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Mike Davis. Photo: Verso.
Mike Davis. Photo: Verso.

Mike Davis (1946–2022)

Radical American activist and historian Mike Davis, who mapped geographies of power in works of gripping scholarship that sought to shape the future as well as the past, died at age seventy-six on October 25 of esophageal cancer, according to The Nation. Davis rose to international prominence in 1990 with his bestselling book City of Quartz, a landmark work of social history that pierced the sunny mythologies of Los Angeles by portraying a postmodern dystopia taken over by developers, corrupt politicians, and a racist criminal justice system; it preceded the L.A. uprisings by two years. Davis continued to explore—and predict—ecological and social collapse in books such as Ecology of Fear (1998) and The Monster at Our Door (1995), about, respectively, the threat of climate change and global pandemic.

Born in Fontana, California, and raised in San Diego County, Davis took early jobs as a meatcutter (his father’s occupation) and a truck driver, the latter exposing him to Marxism and the labor movement, which in turn inspired him to join the Southern California Communist Party. (The L.A. Times suggests that his F.B.I. dossier likely exceeded a hundred pages.) He went on to earn degrees in history at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the early 1970s, then taught at several different universities in California before eventually settling in as a professor in the history department at the University of California, Irvine, becoming a mentor to countless students, writers, and organizers. In 1998, he won a MacArthur “genius” grant. He is survived by his fifth wife, the artist Alessandra Moctezuma, and his four children, two from a previous marriage.

A longtime contributor to the New Left Review and author of over a dozen volumes published by its Verso imprint—where he worked in London during much of the 1980s—Davis’s final book, cowritten with Jon Wiener, is Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (2020), a chronicle of the numerous upheavals and political movements that shook the city in the decade which saw the rise of the New Left.

For his grim prescience, Davis was often called the “prophet of doom” and the “poet of pessimism.”  But he rejected these labels; for all the darkness of his visions, they also carry glimmers of hope. “You can’t expect to die at a very heroic moment,” Davis told The Guardian earlier this year. “It’d be nice to die in 1968, or with the liberation of Europe in 1945. You’re on the barricades in 1917, 1919. Go out of life with the red flags flying. But despair is useless.”