The Last Man to Know Everything
The Marxist-environmental historian Mike Davis has produced a rich corpus critical of capitalism.
September 25, 2018
Sep 25, 2018
25 Min read time
The Marxist-environmental historian Mike Davis has produced a rich corpus critical of capitalism.
Corrected October 10, 2018
Verso, $26.95 (cloth)
Mike Davis didn’t write his first book until his forties. He was too busy doing other things, from working in a slaughterhouse to running the Communist Party’s bookshop in Los Angeles (until he, an inveterate Trotskyist, threw out the Soviet cultural attaché). His late start as a scholar, however, has been compensated for by a deep reservoir of experiences to draw from and a swift pen: since writing his first book in 1986, he has published twenty more.
Capitalism’s separation unifies Davis’s oeuvre. Capitalism separates work from ownership, people from land, gated community from slum.
Not that he slowed down his extracurricular pursuits after he became a feted scholar. Over the last thirty years he has been a MacArthur and Getty fellow, an urban design commissioner in Pasadena, an advisor to gang truce activists, a university lecturer, Los Angeles’s most sought-after tour guide, a journalist, and an author of children’s science fiction. One hopes his latest book, Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory—a disparate collection of four essays on working-class history, nationalism, and the environment—will not be his last; the man needs to write a memoir. The only way to make sense of the new book’s blunderbuss array of topics is to know Davis’s vast scholarly corpus. Composed as it is of various strands drawn from his interests and experiences, which over the years have become ever more complex and tangled, it can only be ordered through intellectual biography.
• • •
Davis was born in 1946 in Fontana, a working-class steeltown outside of Los Angeles. His family—progressive and strongly union—moved to El Cajon, near San Diego, during a strange moment in the 1950s when the Red Menace merged with the Yellow Peril. Members of the town’s rabidly anti-communist John Birch Society warned that just across the border the Chinese People’s Liberation Army trained in the Sonoran desert, preparing to invade. After his father, a meat cutter, had a heart attack, Davis dropped out of high school and took up his father’s profession. In 1962 he befriended Jim Stone, a civil rights activist. With Stone’s encouragement, Davis finished high school—coupled with a brief, unhappy stint at Reed College—and became more involved in activism for the Communist Party, the Congress of Racial Equality, and Students for Democratic Society. It was an almost literal baptism of fire into radical politics. At a civil rights demonstration, Davis recalled, “Some racist yokels sprayed lighter fluid over the signs and were about to set them aflame when I went and sat on the signs. They then sprayed some lighter fluid on my shirt but several members of the Fruit of Islam, the black warriors of the Nation of Islam who monitored but did not participate in our demonstrations, immediately rushed in and pulled me away.”
One can’t awaken the slumbering lion of the working class with lullabies.
Tiring of autodidactism (“trying to digest Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution during lunch and supper breaks at work,” he says in his new book), Davis enrolled for an undergraduate degree at UCLA when he was twenty-seven. There he studied history and economics, and he apprenticed in Marxology under Robert Brenner, a creative historian and the eponym of two ‘‘Brenner debates’’ on the nature of capitalism. After three years Davis was restless again. Scholarship in hand, he went to Edinburgh to study Irish history and immersed himself in contemporary Northern Irish politics. He also spent time in London where, through Trotskyist channels, he met Perry Anderson. Impressed by Davis’s essay on the French “regulation school” of political economy, Anderson invited him to join the editorial board of New Left Review in 1980. A collection of his essays published in that journal grew into his first book, Prisoners of the American Dream (1986). In 1987 Davis returned to Los Angeles to finish his doctoral dissertation on the history of the city while moonlighting as a trucker. (I draw much of this biographical narrative from Adam Shatz’s 1997 profile of Davis in Lingua Franca.)
