An Interview with Mike Davis

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

MCKAY: Thank you so much for joining us. It’s a great pleasure tonight to introduce California-based geographer and historian Mike Davis…Here are just some of the amazing titles from Mike Davis over his many years of being, I would say, one of the world’s most important Marxist historians: Prisoners of the American Dream, Planet of Slums, Late Victorian Holocausts, City of Quartz, and In Praise of Barbarians. They were joined in 2018 by a book I’m reading right now, and it’s totally brilliant, called Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory….

More germane to our series are Mike’s books on the global patterns of epidemic diseases, and here we have, in 2005, The Monster at our Door, which provides a disturbing – one review used the term “shockingly realistic” – analysis of the genesis of Avian Flu in the vast agro-business complex created by global neoliberalism. This book carried a message regarded as unduly alarmist by some critics: that unfettered capitalist accumulation was introducing humanity to an extended era of agro-business-accelerated diseases. In 2020, it was reissued with the new introduction under a revealing new name: The Monster Enters.

My first question. Along with others working in the Marxist tradition, for instance Bob Wallace, John Bellamy Foster, and Andreas Malm, you place special emphasis on the ways in which the present pandemic has been shaped by a corporate livestock revolution and Third World urbanization, elements in what many critical theorists have called the “metabolic rift.” In essence, the metabolic rift [school] maintains capitalist development, by despoiling the natural world, is undermining not only its own preconditions but menacing humanity’s continued existence on the planet.

One theme raised by this emerging school is that the present pandemic and the general climate crisis are deeply interconnected, albeit in complicated ways. I was particularly struck by one passage in The Monster at our Door from 2005: “Contemporary influenza, like a postmodern novel, has no single narrative but rather disparate storylines racing one another to dictate a bloody conclusion.” What… story lines particularly strike you as good ones to pursue as we come to grips with the legacy of this quite different disease called Covid-19?

Mike DAVIS: Thank you. Well,  first of all, I wanted to acknowledge my debt to Bob Wallace and his brilliant book on Big Farms, Big Flu, and also to Jim O’Connor, the great California Marxist economist, who really originated this idea of the metabolic rift. Before talking about the genesis and meaning of the current pandemic, I want to go back to something that I discussed at length in the original 2005 version of my book. There’s an incredible study that I quote by a large group of researchers and scientists.[1] What they show in absolutely extraordinary detail [are] the chief factors that influence the emergence, the spread, and also the pathogenicity of new diseases. Their account concerns West Africa. Now, traditionally, coastal West Africa, which is the most urban, fastest-urbanizing place on the planet, with the youngest population, derived its protein largely from fishing. There’s a huge kind of artisan fishing industry in the Gulf of Guinea. But, in the 1980s, 1990s, …huge factory fleets from Spain and Japan [and] northwest Europe rolled into the Gulf of Guinea, and they literally vacuumed up the fish stocks. Something like two-thirds of the fish protein was literally fished out, and this meant both the decline and destruction of parts of the native fishing industry, and also … [that] fish prices rose in the cities – [entailing] an acute shortage of protein. At the very same time, multinational logging companies in Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, part of Nigeria. were logging out hardwood forests on an industrial scale. In order to reduce their labour costs, they hired hunters basically to kill anything in sight. Some 60 to 70 wild animals,… including primates were put on the table in these logging camps. What happened then is that this “bush meat” (as was called) also found an immediate market in the … protein-deficient cities, as a substitute for fish or in some cases, for chicken. So, increasingly, bush meat found its way to the tables of people living in the slums of the large west African cities.

So you have, here, three different causalities: the ruthless mining-out of fish stocks in the Gulf of Guinea; the exploitation of tropical rain forests and the destruction of the barriers that they provide between wild animal diseases and viral reservoirs; and the growth (on… almost exponential scale) of informal and urban settlements lacking sanitation and potable water… So, these are the “perfect storm” conditions for the spread of Ebola, for HIV, and for God-knows-how-many-diseases in the future.

The primary actors in this are, of course, international corporations and governments financed by regressive taxes, who spend the minimum, if anything at all, on the provision of health infrastructure for these cities.

MCKAY: In that case, the story-line linking capitalist development to zoonotic diseases seems fairly straightforward. I’m not sure the story-lines in Covid-19 have congealed yet to the point that we can be sure that the “big farm creating disease” is really the one that’s going to be paramount. Some people then might say, “Well, doesn’t that render the comparisons problematic, because maybe the genesis of this disease is quite different?”’ It might have had little to do with factory farming.

