboy, another part militarist, the town exuded evil. Looking back on his childhood, Davis told an interviewer in 2008, “I actually believe that I have seen the devil or his moral equivalent in El Cajon.”
What was a boy brought up in this milieu to do? Certainly nothing good. Mike’s parents, who supposedly fled Ohio and hitch-hiked to California in search of the sunshine dream during the Great Depression, were not the types to resign themselves to his “redneck” juvenile delinquency. But neither were they entirely in synch in terms of how to handle a rebellious without-a-cause teenaged offspring. His father Dwight, a Protestant of Welsh background, was a meat-cutting trade unionist who voted the Democratic ticket, his mother a tougher-than-nails Irish-Catholic Republican, who had political eyes only for Calvin Coolidge. At 18, Davis supposedly ploughed a powder-blue Chevy into a wall, drag racing with friends on Valentine’s Day, 1964. Recovering in hospital, Mike’s father brought him a copy of Ray Ginger’s The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Debs (1949), hoping to wean him off the dragster pulps that monopolized his son’s reading time. Paperbacks like Henry Gregor Felson’s Street Rod (1953) were not really appreciated in the Davis household, whose texts of choice were the Bible and Reader’s Digest collections in patented faux leather bindings. Dwight Davis no doubt thought that paperback glamorization of wild teenagers in souped-up ‘Cherry Red’ roadsters contributed to his offspring’s dangerous night-time escapades. A little Debs couldn’t hurt, thought Davis’s father, even if the old socialist was hardly lionized in his Democratic Party circles. Mike’s mother, no “mushy liberal,” had a different perspective. She hinted that a stint in juvenile detention, or even some hard time in San Quentin, would do more good. Yet, glancing at the Debs volume, she did allow that her Republican daddy nurtured a soft spot for the beloved Gene, voting for the Socialist candidate when he ran from his jail cell for the Presidency in 1920.
At this point, Mike’s education had been cut short by a family crisis, his father suffering a heart attack. To earn some money, Davis quit school for a semester, driving a meat delivery truck. An old friend of his father’s, Lee Gregovich, a blacklisted Communist who sold the Wobbly paper, the Industrial Worker, as a young boy, was working at a Chicken Shack outlet that was on Davis’s route. Mike would stop in and have political conversations with his “Red godfather.” Race, more than class, animated Davis’s early transition from “Western redneck” to 1960s radical, his involvement in the civil rights movement and, in particular, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), pushed, as well, by family connections, a cousin having married a black activist. A 1962 CORE demonstration at the lily-white Bank of America in downtown San Diego proved to be what Davis later referred to as a “burning bush” moment in his political evolution. He came close to actually going up in flames. Some yokel sailors sprayed lighter fluid on CORE placards, threatening to set them ablaze. Davis sat down on them as an act of preservation. He too was doused with the accelerant, the racist mariners flicking their bics in the background. Mike claimed he was rescued by the paramilitary security wing of the Nation of Islam, whose crisply-uniformed members, while not participating in civil rights demonstrations, often monitored them to insure the safety of their dominantly African American participants. Gregovich, proud of his friend Dwight’s son and his turn to civil rights activism, nonetheless urged him to take his politics to another level. “Read Marx,” he intoned.
Davis did not exactly immerse himself in the works of “the Moor.” He did finish high school, making his way to Reed College in Portland, the first in his family to attend university. But he was soon enveloped in a crisis of class confidence. “I couldn’t write a word and I was just overwhelmed,” he recalled. Convinced that he lacked the ability to cut it among the literate sons and daughters of the fashionably-educated, Davis disappeared from classes in a haze of rule-breaking sex and drinking. Mike and his girlfriend – the daughter of a Harvard Medical School professor – were expelled for the antiquated violation of “intervisitation,” a medieval-sounding prohibition that kept men and women from crossing the cohabitation threshold in their respectively segregated dormitories. Mike was actually ahead of the 1960s radicalization curve. May 1968 had its origins in Nanterre protests against University of Paris restrictions on dorm visits that left students sexually frustrated. Mike was on his way to “1968” in 1962.
Unable to face his mother, who was outraged that her son, graced with a college acceptance, had blown his chance at an education and was dropping out (Mike may have failed to tell her about the intervisitation imbroglio), a footloose Davis took the advice of Jeremy Brecher. The future labour historian with a flare for popularizing high points of class struggle was a proponent of the fledgling Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). He pointed Mike in the direction of a new vocation, organizing radical youth, telling the expelled student he was not really college material anyway. Davis boarded a Greyhound Bus for New York City.
There he worked in the national SDS office. Davis organized an anti-apartheid rally that targeted Chase Manhattan Bank’s complicity in sustaining the segregationist order, bailing out South Africa in the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre’s economic fallout. No one thought of Mike as a writer, and Davis himself, surrounded by highly educated student radicals, many of whom went on to become professors or authors, considered himself “functionally illiterate.” As a child, his family found his staccato-like speech delivery off-putting. “They thought I was mentally retarded,” Mike would later claim. Carl Ogelsby, SDS President at the time, described Davis as an organizational foot soldier, the most “meat-and-potatoes guy” in a student-based movement that boasted too few proletarian proponents.
In the years to come a peripatetic Davis would tramp the country on SDS’s behalf, touching down in Texas, but spending the bulk of his time in Los Angeles. An ill-fated attempt to set up an SDS community project in African American West Oakland came to naught. Davis made a pilgrimage to Jackie Robinson’s mother’s house, hoping to be helpful in the struggle against the construction of a Pasadena freeway that was bisecting a historic African American district. The meeting ended with the matriarch of the black neighbourhood kind of patting the well-meaning Mike on the knee and saying, “I think it would be better for you to go organize some white kids against racism. This community can take care of itself.”
Never dispirited, Davis’s SDS days in Los Angeles mushroomed into connections with a remarkable group of multi-racial radicals and organizers. First among a distinguished group of militant equals were the South Central activist Levi Kingston, to whom Setting the Night on Fire is dedicated; the Los Angeles City College radical Ron Everett, aka Ron Karenga, founder of US Organization, the largest Black Power group that consolidated in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts Rebellion; and two formidable and charismatic SDS women, Margaret Thorpe and Patty Lee Parmalee. When the Watts Rebellion erupted in 1965 Davis furnished the L.A. offices of the radical student organization with street purchases of typewriters and furnishings, courtesy of some market-minded looters. As the days and nights of meetings, rallies, protests and schmoozing blurred into one another, Mike’s romance with revolutionary possibility blossomed. He got drunk with Marcuse, who was evidently tiring of graduate students, and welcomed Mike and a small contingent of rabble-rousers to his house. The New Left guru provided beers and just the kind of wonderous stories of European revolutionary intrigue that captivated Davis and his cronies. Hearing Isaac Deutscher, whom he thought for a moment was actually Trotsky, Mike was blown away by the Polish revolutionist’s articulate call to the barricades. Burning his draft card, the young SDSer without a school was inevitably involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. He was outlaw enough – in spite of a crew cut and phobia about recreational drugs – to hook up with some hell-raising teenagers from the Palisades High School. Their riot nights on L.A.’s Sunset Strip Mike chronicled in a 2007 essay in Labour/Le Travail. Davis ended the 1960s in a police bus, arrested at what is now known as California State University – Northridge. A peaceful November campus sit-in, where 3,000 students and SDSers protested the college administration’s banning of all demonstrations, rallies, and meetings, culminated in the largest mass arrest of the decade, 286 youths corralled into custody, transported to jail. Davis remembered the ride to the hoosegow 45 years later: “The girls started singing. ‘Hey Jude, don’t be afraid.’ I fell in love with all of them.”
A Stalinist Sojourn
Retrospectively, Mike always considered himself “a miserable failure as an organizer and a speaker.” He grappled with the need for “organizations of organizers.” This prodded him to join the Communist Party for a brief time in the late 1960s. An admirer of the dissident leader of the Californian Party, Dorothy Healey, and the historically hard-nosed, class struggle politics of Third Period communist militants, Davis ran the CP’s Progressive Bookstore for a few months. He squirreled a rifle away in the basement. At night he might sneak off into the desert with Angela Davis for target shooting practice, blasting away at watermelons, or so he told me. Something of a “wild man” in the movement, Davis’s most serious indiscretion, however, was not so much his adventurism as his non-sectarian inclinations. He was ordering literature the entrenched Stalinist Russophiles thought suspect at best, heretical at worst. Doing his utmost to appeal to a broad and youthful left seeking out all sides of the revolutionary road, Davis found a place for Trotsky and Bukharin, Mao and Marcuse, on the shelves he stocked.
His days of drawing a Party stipend were undoubtedly numbered. They finally came to a grinding halt when he mistook a Soviet attaché for one of the FBI guys whose offices were nearby. These meddlesome types used to pop in to let the Party know tabs were being kept on it. The Russian official, dressed in dark suit, white shirt, and tie like one of Hoover’s men, spent an inordinate amount of time in the store, taking notes of titles on display. No one other than the Feds, thought Mike and an ex-Navy friend who also harboured a rifle in the bookstore basement, wore these kinds of clothes and had an interest in writing down titles of what was for sale in a Communist Party storefront operation. They decided to physically toss the suspected federal agent to the curb. Later that evening, Healey phoned Davis. “You’ve always wanted to be a working-class hero. Now you have to go out and get a job and become one. … You’re fired!” Turns out the Soviet cultural attaché wasted no time in letting Gus Hall, Chairman of the CPUSA, know that he had been “attacked by young Trotskyists or Maoists in the Party’s bookstore.” Mike had to get a day job.
