Mike Davis’s Forecast for the Left

Amid the Wildfires

Mike Davis’s forecast for the left.


In early 2009, the historian and social critic Mike Davis sat down for an interview with Bill Moyers to discuss what was then the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. When asked whether, as a socialist, he had anticipated the crisis, Davis said he couldn’t have predicted its scale or devastation.

Davis’s modesty won out over the truth. Four years earlier, he had, in fact, done just that. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, he laid out the fundamental problems of the housing bubble then underway. Noting its particular precarity in Southern California, he also went on to discuss how it might affect the country and the world: The “national economy may be equally vulnerable to property deflation, with a mild jolt sufficient to end the current American boom, and perhaps throw all the dollar-pegged economies into recession.” Davis wasn’t the only one who saw that crash coming, of course. But in the Moyers interview, he downplayed his clairvoyance with a joke: “People of the left like myself are famous,” he said, for “predicting 11 of the last three depressions.”

While he’s probably right about leftists in the aggregate, Davis’s own track record on sounding the alarm has proved incredibly accurate. Over the course of a remarkable career, he has been resolutely clear-eyed about the nightmares we face as a society and a planet, mostly bearish on the prospects for reversing those nightmares, and always prescient.

Nearly all of the principal contentions of Davis’s many books have unfortunately proved correct: the continued decline of the American labor movement, the expanding and potentially explosive inequality in urban America, the supercharged global expansion of miserable slums, the disaster of climate change, and—most recently and horrifyingly—a viral pathogen wreaking havoc across the globe.

Davis is a scholar who digs deep into the historical archives and weaves his findings together in astonishingly original and compelling syntheses. But one of his strengths has been his ability to anticipate the future: Many of his books are monograph-length warnings of nightmares yet to come. Even his works of history are implicit or explicit arguments for public action against ongoing or impending disasters. He recognizes that the past defeats of the left and the labor movement can’t be waved away in favor of feel-good paeans to isolated victories and lessons learned for next time, and he makes these arguments not in spite of his lifelong and ironclad commitment to those causes but because of it. He takes those movements seriously enough to tell their participants the forecast isn’t always sunny. The long and continuous record of working-class defeat, he insists, means that the ship is stuck in an ongoing storm and sinking.

Part of the reason for Davis’s pessimism of the intellect stems from the period in which he was radicalized. He chose a rather lonely time to launch a career as a socialist critic and historian: His first book was published in 1986, just ahead of the “end of history” after the Berlin Wall fell and capitalism’s victory was declared complete. But part of the reason is also that he has been among a small handful of prominent writers to keep the flame of socialism and class politics alive in this age of free-market triumphalism.

This clear-eyed sobriety, however, does make his two new books—the essay collection Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory and the long-awaited Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, coauthored with the historian Jon Wiener—fairly remarkable. In them, Davis maintains his lifelong probity, cataloging past defeats and eyeing future doom and gloom. But even as he retains all of his signature uncertainty, he has also found a new sense of hope. Old Gods, New Enigmas and Set the Night On Fire mark a clear departure from his nearly four decades as the bearer of extremely bad news.

One cause for this change may be that Davis has been joined by a new generation of radicals. Since the financial crash, socialism has been reborn in the United States. So has a flourishing of new social movements and radical causes. The catastrophes may still be piling up everywhere we look, but it seems that, for the first time in his career, Davis has allowed himself to see those sunbeams as harbingers of a real change in the weather.

Although it’s rare in the contemporary world of letters, Davis comes from the working class. Born in 1946 in Southern California, he grew up in a blue-collar town just outside of Los Angeles. His father was a meatcutter who suffered a heart attack after the family moved to an area near San Diego. After his father’s death, Davis dropped out of high school to work at a meat company to support the family. It was during this time that his radicalization began in earnest, though as he notes, his father had set him on this path several years earlier. In Davis’s introduction to The Bending Cross, the 2007 rerelease of Ray Ginger’s biography of Eugene Debs, he mentions that he first read the book in these years: “Thanks to the powder-blue ‘55 Chevy that I plowed into a wall while street racing with drunken teenage friends,” he was stuck in the hospital when his father gave him a copy of it.

