R.I.P. Mike Davis (1946-2022)
Remembering An Intellectual Hero
You may have already heard that the great Marxist writer and activist Mike Davis has died at age 76 of esophageal cancer. There will be many tributes to him and his many virtues that will be much better than what I can say, but I want to share a little about what Davis’s work meant to me as a writer.
I came by Davis’s work in a kind of roundabout way. I happened to watch on TV a film called Bastards of the Party, which is a documentary by former Bloods gang member Cle Sloan. While in prison, Sloan started to research the origins of gangs in Los Angeles and came across Davis’s City of Quartz and the documentary relied heavily on Davis’s research and contained interviews with him. From their depiction in media, we are used to thinking about street gangs—especially Black ones—as folk devils that sprout up out of pure evil, but Davis put the Bloods and Crips into a material and political context. According to Davis, these groups formed out of the depoliticized remnants of the Black Panther Party, itself demolished by LAPD and FBI subterfuge, hence the title of the film. I was totally fascinated and went out and bought City of Quartz.
I don’t think I will ever look at the city Los Angeles or that matter, world the same. The sheer range of Davis’s historical curiosity and intellect is astonishing. He seemed to know everything: from the nitty-gritty of homeowner association politics to the utopian and dystopian visions of L.A.’s different coteries of intellectuals. (Yes, LA has intellectuals, as Davis shows conclusively.) Davis is able to illustrate how the world we take for granted is constructed, block by block, acre by acre, both materially and ideologically. At points, City of Quartz seems to accomplish what Walter Benjamin attempted in his Arcades project: to find in the details and decay of a city the key to history itself, but with far less sentimentality and yet still more concern with the actual lives of working people.
Schlegel said a historian is a prophet in reverse, but Davis’s gift of prophecy ran into the future as well: City of Quartz directly augured the L.A. riots two years later and he had an awful prognostication of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2005’s The Monster At Our Door. But as I’m sure Davis would’ve been the first to object, this apparent ability to see into the future was nothing supernatural, but just the result of his application of of historical materialism combined with an astonishing ability to synthesize vast amounts of information into a coherent picture. There are many great and brilliant books in the tradition, but there may be no single text that shows better what Marx’s historical materialism can actually accomplish if it is faithfully—but not dogmatically—practiced.
On a personal note, I can speak a little bit about Davis’s extraordinary generosity. I reached out to him around this time last year. I believe he was already very ill at this point. I was working on a chapter on Los Angeles Riots of 1992 and was just hoping for some pointers on where to look. He replied with an essay-length disquisition on the riot’s causes and consequences, including his personal memories of actually witnessing it. It was both enormously helpful, but also something more. I had run out of stream, and his vigorous response inspired me to return to the material with new eyes. He regretted that the “Rodney King Riot” was “memorialized by the stupid and invidious stereotypes of the media.” I had a purpose again: to make at least some effort to fix that.
I know I’ll never be able to approach the quality and power of Davis’s work, or the clarity of his moral and political vision, but it will always be an ideal.