Mike Davis’s Specificities

The US working class was forged, for Davis, through its compounded historical defeat, which gave it a distinctive contradictory, battered, and lumpy form that could not be evened out through appeals to abstraction. Most importantly, the cycle of defeat and accommodation had separated the official labor movement from the Black working class, which he saw as the only possible “cutting edge” for socialist politics.

Repetitious and reductive appeals to the universal never satisfied him

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The scholar Mike Davis died on October 25, 2022. The following is the first of our contributors’ tributes to Davis’s life and work. —The Editors

Historical materialism—so much easier said than done. Our moment is awash in self-declared materialists who seem perplexingly uninterested in the production and distribution of commodities, or in the concrete ways people live together: materialists for whom the term means not a mode of analysis but a structure of identification; who take the name as an excuse to ask no new questions, to avoid encounter with anything that might bewilder or test their commitments. Mike Davis loomed so large in the last few years not only because his commitments never wavered, but also because standing firm in them freed him intellectually and made him so fearless. In this way he appeared as an increasingly lonely pillar of a larger and more open Marxism—leftover from a richer radical culture eroded over the years by compromise and retreat, whose remaining intact treasures we need to cherish so that we might rediscover the techniques of their production. “Socialists, if incomparably armored by Marx’s critique of capitalism, also have something to learn from the critique of Marx and his Victorian extrapolations,” he observed, warning against the cult that “petrified his living thoughts and critical method.”

While academic historians generally divide political economy, political history, and social history into three separate fields—the study of markets, the study of the state, and the study of ordinary people and communities—they were irreducibly fused for Davis. He certainly could do political economy with the best of them: I return often to his 1978 review of Michel Aglietta’s A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The US Experience (clocking in at 63 pages, and seemingly engaging with the dense Marxist text in its original French), where Davis develops complex arguments about the relations between Keynesianism, monopoly, and class struggle. Early in the essay, however, he points out that despite that moment’s renaissance of labor historiography, “the political economy of workers’ struggles . . . remains for the most part a terra incognita. The underdevelopment of economic history resonates in labor history as the absence of a theoretical level linking class struggles to their structural (partial-) determinants in the accumulation process (as well as, conversely, the absence of a theory of the role of the class struggle in U.S. economic development).” This absence, still felt today, would be the first great challenge he took up; and while he elaborated and extended its implications very far, it defined the entirety of his career.

What distinguished Davis perhaps above all else was his insistence that, while the social world could be—and ultimately had to be—grasped as a unified totality, this totality could at the same time only be understood as a complex system of differentiated parts, each of which in turn had to be comprehended in its own specificity. It is not enough to say “worker”; Davis would then want to know what industry and how it is organized, what skills, living in what neighborhood, worshiping in what religion, participating in what organizations, shaped by what racial and ethnic formations. In this way he showed what it means to make good on Marx’s methodological point, “The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure.”

Davis’s first book, Prisoners of the American Dream (1986), begins with a breathtaking 48-page essay on the formation of the US working class from the beginnings of industrialization in the 1830s up to the dawn of the New Deal. (The rest of the book brings the narrative up to his 1980s present.) Across the essay, Davis grasps class formation by an evaluation of the interacting patterns of property ownership, skill composition, political and industrial organization, racism, and ethno-religious social life, while slicing the century into several periods with their own internal dynamics. In doing so, he reveals a “contradictory dialectic of class unification/class stratification, and the corresponding tendency toward the bifurcation of workplace and political consciousness.” This wasn’t abstract blather: Davis could tell you, seemingly down to the county level or even the individual workplace, how any component part fit into the larger complex whole. A characteristic example is a comparison of the Massachusetts towns of Fall River and Lynn, drawn from the work of historian John Cumbler:

Lynn possessed one of the oldest and strongest trade-union traditions in America, and its working class was unified by a highly integrated relationship between leisure, work and the home. Fall River, on the other hand, lacked such cohesive, class-based community institutions, and its workforce decentralized among relatively isolated work and residential areas. In Lynn, where the new immigration was a small, steady flow, the new arrivals were assimilated into the larger, unitary working-class community. In Fall River, by contrast, the arrival of large numbers of Portuguese and Poles at the turn of the century was greeted with nativist hostility and led to “community fragmentation into separate ethnic units of social activity.”

Then the Davis touch, suddenly scaling up to the country and beyond: “Unfortunately, most of industrial America was more like Fall River than Lynn. Whereas the Western European class struggles of the 1880s and 1890s had spun a web of integrating proletarian institutions (ranging from workmen’s clubs, cooperatives, and ‘labor churches’ to casas del pueblo and workers’ educational societies), the US labor movement of the late nineteenth century. . . . failed to generate a working-class ‘culture.’”