After returning to school and graduating, Davis landed a full scholarship to Reed College, only to get kicked out for living in his girlfriend’s dorm. By that point, the upheavals of the 1960s were in full swing. Cut loose from college, he moved to Los Angeles and threw himself into activism, joining Students for a Democratic Society in 1964 and burning his draft card in 1965. By the following year, Davis had risen up through the ranks of the organization and was serving as its LA regional organizer.

During this period, Davis’s political education took place on the streets as much as in the library. He was in Watts during the 1965 uprising and narrowly avoided a fascist attack by right-wing Cubans on a movement center that involved the gusanos tying up young leftists and spraying oven cleaner in their faces. (Davis usually would have been in the building but was picking up his wife at the time.) He marched against the Vietnam War with thousands of other anti-war protesters, and by 1968 he’d joined the Communist Party, impressed by the LA chapter’s public opposition to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Expelled from the party a year later, after confronting a visiting Soviet attaché—despite joining the CP, he was no fan of the Soviet Union—Davis left full-time political work and returned to his blue-collar roots, driving a big rig and later a tour bus. He was finally convinced to return to higher education when, during a strike by the tour bus drivers, he found that he was the only one to vote against hiring a hit man to kill the head strikebreaker. (Thankfully, the hit never happened.)

Attending UCLA, Davis finally directed his energy toward history and the study of politics. While studying Irish history in Scotland, he developed a relationship with Perry Anderson and the New Left Review. After Davis completed his undergraduate studies and began a PhD in history (which remains unfinished to this day), Anderson offered him a job.

Working out of the New Left Review’s London offices, Davis began editing for the journal. It was there that he also developed a reputation as a bit of a loose cannon. As Adam Shatz chronicled in his 1997 profile for Lingua Franca (the most complete biographical sketch available), after Davis received a letter from the historian Eugene Genovese complaining about the journal’s treatment of his work, he responded with his own letter: “Dear Professor Genovese, fuck you.” In another moment of editorial anger, Davis spilled “his atrarium, filled with a garter snake, an axolotl, and a carnivorous African toad…onto the office’s lush carpet.” He would work out of the journal’s London offices for six years before turning his energy toward writing.

Davis’s oeuvre is wide-ranging, his books varied in tone, topic, and style. His first, Prisoners of the American Dream, established his record of candidly examining the prospects for progressive social change and the dismal fate of organized labor in the United States, with its lack of a party or power. The book soon became essential reading for anyone concerned with US unions and their history, even if its conclusions were bleak.

“The smug liberal teleology of US history, with its happy endings in a perpetually self-reforming ‘society of affluence,’ scarcely accords with the new politics of inequality and social revanchism that have become dominant since the late 1970s,” Davis told his readers. The US political system “has managed to repulse every attempt to create an alternative class politics…. In spite of the periodic intensity of the economic class struggle and the episodic appearance of ‘new lefts’ in every generation since the Civil War, the rule of capital has remained more powerfully installed and less politically contested than in any other advanced capitalist social formation.”

The bulldozing of labor and the New Deal order in the 1980s put Davis in a foul mood—one that carried over to his 1990 book, City of Quartz. Incredibly for a pessimistic socialist in an age of go-go optimism, the book was a breakthrough hit. A wildly original analysis of the city on the threshold of the new millennium, the book synthesized knowledge about Los Angeles’s history, politics, culture, architecture, policing, immigration, and more, painting a dark picture that embodied a kind of American urban dystopia on steroids after the nightmare of Reaganism and the “developers’ millennium.” Davis became an intellectual celebrity: Universities offered him teaching gigs and speaking engagements; urban planners and Hollywood screenwriters called to pick his brain; the MacArthur Foundation awarded him a “genius” grant.

City of Quartz described the pressure-cooker atmosphere of extreme racial and economic inequality in Los Angeles and was released just before the Rodney King riots. A South Central activist and friend, Theresa Allison, introduced Davis to her son, Dewayne Holmes, a member of the Crips who was attempting to broker a truce with the Bloods. Davis soon found himself in a new role, advising LA gangs on peacemaking deals as well as advocating surprisingly social-democratic solutions to their members’ problems. Making an argument that will sound familiar to today’s racial justice protesters, Davis told Shatz that the gang members he was working with had embarked on a “lonely crusade to make jobs—and not more cops—the central issue in local politics…. We can’t do anything about the crack economy until you provide jobs and alternative economic resources.”

