Remembering Mike Davis

Forrest Hylton

Mike Davis’s work reached my generation of radical readers in the 1990s, in the context of the fall of the USSR, the rise of Clintonist third-way triage, the EZLN in Chiapas, and the interpenetration of capital across the Pacific. I caught onto him in Portland, Oregon. There was something in his writing that had the immediacy and raw rage of punk or hip hop.

He spoke to us in a way that few of his generation could have, because he was listening so closely to young people, especially as he patrolled the meaner streets of LA to learn about them, comparing what he knew of previous generations in the city to what he was hearing from the young and imagining for their future.

Throughout the time I knew him personally, for most of the last two decades, he maintained his sense of urgent responsibility and debt towards the generations coming after him, and even a certain optimism about defining democratically feasible and ecologically sustainable forms of social transformation. He thought in revolutionary terms. A third of the country had always been more or less fascist, he said.

What we had to do was organise and fight. But how, and with whom? Like Marx, Mike devoted much of his time and energy to explaining what, exactly, we were up against: Reaganism, for instance. The Democratic Party under the DLC. And so on.

Mike once said he always wrote expecting to have to report back to an imaginary Central Committee of a non-existent Communist Party. This approach helped move some readers in activist directions, and others, organisers, to think more strategically – and more internationally – about US capitalism. It probably turned some into writers as well.

Homo academicus was basically alien to Mike, and, perhaps more important, of minimal interest. ‘Most of them suffer from a mysterious disease called elephantiasis of the reputation,’ he said, ‘for which there is as yet no cure.’ He cared about what was happening in public high schools, community colleges, the Cal State system, prisons. This was not a pose. An astonishing range of other worlds beyond the university were of interest to Mike, whose curiosity knew few limits. Towards the end of his life, he taught writing first at UC-Irvine and then at Riverside, and was deeply dismayed at the privatisation of the UC system, firing off pithy yet incendiary messages to senior administrators. No wonder UCLA refused him his PhD and most of the US academy never tried to hire him.

Mike helped and encouraged me in my own writing. He was practical: he wanted to know who he could call or write to; specific agents or editors. He didn’t want or need followers or disciples – there is no ‘Mike Davis School’ … not yet, anyway. Like any original thinker, he wanted people to think for themselves, not to follow someone else, much less him. There was to be no routinisation of charisma if he had anything to say about it.

In spring 2001 I was a PhD student with a newborn son and (as yet) no union contract. NYU then paid its grad students a stipend that covered just over half the cost of what it took to live in poverty, according to its own studies.

I met Mike at Verso’s old offices on Varick Street, through a Lebanese organiser, Bilal El-Amine, who had left the ISO with a group of activists and was publishing a new magazine called Left Turn, for which Mike had agreed to write an article. Bilal had asked me to submit something on Colombia for the same issue.

Mike was in town to speak at an event organised by NYU students before sending some of their number off to Montreal to battle the robocops and protest against the neoliberal free trade agenda. Mike quoted from Francis Parkman’s eight-volume work on the French colonisation of Quebec to help orient us towards Montreal and the history of First Nations and popular struggles in the region. It was hard to find a part of the globe, or a serious writer, that didn’t interest Mike in some way or other. Parkman was far from the obvious choice in such a setting, but he repays close study.

Before the event, between Verso’s offices and Washington Square, Mike, Bilal and I had stopped off at a bar. Mike picked up the tab gladly, and was glad to have the money with which to do so. We talked about Colombia: the recent spike in massacres, the paramilitary death squads, the urban guerrillas in Medellín and Barrancabermeja. (The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were lurking around the corner: in both theatres, Colombian soldiers and mercenaries trained US clients in counter-insurgency.) Mike asked me if I could write it up for New Left Review.

The piece appeared in 2003, not long after the US invaded Iraq and just before the national-popular insurrection overthrew the US-backed government in Bolivia, where I was doing doctoral research. At the end of Planet of Slums, Mike mistakenly suggested that I had manned the barricades in La Paz (barricades did go up; I did not man them). He asked me to write a second volume with him but we never finished it. His health went south some time around 2007-8, and his doctor told him to quit writing books or die. Amazingly, he obeyed: after appearing on the Bill Moyers show in 2009, he stayed away from public life (until the pandemic put him on Zoom), though he kept writing essays.

Mike was always telling me about the defence industry jobs he might be able to get near where he lived if he were ever laid off by the University of California. He called his gigs at UC Irvine and Riverside ‘cushy’, and meant it, even though they involved endless hours of commuting and listening to rightwing talk radio in his truck, which he drove like the professional he had once been.

