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9 November 2022

The left’s patient gardener

Mike Davis, the Marxist historian and urban theorist, died in October aged 76. As a theoretical innovator, his singular approach to politics is as prescient and urgent as ever.

By Richard Seymour

Mike Davis, the Marxist historian and urban theorist who died on 25 October after six years with oesophageal cancer, was often called a “prophet of doom”.

His singular oeuvre does have a distinctly prophetic quality. In Prisoners of the American Dream (1986), he anticipated a long recession for organised labour and the left. In City of Quartz (1990), he foresaw a rebellion by Los Angeles’s persecuted black community. In a 1995 essay on the prison-industrial complex, he anticipated the proliferation of the carceral system. In Ecology of Fear (1998) he predicted the ecological catastrophes now unfolding in California and across the world. And in The Monster at Our Door (2005), he warned of devastating global pandemics.

But Davis was not a lugubrious doomsayer. He was a revolutionary socialist, hard-headedly confronting the difficulties of making a revolution, often making him far more prescient than his peers on the left. Behind his ursine affability, he was a class fighter: “Pugnacious with a smile,” as the publisher Anthony Arnove described him to me. He was a theoretical innovator who, perhaps because he was never absorbed into academia, smashed the disciplinary boundaries between economics, history, culture, geology, architecture and political sociology. He was a cosmopolitan intellectual, intensely curious, heteroclite in his influences, from Fernand Braudel to Peter Kropotkin, from Trotskyism to operaismo, as comfortable with obscure French economic texts as geological papers, modern literary fiction or Turkish cinema. He read in French – a second language was a prerequisite for a position on the New Left Review editorial board – but was as comfortable in a Hells Angels bar. (“You don’t mind if we get beat up, do you?” he asked the journalist Thomas Larson, whom he invited to such an establishment.) He was also an outstanding prose stylist, deadly serious about the craft of writing. In a crop that includes such estimable talents as Joan Didion and Rebecca Solnit, Davis may have been one of the finest non-fiction writers to come out of California.

Politically, he was heterodox. As an organiser for some 60 years, Davis belonged to such varied groups as the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, the Communist Party, the International Marxist Group, and the International Socialist Organisation. Resistant to all forms of doctrinal monogamy, Davis sought to build, as the historian Jon Wiener recalled, “an organisation of organisers”. As a writer and editor, everything Davis said and wrote was to make revolution more feasible: even if, as he feared, it was too late.

One of the mysteries of modern Marxism is why it should be among the little-known exports of California, a state better recognised for its production of weaponry, semiconductors and electric vehicles. In addition to Mike Davis, it was the intellectual homeland of radical intellectuals such as Cedric Robinson, Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

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Davis’s work gives us some clues: from the unique conditions of California’s capitalist development detailed in City of Quartz, to the radical milieus recreated with novelistic depth in Set the Night on Fire, the masterful history of LA in the 1960s co-written with Wiener, California has been, as Davis put it, a “prefigurative laboratory” for national – and thus international – trends.

Davis was born in 1946 in Fontana, a working-class steel town outside LA, to Dwight and Mary Davis. Dwight was a meat-cutter, union member and registered Democrat. Mary was a Republican of Irish descent who gave her son both his sympathy for the Irish nationalist struggle and his physical courage. As he told the San Diego Reader, his mother would terrify him into facing down bullies: “If you don’t go out and fight that kid, you’ll fight me.” His parents had migrated from the American Midwest to the El Cajon valley, 17 miles east of San Diego, in the Great Depression, before moving to Fontana during the Second World War.

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As Davis explains in City of Quartz, his breakthrough work on LA, Fontana had only recently converted to mass industry. Founded as an “arcadian community of small chicken ranchers and citrus growers”, it had become a citrus plantation before being converted by war and New Deal capitalism into a major steel producer. The steel plant belched out coke smog and drew in a large workforce recruited from across the American South and beyond, making “a colourful but dissonant bricolage” of religions and cultures. After the war, the combination of a transcontinental oil pipeline and the resumption of Pacific hostilities in the Korean War, kept the steel firm in business – and started “a regional pollution problem of major proportions”. Fontana was segregated and – between Hells Angels, Ku Klux Klan and the LA police department (LAPD) – seething with violence.

