Books In Conversation
Mike Davis with Pac Pobric
Babylon is falling / It was foolish to build it on the sand
–Steel Pulse, 1977
The Monster Enters: COVID-19, Avian Flu and the Plagues of Capitalism
Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster
One of my favorite things about Mike Davis is how good he is with epigraphs. I hope this one does him justice. Because few writers (I can think of Janet Malcolm and Joan Didion) are as good using the words of others. It’s a tremendous skill. More often than not, the right phrasing needs finding, not inventing. And Davis, more than anything, is an archaeologist digging through the ruins of modernity.
In the past thirty-five years, Davis has published around two dozen books, including a brief history of the car bomb, that “inherently fascist weapon” (Buda’s Wagon, 2007); a Benjaminian study of the fault lines underlying Los Angeles’s contradictions (City of Quartz, 1990); a startling account of the pressure-cooker-like conditions of squalid cities around the world (Planet of Slums, 2006); and a searing analysis of the American working class’s many disastrous defeats (Prisoners of the American Dream, 1986). You can imagine why he’s considered our foremost prophet of doom.
In February, as part of its “Essential Mike Davis” series, Verso re-released two more titles: Ecology of Fear (1998), a forensic study of LA as a site of looming environmental and economic devastation; and an expanded edition of 2005’s The Monster at Our Door, Davis’s desperate warning about the inevitability of a capitalist-created pandemic. It is now titled The Monster Enters, and includes a new chapter on COVID-19.
We spoke with Davis, a veteran member of the New Left and former activist for Students for a Democratic Society, about the war in Ukraine, the influence of his family, and how he developed his distinct literary style.
Pac Pobric (Rail): Mike, quite often, people think of you as a prophet of doom. The Monster Enters seems like a clear vindication of that: years ago, you warned about a coming flu-like pandemic, and then it came. How do you respond to that?
Mike Davis: I’ve kind of hoisted myself with my own petard in that I’ve accepted the packaging of my books and my persona as prophet of doom. But one of my lifelong hobbies has been earth sciences. In fact, the only organization I officially belong to now is the American Geophysical Union. When I started writing years ago, science and cultural thought in general were governed by uniformitarianism, which saw natural changes occurring in small increments over vast periods of time. But in the beginning of the nineties, earth sciences were going through a revolution, and science was adopting a more nonlinear, neo-catastrophist epistemology. It was easy to begin to see certain features of human history in the same terms. So my pessimism really represents this neo-catastrophic episteme. The idea that change isn’t linear then gained considerable ground amongst radical thinkers in general. I do still find a shortage of critical realism in much of the thought of the Left. But I’m also a contradiction: I would defend the idea of progress.
Rail: Progress as an ideal that has failed, or that has shown glimpses of fulfilling its potential?
Davis: I mean in the Enlightenment sense, as a requirement for human survival. What we should really be talking about right now is a global New Deal to rebuild cities and abolish slums, because the bottom line of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent climate report, which is the gravest of all of its reports, is implicit genocide. Already through the treatment of migrants and refugees, and how the distribution of COVID vaccines has been handled, it should be very clear what the reaction of people in wealthy countries will be to the increasing uprooting of humans from their traditional occupations and homes. We’ll just let more people drown in the Mediterranean. If you extrapolate a bit, it should be very clear that a billion to a billion-and-a-half people have already been sacrificed in advance to the costs of climate change and the maintenance of existing relations of power. That hangs over our heads, and it requires extraordinary internationalism.
Rail: Is that the fundamental failure of the Left today, a lack of internationalism?
Davis: I’ve been critical of the Left for its own kind of America Firstism. My generation made enormous mistakes, but we were committed internationalists. But the fundamental failure is that in 1989, a lot of us—particularly those of us who come from the tradition of the Left Opposition in the Soviet Union of the 1920s—thought that the end of the Neo-Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union would bring about the kind of renaissance of socialist thought. I completely bought the argument of a coming communist reformation. The cutting edge, in my mind, was the Prague Spring. Of course, Russian tanks rolled all over.
Rail: Are you feeling even less hopeful today? In a recent article for Sidecar, you wrote: “Everyone is quoting Gramsci on the interregnum, but that assumes that something new will be or could be born. I doubt it.”
