The death of Mike Davis on 25 October 2022 at the age of 76 has deprived us of perhaps the outstanding Marxist writer of my generation. He delved deep into the contemporary history of the United States, especially in Southern California, where he lived most of his life, mainly in his hometown of San Diego. Yet, he also developed a profound understanding of the mechanisms through which capitalism and the rest of nature interact. This makes him the Marxist thinker for our time, this time of gathering catastrophes. Through all this he remained a resolute revolutionary socialist, deeply schooled in the traditions of working-class solidarity that he learned from his parents.
Mike touched many lives, as is indicated by the flood of often vivid and moving tributes that followed his death. He touched mine as well, and I will come back to this towards the end of this article. However, what I want to focus on here is his political and intellectual development. Unavoidably, this involves a bit of biography; all accounts of Mike’s life are heavily dependent on his own reminiscences, which are too good not to be true.1
Man of the West
Mike was born in 1946 in Fontana, San Bernandino County, in the Inland Empire region east of Los Angeles. According to his friend, the Canadian Marxist historian Bryan Palmer, Mike’s father was “a meat-cutting trade unionist who voted the Democratic ticket, his mother a tougher-than-nails Irish-Catholic Republican”.2 Fontana was then a steel mill town; the concluding chapter of Mike’s best known book, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (Verso, 1990), surveys its social and physical destruction with the mill’s closure, ending with the words “Fontana—the junkyard of dreams”.3 It was not exactly paradise when Mike was born; the Hell’s Angels were founded there that same year.
As for El Cajon, the San Diego suburb where Mike’s family moved in the 1950s, Palmer writes:
A racist frontier, one part white cowboy, another part militarist, the town exuded evil. Looking back on his childhood, Davis told an interviewer in 2008, “I actually believe that I have seen the devil or his moral equivalent in El Cajon.”4
Nonetheless, he was still shaped by the place and by his parents, whom a schoolfriend remembered as “exceptional people”, particularly in their hostility to racism.5 Mike told one interviewer:
I grew up in a town where the boundary between California and the West was literally one street. If you were on one side of the street you ended up a surfer. If you were on the other you were hopelessly an Okie or cowboy shitkicker. I grew up on the other side, always wishing I was a surfer, but always feeling I was more of a westerner.6
As Mike entered his teens, the US was being swept into a storm of mass movements that began with the struggle for black civil rights in the South, developed further with opposition to the war in Vietnam, and exploded in a great wave of inner city revolts, including Watts in Los Angeles in August 1965. Mike described how he was drawn into this storm:
I was utterly at sea, a very unhappy 16 year old, when my cousin—I have a black side of my family by marriage—invited me to come down to a demonstration at the Bank of America in downtown San Diego, which was sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality. In 1963, San Diego was in every way a Southern city, completely segregated in employment and housing. So, I went down to the demonstration, and it changed my life forever. It produced an unchallengeable set of values and inspirations.7
All Mike’s writings burn with the passion and intensity of these social movements. It is appropriate that his last book, Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties, co-authored with Jon Wiener, looks at this time. Over 800 pages, it reconstructs in loving and vivid detail the rich multiplicity of struggles that developed during that decade in Los Angeles, interweaving his own personal reminiscences and emphasising particularly the role of the young—above all, the huge, predominantly Latinx high school walkouts (or “blowouts”) of 1966-8. We can hear him, a proud father (“‘the pater familias’, Mike called himself, with enjoyment”8), in these concluding reflections:
The 60s in Los Angeles are best conceived of as a sowing, whose seeds grew into living traditions of resistance. Movements rose and fell to be sure, but individual commitments to social change were enduring and inheritable. Thousands continued to lead activist lives as union organisers, progressive doctors and lawyers, school teachers, community advocates, city employees and, perhaps most profoundly, as parents. Memories of these movements were…transmitted intergenerationally, sometimes providing icons of protest during the massive renewal of labour activism and immigrant rights organising in the 1990s.9
Oscillating between work and college, Mike became a full-time organiser for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the umbrella for the emerging student radical left, first in New York and then at the University of California, Berkeley, where the Free Speech Movement marked the first major student revolt. It was there, at the famous Vietnam teach-in in May 1965, that Mike heard Isaac Deutscher, Leon Trotsky’s biographer, speak:
I don’t know quite how to describe the impact that he had. It was not a theatrical impact. It was not a projection of charisma. It was an assertion of intellectual sovereignty of a kind I had never seen before. It was also like a seance with a world that I hardly knew existed: a seance with dead revolutionaries and betrayed revolutions, with a handful of magnificent people who continued that tradition.10
Mike recalled his further encounters with the revolutionary tradition, in the person of the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who was witch-hunted for his support of the radicals, especially one of his own students, Angela Davis. Marcuse also lived in San Diego:
Well, I had heard about Marcuse before I’d been thrown out of college. I had picked up his book One-Dimensional Man. I didn’t understand a word of it, but I understood that he was this greatly respected figure, and so I wrote him a letter, explaining how SDS hoped to build an interracial movement of the poor people as a second front for the Southern civil rights struggle, and how we were going into the ghettos and the poor neighbourhoods and organising…
I promptly got a letter back from him saying, “Look, you must be adorable kids, I’m completely on your side, but don’t you realise that all you’re doing is working for free for the Lyndon B Johnson administration? You are simply integrating people into liberal capitalism, you might as well join as government volunteers.”