When Davis was four, his family returned to San Diego. Like Fontana its early history was rural, as the El Cajon valley grew tomatoes, grapes and citrus fruit. By the middle of the 20th century, again under the pressure of US militarism, it was industrialising. During the Korean War in the early years of Davis’s childhood, San Diego’s military-industrial complex expanded into the El Cajon valley. San Diego, Davis wrote in Under the Perfect Sun (2003), was closer to “a private utility than a commonweal” and a “bastion of Christian patriotism on an otherwise pagan Left Coast” with no strong unions or civil rights groups to check the influence of “local capitalists and developers”. Overriding local opposition, the city marched developers armed with building permits into the valley, helping turn it into “San Diego’s largest blue-collar suburb”.

As a boy, Davis was a fervent anti-communist and militarist, who joined the Devil Pups – the Marine Corps equivalent of the Boy Scouts. But he was also a scientifically minded atheist, and temperamentally rebellious. In his teen years, he drank and stole cars until his mother turned him in to the police. Yanked out of high school for a semester to drive a meat truck at his uncle’s firm after his father had a heart attack, his political awakening began. There he encountered Lee Gregovich, a former militant in the Industrial Workers of the World and the Communist Party, who regularly told him, “Read Marx!” But it was Jim Stone, husband of his cousin and a member of the Congress of Racial Equality, that turned Davis into an activist. As Davis told the writer Adam Shatz in a 1997 interview, when he and Stone protested outside a segregated branch of Bank of America, they were among those assailed by “redneck sailors” who doused the protesters in lighter fluid and threatened to set them on fire. Davis was radicalised.

The political world that Davis joined – civil rights struggle, the student movement, antiwar activism, gay protest – was pulsating with possibility and violence. Set the Night on Fire, the history of these years in LA is, as Davis himself said, as close to a memoir as we would ever get from him. In 2014, Davis wrote to his friend Jon Wiener. They had met, Wiener recalled, in 1970 when Davis was “running a movement centre that had just been fire-bombed by right-wing Cubans. I interviewed him for a story for Liberation News Service, a kind of wire service for the underground press”. Davis wanted Wiener to write the book with him. “Of course, he already had massive files of material – he was a fanatical researcher.” The result is an account of the people who were there.

Set the Night on Fire details the rise of single-issue movements then forced into alliances by the brutality of the LAPD – and frequently torn apart by infiltration and illegal surveillance by local cops or the FBI. The book also upends many of the cliches about the 1960s – that the New Left was led by white college students, that the Old Left was irrelevant, that black riots were largely destructive, and that gay pride began in New York with the Stonewall uprising. In 1963, LA saw one of the most ambitious efforts to integrate housing, schools and jobs through the United Civil Rights Committee. In 1965, the Watts Rebellion forged a new generation of black radicals and gave rise to a vibrant artistic and literary culture. In 1967, student walkouts were led by black and brown high school students. LA had the first gay church, and saw “the first gay street protest in America”, two years before Stonewall. And the Communist Party played a critical role, Davis and Wiener write, “under the charismatic and eventually heretical leadership of Dorothy Healey”.

Healey was a popular and effective local organiser, and Davis would become her mentee when he joined the Communist Party in 1968. The two argued relentlessly. Healey was determined to rebuild the Popular Front alliances of the 1930s, which involved working with the Democratic Party – a non-starter for Davis. But he admired her for defending the Black Panthers and supporting the Prague Spring.

Davis’s academic life was on hold for these years. From 1969, he spent four years working as a trucker in LA. The job gave him a detailed knowledge of the city, its social fabric, and the nuances of West Coast geography. But the brutal labour struggles with the bosses also exacted their toll: during one difficult strike, local union members wanted to shoot strike breakers. Davis thought they were “pussies”, reaching for a gun rather than the harder work of collective action. Finally, in 1973, he returned to his studies. On a butchers’ union scholarship, he enrolled on an undergraduate course in history and economics at the University of California, Los Angeles. There, he fell under the tutelage of Robert Brenner, the Marxist historian who pioneered a radical interpretation of the rise of capitalism in the English countryside.

