Prof. Mike Davis. DR.
Mohsen Abdelmoumen: You call yourself an « old school socialist ». Can you tell us why?
Prof. Mike Davis: Hm, ‘old school Socialist.’ I suppose I’m making three claims. First, socialism – the belief that the earth belongs to labor – is my moral being. In fact it is my religion, the values that anchor the commitments that define my life. Second, ‘old school’ implies putting in work year after year for the good cause. In academia one runs across people who call themselves Marxists and go to lots of conferences but hardly ever march on a picketline, go to a union meeting, throw a brick or simply help wash the dishes after a benefit. What’s even worse they deign to teach us the ‘real Marx’but lack the old Moor’s fundamental respect for individual working people and his readiness to become a poor outlaw on their behalf. Finally, plain ‘socalist’ expresses identification with the broad movement and the dream rather than with a particular program or camp. I have strong, if idiosyncratic opinions on all the traditional issues – for example, the necessity of an organization of organizers (call it Leninism, if you want) but also the evils of bureaucracy and permanent leaderships (call it anarchism if you wish) – but I try to remind myself that such positions need to be constantly reassessed and calibrated to the conjuncture. One is always negotiating the slippery dialectic between individual reason, which must be intransigently self-critical, and the fact that one needs to part of a movement or a radical collective in order, as Sartre put it, to ‘be in history’. Moral dilemnas and hard choices come with the turf and they cannot be evaded with ‘correct lines.’
What remains of labor movements in the United States?
US trade unionism remains imperilled but the working class is alive and kicking back. But it’s gone ‘wildcat.’ Consider the recent teachers strike in West Virginia, a ‘red’ state where it is illegal for public employees to walk off the job. Ignoring appeals from union leaders to return to their classrooms, the teachers – amongst the worst paid in the country – stayed in the streets until they won their pay raise and, more importantly, put education at the top of the state’s legislative agenda. The teachers most important allies were really their ancestors: the miners, steelworkers and hill farmers who made West Virginia a cauldron of unionism in the early twentieth century. People know their roots in the Mountaineer State and the strike mobilized incredible support from people who might have voted for Trump (Clinton never talked about coal jobs or deindustrialization) but still identify with grandmothers and grandfathers who fought in the labor wars of the last century. Oklahoma, where teachers are even worst paid and oil owns the legislature, may be the next battlefield.
Organized labor, meanwhile, is standing on the banks of the Rubicon. For a generation the big American unions have relied on establishment Democrats – that is to say, the Clinton-Obama neo-liberal wing of the Party – to defend jobs and repel attacks on the rights of labor. It has been a failed, disastrous policy. The center-right Democratic leadership has been focused on the needs of Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, not the jobs crisis that eats the soul of blue-collar America and has now been passed on to young college graduates, burdened with huge debts and locked out of security employment. The socio-economic fulcrum of the Sanders’ movement has been joining together the old working class with the young downwardly-mobile graduates. This summer establishment Democrats will be challenged by progressives in hundreds of primaries. Labor will define itself by whose side it takes.
Your very interesting and very rich book Late Victorian Holocaust: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World shows us the killing of millions of people by colonialism and capitalism during among others the famines of El Niño in the second half of the 19th century. This historical story makes the disastrous assessment of capitalism and colonialism across the world. Don’t you think that there is a similarity between what you describe in your book and the current imperialist wars, such as the extermination of millions of Iraqis, Libyans, etc.? Is not the history of capitalism and colonialism a long series of criminal wars?
I had the privilege when younger of working side by side in various solidarity campaigns with extraordinary comrades from Turkey, Egypt, Palestine/Israel, Lebanon and especially Iran. I got to know for example, a Lebanese activist from a Maronite background who lost her eye to Israeli shellfire while rescuing PLO fighters; another young woman, Jewish and an authority on Yiddish culture, who militated side by side with her husband, a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine; and, of course, young Turkish communists indistinguishable other than some of their mothers spoke Turk, and others Kurdish. But most of all, the very many Iranians who for a while in the 1970s were probably the largest contingent of the left in Los Angeles. On one memorable occasion they set fire to the Shah’s sister’s mansion in Beverly Hills. I was especially close to a brilliant young physicist named Mitra. She was jailed and then executed shortly after returning to Khomeini’s Iran. So many of our other Iranian friends died as well.
I cite these memories only to emphasize that there was once a generation of lions: children of the Algerian revolution, the anti-British uprisings in Aden and Dhofar, Nasserism in its heroic period, the early PLO, and, of course, the endless battles against the local oil rentiers and their American and British patrons. At the end of the day, however, revolutionary nationalists and indigenous socialists were crushed and now their ideas and struggles have almost been erased from history. (Afghan communism, for its part, more or less committed suicide, its deadly internal conflicts leading the Kremlin to intervene with catastrophic results for all sides.)
This ‘missing Middle Eastern left’ has conditioned everything that has followed: the Saudis’s one-hundred-billion-dollar crusade to implant Wahhabite intolerance throughout the Sunni world; the Mullahs’ replacement of secular Persian nationalism with Shiite messianism; the evolution of Israel into a corrupt, theocratic Sparta; the oppression of Shias and south Asians in the Gulf states; the bloody overthrow of a democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt; and the transformation of a vibrant, populist Islamicism in Turkey into a cheering section for the neo-Ottoman autocracy of Erdogan. As always the victims are the trade unions, the remnant leftists, the Palestinians, the Kurds, the local religious minorities, and increasingly the ecumenical Sufis. Imperialism has incited a religious civil war within the House of Islam.
