Aside from the flicker of fame that followed City of Quartz, Davis has managed to largely avoid the limelight for nearly four decades, despite receiving a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and many other honors along the way. For his devoted readers, part of his appeal is surely found in his writing style, which though forceful, self-assured, and playful, is also unapologetically precise, even scientific, making full use of a century-and-a-half’s worth of Marxist vocabulary. And part of it is his seemingly dour and idiosyncratic interests, which have led him to write books about the history of the car bomb, developmental patterns in contemporary slums, and the role of El Niño famines in nineteenth-century political economy.
But topics as weighty as these are only idiosyncratic as long as they have no immediately obvious bearing on the present—and 2020 appears to be the year that many of the apocalyptic futures excavated by Davis have finally come into full view. In 1998, Davis argued that megafires of increasing virulence were an inevitable feature of California’s future, given its rampant, loosely regulated development boom and the counterproductive policy of total fire suppression demanded by real-estate interests. (He called that essay “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.”) Twenty-two years later, as an area larger than the state of New Jersey burned up and down the entire West Coast, Davis was called into radio shows and (virtual) lecture halls to explain the “apocalyptic trinity” responsible for such megafires: exurban development, alien plant invasion, and climate change.
And that’s not the worst of it. Davis has said that he writes books about the things that scare him the most, and there was one book whose contents frightened him so much that he was unable to keep a copy in his house after publication. That was The Monster at Our Door (2005), a sobering account of the avian flu and SARS outbreaks at the turn of the millennium. The book warned that the same diminished public-health infrastructure, pharmaceutical greed, and ecological destruction behind their spread were making another, far deadlier zoonotic-disease pandemic a virtual certainty. When it finally came, Davis had to order a copy of his own book, which was reissued this summer as The Monster Enters.
Of all the books I’ve taken refuge in since first being subject to a stay-at-home order last March, Davis’s have come the closest to offering me something like solace. I wouldn’t have expected that I’d take comfort in closing my computer and its drumbeat of catastrophic headlines to pick up books with titles like Planet of Slums and Late Victorian Holocausts, but they provided what I was searching for: the clarity of a long view. The brutal disparities in the suffering wrought by COVID-19 made me hunger for histories that spoke to the ways contemporary inequalities were constructed.
Davis’s writing is Marxist, but you don’t have to be a Marxist to appreciate the vast majority of his work. You don’t even need to have read Marx, though admittedly that will help. (In the introduction to Old Gods, New Enigmas, his most direct book-length engagement with explicitly Marxist material, Davis slyly riffs on the long tradition of leftists trying and failing to read the works of Marx himself.) Davis doesn’t so much evangelize for Marxism as provide a lively, contemporary, and relatively accessible model of what Marxist analysis does at its best: explain the origins of social crises in explicitly material terms. Where other thinkers see history as driven by the ideas or emotions or the prejudices of individuals and groups, materialists see a shifting web of class relationships oriented principally around bread-and-butter issues. To situate people politically, Marxists look primarily at their relationship to the production, provision, and distribution of society’s goods, services, and wealth. Like Davis, the best materialists never reduce all social conflict to these material relationships. But they do argue, convincingly, that these relationships are the first place we should look when seeking answers to social and historical questions.
Watching Davis so capably model this method, one stumbles upon possible answers to questions he hasn’t even intentionally posed. Among those that were on my mind when I revisited his work: Why has the richest and most powerful country in the world been unable—and arguably unwilling—to marshal the resources necessary to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic within its own borders?
One of the most striking things about the popular response to the pandemic in the United States has been our inability to insulate public-health policy from the distorting filters of contemporary politics. What recourse to familiar culture-war dynamics (Republicans are for freedom, prosperity, and survival of the fittest; Democrats for science, competent management, and self-sacrifice) obscures is the way that the seeds of the present crisis were planted long ago and have been growing for decades. In Davis’s first book, Prisoners of the American Dream, he argued that the Reagan years marked the beginning of a new economic paradigm in the United States. Government support for industrial workers—which had previously been the backbone of widespread (if uneven) social prosperity—was abandoned in favor of policies that redistributed income and wealth upward to the nation’s managers, professionals, and entrepreneurs. The idea was that eliminating barriers to accumulation for this broad upper-middle class—whether through tax breaks, cheap services, or the fire sale of previously public goods—would enable them to engage in enough consumption to compensate for the stagnation of the blue-collar middle class, as well as the limited purchasing power of low-wage, precarious service workers whose exploitation made more accumulation possible for the privileged. A virtuous circle would ensue: consumption would enable accumulation, which would enable more consumption, ad infinitum.
The limits of this sort of public policy were visible in the Great Recession, but they appear even more stark now. The public-health measures necessary to control viral transmission are simply incompatible with many of the forms of mass consumption that undergird America’s economic dynamism. After a half-century in which one or both major political parties prioritized greasing the wheels for this kind of consumption, is it any wonder that mass death is a price that many are willing to pay to “reopen the economy”? And that a political party that campaigned on having an actual policy to control coronavirus just barely eked out an election victory over a party whose policy was that controlling the virus at all would be economically ruinous? Davis argued that contemporary American politics was ruled by a fidelity to this ideology of “overconsumption.” In 2020, that fidelity is killing us.
It’s easy to see why Davis has been maligned as a “prophet of doom” (and occasionally embraced the label himself), but his oeuvre does contain less gloomy credits to his prescience. In many ways, in fact, his latest book is his most hopeful yet. Just two months before the United States experienced its largest-ever street protests for racial justice last summer, Davis published a monumental account of the multiracial street activism that flowered (and, admittedly, also wilted) in LA during the 1960s. Set the Night on Fire, co-written with the journalist and historian Jon Wiener, aims to dislodge the popular conception of sixties radicalism as the terrain of white Berkeley hippies and New Left agitators. Instead, Blacks, Latinos, high-school students, and unreconstructed communists were at the center of the city’s struggles against segregation and police impunity.
One wonders why it took Davis so long to write about a history that he actually participated in. “I once promised my oldest daughter I would never talk about the fucking ’60s again,” he explained to Mother Jones. “But the problem is that so many of the struggles and the issues are exactly the same issues we’re facing today.”
Davis’s greatest virtue as a writer may be his awareness that another, undefined future always lies just beyond the one that he has just excavated. And what that future looks like has everything to do with what the rest of us do now.