Mike Davis in My Soul

Mike Davis in My Soul
Wikimedia commons, photo by Ricky Bonilla

Some of you may not know Mike Davis, but he just died after a prolonged bout with oesophageal cancer. If you haven't read anything by him, you're missing out. He was a truck driver, a Californian from birth to death, an uncompromising socialist, and one of the greatest critical writer-historians I've ever read.

I just want to say how Mike's work hit me, and how I came across it. I've spoken before about how my first conscious interaction with politics involved trying to make sense of the L.A. uprising in '92. I'd read several books about the uprising, but at some point in my freshman year of high school (around '97, I think), I came across City of Quartz--Davis's history of Los Angeles. Whoo, nobody wrote like this dude--serious pathos, justified by rigorous history and a strong command of an internally coherent worldview that actually explained things.

Mike's writing made clear how much he loved California--and if there's only one thing you should know about me it's how much I love that place. But more importantly, Mike made sense of Bloods and Crips in the '70s as the byproduct of both de-industrialization (weakening labor unions, offshoring, and financialization of the economy) and the national security state's killing of the Black Panther Party. And the book itself prefigured the L.A. uprising--it appeared in print 2 years before L.A. exploded, describing in advance a tinder box in the making and laying out all the reasons why.

City of Quartz stayed with me. Shortly after that, I accidentally read Assata Shakur's biography (initially thinking it was about Tupac's mom, because I was a Tupac stan but also a dipshit who didn't think there might be more than one woman with the last name Shakur).

Between these serious works of radical thought and hip-hop, I had a political consciousness by the time I joined the Air Force in the summer of 2000. In an unconscious way, I imagine they informed my opposition to invading Iraq from the very beginning (which was not a popular position to take while serving on active duty). I identified with the anti-war left prior to the Obama presidency, and Mike Davis--through his subsequent work (In Praise of Barbarians, Planet of Slums)--was one of my crucial guides.

But as I made my way in Washington, my political commitments were in tension with my ladder climbing within the national security state. Obama was a strange vehicle who encouraged me to put aside protesting war, writing for progressive outlets like Foreign Policy in Focus, and reading leftists like Mike Davis. In hindsight that's pretty terrible, and I've read that Obama had this effect on the Democratic Party and antiwar movement as a whole, so it's not just me.

It was only after escaping the Beltway that it became possible to "rediscover" Mike as a voice of conscience, along with a lot of other heterodox intellectuals on politics and political economy the past few years.

Anyway, my efforts to center the "common man" in this very newsletter is something inspired by him. This entire project, whatever it is, should be read partly in homage to him.

One of his last public utterances:

What keeps us going, ultimately, is our love for each other, and our refusal to bow our heads, to accept the verdict, however all-powerful it seems. It’s what ordinary people have to do. You have to love each other. You have to defend each other. You have to fight.