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Mike Davis’ Forgotten Book

Issue 275

Unlike many of his peers in academia, his truckdriver-turned-Marxist professor never lost sight of the importance of class struggle.

Steven Sherman Nov 21

Mike Davis, who died Oct. 25 at the age of 76, was a prolific author, a Marxist urban scholar and former truckdriver with a working-class perspective often rare in leftist academics of the last generation. His best-known book was City of Quartz, a dystopian analysis of how Los Angeles was shaped, but his works included the sort-of-followup Ecology of Fear; Planet of Slums; and histories of the car bomb, global pandemics, famines and imperialism in the late 19th century, and activism in L.A. in the 1960s.

Tributes to him have zeroed in on City of Quartz as his most important work. Largely ignored has been his first book, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class, from 1986. This is unfortunate, as it may be his richest work. Davis was unequivocally writing in the Marxist tradition, but his work breaks with the two more heralded Marxist texts of the period, Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism and David Harvey’s Condition of Postmodernity, which both debated postmodernism, something that seemed so urgent to many in the 1980s. 

Davis went in a very different direction with a unique style, highlighting politics, labor and the economy — the stuff of class struggle that has often been marginal to academic leftists since the 1980s. Prisoners of the American Dream is in the tradition of writing that despairs over the American working class’ failure to unify around a socialist orientation. The American Dream that holds them prisoner combines the hope that capitalism can deliver prosperity to all working people with white racial identity, which regularly divides the working class and undermines struggles. 

Yet Davis did not tell a simplistic “the U.S. working class has been duped into accepting racialized capitalism” story. Instead, he emphasized the recurring bouts of class struggle. The work was deeply shaped by the social-history-from-below wave of the 1970s, but without the romanticization.

Prisoners of the American Dream also incorporated a great deal of the “regimes of accumulation” approach to understanding capitalist history that was evolving in the 1980s: that capitalism can be divided into phases, characterized by different forms of corporate organization, work and government interaction with the economy. Davis, however, had a more global perspective on capitalism than most authors with this approach.

Davis did not tell a simplistic “the U.S. working class has been duped into accepting racialized capitalism” story.

The book has quite a bit of history of the ups and downs of elections, campaigns and efforts to transform the Democratic Party, epitomized by the chapter title “The Barren Marriage of American Labor and the Democratic Party.” Although Davis came out of a Trotskyist tradition (he was associated with Solidarity, a Detroit-based organization descended from International Socialists), he was a nuanced observer of American politics. The book includes a forceful defense of Jesse Jackson’s 1984 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination (just as in 2016, Davis enthusiastically embraced Bernie Sanders’ bid). 

Davis explores all these topics — social history, economic transformations and electoral politics — in remarkable, well-informed detail. Randomly selected pages brim with insights: “In the United States… The new middle class of professionals, salaried managers, and credentialed technicians comprised 23.8 per cent of the labor force in 1977 — a higher proportion than in any other OECD country except Sweden.” That sentence expresses one of the book’s major themes — that, along with the persistence of racism, the weight of the upper middle class, heavily entangled with the state, poses a major obstacle to a left advance. It’s a point that’s still relevant almost 40 years later, is still relevant, given the successful marginalization of Sanders by upper-middle-class centrists in the Democratic party establishment and their failure to stop two senators from blocking more ambitious programs.

Obituaries and remembrances have described Davis as an optimist, but there isn’t much evidence for that here. His depiction of what was then the recent past of the 1970s is particularly vivid: Racism resurgent, a demobilized and disorganized left, and capitalists facing new international competition and seeing an opportunity to break social contracts. He presented a grim future of an increasingly apartheid U.S., and it would be interesting to evaluate what has and has not come to pass. 

If the U.S. left is to renew itself, he suggested, it will be closely aligned with the Latin American left, an outlook that seemed more palpable in the 1980s, when the movement in solidarity with leftists in Central America was thriving (Prisoners of the American Dream was dedicated to the rebels against El Salvador’s military dictatorship). In any case, contemporary left writers should treasure this book. Although labor and politics both get attention these days, there are few efforts to connect them to the evolution of capitalism, both domestically and globally. Mike Davis’ first book should provide ample inspiration to renew this effort. The last thing we should do now is overlook it.

Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class
By Mike Davis
Verso, 1986, 320 pages

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