One blogger in China I’m following [might respond]:  “Yeah, but that’s a red herring, because you’re actually missing the big picture – which is that this is an evolutionary pressure cooker in China,  … a pressure cooker of capitalist agriculture and urbanization.” …How you would respond to somebody who says, “well, this is a totally different script than the one of “big farms caused big flu.’”

DAVIS: It would be easy enough to say that, “Look, if there weren’t the wet markets (the wild animal markets in China), you wouldn’t have a direct transmission belt between wild viral reservoirs and urban dwellers.” Or you can take the Trump approach and see, behind this, … a virus escape from a laboratory (a one-in-a-million event). But the truth is this. China, quite understandably with its agricultural reforms, is rapidly expanding the intrusion of agriculture [into new areas], both with state policy but also simply [as a] survival strategy by poor villagers.

 One thing we shouldn’t forget is [that]… Covid was anticipated to an extraordinary degree. After the outbreak of Avian Flu in 2003 in Southeast Asia, people knew a pandemic was coming. And they knew that the virus would originate in contact between animals sold as food items – and particularly bats – [and humans].

So, there was a major collaboration between a US NGO and the researchers at the Virology Institute in Wuhan. They were down… for years exploring the case of Szechuan [researching bats] … the most numerous mammals on the planet (some 1,500 species). They identified something like 800 different coronaviruses that might be capable of emergence and transmission. (Their program was abruptly ended by President Trump). There are 19 or 20 major reports [from the US],  Western Europe, the World Health Organization – all detailing the likely progress of the pandemic.

The World Health Organization, which was supposedly the front-line defence (and this was accepted, by treaty, by the 130 or more countries signatory to the WHO), …[became] something of a hollow shell. Because countries didn’t pay their contribution, the WHO became more and more dependent upon the United States and China (and also the Gates Foundation) for its financing. It had a structure where countries are given a veto over the public announcements and findings of the WHO.

If we might say that Ebola and HIV were … “supply-driven” (by the destruction of natural barriers and the poverty driving people to bush food), in a sense… Covid is “demand-driven.” That is, the major factor is the absence of primary health care in so many parts of the world, as well as the [states’] failure (even in advanced countries with national health systems) to implement their own previous plans for pandemics. This has led to major breakdowns of major global institutions, starting with the WHO.

[If] you look at the case of the European Union… Its member countries are responsible for their own health care systems, but it has a pact that, in case of emergencies (whether those are earthquakes or tsunamis – but also pandemic disease),  requires cooperation and mutual aid. Italy, which was the first major western European country to be affected by the pandemic, invoked this statutory obligation. The response was immediate. France, Austria, other countries sealed their borders… In the end the only two countries that quickly responded to the Italian emergency were China (which sent plane-loads of experts and supplies) and tiny little Cuba, which immediately sent doctors (Cuban doctors being on the front lines of every major epidemic).

Even if you can’t tie coronavirus emergence directly to factory farms (in the way that you can with diseases carried by poultry or incubated in pigs), the fact is that a generation of understanding and planning was certainly discarded…And the pandemic was unleashed in a world in which there were, essentially, two immunological humanities…

MCKAY: What is amazing to people who read your work… is how often the pandemic was not just … anticipated but literally predicted. Right down to the end of 2019, people were developing scenarios at the official level of how an epidemic was going to work and how the state should respond. It’s sort of a major moment [when] the state has … failed catastrophically.

Do you think we should steel ourselves for a future of pandemic after pandemic after pandemic? …Some speak bleakly declared that this our “starter pandemic,” And, more concretely, then, what measures do you think states should take (apart from just gaming this out and running scenarios that nobody pays any attention to or [commissioning] all these reports you have  mentioned that gather dust…)?