The letter shook me to my foundations. And some years later, in 1968, when I was married and cutting meat in San Diego, a member of a group of non-students in SDS, I got hold of Marcuse’s phone number from one of his graduate students and brazenly called him up.
“You won’t remember me,” I began, “but I wrote you this crazy letter from SDS.”
“Oh yeah,” he replied, “what are you doing?”
“Well, look, we are not students or anything.” And I explained that we were a group of young workers, including my best friend, an ex-Marine lieutenant who opposed the war in Vietnam…
“Come on Friday night!”, he said. “I’ll buy the beer. I am sick of graduate students. Come by!”
We spent a magical evening getting drunk with Marcuse and hearing stories of him running messages for Rosa Luxemburg in 1918. Although the author of some profoundly pessimistic meditations, he had an almost utopian optimism about my generation and the New Left globally.11
Here two revolutionary generations touched fingers. As the movements of the 1960s started slowly to recede and SDS splintered, pulled between the terrorism of the Weather Underground (according to Mike, “just rich kids… playing Zabriskie Point for themselves”) and the apparent “realism” of Democratic Party electoral politics, Mike saw the need for coherent socialist organisation.12 He recalled, “I joined the Southern California Communist Party in 1968 in solidarity with their stand against the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring”.13 The Southern California CP sponsored the Che-Lumumba Club, whose best known member was Angela Davis. Che-Lumumba played a crucial role in organising solidarity with the Black Panthers as well as with Davis herself during the height of the campaign of repression mounted by the FBI and local police forces against black radicals at the end of the 1960s.14 According to Palmer:
An admirer of the dissident leader of the Californian party, Dorothy Healey, and the historically hard-nosed, class struggle politics of Third Period Communist militants, Mike ran the CP’s Progressive Bookstore for a few months. He squirreled a rifle away in the basement. At night, he might sneak off into the desert with Angela Davis for target shooting practice, blasting away at watermelons, or so he told me… His days of drawing a party stipend were undoubtedly numbered. They finally came to a grinding halt when he mistook a Soviet attaché for one of the FBI guys whose offices were nearby.15
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mike worked as a trucker, tourist bus driver and meat-cutter, and was a rank and file activist in the Teamsters union. He finally made a serious re-entry into the academy in the mid-1970s, studying at the University of California, Los Angeles. There he attended a seminar on Karl Marx’s Capital started by the Marxist historian and political economist Bob Brenner. Brenner, a member of the heterodox Trotskyist International Socialists, may have encouraged Mike’s eventual embrace of Trotskyism:
Brenner and his gang…were reading Capital in the context of debates within British Marxism on agrarian class struggles and the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Later, the seminar moved onto crisis theory and 20th century economic history. It was an exhilarating experience and gave me the intellectual confidence to pursue my own agenda of eclectic interests in political economy, labour history and urban ecology.16
Doctoral studies at the University of Glasgow led to Mike joining the International Marxist Group (IMG), which was the British section of the Fourth International and then at the height of its influence. He was drawn into the Irish liberation struggle, which was at fever pitch in the Six Counties during those years. He also met Perry Anderson, editor of New Left Review (this was a time when New Left Review and the Fourth International were close). Anderson eventually head-hunted Mike to work for New Left Review and its publishing house, Verso.
Mike said he “had a really hard time in London”, where he was based between 1980 and 1986.17 He was homesick and also seems to have been increasingly at odds with New Left Review’s public school and Oxbridge ethos. “I’ve always had a sort of truck stop attitude toward effete intellectuals,” he said later.18 The version he later shared with the art historian T J Clark “was definitely a funny story, but told with a Mark Twain, Yankee at the Court of King Arthur generosity”.19 It was, however, in these years that Mike emerged as a major Marxist author, writing a series of brilliant articles on the working class in the US and the socio-economic transformations visible during the presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981-9). These were published in book form as Prisoners of the American Dream. He remained a member of the New Left Review editorial committee and a regular contributor to the journal and to Verso till his death.
Political economy and class violence
In his early writings, Mike appears more the political economist rather than the historian, as signalled by the subtitle of Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class. In this book he shows a profound historical grasp in tracing the succession of defeats that prevented the US working class from realising the destiny mapped out for it by the great Marxists, from Friedrich Engels to Trotsky, of explosively overtaking its European counterparts. Indeed, Mike developed an in-depth, historically informed understanding of the complexities of US society that made his writing on contemporary bourgeois politics immensely valuable (indeed, his acerbic surveys of the latest turn in the electoral cycle will be much missed). His account of the pacification of the insurgent working class of the 1930s and 1940s, and later under Dwight D Eisenhower, John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, is integrated into a structural analysis of how post-war US capitalism, now at the centre of the global system, was able to offer the bulk of the white industrial working class rising real wages and largely privatised welfare.