In 1990 he published his breakout second book, City of Quartz. It was a huge hit, probably the most successful U.S. Marxist text since Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962), making Davis famous even as international socialism writhed in its death throes. His reputation rested on being the expert on Los Angeles, but also its Cassandra. His book began with the defeat of the socialist commune of Llano del Rio at the hands of hostile property owners and the city government in the 1910s. The rest of the century marked further victories for capital, but at the cost of turning Los Angeles into a “carceral city” of hostile architecture, the open shop, and violent cops. Its WASP elite strove to control the city’s institutions, from planning boards to city hall and the archdiocese, as well as the flow of Japanese, New York, and Canadian capital into the newly emerging “world city.” After the Los Angeles “riots”—revolt would be a better term—of 1992, this bleak Marxist analysis was read as a sibylline text, for in it he had warned of an inevitable “armageddon” in the city’s ghettos.
Though Davis was a household name in the city and a scholar influential across disciplines, he found it hard to get or keep tenure. An earlier incarnation of The City of Quartz had been Davis’s doctoral dissertation, but UCLA rejected it. (Davis says that his dissertation was not rejected, but rather that he was told he would have to resit all of his classes before he could submit it.) The professoriate didn’t know what to do with this popular, working-class scholar without a PhD. They euphemistically called his writing “journalistic,” which meant hyperbolic. They were also disquieted by his his ardent socialist activism. He mentored gang members to further the peace process between the Bloods and the Crips, calling the negotiators “social democrats.” In 1997 USC rescinded the chair in U.S. history that it had offered to Davis. Presumably it did not help that he had savaged the university (“the most reactionary institution in LA”) for fighting its food-workers’ union.
Davis is first and foremost a great synthesizer. His forte is hammering out a new narrative arc on the anvil of his accumulated knowledge.
Yet even his critics admired his voracious intellect. Novelist Carolyn See, a Getty fellow with Davis in 1996, recalled that, “In researching books on disaster in LA, he turned up things I had never heard of. I thought I had seen it all, and he found stuff no one else has ever found. . . . he is capable of really hard work.” Another Getty fellow and future antagonist, Philip Ethington (who would have been his colleague in the department of history at USC had Davis gotten the chair), conceded that “he retains everything he’s ever read. He has a photographic memory.” Eventually Davis settled in a creative writing department, the academy’s outermost periphery. It seems that he did not particularly enjoy it: “I wouldn’t recommend that to anybody. . . . I am socially conservative and can’t really stand this mode of people exposing themselves so much.” (In an email to Boston Review, Davis clarifies, “I love the faculty in UCR’s Creative Writing Program and my remark solely concerned the overwhelming enthusiasm of most students in the nonfiction program for writing premature and often irresponsible memoirs.”)
In 1998 Davis wrote The Ecology of Fear, a sequel to his first book on Los Angeles, which similarly garnered praise and riled the establishment. What distinguished it from City of Quartz was a turn to environmental history. In the book he foregrounded environmental concerns to bring into relief issues of class, power, and racism in LA. The panoply of threats facing the metropolis included unknown fault lines, cougars, tornados, flood, landslides, and fires. Likely enraged by Davis’s suggestion to “let Malibu burn,” a hysterical Malibu realtor combed through Davis’s footnotes for errors; the Los Angeles New Times borrowed heavily from the resulting screed, and from there the furor spread to the national press. Many of the realtor’s accusations were seconded by the LA intelligentsia, a caste that had never truly warmed to Davis. He became the target of various ad hominem attacks that included lurid details of his serial matrimony, the failed doctorate, and Red-baiting. It was vicious because the stakes were so high. Los Angeles’s booster class, struck low by the black revolt in 1992 and the recession of 1990–1991, was trying to restore economic optimism. Yet, if anything, the footnotes controversy redounded to Davis’s credit because the mistakes found were minor, making the breadth of his expertise appear even more impressive.
