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The Monster Killer

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Mike Davis
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The Monster Killer

by John Kendall Hawkins

It's difficult you see

To give up baby

These summer scumholes

This goddamned starving life.

-David Bowie

Michael Ryan Davis (March 10, 1946 - October 25, 2022) was an American writer, political activist, urban theorist, and historian based in Southern California. He is best known for his investigations of power and social class in works such as City of Quartz and Late Victorian Holocausts. His last non-fiction book is Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, co-authored by Jon Wiener"Davis was diagnosed with cancer in 2020. [Wiki]

Long before the second Coronavirus put on the red light and hitchhiked its way around the world leaving madness, devastation and long term Covid fogs in its wake, career activist Mike Davis was playing Cassandro to largely unlistening ears. He was telling us (lefties, mostly; righties don't give a sh*t) that the negative anthropocentric influence on bio systems of the world would inevitably lead to confrontations with a reawakened and reanimated ancient viral world. For instance, he saw it as unavoidable that we would be confronted with our pants down when faced with exotic diseases emerging from thawing permafrost and jungles cleared for Mickey Burgers.

In his 2005 OR book, The Monster Enters, Davis caustically observed that there is something wrong with us; he implied (in my read) that we may all be insane. His basis for such worry is our collective failure to sustain our humanity; we backslide into animality and/or primitive thinking. We lose the mental strands that connect us to other humans and make the negotiation of "reality" and the progress of civilization problematic. He wrote in the book:

Unlike certain other social animals, we have no collective sorrow instinct or biological solidarity that is automatically aroused by the destruction of our fellow kind. Indeed, at our worst we find a perverse, often delectable sublimity in Black Deaths, tsunamis, massacres, genocides, and collapsing skyscrapers.

This "delectable sublimity" is why some folks feel plagued by conspiracy theories. Covid-19 may not have been intentionally released, as the Trump administration claimed, conspiracists go, there is no apparent evidence, but you could see how it could be that way. There is some dark matter out there, dressed in sheepish clothing.

Back then Davis worried that our misadventures with nature would lead to a super avian flu. He saw greed get in the way of the development of a universal vaccine. He saw the profit motive, exemplified by the lack of desire to fully finance the years of research that could lead to a vaccine because of patent issues, as monster values. Money over humanity -- a problem humans have unsuccessfully (mostly) reined in going back 3300 years to Moses and the decalogue and the false god Baal. It's a problem that still plagues us. In April 2020, Davis's book was re-released with a Intro and Conclusion update and renamed The Monster Enters: COVID-19, Avian Flu and the Plagues of Capitalism. As I wrote in my review of the book:

That 'full disclosure' aside, The Monster Enters is a helpful reiteration of important details regarding the Problem we face: From AIDS to Ebola to SARS to MERS to COVID-19, Davis cites scientists who say we've entered a new epoch of pandemics; from now into an indefinite future, we will face waves of these 'novel,' viruses: "The species-jumping versions are extraordinary shape-shifters that constantly alter their genomes to foil the powerful immune systems of human and mammalian hosts." Maybe a shape-shifting virus-tipped spitball from space conked out the dinosaurs, too.

And maybe human consciousness is a hangover that we're just emerging from like marsh viruses ourselves.

Mike Davis was known as Prophet of Doom and largely ignored by Panglossiam optimists and rightwing nutjobs alike. His treatment was reminiscent of a Life cereal TV ad we kids were deluged with back in the early day. Two brothers, let's call them Young Dem and Young Repug, don't want to try Life -- so they give it to grumplepuss little sib, Mikey, who they reckon "hates everything." Remember?

Mikey, it turns out, likes Life. Do you like Life, reader? I do. Moreman-nenny-thing.

One of the facets of Davis's writings over the years I enjoyed most is his trenchant passionate prose that comes out of the tradition of the Sixties protests, which many of us from that generation are now sentimentalizing over, missing its energy, honesty and levity. We laughed at The Man and refused to take him seriously -- Street Theater, "crying theater in a crowded fire," as our beloved Abbie used to say. Now that Davis is dead, the tributes are profusing and we are pausing to recognize that another one has bitten the dust. The mighty intellectuals are weighing in. There will be a lot of prolixity and academic argotry on the Left to praise and to bury the champion of common progressivism and resistance to the seeming reptiles from outer space. This is all fine -- and, no doubt, heartfelt -- but Davis got right to it with words that are spot-on and feisty as.