In two crucial respects this analysis was free of the parochialism with which he taxed many US labour historians. First, Mike never lost sight of US imperialism. A crucial chapter of Prisoners of the American Dream sets the plight of the US working class in the context of, first, the climax and, second, the crisis of US imperialism in the second half of the 20th century.20
In a brilliant early essay, Mike reinvigorated but also inflected the conception that New Left Review had inherited from Deutscher of the Cold War as a “great contest” between “antagonistic social systems”—respectively capitalism and communism, however imperfectly the Soviet Union represented the interests of world revolution.21 For Mike, the Cold War, hotting up at the time in the early 1980s, was “ultimately the lightning rod conductor of all the historic tensions between opposing international class forces, but the bipolar confrontation is not itself the dominant level of world politics. The dominant level is the process of permanent revolution arising out of the uneven and combined development of global capitalism”.22 From this perspective, he sought to demonstrate how Washington used its nuclear superiority not simply in order to maintain its global dominance, but also to counter the threats of revolution developing in different parts of the Global South.
Second, Mike drew heavily on the Marxism he encountered in Europe. His respect for the Fourth International’s leading theorist, Belgian Trotskyist Ernest Mandel, is shown in his taking to task Fredric Jameson, the great Marxist critic, for misusing Mandel’s Late Capitalism (New Left Books, 1975) in his famous article about postmodernism.23 However, the version of Marxist political economy that he embraced (albeit critically) came from a very different source—the French regulation school. One of the school’s leading figures, Alain Lipietz, writes: “We ourselves, ‘regulationists’, are ‘rebel sons’ of Louis Althusser.” Althusser’s attempt to reconstruct Marxist theory was the object of strenuous attacks by Trotskyists in the Fourth International and in the International Socialist Tendency, with which this journal is associated. Yet, the regulationist writers took from Althusser the notion of “history as a fabric of contradictory relations, autonomous in relation to one other, though overdetermining rather than ‘reflecting’ one another. Neither politics nor ideology ‘reflect’ economic forces, but ideological-politico-economic ‘configurations’ exist, either as stable configurations or as configurations of crisis”.24
The particular “configurations” with which the regulationists were concerned were “regimes of accumulation”: the historically definite forms in which the conditions of capital accumulation are stably secured. Each of these forms in turn requires a specific set of institutions—the mode of regulation—that, as Lipietz puts it, ensures “individual expectations and behaviour must take shape so that they are in line with the needs of each particular regime of accumulation”.25 The founding text of the school, Michel Aglietta’s A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The US Experience, was focused more closely still on one “configuration in crisis”, the “Fordist regime of accumulation”, which he argued provided the basis of the post-war expansion of Western capitalism.26 In a rich historical study of the US economy since the Civil War, he sought to show that this boom depended on the institutionalised coordination of mass production and consumption thanks to a class compromise in which the fruits of higher productivity were shared between wages and profits.
Mike devoted a long critical review to this text, entitled “‘Fordism’ in Crisis”, which displays his grasp of Marxist value theory and his historical knowledge. Although he claims that Aglietta’s book “never attains…the same theoretical coherence or breadth of vision offered by Mandel’s Late Capitalism”, Mike clearly found regulation theory useful as a lens through which to understand why the Fordist class compromise was breaking down so disastrously in the 1970s and 1980s.27
Bob Brenner, Mike’s friend and comrade on the Los Angeles Trotskyist left, co-authored a massive and devastating theoretical and empirical critique of regulation theory with Mark Glick.28 Apart from historical weaknesses that Mike also identified in his review of Aglietta, the fundamental flaw of regulationism lies in its ultimate dependence on a sophisticated version of the disproportionality theory of crises. On this view, crises arise as a result of lack of coordination between the two main departments of production identified by Marx: department I (means of production) and department II (means of consumption). A focus on (primarily national) institutions soon led to the disappearance of capitalist relations of production and the world economy from the regulationists’ analyses.29
However, as in the case of the Deutscherite interpretation of the Cold War, Mike gave his own creative spin to the concepts he took from others. Thus, in plotting the transformation of US capitalism in the 1970s and 1980s, he counterposes the breakdown of the old Fordist articulation of mass production and mass consumption to the increasing disorganisation and fragmentation of the working class:
The emergence of a new, embryonic regime of accumulation that might be called overconsumptionism…an increasing political subsidisation of a sub-bourgeois, mass layer of managers, professionals, new entrepreneurs and rentiers who, faced with rapidly declining organisation among the working poor and minorities during the 1970s, have been overwhelmingly successful in profiteering from both inflation and expanded state expenditure.30