DAVIS: The silver lining, of course, was that one part of the preparation was successful. And this is a direct result of the incredible revolution that’s been occurring in bio-design and genetic design. The basis existed, the knowledge existed, and in some cases even the candidate vaccines existed – for the very rapid development of vaccines that specifically targeted Covid but also potentially further vaccines. In fact, it’s quite within the realm of possibility …that you can develop general or universal vaccines, because what changes in these viruses as they mutate are mainly changes in the head of the surface protein… This is high variable. This is, where, inevitably, variations will appear. They can’t be stopped with the existing vaccines…

At the same time, … if we put everything into vaccines, we’ll miss the most important factor of all – which is the fact that so much of the world lives without primary health care. And even in the most advanced countries, particularly following the 2008 economic crisis, even in rich countries, public health and primary care have been totally eroded by job cuts and lack of finance. In the United States, for example, 60,000 public healthcare workers’…jobs were lost. They haven’t been replaced. They weren’t replaced. Similarly, look at Britain and the cutbacks that have eviscerated the National Health Service, and so on.

Now, one of the most important debates in the history of modern public health was the debate about social medicine. Essentially, there were two camps by the early twentieth century. On one hand (with a genealogy that goes back to the father of pathology, Rudolf Virschow in Germany – Virschow had been at the barricades in 1848), laid an emphasis on primary health care rather than specific cures for specific diseases. And he believed, and his descendants believed, that this also meant that, if you were going to provide adequate health care, you had to have major social change: raising wages, land reform, and so on.

And the place where the idea of social medicine gained its most important purchase was in South America. Particularly, take the case of Chile in 1939, when there was a brief Popular Front government. Its minister of public health was a young doctor, who had written extensively about this idea of social medicine. His name was Salvador Allende. And the social medicine ideal was also embraced by social democrats in Western Europe and in the Soviet Union.

But, after the turn of the century, another school arose, from the US imperial experience in the Caribbean and the Philippines, which was essentially a military assault on a specific pathogen or that pathogen’s major vectors,  that is the carriers of it… When I was a kid in the 1950s, I gobbled up all these books about General Gorgas and the heroic people who stopped yellow fever. This work was taken up by the Rockefeller Foundation. In the period between the two wars, the Rockefeller Foundation was the major financier and coordinator of these disease-specific campaigns.

A kind of last stand of the social medicine school was at a WHO summit in Alma Ata (in what’s now Kazakhstan) in 1978-1979. The Alma Ata Declaration declared that good health was a basic human right and more or less endorsed the social medicine position. But that has lost ground, of course, with the dismantling of the Soviet bloc and also with the growing power of Big Pharma, which of course endorses the view that hugely expensive government-subsidized vaccines are the only way to go. So, without discounting the importance of searching for new vaccines – particularly universal vaccines, which have come within our reach over the last five or ten years – I believe the fundamental questions… remain in terms of world public health remains the questions posed by the social medicine movement.

MCKAY: I might just comment parenthetically that in Canada,… why we have something progressive in our health system goes back to people who were inspired by the Soviet example in the 20s and 30s and this quite revolutionary idea of “public health.” But this … leads me on to the next question. There seems to be a fundamental philosophical problem for neoliberals, who don’t like the expansion of the [welfare] state and in many ways don’t even like the idea of “the public,” as an entity that has interests,  a collectivity that should be cared for…This is a crisis for global neoliberalism, its way of thinking about the state and its way of thinking about humanity in general.

I sometimes think this might be the last nail in the coffin of neoliberalism as a plausible ideology, but then whenever I think that I also reflect, “But consider how deeply this has sunk into the psyches of everybody who’s been exposed to it in the last 40 years.” …Do you think we’re [hammering in the last nail in] neoliberalism’s coffin, or is that premature?

DAVIS: Only if we have the hammer and are prepared to keep driving it in, relentlessly. There’s neoliberalism and neoliberalism. And, in fact, most neoliberals – particularly as represented by New Labour, … the Democratic Party establishment here, and centrist regimes ([such as those of] German conservative parties) don’t discount the role of the state. They realize that different kinds of state-provided externalities … are essential to a program of privatization and extending the contours for accumulation.

Capital itself will always find profit opportunities in disasters, even those that it’s brought about [itself]. Look at the United States. Amazon has emerged as this Leviathan over the bodies of hundreds of thousands of dead small businessmen. The insurance companies are raking in the biggest profits in history in this country. Big Pharma has been given the profits for antivirals and vaccines which have been paid for by the American public [with] most of the research done in public universities. So, Covid, at least here in the United States, has been a bonanza for different sectors of capital, which look forward to an expansion of healthcare. And to coming pandemics! Important profit-points.

But what happened here is, of course, different in one way from anywhere else (except for Bolsonaro’s Brazil)…. [In this pattern] the state takes an active role in disorganizing the pandemic response, when it becomes a major vector of the pandemic itself, which has yielded, of course, incalculable consequences….