In March 2022, Davis had published an exceptional piece in the New Left Review, for which he had written for many years. In the piece, "Thanatos Triumphant," Davis castigates both Left and Right, Putin, Biden, and even the squares among the Lefties ("Everyone is quoting Gramsci on the interregnum""). The tributes are marvelous enough, especially that of Angela Davis (no relation). But the real thrill is reading Davis go at Them. The piece opens with a frontal assault:

Does hegemony require a grand design? In a world where a thousand gilded oligarchs, billionaire sheikhs, and Silicon deities rule the human future, we should not be surprised to discover that greed breeds reptilian minds. What I find most remarkable about these strange days - as thermobaric bombs melt shopping malls and fires rage in nuclear reactors - is the inability of our supermen to validate their power in any plausible narrative of the near future.

It's true, the Musks, Bezoses, Zuckerbergs, Eric Schmidts, Thiels, Clintons, AI-thinking Kissingers (god help us) suck. One a**hole says everybody will one day own a robot, another wants to set up a fulfillment center on the moon, another wants thousands of lemming volunteers to one-way to Mars (200,000 volunteers reeks of desperate living). Why don't they all load up a van in the Multiverse and ixnay thatta way.

The Democrats, the putative alternative to Republican conservatism and Constitutional tomfoolery, have no truck with this driver:

"Putin is simply ruthless, impetuous and prone to panic"[but] On the other shore, Biden conducts a nonstop seance with Dean Acheson and all the ghosts of Cold Wars past. The White House is visionless in the wilderness it helped to create. All the think tanks and genius minds that supposedly guide the ClintonObama wing of the Democratic Party are in their own way as lizard-brained as the soothsayers in the Kremlin.

Indeed, and soon, Biden will be taking collect calls himself from the Other world.

And David lets the Left know of their shortcomings and premature ejaculations:

...the US Left bears its own share of responsibility for the dismal outcome. Almost none of the energies generated by Occupy, BLM and the Sanders campaigns were channelled into rethinking global issues and framing a renewed politics of solidarity. Equally there has been no generational replenishment of the radical mindpower (I.F. Stone, Isaac Deutscher, William Appleman Williams, D.F. Fleming, John Gerassi, Gabriel Kolko, Noam Chomsky" to name just a few) that was once laser-like focused on US foreign policy.

f*ck. He doesn't mention Gramsci or Glenn Greenwald once!

Yes, so the accolades are rolling in, as they should. And OR Books, an energetic independent book publisher that seems to put out texts on all our favorite lefty causes -- race, economic equality, climate change, the changing face of feminism, energy politics, environmental catastrophe, as well as memoirs and poetry -- as required by the urgency of the moment, and OR publish on-demand, so there are no remainders that signify the pointless murder of trees. In 2020 Davis was told he had cancer. Last year, as if anticipating the worst, OR Books put out a collection of essays by mostly academic folks from around the world who were listening to Cassandro and were gathered to express by editors Daniel Bertrand Monk and Michael Sorkin in Between Catastrophe and Revolution: Essays in Honor of Mike Davis.

It's an excellent selection of subjects that Davis cared about and which reiterate the title dialectic, and the volume includes: A Sorrowful Storm: Between Penitence and Anthropolitics in the Anthropocene (Mauro J. Caraccioli); A Late Neoliberal Holocaust (Don Mitchell); Where Did the Future Go? Notes on the Fantasies and Strategies of the Hyper-Right from the United States to Brazil (Bruno Carvalho); Eruptions of Rage (Mustafa Dikeà ); Lineages of Infrastructural Power: Los Angeles as a Logistical Nightmare (Charmaine Chua); and, Gated Ecologies (Rob Wallace, Kenichi Okamoto, and Alex Liebman).

In his introduction to Between Catastrophe and Revolution, Daniel Bertrand Monk provides the tone and overlay the text requires. This is serious business ahead. Read it. Read it good. And then do something. Don't just reference Gramsci, the book seems to say to this reader-responder. (As an undergraduate I used to bristle when the most eligible social-ist girls went off with some mighty Marxist mouth, usually with a Che tee I couldn't afford. I was on a Pell Grant.) Monk sees the elite slumming it -- you know, slumming down the planet to make room for Trumpian phallic symbolism of, uh, overreach that could be a metaphor for our age:

The Los Angeles we have learned to associate with Davis's City of Quartz is already implicated in the making of a contemporary Planet of Slums, as capitalist mega-urbanization is accelerating toward"and is a primary cause of"the unfolding climate catastrophe. And yet, these transformations are also repeatedly assimilated as features of the status quo.

