The Radical Imagination of Mike Davis

There was nothing mechanical or deterministic about the Marxism of Mike Davis, writes labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein.

Pointing out that naturally recurring fires were destined to periodically destroy hundreds of exurban LA houses each decade, Mike Davis called for an abandonment of the residential push into the fire-belt zones most prone to such conflagrations. (Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images)

When Mike Davis died last month, he was a celebrity, but hardly one drawn to his effervescent fame. City of Quartz, his surprise bestseller, won him an international audience in 1990. Davis later reported himself “utterly shocked” by the book’s success. Thereafter, he might have spent decades on the lecture circuit, but Davis plowed ahead, turning out one volume of Marxist-inflected social criticism after another, often contemplating an amazingly disparate set of apocalyptic challenges: climate change, world hunger, viral pandemics, and the rise of homegrown fascism.

Davis taught at a dozen colleges and universities, hung out with scores of transatlantic intellectuals, and wrote or edited books with other academics, but he was above all an autodidact of enormous, far-ranging erudition. He dropped in and out of both high school and college, and Davis never actually took a PhD, reportedly because his UCLA faculty mentors insisted that he had not taken the required set of courses. All this merely enhanced his working-class persona, an authentic product of Southern California’s gritty industrial frontier.

Davis was born in 1946 in Fontana, the home of a giant Kaiser steel mill fifty miles outside of LA. His parents were unionists and progressives, but Davis encountered plenty of working-class racists when the family moved to El Cajon, near San Diego. That familiarity with the more retrograde elements of the white working class would forever inure Davis against any sense of class or ethnic essentialism and the academic romanticism that sometimes accompanied it. Indeed, Davis once told a reporter he had been a “right-wing, ultra-patriotic” youth, and then only if he was actually thinking about politics instead of stealing cars or drag racing.

But this was the ’60s, and the civil rights movement soon politicized Davis. He became active in the Congress of Racial Equality, moved into the Communist orbit where he came under the influence of the longtime Southern California Communist Party leader Dorothy Healey, and became a Los Angeles organizer for Students for a Democratic Society. Meanwhile, Davis was driving a truck, and it was during a Teamster wildcat in 1970 that he met Robert Brenner, then a young assistant professor at UCLA, soon noted for his argument that a transformation of the agrarian class structure, not the growth of urban commerce, lay at the root of capitalism’s development in England.

The meeting was not entirely fortuitous, because the rebel Teamsters needed student radicals to help “man” the picket line, while in 1970 the New Left “turn toward the working class” was then reaching its apogee. Davis eventually enrolled at UCLA, became an even more sophisticated Marxist, then won a scholarship sponsored by the Amalgamated Meat Cutters, his father’s union, to study in the United Kingdom.

There Davis joined the International Marxist Group, a Trotskyist formation, and spent six years, on and off, editing New Left Review when Perry Anderson was the reigning presence. Davis wrote a series of incisive essays on the history of the US working class, the political economy of post-Fordist America, and the rise of Ronald Reagan. Collected in his first book, Prisoners of the American Dream (1986), they reflect the extent to which Davis stood aside from and sometimes in opposition to the influence of E. P. Thompson, whose nuanced studies of how English subalterns created their own sense of class consciousness was then at its most influential among a new generation of American labor historians.

Instead, Davis was far more of a structuralist, akin to Anderson and Brenner, although there was nothing mechanical or deterministic about the way Davis uncovered those social and economic peculiarities that blocked the crystallization of a socialist or labor party tendency among working-class Americans.

Only as Pessimistic as Reality

Prisoners of the American Dream traced the enormously variegated set of ethnic and racial cleavages that have long divided the American working class. In each epoch, from the arrival of the Irish in the early nineteenth century to the mass migration of African Americans out of the American South, key working-class elements sought to advance their status and power by allying themselves with elements of the ruling elite, in the factory, on the farm, and in the local polity. This was not quite the same thing as racism or an investment in whiteness (that term would become pervasive only in the 1990s) but reflected how various iterations of a capitalist economy continuously create hierarchical labor markets and the ethno-social markers that signify each strata.

In the mid-twentieth century, a Fordist world of mass production gave rise to a brief moment of interracial, interethnic solidarity and social democracy. But in the Reaganite 1980s, Davis saw this moment as fading fast. Unlike some other socialists of that era, including Kim Moody and Jeremy Brecher, Davis did not think a revitalization or reform of existing unions held much promise.

To Davis, “The unions have closed in around the laager of the seniority system, abandoned the unemployed, betraying the trust of working-class communities, and treating young workers as expendable pawns.” Arrayed against an increasingly disorganized working-class America was a new right-wing bloc, an “overconsumptionist” political formation that Reagan and other faux populists counterpoised to the aspirations of a precarious post-Fordist proletariat, largely black, brown, and immigrant. Davis called passage of California’s Proposition 13, which cut property taxes and the social services that went with them, “the Watts riot of the middle class.”

If all this struck the reader as “unduly pessimistic,” wrote Davis, that was because “political and economic supports for a more humane capitalism no longer seem to exist.” Better prepare for the colder climate ahead than take hope from the “make believe social democracy” that tepid socialists like Michael Harrington still projected.