The upshot of this argument was that American workers’ industrial struggles, while showing exemplary militancy, gave rise to no equivalent political form that could unify them as a class. This political division paved the way for what Davis called the “barren marriage of labor and the Democratic Party,” in which the interests of organized workers were yoked politically to those of a fraction of the bourgeoisie. Here Davis’s critique of the New Deal collaboration of labor and capital reiterated a classic Trotskyist argument, albeit delivered with a good deal more historical reach and rhetorical panache than was the norm. But paradoxically Davis, mentored by Popular Front hero Dorothy Ray Healey, was a member of the Communist Party—the classic target of Trotskyist ire. He straddled this bottomless sectarian divide not through incoherence but rather through his own depth of historical knowledge and political experience. Although Davis was indelibly shaped by his participation in decades of political struggles—from the civil rights and antiwar movements through trade union and farmworkers’ struggles and beyond—he always knew too much and understood too well to adhere to party lines.

Repetitious and reductive appeals to the universal never satisfied him. The US working class was forged, for Davis, through its compounded historical defeat, which gave it a distinctive contradictory, battered, and lumpy form that could not be evened out through appeals to abstraction. Most importantly, the cycle of defeat and accommodation had separated the official labor movement from the Black working class, which he saw as the only possible “cutting edge” for socialist politics.

My thesis is that, if there is to be any popular left in the 1990s, it will develop in the first instance through the mobilization of the radical propensities in the Black—and, perhaps, Hispanic—working classes [note the plural]. Reciprocally, the validity and popular appeal of any socialist programs or strategy will depend on the degree to which it addresses the axial problem of the revolutionary-democratic struggle for equality. To do so, leftists must reject the “majoritarian” fallacy, nurtured by fellow-traveling in the Democratic Party, that all socialist politics must be cut to fit the pattern of whatever modish liberalism is in fashion or conform with the requirements for securing “practical” Democratic pluralities.

This passage requires only the most minor adjustments to describe the present almost perfectly.

Along the way to this prescient analysis, Davis developed a string of astonishing predictions. He observed the “neo-liberal succession reshaping the [Democratic] party’s power structure, marginalizing labor and minorities” (a phenomenon that many even nominally on the left wouldn’t acknowledge for thirty years); he predicted the birth of a new “conservative populism” and “new economic nationalism,” bringing about the “militarization of the border” and threatening a “potential metamorphosis into a home-grown fascism”; he foresaw that the “middle strata and nouveau riches will have to confront . . . a closing frontier of income and status mobility”; he anticipated “an American West Bank of terrorized illegal laborers . . . a poor Latin American society thrust into the domestic economy”; and perhaps most startlingly, he projected offhand a new Latin American socialism “on a Bolivarian scale.” Such insight was a result of Davis’s unique brilliance, but it was more than that. It was a method.

Eventually, Davis’s materialism drove him to expand his view still further. In a series of mid- and late-career masterpieces, he demonstrated that Marxists must take climate seriously, and indeed that vulnerability to climatic forces has long defined the subordination of the poor to the rich in the modern world (Late Victorian Holocausts, 2000); that the threat of pandemic disease is a fundamental component of capitalist globalization and the ecological collapse that accompanies it (The Monster at Our Door, 2005); that joblessness and urban informality will be as critical as the world of production to class analysis in the twenty-first century (Planet of Slums, 2006). While Davis’s reach in these books is planetary, his approach is fundamentally consistent: the world is a coherent whole, made up of fragmentary parts. His approach was to salvage these parts, puzzle them over, and understand their workings, so that he could piece them into something in the shape of a revolutionary weapon or a means of an escape: the “ark,” in one of his late metaphors, that will “have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand.”

Rather than rely on potted axioms and make Marxism an excuse never to learn anything new, Davis’s materialism compelled him to master new knowledge—climatology, epidemiology, global urbanism. Yet unlike other omniscient Marxist historians (a real if disappearing social type), Davis’s combination of scope and depth never made his work clinical. His books vibrate with commitment and rage: his oft-quoted suggestion that Malibu be allowed to burn is generally taken by passersby as a rhetorical flourish, but is perfectly consistent with his scholarly method. As he writes in Late Victorian Holocausts, the harrowing images he includes of victims of famine, starved by nineteenth-century British liberalism, are intended “as accusations and not illustrations.” Or concluding Planet of Slums: “Night after night, hornetlike helicopter gunships stalk enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of the slum districts, pouring hellfire into shanties or fleeing cars. Every morning the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions. If the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side.”

Davis would not want us to ape his example, because—I have no doubt he would say with perfect modesty—it could not be done. He was a product of a whole constellation of particular forces: upbringing in a postwar steel town Irish-Catholic blue-collar family; participation in the civil rights movement; complex New Left history both politically and intellectually. But this is no loss—there is no need to imitate him in any case. We have a much better option: we can learn from him, and think for ourselves.

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