It’s not simply a partisan matter. If you look at states like New York and California, Democrats are completely culpable for massacres in senior homes [and] for the fate of low-wage workers, unprotected in essential industries. In Southern California, for instance, two-thirds of people who died from Covid are Latinos working in low-wage industries and living in congested housing. Likewise with farm workers. The United States and Brazil are … examples of an almost fascist approach to disease….

It’s my belief – not surprising – that the Republican Party has become the party of global death. It’s been the major opposition to any kind of effective action about climate change. And it’s now assured hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths – and more in the future. I tried to argue vigorously in the pages of The Nation that we shouldn’t be worrying so much about a national inquiry into what happened on January 6th when the far right invaded the Congress, but more at the culpability of those responsible for allowing the pandemic, first of all, to get out of control, and then, secondly, attacking, disorganizing, demonizing the necessary public health measures. This is murder… Most of the deaths, as pointed out by studies in The Lancet and even now by members of the Biden Administration, were preventable and unnecessary.

Now, finally to the larger question….  Can globalized neoliberalism – accumulation on a world scale through a division of labour, that exports most productive jobs to relatively low-wage nations – whether this can continue without a serious infrastructure of global public health and control over the transmission of disease through air travel and trade?  

I would say from the standpoint of [a] logical capitalism, that this would be absolutely necessary. But we never actually deal with “logical capitalism.” And the current chaos in the European Union, and all the initial disasters followed by second and third waves of the pandemic, and the fiasco of the vaccination campaign on the continent, should raise some big questions whether capital, independently organized or acting through the state, can really address emergencies – even while parts of it find in pandemics and plagues very new ways to engage in the neoliberal appropriation of wealth.

MCKAY: I’d like to go back to your idea of there being two distinct humanities, immunologically… [One recalls]  Frederick Engels writing in Manchester in the 1840s about “social murder.”  He says that, even though it’s happening without any one sort of individual murdering anybody, it is still kind of a social murder – it’s a willful abdication of responsibility for the lives of other people…In your book [Late Victorian Holocausts] – we see how the whole Indian economy was … made subservient to … the needs of the British Empire. So, while you had famines in India, you still had exports to Britain of the things the population needed. And that seems uncannily echoed today with India’s [experience with vaccines].  A “vaccine powerhouse” essentially is… really struggling to vaccinate its own people — and that’s one reason why the pandemic is getting out of control….Maybe Marxists will celebrate 2020 as a moment in which class analysis and the critical analysis of empire came back squarely to center stage—not only changing academic life, but the progressive politics beyond the academy? Is that an overly optimistic analysis?

DAVIS: Perhaps. There’s very little to celebrate in today’s world.

MCKAY: But I do notice people are talking a lot more about class divisions.

DAVIS: True. But we have to translate that into real politics that has the ability to reach grassroots people, ordinary working people. Now India, apart from the great artificial famines of the 1870s and the 1890s, is where the majority of people killed by the 1918-1919 …flu [lived.] …Some 20-25 million Indians died. And this is, again, an important case study for understanding the interactions between disease, capital and, in this case, the imperial state. Because what happened in India is that the British torqued up, during the First World War, the requisition of grain and all kinds of other raw materials and supplies from India to support the Indian army, which was fighting the Ottoman Empire and… on the Western Front. This coincided with a drought and widespread crop failure. So, when the H1N1 [virus] – the original one – disembarked from a ship in Bombay, millions of Indians were malnourished, already sick (there was also cholera). And they were absolutely decimated. And the British response was almost nothing – negligible, at the best.

Today in India, we see a model of growth that has produced [a] spectacular-looking twenty-first-century, surrounded by immense belts of slums and misery. Most women in the Indian countryside, and in many cities, still have to defecate in the open. Potable water is often not available. So, India has kind subsumed within itself this division between immunological humanities. That is, on one side, there are people who live in societies like us. Remember, immunology determines so much of the pattern and the lethality of any pandemic. We live in societies where it’s the old and the poor, the people living in congested housing, immigrant populations, Native Americans, … maybe about a quarter to third of the population… who suffer from pre-existing conditions associated with enhanced mortality. [On the other hand] in other places, like … sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of people suffer from compromised immune systems, because of the lack of potable water, because of malnutrition, because of exposure to all kinds of toxic and environmental factors, and so on.