This slumminization recalls Erich Schmidt's crack in his elitist "visionary" time (natch), The Empire of the Mind (2013), in which he describes a scene where his spoiled brats are acting up in the den, probably because they're bored, and Daddy comes in and sets up a hologram experience so that the spoiled shits can go visit the slums of Mumbai for a couple of hours to see how the other half lives.

One essay in the collection worth a close read is Planetary Events, Climate Catastrophes, and the Limits of the Human Sciences by William E. Connolly and Jairus Grove. We are all, by now, familiar with things falling apart in the environment globally, but it's disconcerting to realize that, despite the extraordinary advance of science and technology over the last 75 years (say, since "we" double-tapped the Japs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, commencing the Cold War and the competition with the Soviets). The authors open with a statement that addresses the obvious by now -- how "we" just don't seem to give a sh*t anymore, as if we were preparing for the Poe-like masque of the red death hoo-hah (Charlie XCX's "I Don't Care" on the radio -- you know the one, you probably sang along):

In this chapter, we hope to show how a perennial indifference to the nonhuman world"from geological forces to nonhuman hominids to wolves and hawks" limited the explanatory and emancipatory potential of Western political thought.

The Guardian helped amplify this indifference when it reported a couple of years ago that "More than 500 species of land animals were found to be on the brink of extinction and likely to be lost within 20 years." Connolly and Grove tell us,

Rather than a specific solution to the Anthropocene, what the chapter offers is a possible way out of the cul-de-sac of the science-social science divide that limits how we research, think, and act in an age of planetary politics.

This divide has often been seen as an obstacle that artificially divides object and subject -- indeed sees science reducing the subject, even the scientist herself, to a mechanistic or functionary dressed in the Christmas light epiphenomena of consciousness to the detriment of science and humanity.

In A Late Neoliberal Holocaust, Don Mitchell describes a pattern of police abuses of Skid Row homeless people that amount to a holocaust. While most of us would immediately think of Nazis herding Jews onto trains headed for death camps, Mitchell argues that the fascist practices of LA police share the same venom. He sets up his argument with a sobering statistic: "In 2014, Los Angeles spent $100 million from its general fund on homelessness. $87 million of this went to the police." Those funds are not for homelessness but fascism.

Mitchell brings us through a story of the death at the hands of police of Charly "Africa" Keunang, who was slow in obeying a police order to pack up his tent and "move on." He was tasered, punched in the face, and shot: "the cops opened fire, peppering Mr. Keunang's body with six bullets"two shot at point-blank range"and killing him instantly." And Rodney King thought he was hard done by! Mitchell worries about this gets responded to:

It is tempting to see the killing of Charly "Africa" Keunang as just an isolated incident of aggressive policing gone overboard, or as just another example of what seems to be an ongoing war by the cops against black people"the war that has given rise to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

But this is insufficient. Indeed, it sniffs of Good German banal evil-tude. Thus, unconscience does make cowards of us all, you might say. But that, Mitchell writes,

risks missing the larger pattern into which Mr. Keunang's death fits"For we are in the midst of what needs to be understood as a slow, diffuse, largely unspectacular holocaust"Holocausts are "destruction or slaughter on a mass scale." They do not need to be organized in the same way that the Nazi slaughter of Jews during the Second World War was organized; but they are systematic"Mr. Keunang's death, at once extraordinary and mundane, is a clear representation of the new, slow, holocaust we are living through"a late neoliberal holocaust.

We don't really "learn" from history is one message. Hell, you could argue that the fascists who break heads today in Skid Row are guided not by the horror of Auschwitz but the wisdom of Mein Kampf.