As the global economy slid into recession, and class struggle in the US and Europe reached a pitch not seen since the 1920s, parties of the revolutionary left were growing. And when, in 1976, Davis arrived in Edinburgh as part of his studies, he soon found himself a revolutionary milieu that included refugees from the 1973 coup in Chile, the South African economist Hillel Ticktin, the young academic and future broadcast journalist Suzi Weissman, the activist-writer Tariq Ali, and an 18-year-old Chris Bambery, who recruited him to the International Marxist Group (IMG). Though Davis had great respect for intellectuals in the tradition associated with the IMG, such as the economist Ernest Mandel and the historian Isaac Deutscher, he was uninterested in a party line. “He had quite firm views of his own on Trotskyist theology,” Ali told me. “He was heteroclite organisationally: he didn’t care a damn what group you belonged to. He would be friendly and help if you were on the right side.”

Davis’s intellect was already evident to his comrades, but it was a landmark essay in 1978 on the French economist Michel Aglietta’s A Theory of Capitalist Regulation, that caught the attention of editors at the New Left Review. The essay, published in an obscure East Coast journal, combined deft control of historical data with a theoretically sophisticated reading of what he called Aglietta’s “Gallic” Marxism. But it also doubled as a history of American capitalism and the working class. The essay formed part of the research for a manuscript he was working on, which would become Prisoners of the American Dream (1986), his breakthrough history of the American working class, the obstacles to its organisation and the threat represented by Reaganism.

In 1980, Davis was invited to join the New Left Review’s editorial board. Davis’s time at the NLR, a proudly working class man surrounded by left nobility, was notoriously stormy. With no income, he lived in a spare room on London’s Meard Street, and had frequent rows with other editors. In one incident, previously recounted by Shatz, he caused trouble by writing to the historian Eugene Genovese, who had complained of being sidelined by the journal: “Dear Professor Genovese, F**k you.”

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While he was writing Prisoners of the American Dream, Davis was mentored by the historian and NLR’s editor Perry Anderson, who even then was becoming an éminence grise of the British far left. “We were all very impressed with Mike’s amazing intellectual energy,” Ali recalled. “And he had a desire to learn. He was always asking what he should read.” If Anderson was asked for advice on a manuscript, Ali said, “you would get a 100-page comment which could be published as an essay in its own right”. The result, though, was that Davis sounded a lot like Anderson. “Even the sentences in that book,” Andrew Hsiao, his editor at Verso, told me, “are sharp, pellucid and arch in a Perry Anderson way.” Ali agreed: “Mike hadn’t found his own voice. It was Perry’s voice.”

But something happened to Davis’s writing after he returned to LA in 1987 and resumed his work as a trucker. City of Quartz embraced a much broader range of references from art, architecture, literature and political economy, and crafted what could be termed a popular Marxism. The sentences became more urgent, the style more murkily atmospheric. The characteristically dark, Davisian wit emerged, and it would continue with Ecology of Fear, whose opening sentence about the Kona storm system in southern California reads: “Once or twice each decade, Hawaii sends Los Angeles a big, wet kiss.”

City of Quartz showed no sign of catapulting Davis into celebrity. Critics thought it was too apocalyptic. But when riots broke out in 1992, the book’s prophecies were vindicated and it became a classic. Davis, a reticent public figure, was instantly in demand for media interviews. But he was more interested in talking to people he thought could make change. After meeting the mother of Dewayne Holmes, a member of the Crips gang, whose cousin had been murdered by the LAPD, Davis approached the leaders of LA’s rival gangs, offering to mediate between them. To his astonishment, the gang leaders – who had read City of Quartz ­­– agreed. Davis subsequently described the truce leaders as “tendential social democrats” who had been forced into a survivalist situation by LA’s racialised capitalism and were now left fighting a “lonely crusade” for jobs “not cops”.

Although Davis was made a Getty Scholar and a MacArthur Fellow in this time, academic success continued to elude him, in part because of his militant cussedness. In 1997, the University of South California offered him a chair in US history. When he discovered that the university was busting the food workers’ union by outsourcing cafeteria jobs, he attacked the University in LA Weekly. The job offer was rescinded. Davis ended up working in a series of creative writing departments, the academy’s outermost periphery.

With the publication of Ecology of Fear (1998), Davis added a new material substratum to his totalising vision: the rhythms of ecology, and what he called “the social construction of ‘natural’ disaster”.

From a young age, Davis had an abiding interest in the natural sciences. Asked to describe himself in later life, he would sometimes bemuse friends by answering that he was a geologist. In a 2020 interview, he explained that he had been “an amateur geologist” since the age of eight. His accumulated collection of rocks included “abducted pieces of ocean crust, or parts of the upper mantle that ended up on the surface”.