Yet by the time City of Quartz established Davis as one of the country’s premier urbanists, his interests had grown even more expansive: He was interested in the planet as a whole, in particular its bad weather and environmental depredation, which became the subject of his next book, 1998’s Ecology of Fear. In it, Davis focused on the violent weather, the natural disasters, and even the killer bees and plague-infected squirrels that made Southern California a place where, as he put it, “cataclysm has become virtually routine.” Davis had started his career writing about workers’ failed attempts to change the world; now he was insisting on the raw, terrifying power of ecology to shape and reshape that world as it pleases, with little concern for whatever petty exertions humans were engaged in. His political commitments remained the same and his activism continued, but Davis was not holding out hope for the American political scene to turn a corner anytime soon.

In Southern California’s foreboding and unforgiving environment, Davis saw something of his own radical politics: The region was characterized by a “revolutionary, not a reformist landscape.” In Ecology of Fear’s most famous chapter, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” he described how the picturesque town, home to movie stars, musicians, and Hollywood executives, was also “the wildfire capital of North America and, possibly, the world.” “Periodic firestorms of this magnitude are inevitable,” he noted, “as long as residential development is tolerated in the fire ecology of the Santa Monicas,” yet Malibu’s rich homeowners (“wealthy pyrophiles”) were repeatedly permitted to build and rebuild, with the help of cheap fire insurance and generous federal disaster relief funds.

Davis’s shift in appreciation and respect for the weather was also evident in his 2000 book, Late Victorian Holocausts. The book was primarily about the brutal famines that swept India, China, and Brazil from 1870 to 1914, resulting in tens of millions of deaths. These mass deaths were no acts of God; they were killings orchestrated by the conscious choices of colonial powers, which brutally severed their colonial subjects’ “smallholder production [by forcing them] into commodity and financial circuits controlled from overseas,” thereby “undermin[ing] traditional food security,” he wrote. “Millions died, not outside the ‘modern world system,’ but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism.”

But Late Victorian Holocausts also features lengthy, intricate sections explaining the science behind El Niño weather systems dating back to the 18th century. Davis took pains to emphasize that the colonists’ explanations of mass famine as coming simply from freak acts of nature like El Niño were efforts of delusional self-exculpation; in fact, in the centuries before these countries had their traditional food production systems upended by the colonizers, such famines were basically unknown. In precolonial India, for example, many rural farmers took into account “the crucial ecological relationships and unpredictable climate fluctuations of the subcontinent’s drought-prone regions.” British colonialism smashed the agricultural systems that had struck this delicate balance, replacing them with a system of resource extraction characterized by the blatant and constant theft of cash crops from Indians rather than meeting their basic needs. That theft was the British Empire’s sole interest, so it was unconcerned about the weather’s awesome ability to turn what were previously routine droughts into some of the most murderous periods in recent human history. “El Niño,” Davis explained, “worked in sinister partnership with the world market.”

By 2000, the contours of Davis’s interests as a writer had become clear. As a socialist, he was interested in the rare leverage points through which social change could be achieved. But his examination of past efforts by organized workers—the classic change agent for Marxists—revealed an almost constant record of failure.

Davis also saw, earlier than many on the left, the raw and unyielding power of weather and the natural world and believed that capitalism was incapable of living in harmony with it, let alone in proper awe and reverence for it. The brutal effects of this capitalist folly, he warned, also fell unequally on the world’s working class.

Marx argued that the organized working class could be the “gravedigger” of the bourgeoisie, ushering in a new and better world. Davis warned that a defeated working class would not only fail to win power but might end up losing the planet, too.

In Planet of Slums, Davis examined the frightening consequences of this defeat on the ever-growing global population, which had been shunted into massive urban slums where basic infrastructure and economic development were nowhere to be found—over 1 billion people treated as surplus populations in their miserable urbanized holding zones. “Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven,” Davis wrote, “much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.” Under such immiseration, one might expect a population of the wretched primed for revolt—and the long-anticipated revolution of the poor and disenfranchised perhaps finally realized. But while individual acts of resistance are everywhere in these areas, Davis observed, collective action is harder to come by, because of the lack of coherent economic development and the growing plans by ruling elites to brutally police these depressed areas.