‘A working-class hero is something to be’
Students for a Democratic Society was never a paying gig that provided even enough to live on. Moreover, as the mobilizing initiatives of the mid-to-late 1960s descended into the performative rampages and underground terrorism of the Weather-wing of a newly-christened Revolutionary Youth Movement in 1968-1969, Davis departed, hating the direction SDS was moving in. Wild was alright, but it demanded, as a politics of opposition, the hard, day-to-day grind of Depression-era organizers or 1960s civil rights “Freedom Riders.” Davis never forgave the Weather Underground, regarding them as “rich kids, along with some ordinary kids, playing ‘Zabriskie Point’ for themselves.” He resented their role in the New Left’s denouement, which registered on his class-inflected political radar screen as a defeat.
Living in a dilapidated squat, Davis was befriended by a small-town gambler who regaled Mike with tales of L.A.’s Bunker Hill before the invasion of the body-snatching freeways. An International Brotherhood of Teamsters program schooled him in how to drive an 18-wheel tractor trailer. Davis’s first job entailed working a ready-mix concrete truck, but he was fired when he lost his concentration. Mesmerized by the iron workers traipsing across steel girders building skyscrapers, who he thought more enthralling than the circus, Mike let his concrete spill down a major L.A. north-south artery, Figueroa Street. No matter, those were the days when jobs were there for the taking. He landed on his well-paid feet, delivering Barbie Dolls throughout Southern California for the toy distributor, Pensick and Gordon. Davis was in his element. He worked 80-hour weeks nine months of the year, earning big money for the early 1970s, and had the post-Christmas winter slack time off to hike in the San Gabriel Mountains. As summer smog gave way to the allure of early autumn and he picked up work in the lushness of spring, Mike found the long-hauls “beautiful.” Always interested in geography and geology, the terrain was breathtaking and Davis recalled, decades later, “I loved doing that job.” But the warehouse supervisor, a charismatic Korean War veteran with ties to the Mexican American White Fence gang of the Boyle Heights neigbourhood, engineered an employment grab: his buddies from East L.A. moved into the better-paying trucking jobs. This left Davis and others whose cavalier attitude toward seniority — they liked their winter weeks off — open to displacement. Lesson One in the protocols of proletarianization: it is not so much what you know as who, and in Los Angeles the ties that bind were often racial and ethnic.
Soon Mike was driving a tour bus, offering Gray Line patrons an endless patter on the fantasy sites of Disneyland and Hollywood by Night, all the while cultivating an alternative rap on the underside of Los Angeles. He supplemented his designated regular stops with sojourns at sites where white mobs massacred scores of Chinese in 1870 or the McNamara Brothers bombed the L.A. Times building in 1910. The normal practice for new-hires at Gray Line was to purchase a set of touring talking points from one of the established drivers. This haughty lot regarded knowledge of Los Angeles as a proprietary sheet, to be sold for a whack-load of money. Bucking this tradition of commodification, Mike began to read L.A. history seriously for the first time, starting with Carey McWilliams and Louis Adamic. The blue-rinse, suited-up side of Gray Line’s clientele were not always amused with Mike’s tales of working-class dynamiters, picket line stands, or bloody battles; more often than not, they were alarmed. Yet there were longshore and plantation workers from Hawaii whose union sponsored group holidays and contracted with the tour company who warmed to Mike’s militant pitch. “I just absolutely had a ball with them,” Davis enthused decades later. The seeds of Davis’s Tartarean view of the City of Flowers and Sunshine lay in these years.
Davis got into trucking as a kind of individualized “industrialization,” as it would be known in the new communist movements of the 1970s. The Teamsters, with a rank-and-file push for more democratic unionism in the making, seemed fertile ground to cultivate proletarian resistance. Mike had no luck on this front. As a political influence on his brothers in the over-the-road teamster fraternity he was a dud. Reading Marx, Sartre, and Marcuse when he could scrape some time together, Mike found his working-class counterparts anything but left-wing. “At night we’d go out to topless bars and I’d blurt out, ‘I’m a communist’, and they’d say, ‘Dick’s a Jehovah’s Witness. Let’s have another drink.” Nonetheless, Davis found that his “coveted niche in the trucking industry” would be cut out from underneath him in a nightmarish descent into the violence never far from the surface of American class relations so often routinely and wrongly depicted as accommodationist. At least that is the lore, which may well owe something to Davis’s willingness to embellish the truth with a “fabulist” finish. He was fond of saying that it startled him “to find out that some tall tales I told are actually true.”
A 1973 outbreak of class conflict taught Mike another hard lesson, this time on the front lines of combat. Gray Line was a small outfit, likely family-owned, and as they moved to sell the firm its status as a cab drivers’ local, however much the Teamster collective agreement governing work was a corrupt, sweetheart deal, suddenly loomed as a liability. Breaking the union became a priority. When the inevitable strike ensued, Gray Line turned to an army of professional strikebreaking bus drivers who cycled through the industry in the United States, leaving locally-ensconced unions in tatters. One of these scabs drove into a picket line, knocking down, and possibly running over, one of the Gray Line strikers. Davis, who himself was arrested, charged with assault and battery for allegedly hitting one of these professional strikebreakers with a union sign, found himself in a room with 39 other angry drivers. Nany of them were, in Mike’s later estimation, “pretty shady” characters. At that secret meeting, the aristocratic-minded tour leaders decided to each ante up $400 dollars to hire a hit man to kill the leader of the blacklegs. In what he maintained was “the best speech” of his life, Mike tried to reason with his fellow strikers. Insisting that union solidarity was the answer, and that much could be gained by secondary picketing and convincing other unionized workers not to cross their lines, Mike pleaded with his co-workers to step back from their murderous conspiratorial folly. His fellow strikers were having none of it. “We’ve just gotta kill the motherfucker,” they said, seeing sociopathic gunslingers as preferable to solidarity. Davis thought many of these bus drivers, with their crisply-pressed uniforms and standardized, conventional tour commentaries, “namby-pamby.” When Mike later discovered that one of them had been a Flint sit-down striker, he was shocked. Deploring the inclination of these angry, embattled workers to reach for the gun rather than map out a politics of victory, Mike called them “pussies.” Name-calling clearly did not work. His arguments rejected and his logic somehow unconvincing, Mike was outvoted 39-1. Only the incompetence of the shooters, whose plot was foiled before it ever even had a chance to unravel, saved the young Gray Line driver and his out-of-control counterparts from serious jail time. As part of the strike settlement, Davis was fired, the court charges against him dropped.
Having met some radical professors from the University of California, Los Angeles during the strike, such as Jon Amsden, author of a future New Left Review critique of studies of workers’ control, and aware that Robert Brenner of the university’s History Department was offering a seminar on Marx’s Das Kapital that soon morphed into discussions of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, Davis returned to university at the age of 28. He got enough out of the classes to nurture the self-confidence he needed to pursue his own eclectic agenda of interests. These included political economy, labour history, and urban ecology, the conceptual arsenal of his essays of the mid-to-late 1970s and a part of the foundation on which publications of the 1980s and 1990s would rest.
Restlessness, and a sense that an apprenticeship in Marxism was best served in the United Kingdom, got the better of him. Davis decided to spend a year studying in Scotland, courtesy of a scholarship from his father’s meat-cutters’ union. A Glaswegian trucker warned Mike off living in Edinburgh, where his bursary was tenable at the large university, telling him the place was a deadly class purgatory. Glasgow, with its long tradition of labour militancy, seemed a more congenial setting, and Mike touched base with a young American New Left student, Suzi Weissman, future biographer of Victor Serge and lifelong friend. Sharing a damp and cold Glasgow flat with Weissman and her future husband, it was nonetheless Belfast that really drew Davis, who spent most of his time there hunkered down in Shankill Road libraries, researching outdoor relief riots in the 1930s. Belfast won his heart, his mates a ribald crew of hard-drinking, in-your-face, dozens-spouting, opponents of Empire. The Troubles hung over everything, of course, but he found love in Belfast, marrying Brigid Loughran, and settled into a community where “he got on like a house on fire … formed some of the deepest friendships of my life … .” Training to run a marathon, he was pressed by his Irish buddies not to enter the race: holding an event like this in Belfast, they claimed, was just another attempt on the part of the British to normalize the war. In solidarity he packed in his yearning to be a distance runner. The small forces of the Trotskyist International Marxist Group in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, and Belfast, were another pole of attraction, one that would introduce him to Perry Anderson and the New Left Review/Verso circles in which he would tread troubled waters over the course of the 1980s.
After another stab at truck driving in the United States soured, Davis was lured to London and the NLR, a contract and $1000 advance from Verso for a proposed book on the American working class showing up in his mail one day. Mike may not have liked the time he spent working with the New Left Review and Verso, but it was there that he first began to seriously hone his skills as a writer, reading voraciously, developing a unique style that was both captivating and combative, and publishing articles in the London-based journal.
Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class (1986), Mike Davis’s first book, was a product of these trans-Atlantic happenings. It was an unconventional study steeped in conventionality. The argument percolated through the long asked question of why the working class of the United States was different and had not formed a labour party or developed a socialist consciousness. Unlike the trend in left progressive academic scholarship, accenting the autonomies evident in proletarian neighbourhoods and the seeming decision-making capacities of skilled labour in the workplaces of 19th and early 20th century capitalism, Davis chronicled the political immolation of a working class captive of the American Dream, whose most effective prison-house was the Democratic Party and its legion of ideologues. Roosevelt and the New Deal were not, as they are presented in so many contemporary academic accounts, the saviours of working-class interests advancing the cause of trade unionism, but a lethal, bourgeois blow struck at the militant industrial organizing campaigns of the 1930s. The Democratic Party may well have cultivated the American Dream, but to retreat into it was a death-wish, the symbolic mascot of the inheritors of the mantle of Jefferson, the jackass, kicking revolutionary longings to the graveyard. American workers, acclimatized to decades of defeat and disillusionment, had opted by the 1980s, according to Davis, for electoral abstentionism. Described by one commentator as “the great antisentimentalist,” Davis wrote against a background of Reaganism’s successful assault on labour. The result was “a grim coda” to a Davisian dirge that presented the prospects for revived class struggle politics as slim indeed. Something of a cold douche thrown on the pioneering labour histories of Herbert Gutman and David Montgomery, Prisoners of the American Dream presented a cartography of class formation that, with its sweeping summation, appealed to Verso founder, Perry Anderson. The exhilarating wave of Debsian socialism that Davis insisted derived from an immigrant proletariat exploited economically and disenfranchised politically was absorbed in the Fordist ‘Americanization’ of the 1940s and 1950s. This destroyed the social and cultural base of actually existing forms of socialism and communism. Only radical protest – akin to the uprisings and direct-action tactics of the 1960s – could resuscitate a genuinely left-wing labour movement, bringing back to life the enervated trade unions. This would only happen, however, to the extent that class struggles and the solidarity they would engender and depend upon took an internationalist and anti-racist turn, making common cause with liberation movements in the developing world and aligning unequivocally with Black and Hispanic communities in the United States. “The long term future of the US left,” concluded Davis, “will depend on its ability to become both more representative and self-organized among its own ‘natural’ mass constituencies, and more integrally a wing of a new internationalism.” This was a history of the United States working class that resonated with Anderson’s own Considerations on Western Marxism (1971), with its conclusion that, “When a truly revolutionary movement is born in a mature working class, the ‘final shape’ of theory will have no exact precedent. All that can be said is that when the masses themselves speak, theoreticians – of the sort that the West has produced for fifty years – will necessarily be silent.”
Writing the Modern Macabre
Mike’s mother, always perhaps his harshest critic, thought his first book unreadable. This was ungenerous, but it may well have helped prod her son to greatness. In the years to come Davis engaged in “learning to write … the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.” Beginnings of articles or books stalled and sputtered as he struggled to strike just the right note in an introductory sentence; whole days at the desk evaporated as pages and paragraphs were rejected and entire chapters once judged finally finished were condemned to the waste-basket. “I go back to my desk. If it could fight/Or dream or mate. What other creature would/ Sit making marks on paper through the night.” The reward of this effort was large. Davis’s paper marks would result in writing on Los Angeles that “surges off the page irresistibly, exciting and compelling in equal measure.” Two books that appeared in the 1990s won Davis wide recognition, a huge readership, financial windfalls, and a reputation as the single most important urban theorist slicing through the dystopian dimensions of capitalist urban deformation.
The first of these studies, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, previewed in a number of NLR articles in the mid-to-late 1980s, is perhaps Davis’s finest book, a tour de force that counter-poses the mythologies of the celestial city, basking in the nurturing sun, and the actualities of a hellish, human-engineered environment of predation and class-orchestrated confinement. Imaginative and rivetingly presented, City of Quartz closed with Davis’s birthplace, the “junkyard of dreams” that was Fontana, where homeboys proclaimed their lot in life: “Eat shit and die.” The book opened, however, with Davis standing “on the sturdy cobblestone foundations of the General Assembly Hall of the Socialist city of Llano de Rio – Open Shop Los Angeles’s utopian antipode.” The first sentence of his excursion into the despair that he imagined orchestrated the evolution of L.A. insisted that, “The best place to view Los Angeles of the next millennium is from the ruins of its alternative future.” Options and optics structure the sequential parade of plots, personalities, and power that make the Metropolis, an origin story lying in the death of Llano, part of the primitive accumulation that would fuel the drive to market-driven overdevelopment and a ratcheting up of inequality. Abandoned in 1918, Mike visited what was left of the desert sanctuary to “see if the walls would talk to me.” They did not. Instead, the conversation came from two 20-year old labourers from El Salvador, tramping California’s frontier of housing starts, camped out for a time in what was left of the old co-operative dairy. Unaware that they had settled into the remains of a cuidad socialista, they asked Mike, who told them the history on which they had come to rest, whether “rich people had come with planes and bombed them out.” They might as well have: the colony’s credit collapsed.
So begins a tour of Tinseltown and its environs, the very un-socialist L.A. Chapters on the authors who have socially constructed the city lead into discussions of moneyed power, monopolized land development, and watered dividends; the retrenchment of homeowners and white backlash; the fortress-mentality that structures urban architecture and the mindset of the infamous LAPD, the making of a confined community; and the political economy of urban gangs. City of Quartz is a book like no other: against the boosterism of the mega-developers and their kept haute intelligentsia, Davis laid bare a story of expropriation and exploitation, violence and venality, recounted with rare relish. L.A., in Davis’s telling, had been pushed towards a Blade Runner descent into a guerrilla war fought on a diversity of fronts, from UCLA to the streets of Compton. “In Los Angeles there are too many signs of approaching helter-skelter,” Davis warned, adding that “everywhere in the inner city, even in the forgotten poor-white boondocks with their zombie populations of speed-freaks, gangs are multiplying at a terrifying rate, cops are becoming more arrogant and trigger happy, and a whole generation is being shunted toward some impossible Armageddon.” Bourgeois hubris and hectoring insistence on prioritizing profit brought L.A.’s roller-coaster ride to a threateningly bumpy terminus, highlighting the “conflagrationist potential” of a city that would soon be engulfed in the flames of the Rodney King riots.
City of Quartz did not unleash the rabid hounds of red-baiting, money-chasing, L.A. boosting attack. It initially gained considerable stature as a terrific text, sold reasonably well, and drew modest critical acclaim. When the acquittal of four white policemen who had beaten King imploded in the incendiary rage of the Los Angeles dispossessed, however, the book’s popularity soared. Seen as something of a seer, Davis apparently received a $160,000 advance from Knopf for a book on the riots. He decided to pass on the project because he was becoming close to former gang member, Dewayne Holmes, and others, advising them in their efforts to orchestrate a truce among the competing Bloods and Crips camps, hooking people up with political figures like two-time California Governor, Jerry Brown, and an old SDS connection, Tom Hayden, now a Democratic Party Member of the State Assembly, 44th District. In the words of L.A. journalist Jeff Weiss, City of Quartz became “everyone’s favorite Rosetta Stone for translating the civic unrest.” Weiss also provides one of the best brief summaries of this powerful book, a historicized tour of L.A.s bleak future:
“noir to the core, triangulating Raymond Chandler and Carey McWilliams, Nathaniel West with a knife to the throat but filtered through the progressive economic treatises of 19th-century reformer, Henry George. With hard-boiled clarity, Davis revealed the unseen fault lines rupturing underneath the surface, observed hairline fractures in ostensibly stable facades, and offered a damning history of the malevolent forces that led to our cataclysmic discontent.”
The class enemies Davis eviscerated no doubt seethed, but they were largely silent.
The Dialectic of Catastrophism/Revolution & the Revenge of the Profiteers
Not so with the second installment of his apocalyptic analysis of Los Angeles’s disaster trajectory, bankrolled by a $50,000 advance. Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (1998) outraged the city’s powerful development/real estate lobby, and they fought back. The book opened with what was now Davis’s trademark stylistic flair: “Once or twice each decade, Hawaii sends Los Angeles a big wet kiss.” That this puckering up brought destruction in its wake did not have to be said. Shoring up the panache of this prelude was Mike’s turn to what he would subsequently, in Late Victorian Holocausts, dub “political ecology,” a marriage of environmental history and Marxist political economy. For the substance of Davis’s metaphor was the ruin of irregular, but inevitable, storm systems that swept warm, water-laden air from the Hawaiian archipelago south, hurling massive rainfalls, the equivalent of half of Los Angeles’s annual precipitation, on the Sunshine City. As turbulent storm fronts ran smack into the mountain wall surrounding Los Angeles Basin, the ferocity of the consequent rainfall could exceed even that of tropical monsoon belts. Devastation resulted. And so the stage was set for a depiction of L.A. as a city of potential calamity, an ecology of fear. This did not go over well among those whose expense accounts, sales commissions, and extravagant living derived from the City of Angels’s sunny imaginary. They depended on boosting L.A.’s paradisiacal portfolio.
