A tribute to Mike Davis • International Socialism
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.
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”. 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”. 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.”
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. 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.
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.
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”), 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.
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.
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.
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. He recalled, “I joined the Southern California Communist Party in 1968 in solidarity with their stand against the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring”. 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. 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.
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, on a butchers’ union scholarship. 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.
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. 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. 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”. 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.
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. 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”. 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. 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”.
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”. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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”.