Davis: I feel no obligation to find hope in hopeless situations. Maybe I just have a bleak imagination. I’ve never believed that people need hope in any kind of quantified bundle. What they need is anger in order to fight. Part of the paradox of our time is that, right as Trump was coming to power, we saw the biggest revival in the American Left since the Depression, maybe even on a larger scale. The problem is, how do you sustain a movement? We’ve seen, since the 1960s, so many outbursts of energy, whether against militancy or nuclear weapons, or in solidarity with Central America. But we have always seen that energy either captured or disarmed or lost through a lack of strategic self-conception. What’s happened since Bernie Sanders conceded is that you have an army of hope disbanded. We all wanted to believe, despite past experiences, that you could use movements to build political campaigns and political victories to build movements. That’s not what happened.
My two younger kids graduated from a regular inner-city high school in San Diego. What was amazing, two summers ago, was to see these kids all together in the local Black Lives Matters demonstrations. But for working-class kids to stay active, they need support. Lenin, in What Is to Be Done? (1902), says it would be a sin to keep advanced militarized workers at the workplace. He had a conception of the party as a machine to transform workers into intellectuals and intellectuals into workers. The party should use every means at its disposal to help educate and enlighten. But this priceless treasure of a new generation mobilized is being squandered. The first commandment of the Left historically has been to own the streets. But it’s the Far Right that owns the streets.
Rail: What’s the role of an intellectual in that situation?
Davis: In the past, you had these incredibly lively journalists on the Left. At the end of his days, Alexander Cockburn was extremely annoyed with me, but his absence is a huge void. Even if you didn’t always agree with Alex, he was a real street fighter. He was invaluable. Other people can be loud and shrill, but nobody else could weld an almost eighteenth-century-like dark humor with sarcasm as effectively as he could. I’ll never get over his loss.
Rail: One thing I wish more of your critics commented on is your literary style. Your writing can be enormously descriptive, almost to the point where it envelops the analysis like a fog. It seems to me that if someone were to start and finish one of your books without knowing anything beforehand about your politics, they still might not fully see your Marxism. The Monster Enters, for example, seems to have no theory; it’s just a description of terrifying facts. That’s practically magical to me.
Davis: It’s unintentional. The intention I have when I write is to make every word hurtful to power. When City of Quartz first came out, I used to get calls late at night from the city’s single largest high-rise developer and a major donor to the Republican Party. He just wanted to riff with me about LA. Then I helped narrate this film City on the Edge produced by hotel workers in the wake of the 1992 LA riots, when hotel owners were not prepared to renew their contracts. This seriously annoyed a lot of people and ended my charmed reception by the LA elite.
But one day, I got a letter from the president of the U.S. Naval War College asking me to do a seminar. All my friends wanted me to, but I just couldn’t. But I could meet the admiral for a beer, and I spent an hour-and-a-half with him. He was a very laid back guy, though he had this very still, mannequin-like lieutenant commander who just sat there rigidly holding some enigmatic briefcase. What he wanted to talk about was my book Planet of Slums. He explained to me that the only force on earth capable of moving the medical and energy infrastructure of a medium-sized city was the US Navy. But he told me, “We can only do that once in a while. You seem to be talking about a series of increasingly frequent emergencies.” He knew there was no way in the world we’d get legislation through Congress increasing disaster relief. It was at that point I realized there was a new military intelligentsia that is much more adventurous in its thinking than the curdled, gray realist camp leftover from the Cold War. The old foreign policy establishment is a pretty barren shelf.
That’s part of what the invasion of Ukraine reveals. We now have a structure very different from the first Cold War. Even people like Mao Zedong did not have the power to plow through the politburo. There was a structure of countervailing institutional checks on megalomania. It’s radically different today. The checks are removed. Is there anybody around Putin that dares to say, “This is insane, to sacrifice the twenty-first-century Russian economy for the sake of planting a faux double eagle on the banks of the Dnieper River”?
Rail: Let me ask you, finally, about your family life. You’ve dedicated at least three books to your daughter, Roisin, including The Monster Enters. Asking as a father, how does having children weigh on your writing?
Davis: Roisin is my conscience. Almost everything I do, I’m thinking in the back of my mind, “What would Roisin think of this? Would she approve of this?” She was born in Belfast nine months after Bobby Sands died, and not long after, I was finally able to crack the problem of writing, which gave me a useful skill for the movement. Roisin is a completely amazing person. My wife is less prone to criticize me, but my daughter can be relentless when need be. Before I had Roisin, I never conceived of a career of any kind whatsoever. I was a full-time revolutionary. Roisin brought me back to earth. I’m a person who is utterly talentless—can’t sing, can’t dance, can’t do this. I’m a miserable public speaker. But I discovered that I’m a good father.