Vale Mike Davis

By Nick D

Mike Davis sits in his writing chair in his San Diego home on July 12, 2022.(Adam Perez / For The LA Times)

Mike Davis (1946-2022) was born in the Southern Californian community of Fontana before his family moved to Bostonia, a military town near San Diego. At 16, Davis’s father suffered a heart attack, so he left school to work in the Bostonia meat factory. Eventually, he was able to finish high school and studied briefly at Reed College in Portland.

In the 1960s, Davis became active in the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He was also a member of the Communist Party for a short time and worked in their L.A. bookstore.

Having left the Communist Party in 1969, Davis spent the next few years working as a truck driver and eventually found employment driving buses for a tour guide operator. He left this job after the following incident reported in Lingua Franca,

“I had this job with a bus-tour company when suddenly this insanely violent strike broke out. A strikebreaker ran a bus over one of our guys, and next thing I knew I was in a room with forty guys voting on whether each of us is gonna put up $400 to hire a hitman to kill the head of the strikebreakers.

I said, ‘Hey, guys, this is just crazy,’ and made the best speech of my life. I was outvoted thirty-nine to one. I thought to myself, ‘Typical American workers’; I think I said ‘pussies.’ Instead of coming up with a political strategy, they reach for their guns as soon as they see a scab driving their bus. And here I am about to become a freshman at UCLA, and I’m going to get arrested for criminal conspiracy.”

After three years at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Davis traveled to Europe and became associated with the International Marxist Group (IMG). From the early 1980s, he worked full time for New Left Review (NLR) in London.

By all accounts, Davis was both a valuable writer and an unpredictable person to work with – like the time he ‘spilled’ a “garter snake, an axolotl, and a carnivorous African toad” onto the carpet of the NLR office. Despite these antics, Davis published his first book Prisoners of the American dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class in 1986.

In 1987, Davis returned home and found work again as a truck driver in Los Angeles while teaching sporadically in California. He also began writing City of Quartz which was published in 1990. This raw and ground-breaking text painted a scathing picture of Los Angeles,

“Despite the mountain of gold that has been built downtown, Los Angeles remains vulnerable to the same explosive convergence of street anger, poverty, environmental crisis, and capital flight that made the early 1990s its worst crisis period since the early Depression.”

Two years after City of Quartz was published, Los Angeles erupted in revolt when four police officers were acquitted of murder after being filmed beating Rodney King, an African American man, to death.

The 2000s saw Davis publish over a dozen books, including his most important and enduring works. Drawing on concepts developed in Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital (1913), Davis’s 2001 book Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World is nothing short of a masterpiece – illustrating, in biting prose, the human impact of capitalist expansion on the colonial world.

This was followed in 2008 by Planet of Slums, a bleak analysis of urbanisation in the Global South. A key strength of this book is its critique of capitalism’s ‘solutions’ to urban poverty – from World Bank-NGO ‘self-help’ programs to the United Nations’ ‘Development Goals.’ As a socialist, Davis’ integration of Marxist theory provides material explanations for the rapid growth of Global South cities,

“The global forces ‘pushing’ people from the countryside – mechanisation of agriculture in Java and India, food imports in Mexico, Haiti, and Kenya, civil war and drought throughout Africa, and everywhere the consolidation of small holdings into large ones and the competition of industrial-scale agribusiness – seem to sustain urbanisation even when the ‘pull’ of the city is drastically weakened by debt and economic depression. As a result, rapid urban growth in the context of structural adjustment, currency devaluation, and state retrenchment has been an inevitable recipe for the mass production of slums.”

In recent years, Davis was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer – although this didn’t stop him co-authoring the 2020 book Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties. In one of his final interviews, he told an Los Angeles Times journalist,

“I guess what I think about the most is that I’m just extraordinarily furious and angry. If I have a regret, it’s not dying in battle or at a barricade as I’ve always romantically imagined — you know, fighting.”

On October 25, 2022, Mike Davis left this world, but in his place he has left an enduring legacy and body of work. I encourage everyone to read the works of Mike Davis and also to seek out accounts and stories of his extraordinary and fascinating life.

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