Where Did the Future Go? Notes on the Fantasies and Strategies of the Hyper-Right from the United States to Brazil, by Bruno Carvalho, a native of Brazil, compares Trumpism and the Bolsonaro phenomenon. Many switched on people would immediately recognize "hyper-right" as an apt term for the craziness that attends all things Trump (even now after all the corruption he represents). The term suggests extremism, while also indicating the Internet as a place of co-optation, intimidation, and to some degree a part of the fascist project underway. Carvalho tells us,

Like Trumpism, Bolsonarism adopts a series of procedures that the right often attributes to the left, not always wrongly: acritical relativization, self-victimization, the PC ploy, and the primacy of individual, subjective perspectives. The inviolable right to one's own opinion is a way out for those who want to deny facts, do not know what they are talking about, or have a fanatic attachment to simplistic solutions.

Or as Will Rogers would put it, wryly, Nothing is the way it used to be -- and never was. In any case, Carvalho points to a larger frame of reference:

It appears that certain right-wing fantasies and strategies that reshaped postwar US politics and found fertile ground online have been remaking Brazilian politics"and that more and more, these vast Americas convert from privileged spaces for future-production into places onto which we project dystopias. It is always too early to tell what will happen, but we should be ready for the unimaginable. Mike Davis's work has been criticized for hyperbole. He prepares us for the world ahead.

Carvalho starts out the essay by referencing Stephan Zweig's famous view of Brazil as "the land of the future," perhaps relativizing to the Nazi Germany he left behind. But Davis makes one think of Terry Gilliam's film Brazil as a model for future dystopianism -- "What have you done with his body-ee-ee?" I can remember a mother imploring a thug-cop?

Noam Chomsky has repeatedly warned in his late years that we must forgo the pleasure of playhouse conspiracy theorizing and concentrate on what he sees are the three main issues of the day: nuclear proliferation and use; Climate Change; and, the end of democracy. Each of these could push our species to the brink of extinction. Only Climate Change, once its indicators pass a key threshold, are beyond our control. We can decide to disassemble nukes and we may still be able to rescue democracy. In The Calculus of Climate Change, Andrew Ross examines the profit derived from the loss of lives and properties brought on by Climate Change events.

Ross specifically addresses how elites swoop down on the poor in the aftermath of such events. And he uses the findings of Mike Davis's Late Victorian Holocausts (2000) as a guiding vision. He calls the book "a masterly dissection of a series of drought-famines that ravaged populations across the globe in the last quarter of the nineteenth century," but adds that it is a prophetic look into the future of the management and exploitation of disaster. Ross writes that "on events long before the signal of anthropogenic global warming emerged, the book is an indispensable model for responding to today's trifecta of meteorological extremity, ecosystem collapse, and economic royalism." How we respond to such events largely depends on our economic status:

Capitalism and colonialism did not originate the biblical-scale rainfalls or monsoon failures"the worst recorded in centuries"but, in Brecht's sardonic phrase, they "brilliantly organized" the mass starvation in the wake of the natural disasters.

While we're here Thaddeus, let's make a buck off the suffering. Malachai, indeed, let's extend the suffering to make more bucks. That's the ticket! they chimed together.

And such profiteer's thinking, combined with rolling pearl harbors can make one wonder conspiratorially if they aren't out to get us for a buck. It doesn't help when Trump's besotted legal henchman, Rudy "RICO" Giuliani tells a teen "reporter" from Kazakhstan that "China did it," meaning the intentional spread of the Covid-19 virus. It presents a horrific vision that Ross emphasizes as reality in his essay:

Frontline reports provide Davis with more graphic accounts, on page after page, of the walking skeletons, peasants reduced to eating their houses, mothers cooking their own children, orphanages turned into charnel houses, bleached skulls littering the landscape, and wild beasts exercising dominion, attacking humans in broad daylight.

This is a vision straight out of the plague-bound years of the Dark Ages. And it's returning in the Anthropocene. Ross tells us how much uglier it can get:

The threat of climate change has given birth to a busy new world of financial speculation, in which disaster capitalism and a transformed insurance industry have emerged as voracious pacesetters. Predatory lenders have learned how to approach distressed communities with recovery loans in the wake of a catastrophe, while profiteers swoop down to bargain-pick public services on the auction block.

9/11 may not have been a so-called Inside Job, but you can see how it might have been with such amoral wonks at work, making a buck off disaster's sufferings at the end of human time. Ask Mikey.

