Mike Davis Forced Readers to Embrace Specificity

tags: urban history, radical history, Mike Davis

Gabriel Winant is Assistant Professor of U.S. history at the University of Chicago. 

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.”

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