Now he combined the tools of Marxism with a library of recondite geological, climatological and paleontological evidence to discover how LA had “deliberately put itself in harm’s way” with its perverse settlement of “historic wildfire corridors”, wetlands and floodplains. He also showed how the imperatives of capital accumulation, as filtered through state violence and racism, had created a “dialectic of disaster” in the region. In a famous chapter entitled, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn”, he argued that since the ecosystems of the Malibu coast had evolved to burn, modern fire suppression to protect rich properties actually created fuel that would produce more catastrophic fires. In recent years, LA has experienced its worst wildfires in recorded history. By adding natural history to the methods of historical materialism, Davis had shattered intellectual boundaries, and pulled far ahead of most contemporaries in his analysis of ecology: including Marxists, who had yet to face the severity of the climate crisis.

This inaugurated the most frenetically fecund period in Davis’s career. He had always written about what frightened him, Wiener recalled him saying, from the LAPD to ecological chaos. And his imagination found no shortage of horror to write about. He rattled out a series of intense disaster books. In Late Victorian Holocausts (2000), he traced the relationships between capitalism, colonialism and 19th-century famines. In The Monster at Our Door (2005), he pored through stacks of epidemiological literature to expose the threat of avian flu and the inadequacy of pandemic preparedness. In Planet of Slums (2006), he detailed the spread of global slums inhabited by an informalised proletariat. In Buda’s Wagon (2007), prompted by the occupation of Iraq, he recounted the history of car bombing. Remarkably, in the same period, Davis wrote a trilogy of science-fiction adventures: “Bedtime stories run amok,” he explained to Wiener, written for his older son Jack.

Yet these texts were not just stylised annals of catastrophe – they posed organisational questions. Planet of Slums asked how organisers of the future could weld such a precarious global workforce into a revolutionary agency. Buda’s Wagon reckoned with his growing doubts about political violence. Other works teased hope out of adversity. Magical Urbanism (2000) examined how Latinos were transforming US cities. His 2010 essay, “Who Will Build the Ark”, ­was a meditation on pessimistic intellect and optimistic will. Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible (2012) was Davis’s advice to the Occupy movement that, like Black Lives Matter and similar uprisings, enthralled him. Old Gods, New Enigmas (2018), despite its typically unsparing account of the working class’s declining organisation, excavates the history of the 19th-century working-class movement for an historical sociology of how class agency is made. As Hsiao explained, “he was looking for shafts of light”.

Although his pace of publishing slowed down in the 2010s, particularly after he received his first cancer diagnosis in 2016, Davis continued to research and write intensively. His final essay for the New Left Review, “Thanatos Triumphant”, was vintage Davis. Mercilessly honest about Biden’s sacrifice of poor humanity to the coming disasters in the wake of the bleakest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report yet, the exuberant military irrationality of Vladimir Putin and the ultra-nationalism of Xi Jinping, it refused cheap consolation. Davis wryly held out, not hope, but a desperate legacy of revolutionary violence to be urgently deciphered, in the form of the Narodnik Aleksandr Ulyanov (Lenin’s brother), the anarchist Alexander Berkman, and the anarcho-communist Sholem Schwarzbard. In his last year, he was preparing a major book, to be titled Star Spangled Leviathan: An Economic History of American Nationalism.

The urgency that compelled him was the conflict between the exigencies of ecological or political emergency, and the patience essential to making change. Introducing Set the Night on Fire, Davis and Wiener quoted John Densmore, the Doors drummer: “The seeds of the civil rights and the peace movement and feminism were planted in the Sixties… Maybe they take fifty or a hundred years to reach fruition.” Davis and Wiener agreed, writing “the Sixties in Los Angeles are best conceived of as a sowing, whose seeds grew into living traditions of resistance”. In Old Gods, New Enigmas, Davis wrote “the classical rank-and-file organizer” was a “patient gardener constantly weeding daily plant life of its inevitable dissensions and jealousies”.

But he feared it may be too late. “We have to try,” Anthony Arnove recalled Davis telling a group of International Socialist Organisation members in the mid-2000s, “but there’s no guarantee that we haven’t passed the moment in the geological clock where we will be unable to undo the past crimes and depredations of capitalism.” This is not a contradiction of Davis’s making but, with characteristic honesty and mordant wit, he inhabited it.

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