Now in India, we see these two worlds together: a newly-enlarged, fairly massive middle class, some of whom live in essentially American subdivisions within high-tech cities, but the majority of the population lacking access to basic primary care, potable water, and so on…The first Indian humanity has been saved. The other’s been neglected or condemned to pandemic…And, remember, if you allow RNA viruses free rein to spread in larger and larger populations, this increases the evolutionary space for these viruses to develop new and more deadly mutants. We’ve seen this happen…

… Here’s where the fundamental break in human solidarity occurs. In India, the rich run to the clinics…. The wealthy countries save each other. Pharmaceutical companies reap vast fortunes. But the larger part of humanity is totally left behind. Again, it’s not only a matter of vaccines. It’s the conditions that compromise immunity and healthy living conditions, which in many ways grow worse every year.

The UN … has noted that, of its 21 key development goals, many of them have now been reversed, [such as] goals of reducing child poverty, and raising income, and better health, and education for women….

MCKAY: …Even if you’re a hard-nosed neoliberal, how could you possibly quarantine [afflicted] countries in a world that you have globalized? We’ve been told for 40 years that “the world is flat.” We should level tariff barriers, [encourage] free movement of capital… Well, how can a neoliberal then turn around and say, “we’re going to quarantine India or Brazil?” Well, if you can’t do that, then surely the next logical step is to say, “Well, we have to have some sort of global regime of public health that can force … recalcitrant governments … to do what the world requires.”

DAVIS: Well, let me just repeat two earlier points. One is that it was the analysis of the social medicine tradition — that health care is a human right and requires radical socio-economic reforms, strong unions, the raising of incomes, agrarian reform. The other point is that there is no longer a pivot in the world, a kind of Archimedean point, for human solidarity and unity.  

One thing the Cold War did was make every single inch of the earth valuable. If a small group of people, a tribal society, decided they wanted to listen to Radio Moscow – well, the Americans were there a second later… The US side of the Cold War was forced to respond to the Soviet Union’s anti-colonialism and internationalism, with its own vision of world progress. So you had the Alliance for Progress and battling five-year plans across the planet. When the Cold War ended, any kind of real serious discourse about human development and progress as a whole was abandoned. And, of course, neoliberalism has dug that grave deeper and deeper….

Again, remember that even if suddenly vaccines were universally available everywhere, that would still leave the larger problem in place – which is that, such a large portion of humanity is basically standing in front of the headlights of the next pandemic….

[For] Generation Z, the one that my younger children (who are still in high school) belong to, by every poll and measurement, some form of socialism wins out over capitalism any day of the week. This is an enormous development.

The emergence of this new new left has created a left-wing version of America Firstism.  That was on full exhibit during the Democratic primary debates, when Bernie Sanders only marginally touched on international issues. Likewise, Elizabeth Warren. We suffer from a deficit of internationalism – which is why I can’t help but be fond of the Argentine soccer fan currently inhabiting the biggest house in Rome [Pope Francis]. This is virtually the only world leader to stand up and insist on human solidarity, the unity of the human species, in almost every speech he makes.

MCKAY: In Old Gods, New Enigmas,…you ask the question, to what extent does the informal proletariat – the most rapidly growing global class – possess…historical agency? …The old left hope was that the proletariat and trade unions, communist parties, to a point social democratic parties, they would be moving history forward. Since 1989, that’s become less plausible….Can there be ways in which this pandemic can mobilize people, maybe just by showing them …the drastic costs of capitalism, unleashed?

DAVIS: Well we’ve seen the new “vanguard of the proletariat” in action over the last year. I have, because of various ailments, spent an inordinate amount of time in hospitals and clinics over the last five years. At a…big hospital, people are punching in the clock the same way people did into Ford factories or coal mines. But they’re in some ways far more educated and conscious. And everything about the work that … hospital workers of all kinds do, other people in essential services, confronts them daily with the contradictions and failure of private medicine and a government directed against public welfare. It’s no surprise, then, that the major union to support Bernie Sanders, and arguably the most militant union in the United States right now, is the National Union of Nurses.

I do believe that the pandemic around the world has radicalized health workers, with nurses often being in the vanguard. I think that’s true for the National Health Service in Britain as well, and likely for other countries.