He thought you had to be prepared to work crappy working-class jobs in order to maintain your independence (though this wasn’t a quasi-Maoist call to proletarianise); that’s what being a radical intellectual meant, along with arrests, jail time, beatings, defeat and exile. Again, it has to be stressed that this was not a pose, although Mike loved to tell tall tales, and, like the late Aijaz Ahmad (1941-2022), who was also a formidable storyteller, told them as if he had written and edited them first.

Fully-formed paragraphs and even whole pages poured forth, sometimes achingly slowly, in his Southern California drawl (he never smoked weed, but it was hard to tell). He was once tasked with bringing Chilean wine from London for comrades exiled in Glasgow, but couldn’t find any that wasn’t connected to the Pinochet regime, and was embarrassed by his failure, but brought the best he could find anyway. The comrades told him he had not failed but, on the contrary, by trying, he had in fact succeeded. Salud, che!

In 2009 my (now ex) wife, Lina Britto, and I were in San Diego for a workshop and Mike drove us all over the place, including the Museum of Scientology in El Cajón. He took us for lunch at a favourite BBQ restaurant, told gruesome stories of violent incidents from his hot-rodding days in the late 1950s and early 1960s, pointed out a horse ranch Reagan had once had nearby, and related a bizarre detail about Reagan’s unhinged belief system. Lina sat up front and struggled to understand his accent and intonation, and he struggled to hear her, but he seemed to be having a blast as he gave us the tour he gave everyone who visited. Most people would have been flagging by the late afternoon – I know I was – but Mike, who had once worked as a bus driver and tour guide, seemed to be hitting his stride as the sun began to slant.

As we got close to his ‘Marxist bunker’, where he lived with his wife, the curator Alessandra Moctezuma, and their twin children, I asked if we could go and have a look at the Pacific, as Lina had never seen it in the US. Mike, or ‘Dr Mojito’, as his comrade Danny Widener used to call him, said that certainly we could see it – from his deck, which meant he was ready to pulverise mint, and maybe add basil or something to the rum and soda. He had a secret ingredient, and really enjoyed hogging it; he didn’t share his mojitos.

Mike loved big bands from the 1930s and 1940s, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman, and I may have insisted on playing some of the stuff Benny Moré recorded with Chano Pozo in LA after the war. We talked about Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus and the scene on Central Avenue, which made it into City of Quartz.

‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, Mingus’s elegy for Lester Young, now makes me think of Mike – Adam Perez took a series of photographs of him recently, in which he is wearing one. And what Mingus – who was raised in Nogales, Arizona, and remained an ungovernable border subject – did for big band composition is perhaps analogous to what Mike did for historical materialist writing about human and non-human life, as well as inorganic matter, on planet earth, in our time, when independent nationalism, social democracy and communism had all collapsed, and neoliberalism morphed into its current, necrotic form; he did it as well as he, or anyone, possibly could, and spared nothing, not even his health, in the effort.


  • 29 October 2022 at 8:43pm
    Jorge Derpic says:
    Such a heartfelt tribute. Though sadly, Mr. Davis is now gone, this piece makes me want to learn more about him. Thanks for writing

  • 30 October 2022 at 7:16am
    nlowhim says:
    Thank you for this beautiful piece. I do ask that you expound on this:

    pointed out a horse ranch Reagan had once had nearby, and related a bizarre detail about Reagan’s unhinged belief system.

    What was that belief?

  • 30 October 2022 at 1:04pm
    Francis Reavley says:
    After the recent death of Ian Jack, another light goes out. I first came across Davis's work when I discovered City of Quartz, which I used as the basis for my (uncompleted) doctoral thesis. It changed the way I thought about urbanism and power structures and introduced me to competing ideas on Los Angeles, so I'm pleased to read that it was celebrated (and sometimes denigrated by the hard of thinking) as "one of the three most important treatments of that subject ever written" by the LA Times architecture critic

  • 2 November 2022 at 6:10pm
    John Perry says:
    'Planet of Slums' is an excellent and damning overview which I have referred to often and have on my desk now. It has a major gap, though, which is rather surprising given the details of the author's life that you have shared, Forrest: it almost completely ignores the powerful community movements which have transformed life in many slums (such as those in Mumbai). I felt that Davis was looking for top-down solutions, which are of course needed, but the bottom-up work of community activists is vitally important, too.

    • 3 November 2022 at 7:49am
      Guido the Younger says: @ John Perry
      Perhaps Davis was aware of this limitation; hence the need for a second volume?