This crowd did not exactly cotton to chilling tales of capitalism’s defiance of commonsensical care in building skyscrapers atop earthquake fault-lines; casting caution to the winds of torrential downpours and their destructive potential to unleash floods of Biblical proportions; overdeveloping the natural habitat of potentially man-eating critters; or destroying biodiversity to the extent that waterlogged snakes washed up on prime beachfronts, virus-carrying rodents threatened to overtake suburban tranquility, and tick-infested deer mice unloaded lyme disease on an unsuspecting country-club set. Davis, adopting Walter Benjamin’s phrasing, presented Los Angeles as a dualistic dialectical fairy tale. In part one, “a relentless chain of slaughter and extinction stretching from the casual brutality of nineteenth-century ranching and market-hunting practices to the systematic predator extermination campaigns of the twentieth century, mounted in the name of ‘scientific’ game management,” saw roughly 11,000 bountied kills of mountain lions in southern California between 1907 and 1950. Capital and the state strove to tame the wild natural environment of the west, cleansing a habitat the better to sanitize it for profit-taking. Part two, however, saw the survival of nature’s wild offspring, “led by the astonishingly adaptive cougars of the Sierra Madre.” A habitat’s flora and fauna, slotted for domestication, even extinction, “begin to bite back, with often startling social consequences.” As reported mountain lion attacks on humans in California jumped in the 1990s, real estate brokers blanched at Davis’s irreverent warning that the survival instincts of these Rolls Royces of North American predators suggested an “inherent mutability.” Descanso and Pasadena reports of large cats ambushing the residents of rich suburbs was bad enough, but Davis declaring that wildlife’s evolutionary “behavioral quantum jump” might presage the “emergence of nonlinear lions with a lusty appetite for slow, soft animals in spandex” was neither amusing nor good for business. Definitely in bad taste, whatever the cougars might have thought. Meat-eaters notwithstanding, Davis claimed that “the small, ordinary mammals of the chaparral belt – vectors rather than predators – pose[d] far graver threats to human life.” Plagues and pandemics were in the making. If this were not sufficiently threatening to bring down property values, attacks of insects posed yet another concern: an Africanized bee population was apparently poised to marshal a deadly cyclone of winged killers mobilized to unleash an epidemic of anaphylaxis. As nature uncorked its resentments at humanly orchestrated violations of its space, Davis closed his presentation of Los Angeles as the poster child of calamity with a glimpse of how the Californian conurbation might have looked from outer-space during the riots of 1992. “[T]he city that once hallucinated itself as an endless future without natural limits or social constraints” appeared from such Olympian heights as an urban setting of “extraordinary combustability.” Los Angeles had all the “eerie beauty of an erupting volcano.” This was a stupendous sight, viewed from afar, but living atop this implosion in the making was quite another thing.
Admittedly a tad over the top, all of this was less disturbing to the development mind-set than Mike’s signature chapter in Ecology of Fear, the searing exposé of L.A.’s class-ordered political economy of fire. In “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” Davis juxtaposed how the overcrowded tenement and welfare apartment-hotels of L.A.’s Westlake district, the city’s equivalent of Spanish Harlem, and the gilded coast of Malibu’s perfect beaches, impeccably-outfitted cappuccino bars, and exorbitantly over-priced real estate confronted seemingly common incendiary destinies. L.A.’s Downtown district of poorly ventilated garment sweatshops and overcrowded, oven-like tenements was, by the 1970s, a slumlord’s dream. Rapacious rentier capital jammed immigrant families of recien illegados from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala into firetrap bottom-end housing, where regulations, safety provisions, and maintenance were ignored. Between 1947 and 1993 roughly 120 people died in 14 fatal blazes within a one-mile radius of the corner of Wilshire and Figueroa. Meanwhile, across the class divide, in roughly the same time period, Malibu was the wildfire capital of North America: 13 massive, 10,000+ acre firestorms destroyed over 1,600 high-priced homes and took 16 lives, while approximately 2,000 smaller fires burned with less destructive intensity. The rich and the poor apparently were torched alike.
Mike Davis took this lowest common denominator evasion of essential class difference and exploded it with his sardonic declamatory eloquence. Describing a 1993 conflagration that engulfed the Malibu coastal hills, burning celebrity mansions to their foundations and ensnarling the Pacific Coast Highway with a crawling parade of fire-fighting vehicles and fleeing Bentleys, Porches, and Jeep Cherokees, Davis reached into a deep, wry reservoir of class analysis. What he exposed was the human differentiation the burning inferno and its choking smoke posed. A couple of housewives of the rich and famous loaded their jewels and designer dogs into kayaks and took to the sea, rescued eventually by some fawning Baywatch boys from Redondo Beach. Davis’s punchline told it all. The women saved their pets and pendants, but left their Latinx maids on the beach. From there, the domestic servants made their perilous way to a safe coastline haven, but that outcome was by no means certain. That Davis failed to mention that the maids may not have been swimmers, perhaps fearing the ocean as much as the raging fire, and could well have not wanted to accompany their employers in what they regarded as rather flimsy vessels, outraged critics. The elementary point remained: the low-paid help had been left to their own devices while four-legged friends were cradled into kayaks. Class mattered in the fire zones of L.A. It was the great divide, and being on the wrong side could well spell disaster and death.
Malibu existed as a natural wildfire ecology, a precarious habitat the rich colonized, developed, and sustained at a cost of hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars annually. This was a social expenditure capitalism, especially financial sectors like insurance and banking, and servile state authorities were always willing to justify in the name of neutral discourses of public safety, natural hazards, and protections necessarily and supposedly extended to all Californians. Where the urban wilds of Westlake were concerned, however, these same powerful class interests regarded welfare as a dirty word, immigration restriction as a rallying cry, and slumlord responsibilities to maintain buildings and keep them safe something to be sidestepped with a wink and a nod. Fire, an inevitable natural phenomenon in the coastal hills of Malibu, largely destroyed privatized property, which could always be rebuilt, the rich subsidized by social provisioning paid for out of the public purse. Downtown L.A., in contrast, burned not because it had to, but because it was profitable to allow it to do so, a “disaster algorithm” that registered in the deaths of tenement dwellers and lined the pockets of the owners of buildings blatantly in violation of almost every section of the minimalist fire codes. With capital simply getting away with murder, Davis made the case, obviously somewhat tongue-in-cheek, for letting Malibu burn, as it was inevitably going to, and investing in the infrastructure of the inner city, no natural inferno, so that it would not. His hyperbolic header aside, Davis’s point was glaringly obvious: why build and rebuild posh homes and run up the tally of recurring costs associated with insuring and protecting them when the inevitable cycle of natural wildfires was only going to necessitate having to go through the same thing again and again? It seemed a political economy of indulgent insanity.
This was too much. As Ecology of Fear topped best-seller lists for seventeen weeks in 1998, a Malibu realtor initiated a crusade to discredit Davis. He poured over the book’s 484 pages and 831 footnotes and set up a website claiming Ecology of Fear was based on fabrications, his findings publicized under the subdued title, “Research Exposes … Mike Davis as Purposively Misleading Liar.” Soon more mainstream media – The Economist, New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times – jumped on the bandwagon. In the feeding frenzy that followed, Davis was depicted as a fraud, one columnist denouncing his work as “fake, phoney, made-up, crackpot, bullshit.” It was all rather reminiscent of the kind of red-baiting hatchet-job that two professional historians, W.O. Henderson and W.H. Chaloner, did in their grudging footnote grubbing scrutiny of Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (1845), laced with the kind of vitriol that only a true believer in the marketplace’s inherent benevolence could muster.
When it surfaced that Davis, always irreverent and defiant of rules, concocted a piece for the LA Weekly in 1989 on the Los Angeles River, purporting to be an interview that, in actuality, never took place, the charges of fraudulence gained traction. The subject of the supposed dialogue, Lewis MacAdams, was at the time an ecologist concerned with the waterway, a leading figure in an advocacy group known as Friends of the Los Angeles River. MacAdams, who had barely spoken to Davis, was somewhat taken aback when Mike showed him a draft of the interview before publication. It was based on the two supposedly meeting at the Freemont Gate entrance to Elsyian Park, a place MacAdams had never been. Davis presented MacAdams as showing him a tattered old map prepared for the Los Angeles city engineer, when, again, the social activist never laid eyes on any such document. The interview Davis fabricated was, however, brilliantly and convincingly done. It presented MacAdams as an authority on the history of the river, the map that was unknown to him and that Davis unearthed at the Huntington Library rich in the kind of detail that would allow environmental activists to challenge the damaging and ill-conceived bureaucratic approaches to flood control. As Davis explained to MacAdams what he was doing, experimenting in a new kind of writing, the originally flabbergasted environmental campaigner was won over. Although both Davis and theLA Weekly would later admit that running the story the way Mike wrote it up was wrong, at the time MacAdams, the centerpiece of the imaginative creation, was on board. “I was the expert and the activist,” MacAdams later wrote, “but it was Davis who had put in my hands the blueprint for the restoration of the wetlands of the Los Angeles River.” MacAdams thought “the words he put in my mouth made me sound like I knew a lot more about the Los Angeles River than I actually did. I told him to go ahead with the piece just the way it was.”
