A Scholar of American Doom Doesn’t See How Capitalism Can Fix This CrisisHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Los Angeles, capitalism, 1960s, urban history, Watts Riots, Protest, social movements, radical history, Mike Davis
Mike Davis hates being called a prophet. If the 74-year-old social historian, author of proto-doomer urban theory classics like City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear, seems to have an uncanny ability to see America’s futures, it’s because he draws so fluently on its past. Davis possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of leftist history and land use in this country—particularly in Southern California, his birthplace and home. Recently we spoke with Davis over Zoom about his latest book, Set the Night on Fire, co-authored with Jon Wiener, about 1960s radical politics in Los Angeles.
Davis was on the scene for events like the Sunset Strip curfew riots, and he witnessed firsthand the patterns of police brutality against protesters that feel so relevant today. He also saw how the activism and youth culture of the era set itself against repression of different kinds, from the curfews and cops to draft boards and closed beaches. (Why did LA forbid beach bonfires? As the book explains, the cops were haunted by the radical specter of unsupervised teens getting together at night.) Set the Night on Fire is a sort of bequeathal from one generation of activists to another. Davis told us he and Wiener wrote the book to inform young people about the hidden history of LA and the fatal mistakes made there by radical movements in the 1960s, in the hopes that today’s radicals might succeed where yesterday’s failed.
Davis talked to us from his home in San Diego, where he is quarantining with his family and detailing the horrors of the pandemic in a daily e-mail newsletter to colleagues called “Plague News.” The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Molly Lambert: Since the last time we saw you there was a pandemic and then the uprisings. Do you feel like this is comparable to any other moments in history?
Mike Davis: It’s a bit like the 1918 Spanish Flu combined with the Great Depression. I mean, Americans went to bed one night in early March and woke up the next day to find out they were living in 1933. The difference of course, is the policy has played a far greater role in this case than it did in 1918 even with the Great Depression. Hoover actually was extremely energetic in dealing with soaring unemployment after the stock market crash. What he did wasn’t sufficient. But he was a famous engineer and a famous administrator of relief. So there’s no comparison between Trump and Hoover. Trump has become the principal vector of coronavirus in this country, one might say even in the world, because of the way that others like Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines followed his example.
Jonny Coleman: Do you think the ongoing economic precarity—do you think that we’re primed for having the right material circumstances for a major upheaval of power? Do you think the racial justice [uprising] and the evictions and the economic crises that everyone but the wealthiest are going to feel have the potential to bring us together?
Speaking as a historian, I don’t see any alternative path for capitalism to resolve this crisis. This isn’t a conjunctural crisis. It’s a crisis within a complex of crises: the failure of capitalism to generate jobs and sustainable incomes, making a large minority of the human race surplus and therefore disposable; the blockage of revolutionary advances in biodesign in medicine by the private sector government policies, preventing that to be translated into public health; the fact that the Republican Party has enjoyed such enormous success in blocking any action on climate change; and the fact that we’re in a world that becomes more dangerous, day by day. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists points out the risk of nuclear war is higher in today’s world, according to them, than almost at any time during the Cold War, with the Cuban Missile Crisis maybe set aside.
The world’s descended into an age of chaos. And the policies that have been adopted particularly against poor people in poor countries amount to a sentence to genocide: people forced to migrate because of wars that generally have been spurred by foreign interventions, American interventions; or migrating, like in the case of Central America, [because of] unprecedented droughts and crop failures. We build walls. Europe deliberately lets people drown in the Mediterranean. The US seeks to control as much of the potential vaccine supply as possible to prevent it from reaching poor countries. We could go on and on.
And these policies all point in a very determined and clear direction, which is that there are probably a billion and a half people, maybe more, maybe 2 billion, in the informal working class who have simply been triaged already in advance. So the fate of a very large minority of humanity has been determined now. And that’s more important than almost anything else. Coronavirus is just part of the crisis. But there’s an overall crisis of human survival and sustainable urbanization.
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