We shouldn’t forget all that… a successful public health approach depends on popular mobilization, involvement from the grassroots level. So, for instance, Vietnam (considered middle-income but a poor country by our standards), has had an astonishing success in avoiding death on a large scale and containing it. One reason is that it has a medical elite with global stature because of its experiences fighting previous diseases like SARS and Avian Flu. But it also has a paramedical system reaching down to the village, …paramedical workers and village nurses, and an aggressive campaign of public health education. This doesn’t exonerate the lack of democracy at the highest levels in that society, but it shows how absolutely important public participation is.

I recently blurbed a book by some Chinese new leftists, based on interviews with people and experiences in Wuhan. And, although the existence of a mass communist party which extends its tendrils down to every apartment building and so on, played a crucial role in mobilization, much of what happened actually didn’t occur through party channels. It occurred through popular organization, including swingeing critiques of the national cover-up by the government…. They created these networks of popular self-help and resistance. And this really hasn’t been measured or adequately reported in most accounts of the pandemic – the centrality of a popular role and the need for grassroots networks of public health medicine.

In fact, when you look at the whole issue of public health education, in the United States —a hard core 40% of the US population, absolutely every poll…are also diehard pandemic denialists, who regard a little reading in the Bible as far truer than any biology book. So, here in supposedly one of most advanced scientific countries in the world, the degree of ignorance about basic science and the reign of religious superstition is, just simply, a staggering fact.

MCKAY: In some ways, that can be connected to neoliberalism’s abandonment of any notion of responsibility to the people – in that [rulers feel] no responsibility to educate the people to whom [they’re] supposedly answerable. So, in some ways, the prospect is that it’s fine to keep people fairly ignorant and superstitious, as long as they show up for work. What’s the problem?

Maybe I’m being cynical, but I think there is a real way in which the neoliberal state entailed the abandonment of what Thomas Hobbes would have said was the primary responsibility of a government – which is to keep its people alive, basically, and protect them from each other. It’s not a not exactly a Marxist message… Why do we have a government? Upon what does its legitimacy rest? Well, a long-standing argument would be: “Well, at least it keeps us alive.” These governments have not been doing that.…Neoliberal governments almost universally have failed in that enterprise

DAVIS: I …agree with the interpretation that says that we’ve entered a phase of apocalyptic capitalism, unable to prevent climate change, decarbonize the planet, provide universal public health. The global branded economy no longer creates jobs, which leads to an interesting Marxist paradox….The majority of the populations of Africa and Latin America… toil in the informal economy.  The formal economy  hasn’t created net jobs for years and years.

And, of course, waiting in the distance ­– how far we don’t know, maybe much closer than we suspect – is the fact that nothing’s been done to reduce the danger of nuclear war, particularly in some regional circumstance…. In ensuring its own reproduction and survival, capitalism ensures a future of extinction for at least a large minority of the human race, particularly that part that’s no longer requisite to its own reproduction.

Since the ending of the Cold War (and any kind of universalist discourse), we kind of accept this in our daily lives. We kind of accept [that] millions of poor people are going to die. And it’s becoming naturalized in the same way that homelessness has been in this country. My kids don’t believe me when I tell them that, when I was a young adult, there was no homelessness in California. It’s not …a natural fact…

The triage of humanity is in place. That fact needs, I think, to guide and direct all of our thoughts and emotions and above all, our activism.

MCKAY: …When you updated The Monster At Our Door of 2005 and you made it The Monster Enters in 2020, you wrote that you had to order in a copy of your own book, because … “unconsciously, I wanted it off my bookshelf in order to exorcise the anxiety involved in its writing.” That made me think [of the] extraordinarily terrible year [this has been] for people – of bereavement, of suffering, depression, mounting cases of “deaths of despair” through opioid addiction… Sometimes I wonder if Marxists…run the risk… of adding our own little bit to an apocalyptic culture of despair, contributing to a sort of “collapsology”  that some French writers critique, [entailing] almost an enjoyment of the idea of human collapse [and] the abandonment of humanism? …Can we… supplement our gloomy prognosis of all these enormous contradictions, to generate something more inspiring for people? Surely a new global left will require … a higher hope, a realistic hope, to aim for?

DAVIS: Well, I’m quite notorious on this point. I don’t actually believe that hope is either a requirement of radical writing or is … a scientific concept. I think the obligation that I have, and others have, is to write as accurately and realistically as we can about the current crisis. People [will] fight because it is their way to realize their humanity, to defend their families and communities and class. People face the dark ages. And they give resistance in return….