This development helped to explain the transformation of both the Republicans and Democrats into neoliberal parties in unconditional service to the corporate rich. Furthermore, it also accompanied other changes to US capitalism that Mike was among the first to notice as he anatomised the “pathological prosperity” driven by the rising military spending and financial speculation that developed under Reagan.31 His diagnosis is quite compatible with Brenner’s own analysis of the “long downturn” of advanced capitalism as a result of a crisis of profitability and of the US authorities’ promotion of what Brenner calls “stock market Keynesianism”: the increasing dependence of economic growth on borrowing and spending by upper middle-class households enriched by the apparently endlessly rising value of their assets in the bubble economy of the 1990s and 2000s.32
City of Quartz, Mike’s next project, traced the effects of these transformations in Southern California. He returned there in 1987. According to a later interview with the LA Times, “In the late 1980s…he would drive a truck for a week, come in off the road to deliver a college lecture and go back out again”.33
One can already detect one of the main impulses behind the book in Mike’s critique of Jameson on postmodernism. He argues that Jameson’s bravura description of the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles as the epitome of a new postmodern sensibility, corresponding to the internationalisation of capital, fails to take into account “two alternative coordinates”: “First, the rise of new international rentier circuits in the current crisis phase of capitalism. Second, the definitive abandonment of the ideal of urban reform as part of the new class polarisation taking place in the US.” These are, of course, two crucial elements in the turn that, according to Mike, US capitalism took in the 1970s and 1980s. Postmodernist architects like John Portman, whose firm designed the Bonaventure, were constructing cathedrals of what we would now call financialised capitalism, insulated by a “protective maze of freeways, moats, concrete parapets and asphalt no-man’s-lands”:
What is missing from Jameson’s otherwise vivid description of the Bonaventure is the savagery of its insertion into the surrounding city. To say that a structure of this type “turns its back away” is surely an understatement, and to speak of its “popular” character is to miss the point of its systematic segregation from the great Hispanic-Asian city outside.34
In other words, Mike started from what he found missing in Jameson: the class antagonism at the heart of US society. He approached it more obliquely in City of Quartz than he had in his earlier writings, but with tremendous panache. In a preface to a new edition of the book he summarised its purpose in a passage that showcases his skill as a writer as well as his ability to turn apparently difficult concepts into something vivid and accessible—and tinged with humour. Mike said, “I’m not a writer’s writer at all, but I am a damn good storyteller”.35 Storyteller he certainly was, but he wrote like an angel, bringing alive the most complex realities:
City of Quartz, to use one of those Parisian terms that I usually try to run over with my pickup truck, is the biography of a conjoncture: one of those moments, ripe with paradox and non-linearity, when previously separate currents of history suddenly converge with profoundly unpredictable results. City of Quartz—in a nutshell—is about the contradictory impact of economic globalisation upon different segments of Los Angeles society.36
He told Adam Shatz:
I had this daydream of Walter Benjamin finally coming to Los Angeles and sitting in a bar with Fernand Braudel and Engels. They decide to write a book about Los Angeles and divide it into three projects. Benjamin is going to get at all the complex and lucid fragments about power and memory. Braudel will explore its natural history, the larger world-historical forces that made it possible. And Engels will report on Los Angeles’s working classes.37
These three figures give a sense of Mike’s increasingly complex theoretical outlook. In his huge and unfinished Arcades Project, drafted in the 1930s, Benjamin sought to portray a 19th century Paris ruled by commodity fetishism and by ruling-class violence through an assemblage of numerous, apparently disparate, cultural fragments. He described this as “carrying over the principle of montage into history. That is, to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components. Indeed, to discover in the analysis of the smallest individual moment the crystal of the total event.” The result is a set of “dialectical images”, in which “what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill”.38
Mike described Benjamin’s influence on his book:
Reading him taught me that small concrete things could be pregnant with the whole, that oblique points of view could sometimes render things visible in more depth, and that it’s very important always to follow your nose around a good story… Beyond that, the book was structured around a refusal to try and totalise, to take any kind of God’s eye, synthetic, panoramic view of a reality that was far too fragmented, and also changing faster than in almost any imaginable city. So, my decision was to find four, five or six strategic instances—the most original or prefigurative phenomena, and rather than treating them just in the present, and in the development in the future, to pursue each of those future trends as a site to do archaeology, to go back as far in the past as possible.39
The structure of City of Quartz indeed resembles less a chronologically ordered narrative than a series of constellations that open different windows onto Los Angeles. The famous opening chapter, “Sunshine or Noir?”, about Los Angeles as it has been represented by different intellectual circles, is followed by chapters on the power structure, the reactionary political mobilisation of white suburban householders, the fortification of the city against the poor, Los Angeles Police Department’s wars with the drug gangs and the Catholic Church in Southern California. The book concludes with Fontana, “Junkyard of Dreams”.
