As we face another summer of record-breaking wildfires, more floods and earthquakes, a never-ending plague, and presumed global financial collapse, it's hard not to feel that we're living out a future that Mike Davis warned us about. In 1998's Ecology of Fear, Davis described the dialectic of "ordinary disaster" as "the continuing clustering of disaster on 'ordinary' or extraordinary scales."1 In 2005 and 2006, he projected a twenty-first century marked by global capitalist crisis and urbanization in Planet of Slums, and he prepared us for an era of pandemics in The Monster at Our Door. When he returned to this case study of the Avian Flu in April 2020, weeks into sheltering in place, Davis conjectured that someday, "if and when we emerge from our pandemic fall-out sheltersdiligent journalists will reconstruct in detail Trump's craven abdications, tantrums, lies, and sundry high crimes and misdemeanors during this crisis."2 However, such diligent reconstruction seemed of little importance, especially as he set out to summarize the "catastrophic meltdown" in the federal response in the first three months of the COVID pandemic. Once again, Davis was writing against impending doom. "We need to be debating democratic models of effective response to present and future plagues, ones that mobilize popular courage, put science in command, and use the resources of a comprehensive system of universal health coverage and public medicine," he argues in 2022's The Monster Enters, "Otherwise we cede leadership in this age of constant emergency to our tyrants."3 But prediction was never the concern of his writing so much as clarifying the future and its stakes, anticipating certain possibilities, all for the purpose of revolutionary intervention and struggle.

From a certain angle, Davis appears as one of the great dystopian writers of our time. Since what was once heralded as the "end of history," the false utopianism of western liberal democracy's post-Cold War ascent, Davis has faithfully chronicled our ever-worsening global capitalist dystopia as it unfolds, painting a vast mural of collective fears, social and economic crises, and escalating ecological catastrophe. To whatever capacity his extensive writings can now be read as cautions of our current situation, it has been out of keen attention to the present as a site of history an insistence, in other words, that none of this was inevitable, but always contingent. 

It would be a mistake to understand Davis's writing as dystopian, just because his object of study has been our dystopia. Of course many of his texts orbit around "evil paradises" what he would later discuss as the "utopian frenzy" of twenty-first century capitalism. With Daniel Bertrand Monk, he invokes Walter Benjamin: "precisely because the price of 'paradise' is human catastrophe, we can share little of Benjamin's optimism about historical redemption through the 'genuine' utopian aspects of such fantasies," they claim, marking the terminal, not anticipatory, stages in the history of late modernity.4  However, increasingly in Davis's writing, this is not a defeat of the dystopian over the utopian rather, it is an ongoing struggle to articulate a utopianism adequate to our historical moment. "If Benjamin evoked a society that 'dreamed itself waking,' these gilded dreamworlds have no alarm clocks; they are willful, narcissistic withdrawals from the tragedies overtaking the planet."5 Likewise, if there is a utopianism at work in Davis's thinking, it is what cuts through the dystopian with the greatest precision.  

This dialectic can be traced throughout Davis's sustained reading of Los Angeles, spanning over decades, and what he takes from the city in thinking the planetary future. In City of Quartz, he defines "the ultimate world-historical significance and oddity" of Los Angeles as its "double role of utopia and dystopia for advanced capitalism."6 When he later wrote of the disasters that will continually "erode many of the comparative advantages of the Southern California economy," he insisted that he was not "summoning Armageddon," despite the "wishful thinking of evangelicals impatient for the Rapture or deep ecologists who believe that Gaia would be happiest with a thin sprinkling of hunter-gatherers." Dry as a bone, these moments of humor in Davis's writing confront dystopianism with an anti-capitalist realism of sorts. "[M]egacities like Los Angeles will never simply collapse and disappear," he suggests, "Rather, they will stagger on, with higher body counts and great distress, through a chain of more frequent and destructive encounters with disasters."7 

For his readers, the constant battle in Davis's prose has been, and will remain, against slipping into dread. This is a struggle built into much of his research: pandemic, famine, state violence, disasters, and the rest. But it is also a battle against a broader political turn to dread over the past decade. Dread is certainly what Davis's books provoked for many of us, as part of a generation of readers who turned to his writing to understand the world after the 2008 financial crisis. By the fall of 2011, during the initial burst of political energies from Occupy Wall Street, Planet of Slums was among the more sobering texts circulating along with various histories, manifestos, sci-fi, and critical theory. Davis's account of the future seemed horrific, merciless, and confrontational. However, its power was in description, analysis, and speculation. Most haunting about the text was its diagnostic quality. By 2012, a wave of nihilism had settled in, dominating the post-Occupy melancholia of the years to come, amidst the rise of a still flourishing fascism. This was not the historical moment that Davis's analyses had emerged from but it is the future that his writings will continue reckoning with. We'll have to keep learning how to read Davis, finding ways to make use of his work, as we combat new horrors. 