The environmental turn that Davis made in Ecology of Fear would open up new fertile fields of inquiry, initiating the start of the second half of his scholarly career as a self-identified “Marxist-environmentalist.” This period has been as influential and creative as the first. In the mid-1990s, as he was working on Ecology of Fear, he was asked by Tom Hayden to pen a chapter on a collection on the Great Famine. His interest in the El Nino effect, which had a chapter to itself in Ecology of Fear, would shape how he approached the topic; in his research he stumbled upon the unnecessary mass starvations in much of the Global South in the 1870s and the 1890s. The result of this intellectual peregrination was the influential Late Victorian Holocausts (2000). He argued that during the late nineteenth century British control—both direct and indirect—over vast swathes of the world’s peasantry forced the conversion from subsistence farming to growing cash crops. This increased peasants’ vulnerability to poor harvests, especially if the El Nino effect aggravated droughts. New imperial infrastructure of railways and deep ports for steam ships could carry away cash crops to the metropole while being tied to the world market elevated the price of foodstuffs. The result was between 32 and 61 million deaths in Africa, China, Brazil, and South Asia. These natural disasters, inflicted by British capital, created a stunted “third world.” There would be no improvement in people’s living standards for decades, until national liberation.
The professoriate didn’t know what to do with this popular, working-class scholar without a PhD.
Davis’s next books applied these insights to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The next great killer, he argued in The Monster at Our Door (2005), would be avian flu, which only needs to mutate slightly to be contagious to humans. (After all, Spanish influenza, which killed nearly a hundred million people in 1918–20, was an avian strain.) Though rich countries may try to fortify themselves against an outbreak, the results would certainly be horrific if an epidemic does break out, say, in one of the vast slums in the Global South. Why there are such vast slums, where a sixth of humanity resides, was the subject of Planet of Slums (2006). If famines left the Global South underdeveloped in the nineteenth century, Planet argued, the implementation of Structural Adjustment Programs by the International Monetary Fund in the 1980s was the analog a century later. These “reforms” forced postcolonial countries to remove tariffs on industry and agriculture, so that peasants—ruined by the fall in crop prices and dumping by Northern farmers—flooded into cities where there were no factory jobs (again, due to tariffs) and newly hollowed out welfare states could not help them.
It is capitalism’s constancy of separation that unifies Davis’s oeuvre, which has varied in geographic and temporal scope. Capitalism, as Davis traces its spread and change, separates work from ownership, people from land, metropole from colony, humanity from nature, rich from poor, gated community from slum.
• • •
The heterogeneity of Davis’s latest book Old Gods, New Enigmas reflects his decades of accumulated interests, but it lacks the analytical focus of his other works. There are four disconnected chapters—on the nineteenth-century European working class, Marxist approaches to the study of nationalism, Peter Kropotkin’s contribution to glacial geology, and the Anthropocene. As the book lacks a unifying framework, the uninitiated reader will struggle with this stew of disparate themes. The petty jabs scattered throughout the book against Fredric Jameson, for example, are less perplexing if one knows about their tiff in the 1980s and ’90s. (One of Jameson’s zingers in this squabble: “lessons in economics from someone who thinks sweatshops are ‘precapitalist’ are not helpful.”)
There is history, and then there is antiquarianism. The past’s lessons cannot simply be applied wholesale to the present.
In the preface of Old Gods, New Enigmas, Davis sets a laudable goal for the left’s intellectuals: “Contemporary Marxism must be able to scan the future from the simultaneous perspectives of Shenzhen, Los Angeles, and Lagos if it wants to solve the puzzle of how heterodox social categories might be fitted together in a single resistance to capitalism.” He even suggests “the current period of globalization is defined by a trilogy of ideal-typical economies: super-industrial (coastal East Asia), financial/tertiary (North Atlantic), and hyper-urbanizing/extractive (West Africa).” This seems promising, yet his chapter on workers’ agency focuses almost solely on Europe. It isn’t even an essay, but a hundred pages of paragraph-long “theses” on European working-class movements from 1838 to 1921—lovingly detailed reconstructions of how workers created their own parties, institutions, and cultures. Beyond this, the point of the chapter isn’t clear. Davis says that his aim is to refute the claim made by despised “post-Marxists” that the left needs to find another revolutionary agent such as “the multitude” because the working class has failed or disappeared. “I propose,” Davis writes, “an idealized maximum argument—presented in the form of theses—for the traditional working class as the gravedigger of capitalism.” This is a noble intention, but conditions have changed drastically since the 1970s, let alone since the 1920s. How are these lessons transferable to the present? Without addressing the historical changes that separate the past from the present, the chapter represents the triumph of nostalgia over analysis.
