Mike Davis Tried to Warn Us About a Virus-Induced Apocalypse

Historian Mike Davis wrote a book fifteen years ago warning of the coming global pandemic. The “monster at our door” has finally stepped through that door in COVID-19, and unfortunately, Davis was proven correct.

Members of the public flood to a local supermarket during lockdown measures to combat the spread of COVID-19. Rahman Roslan / Getty

Mike Davis has good claim to being the most important Marxist historian of the past fifty years. While his work may not have the vast geographical or temporal scope of Perry Anderson, Ellen Meiksins Wood, or Robert Brenner, nor has it mined a particular period or subject with the focus of a figure like E. P. Thompson, Robin Blackburn, or Christopher Hill, its influence and its singular depth makes Davis’s work stand out.

On the surface, his writings may appear disparate, ranging from the early essays on the history of the US working class to his more recent studies of Third World slums, the history of the car bomb, and the radical history of Los Angeles in the 1960s, to name just three examples. Yet the diversity of Davis’s interests are linked by his near singular focus on global class relations and his writing is marked by a startling prescience. His oeuvre has opened entire continents of research, each one written in his typically sparkling, lucid prose.

Of his many books, none has been so darkly prescient as The Monster at Our Door, first published fifteen years ago, and now, amid the first wave of COVID-19, reissued by OR Books as The Monster Enters: COVID-19, Avian Flu, and the Plagues of Capitalism. In its original version, Davis sought to warn us of the impending threat of an avian flu pandemic, which, he argued, would likely have a catastrophic global impact.

If Davis’s warning was stark, then its reception was far more muted. In a characteristic example, the British newspaper the Independent began its review by asking, “Is this scaremongering? A lot of people seem to think so.”

The Monster Enters

If in the mid-2000s, his predictions of the coming plague seemed eccentric to many, by early 2020, it was clear that Davis’s grave warning had been gravely overlooked. The pandemic has finally come in the proportions that Davis described, though from a different source than that he predicted.

Instead of avian flu — H5N1, or its even deadlier cousins H7N9 and H9N2 — we are confronted with the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. As it tears through the global population, it has, as few need reminding, left a crisis of catastrophic proportions.

Our pandemic shares many traits with that which Davis foretold fifteen years earlier. Like the avian influenza, COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease (a disease that passes from animal reservoirs to human populations, and has no acquired or natural immunities to it) sourced in the particular nexus of human and animal populations that emerged following the revolution of industrial agriculture, and, like avian flu, its rapid global spread is facilitated by new technologies of transport and communication. In other words, pandemics of this size and scope are produced from, rather than being an external imposition on, contemporary capitalism.

Both influenza and coronaviruses have been with us for millennia. Both have an extraordinary ability to jump between species and to mutate at incredible rates — a process called “antigenic drift,” which is the reason why flu vaccines must be updated every winter. Yet, the pandemic potential in human populations of both is a recent phenomenon.

The new age of zoonoses is just over fifty years old, emerging first with outbreaks of Marburg virus, a Filoviridae (a family of virus that also includes the lethal Ebola virus) that was first seen in the late 1960s in the German city that gave the disease its name, as well as the near contemporaneous outbreak of Machupo virus in the villages of northeastern Bolivia.

Since then, we have seen outbreaks of many other zoonoses, including Lassa (1969), Sin Nombre (1993), Hendra (1994), Nipah (1998), West Nile (1999), as well as the emergence of the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has so far killed an estimated 30 to 40 million people worldwide. The natural mutability of both coronaviruses and influenza (both the antigenic drift and the “antigenic shift,” when the virus mixes with genes of a human, signaling the imminence of a pandemic) is, Davis makes clear, tied in with the particular political, economic, and ecological conditions created in the past hundred years. This has turned the threat of deadly pandemic from a vague possibility to a near inevitability.

The Monster Enters tells the story of how we ended up on the verge of this viral apocalypse. If the book has a villain, it is private industry: from the pharmaceutical giants, whose market-led inaction has halted research into influenza, to the rise of factory farming, and the industrialization of nature.

If within living memory vast proportions of the world’s food supply were produced by peasant cultivators and small-scale farmers, now the global countryside is a vast nexus of industrial farms and intensive agricultural production. The “livestock revolution” of the past fifty years has seen the birth of giant factories on the land, each with animals packed tightly together in huge numbers and in artificial conditions before their rapid ferrying to the slaughter.

Alongside this, we have seen the destruction of wetlands and huge deforestation — meaning the destruction of animal habitats — plus the growth of Third World urbanism and booming overseas tourism. Each of these on their own are what Davis calls “human-induced environmental shocks”; taken together, they have created our current disaster.

Wild animals — natural reservoirs of these virus — live in increasing proximity to industrial farms. These farms then act as vast incubators of the disease, allowing the spread to occur from its reservoir species to humans.

As Davis makes clear in a new introduction to the book that updates its themes for our COVID-19-era world, it is these conditions by which a virus endemic to bat populations was passed to a pangolin, and then onto humans. Cheap and easy global travel then facilitates the spread. While it took many years for the Black Death to spread on the backs of rats and with men traveling along the Silk Road and across the European continent, COVID-19 jumped from Central China to almost every corner of the globe in a matter of weeks.

The human-nature nexus tells only part of the story. The lack of both political and economic incentive toward the production of vaccines, and the lack of government preparedness and protection has led us to disaster. As Davis underscores, pharmaceutical companies are by themselves not inclined to spend the large sums required to develop vaccines for an outbreak that may never occur (vaccines that, taken once, will not be needed in future, effectively cutting potential profits off at the source).

