Mike Davis (1946-2022)

Image: Dora Maurer


Historian's Obituary, Recently Deceased

The brilliant Marxist historian, Mike Davis, passed away on October 25 after a long battle with cancer. An active left-wing activist since his time as a high school student in the early 1960s, Mike Davis began writing in the 1980s, launching a series of pioneering books on the American working class, the city of Los Angeles, environmental history, imperialism, the Latino community in the United States, slums around the world, avian flu and many other subjects.

He will be remembered as one of the most innovative historians of his generation who saw everything – economics, politics, architecture, music, films, literature, nature, technology – as spaces for power struggles in society. And there was no doubt which side he was on: with the working class and the oppressed against the economic, political and military structures of the United States and all of its brutal empires.

He worked as a butcher and truck driver in the 1960s while active in the civil rights movement, student and anti-war movements, and trade unions. For two years, he was affiliated with the Communist Party of the United States and was active with Angela Davis in Los Angeles, being expelled in 1968 for having criticized the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. He majored in History at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and won a scholarship to pursue postgraduate studies in Scotland. There he participated in the Trotskyist group, International Marxist Group (IMG), along with Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn. He did not finish his postgraduate studies. Between 1980 and 1986, he worked at the magazine New Left Review where did you start writing.

His first book, still unpublished in Portuguese, Prisoners of the American Dream, was released in 1986. It is an extensive exploration of the question of the lack of a mass workers' party in the United States, analyzing, in a series of essays, the political economy and development of unions and left parties from the 1980th century to the emergence of the New Right in the XNUMXs. Lauded for its sober analysis of power and social class in the world's largest capitalist country, the book has been republished several times.

Mike Davis became famous with his second book, Quartz City: Digging into the Future of Los Angelesin 1990. (Ironically, the book was based on his doctoral thesis that was rejected at UCLA). It begins with the story of the socialist community of Llano, located near Los Angeles, whose militants tried to set up an alternative community between 1914 and 1918. The community buildings still existed when Mike Davis was writing the book and he suggests that Llano was the “ghost ” of an alternate future for Los Angeles. Other chapters explore the union movement in the city, the press, the mafia, the Catholic Church and liberation theology among Latino priests, and the brutal architecture of the city divided between a wealthy elite and the immigrant working class.

Perhaps most important in this book is his analysis of the racist brutality of the LAPD, predicting the great multiracial riot that would erupt in the city in 1992 against the police. Mike Davis went on to become one of the most respected writers on urban architecture in the US, inspiring dozens of dissertations, theses, books and scholarly articles. He was professor of urban theory at several universities over the next few years. It is notable that his two visits to the University of São Paulo were organized by the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism (FAU) and not by the Department of History.

Your next book, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, published in 1996, addressed the history of the environment. In it, Mike Davis shows that several alleged natural disasters in California – wildfires, tornadoes, attacks by mountain wolves against people, among others – were actually consequences of human actions resulting from unbridled suburban development, fake news mainstream media and the brutal division of class, power and race in society. In the controversial chapter, “The Reasons to Let Malibu Burn,” he argues, for example, that the state should spend money to protect poor Latino immigrants who regularly die in squalid slum fires rather than the billions spent to protect wealthy neighborhoods like Malibu from wild fires. Two of the chapters deal with an analysis of the theme of the destruction of Los Angeles in science fiction literature and cinema.

Brazilian readers probably know Mike Davis more for his magnum opus, from 2001, Colonial Holocausts: The Creation of the Third World, an in-depth analysis of imperialism, global political economy, and famine in Brazil, China, and India in the 500th and early XNUMXth centuries. Taking a Marxist approach to political ecology, Mike Davis argues convincingly that the terrible famines of the time – which killed tens of millions in China and India and up to XNUMX in Brazil – were not the result of the El Niño climate phenomenon, but of English imperialism and the local dominant classes interested in opening colonized countries, formally or informally, to the world market. Including several gruesome images of starving people, Mike Davis points out that they are not illustrations, but "accusations".

colonial holocausts it also has extraordinary chapters on the social history of famines and peoples' resistance. In the case of Brazil, Mike Davis is based on the pioneering work of the Brazilian geographer, Josué de Castro, author of hunger geography (However), showing that the war in Canudos and the popularity of figures like Padre Cícero have a lot to do with the fight against hunger in the popular imagination of the Northeast.

Over the first two decades of the XNUMXst century, Davis produced a fruitful output, publishing a dozen books, alone or with collaborators (including the excellent, Planet Favela e O monster knocks at our door: the global threat of avian flu) dozens of articles in academic journals in addition to hundreds of articles in popular magazines about the environment, the pandemic, the Donald Trump administration, the Democratic Party and recent labor struggles in the United States. His latest book, co-written with Jon Weiner and published in 2020, Set the Night on Fire: Los Angeles in the Sixties, rescues the wonderful history of social movements in Los Angeles during the 1960s, making a tremendous empirical contribution to the social history of the black, environmental, student and urban movement.

Even without a doctorate, he landed a steady position as a university professor in the Department of History at the University of California (on the Davis campus) in the mid-2000s. . He was an important (and critical) supporter of Bernie Sanders' campaign in the Democratic Party primary. Even sick, Mike Davis participated in dozens of lives in recent years, focusing on Donald Trump's policies, the pandemic and the destruction of the environment.

In an interview a few months ago, he lamented that he was going to die in his bed and not “fighting on the barricades” against capitalism. But his militancy and vast anti-capitalist work attest to his admirable life of struggle. Mike Davis, present, always.

*Sean Purdy is a professor at the Department of History at the University of São Paulo (USP). Author, among other books, of History of the United States – from its origins to the XNUMXst century (Context).



Bibliography of Mike Davis in Portuguese

Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2001.

Planet Favela. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2006.

The Monster Knocks at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Influenza. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2006.

Dead Cities. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2007.

Apology of the Barbarians: Essays Against the Empire. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2008.

Quartz City: Digging into the Future of Los Angeles. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2009.

Colonial Holocausts: The Creation of the Third World. São Paulo: Veneta, 2021.


“The coronavirus and the class struggle: the monster knocks at our door”, Blog do Boitempo, March 2020, https://blogdaboitempo.com.br/2020/03/16/mike-davis-o-coronavirus-ea -class-struggle-the-monster-knocks-at-our-door/

“A Third Party”. the earth is round, January 2021, https://aterraeredonda.com.br/um-terceiro-partido/

“Covid-19 and us: The monster arrives”. the earth is round, May 2020, https://aterraeredonda.com.br/covid-19-e-nos-chega-o-monstro/

“Lessons from Wuhan”. Movement Magazine, April 2020, https://movimentorevista.com.br/2020/04/licoes-de-wuhan-por-mike-davis/

"In a plague year". Movement Magazine, April 2020, https://movimentorevista.com.br/2020/04/em-um-ano-de-peste/

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