Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

Remembering Mike Davis

Of all the things I learned from Mike, perhaps the most important was that there is no domination without resistance; he always sought to identify the forces engaged in the struggle against exploitation and oppression and to join them.

Warren Montag

October 31, 2022
Facebook Twitter Share
Mike Davis stands holding a book in 2004.
Photo: Annie Wells / Los Angeles Times

Freud tells a story of a man standing still before the entrance to Charing Cross station in central London. Irritated commuters must swerve to avoid him, never wondering why his head is bowed in mourning. He does not see them; his gaze is directed away from the station and toward the Cross after which the station is named. He feels the sadness of the history, hidden in plain sight, of the dear Queen, la chère reine, whose untimely death her husband, King Edward, marked by a series of crosses, the last of which is what is now known as “Charing” cross. The cross has been annexed to the railway station, for which it serves as a marker. The dear queen, la chère reine, has disappeared into the name “Charing”, its original significance now forgotten, except by the solitary mourner struck still by what he cannot forget.

Mike Davis was a descendant of that man. The absences he detected, however, were not those of dead kings and queens, but of the rebels who tried to overthrow them (or their latter-day counterparts). He read the epitaphs written in the day’s detritus in the vacant lots and empty storefronts of Los Angeles, and listened intently for the unheard cries rising from unmarked graves buried beneath laundromats and liquor stores. When he looked at the present, he saw signs, not otherwise recognized as signs, of a past whose forgetting was the necessary condition of the legitimacy of present. Mike felt compelled to read and interpret these signs for us, to show, for example, that a city like Los Angeles, alongside freeways, under suburbs, in cracked concrete slabs that passed for sidewalks, and half-burned houses untouched for years, bears the wounds and scars of mass struggle. The city was to him a kind of fossil record of the cataclysms and near-extinction events that punctuated the history of the resistance and revolt against the established political, economic and racial order. To acknowledge the presence of this past, if only in the ferocity with which it is denied, but also to make us see, feel and begin to understand it, was Mike’s peculiar gift.

I say these things not simply as a reader of Mike’s works, but as someone who drove with him throughout Los Angeles, to demonstrations, picket lines, and meetings. Everyone seemed to know him, and he could give me an exact account of every movement, organization and their leaderships. He was famous for his ability to deliver flawlessly organized impromptu lectures on a seemingly numberless series of topics (I remember in particular a lecture on the history of the Irish Republican Army, a detailed comparison of the movements of slum-dwellers in Tehran and Mexico City, and an overview of theories of urban warfare, circa 1980).

His intellectual abilities, however, in no way prevented him being overcome with rage at the presence of “the enemy,” even when faced with physical danger. On one occasion, he single-handedly attacked a group of Nazis who had arrived to confront a demonstration organized by the Coalition Against Police Abuse. The mere presence of police made him bristle and he did not always refrain from directing strings of obscenities at them. At what would become the historic Justice for Janitors demonstration in Century City (part of Los Angeles) in 1990, Mike arrived dressed in a suit and tie. He told me he wouldn’t be marching with us because he had finally convinced the Mayor of Los Angeles to agree to an interview and couldn’t miss it.  He was adamant: he simply could not get arrested. As he stood some distance away, the police launched a brutal attack on the demonstration. Mike became enraged and as he began to hurl obscenities at some police stationed near him, was arrested and taken to the West Los Angeles jail. The mayor later convinced the police to release him so the interview could take place.

Of all the things I learned from Mike, perhaps the most important was that there is no domination without resistance; he always sought to identify the forces engaged in the struggle against exploitation and oppression and to join them. He did this not out of a sense of duty, but because it was simply impossible for him to do otherwise. The fact that he never wavered in his revolutionary Marxism, far from limiting the power of his intellect or the imagination that was part of this power, formed the basis of his creativity as a thinker. He drew his strength from the anti-imperialist and antiracist movements in which he was an active participant.

I think of him now as he must have been in the wildcat Teamster strike of 1970, standing next to the eighteen-wheeler he had parked, alongside so many other trucks, in the middle of the 101 Freeway in Downtown Los Angeles, effectively shutting down one of the most important cargo hubs in the nation. I can see his face beaming with pride at the enormous panorama of workers’ power, already dreaming of the books he would write.

Facebook Twitter Share

Warren Montag

Warren is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He is the editor of décalages and author of several books on the works of Adam Smith, Spinoza and Althusser.

Guest Posts

Understanding the Carnage at Colorado Springs

The heinous violence displayed in Colorado Springs is a stark reminder of the menacing, lethal threat that today’s determined far right continues to pose to trans and queer people, and anyone living outside capitalism’s imposed sexual and gender boundaries.

Keegan O'Brien

December 4, 2022

“We Sold Out the People Who Elected Us”: UC Bargaining Team Member Speaks Out About Union Concessions

Here we publish the testimony of a graduate student worker on strike at the University of California, who is part of the bargaining team for UAW Local 2865. Wednesday night, the bargaining team voted 10-9 to make severe concessions to the university.

One Way Out: The Revolutionary Hero of Andor

Not just another Star Wars story set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Andor is a mature science fiction series about radicalization and rebellion against fascism and imperialism.

Doug Enaa Greene

December 2, 2022

New School Adjuncts Strike for Higher Wages Amid Ongoing Labor Struggles Across the US

1,300 adjuncts at the new school in NYC are on strike. This strike comes in the midst of other strikes across the country including at The University of California and Starbucks.

Jean Faber

November 18, 2022


The Roots of the Rebellion at Foxconn

Jenny Chan is a researcher and professor at the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong. She is co-author of the book Dying for an iPhone. She spoke with La Izquerda Diario about the causes of the rebellion by workers at the Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou, China.

Josefina L. Martínez

December 7, 2022
South African president Cyril Ramaphosa in a suit

“Farmgate” Threatens the Very Foundations of Capitalist Stability in South Africa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa faces an impeachment vote Tuesday. More than a simple case of corruption, it’s a political crisis of the ruling party and of capitalist stability in the country.

Sam Carliner

December 5, 2022
Mapuche people standing with a flag

The Case of the Mapuche: What Can Trotsky Teach Us about the Fight against National Oppression?

Trotsky’s reflections on the social aspect of permanent revolution have deep implications for building working-class hegemony through solidarity with oppressed peoples.

Juan Valenzuela

December 4, 2022

Sorry Jacobin, But Crushing Rail Workers’ Right to Strike Is Not Progressive

Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic is applauding progressive Democrats like AOC and Jamaal Bowman for their vote to force rail workers to accept a contract they explicitly rejected on terms that are not even close to their original demands.

James Dennis Hoff

December 1, 2022