These are all thought-tributes to Davis's practical philosophy and get-off-your-ass get-to-it-ness that makes his words more valuable than the average bear's. A few days ago, Haymarket Books put up a YouTube production, Fight Like Hell: A Tribute to Mike Davis. It is part eulogy, as well as a reminder that what Davis stood for was identifying the problem and resisting, doing. The tribute is produced and presented by four speakers: Anthony Arnove, Angela Davis, Geri Silva, Ruth Wilson Gilmore. It opens with the political activist, philosopher, academic, scholar, Angela Davis, queen of the 60s Black counterculture, remembering, from a recording done on a plane, the Good that Davis had wrought:

[He was] the one who could reliably persuade us that love was the glue that bound us together into a force powerful enough to imagine and indeed also to forge possibilities for habitable futures"He clearly went out demonstrating to us how to keep on fighting on behalf of immigrants, workers, people of color, Palestinian justice, Kurdish women, and on behalf of all those who yearn for the socialist futures. Humans and all living things on this planet deserve.

Oh, yeah. Davis was the real deal: He actually gave a sh*t. Angela Davis, too.

Angela and the others are effusive in their praise for the work Davis did with prison reform in California. Invited to speak before a Critical Resistance (CR) conference, Angela recounts his immediate linguistic impact:

He emphatically told the audience that each prison was a school or a hospital that would never be built. Prisons, he said, were more of a hazard in California than even the San Andreas Fault. And he said that no society since Nazi Germany had built so many prisons within such a short period of time.

And as for CR, she said of him:

Mike always emphasized how important it was to organize people's movements, that this was the ingredient of history that could throw a wrench into the machine.

And Ruth Wilson Gilmore, co-founder of the California Prison Moratorium Project Critical Resistance and the Central California Environmental Justice Network, adds to the portrait:

[C]alling him a prophet of doom shrivels Mike's astonishing intellectual, social and political work to some tough talk or doom talk as though a sliver of tone were the entire accomplishment rather than persistent notes on life in rehearsal that call us as actor or actor spectators to the process of making the world we want, which is the world we need.

Actor-spectators. This conjures up Abbie again and the spirit embodied in his notion of Revolution -- for the Hell of It.

The video is a pleasant hour and it definitely, for me, was worth it just to see Angela again, and to hear her eloquent voice and have her describe the connectedness that includes all who understand its value and transformative power. In a July 25, 2022, interview in The Los Angeles Times, Davis said, "I'm in the terminal stage of metastatic esophageal cancer but still up and around the house...But I guess what I think about the most is that I'm just extraordinarily furious and angry. If I have a regret, it's not dying in battle or at a barricade as I've always romantically imagined " you know, fighting." The LA Times interview deepens the connection between Angela and Mike Davis, how they met, the bum '54 Chevy he gave her, and their lifelong comradeship. The piece is a welcome sidebar to the profusion of analysis and reminiscing and is pure Davis, like the New Left Review article referenced above. There are a couple of bits worth considering. Sam Dean, the interviewer, reminds of Davis's roots in LA:

But the story that put Davis on the cultural map, laid out in his 1990 bestseller "City of Quartz," is the story of Los Angeles. The book, required reading for anyone who wants to understand the city, detailed a history of L.A. as a corrupt machine built to enrich its elite while the white supremacist LAPD served as attack dogs to beat, jail and kill troublemakers.

This could work as a metaphor regarding the near future of the planet, as well as a biography of the city. The portrait he paints describes "how climate disaster, capitalism and colonialism have ground the global poor between their gears and set us up for future calamity (including global viral pandemics, predicted in 2005's "The Monster at Our Door"). Davis was seen as almost a "seer"when he predicted the riots of '92. It remains to be seen whether his predictions of rolling pearl harbors of viruses spread occur as Climate Change worsens.

Now that Davis is dead, the tributes are profuse and we are pausing to recognize that yet another great socialist mind has bitten the dust. One recognizes, if you're a certain age, that the sane ones who helped guide the principles of your youth are dying or dead. I wept when I heard that Abbie had died of an overdose of his anti-depression medication. It was almost horrifying to let it set in that the clown prince of the Sixties, who made so many people laugh with his mockery of The Man, had lost his levity in the end. I wonder what we'll do when Chomsky (83), Nader (88), and even Dylan (81) are dead, and there is no inspiration or wisdom uttering or signing from the hivemind we've been herded toward to await the eschatological last and hopeless days of mankine. But Mike Davis would not have approved of such pessimism; he was a truck driver.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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