Along with human agents subjugated, disorganized, and subject to brutal weather in impoverished areas, Davis pointed to another terrifying development within the earth’s ecology: plagues, which he examined in his 2005 book on the avian flu, republished in 2020 as The Monster Enters: COVID-19 and the Plagues of Capitalism. As he had done with so many other harbingers of impending apocalypse, Davis sounded the alarm about a potential pandemic long before it hit. And as with the El Niño systems in Late Victorian Holocausts, Davis didn’t just gloss over the science in question. He went into great detail about how coronaviruses spread and mutate, how they interact with other diseases, and how industrial agriculture, globalization, and slum expansion create their perfect breeding grounds.

Reading his tour through the viral science of recent decades is an enraging reminder of how much we knew about the danger of such a pandemic long before it befell us in early 2020. Davis quoted the influenza researcher Robert Webster saying in 2003, “If a pandemic happened today, hospital facilities would be overwhelmed and understaffed because many medical personnel would be afflicted with the disease. Vaccine production would be slow…. Critical community services would be immobilized. Reserves of existing vaccines [and medical equipment] would be quickly depleted, leaving most people vulnerable to infection.” Sounds familiar. “Permanent bio-protection against new plagues,” Davis added, “would require more than vaccines. It would need the suppression of these ‘structures of disease emergence’ through revolutionary reforms in agriculture and urban living that no large capitalist or state-capitalist country would ever willingly undertake.”

Davis’s opposition to capitalism isn’t just rooted in its brutal inequalities of wealth and power, but also in its refusal to accept the ecological limits that make history, through everything from earthquakes and wildfires to viral infections. Unlike many of his socialist predecessors, who insisted on a forthcoming communist utopia in which nature’s cruelties had been conquered, Davis warned that any future egalitarian system couldn’t just redistribute resources; it would have to respect these hard ecological limits, even live in awe of them.

Whether writing about Los Angeles in the 1990s or the history of the American labor movement, Davis has often been criticized for going over the top in his doomsday descriptions and predictions. Given how frequently recent history has proved those grim predictions correct, one might assume that Davis (like many of us) would now be sinking further down the spiral of despair. Yet in his two most recent books, both coming in an era in which the ravaging has continued but a simultaneous new sense of transformation has emerged, Davis has embraced a tenuous sense of hope. He hasn’t turned away from unflinchingly cataloging the wreckage piling up around us, but his eternally clear-eyed analysis now also recognizes when a political moment pregnant with possibility, from the Sanders campaigns to the rebirth of the socialist movement in America, has emerged.

To a reader who hasn’t worked through his back catalog, Old Gods, New Enigmas may appear to be a strange read. Its introduction is classic Davis, tantalizing its reader with stray, entertaining biographical bits. During his high school dropout phase, Davis tells us, he drove a meat truck to a far-flung Californian restaurant called the Chicken Shack, where a friend of his dad’s named Lee Gregovich worked as a cook after he’d been blacklisted in the 1950s for his Communist Party membership and union activism. Gregovich would end his conversations with Davis with a slap on the back and an admonition to “read Marx!”—even though he had, in fact, read little to no Marx himself. For Davis, however, the imperative stuck. But “there comes a time when every old student must decide whether or not to renew their driver’s license,” he writes, and in Old Gods, he chooses to renew it, rereading Marx for the old man’s own purposes: to figure out how to change the world, in a world that has radically changed.

Even if the book feels like an odds-and-ends collection, covering Marx’s theories of working-class agency and his understanding of nationalism, it ends with a coda on climate change and retains many of the best features of a Davis book. Brimming with insights, Old Gods is a collection in which he attempts to make sense of how, in the face of crisis and potential disaster, workers can realize their latent power to build a world that respects the implacable demands of ecology and averts climate apocalypse.

For Davis, a central quandary faced by many 21st-century socialists goes back to socialism’s fundamentals. Marx saw the proletariat as the universal class that would usher in a new world. Yet we live in an era in which much of that class has seen or is facing down fragmentation and weakness, an “unprecedented crisis of proletarianization,” as more and more workers become “superfluous.” “The fate of this superfluous humanity has become the core problem of twenty-first century Marxism,” Davis writes. If workers have lost the structural power they once held, who’s going to save the world from its myriad ills?

Davis has broached this topic before. In his conclusion to Planet of Slums, he asked, “To what extent does an informal proletariat”—the one he had just described as existing in squalor around the world and growing by the day—“possess that most potent of Marxist talismans: ‘historical agency’?” He quickly answered his own question: not much. But in Old Gods, Davis is not ready to throw in the towel quite yet. He insists that workers still hold the keys to change the world. They have “been demoted in agency, not fired from history. Machinists, nurses, truck drivers, and school teachers remain the organized social base defending the historical legacy of labor.”