For all of the carping, Davis weathered all of these storms, becoming, in the words of Tom Hayden, “an oppositional figure” in the firmament of Los Angeles’s literary world, “a counterpoint to the bullshit that passes for intellectual discussion in this town.” The booster critics tried their damnedest, but they could not really tarnish what was now the aura surrounding Mike, although they did perhaps contribute to scotching his chances of landing academic appointment in California. University of California – Los Angeles advertised a senior position in the history of California/the West. When Davis applied, UCLA did not deign to short-list him for a job interview. At University of Southern California, Davis, not the developers, may well have done himself in, although his history did come back to haunt him. USC, a private university that Mike once described as “such a fucking evil place,” apparently offered him an endowed chair, but rescinded the offer, either because word got out that in his SDS days he participated with the W.E.B. DuBois Club in spray painting the campus with graffiti, running up a vandalism bill of $22,000, or because he aligned with striking cafeteria workers whose jobs were being contracted out by the University in the 1990s. Davis apparently told the hiring committee they would have “intractable problems” if they brought him on board. True to his word, as his appointment was being finalized and the university was embroiled in a battle with its kitchen staff, Mike lambasted USC as “the most reactionary institution in L.A.” A top administrator went ballistic, accusing Davis of slander. The job went to someone else.
Nor did Mike’s pedagogical venturesomeness — some would say irresponsible recklessness — appeal to university administrators. He was his own L.A. disaster waiting to happen, any “Risk Management Department’s” worst nightmare. Patching together a teaching position at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, Davis liked to send students out into the L.A. night, an assignment geared to break-down prejudicial barriers. A student Crown Prince of Fiji ventured into Hollywood, spending the early morning hours with crack addicts and drug dealers, among whom he had a marvelous time, for a time. Then an internecine struggle broke out among rivals, and in the melée a member of Fiji’s royalty was knifed. Mike visited him in the hospital, apologetic for putting the young man in harm’s way, truly sorry for his stabbing. The prince was having none of it. He thanked his instructor for a classroom assignment that resulted in an experience unlike anything he could have imagined. Davis, almost fired for the incident, later confessed with a smile, “I had to lie low for while after that.”
Not low enough to find tenured university employment in Los Angeles, however. Davis retreated to Stony Brook. When he did return to California, roughly half a decade later, taking up a teaching position in the History Department at University of California – Irvine, he had Late Victorian Holocausts under his publishing belt. It garnered Mike international scholarly accolades. The book was praised in the New York Times Book Review by Nobel Prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen, and extolled by the President of the World History Association as an exemplary example of interdisciplinary, global history.
Never comfortable in an academic setting, however “cushy” the job might be, Davis would leave Irvine, and teach creative writing at University of California – Riverside. He remained frustrated and disturbed, firing off incendiary messages to top administrators. When yet another 19-year old student tried to turn an assignment into an essay on themselves, Davis’s professorial posture stiffened. Mike was never much of a proponent of the turn to subjectivity characteristic of late 20th century postmodern-inflected academic settings, and he had even less time for “Me-firstism” among young students. Not only did Mike not want an “academic sinecure,” he seemed to bolt from anything that nudged him towards it. Time spent with mainstream academics did not generally endear them to him. He told one young historian of Latin America and the Caribbean, whom he promoted to the New Left Review editors, “you know, the real problem with so many of these people is a mysterious disease called elephantiasis of the reputation, for which there is as yet no cure.”
Plagues and Other Capitalist Pestilence
Mike’s métier was now clear: he was a writer for the revolutionary movement. “I spent most of my life thinking I was an organizer,” he declared in 1998, “but looking back soberly, I see I was a rotten organizer, and I’m still a rotten organizer. It’s been nice in the last seven or eight years to find some competence in something.” That self-realization, a recognition of his skills and value as a writer, carried him to his last days. Davis found himself addicted to the process, reading voraciously and pounding on keyboards into the night, churning out short pieces and long with verve.
Between 2000 and 2007 the Davis assembly-line of output went into overdrive. Books rolled off this accelerating conveyor belt with Taylorist tempo and Fordist fanfare. Magical Urbanism and Late Victorian Holocausts appeared in 2000, followed by an exceedingly dark, even for Davis, collection of essays gathered together under the title Dead Cities and Other Tales (2002), reprinting material that appeared previously in various left-wing journals — New Left Review, The Nation, Socialist Review, International Socialism, Capital Nature, Socialism – and edited collections. A young adults’ adventure book was published in 2003. One of the protagonists was an Irish schoolboy named Jack (the name of Mike’s second child) attending James Connolly Secondary School in Dublin, the first episode of the story subtitled “The Science Project.” Land of the Lost Mammoths drew on Mike’s longstanding fascination with Greenland, narrating the adventures of four teenage scientists, recipients of United Nations scholarships to work at an Arctic wildlife research station. Their epic encounters with screaming ice, a band of marooned Vikings, an Arctic hurricane, and a collapsing ice cave had something of the Ecology of Fear transposed to a land of glaciers and dead spirits. Young readers learn the importance of solidarity, friendship, and nonviolence. An edited book on the underside of San Diego, with a 100-page essay by Davis on capitalism’s privatization of local governance, appeared simultaneously.
Arguably the most important book of this period was a new chapter in Mike’s focus on capitalism’s destruction of biodiversity and the potentially lethal consequences for the peoples of the world, especially the poorer nations of the global South. The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu (2005) outlined how corporate agribusiness, fast-good conglomerates, the malfeasance and corruption of servile states, the proliferation of slum populations, and the greed of pharmaceutical companies located in and only attentive to the profitable markets of the core capitalist countries, were creating a petrie-dish of conditions in which a viral apocalypse was gestating. That the feared H5N1 avian-to-human flu did not, in actuality, mutate into a super-contagious pandemic, affecting adversely the millions Davis suggested it was capable of killing, had many nodding that Mike’s catastrophism was now in full flight, his final leap off a seemingly crumbling ledge of credibility. His messianic intimation that a viral plague constituted a global threat comparable to, if not greater than, Cold War animosities and competitive nationalisms sat uneasily with many on the left.
“[W]ith a real Monster at our door – as terrible as any in science fiction – will we wake up in time?” asked Davis plaintively. Wrong in the short term, Mike’s prophetic pessimism was absolutely right in the tragic end. The Monster at Our Door essentially predicted the Covid-19 pandemic of 2019, shooting a warning flare into the night vision of the World Health Organization. The book pointed an accusatory finger at the pharmaceutical industry and the barriers and roadblocks it was cavalierly, if all too consciously, placing on the scientific roadways to eradicating an unprecedented, deadly, pandemic. To date, the devastatingly contagious and unprecedentedly resilient, adaptive, and lethal Covid-19 virus has decimated developed capitalist economies, struck harsh blows at what remains of actually existing socialist states, and further undermined the already precarious material circumstances of the developing world. The official global death toll as of November 2022 approaches 7 million and, of course, the real human loss has certainly been much greater.
The Monster at Our Door was followed, in quick succession, by two related studies, Planet of Slums (2006) and Budda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (2007), both published by Verso, signaling something of a rapprochement with Perry Anderson, Tariq Ali, and others. The former book, a wide-ranging exploration of the urbanization of immiseration and the spatial and socio-political meanings of global slummification, earned Davis an invitation to the Vatican, which he never deigned to answer, while the latter took up in detail the question of resistance with which Planet of Slums concluded. “Night after night,” Davis wrote with typical elan, “hornetlike helicopter gunships stalk enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of slum districts, pouring hellfire into shanties or fleeing cars. Every morning the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions. If the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side.” As the world’s people found themselves ground down, the dialectic of repression proved a two-way street. The car bomb raced fast and furious, chasing the fumes of forcible confinements and the bullets of brutish coercions, leaving no nation state immune from the fallout. “[E]very laser-guided missile falling on an apartment house in southern Beirut or a mud-walled compound in Kandahar is a future suicide truck bomb headed for the center of Tel Aviv or perhaps downtown Los Angeles,” Davis wrote. “Buda’s wagon truly has become the hot rod of the apocalypse.”
This was a catastrophism cut with the explosiveness of conflicts congealing class grievance and national oppression in an age of rampant and arrogant imperialism. It was a subject broached as well, from inside Empire, in Davis’s 2007 historical discussion of California’s racist anti-immigration vigilante activities in the 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries, the first part of a co-authored book, No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border. White savages like the Manifest Destiny-guided Glanton Gang expropriated indigenous land in the 1850s, plundering adobe villages, killing viciously and enslaving with discriminating calculation. They were but the first chapter in a tome of terror. The Chinese, the Japanese, Wobblies, Okies, industrial unionists of the 1930s, African Americans, and waves of “chili-eating bastards” that anti-Zoot suiters of the 1940s and shadowy paramilitary clots of racist ranchers and “Aryan warriors,” known as Minutemen since the mid-1990s, set their sights on were the objects of these cleansing crusades. This bigoted history of fanatical and often murderous ‘redeemerism’ charts the course of acquisitive individualism, property, and capital accumulation on the west coast. It has migrated from the gold-rush frontier and farm valleys to the streets of Los Angeles and into conservative suburbs and border towns awash in irrational fear and loathing of “the Brown Peril.” As Davis suggests, while this neo-vigilantism may now appear as the farcical “last gasp of a dying culture,” all true dialecticians understand the dire danger: what begins as seeming absurdity, especially if it boasts deep roots in history and political economy, can sprout into something “much uglier and more dangerous.”