I’m very old school about this. And I suppose I’m very Brechtian about it, because Brecht’s poems and writings in the late 30s and the 1940s had enormous influence on me when I was younger. We need to be ruthlessly honest about what we face and what our obligations are. In terms of socialism – I’m a socialist in the same way Billy Graham was a Baptist. I believe that it’s the hope of the world, but we’ve lost an awful lot of ground, historically.

On a personal level, I’ll contradict myself and say, I am hopeful… I have two kids still in high school. I have an older daughter in Belfast, where she was born. My kids are fierce fighters. They look ahead very, very clearly. They were active in the Black Lives Matter movement and so on. (My younger kids, by the way, are Mexican and their mother’s Mexican). They go to an inner-city high school.  It was amazing to me to see the kids in this high school. I’m not talking about rarities like my kids (growing up in a middle-class left-wing home with millions of books), but their friends, who were working-class Latino immigrants, Somalis, African-Americans – just ordinary kids. The way they banded together and just erupted last spring and summer in the Black Lives Matter protest was astonishing to me. This is a generation of tigers and lions…

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: …I like that you brought up the nurses and healthcare workers, but I can’t help but think that, in Canada at least, it’s illegal for nurses to go on strike or other healthcare workers. So, what advice or perspective would you have on organizing healthcare workers for more radical forms of labour protest?

DAVIS: Well, quite honestly – I (and most of the other people I know) have loads to learn from healthcare workers and their struggles….Now, labour movements in North America… have always worked under legal disabilities, reactionary Supreme Courts, anti-strike laws, states of emergency, and so on. And the traditional answer – not from the left, but even from [such] right-wing leadership [as] the American Federation of Labor, before the 1930s, was “No right to strike? [Then] Strike! Told not to go out in the streets and protest? Put your mask on, go out in the streets, and protest!” If strikes become impossible? Job actions of all kinds…

One thing that happened in this country was that there was one long break in the general conservative and employer domination of the US Supreme Court, and this was the Warren Court and its extension into the 1970s….The generation I grew up in (and the generation that followed) was used thinking the Supreme Court is our ally. Now we’re just back to the status quo ante, …which is, in this country, a Supreme Court that is, in its majority, reactionary.

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: I … have a spouse who works in healthcare… It’s been an absolutely fascinating journey hearing about it….She said, it’s in many ways one of the most horrific diseases in terms of the co-morbidities that were coming with it, so the people who were landing in hospital, they weren’t just the 80-plusers,…but … people with hypertension, diabetes, and [other]  co-morbidities…. Do you think… that the general health of the whole nation (not just segments of the nation) will play a role not only in combating Covid, but … [in a] kind of an optimal social policy?

DAVIS: Well, of course, epidemic disease always follows the contours of inequality and poverty. But, in this country, it was also driven by an administration that sabotaged every effort to protect people at the workplace.

Within the Department of Labor, we have the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which is supposed to protect workers at peril in various kinds of situations… There were hundreds of complaints filed with this agency by meatpacking workers, farm workers, other kinds of essential workers. And OSHA, as it’s called, under Trump, refused to process any of these, refused to enact any fines or process grievances against any employers. In other words, it deliberately allowed the pandemic to spread, through  a …largely minimum-wage workforce. A lot of people with existing co-morbidities, as you say. The result was a slaughter – only surpassed by the massacre in nursing homes….

Last year, I … issued a daily mailing of articles and comments on the pandemic, starting in March, taking stuff from scientific journals and sometimes my own editorials. The first thing I published was from a friend of mine who is the union rep for the nursing home employees in Kirkland, Washington [in a ] a nursing home chain owned by one of the most notorious of these piratical companies. He pointed out – remember, this is the very beginning of take-off of the pandemic – that county health employees were shut out at the home at the very beginning. When they finally entered, nobody was asking questions about the staff in these homes. Nobody seems to recognize, when people are so badly paid, that they often moonlight in a second job in another nursing home. He said: “So what’s going to happen is, it’s going to spread like wildfire through the entire system from coast to coast.” This was entirely foreseen. He was absolutely right, down to the details. Basically, nothing happened. Again, regulation failed; there were no fines…. About 40% of the people who died in the United Stateswere seniors, most of them because of the failure of state regulation… This is nothing but absolutely criminal. And, of course, it suggests the need for an entirely different system of taking care of the sick and elderly.