Here, Davis returns to many of the questions about working-class agency that he raised in Prisoners of the American Dream. But while he repeatedly emphasized in that book just how bleak the proletariat’s prospects were in the 1980s, in Old Gods he makes no such claim. The underlying sense is of possibility for working-class action rather than hopelessness.

Turning to the weather, his third chapter focuses not on Marx but on the climatological writings of the Russian prince turned anarchist Peter Kropotkin, who was one of Marx’s rivals and spent the late 19th and early 20th centuries discussing the receding of glaciers and the desertification that followed. Kropotkin’s life and career are interesting enough, but a reader might be forgiven for wondering where the story is going, until Davis explains that Kropotkin’s writings on the environment represent, in his view, “the first scientific attempt to make a comprehensive case for natural climate change as a prime mover of the history of civilization.”

This argument is precisely the case that Davis has hinted at in much of his work since Ecology of Fear. In Kropotkin’s eccentric but visionary writings, Davis sees himself and the politics for our future.

Davis’s final chapter on human-induced climate change, astonishingly enough, makes explicit the shift in mood a reader senses in the book’s beginning. Hosting a “debate with myself,” he oscillates between despair and hope. The reasons for despair probably don’t need rehashing, but Davis chooses to end the book with at least a suggestion of ecological hope—ironically, given his dark writings about urban areas at home and abroad, one to be found in cities. Certainly, cities are far from being environmentally sustainable at present. But “the ecological genius of the city remains a vast, largely hidden power…. Public affluence—represented by great urban parks, free museums, libraries, and infinite possibilities for human interaction—represents an alternative route to a rich standard of life based on Earth-friendly sociality…. The egalitarian aspects of city life consistently provide the best sociological and physical supports for resource conservation and carbon mitigation.”

In fact, it is in cities that Davis allows himself to see the hope for the very ecological balance that he has spent his entire career insisting is completely out of whack. In the green socialist city of the future lies the possibility not only for the massive redistribution of wealth but also for “well-defined boundaries between city and countryside,” in which “urban growth can preserve open space and vital natural systems, while creating environmental economies of scale in transportation and residential construction.” Here, traffic can be better regulated, waste better recycled, public services better designed, as “public luxury replaces privatized consumption.”

Davis’s past writings on urban areas tended to emphasize the often brutal, nightmarish character of the unequal city under contemporary capitalism. But in the final chapter of Old Gods, Davis’s doomsday urbanism is transformed into a defense of city life and its possibilities. It’s in urban life, he proposes, that the dystopian forces he’s spent his whole career describing might finally be defeated. Given his longstanding refusal to offer false consolation, that possibility of a better world actually winning out over the forces of darkness isn’t offered cavalierly.

Davis’s newfound sense of hope also suffuses Set the Night on Fire, a sweeping portrait of a city in upheaval in the 1960s. Davis and his coauthor, Jon Wiener, had long been at work on the book. (In a 2003 interview with Wiener for the journal Radical History Review, Davis called it his “day job.”) At just shy of 800 pages, the book captures the strengths of both Davis and Wiener, who is a historian of the 1960s. The pages fly by, and the reading is a joy. But its stories offer something that was missing in Davis’s previous work: a sense of possibility that, despite the vicious repression and inevitable defeats it will suffer, resistance is worthwhile and even occasionally victorious.

The upsurges chronicled in the book are wide-ranging, featuring a mix of historically well-known characters and many others unwritten about in previous histories of the ’60s, from radicals to working people: Congress of Racial Equality activists departing for Freedom Rides in the Jim Crow South, alternative media outlets like the Los Angeles Free Press and the radio station KPFK (still on the air today), the Black Panthers, feminist and gay activists, the Los Angeles branch of the Communist Party, Black and Chicano middle and high school and community college students, leftist nuns, Students for a Democratic Society members protesting the Vietnam War, “teenyboppers” fighting cops on the Sunset Strip for the right to hang out, Watts rioters, Stokely Carmichael, Dorothy Healey, Angela Davis, Malcolm X—they’re all here, alongside many others. In nearly every chapter, the Los Angeles Police Department pops up to surveil and brutally suppress them, but we also find in nearly every chapter a refusal to let that repression become defeat.

