The Legacy of Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts

In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis showed how late 19th-century state violence and neglect created colonial markets and infrastructures, which, combined with shifting weather patterns, led to astonishingly brutal famines across the Global South.

Victims of the famines in India at the turn of the 19th century. (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

“Mike was not that big on prioritizing his self-interest, and that was the great thing about him,” says Kenneth Pomeranz, renowned historian of the modern world economy and former colleague of Mike Davis at the University of California, Irvine. Now at the University of Chicago, Pomeranz was chair of the history department at UC Irvine in 2001, and led the successful recruitment of Davis away from Stony Brook University. In addition to City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear, Pomeranz had read the recently completed manuscript of Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, to be published later in 2001.

I recently asked Pomeranz by phone about the influence and research style of Late Victorian Holocausts. Part of what made the book special, Pomeranz says, was Davis’s ability to look at and synthesize knowledge about multiple domains — colonialism, climate, and capitalism; Chinese, Brazilian, and Indian history — “to see things that you can’t normally see if you are seeking a complete description of every last detail.”

One thing Davis (who died in October) was able to see in Holocausts was the interplay of state violence and state neglect in creating colonial markets and infrastructures that, combined with El Niño patterns, enabled multiple famines throughout the Global South. Davis shows that while state violence is key to the enclosure and robbery of land, state indifference also accompanies the privatization of the commons — indifference to ecological devastation and to indigenous forms of planning and famine prevention.

Davis broadens and deepens our understanding of land expropriation and its effects. Holocausts should be at the forefront of conversations about the relationship between capital accumulation, colonial land dispossession, and abrupt climate change, the “three massive and implacable cogwheels of modern history,” as he calls them. Moving beyond diagnostics, Davis’s unromanticized chronicle of indigenous land management practices also teaches important lessons for how to plan for a democratic and ecosocialist future.

Published in 2001, Holocausts has been rightly hailed as prescient regarding climate change and as an example of how to reintegrate the natural and social sciences. The book begins, however, with a family “vacationing in famine land.” The family? Ulysses S. Grant, his wife, Julia, and their son Jesse. Davis narrates how the Grants’ 1877 vacation, initially limited to Europe, expanded into a global tour through India, Egypt, and China the year after Grant left office as US president.

Why does Davis begin his narrative with this micro-history? The remarkable thing about the Grants’ trip, Davis writes, was that it tracked the drought and famine disasters occurring across the globe between 1876 and 1899, but which were especially devastating in India, Egypt, and China. Yet it is also notable that Davis chose Grant, a recently retired head of state, as an illustration. Grant saw but ultimately failed to fully acknowledge the devastation surrounding his travels. In depicting the family’s trip, Davis provides an allegory about the relationship between state indifference and climate disasters.

Holocausts goes on to depict the British imperial state’s indifference to indigenous forms of irrigation, commoning, and crop rotation. Such neglect displaced drought and famine prevention practices that had worked for centuries in the face of extreme weather events.

Especially significant is a section of chapter 10 titled “Victorian Enclosures.” Davis shows how, while the state carried out land appropriation in England, private, well-resourced actors carried it out in the colonial context, especially in India, extending Karl Marx’s argument of primitive accumulation and enclosure movements beyond Britain.

Primitive accumulation is Marx’s term in Capital for the freeing up of land by the British state for exploitation by capital. Davis adds another element to Marx’s account: the role of abrupt climate shifts in the primitive accumulation process. Famines and droughts, Davis argues, opened up the land for vast projects of accumulation: “Famine became a powerful opportunity for the accumulation of land and servile labor.”

In turn, he writes, the British imperial state helped usher in later catastrophes, like the large-scale famines that occurred in 1889–1891 and 1896–1902. The British took and maintained the commons in India by force and indifference, introducing single-crop (monoculture) farming practices for foreign markets. On Davis’s account, this led to rapid erosion and depletion of the soil, letting the water evaporate rather than be captured in the ground. Depleted soil retained less water, and as a result, monoculture increased vulnerability to drought.

Animals also starved, Davis emphasizes, describing how famine affected cattle. He argues that crops for foreign markets were not consumable by cattle and were not drought resistant. As a result, millions of cattle perished in India in the 1870s. People, in turn, were forced to take on the labor of plowing and other tasks, burning their already scarce calories.

Davis describes a proliferation of additional practices that led to what he calls ecological poverty. First, the British imperial state cut off access to and privatized local water resources. Second, they invested a great deal in infrastructure, but mostly in railroads rather than irrigation and canal systems. These railroads brought more famine than profit to India, as they became pathways for exporting grain to global markets. Third, when canal systems were created, they were designed without local input, often undermining ecologically sustainable practices. Finally, a new property system created greater intracommunity inequality, empowering local elites and capitalists.

Town and Country

Recent decades, Davis shows in more recent works, have witnessed mass migrations into megacities and slums as people are pushed out of rural areas by development, debt, and extreme climate events. As Davis notes in both Old Gods and Planet of Slums, the contemporary global trend is toward urbanization. Do these more recent works by Davis reflect a shift away from the lessons to be learned from the nineteenth-century agriculturally based societies described in Holocausts? Not necessarily.

Late Victorian Holocausts show his appreciation for the innovations of rural people in developing what he calls an “indigenous irrigation” system that had prevented drought and famine for centuries. An important task moving forward, drawing inspiration from Davis, would be to try and integrate his insights about indigenous practices of warding off abrupt climate shifts with the economies of scale and modes of socialist democracy that can be achieved in an urban milieu.

State Indifference

State indifference has also played a strong role in the ecological catastrophes of the present. Davis has written more recently on the firestorms in California’s deserts, which have been partially set off by the spreading of a flammable and invasive species of “devil grass,” called Bromus or brome. He describes how, over the last few decades, “an invasion of red brome has created a flammable understory” for the Joshua trees in the Cima Dome forest in the Mojave National Preserve.

In August 2020, nearly forty-four thousand acres and 1.3 million trees burned in the Cima Dome. According to Davis, “bromes and other pyromaniacal weeds” are the fuel “of this new fire regime.” For him, counteracting such destruction is not impossible. But it would require “a large army of full-time forest workers” to annually clear invasive grass. It would also require significant pressure on policymakers to reign in the real estate capitalists who continue to build scores of developments in hazardous fire zones.

Mobilizing the state to act in such a way would require social movement organizing on a mass scale, which in turn would entail highly skillful modes of persuading and motivating people to act. Here we can turn back to Holocausts for another lesson.

Throughout the book, Davis shows that photographs and visual art can serve not simply to illustrate but to accuse. And accusations can be effective sources of political mobilization. His book is filled with pictures of the victims of late Victorian ecological holocausts. It also includes pictures of the ruthless British viceroy in India, Lord Lytton, who took “a strict laissez-faire approach to famine.” At a time when analyses of structural power often assume that oppression and domination are faceless, Davis writes that we should not shy away from pinning “names and faces to the human agents of such catastrophes.”

While the three cogwheels of history often appear as impersonal powers, humans nevertheless have free will. Capitalists and the agents of capitalist states are incentivized to choose ways of life that are likely to be catastrophic for the rest of us, but, Davis teaches, this does not mean that a new form of democratic control could not set a new agenda and help us choose otherwise.