"(Social) space is a (social) product," Marxist theorist Henri Lefebvre writes in The Production of Space, but this "fact" is "concealed" under global capitalism because space reduces the "real'...to a 'plan.'"1 The idea that spaces develop from "logical" or apolitical forces that they are "innocent" and "free of traps or secret places" shields any reference to the structures of accumulation, political decision-making, and historical power dynamics that go into and explain the intentions behind the construction of the modern urban built environment. The construction of this "abstract space" as Lefebvre calls it, thus provides capitalists with a spatial instrument through which to covertly embed forms of social control and methods of capital extraction all while dodging accountability for the death-dealing political repercussions that such built environments produce. Disrupting this cruel abstraction of space, Lefebvre insists, requires that leftists "read" and "decode" the built environment to reveal the "real 'subject" of space that of "state (political) power."2

Mike Davis is one of the finest decoders of space. The construction of and control over a particular geography, Davis's work shows, is a modality of state power, a site where the true intentions and material effects of a territorially-bounded political project are made legible, often in sharp contrast to that governing body's stated commitments. Although as a Marxist historian and organizer he has made innumerable contributions to leftist history and political analysis, writing searing and all-too-prescient studies of everything from global pandemics to the history of labor and social movements in the postwar United States to a history of the car bomb (a "poor man's air force," as he provocatively named the tactic), Davis is, I believe, at his best when he is elucidating the vexed political economy of the modern city. He is an expert in making plain how power gets spatialized, and thus further entrenched and obscured, which keeps the gears of capitalism and the United States racial fascism afloat and impenetrable.

His magnum opus on such subjects, City of Quartz, is no traditional scholarly inquiry into the history of Los Angeles, a city near and dear to Davis, who proudly reps his origins and decades of rabble-rousing work in Southern California. As many have commented since its publication, City of Quartz reads less like a standard academic account of political theory or history and more like a noir-thriller that seeks, through the mordant "anti-myth" construction of the noir genre, to lay bare the "'bright, guilty place'...called Los Angeles."3 It is a brilliant tactical move: throughout the text, Davis impales the futuristic, "sunshine" presentation of the city, revealing instead the true, diabolical underbelly of Los Angeles's sprawling landscape, which operates as a "stand in for capitalism in general."4 Central to Davis's project is getting his readers to view the spaces and geographies around them as products of intentional political decision-making, as evidence of metropolitan elites' corrupt priorities and material investment shoring up their profits through the police-backed maintenance of racial and economic segregation. Los Angeles's postwar suburban subdivisions may appear as "sterilized sites stripped bare of nature and history," but we must not fall for the ruse; these "Chardonnay lifestyle, air conditioned, and over watered" spaces are, Davis shows, just as representative of class war as one might find on the factory floor.5 Once decoded, the built environment becomes a lens into grossly uneven structures of investment, surplus profits for developers and speculators, and state-backed racial and economic fragmentation, revitalized anew through so-called colorblind appeals to property values, environmental preservation, and the right to local control.


While deadly serious about the subject matter at hand that of the morally bankrupt elements of Los Angeles's political and cultural power structures and the harms their decisions propagate his prose is often cheeky and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. Davis understands how humor and irony are often the best political educators: once decoded, the fantastic contradictions of modern metropolitan governance and spatial organization are so flagrant, you almost have to laugh your way to outrage. Discussing the "mercenaries" of designers, directors, curators, and academics who fled to Los Angeles in the 1980s and remade the city's "cultural superstructure," for example, Davis writes, "the new wave of designers, artists, and professors have come to praise Caesar in this case, international real estate capital."6 Embedded in the chuckle that such a line elicits are seeds of dissent that Davis's ensuing deconstruction of the city's cultural renaissance further nourishes. Davis explains how the glittering museums and cultural institutions that appear as benign, net-good uses of urban space are in fact monuments to capital that enshrine and enable racialized state violence. As large-scale developers rushed to maximize their profits through the development of an "arts acropolis" in the monied downtown and western neighborhoods, Davis explains, actual working-class inner-city artists, especially Black and Chicano ones, faced a torrent of budget cuts and languished in a "desperate state, fighting over scraps, without career opportunities, funds, or housing."7 Through uncovering this nefarious "geography of power" fueling the city's arts revival, Davis cuts through the rosy and obfuscatory presentation of the city's cultural renewal and interrogates these new arts projects as sites of political violence in the service of crude economic interests. In Davis's rendering, the flashy acquisition of new cultural products and construction of new creative hubs are unmasked as little more than stolen wealth in the form of both corporate tax breaks and city budget cuts. As he wryly observes, "the 35.2 million which the Getty family recently paid for a sixteenth century work by the little-known painter Pontormo was many times the city's annual budget for culture in Southcentral and East Los Angeles."8