However, whereas Benjamin aspired to a work where different constellations are presented without setting them in a larger historical context, Mike drew on his other inspirations, Braudel, historian of the “longue durée” (the long-term historical perspective), and Engels. Braudel saw world capitalism developing over the centuries under the leadership of successive cities, from Venice to New York. Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England offers an arresting portrait of Manchester, epicentre of the first Industrial Revolution—and of the first general strike.40 Mike also said that one of the “most profound literary and intellectual influences” on him was the brilliant and cosmopolitan Welsh Marxist historian Gwyn Williams, whose superb histories of Wales provided a model for his studies of Los Angeles.41 (It may be relevant that Mike’s father came from one of the last Welsh-speaking farming communities in Ohio.42)
Arguably, City of Quartz is implicitly unified by the theme already present in his critique of Jameson—“the centrality of class violence in the constitution of the social and cultural landscapes of LA”—which he credited to the interwar writings of the Los Angeles radical Louis Adamic.43 The giant multicultural class rising that shook Los Angeles in April and May 1992, forcing president George H W Bush to send paratroopers fresh from the Gulf to police the city, was widely seen as vindicating the analysis in City of Quartz. This added to its author’s reputation and authority—although, according to Mike himself, “every 11 year old in the city knew that an explosion of some kind was coming”.44
The ecology of evil
T J Clark suggests that “cities, for Davis, were life itself. As he saw it, cities are the human”.45 Certainly, if we set City of Quartz alongside another widely read book of his, Planet of Slums (Verso, 2006), Mike does seem mainly the urban theorist that he was frequently described and held academic posts as.46 Nonetheless, another theme, the capitalist destruction of nature—which is, of course, closely tied up with the trajectories of both world cities and slum settlements—assumed increasing importance in his later work. It is already visible at the start of City of Quartz, when he describes the fate of Los Angeles County’s Llano del Rio, once the site of an unsuccessful socialist experiment, now suburbanised commuterland:
The pattern of urbanisation here is what design critic Peter Plagens once called the “ecology of evil”. Developers don’t grow homes in the desert—this isn’t Marrakesh or even Tucson, Arizona—they just clear, grade and pave, hook up some pipes to the local artificial river (the federally subsidised California Aqueduct), build a security wall and plug in the “product”. With generations of experience in uprooting the citrus gardens of Orange County and the San Fernando Valley, the developers—ten or 12 major firms, headquartered in places like Newport Beach and Beverly Hills—regard the desert as simply another abstraction of dirt and dollar signs. The region’s major natural wonder, a Joshua Tree forest containing individual specimens often 30 feet high and older than the Domesday Book, is being bulldozed into oblivion.47
“Ecology of evil” is almost a dialectical image in its own right. The title of Mike’s next attack on Los Angeles, published in 1998, is slightly cooler (in general, the tone of his writing was more diagnosis than polemic): The Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. It marked an important intellectual shift, signalled in a 1996 article on near-Earth objects—asteroids, comets and the like—that surveyed scientific debates leading to a conception of the Earth as a dynamic open system undergoing catastrophic change sometimes as a result of interactions with such objects. An example is the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction caused by the impact of a massive asteroid, which wiped out three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth (including, as every child knows, the dinosaurs) around 66 million years ago.
Mike takes from his reading of these debates a radically different conception of natural evolution from Charles Darwin’s picture of piecemeal, gradual change. Darwin was indebted to the geologist Charles Lyell, whose “vision of a uniformitarian Earth, whose surface is sculpted by the continuous action of small causes over great intervals of deep time, effectively de-historicised natural history by excluding the unique events—‘catastrophes’—that gave it narrative directionality”. Now, however, the earth sciences present us with “evolution by catastrophe… Catastrophe replaces the linear temporal creep of microevolution with non-linear bursts of macroevolution”.48
This article reflects the impact on Mike of what is sometimes called “chaos theory”, or “complexity theory”, but which is best described as the study of non-linear dynamic systems in nature:
I understand chaos theory to entail three principal experimental results: 1) most deterministic motion—temporal change—in nature is sensitively dependent upon initial conditions; 2) the fine structure of most “random” phenomena is actually some form of complex order; and 3) the phase transition from one ordered state to another is usually an “avalanche” of determinate, but unpredictable events organised via feedback relationships. Chaos, however, reveals itself in strikingly different patterns: as an infinite flowering of complexity (Mandelbrot sets); as an eternal recurrence of alternating domains of order and disorder (meandering rivers); or as a dialectic of evolution and revolution (natural and human history).49
As this makes clear, the significance for Mike of chaos theory lies in part in its potential for reintegrating “natural and human history”: “The permanent revolution in earth science, first and above all, has been an insurrection of Natural History with a capital ‘H’”.50 If this was a challenge to the prevailing “uniformitarianism” in the physical sciences, it also implied a rethinking of human history as well. In Ecology of Fear, Mike deals with a much more extended longue durée than that covered by Braudel in his trilogy on the history of capitalism. He traces back the “natural” disasters afflicting California—earthquakes, floods, wildfires and droughts—to the ecology of the region:
The Southern California landscape epitomises the principle of non-linearity, where small changes in driving variables or inputs—magnified by feedback—can produce disproportionate, or even discontinuous, outcomes. As a result, the landscape incorporates a decisive quotient of surprise: it packs an eco-punch seldom easy to predict simply by extrapolating from existing trends… Landscape and biome have co-evolved to meet conditions of periodic convulsion. Chaparral and oak savannas, for instance, depend on wildfire to recycle nitrogen and ensure seed germination and, at least before dam building, floods periodically redistributed niches for aboriginal grasslands and riparian forests.51
Yet, the capitalist development of California since its annexation by the US in the mid-19th century has been constructed in ignorance of the region’s propensity to “periodic convulsion”:
In Southern California, the classical uniformitarian assumption that the present is the key to the past, and therefore to the future, is likely to prove a dangerous fallacy. As science over the past decade has laid the foundations for a true environmental history of the Los Angeles region, the modern era has come to look increasingly anomalous. Recent research on past climate change and seismic activity has transformed the question, “Why so many recent disasters?”, into the truly unnerving question, “Why so few?” The urbanisation of the Los Angeles area has, it seems, taken place during one of the most unusual episodes of climatic and seismic benignity since the inception of the Holocene; or to put it another way, 20th century Los Angeles has been capitalised on sheer gambler’s luck.52
This new perspective on Los Angeles’s long-term history inflects rather than replaces that of City of Quartz: “What is most distinctive about Los Angeles is not simply its conjugation of earthquakes, wildfires and floods, but its uniquely explosive mixture of natural hazards and social contradictions”.53 This is illustrated in a famous chapter, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn”. Here Mike contrasts two encounters with fire and disaster. First, he looks at the extensive public protection of the luxury developments in Malibu in the Santa Monica mountains, an area peculiarly liable to experience wildfires thanks to the natural accumulation of dead vegetation that property owners block from being safely removed in controlled burns. Second, he compares this to the frequent losses of life to fires in overcrowded tenement blocks in poor neighbourhoods such as Westlake, where slum lords escape regulation, let alone prosecution. Class violence takes different forms.