In Praise of Barbarians: Essays Against Empire (2007) picks up on this theme. It contains Davis’s pithy commentaries on contemporary developments. Published originally in the Socialist Review and other journals and newspapers, the pieces in this collection include tirades on the disaster capitalism associated with Hurricane Katrina and evocative, historicized judgements on movies such as Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York. If established left-liberal outfits like The Nation wanted to run with Mike Davis’s thoughts on these kinds of things so, too, did papers like the Guardian, The Sacramento Bee, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Arnold Schwarzener’s gubernatorial victory in 2003 prompted Davis to a Nathaniel West-like reflection. Under the borrowed title, “The Day of the Locusts,” Davis abraded “the predominantly white voters of California’s inland empires and gated suburbs” where economic populism combined with the celebration of “dark, sexualized fantasies about omnipotence” to anoint “a clinically Hitlerite personality” the savior of “outwardly affluent but inwardly tormented commuter-consumers.” The Californian-birthed prison-industrial complex that Davis was one of the first to seriously conceptualize in the 1990s was revisited a decade later, all the worse for wear. The sunshine gulag, he wrote, routinely devours “$7 billion of state revenue in order to generate inhumanity on a scale normally associated with only the most evil, totalitarian societies.” Graveyards of human rights, Californian prisons run by “gangs of sadistic guards” were institutions of super-incarceration built on a class basis overdetermined by racial basis and whitewashed by lying wardens, “a high profit international industry” that was ripe for the plucking in the privatizing frenzy of “correctional” capital.
The Romance of the 1960s
If Davis ranged globally in much of his writing of the 2000-2010 years, the Los Angeles that captivated his attention in the 1990s and established him as the bête noir of the captains of local capitalism was never far from his thought. His last major book was a study of the tumultuous 1960s in L.A, when Davis was, simultaneously, witness to, participant in, and agitational gadflay of many of the upheavals and uprisings of the decade. Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, co-authored with his friend and long-time advocate, Jon Wiener, takes its title from The Doors anthem to the romance and rebellion of the 1960s: “The time to hesitate is through/No time to wallow in the mire/… Try to set the night on fire.” The band’s drummer, John Densmore, interviewed for the book, wanted no part of either commodifying the decade or selling it short. He stressed that resilient seeds of the civil rights, feminist, and peace movements were planted in sixties struggles. They were, according to Densmore, “big seeds,” and if they were taking a long time to reach fruition, they demanded the continued nurturing of all radical-thinking people.
Davis and Wiener agree, providing a kaleidoscopic sweep across a diverse human landscape of movements and mobilizations, encompassing treatments of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X; struggles to unite the Civil Rights campaign’s fractious components in the early 1960s; the Watts rebellion and an African American cultural renaissance that arose, phoenix-like, from its ashes, leading to an unheralded 1972 celebration of black music at the Coliseum that drew 100,000 (and that barred police, security being provided by an entirely African American corps of unarmed festival marshals); bodies such as the Black Congress and the US Organization, initiated by figures like Stokely Carmichael and Karenga; Eldridge Cleaver’s incongruous run for the Presidency on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket; and the war of extermination waged against the Black Panthers and the inspirational Free Angel Davis Campaign that reached into 1972. Uncovering heretofore largely unacknowledged dimensions of Sixties ferment in the City of Angels involving not only African Americans, but Asian Americans and Chicanos, gays and women, teeny boppers and teamsters, peaceniks and draft dodgers, Davis and Wiener show how the war in Vietnam was brought home, into the streets of Los Angeles and America, chronicling, as well, the plethora of more distinctly local grievances that animated so many.
Set the Night on Fire’s most strikingly original contribution, however, is in detailing the role in sixties radicalization, not just of youth, but of the truly young. A centerpiece of the study is a three-chapter discussion of high-school rebellion, the “Blowouts” of 1966-1969 that saw students in grades 7 through 12 leave their classrooms to protest a failed and racist educational system. Supported by Students for a Democratic Society and the Communist Party’s Che-Lumuba cadre, Davis being personally affiliated or connected to both groups, the high school revolt was spearheaded by a multi-ethnic contingent of rebels. Among them were the activist-inclined student body of the dominantly black Manual Arts High, enrolment in an institution of vocational training earned this teenaged contingent the proletarian sobriquet, “TheToilers.”
In chronicling the 1960s revolt, Davis and Wiener inevitably touch down on the repressive police state that, in the 1990s, conducted a vicious “war on drugs” terrorizing L.A.’s communities of colour. Three decades earlier, as Set the Night on Fire makes unambiguously clear, the hated LAPD Chief Parker was nothing less than the “Warden of the Ghettoes.” Parker compared his ransacking of a Nation of Islam temple, putting down the 1965 Watts uprising, and vanquishing the Black Panther Party to “fighting the Viet Cong.” His gendarmes, known for their perfection of debilitating chokeholds and no-knock/no-warrant sledgehammer-driven home invasions, as well as violent suppression of street gatherings and protests and cabaret raids on gay hang-outs, were by the late 1960s widely loathed. White teenagers – the sons and daughters of movie stars as well as the kids of truckers and autoworkers – fought curfews on Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip. They found themselves thrown into a united front with rebellious Chicano and Black students, gays and feminists, SDSers and Communists, their common enemy the “Blue Fascism” of the police.
When a young Jon Wiener first came to Los Angeles in 1969, he thought he would write about the city and its radicalism for the Liberation News Service (LNS), a movement resource that provided packets of articles and other material to 200 underground, alternative, and college newspapers throughout the country. There was a lot going on: campus anti-war mobilizations, GI organizing and wildcat strikes, the UCLA regents firing of Angela Davis, anti-development campaigns, and arson attacks on left-wing bookstores and community centers. He interviewed “a local organizer named Mike Davis. He was intense, eloquent, and a little intimidating.” Fifty years later, Wiener and Davis would combine to write what was, in many ways, Mike’s love affair with the 1960s, in which he witnessed tragedies aplenty, but also “social miracles and innumerable instances of unheralded courage and defiance.”
Plain, Old-Time Socialist
As Mike was working on Set the Night on Fire, he was, as well, grappling with what it was that he actually was politically. For decades he wrestled with dilemmas that arose out of the dictates of defiance. He negotiated his way through the responsibilities arising from the collectivist nature of struggles against capitalism and its evils, and the demands these imposed. Yet, Davis never lost the attractions of contributing to the movement in individualistic ways, in which the often solitary act of writing was an expression, one that he himself understood as precisely what he was best at doing. Depending on the circumstances, Mike could lean toward the necessity of a disciplined apparatus, a party formation, or, alternatively, as at the height of the Occupy Wall Street encampments, opt into embracing a more spontaneous, “social miracle”-like explosion of ass-kicking, in-your-face, refusal.
Mike instinctually gravitated to the rebellious act. But he was usually drawn back to ask, “what’s the next link in the chain (in Lenin’s sense) that needs to be grasped.” A fan of Occupy’s chutzpa, he applauded its bringing back together a long fractured New Deal coalition of teamsters and turtles, hard hats and hippies. He was infatuated at the sight of “some of the most expensive real estate in the world,” a shrine to the privatizations of capitalism, being turned into a “magnetic public space and catalyst for protest.” Then he paused, asking for a calming of perhaps overly exuberant enthusiasms and expectations. Davis understood that “the movement must survive the winter to fight the power in the next spring.” And he knew well that the forces prepared to take Occupy down were formidable: “if we erect a lightning rod, we shouldn’t be surprised if lightning eventually strikes.”
Intuitively, Davis was asking if Occupy, for all of its momentous achievements, had built its edifice of rebellious refusal on a foundation that could withstand what was coming, highlighting the dialectical reciprocities of struggle and organization that, in so many ways, framed his life as a resilient, romantic revolutionary. Never one to constrict his gaze to the American scene, Davis extended this analysis with a consideration of the uprisings of indignados, European anti-capitalist parties, and the Arab New Left, writing in a New Left Review editorial as 2011 gave way to 2012:
In great upheavals, analogies fly like shrapnel. The electrifying protests of 2011 – the on-going Arab spring, the ‘hot’ Iberian and Hellenic summers, the ‘occupied’ fall in the United States – inevitably have been compared to the anni mirabiles of 1848, 1905, 1968, and 1989. Certainly some fundamental things still apply and classic patterns repeat. Tyrants tremble, chains break and palaces are stormed. Streets become magical laboratories where citizens and comrade are created, and radical ideas acquire sudden telluric power. Iskra becomes Facebook. But will this new comet of protest persist in the winter sky or is it just a brief, dazzling meteor shower? As the fates of previous journées révolutionnaires warn us, spring is the shortest of seasons, especially when the communards fight in the name of a ‘different world’ for which they have no real blueprint or even idealized language.
Ever the internationalist, Mike looked to the two hundred million Chinese factory workers, miners, and construction labourers, whose full awakening he thought decisive in “whether or not a socialist Earth is still possible.”