Similarly instructive is Davis's discussion of the ascent of Los Angeles's suburban homeowners' associations in the 1970s and 1980s, whom he correctly identifies as white supremacist "trade unions" of the middle and upper classes.9 Much of the chapter details a byzantine intra-class struggle between "not in my backyard" wealthy homeowners fighting against also-wealthy but pro-growth developers seeking to build more housing in the region's lucrative suburbs. But the bigger takeaway is that while homeowners' associations did what they have always done fight to protect the racial and economic homogeneity of their neighborhoods, if now under the deceptive and ostensibly colorblind guise of environmental preservation the "appalling destruction and misery" within the city's Black and brown working-class communities (whom he calls the real "silent majority") became a "non-issue."10 Indeed, such an outcome was the not-so-secret hope of such associations, many of whom cut their teeth, Davis shows, through local anti-integration organizing in the 1970s. Aided and abetted by friendly government subsidies and preferential policymaking, the reactionary landscape of the Los Angeles suburbs spatialized, and thus hardened, racial and economic privileges, locking in patterns of resource distribution, wealth accumulation, and dispossession that have augmented racialized state violence even in a post-civil rights era. Once in place, such retrograde spatial arrangements and their correspondingly lopsided social outcomes suddenly appear deceptively natural or foreordained, the product of "free" market forces, the "right" to private property, and individual merit rather than grand-scale state neglect and containment of Black and Latinx communities. Davis's dissection of Los Angeles' homeowners' associations demonstrates, however, that there is nothing organic or defensible about the region's geography. Rather, it is an ongoing declaration of battle against the city's working classes, who are spatially constructed by LA's landscape to be incorrigible criminals deserving of state containment and repression.

Indeed, one of the core contributions of Davis's text is his detailing of how criminalizing impulses and explicitly carceral functions have been woven into the dystopic geography of the modern city, where suburban neighborhoods and even once democratic public spaces are now increasingly privatized, securitized, and surveilled. Davis's spatial analysis of the carceral state underscores how capitalist metropolitan governance itself relies upon and breeds new modes of punishment. Capital, he shows, requires the racialized criminalization, containment, and removal of Black and brown people in order to thrive, importantly dismissing misguided (and counterinsurgent!) attempts to characterize race and gender as mere cultural realms disconnected from or superfluous to market forces.

His deconstruction of the city's thickly punitive fabric has the punch of a good investigative hit piece, but instead of the target being a mob boss or corrupt bureaucrat, it's racial capitalism that is the villain, often hiding in plain sight. Between "sadistic" benches explicitly constructed to deter houseless people from sleeping on them, "panopticon shopping malls" that seek to root out perceived (read: non-white and poor) trespassers, and architects implementing security technologies borrowed from military command posts, "luxury lifestyles" in Los Angeles have been propped up by "new repressions in space and movement."11 The result is the spatial exclusion of the city's working class and houseless communities who are physically ushered into, through both the hyper-militarized surveillance capabilities of the built environment and the literal deputization of police,  "increasingly repressive ghettos and barrios," a process Davis accurately identifies, especially given the early-1990s moment of the book's publication, as a "South Africanization" of the city's spatial relations.12 Here, the carceral state's function as a brutal enforcer of manufactured racial and classed hierarchies of difference in service of capital gains is made blaringly transparent. Willie Horton-style "moral panics" about purportedly rising crime distort the actual bulk of mass violence conducted by the state through the slashing of social programs, maintenance of business-friendly labor and tax laws, and use of police as the primary anti-poverty policy.13 Such false panics fuel a hyper-security culture among affluent elites that "reinforce and justify urban apartheid," all while weaving new and increasingly repressive forms of criminalization against the poor (often, as Davis notes, with critical funds from the state's redevelopment agency) into the very architecture of the metropolis.14 Such a casually carceral landscape, Davis urges us to see where anti-homeless sweeps and "fortress" style security gates outside McMansion enclaves are now perfectly normal (and even considered idyllic) is more indicative of a sick and twisted society than even the most depraved serial killer could muster.