Mike then projected this “mixture of natural hazards and social contradictions” onto a global scale in his Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (Verso, 2001). Perry Anderson correctly described this work as “a masterpiece, showing the interrelations between natural history and social history”.54 Mike’s subject in the book is the three great famines of 1876-9, 1889-91 and 1896-1901 that killed between 30 and 50 million people in Asia, Africa and Latin America. He describes Late Victorian Holocausts as a “political ecology of famine” because “it takes the viewpoint both of environmental history and Marxist political economy”. More specifically, in order to explain these terrible disasters, he articulates the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (the “vast see-saw of air mass and ocean temperature” whose fluctuations successively bring drought and floods across the Pacific and into the Indian Ocean) together with the liberal capitalist world economy that emerged during what Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm called the “age of capital” of the mid-19th century.55
Mike’s anger comes out more strongly than usual in passages like this where he describes the famines as “the fate of tropical humanity at the precise moment (1870–1914) when its labour and products were being dynamically conscripted into a London-centred world economy”:
Millions died, not outside the “modern world system”, but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of liberal capitalism; indeed, many were murdered, as we shall see, by the theological application of the sacred principles of Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.56
It is worth remembering that this book was written around the millennium, at the height of the ruling-class celebration of neoliberal globalisation and the heyday of Bill Clinton’s and Tony Blair’s “Third Way”. So, there is a polemical edge to Mike’s detailed historical demonstrations of how liberal imperialist statecraft helped to amplify the disruptive effects of weather fluctuations into human catastrophes by dismantling the protective systems built up by the old pre-colonial tributary states. These processes left populations exposed to the mercy of the market:
The subjects of this book were ground to bits between the teeth of three massive and implacable cogwheels of modern history. In the first instance, there was the fatal meshing of extreme events between the world climate system and the late Victorian world economy… But Nikolai Kondratiev (the theorist of economic “long waves”) and Jacob Bjerknes (the theorist of El Niño oscillations) need to be supplemented by J A Hobson, Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin. The new imperialism was the third gear of this catastrophic history.57
The introduction to Late Victorian Holocausts concludes:
It is the burden of this book to show that imperial policies towards starving “subjects” were often the exact moral equivalents of bombs dropped from 18,000 feet. The contemporary photographs used in this book are thus intended as accusations not illustrations.58
Given that Western imperialism’s preferred method of power projection remains assault from the air, the contemporary resonances of this passage are obvious, particularly since it was written on the eve of the 9/11 attacks and George W Bush’s “War on Terror”. Late Victorian Holocausts is an immensely scholarly and carefully argued anti-imperialist history that shows Mike working at full power.
Mike remained robustly anti-imperialist to the end. In what seems to be his last published piece he denounced the rival empires contending over Ukraine. He did not need reminding that the main enemy is at home:
The White House is visionless in the wilderness it helped to create. All the think tanks and genius minds that supposedly guide the Clinton-Obama wing of the Democrats are in their own way as lizard-brained as the soothsayers in the Kremlin. They can’t imagine any other intellectual framework for declining American power than nuclear-tipped competition with Russia and China. (One could almost hear the sigh of relief as Putin lifted the mental burden of having to think global strategy in the Anthropocene).59
A Marxist original
I hope this very selective survey of Mike’s vast literary output, which focuses especially on those texts that made the strongest impression on me, has succeeded in conveying something of his originality. He did not just widen Marxism’s range, but also sought to strengthen its explanatory power by drawing on some of the insights gained from his studies of the physical sciences. This is expressed in his most prophetic book, The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, published in 2005, where he warned:
A mutant influenza of nightmarish virulence—evolved and now entrenched in ecological niches recently created by global agro-capitalism—is searching for the new gene or two that will enable it to travel at pandemic velocity through a densely urbanised and mostly poor humanity. This is a destiny, moreover, that we have largely forced upon influenza. Human-induced environmental shocks—overseas tourism, wetland destruction, a corporate “livestock revolution” and Third World urbanisation with the attendant growth of megaslums—are responsible for turning influenza’s extraordinary Darwinian mutability into one of the most dangerous biological forces on our besieged planet.60
This prediction was vindicated by the onset of a cousin of the influenza viruses, SARS-CoV-2, in winter 2019-20. For the first year of the pandemic, Mike produced Plague Year News, an invaluable daily newsletter, circulated by email to a growing network of friends and comrades. The understanding of the dynamic character of physical systems informing such work led him to criticise Marx and Engels for, under the influence of “uniformitarianism”, tending to treat labour as the main active force in the interaction between humans and nature:
Marx and Engels never speculated on the possibility that the natural conditions of production over the past two or three millennia might have been subject to directional evolution or epic fluctuation, or that climate therefore might have its own distinctive history, repeatedly intersecting and overdetermining a succession of different social formations.61