Alongside Old Gods, New Enigmas, one should read “A History of Separation” by the French Marxist collective Endnotes. They chastise “revolutionaries” who “get lost in history, defining themselves by reference to a context of struggle that has no present-day correlate. They draw lines in sand which is no longer there.” This is not to say that history isn’t useful, but what Davis is doing isn’t history but antiquarianism. The past’s lessons cannot simply be applied wholesale to the present because the terrain where class struggle is fought is entirely different. As Endnotes argues:
If the historical workers’ movement is today alien to us, it is because the form of the capital-labour relation that sustained the workers’ movement no longer obtains. . . . the social foundations on which the workers’ movement was built have been torn out: the factory system no longer appears as the kernel of a new society in formation; the industrial workers who labour there no longer appear as the vanguard of a class in the process of becoming revolutionary. All that remains of this past-world are certain logics of disintegration, and not only of the workers’ movement, but also of the capital-labour relation itself.
What is most confounding is that Davis knows this. Brenner, his mentor at UCLA, wrote the book on the “Long Downturn,” The Economics of Global Turbulence (2006)—which Endnotes itself relies on for its analysis. Indeed, the achievement of Prisoners of the American Dream had been that Davis gave no quarter to nostalgia in his cutting history of the U.S. labour movement from the late nineteenth century to the Reagan administration. Quite precociously in the early 1980s, he realized that Fordism and the New Deal era had been obliterated and that “like some shaggy beast of the apocalypse, Reaganism hunkered out of the Sunbelt.” A reader of Old Gods, New Enigmas wonders, where is that Davis? His icy analysis would have been useful in this study of the nineteenth-century European working-class movements, which like their U.S. counterparts failed at the most fundamental tasks. Forget about implementing socialism. The Second International could not stop the mounting inequality of the belle époque nor prevent the outbreak of World War I. Davis is too kind to his subject, but one can’t awaken the slumbering lion of the working class with lullabies. There is little analysis of structure to be found here, as if working-class power can simply be willed into existence.
Forget about implementing socialism. European working-class movements, like their U.S. counterparts, failed at the fundamental tasks.
Energy is especially influential in shaping the contours of class struggle, as has been shown by Tim Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy (2011) and Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital (2015). But Davis—an environmental historian—neglects these historiographical advances. A better approach might have divided periods of working-class history by energy transitions. From the 1770s to the 1830s the industrial revolution ran on the hydropower of riverine water wheels. This dispersed production over the countryside, leaving capital without an accessible pool of labor and vulnerable to workers’ revolts. This was solved by the turn to coal, where capital could draw up the industrial reserve army and rely on state coercion to protect its investments. This concentration, however, could be exploited by workers, especially colliers and railway workers, who could bring the whole system to a halt. Petroleum, which required fewer workers and was carried out above ground and transported along a hard-to-block grid network of tankers and pipelines, reduced workers’ power after 1945. Petroleum-dependent technologies, including huge container ships and cheap air travel, have facilitated globalization since the 1980s, granting capital the mobility to exploit global reservoirs of cheap labor.
Davis is not wrong to study the formation of class consciousness, but one needs to be cognizant of the changing environmental and economic conditions in which the working class makes and remakes itself.