Davis has endured no small amount of criticism for his unflinching account of Los Angeles's political rot, ranging from accusations that his works are too "dark" and "apocalyptic" to unserious claims that his being born in Fontana, and not LA county proper, makes him an illegitimate chronicler of the region's soul.15 But as one LA Times journalist remarked in 2018, reflecting on Davis's prescient critique in Ecology of Fear of Malibu's affluent homeowners who insisted on building wasteful and exclusivist mega-mansions in one of the most fire-prone regions in the nation, "we now live in Mike Davis's world."16 The aftermath of Los Angeles homeowners' slow growth crusades in the 1980s has been a massive crisis of housing unaffordability, where racialized refusals to allow multi-family and other denser forms of development in their neighborhoods alongside stagnating wages have made affordable housing scarcer and resulted in devastating displacement of the city's working-class communities, disproportionately Black, Latinx, and Asian. Mixed with insufficient public transit infrastructure, the affordability crisis has amplified congestion on the city's infamous freeways, leading Los Angeles cars and trucks to produce nearly 20% of the city's harmful emissions. Precarious renters and anti-eviction activists have organized mightily in response to soaring rents and gentrification, but they have struggled to win important protections, such as statewide rent control, due to the flushly funded opposition of developers, landlords, realtors, and investors. Moreover, Davis's assessment of the "carceral city" has only intensified since its publication, especially with the city's barbaric anti-homeless sweeps, carried out by a notoriously racist and brutal LAPD, and the city's recently passed anti-camping ordinance. 

Meanwhile, even as the outsized presence of suburban homeowner associations has faded somewhat since City of Quartz'spublication, a new and arguably more perverse movement of housing activists has popped up in its place. Called "YIMBYs," or "yes in my backyard," a play off of NIMBY, these activists argue that the answer to the city's housing crisis is simply enabling corporate developers to build more housing units, no matter their affordability, which they dubiously contend will have a "trickle down" effect and make housing more affordable for all. On the one hand, these activists rightfully critique Los Angeles homeowners and their historic role in restricting housing development in their wealthy enclaves in order to maintain racial homogeneity and pad their property values. But in uncritically embracing the racial capitalist talking points and interests of pro-growth housing developers, who falsely claim that market-rate development successfully produces mass housing affordability but have no financial interest in building affordable units, these YIMBYs end up boosting luxury developments that are inaccessible to those most in need of shelter and that often displace racialized working-class people from affordable neighborhoods in the process. Often, these developments result in heightened criminalization of the houseless and anyone perceived to be threatening to the success of the new development's returns on investment, leading to increased police abuse and terror in already-criminalized communities. Despite their alleged care for the priced-out and their disdain for slow-growth HOAs, in peddling the interests of pro-growth developers they endorse a similarly insidious and exclusionary vision of unfettered, profits-oriented private housing development, a fact that Davis perceptively noted in City of Quartz. As he wrote,

Bleating loudly about the plight of the proletariat and 'affordable housing', the pro-growth camp (led by the California Building Industry Foundation) comprises developers opposed to inclusionary housing, builders opposed to unions, realtors opposed to housing integration and landlords opposed to rent control. While professing to be the cause of 'responsible planning', they have in fact sponsored a sweeping legal offensive the second prong of their strategy to reaffirm the untrammeled rights of private development against any communitarian regulation. Ominously, this initiative has found powerful philosophical allies in rightward-moving state and federal supreme court majorities, ready to restore nineteenth-century doctrines of 'absolute property.17

"We now live in Mike Davis's world," indeed.