In 2018, Mike told a left-wing Algerian journalist, Mohsen Abdelmoumen that he was a plain, or old-school, socialist:
“I have strong, if idiosyncratic, opinions on all the traditional issues – for example, the necessity of an organization of organizers (call it Leninism, if you will), but also the evils of bureaucracy and permanent leaderships (call it anarchism, if you will) – but I try to remind myself that such positions need to be constantly reassessed and calibrated to the conjuncture. One is always negotiating the slippery dialectic between individual reason, which must be intransigently self-critical, and the fact that one needs to be part of a movement or radical collective in order, as Sartre put it, to ‘be in history.’”
If “Socialists may not yet have found the path,” Davis was convinced that “they are the only ones urgently looking.”
Four years later, with Occupy and the Arab Spring a distant memory, Mike’s concerns returned to the problem of “the lack of organization and structure, particularly of organizers of organizers. There’s no leadership to give direction,” he worried. “The biggest single political problem in the United States right now,” Davis concluded, “has been the demoralization of tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of young activists.” No one was telling them where to go to fight or what to do. All they get instead, and what I get every day, are 10 solicitations from the Democrats to support candidates … we’ve forgotten the use of disciplined, aggressive, but non-violent civil disobedience.”
Plain, old-school socialism was, for Mike, rooted in the sensibilities of an Old Left that Debs epitomized and that later communists like William Z. Foster and James P. Cannon also exhibited. These were organizers of organizers. They belonged to political parties of opposition, where the culture of socialism was nurtured and protracted resistance was promoted. Leaders of these movements were known to give their last dollar or a new suit of clothes to down-and-out comrades they met on the street. Mike drew on this sense of magnanimity as he championed socialism’s instinctual sense of collective responsibility, a guide to everyday human interaction:
“Stop and give a hitchhiking family a ride. Never cross a picket line, even when your family can’t pay the rent. Share your last cigarette with a stranger. Steal milk when your kids have none and then give half to the little kids next door (this was what my own mother did repeatedly in 1936). Listen carefully to the quiet, profound people who have lost everything but their dignity. Cultivate the generosity of the ‘we.’”
This sense of socialism was, of course, complemented and then seriously extended by an understanding of the pivotal place of class struggle, and the role of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky in elaborating a politics of strategic critique capable of winning masses of people to the realization that acting against capital was decisive.
Two long essays that Mike published in 2018, forming the bulk of his Old Gods, New Enigmas, addressed just these issues of revolutionary agency masterfully. The first constituted nothing less than a grand tour of proletarian consciousness and culture in the 19th and 20th centuries, the second a careful and imaginative reconsideration of Marx’s writing on the political economy of national struggles in 1848.
The concluding two essays of Old Gods, New Enigmas, may well seem incongruous to many readers, jumping as they seemingly do off of traditional Marxist subjects into what, for many socialists, will seem uncharted waters of natural climate processes, their shaping of history in consequential ways, and debates over the character and fragility of the “Anthropocene,” our current geological age. What does this possibly have to do with Marx? Or with “plain, old-school, socialisms?”
In actuality, quite a bit, as readers of Charles H. Kerr’s radical publications of the early 20th century would know. The bookshelves of socialists of that era contained titles such as R. H. Francé’s Germs of Mind in Plants (1907), translated by the well-known American socialist, A. M. Simons; The Making of the World (1906) and The End of the World (1905) by Dr. Wilhelm Meyer, the latter predicting that, “Though the earth-life joyous and care-free has developed in upward course since millions of years ago, the decline is bound to come”; Ernest Unterman’s Science and Revolution (1910); and the primer on Evolution: Science and Organic (1908) by the popular socialist lecturer, Arthur M. Lewis. Old-school American socialists were more likely to have read Charles Darwin, even perhaps Herbert Spencer, than Marx, and evolution played a decisive role in weaning them away from religious superstition and social patriotism. This then allowed them to gravitate to the conviction that “the philosophy of the proletariat … furnishes a scientific basis for the realization of the most daring dreams of the thinkers of all ages.” As Unterman declared in Science and Revolution, “An evolutionary ethic demands the abolition of all economic, political, and intellectual oppression; [and] a reduction of the struggle for the material requirements of life to a minimum by a collective control of productive processes.” This created the possibility of humanity avoiding being “hurled into the abyss of oblivion” by “conscious promotion of an environment in which an organ of understanding can develop which will succeed in … its social, terrestrial, and cosmic mission.”
Given such socialist predecessors, Mike Davis’s “political ecology” was part of a long line of “plain, old-school socialism,” just as the “organ of understanding” remained a central, if often perplexing, concern. His discussions of climate change in the concluding essays in Old Gods, New Enigmas, not to mention the so-called catastrophism of earlier books and essays, are not so much idiosyncratic sidelines, then, as they are part of a continuous dialogue within the Marxist tradition. In addressing the conceptual contributions of the anarchist natural scientist and geographer, Prince Peter Kropotkin, and the need to act decisively, and quickly, so that the world’s poor are not left “to sink or swim with their own resources while rich countries protect their citizens behind climate-defence fortifications,” Davis did not step outside of “old-school socialism.” As he wrote in the preface to Old Gods, New Enigmas, “We need to ignite our imaginations by rediscovering those extraordinary discussions – and in some cases concrete experiments – in utopian urbanism that shaped socialist and anarchist thinking between the 1880s and the early 1930s. The alter monde that we believe is the only possible alternative to the new Dark Ages requires us to dream old dreams anew.”
The Mike Davis that blew his MacArthur grant on rare, original Spanish Civil War posters and the Mike Davis whose garage/study contained a collection of igneous rocks was the same socialist who maintained, steadfastly that, “We want class war. … that the only possibility of getting this country out of the crisis, the only possibility that really deep set reforms can occur, including the protection and renewal of the productive base of the economy, is labor has to become more powerful. We need more protests. We need more noise in the street.” This struggle, he always insisted, must never be ceded, “even when the fight seems hopeless.” Knowing that his death was imminent in the summer of 2022, Mike told a Los Angeles journalist that his one regret was that he would not go out “in battle, at a barricade, as I’ve always romantically imagined – you know, fighting.”
Our Hero From Hell
Mike fought, of course, with his words. He offered a rare, incisive, and convincing demolition of the convenient and rapidly-consolidating conventional wisdom that Trump’s 2016 electoral victory was a consequence of the rust-belted white working class defecting from its traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party, opting into what might prove to be “the twilight zone of homegrown fascism.” “History has been hacked,” Mike proclaimed. With patience and close readings of electoral returns, Davis showed how the birth of de-globalization and the deepening crisis of capital mirrored the bankruptcy of Democratic Party polices in the fading industrial heartland of the United States. The crowning of the new apricot authoritarian owed less to an alienated lumpen-proletariat than it did to other, top-down class-based developments in the political culture. First, Trump managed to hold on to Mitt Romney’s respectable Republican, well-heeled constituency, who proved less outraged by his populist charlatanism than many expected. Second, the Trump campaign managed to dam the stampede of women and conservative minorities away from the Presidential candidate’s vile sexism, misogyny, and racism that many on the rapidly moving Right wing feared, the disgusting debasement of mainstream culture enveloping the politics of often hateful arrogant entitlement with the patina of an indiscretion. Third, and finally, Trump and the Republicans opted for an opportunistic opening of the policy-forming door to a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian throng eager to take over the GOP’s platform.
At this point Davis’s fighting days were about to be numbered. Sometime before the 2016 election Mike was diagnosed with a rare lymphoma, Waldenstrom’s macroglubulinemia. This was followed by the discovery of a tumor in his esophagus. For a time he was undergoing daily radiation and weekly chemotherapy. In the months, indeed years, that followed, surgeries and ongoing medical treatments were a constant in his life. His oncologist was optimistic that he would have five more years, which turned out to be just about right. Mike had great faith in his medical care, claimed to be free of anxiety, and was “totally on board” with his surgeon’s prognosis and competence. In emails Mike was resilient and upbeat, a note in 2020 joking: “Yes, I’m prime road kill: old, immune suppressed, with chronic respiratory problems … . I’ve moved out to the garage with the dog and a bottle of Baileys, and we’ll see what happens.” As late as mid-April 2022, despite feeling miserable with the extreme fatigue and nausea accompanying each experimental chemotherapy session, Mike remained in good humour, even as a new growth was discovered in his thorax. “My roller coaster ride with cancer is now in its fifth year,” he wrote, “and I’m waiting for someone to say (in a mock Yiddish accent) ‘What? You’re not dead yet?’” But he was weighing with his wife, Alessandra Moctezuma, the tradeoffs between continual, and increasingly debilitating, treatment “and letting nature take its course.”
Alessandra, a Latinx artist and curator of considerable accomplishment, was Mike’s “rock” in these difficult years. The love of his life for the better part of a quarter-of-a century, she kept him going in what were the best and worst of times. Along with the affection and attention of children from previous marriages, Jack and Roisin, and the twins, James Connolly (“what a name to saddle a beautiful brown boy with,” he once proclaimed to me) and Cassandra, who enlivened the Moctezuma-Davis household, Mike felt fortunate to be surrounded by boundless love. He was exceedingly proud of all of his family, delighting in his role as a benign pater familias, seldom able to send an email without recounting Alessandra’s latest triumphs or the enthusiasms of their twins.
“I’m in good spirits but sick all the time, so only tiny amounts of writing are possible,” he conveyed in one communication. In actuality Mike’s will to live, bolstered by his family, seemed also to be sustained by writing. His metaphorical pen was weakened as he battled various cancers, perhaps subdued somewhat, but it never entirely ran dry.