• • •
The second essay of Old Gods, “Marx’s Lost Theory,” is more coherent and persuasive. Davis argues that one can devise a Marxist theory of nationalism despite the scholarly cliché that nationalism was Marx’s most serious omission.
Like Napoleon III, Trump was able to emerge from outside an intra-elite dispute and reap the rewards of disunity.
The chapter reviews academic debates on nationalism generally, skimming over earlier controversies among Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm, and Anthony Smith to focus on the 1990s (a period that should have made an appearance in the first chapter, too). In that decade a new generation of “Bourdieusian and neo-Weberian” scholars emerged, who, unlike the older generation, assumed the nation-state to be a fragile and contingent thing, as the catastrophic Yugoslav Civil Wars had made obvious. The new paradigm was epitomized by two scholars, Rogers Brubaker of UCLA and Siniša Malešević of University College, Dublin. As Davis summarizes it, “their disciplinary focus is on the physics of social interaction and conflict, starting with the intimate solidarities—families, churches, platoons, football clubs, and so on—from which imagined national communities derive their emotional charge.” He applauds this transition in the debate, but finds it insufficient because Brubaker and Malešević overlook “the political chemistry, however, of transmuting sectoral into national interests.”
Davis tries to fill this gap with a reading of Erica Benner’s Really Existing Nationalisms: a Post-Communist View from Marx and Engels (1995), which he praises as “an invaluable, if sometimes overlooked contribution to the critique of nationalism theory during the 1990s.” Benner constructed a Marxist framework to understand nationalism based less on Engels’s and Marx’s theoretical writings than on “the concrete strategies they recommended in specific political contexts.” Relying on The Class Struggles in France 1848–1850 (1850) and The Eighteenth Brumaire (1852), she argues that competing classes in French society appealed to a form of nationalism that, under the surface, furthered their economic position. French peasants, often children or grandchildren of Napoleon’s soldiers (the “immortals”), contested Louis-Philippe’s reign, under which they suffered high taxes and debt to a romanticized empire, an era of plentiful land and free of mortgages. In this case, nationalism, Benner argues, functioned less as a kind of false consciousness than as a means to bind heterogeneous class coalitions, even if each component of the coalition differed in how it projected class interest onto the nation. “When the conflicts within the second republic fail to bring any class or alliance of classes to power with the capacity to stabilize parliamentary rule,” Davis summarizes in an earlier version of the essay, “the crisis is resolved by a plebiscitary dictatorship. The Eighteenth Brumaire ends with the bizarre victory of state over society, clique over class, and nationalism (in atavistic form) over democracy.”
Nationalism—even as a means to bind heterogeneous class coalitions—leads to dictatorship.
Although Davis does not extend Benner’s framework to the rise of neo-fascism today in Old Gods, New Enigmas—nor in his incisive debriefing of the 2016 U.S. presidential election—one could try to fill in the blanks. Donald Trump’s rise marks the synthesis of two forces that had been pulling the GOP apart since the 2008 financial crisis: the Tea Party movement and establishment Republicans. Like Napoleon III, Trump was able to emerge from outside this intra-elite dispute and reap the rewards of their disunity. Similarly, his brand of nationalism, militaristic and xenophobic, offered solace to declining segments of the white bourgeoisie and working class, who tie their own economic fortunes to imperial grandeur.
• • •
Davis’s third chapter abruptly switches gears from national to natural history. It offers a reading of Russian anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin’s late nineteenth-century challenge to the prevailing Lyellian paradigm in geology and the strange afterlife of this scientific revolt. In 1874 Kropotkin presented a paper on the study of striated Siberian rocks to show that glaciers flowed like super-viscous fluid. The grander conclusion of the paper was that the climate could fluctuate dramatically. Once glaciers receded from Eurasia, he argued, they left behind marshes that dried into prairies but would eventually turn into deserts. Thirty years after his first paper on the subject, the radical presented another claim that climatic variability could occur very quickly in geological terms, fast enough to affect human history. He posited Central Asian civilization had once benefitted from a wetter climate, but declined as rates of precipitation fell.