It was this austere vision that animated Davis’s 1990 masterwork, City of Quartz, a hugely capacious exploration of the dystopia created by the hard power of a regional elite and the desperate illusions of so many others in a Southern California landscape reshaped by a predatory capitalism virtually unfettered by any of those forces whose demise Davis charted in Prisoners of the American Dream.

Davis remained a socialist and a radical, always searching for those conjectures that might spark the struggle for liberation, either at home or abroad. But it was his understanding of social and political defeat that actually proved enormously liberating and creative when it came to the socioeconomic Southland tour that he offered those readers who consumed City of Quartz. Davis spent little time on working-class resistance but traced in diabolical detail the successful ruling-class effort to transform a built environment to their liking. Davis saw the exercise of class power manifest in every zoning ordinance, highway project, and municipal annexation.

Ironically, the enormous success enjoyed by the book proved an indication that Davis was no lonely Cassandra. Southern California was on the verge of a shift leftward — not the revolution, but an animation of the labor movement, of the Latino community, and even within the Democratic Party. The boosters who decried City of Quartz and the follow-up, Ecology of Fear, published in 1998, seemed more of a self-parody than any kind of critical threat.

In the 1940s, by way of contrast, the Popular Front journalist and activist Carey McWilliams had also debunked the pretensions of the Southland Anglo elite in a series of engaging books and articles. But his work was quickly marginalized, consigned to the guidebook literature suitable for out-of-town tourists, then maligned by the McCarthyism that soon sent McWilliams to New York, where he defended an embattled postwar liberalism as editor of the Nation.

Fortunately, Davis did not have to get out of town, even if there were enough academic mandarins around to make sure that he never quite won the secure, high-profile professorial post that he clearly deserved. City of Quartz was such a tour de force that it made other great books of urban conflict and reconstruction, including Robert Caro’s celebrated biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, seem far too narrowly cast.

To take just one example: in his eighty-page chapter, “Sunshine or Noir?”, an all-encompassing survey of Los Angeles intellectuals, Davis creates a set of categories — boosters, debunkers, noirs, exiles, scientists, and mercenaries — then offers a concise and insightful “placement” of each within the larger ideological and cultural ambitions influential within the social strata and industry sectors of which these writers were a part.

An epilogue to this chapter, “Gramsci vs Blade Runner” poses a question characteristic of the Davis oeuvre: Will Los Angeles become a world city dominated by a neoliberal elite, or are the powerful, ethno-radical political and social impulses surging out of Compton and East Los Angeles sufficient to generate a new cultural hegemony reflecting the city’s multiethnic majority?

Prophecies Fulfilled

City of Quartz was followed in quick succession by a series of books that made Davis something close to a prophet of ecological disaster. Ecology of Fear contained a chapter entitled “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” Pointing out that naturally recurring fires were destined to periodically destroy hundreds of exurban houses each decade, Davis called for an abandonment of the residential push into the mountainous, fire-belt zones most prone to such conflagrations. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars defending these bourgeois abodes, the money might be better used to fireproof downscale urban apartment houses. Real estate interests denounced him, but in the wake of the hyperdestructive California fires of recent years, Davis’s once-outré proposition has become something close to the conventional wisdom.

Far more ominously, another chapter in Ecology of Fear has also proven prescient. “The Literary Destruction of Los Angeles” is less about the earthquakes, fires, floods, and invasions that so many novelists have imagined than the racial wars projected to accompany these disasters. Needless to say, in most of these fictional conflicts, a brave and embattled cohort of Anglo men and women prove murderously victorious.

One stands in amazement at the energy and creativity Davis exhibited in the remaining decades of his life. Following through on his environmentalist turn in the 1990s, Davis explored the relationship between what we once thought were “natural” disasters and capitalist dysfunction. In Late Victorian Holocausts (2001), he blamed mass famine in India and elsewhere on an imperialism that privileged market exchange of the most essential life-sustaining necessities. And in The Monster at Our Door (2005), he warned of a worldwide viral pandemic made deadlier by the vast economic inequalities that existed between the global North and South.

That same vantage point animated Planet of Slums, published the next year. If outright imperialism had underdeveloped India, Africa, and Latin America in the nineteenth century, then a century later the International Monetary Fund and associated financial institutions did much the same thing, opening postcolonial economies to the market forces that undermined peasant agriculture, thereby sending hundreds of millions toward the bloated Third World cities denuded of the industrial employment that had once made urban life a step forward at other times and places.

There were other books as well, some notably less bleak as they highlighted the agency and power subaltern populations might command. In 2000, Davis published Magical Urbanism, which hailed the role Latinos were playing in the cultural and political transformation of Los Angeles. (The book, fittingly, won the Carey McWilliams Award.) Twenty years later, Davis and Jon Weiner explored the roots of that Latino emergence, as well as the impact of the civil rights movement and the rise of an Asian American radical identity, in Set the Night on Fire: L. A. in the Sixties. One critic described it as a “love letter” to “the idea of collective struggle.”

Indeed, in Davis’s last collection of essays, Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory, he put forward the revolutionary sentiments that had so often been submerged within his dark analysis of contemporary capitalism. Marxist theory was one thing, social reality its verification. As he put it in the preface to that 2018 work, “The ‘faith that labor will inherit the earth’ and that ‘the International will be the human race’ did not rest on doctrine but arose volcanically from struggles for bread and dignity.” For Mike Davis, that impulse was as true in the twenty-first century as in the nineteenth.