"Racism is a practice of abstraction," Marxist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes, "a death-dealing displacement of difference into hierarchies that organize relations within and between the planet's sovereign political territories."18 The work of those on the left, Davis urges, is to refuse this mystification, to interrupt and make clear how  the twentieth century "age of human sacrifice," as Wilson Gilmore has recently called it, occurred through the abstraction of racialized class conflict from sites of production into more opaque but no less determinant spatial formations.19 City of Quartz makes concrete how the spatial organization of human life under United States racial capitalism will always covertly normalize particular groups of people as criminal and disposable, making them uniquely vulnerable to state violence and premature death, while marking others as worthy of protection, luxury, and power. Such structural arrangements, themselves the legacy of United States settler colonialism and racial slavery, have only intensified and taken on new shape due to the particular historical contingencies of postwar deindustrialization, the weakening of unions, ascent of globalization and neoliberal policymaking, and the financialization of metropolitan governance.

Davis is a true organizer-scholar, in that order. He writes and deconstructs and theorizes because the urgency of ever-present fascism requires that we know, as he recently told the LA Times, "what to fight, and [to] fight even when the fight seems hopeless."20 His painstaking commitment to making manifest the genocidal effects of seemingly impenetrable and presumedly democratic global political systems often with gripping prose that would make even the best fiction writers weep is unmatched. When I read Davis, I am reminded that the work of translating the complex and often difficult to parse convolutions of history, capital, and state violence is first and foremost a mode of organizing that must be tethered to clear political and community commitments. And those commitments are not, despite the efforts of think tanks and bureaucrats and politicians to state otherwise, all that complicated. "We live in a rich society with poor children," Davis wrote in the 2006 preface of City of Quartz, "and that should be intolerable."21 Amid a sea of intentionally muddling discourse about what is or is not possible and that seems meant to inure the masses into accepting mass death Davis's work refuses to take the bait, exposing the scandal that is racial capitalism, one story at a time.

Charlotte Rosen (@CharlotteERosen) is a PhD Candidate in History at Northwestern University. Her dissertation, Carceral Crisis: The Challenge of Prison Overcrowding and the Rise of Mass Incarceration, 1970-2000, examines the history of prisons, punishment, and prisoner resistance in late-twentieth century Pennsylvania. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Nation, n+1, and Truthout. Charlotte is also a team member of Study and Struggle, an ongoing project to organize against incarceration and criminalization in Mississippi.


  1. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974), 26-27, 287. []
  2. Lefebvre, The Production of Space,17, 51. []
  3. Mike Davis, City of Quartz (London: Verso Books, 1990), 18. []
  4. Davis, City of Quartz,18. []
  5. Davis, City of Quartz, 6. []
  6. Davis, City of Quartz, 71. []
  7. Davis, City of Quartz, 78. []
  8. Davis, City of Quartz, 74, 80. []
  9. Davis, City of Quartz, 160. []
  10. Davis, City of Quartz, 212. []
  11. Davis, City of Quartz, 223, 232, 240. []
  12. Davis, City of Quartz, 227. []
  13. Davis, City of Quartz, 226. []
  14. Davis, City of Quartz, 226. []
  15. Gustavo Arellano, "Column: Revisiting Mike Davis' case for letting Malibu burn," November 14, 2018, The Los Angeles Times; Jon Wiener, "LA Story: Backlash of the Boosters," February 4, 1999, The Nation. []
  16. Gustavo Arellano, "Column: Revisiting Mike Davis' case for letting Malibu burn," November 14, 2018, The Los Angeles Times. []
  17. Davis, City of Quartz, 211.[]
  18. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, "Fatal Couplings of Power and Difference: Notes on Racism and Geography," in Abolition Geography: Essays Towards Liberation, Edited by Brenna Bhandar and Alberto Toscano, (London: Verso, 2022), 136. []
  19. Gilmore, "Fatal Couplings," 134[]
  20. Sam Dean, "Mike Davis is still a damn good storyteller," July 25th, 2022, The Los Angeles Times. []
  21. Davis, City of Quartz, xviii. []