Declining segments of the white bourgeoisie and working class tie their economic fortunes to imperial grandeur.
The second half of the chapter is much odder. Davis shows how Kropotkin’s ideas were picked up by ecentric Americans in the early twentieth century. The first, Percival Lowell, already famous for his pictures of Martian “canals,” claimed Kropotkin’s 1904 paper confirmed his wild theory. In 1906 he wrote Mars and Its Canals, where he reasoned that since Earth was larger than Mars it was drying more slowly, but eventually it would become as arid as the red planet. Davis also includes Ellsworth Huntington, a Yale geographer, who wrote The Pulse of Asia (1907). Huntington asserted that the periodic desiccation in Central Asia caused by sun cycles—as discovered by Eduard Brückner and thus unrelated to Kropotkin’s discoveries—set the tempo for hungry nomadic armies pouring out from the heart of the continent. Like Lowell, Huntington was a proper crank. He ran bizarre experiments, including having his friend’s children type dictated sections from The Faerie Queene daily and recording the barometric pressure to test the “connection between weather and mental ability.” One wonders whether it is sympathy more than anything else than underlies Davis’s interest in the disgraced Huntington, about whom a contemporary critic gently observed “sometimes his thoughts run ahead of his facts. He works more with a vital scientific imagination than with a critical faculty.”
Davis is searching for an intellectual genealogy in which to place himself as a historian of climate.
Davis’s aims in telling this history of the Kropotkin-Huntington debate are not entirely clear. At first, he seems to imply that it is related to the intellectual genealogy of climate change science, but Kropotkin wrote about non-anthropogenic climate change. Near the end of the chapter Davis quotes a recent scientific paper that concludes that “the Tarim Basin [in Central Asia] was continuously wetter than today at least as early as AD 1180 until the middle AD 1800s”—a tendency that is the opposite of the one Kropotkin described. Yet, if one puts this chapter in the context of his career, one can discern his motive for writing it. Davis has been writing about Kropotkin and Huntington since the mid-1990s because he is searching for an intellectual genealogy in which to place himself as a fellow historian of climate. To these works one could also add Davis’s recent exhaustive and exhausting historiographic essay New Left Review on the Annales historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, famous for his seminal Times of Feast, Times of Famine (1967). If Huntington signifies the field’s disgrace while Ladurie, a political sphinx, shows its revival and new sophistication, then perhaps for Davis, as he did for Stephen Jay Gould, Kropotkin represents the left’s scientific heritage.
• • •
The final chapter of Old Gods—“Who Will Build the Ark?”—is quintessential Davis. A debate with himself, it begins with an allusion to a noir classic (his favorite genre): Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947), in which the lawyer-murderer Bannister interrogates himself in the the witness stand. Davis alternates between pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the “imagination.” The former mood, based on a close reading of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, leads him to conclude that catastrophic global warming is too far along to be stopped. The latter, befitting a left-wing urban historian, is predicated on his hope for socialist cities: “Public affluence—represented by the great urban parks, free museums, libraries, and infinite positiliby for human interaction—represents an alternative route to a rich standard of life based on earth-friendly sociality.” Although he doesn’t mention it, this argument echoes David Owen’s in his 2004 New Yorker essay “More like Manhattan.”
Davis fails to go beyond milquetoast radicalism by not asking the fundamental question: What are cities for?
There is much to quibble with in Davis’s analysis. The prediction of a renaissance in coal (“return of King Coal”) perhaps made sense in 2008, before the financial crisis, but conditions have changed. The EU’s coal consumption has fallen because it has been stuck in the economic doldrums, renewables are cheap, and regulations increasingly onerous, leaving 30 percent of the region’s coal-fired power plants in the red. Even with Trump in the White House, the coal industry is unlikely to make a comeback. Over the last decade China has stopped investing in heavy industry and does not need anymore metallurgical coal, though this had been U.S. coal’s main money-maker. Furthermore Davis completely misses the revolutionary emergence of fracking, the technology that has made natural gas ultra cheap and thus coal’s decline inexorable. In a strange lapse of critical judgment, Davis places some hope in carbon capture and storage as a solution, but this white-elephant technology has only become less likely since 2008 after a slew of project cancellations.
