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Mike Davis 1946-2022—we’ve lost a superb Marxist when we needed him most

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Mike Davis gave us lucid insights into capitalism’s catastrophes—and hope for a way out, writes Alex Callinicos
Issue 2829
Black and white portrait of author and Marxist Mike Davis

Mike Davis 1946-2022

Mike Davis’s death has robbed us of the outstanding Marxist imagination of our time. Endlessly curious, Mike turned his intellectual attention and a superb prose style to an immense range of subjects, including car-bombs, near-Earth objects, slums, and Los Angeles in the 1960s.

Set the Night on Fire (2020), co-written with Jon Wiener, told this last story, which was also his own. Born in 1946 to a working class family in southern California, Mike left school at 16 and was swept into the Civil Rights movement. I remember him describing how, as a Students for a Democratic Society organiser, he wrote to the German Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Like Mike, he lived in San Diego. Marcuse invited him and his friends round and bought a crate of beers to lubricate the dialectic.

Mike worked as a trucker and soon became an active socialist—first in the LA Communist Party and then in the International Marxist Group after he moved to Glasgow. The intellectual journal New Left Review soon talent-spotted him and brought him to London. This was where we first met.

Mike never lost sight of his working class roots in southern California, where he returned in the late 1980s. He eventually established an academic base. But the Los Angeles Times newspaper later reported how he “would drive a truck for a week, come in off the road to deliver a college lecture, and go back out again.”

He proceeded to write a series of superb books. City of Quartz (1990) traced LA’s brutally polarising class geography. Two years after it was published, a huge rebellion of the poor confirmed Mike’s diagnosis.

Then there came Ecology of Fear (1998), exploring the “natural” disasters—fires and floods— increasingly afflicting California. Its high-point is “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn”, which exposed the conflict between profit-driven overbuilding and the ecology of the region.

Even these accomplishments are overshadowed by Late Victorian Holocausts (2001). NLR’s Perry Anderson rightly described it as Mike’s masterpiece. He described the devastating famines caused by the integration of India, China, and Brazil into the 19th century liberal world economy interacting with the El Niño weather cycle.

Mike made this rich and fascinating book’s political relevance to the era of George W Bush and Tony Blair crystal-clear. “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,” he wrote.  

The interplay between capitalist social contradictions and the fluctuations of physical systems is a main theme of Mike’s later writings. In Monster at the Door (2005) he warned that the Sars pandemic of 2002-4 foreshadowed the far greater biological disasters that the industrialisation and globalisation of agriculture would bring. When this prediction—like so many others—came true, I was lucky to receive “Plague Year News”. It was a daily diet of news and commentary that Mike produced during the first year of the Covid pandemic.

Tremendously erudite and intellectually adventurous as he was, Mike remained a dedicated revolutionary Marxist. In a late interview with the Guardian newspaper, he was still offering hard-headed critique of the reformist left. “Republicans are doing a splendid job of combining protest movements with electoral politics,” he said. “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.”

Though Mike was often dismissed as a pessimist, his real stance is summed up by the title of a collective tribute to him—Between Catastrophe and Revolution. He had a profound and lucid insight into the catastrophes that what he called “apocalyptic capitalism” is bringing. But out of them could come revolution.

Mike left his own widely quoted epitaph. It says, “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.”

Love and sympathies to Mike’s partner, Alessandra Moctezuma, his children, and his friends and comrades.

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