Mike Davis: the trucker who knew it all!

"The radicalism of the American 1960s was the product of an alliance between the Black urban underclass and white students. Mike Davis, however, was unlike virtually all other white radical leaders: he was the son of a working-class family through and through, and thus knew what it meant to fight for one’s bread."


Mike Davis, one of the foremost authors and activists of the American ’68, passed away on the 25th of last month. He was able to fit in three books and countless articles and interviews on a huge variety of topics ranging from the intricacies of American politics to Los Angeles history, from the nature of nationalism to environmental doom, from the physiognomy of international politics to the truth about the Covid-19 pandemic into the last four years of his life, all the while fighting cancer and Covid. He had devoted his life to a just, wonderful, and meaningful life for all humanity, and he never once deviated from this ideal. He spoke as he thought and knew, and he lived as he said.

The radicalism of the American 1960s was the product of an alliance between the Black urban underclass and white students. Mike Davis, however, was unlike virtually all other white radical leaders: he was the son of a working-class family through and through, and thus knew what it meant to fight for one’s bread. He dropped out of school at the age of 16 to work first as a meatpacker, then as a truck driver. His struggle for freedom and equality began with fighting to end racist discrimination and assumed many forms in the latter years. He was an early bird among his peers to understand that simply ending legal discrimination was not enough to end inequality. Once he grasped this, he went back to his own roots and saw the solution in the joint fight of the working class. And he never once abandoned this idea.

Once the thrill of the 1960s dissipated, the radicals of those years went down a path that was laden with drugs and alcoholism and eventually burned themselves out (Huey Newton), abandoned politics altogether and joined the dark side (Jerry Rubin), or buried their experience deep down as “nice memories of the youth” to become disillusioned centrists (Tom Hayden). Mike Davis, however, continued his political life as a Marxist. He briefly ran a book shop of the Communist Party, but got fired for chasing out a Soviet bureaucrat out of the store. He went back to driving. How he quit driving and went back to the theoretical realm is a matter of some dispute. One rumor has it that he got arrested for roughing up a strike breaker driver who tried to run a picket line of striking bus drivers over. Another tells of the same drivers voting to collect $400 each to have the strike breaker gunned down, and Davis quitting for getting frustrated with the political limitation of the situation.

In any case, academia, which he went back to at the age of 28, didn’t treat him any better for a time. He went to Scotland and Ireland on a scholarship, worked for the independence of Northern Ireland, and got even kidnapped by a loyalist. He went back to truck driving again for a while. His thesis, which later on became City of Quartz, was rejected. Only after the 1992 Black riots in Los Angeles did City of Quartz, published in 1990, rose to fame. Only then was Davis offered an academic post.

Once he firmly centered the class from which he hailed to his heart and mind, he never once abandoned it again. He added the themes of environmental catastrophe and migration into the terrain of his thought once these issues became glaring with the rise of anti-immigrant politics, vigilante groups, and environmental disasters in the 1990s in the Los Angeles area, of which he considered himself a “native son”. His 2018 book Old Gods, New Enigmas, which was published as he was fighting cancer, was devoted entirely to these three themes. The longest part of the book is but a theoretical balance sheet of international working-class struggle. Another essay is on the place of nationalism in Marxism. The rest of the book reads like the work of a climatologist. Such depth and breadth is indeed hard to come by…

Mike Davis, 1999.

However, there is none of obscure academic jargon or know-it-all arrogance in Davis’s writing. From his first, 1986 book Prisoners of the American Dream onwards, two elements mark Davis’s ouvre: a clarity of thought and a relentless realism. In his very first book aimed at debunking the mystery of the rise of neoliberalism in its Reaganist garb, he brushes aside all pseudo-sophisticated explanations based on mediatic conjuring, the well-offness of the American working class etc. to seek explanation in the century-old class struggles and defeats instead. His second, 1990 book City of Quartz, while mainly about Los Angeles history, is filled with settling accounts with numerous “philosopher-king”s, from Adorno and Horkheimer to Baudrillard. Adorno had taken a cursory glance at the Hollywood Boulevard, and then explained his theory of “cultural industry” at length with endless intricacy. Davis absorbs it all, and scoffs, as if raising his head from meat cutting for a moment: “Well, has Adorno ever once gone down to a Black jazz club in the LA area? Has he once got beaten by the police in one of the workers’ strikes in the area?” He is as at ease with applying Freud’s concept of “the uncanny” or Bloch’s ideas on the 20th century urbanism to explain the psyche of post 9/11 New York as he is at the helm of a truck. His essays of the Californian governor of the early 2000s, or “Governator”, Arnold Schwarzenagger, are laden with an anger and honesty that make reader feel like Davis would definitely rough Arnold up real bad if the two were to come across at a bar. (The informal address with first name is entirely Davis’s!)

Davis never abandoned this clarity and intellectual integrity. Or these qualities never abandoned him. He warned humanity loud and clear against the Covid pandemic back in the mid-2000s both in a book devoted to the SARS epidemic and at the end of his Planet of Slums. By the way, let us know in the passing that Planet of Slums’ (2006) prophecy of slum revolts came fully true before a decade passed, from Tunisia to Brazil, from Turkey to Yemen, between the years 2010-2013.

Nonetheless, it is true that there are elements of this realism that border pessimism. Davis was writing at the end of last year thus: “Everyone is quoting Gramsci on the interregnum[1], but that assumes that something new will be or could be born. I doubt it.” The same Davis who had foreseen the Covid pandemic, the slum revolts, and before that the rising of the LA area Black population, proved too much in a mindset of defeat to see the forward leaps in Sudan, Algeria, Peru, or Chile, whatever their limitations. Nonetheless, we should also emphasize that this pessimism is a thousand times better than the foolish optimism that only laughs at the January 6th storming of Capitol and minimizes the danger of fascism. After all, what Benjamin called “the organization of pessimism” is as important for any movement forward as hope for a better future.

There is a nice anecdote being shared on the social media these days. The young activist Davis, in his years of coming-of-age in anti-racist struggle, rings up Marcuse. Marcuse invites him over for beer. They drink and talk about everything. Marcuse tells him of his days in the 1918 German Revolution, carrying letters to and from Rosa Luxemburg. Three generations of the world Left come together at the same table, even if not physically…

Now humanity is left bereft of that worker of dignity, that sage of a trucker who really knew it all. That eternal youth gave us his last few warnings while fighting cancer and left. Whether his place can be filled shortly is yet to be seen. Maybe a new “larrikin intellectual” from the bad streets of Tunnis, Khartoum, Sao Paolo, Istanbul, or once again of LA will rise from the new generation. And the duty of that intellectual will be to commune with Davis, through him with Marcuse, through Marcuse with Rosa, and countless other beautiful intellectuals of the oppressed.


[1] The Gramsci quote in question is as follows: The old world is dying, and the new cannot be born. In the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.