Of course, this is barely scratches the surface of a complex crisis that includes the concentration of energy wealth in the hands of absolute monarchs and their billionaire cousins; a structural unemployment crisis, especially for secondary and college graduates, that exceeds the 1930s in Europe and North America; and collapse of irrigated agriculture in much of the region as farmers fight climate change without no help from governments. As a result, the countrysides are forced to flee to the cities (or rather their slum peripheries) and then the Americans (or the Israelis) bomb those cities into blood-stained rubble. Gaza, Tyre, Beirut, Aleppo, Mosul, Ramadi, and Falluja, not to mention the Afghan countryside where tens of thousands have died under bombardment by B52s and killer drones.
If we in the US antiwar movement were justified to characterize the bombing of Indochina as genocide, is this not the same thing, a half century later? My deep shame is that so few of us in the aggressor nation have lifted a finger against the slaughter and endless ‘war on terrorism’ that justifies these holocausts. In my mind, it does not matter, at least from the standpoint of universal morality, whether or not those being bombed carry a Koran or a Red Book or simply their child’s photograph under their robes. We have the same obligation to resist imperialism and embrace those elements of labor and the left that continue – in Cairo, Istanbul, Rojava, Casablanca and so on -to keep the dream of a socialist Middle East alive. It’s especially important to push the Sanders’ camp toward anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist positions. A simple slogan: US out, now and forever.
At the moment when the champions of capitalism praise its benefits, do not you think that the capitalist system is outdated and that it is time to get rid of it definitively?
I think most people, leftists included, assume that Marx and Engels had some detailed model of what a socialist society would look like. They didn’t and in fact wrote very little on the subject. Quite scientifically, they believed that the outlines of such a society would emerge only in the course of the struggle against capital. When events in their lifetimes illuminated some of the principles of post-capitalist society – as for example, the movement for a shorter working day, the emergence of producer cooperatives, and the participatory democracy of the Paris Commune – they were quick to draw appropriate lessons but not to impose schemas.
On two crucial issues, however, Marx was absolutely clear. First, that goal of socialism was the transformation of surplus labor into equally distributed free time for everyone. « The measure of wealth, » he wrote in Capital, « is then not any longer, in any way, labor time, but rather disposable time. » Such a society would become possible when the creation of real wealth came to depend less on the amount of labor time involved in production than upon the « the general state of science and on the progress of technology. »
Secondly, Marx clearly foresaw that the full-scale development of science as the primary productive power could either liberate humanity or doom it. If the workers’ movement, in other words, failed to achieve the power necessary to make science and automation serve human needs, would use these productive forces to undermine the conditions for human survival.
We need only look around us to see that the global market no longer creates jobs, but on a vast scale, unemployment and marginalization. Urbanization accelerates but without social provision of housing, healthcare or sanitary infrastructure. The infrastructure of totalitarianism – that is to say, of the digitalization of surveillance, incarceration and war – is constantly revolutionized but billions lack antibiotics, clean water or toilets. ‘Green capitalism’ is highly advertised but the global carbon footprint grows relentlessly. In short we stand at the verge of a civilizational catastrophe and retrogression comparable to the Black Death of the 13th century or the Columbian genocide of the 16th century. In the wealthier countries rightwing populism growing in fertile soil of economic insecurity and deindustrialization turns its wrath on immigrants and the global poor.
A ‘triage’ of humanity is in progress and in such times one must take a stand for the species not for the nation, for the necessary not for the immediately realistic. The key question is not the growing inequality of wealth and income as the Occupy movements maintain, but the privatization of economic power that ensures such inequalities. Future survival for the majority of the world’s population requires that the economic surpluses generated by the information revolution and globalization are invested wisely in rebuilding our living environments and equalizing a high quality of living (which is not the same as rampant consumption). How to democratize economic power? Socialists may not yet have found the path, but they are the only ones urgently looking.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is the Prof. Mike Davis?
Mike Davis is an American writer, political activist, ethnologist, urban theorist, and historian.
He started as a slaughterhouse worker, truck driver, then began studying and became interested in Marxism. He tackled many topics, including the class struggle through the study of land issues in Los Angeles, the development of slums and the militarization of society through security measures. He was an activist of the Congress of Racial Equality and of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
In 1996-1997, he was a Getty Scholar at the Getty Research Institute, and he received a MacArthur Fellowship Award in 1998. He won in 2002 the World History Association Book Prize and the Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction in 2007.
Mike Davisis a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, and an editor of the New Left Review. Prof. Davis has taught urban theory at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and at Stony Brook University before he secured a position at University of California, Irvine’s history department. He also contributes to the British monthly Socialist Review, the organ of the British Socialist Workers Party. As a journalist and essayist, Mike Davis has written for, among others, The Nation and the UK’s New Statesman.He is a self-defined international socialist and « Marxist-Environmentalist”.
He is the author of several books, including: Beyond Blade Runner: Urban Control, The Ecology of Fear (1992);Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class (1986, 1999); City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990, 2006); ¿Quién mató a Los Ángeles? (1994, Spanish only);Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (1998); Casino Zombies: True Stories From the Neon West (1999,German only); Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City (2000); Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (2001); The Grit Beneath the Glitter: Tales from the Real Las Vegas, edited with Hal Rothman (2002); Dead Cities, And Other Tales (2003); Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, with Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew (2003); Cronache Dall’Impero (2005, Italian only); The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu (2005); Planet of Slums: Urban Involution and the Informal Working Class (2006); No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border, with Justin Akers Chacon (2006); Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (2007); In Praise of Barbarians: Essays against Empire (2007); Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism, edited with Daniel Bertrand Monk (2007); Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory (Verso: London 2018).
Published in American Herald Tribune, April 11, 2018: https://ahtribune.com/economy/2218-mike-davis.html
In French in Palestine Solidarité: http://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.mohsen_abdelmoumen.120418.htm