After studying Capital in the 1970s, Mike stayed away from what passed for Marxist theory:
Apart from Hal Draper’s Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution and Michael Löwy’s The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx, both indispensable, I lost interest in Marx studies as it turned from the modes of production debate to intensely microscopic battles over the value form, the transformation problem and the role of Hegelian logic in Capital. “Theory” in general, as it became disconnected from real life battles and big historical questions alike, seemed to take a monstrously obscurantist turn toward the end of the century… Over the years, my Marxism became rusty, to say the least. But there comes a time when every old student must decide whether or not to renew their driver’s license.62
In substance, of course, there was absolutely nothing rusty about Mike’s Marxism. Nonetheless, after retirement from full-time teaching in 2016, and stimulated by Daniel Bensaïd’s Marx for Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique (Verso, 2002), he did renew his licence. Extensive reading of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels resulted in two long and rich essays on working-class agency and the national question in New Gods, Old Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory, published in 2018.63 Whatever the specific criticisms he had of Marx or his successors, Mike continued to be deeply embedded in the revolutionary Marxist tradition. Although he had given up trucking for teaching, and despite the increasing recognition of his work, Mike never received the academic security and status that would have corresponded to his achievements and abilities. He remained the rebel and the outsider to the end.
Of course, this raises the question of what kind of politics is implied by Mike’s enrichment of the Marxist critique of political economy. At some stage in the disintegration of the International Marxist Group, Mike drifted out of practical involvement in the Fourth International. Palmer writes:
Depending on the circumstances, Mike could lean toward the necessity of a disciplined apparatus, a party formation, or, alternatively, as at the height of the Occupy Wall Street encampments, opt into embracing a more spontaneous, “social miracle”-like explosion of ass-kicking, in-your-face, refusal.64
I am not sure these are necessarily alternatives, but it is certainly true that Mike had a soft spot for anarchism. He was, for example, an admirer of one of its founders, Peter Kropotkin, whose understanding of climate change seemed to him considerably superior to that of Marx and Engels.65
However, I am unconvinced that Mike ever lost sight of the necessity of revolutionary organisation. It was agreement about this that informed my own relationship with him. We first met at the Verso offices in Soho, probably in 1985. Mike told me that he and his friend, the Marxist literary theorist Mike Sprinker (who died tragically young in 1999), were interested in my philosophical writings. (He seems to have maintained this interest over the decades, to judge by some kind comments on my later work in New Gods, Old Enigmas.) The admiration was mutual; I was very impressed by the articles he was writing in New Left Review and later drew on them in my book Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique (Polity, 1989). His more recent studies of the interaction between social and physical systems are a major influence on my forthcoming book, The New Age of Catastrophe (Polity, 2023).
Yet, our main connection was more directly political. Mike developed friendly relations with the Socialist Workers Parties in both Britain and Ireland.66 He contributed to our publications and would speak at our events on his visits to Europe. Furthermore, after the rise of the movement for an alternative form of globalisation with the protests at Seattle in November 1999 and Genoa in July 2001, Mike drew close to the International Socialist Tendency. He and I worked together to encourage the development of a non-sectarian and yet principled socialist organisation in the US. Our efforts were in vain. After that, we lost touch for a while. Nonetheless, when we corresponded in April 2020, after we had both spoken at an online meeting organised by the Socialist Workers Party, Mike shared his frustration at the absence of effective socialist organisation in the US. Moreover, he continued to express his political solidarity with the British Socialist Workers Party, although in a characteristically open and non-exclusive way.
On top of this, Mike did not lose sight of the emergence of a powerful left inside the Democratic Party. In Plague Year News he discussed how to push the official Democratic machine as far leftwards as possible. However, his judgement on the US left often had a hard Leninist edge. Not long before he died, he told an interviewer:
Republicans are doing a splendid job of combining protest movements with electoral politics. It’s not only that Republicans have mastered low-intensity street-fighting. It’s that they’ve also been able to sustain a dialectic between the outside and the inside in a way that progressive Democrats haven’t been able to do.67
Although he mourned the destruction of the Californian landscape he loved, Mike refused to despair. “When I think of Mike, he is perched at the fulcrum between joy and dread, the point where material reality, rage and a radical hope converge”, writes his friend and comrade JoAnn Wypijewski.68 Encouraged by the example of his own 18 year old twins, who participated along with their friends in the huge Black Life Matter rising in summer 2020, Mike put his hope in the youth. He and Jon Wiener referred to “the young people of colour” as “Los Angeles’s future”.69 Another friend describes his “affinity for the underdog, especially the young”.70
The base for a more activist, more aggressive, but also more strategic left politics exists. Students in inner-city high schools in California are a sleeping dragon. If you measure things by opinion polls, this generation is more left wing than the 1930s.