MCKAY: I know in Canada this has been one of our major issues, and they even sent the army in at one point to the nursing homes…I’m just hoping that …our rage about it, our refusal to accept it, can be preserved through our time of grief and shock….  I think we need to retain that [memory] somehow, so that we just don’t … close the door on this pandemic and say, “Well, thank goodness, that’s over – Back to Normal.”  The “normal” caused this problem.

DAVIS: I should mention a kind of personal experience here… My father was a member of the meat-cutters’ union.  He ended up losing his pension plan, and my mother went back to work as an aide in a nursing home. And I can’t tell you how many nights she had to call my father to come to the nursing home to help her pick up an elderly patient, who fell out of the bed,  sometimes breaking bones, lying in their own urine and in faeces. Clean them, and put them back. …The people who ran the nursing home refused to add more night shift workers….These people could have been in concentration camps, for all that…

So, this has been the case for a very long time. We have to get rid of for-profit nursing home industry and replace it with something public, decent, and safe.

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: One thing you mentioned was how you were saying your kids don’t believe you when you say there didn’t used to be homeless people in California. So, I guess I’m just wondering, if you think there’s any main cause or factor that you attribute to the demise of labour and the welfare state that happened around the 80s where we saw this privatization happen? I kind of wonder this, because I feel like if there’s no homelessness, why would people be driven to change the policies that were in place then?

DAVIS: Well, as old as I am, I’ve watched the evolution of homelessness and the ecology of homelessness through its different phases. In the beginning it was the shutting down of state mental hospitals, and the idea that people would find jobs and shelter in their community. There would be this investment in community centers, and you would create a far more humane system. Well, nursing homes were shut down. People were forced out. But there wasn’t the investment [in] either shelters or mental health facilities. And it wasn’t too long before our jail systems became the major… institutions for the mentally ill in the state.

…Homelessness has changed over time. Right now, what is so striking is how many people are homeless, and homeless as family groups, including children, who don’t fall into the categories of addiction, mental illness, or being dumped in the streets by the prison system. They’re simply de-housed.

A few days ago, it was announced that California, for the first time in history, had lost population. This state has been in a continuous boom since I was born here in 1946, through my entire life. This is an historical watershed. And why is the population declining? Because huge numbers of working-class people, low-wage people, are fleeing the state. They can’t afford shelter. And now, you’re seeing this everywhere on the streets….It’s just a screaming indictment, day-by-day, of the inhumanity of this…The housing crisis won’t be resolved by the private sector, which builds mansions – it doesn’t build affordable housing….You have to attack the system of private property, which is, of course, impossible under capitalism, to some degree.

When I lived in London for years, I was always struck by the fact that, in the wealthiest neighbourhoods in Europe, you could still find council housing projects, brought by the victory of the Labour Government in 1945…

In my writing, I tried to stress that issues of gentrification and… housing are insoluble unless you address the root cause of land inflation and speculation. We need to remove large parts of the city [and to] rescue it from land inflation. We need public housing. We need massive amounts of affordable housing that can’t be built unless you control and stop the ever-rising prices of land.

Now my authority in all this is not Karl Marx, by the way. It’s the most influential radical thinker of the late nineteenth century in the United States, Scotland, Ireland (I’m sure he had a big following in Canada as well): Henry George. He pointed [out that] the root causes of California’s contradictions were land speculation and land profiteering. He proposed that, basically, you would tax away all gains in land value. People would own the real property – the house they built. The land, essentially, would be socialized.

One of the things that’s kind of exciting right now is that questions, which formerly had been far beyond the horizon of even the most progressive politics, suddenly now have wide… audiences. [What] Trotsky called “transitional demands” – [ones] that don’t require the abolition of capitalism but are incompatible with traditional practices of the profit-making – [are finding an audience.] And until you have the will, and have mobilized the support, to interfere in the land market and democratize urbanization, at least an important part of it, and also control sprawl, all attempts to prevent gentrification and the expulsion of people from cities will ultimately be unsuccessful….

MCKAY: It’s a tremendous honour for us to have hosted you.

[Mike Davis talked to Syndemic on 13 May 2021].

[1] Justin Brashares et al., “Bushmeat Hunting, Wildlife Declines, and Fish Supply in West Africa,” Science 306 (12 November 2004), 1180-82.