Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

Mike Davis’s Forecast for the Left

The Nation
FEBRUARY 9, 2021

In early 2009, the historian and social critic Mike Davis sat down for an interview with Bill Moyers to discuss what was then the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. When asked whether, as a socialist, he had anticipated the crisis, Davis said he couldn’t have predicted its scale or devastation.

Davis’s modesty won out over the truth. Four years earlier, he had, in fact, done just that. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, he laid out the fundamental problems of the housing bubble then underway. Noting its particular precarity in Southern California, he also went on to discuss how it might affect the country and the world: The “national economy may be equally vulnerable to property deflation, with a mild jolt sufficient to end the current American boom, and perhaps throw all the dollar-pegged economies into recession.” Davis wasn’t the only one who saw that crash coming, of course. But in the Moyers interview, he downplayed his clairvoyance with a joke: “People of the left like myself are famous,” he said, for “predicting 11 of the last three depressions.”

While he’s probably right about leftists in the aggregate, Davis’s own track record on sounding the alarm has proved incredibly accurate. Over the course of a remarkable career, he has been resolutely clear-eyed about the nightmares we face as a society and a planet, mostly bearish on the prospects for reversing those nightmares, and always prescient.

Nearly all of the principal contentions of Davis’s many books have unfortunately proved correct: the continued decline of the American labor movement, the expanding and potentially explosive inequality in urban America, the supercharged global expansion of miserable slums, the disaster of climate change, and—most recently and horrifyingly—a viral pathogen wreaking havoc across the globe.

Davis is a scholar who digs deep into the historical archives and weaves his findings together in astonishingly original and compelling syntheses. But one of his strengths has been his ability to anticipate the future: Many of his books are monograph-length warnings of nightmares yet to come. Even his works of history are implicit or explicit arguments for public action against ongoing or impending disasters. He recognizes that the past defeats of the left and the labor movement can’t be waved away in favor of feel-good paeans to isolated victories and lessons learned for next time, and he makes these arguments not in spite of his lifelong and ironclad commitment to those causes but because of it. He takes those movements seriously enough to tell their participants the forecast isn’t always sunny. The long and continuous record of working-class defeat, he insists, means that the ship is stuck in an ongoing storm and sinking.

Part of the reason for Davis’s pessimism of the intellect stems from the period in which he was radicalized. He chose a rather lonely time to launch a career as a socialist critic and historian: His first book was published in 1986, just ahead of the “end of history” after the Berlin Wall fell and capitalism’s victory was declared complete. But part of the reason is also that he has been among a small handful of prominent writers to keep the flame of socialism and class politics alive in this age of free-market triumphalism.

This clear-eyed sobriety, however, does make his two new books—the essay collection Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory and the long-awaited Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, coauthored with the historian Jon Wiener—fairly remarkable. In them, Davis maintains his lifelong probity, cataloging past defeats and eyeing future doom and gloom. But even as he retains all of his signature uncertainty, he has also found a new sense of hope. Old Gods, New Enigmas and Set the Night On Fire mark a clear departure from his nearly four decades as the bearer of extremely bad news.

One cause for this change may be that Davis has been joined by a new generation of radicals. Since the financial crash, socialism has been reborn in the United States. So has a flourishing of new social movements and radical causes. The catastrophes may still be piling up everywhere we look, but it seems that, for the first time in his career, Davis has allowed himself to see those sunbeams as harbingers of a real change in the weather.
Although it’s rare in the contemporary world of letters, Davis comes from the working class. Born in 1946 in Southern California, he grew up in a blue-collar town just outside of Los Angeles. His father was a meatcutter who suffered a heart attack after the family moved to an area near San Diego. After his father’s death, Davis dropped out of high school to work at a meat company to support the family.

It was during this time that his radicalization began in earnest, though as he notes, his father had set him on this path several years earlier. In Davis’s introduction to The Bending Cross, the 2007 rerelease of Ray Ginger’s biography of Eugene Debs, he mentions that he first read the book in these years: “Thanks to the powder-blue ‘55 Chevy that I plowed into a wall while street racing with drunken teenage friends,” he was stuck in the hospital when his father gave him a copy of it. ...Read More