The greater problem with “Who Will Build the Ark?” is that Davis fails to go beyond New Yorker-esque milquetoast radicalism by not asking the fundamental question: What are cities for? Pre-capitalist societies rarely urbanized more than a tenth of their population; modern cities are creatures of capitalism par excellence, whose purpose is to concentrate fossil fuels and workers. If society is to rely on renewables, surely it makes sense to disperse production where the sun shines and the wind blows. Davis overlooks that cities can’t feed themselves; massive cities presuppose industrial farms and fossil fuels. As a good reader of Marx’s Capital, he knows that capitalism creates a rift between the city and the country, but one would assume communism would make them whole again. As Late Victorian Holocausts, Monster at our Door, and Planet of Slums were all essentially about agriculture, its absence in this last chapter is especially perplexing.
For a model of the Marxist-environmentalist city, one could look to Havana for inspiration.
What, then, does a Marxist-environmentalist city actually look like? Davis doesn’t tell us, but one could look to Havana for inspiration. During Cuba’s Special Period in the 1990s, urban farms appeared in the island’s bustling capital. Organic agriculture was necessary both in the cities and the countryside, but the latter was not neglected; indeed, it had the urban amenities of good hospitals and universities. In “Who Will Build the Ark?” Davis dismisses the meat industry as unimportant to his analysis and instead concentrates on urban sprawl. But even the World Bank estimates that half of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by livestock. Perhaps Davis, a formidable environmental scholar, can’t shed his past as a former abattoir worker. This inability to imagine a burgerless future dulls the sharp analysis that readers have learned to expect from him. During the Special Period Cubans became more or less vegetarian, and the Communist Party foisted tofu on a restive populace of part-time gardeners for the greater good. It is this experience that should inspire Davis’s “optimism of the imagination.”
• • •
Davis is first and foremost a great synthesizer. In this way he is like Anderson, his mentor from his London days at the New Left Review, who has been a commentator on everything from Indian history to recent French philosophy to the U.S. imperial class. Although Davis does occasionally carry out his own primary research, his forte is reading reams of secondary sources and hammering out a new narrative arc on the anvil of his accumulated knowledge. It is obvious in Old Gods, New Enigmas that he has clearly read a lot, but it is sometimes unclear to what end (perhaps that explains the “new enigmas”). Part of this is due to the strange array of essays chosen to be part of this collection. He has published insightful articles over the past decade, and his publisher could curate them by themes such as the environment or working-class history. Older essays could have been updated. Yet even at his messiest, he is still a formidable intellectual, and this collection contains many gems.
In many ways Davis is like a present-day Thorstein Veblen, a giant of political economy and another scholar who struggled to find his place in the university system. If Veblen was an outsider as a Norwegian and an atheist, Davis’s distance from his peers is a result of his working-class background and activism. An outsider’s perspective, coupled with a voracious appetite for knowledge—Veblen could speak eloquently on Aleutian seashell trade networks; Davis is a connoisseur of Turkish cinema—have made both scholars sans pareil and withering critics of capitalism. Veblen’s peers whispered that he was the “last man to know everything,” but Davis, who has not slowed down his scholarly output even as he enters his eighth decade, may test that assumption yet.
Correction notice: An earlier version of this essay said that Davis had served as an advisor to the Crips. He was, more accurately, an advisor to gang truce activists, some of whom had been members of the Crips. The essay has been updated to reflect this clarification as well as to include new quotes from Davis regarding his biography.
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September 25, 2018
25 Min read time