His message to the young—indeed to all of us—was crystal clear:
What keeps us going, ultimately, is our love for each other, and our refusal to bow our heads, to accept the verdict, however all-powerful it seems. It’s what ordinary people have to do. You have to love each other. You have to defend each other. You have to fight.71
Alex Callinicos is Emeritus Professor of European Studies at King’s College London and a columnist for Socialist Worker. He edited the Routledge Handbook of Marxism and Post-Marxism (Routledge, 2020) and is the author of The New Age of Catastrophe (Polity, 2023), which will appear in the spring.
1 I found Shatz, 1997, Larson, 2003, Dean, 2022, Palmer, 2022, Wiener, 2022, and Wypijewski, 2022, as well as the Facebook posts by Mike’s wife, Alessandra Moctezuma, the most useful of the now numerous profiles, tributes and interviews. Thank you to Suzi Weissman for her help in clarifying Mike’s political development.
2 Palmer, 2022.
3 Davis, 2006, p435.
4 Palmer, 2022.
5 Larson, 2003.
6 Frommer, 1993.
7 Davis, 2007. Thanks to John Ebel for disinterring this article, which seems to be the text of a lecture Mike gave in 2007 for the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize Committee to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Isaac’s birth. I was lucky enough to chair the meeting.
8 Wypijewski, 2022.
9 Davis and Wiener, 2020, p636.
10 Davis, 2007.
11 Davis, 2007.
12 Dean, 2022. Zabriskie Point is a 1970 film, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, about youth radicalism in California.
13 Davis, 2018, p18.
14 Davis and Wiener, 2020, chapters 17, 26 and 27.
15 Palmer, 2022.
16 Davis, 2018, pp17-18.
17 Beckett, 2022.
18 Shatz, 1997.
19 Clark, 2022.
20 Davis, 1986, chapter 5.
21 Deutscher, 1961, pp99-100. See Callinicos, 1990, chapter 3, on Deutscher and New Left Review.
22 Davis, 2017. A more conventional Deutscherite analysis of the “Second Cold War” can be found in Halliday, 1983.
23 Davis, 1985, criticising Jameson, 1984.
24 Lipietz, 1993, p99.
25 Lipietz and Jenson, 1987, p18.
26 See Aglietta, 2015.
27 Davis, 1978, p261.
28 Brenner and Glick, 1991.
29 Callinicos, 2001.
30 Davis, 1986, p211.
31 Davis, 1986, chapters 5 and 6.
32 Brenner, 2006 and 2002. Mike never gave up on Aglietta, though, quoting him in what seems to have been his last article—Davis, 2022.
33 Reynolds, 1998.
34 Davis, 1985.
35 Dean, 2022.
36 Davis, 2006, p16.
37 Shatz, 1997.
38 Benjamin, 1999, p462.
39 Frommer, 1993, p41. Gabriel Winant, a younger US Marxist labour historian, provides an excellent discussion of how Mike was already developing this approach in Prisoners of the American Dream—Winant, 2022. He is also the author of a brilliant study of the transformation of the working class in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—Winant, 2021.
40 See the correspondence between Benjamin and Theodor Adorno in Bloch, Adorno and others, 1977, pp100-141.
41 Dean, 2022. See especially Williams, 1985.
42 Larson, 2003.
43 Davis, 2006, p24.
44 Davis, 2006, p1. Mike never wrote the book he envisaged on the rising, but he discusses it, for example, in Frommer, 1993. My own contemporary account is heavily indebted to his writing at the time—Callinicos, 1993, chapter 8.
45 Clark, 2022.
46 I lack the space to discuss Planet of Slums here. However, for an excellent interrogation of the book from an African perspective, see Zeilig and Ceruti, 2008.
47 Davis, 2006, p4.
48 Davis, 1996, p75.
49 Davis, 1996, p50, footnote 8. James Gleick offers an excellent introduction to chaos theory—Gleick, 1988. An exploration of the underlying theory, which also notes the analogies with Engels’s unfinished 1883 work Dialectics of Nature, is available from Prigogine and Stengers, 1984.
50 Davis, 1996, p88.
51 Davis, 1998, p19.
52 Davis, 1998, p38.
53 Davis, 1998, p52.
54 Anderson, 2001.
55 Davis, 2001, pp13 and 14; Hobsbawm, 1975. Note, though, that “Hobsbawm…makes no allusion in his famous trilogy on 19th century history to the worst famines in perhaps 500 years in India and China.”—Davis, 2001, p8.
56 Davis, 2001, p9.
57 Davis, 2001, p12.
58 Davis, 2001, p22.
59 Davis, 2022.
60 Davis, 2020, p25. This is an updated edition of The Monster at Our Door.
61 Davis, 2018, pp361-362.
62 Davis, 2018, pp18 and 19.
63 Davis, 2018, chapters 1 and 2.
64 Palmer, 2022.
65 Davis, 2018, chapter 3.
66 The Irish Socialist Workers Party is now the Socialist Workers Network, which is active in People Before Profit.
67 Beckett, 2022. This critique of the US left is developed more fully in another interview—see Dean, 2022.
68 Wypijewski, 2022.
69 Davis and Wiener, 2020, p638.
70 Reifer, 2022.
71 Beckett, 2022.