Public health across the world is in a parlous state, often private and out of reach for many of the world’s population. And, as we’ve learned during this pandemic, this is further hampered when the costs of a lockdown weigh heavily on the economy. In a widely shared clip, Texas governor Dan Patrick (the Republicans’ “king of fools”) went on air to claim that the old and infirm should be sacrificed for the whims of the market — the death of an elderly loved one apparently a price worth paying to keep the tills ringing.

Those few protections put in place by the Bush and Obama administrations on the back of the influenza outbreaks in the 2000s, however meagre, have been systematically dismantled under Trump, making the pandemic conditions even worse than when Davis originally wrote the book.

As he notes in his new introduction, “just three months before the Wuhan outbreak, [the US government] axed funding for USAID’s Emerging Pandemic Threats PREDICT program … a pioneer viral early warning system and an aid program training local medical professionals to recognize novel infections and monitor zoonoses.” With hindsight, the sheer stupidity of this move is staggering. Alongside its disastrous response to the outbreak, it is then little wonder why the United States leads the world in rate of infections.

Capital’s Apocalypse

Reading this book today, we might ask what it was about pandemics that so grabbed the attention of Mike Davis fifteen years ago, well before it penetrated the Left’s imagination. While his early work stayed on a relatively standard path of development for a US Marxist historian (albeit with a depth so far unmatched, and written with a brio few could hope to attain), it was after the publication of his groundbreaking study of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, that Davis’s attention turned to the natural, rather than merely human, disasters currently afflicting humanity.

That book tracked LA from its origins as the socialist enclave Llano del Río to the hypermodern, near dystopian, city of the early 1990s that culminated in Frank Gehry’s Goldwyn Library — “undoubtedly the most menacing library ever built.”

From the man-made dystopia of City of Quartz, The Ecology of Fear, published eight years later, focused Davis’s eyes on the seemingly natural dystopias that afflict Los Angeles, from swarms of killer bees and the menacing presence of cougars on the city’s doorstep, to the plagues of wildfires, floods, and earthquakes that struck LA, to devastating effect, in the early 1990s.

At the time of publication, Adam Shatz wrote that Ecology of Fear was something of “a green sequel to City of Quartz.” More than twenty years and many major works later, we can perhaps say that City of Quartz was merely a prequel to his more ecologically-inflected work that has appeared since. Once again, Davis’s prophecies have born fruit and the works’ themes have become evermore urgent.

Disastrous forest fires have swept the globe over the past decade with increased severity. Heat waves have struck the Artic Circle causing polar ice caps to melt. The mega slums of the Global South are cracking under their own weight as the catastrophic threat of water shortages becomes ever more pressing.

Two works between Ecology of Fear and his most recent writing help us to tease out the reasons for Davis’s focus on pandemics. Late Victorian Holocausts, a work of synthetic history with few equals, offered a “political ecology” of late-nineteenth-century famines across the Global South, in the process showing how even the most natural of tragedies to befall humans had their roots in the booming capitalist world system.

The second clue is his long essay on the Annales school historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, published in New Left Review in 2018. Comparing Le Roy Ladurie with the much-celebrated beacon of French history, Fernand Braudel, Davis writes that against the latter’s broader geohistorical breadth, “Le Roy Ladurie’s work has been more epistemologically radical, despite—or, perhaps, because of—its narrower focus.” The same could just as easily be said of Davis’s own position in Anglophone historiography. What makes Ladurie and Davis both so radical is the refusal “to amputate social from natural history,” refusing to see the human as merely human, and as not existing in an intimate bind with the world around them.

The global pandemic threat is, in Davis’s words, “a destiny…we have largely forced upon” both influenza and coronavirus. The dire warnings offered in Davis’s book are ones that will remain until we can begin to disentangle the causes of the pandemic threat, rooted as they are in capital’s insatiable thirst for new lands to conquer, new wilderness to flatten, and new tracts of land to turn into vast factory farms.

This threat wasn’t just known. Political decisions made in the past few decades have actively increased the magnitude and severity of the pandemic. If, as Davis says in the original edition of The Monster Enters, “avian influenza is a fundamental test of human solidarity,” then we have conclusively failed.

The lockdown is now in many areas of the world easing up. Exhortations to “flatten the curve” — already, as Davis emphasizes, a distant second-best after test-and-trace as a response to the pandemic — have switched to paeans to the gods of the market.

From where I write this in London, pubs and restaurants have now reopened, despite the level of infection remaining high. Just a few days ago, I had the uncanny experience of walking into a bookstore in central London to be greeted, first by hand sanitizer, and second by rows of books already detailing the first wave of COVID-19.

The initial upsurge of mutual aid groups and community organizing is dissipating, and is being replaced by protests across the world in the name of Black Lives Matter. So far, much of the Global South outside of Brazil, China, and India has been less severely affected than countries of the Global North. Yet, as Davis says, “It seems inescapable that the great sickly slums of Africa and South Asia—Khayelitsha, Kibera, Dharavi, Makoko, and so on—will soon be screaming.” When this will happen is as of yet still unknown, but the effect of the crisis on nations that are already in the midst of public health and economic crises will be catastrophic.

In such a situation one can wish that Davis’s work were not so relevant, but with the darkening skies already threatening to open and to submerge us in apocalyptic deluge, there will perhaps be no better guide to the next decade than this.