Most of the book deals with activists organizing against racism in the city, from protests against housing segregation to the birth of a new Chicano nationalism to the politics of Black Power. Student organizing was central too, but unlike other regions of the country, where the student movement was often rooted in elite Ivy League universities and public schools like the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, the real action in Los Angeles was in the state schools and community colleges.

At San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University, Northridge), a commuter school in a sprawling, nearly all-white suburban section of the city, for example, dozens of Black students were charged after organizing a sit-in in the president’s office in November 1969, demanding a Black studies department. After their arrest, 24 of those students were charged with an astonishing 1,730 felonies for the action. The trial was described by the Los Angeles Times as “the first mass prosecution in this country of campus activists on felony charges,” and a majority of those found guilty ended up doing hard time.

Younger students were also active. Middle and high schoolers organized “blowout” protests in which 10,000 Chicano and 3,000 Black and white students walked out of school, sparked by the principal’s censorship of a popular play and then snowballing to include a number of student grievances. The protests, Davis and Wiener write, were “genesis events in the emergence of a new, militant ‘Chicano’ identity.”

Most of the upsurges in 1960s LA were defeated, despite their inspiring actions, just as the American labor movement was, as chronicled in Davis’s first book three and a half decades ago. But reading Set the Night on Fire, it’s easy to forget those defeats. Here, Davis returns to the city that made him famous through the dark portrait in City of Quartz. But gone is his sense of pessimism; of impending disaster from the sky, sea, air, and from fellow citizens; of a suffocating political environment in which little can be accomplished because the forces of evil are too overwhelming. Instead, the reader gets the feeling that they, too, could go set their own night on fire.

It’s no false optimism, to be sure. A central thread running through all of the tales is the racism, brutality, and red-baiting encountered by every one of these movements. The LAPD is constantly cracking skulls or worse. “The Manson gang,” Davis and Wiener write, “were bit players compared to the institutions of law and order” in Los Angeles. During the Watts uprising, Police Chief William Parker, a central villain of the book up until his death in 1966, described his approach to fighting the neighborhood’s Black residents as “very much like fighting the Viet Cong”; the racist brutality of his officers and the National Guard—who wantonly sprayed shotgun blasts and high-caliber machine gun fire during the uprising—wasn’t far from the US military’s conduct in Vietnam.

The city’s cops don’t let up. Late in the book, Davis and Wiener recount the LAPD’s assault on a Black Panthers office with tear gas, dynamite, and 5,000 rounds of ammunition. The department hasn’t barraged anyone with that many bullets since, but the cops’ brutality certainly hasn’t dissipated, in LA or anywhere else; from the Rodney King verdict to the suppression of last year’s George Floyd protests, police impunity has remained rife, while inequality continues to expand and military-grade hardware finds its way into cops’ hands.

Still, despite the defeats and the many instances in which the forces of reaction are actually stronger now than they were in the 1960s, Davis and Wiener clearly see their book as a means of heartening today’s activists in LA and beyond, just as the activists in the generations after the ’60s took the examples of these struggles as inspiration for their own fights. “The sixties in Los Angeles are best conceived of as a sowing,” they write, “whose seeds grew into living traditions of resistance.” Seeds, of course, often take a while to grow, and their growth is dependent on factors well beyond their control (not least of all, the weather). But Davis, for all his apocalyptic prophesying over the past four decades, has never lost faith in such seeds’ sprouting. In both Old Gods and Set the Night on Fire, we find him still sober, but putting that faith front and center.

Davis writes in Old Gods that the “classical rank-and-file organizer” didn’t spend the bulk of their time on the shop floor hopping up on soapboxes to deliver rousing speeches that sparked their coworkers to revolt against tyrannical bosses. Instead, that organizer was “more like a patient gardener,” daily clearing the workplace soil of the weeds of petty jealousies and rivalries so that eventually, someday, when the time was right, the sprout would pop up.

The same could be said of Davis himself. He’s been patient, waiting, despite all the horrors around us, for the conditions for change to allow for some real sprouts. Now, weather permitting, he’ll get to watch them grow.

A previous version of this article stated that Mike Davis burned his draft card in 1963 and drove a meat truck to a New Mexican restaurant called the Chicken Shack. He burned his draft card in 1965 and the Chicken Shack was located in California.

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