The American writer and activist Mike Davis, who died of cancer at the age of 76, was presented as an “urban historian”, but his work also touched on geography, politics, economics, sociology and literature. Its main subject was the dislocation and separation caused by capitalist society: people from the land, labor from property, individuals from each other, all in the service of profit.
Although he was, in the words of one reviewer, an “old-fashioned countercultural Marxist”, he wrote from the inside, imposing his subjects on the theory, rather than the other way around. Basically, he also tried to separate historical myth from reality.
This quest was at the heart of his best-selling book, City of Quartz (1990), which traced the development of Los Angeles from prehistoric to post-Hollywood. Subtitled ‘Excavating the Future’, it caused a stir two years later, when riots sparked by the acquittal of LA police officers filmed beating a black man, Rodney King, after a traffic stop, appeared to realize his predictions of inevitable urban violence.
Later his 1998 book Ecology of Fear was also considered prophetic, covering as he did the effects of “natural” disasters on urban environments, while Planet of Slums (2006) argued that Fiscal policies around the world, as enforced by the International Monetary Fund, were driving subsistence workers off the land and into the cities to work in factory jobs that were already disappearing.
Davis’ polyglot approach reflected his own self-taught development, which involved years of actual work rather than academic study. Born in Fontana, California, he grew up in postwar El Cajon, a hamlet on the developed outskirts of San Diego County, bordered by sprawling orange and avocado farms. His father, Dwight, was of Welsh descent, a meat cutter and trade unionist. His mother, Mary (née Ryan), was of Irish descent, and Davis said he inherited her radicalism from her strength.
Describing himself as an “ordinary redneck”, he left school at 16 to work as a butcher when his father had a heart attack. But one of his cousins was married to Jim Stone, a black warehouse worker who organized for the Congress of Racial Equality and took Davis to segregated company pickets. Stone convinced him to go back to school, and he won a scholarship from the Butchers Union to attend Reed, a small liberal arts college in Oregon.
He lasted three months, theoretically kicked out for living in his girlfriend’s dorm, but in reality because “I couldn’t cut it; I felt like a country thug, an idiot.
Impressed by Tom Hayden’s manifesto for Students For a Democratic Society, a student activist organization, he traveled to New York to work for the organization, which sent him to Los Angeles, where he supported himself by selling his literature. .
In Los Angeles, he joined the Communist Party, running their bookstore in the city, and mixed street activism with various manual jobs, including driving a Gray Line tour bus.
In 1973, aged 27, he enrolled at UCLA to study history and economics. Three years later, still “functionally illiterate”, he obtained a scholarship to go to Scotland to study Irish history; he moved to Belfast and then to London, where an essay he wrote impressed the editor of the New Left Review, Perry Anderson, who offered him a place on the magazine’s editorial board.
In 1986, their Verso Books imprint published their first book, Prisoners of the American Dream, a series of essays loosely bound by their views of Reagan-era America.
He then returned to UCLA and worked as a truck driver while completing his doctoral dissertation on the history of Los Angeles. He was either rejected outright or tentatively accepted, demanding his remedial classes which he had never completed. Instead, it became City of Quartz, which Verso published with unexpected sales, although one reviewer called it the work of a “socialist who hates the city”.
After the riots proved his thesis, he received a Getty Foundation scholarship and the offer of a professorship at UCLA, which was withdrawn after criticizing the university for its treatment of food workers of the campus on strike.
The success of City of Quartz led publishing group Knopf to bring forward a book about the Los Angeles riots, which it eventually returned, believing its writing to be “exploitative”.
Instead, he settled into the Cal Tech library, producing Ecology of Fear. Earthquakes, fires and droughts made the book appear clairvoyant; now he was regularly denounced as a Jeremiah or a Cassandra crying woe. A chapter in the book, The Case for Letting Malibu Burn, suggested that resources would be better spent protecting downtown rather than mansions built on isolated hills. This led a Malibu real estate agent to distribute a front-page debunking of Davis’s arguments in the Los Angeles Times.
A MacArthur Fellowship in 1998 allowed Davis more freedom, and he wrote Magical Urbanism (2000), which showed how Latinos have humanized the Los Angeles environment. An invitation from Hayden to write an essay for a book marking the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine later led to Late Victorian Holocausts (2001), linking 30–60 million starvation deaths in India, China, Southeast Asia East and Brazil between 1870 and 1890 to the same forces in Ireland which starved subsistence producers of food in the name of ‘market forces’ and demanded the surrender of land in return for aid.
Davis’ next book, Monster at Our Door (2005), was an examination of how the avian flu pandemic influenced societal policies and political tensions, and again proved prophetic when Covid-19 hit . After Planet of Slums was published the following year, Davis joined academia; teaching history at California-Irvine and creative writing at California-Riverside.
In all, he has written 20 books, including two young adult novels published by Viggo Mortensen’s Perceval Press. His latest book, Set the Night on Fire (2020, with Jon Weiner) chronicled Los Angeles’ decade of radicalism in the 1960s. In it, he acknowledged that the new left had failed where the civil rights movement had succeeded, and declared that his only regret was “not to have died in front of a barrier”.
His personal life was as itinerant as his career. He is survived by his fifth wife, artist Alessandra Moctezuma, and their son James and daughter Cassandra; a daughter, Roisin, from his third marriage, to Brigid Loughran; and a son, Jack, from his fourth marriage, to Sophie Spalding.