It was almost as though Mike wrote to live. During the doldrums of pandemic isolations, he sent to a large list of friends (over 200) a regular, often daily, Plague Year News. It contained articles and commentaries Mike gathered from various scientific and left-wing publications, including pieces on Covid-19. Reading well into the night on virology, Mike was also producing short journalistic essays on the unfolding pandemic. These would be incorporated into a new, updated edition of his book on the threat of avian flu. He was always keen to touch base on Canadian issues, telling me in May 2021 that he was watching The National and found the accounts of wildfires sweeping British Columbia terrifying: “People need to recognize that the entire North American West is in the midst of an epochal and irreversible transformation of ecologies and landscapes,” he warned. “A thousand years compressed into a decade, occurring so fast that many plant communities will have no time to migrate and may become totally extinct. Time to start planting your cactus garden on Vancouver Island while the melting permafrost releases zillions of tons of methane. We can already see what’s happening in Siberia.” He contributed Sidecar blogs to the NLR site when events like the 6 January 2021 riot in Washington commandeered the airwaves, drowning the masses in tears shed at the sacrilege of America’s desecrated temple of democracy. “[O]h, poor defiled city on the hill,” he mocked. Against the mainstream regurgitation of an ideological rewriting of history past and strikingly present, Davis saw in the so-called “insurrection” little more than a “dark comedy,” albeit one whose last act, the unfolding of which remained to be seen, was almost certain to be a “continuation of extreme socio-economic turbulence.” As sick as he was Mike was secretly at work on an ambitious project “that may fall flat when it’s finished,” but he thought “the perfect diversion from poor health”: Star Spangled Leviathan: An Economic History of American Nationalism.(66) Life, as Mike knew it, was inconceivable without writing.
When the writing finally really stopped on 25 October 2022 (it had ended earlier, of course, but Mike was still with us), the music died. Mike Davis’s death left a vacuum the left will never fill. It seems somehow inappropriate to offer the usual valediction, RIP, whether it be the conventional Rest in Peace, or the more radical variant, Rest in Power. Never restful in life, I doubt Mike would want to be so in death. Not having much in the way of peace in his 76 years, he certainly knew that meaningful power lay well beyond his grasp.
If anything is to be hoped for him it is that one of his favourite El Cajon absurd happenings, the Church of Unarius, founded by Ruth Norman, aka Sister Uriel, whose beliefs include absolute human and interspecies equality among our galaxy’s 33 inhabited planets, lays its blessings on him. Mike’s romantic revolutionism included a soft spot for “these crazy folks with their Telsa Towers and galactic love-ins, all smiling under portraits of Uriel as a beautiful flapper in the 1920s and then as an old but still wonderful mother goddess” who somehow decided that universal reconciliation would happen on the corner of El Cajon’s Main and Magnolia, now sporting, suitably, a nifty Starbucks. A cult preservation of innocent faith in science, human progress, and planetary internationalism, the Unarians provided Mike with a theatre of the absurd, a stage on which he could see presented a latter-day Fourierism, complete with a homegrown, El Cajon, version of communal socialism, space-age peace, and life in crystal phalansteries. Whenever Mike was depressed about the terminal state of the world he would take a short drive to El Cajon, seeking “reassurance that the saucers full of love [were] coming.” We can hope they picked him up, and that the ride was not too bumpy.
Hope as we might, however, Mike did not invest a lot in wish fulfillment, which he regarded as a poor substitute for enlightenment. “I’m writing,” he once protested against attempts to pigeon-hole him as either the prophet of doom or the champion of belief in the best, “because I’m hoping people … don’t need dollops of hope or good endings, but are reading so that they’ll know what to fight.”
Davis told the Los Angeles journalist Sam Dean in July 2022 that if he really wanted to understand how his mind worked, a quest that baffled Mike, “it’s more obvious in the projects I never finished than the ones I’ve written.” One of those destined to remain unwritten books was “a world history of revolutionary terrorism.” As I was pulling Mike’s books off my shelves to write this piece, a prospectus of this project fell out of one of them. The ‘Heroes of Hell’: An Anthology of Revolutionary Outlaws and Anarchist Saints was to be a nine-chapter salute to those the editor of a 19th-century Parisian anarchist journal, Le Cri du Peuple, hailed as steadfast in their allegiance to “the poor always, despite their errors, despite their faults, despite their crimes.” Mike plotted an ambitious excursion through the “eternal conspiracy” propounded by Auguste Blanqui; accounts of labour avengers Alexander Berkman, Wesley Everest, and others; examinations of Bolshevik bank-robbers and the Bonnot Gang; studies of mutinous mariners like Brazil’s João Cândido Felisberto, leader of the 1910 Lash Uprising; and portraits of 1970s agents of revolutionary suicide, such as the Situationist terrorists, the Angry Brigade, or Puerto Rico’s independence crusaders, Los Macheteros (The Machete Wielders).
Mike himself was no proponent of terrorism, as his encounter with the dodgy fanatics during the Gray Line strike makes clear. Yet he understood what drove actual revolutionaries in its direction, hating as he did the crimes against humanity that capital was responsible for over its centuries of hegemonic horror. The “fervent internationalists” at the center of his proposed study generally conceived of themselves “engaged in common combat against capital and the state.” Mike appreciated the justice inherent in acts of terroristic revenge, even as he rejected the absolutist, messianic form it took.
In an interview with Jon Wiener that originally appeared in Radical America, Davis quoted Leon Trotsky’s “Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism” to make the basic point that any coming to grips with revolutionary violence necessarily demanded appreciation of the justifiable thirst for retribution that arose out of the conditions of exploitation and oppression intrinsic to the profit system. “Whatever moral eunuchs and Pharisees may say,” Trotsky wrote with a biting class sensibility, “the feeling of revenge has its right. The working class has greater moral probity because it does not look with dull indifference at what is happening in this, the best of all possible worlds.”
There were of course terrorist acts and underground movements responsible for them that Davis rejected, and his Heroes from Hell would undoubtedly have addressed the varied contexts in which revolutionary violence emerged, and how it either rallied or repelled masses of workers. One reason that Mike had no use for the Weather Underground of 1968-1969, for instance, was that the “Days of Rage” and nights of bombings that it promoted were undertaken with little consideration of how they would be received by or affect American workers and, indeed, too often expressed contempt for them. There were, however, times in the history of revolutionary terrorism when it was conducted in ways that both defended and extended class struggle: Marx, a relentless critic of Bakuninist terror, admired Russia’s Narodnaya Volya/The People’s Will, believing that the assassination of the Czar might actually advance the cause of destabilizing autocracy and moving history in the right direction; Lenin, certainly no friend of the terrorism of social revolutionaries who would later turn their assassination plots against him, had no problem with endorsing revolutionary violence against the Cossack terror and pogroms related to the repressive aftermath of the failed Moscow insurrection of 1905; and there were instances of anarcho-communist bands in Spain, Germany, and elsewhere that robbed banks, kidnapped bosses, sacked noble estates, liberated political prisoners, and fought on insurrectionary barricades. At times, the advocates of revolutionary violence did indeed command a mass base, with attendant sympathies and support. The Russian Social Revolutionaries in 1907 claimed 45,000 committed party members and an enthusiastic periphery of 300,000. Individual acts of terror could be justified in the court of public opinion. A French jury acquitted the Jewish anarchist, Sholom Schwartzbard, after he shot and killed the head of the Ukrainian government-in-exile, Symon Petliura, in 1926, avenging those murdered in pogroms Petliura directed, among them most of Schwartzbard’s family.
As complicated as were the issues arising from this history of the retributive deed, Mike was not about to throw cold water on the bodies of those like the Russian anarchist who blew himself up in Paris’s Bois de Vincennes, willing a popular slogan to future movements: “take revenge on the bourgeoisie wherever they are!” He wanted to celebrate this revolutionary sentiment. Davis’s own writing always strove to give the bourgeoisie as bumpy a ride as could be imagined. He would not forsake those who, in the past, did this with violence, often at the cost of their lives, and sometimes in ways that Davis insisted contributed to the betterment of humanity.
Mike chose an epigram for this book that was never to be. It was drawn from a poem by the anarchist Lola Ridge that appeared in Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth (1909). It serves well as a final goodbye to Mike himself:
Here’s a toast that has never been given:
Listen, thralls of the Book and the Bell:
To the souls of the martyrs unshriven,
The bondsmen who dared to rebel –
To the Breakers, the Bold, the Despoilers,
Who dreamed of a world overthrown;
They who died for the millions of toilers,
Few fronting the nations alone;
To the Outlawed of men and the Branded,
Whether hated or hating they fell.
I pledge the devoted, red-handed,
Unfaltering heroes of hell!
Always an outlaw, Mike Davis was one of our ‘Heroes from Hell’. He never flinched in his refusal to let capitalism’s destructive essence present itself as natural and inevitable. Militants and mavericks, radicals, rebels, and revolutionaries, will be reading Mike Davis for decades to come. Honour him with acts of defiant dissent, determined demonstrations for social justice, and resolute stands of class struggle and international solidarity.
(Footnotes will be posted to the print edition of this article. You can purchase various subscriptions to Labour/Le Travail here.)