Excavating the Future

‘Set the Night on Fire’ and ‘The Monster Enters’
Los Angeles (trekandshoot/Alamy Stock Photo)

The worst compliment you can give Mike Davis is to call him a prophet—he takes no pleasure in being right. Davis made his name with the 1990 publication of City of Quartz, a series of acerbic, exhaustively researched meditations on twentieth-century Los Angeles. He countered celebrations of LA’s revival—emblematized in its hosting of the 1984 Olympics—with an account of a city fractured by publicly subsidized hyper-gentrification, government disinvestment, white-homeowner revolts, and an impoverished and disenfranchised Latino and Black underclass. Most famously, perhaps, Davis declared that the city’s urban design was governed by an ideology of “spatial apartheid” and cataloged “the emergent liaisons between architecture and the American police state.” Even celebrated Angeleno Frank Gehry comes under fire as one of the chief architects of “Fortress L.A.”

I discovered Davis in my early twenties, just after I’d moved to Los Angeles. I lived in a boxy, low-rise apartment complex just across the street from the million-dollar, faux-Mediterranean bungalows of Beverly Hills. A visible line in the middle of the street divided those tiny mansions (and the rich municipality that sponsored them) from my apartment in the actual city of LA. The Beverly Hills half of the street was paved with pristine black asphalt, while the LA half was composed of cracked gray concrete slabs. The first house on the Beverly Hills side had barred windows and a caged entryway that belied the friendliness of its impeccably manicured lawn. I never saw anyone go in or come out. It occurred to me then that the house might not actually be a dwelling, but instead a kind of border barricade. Considered alongside the lawn signs on other homes that warned trespassers of an “ARMED RESPONSE,” it all amounted to an unambiguous message: stay out. As a result, I rarely went running in Beverly Hills, taking my chances on LA’s considerably more uneven sidewalks instead.

Reading Davis gave me a language to articulate the purposes of the city’s built geography, the ways its urban design enforced the sorting of its more and less worthy citizens. City of Quartz is in part a history of how such features came to be etched so firmly into a metropolis that sold itself as a land of open roads. Even the library where I could check out Davis’s books (the 1984 Gehry-designed Goldwyn branch in Hollywood) was a symptom of this process. Davis argued that the privately sponsored public building—“baroquely fortified” with “bellicose barricades”—was a “beachhead” for the gentrification of Hollywood, a neighborhood populated largely by Central American refugees. It reminded me a lot of the house on the corner.

Prophesying an apocalypse is one thing; documenting it in real time is quite another.

“As the walls have come down in Eastern Europe, they are being erected all over Los Angeles,” Davis observed. The imposing exclusivity of the city’s modern development was, in his view, a middle finger directed at the city’s working poor, who suffered most from the cannibalization of what remained of LA’s public space. (Davis pointed out that the city had fewer public restrooms than any other North American city.) They also suffered from police terrorism, which crescendoed in the indiscriminate mass arrest of fifteen hundred Black youth on a single night in 1988. “Every eleven-year-old in the city knew that an explosion of some kind was coming,” Davis would later write of that period.

The explosion came. After Rodney King was dragged out of his car and viciously beaten in 1992, the city saw its largest, most militant uprising since the Watts rebellion of 1965. City of Quartz was credited with predicting the tumult, and Davis was offered a contract to write a follow-up book on the fallout. Ultimately, however, he turned it down. An activist as well as an author, Davis felt too close to the uprising and its participants to portray them dispassionately and faithfully. As an intellectual, he’s most comfortable in the past, unearthing trends by reviewing decades’ worth of daily editions of the Los Angeles Times on microform. As an activist who cut his own teeth in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s, Davis now prefers to let younger activists lead the way.

To put all this differently: prophesying an apocalypse is one thing; documenting it in real time is quite another. Davis himself underscored that when he gave City of Quartz the subtitle “Excavating the Future in Los Angeles,” and it is the excavation of emerging futures—rather than documentation of an ephemeral present—that animates his writing, which includes innumerable essays and more than a dozen books, all written after his fortieth birthday. Now in his mid-seventies, Davis hasn’t slowed down, and interest in his work is reaching another crescendo. That is partly due to the broader revival of Marxism in American intellectual culture—Davis is something of a patron saint for upstart socialist publications like Jacobin—but a larger part of it is Davis’s uncanny sense of America’s pulse. Last year he released a new book about multiracial street protests a month before George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. A few months later, he reissued his 2005 book on pandemic response.

Davis’s literary aura is that of an outsider. The crew-cut Marxist who stares out coldly from his book jackets has long been a source of fascination, often driven by a myopic focus on Davis’s class background. It’s almost impossible to read an article about him that does not mention that he once drove trucks for a living, or that his father was a meat cutter. Davis himself, however, has described his origins as “impossibly average.” “Our family income, home mortgage, car value, hours spent watching TV, and so on were always the national median during the 1950s,” he has said of his childhood in eastern San Diego County. “I’ve researched this.” (After reading a few of his astonishingly thorough books, it’s easy to believe he actually did so.)

His “burning bush moment” came at age sixteen, when a cousin invited him to a CORE protest. A college dropout, Davis spent his formative years as an SDS organizer, burning his draft card before finding his way to the Southern California branch of the Communist Party. After he was fired from his job at the Party’s LA bookstore, he drove long-haul trucks for a few years. Disillusioned with the Teamsters (he claims they tried to enlist him in a hit on a strikebreaker), he went back to college, then graduate school, ultimately falling in with the British Marxists of the New Left Review, an affiliation he has more or less maintained ever since.

Why has the richest and most powerful country in the world been unable to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic within its own borders?

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. 

Published in the March 2021 issue: 

John Thomason is a freelance writer and the articles editor at Grist.

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