When City of Quartz was published in 1990, Davis extended a powerful critique of the utopianism of Fredric Jameson, Edward Soja, and what he coined the "L.A. School" of urban geography. "By exposing the darkest facets of the 'world city,'" he argued, the L.A. School ridicules the city's false utopias, "yet, by hyping Los Angeles as the paradigm of the future (even in a dystopian vein), they tend to collapse history into teleology and glamorize the very reality they would deconstruct."8 Jameson and Soja, he argues, "in the very eloquence of their different 'postmodern mappings' of Los Angeles, become the very celebrants of the myth." Driving his skepticism towards Jameson's utopianism, however, was something like an insistence on an even more embedded, challenging, nearly untraceable utopian kernel. This is perhaps what Davis finds, at the end of City of Quartz, in a circus wrecking yard in Fontana, California: 

Scattered amid the broken bumper cars and ferris wheel seats are nostalgic bits and pieces of Southern California's famous extinct amusement parks (in the pre-Disney days when admission was free or $1): the Pike, Belmont Shores, Pacific Ocean Park, and so on. Suddenly rearing up from the back of a flatbed trailer are the fabled stone elephants and pouncing lions that once stood at the gates of Selig Zoo in Eastlake (Lincoln) Park, where they have enthralled generations of Eastside kids . . . The past generations are like so much debris to be swept away by the developers' bulldozers. In which case it is only appropriate that they should end up here, in Fontana the junkyard of dreams.9

In whatever ways utopian, moments like this in Davis's writing are always, far more resolutely, about historical experience.

Davis's critique of postmodern utopianism came at the peak of the "dystopian turn" that started in the late 1980s, what Tom Moylan and Raffaella Baccolini demarcate as a set of political mutations in the genre, breaking from the critical utopias of the long sixties, but also from the anti-utopianism of the post-sixties. It was in this time that utopia became, for the most part, "confined to the function of critique rather than transformation," as Ruth Levitas would later reflect.10 Dystopia, however, steadily took on utopia's project of social transformation: "In the emerging historical conjuncture of the 1990s," write Moylan and Baccolini, dystopias began to "refresh the links between imagination and utopia and utopia and awareness in decidedly pessimistic times," resisting "both hegemonic and oppositional orthodoxies even as they inscribe a space for a new form of political opposition."11 These tensions animate much of City of Quartz's historical and psychogeographical account of Los Angeles and its futures refusing to disentangle the utopian and the dystopian, Davis put these ideas into perpetual crisis, consistently drawing out new problems of the imagination. 

What Davis observed as the utopian contradictions of his contemporaries in 1990 would eventually characterize the dystopian contradictions in his own thinking, which he has grappled with most powerfully over the last several years. Returning to Los Angeles in 2021's Set the Night on Fire, which he co-authored with Jon Wiener, Davis writes from a different vantage on the city from a new end of the 1960s, perhaps always at the core of his thinking on utopia: "the Sixties in Los Angeles are best conceived of as a sowing, whose seeds grew into living traditions of resistance," they explain, against the counter-revolutionary perspective "that all the dreaming, passion, and sacrifice of that era had been for naught."12 Yet they veer away from what Jameson long ago delineated as competing modes of periodizing the '60s, the "nostalgic commemoration of the glories of the 60s or abject public confession of the decade's many failures and missed opportunities."13 Instead of idealizing themselves and centering their own activist histories, they turn to the "young people of color who are Los Angeles's future" whose experiences "ensure that they will be genuine successors to grandmothers and grandfathers who so long ago raised their clenched fists and demanded power to the people."14

"No generation has ever lived through such a supernova of change," Davis noted in a 2015 speech, thinking toward his own children's future.15 The politics of utopia for this historical moment will have little to do with optimism, he suggests, but establishing the "minimal conditions for the preservation of human solidarity in the face of convergent planetary crisis."16 Whether or not we are to understand this in utopian terms, Davis locates a crucial rupture in the political imagination "a new willingness to advocate the necessary, rather than the merely practical." If anything, it is this shift from the practical to the necessary that might enable us to take up the tasks Davis lays out for our future, "to envision alternative configurations of agents, practices, and social relations . . . [and] suspend the political-economic assumptions that chain us to the present." 

To the question of Davis's dystopianism, then, let it be remembered more precisely as a struggle against anti-utopianism. Utopia was never the point, especially as a transcendent ideal. "This seems an age of catastrophe," he remarked in April 2020, "but it's also an age equipped, in an abstract sense, with all the tools it needs."17 Whatever hope we might muster, in evermore apocalyptic circumstances, will have to be for revolution's sake. 

Madeline Lane-McKinley is a founding editor of Blind Field: A Journal of Cultural Inquiry, and the author of Comedy Against Work: Utopian Longing in Dystopian Times (Common Notions Press, 2022). Madeline's writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Boston Review, The New Inquiryand elsewhere. She teaches in the writing program at UC Santa Cruz.


  1. Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Verso, reprint edition, 2022), 53.[]
  2. Mike Davis, The Monster Enters: COVID-19, Avian Flu, and the Plagues of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2022), 26.[]
  3. Davis, The Monster Enters, 44.[]
  4. Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk, Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism, edited by Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk (New York: The New Press, 2008), xiv.[]
  5. Davis and Monk, Evil Paradises, xv.[]
  6. Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (New York: Verso Books, 1990), 18.[]
  7. Davis, City of Quartz, 54.[]
  8. Davis, City of Quartz, 86.[]
  9. Davis, City of Quartz, 434-435.[]
  10. Ruth Levitas and Lucy Sargisson, "Utopia in Dark Times: Optimism/Pessimism and Utopia/Dystopia," Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, edited by Tom Moylan and Raffaella Baccolini (New York: Routledge, 2003), 16.[]
  11. Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan, "Dystopias and History," Dark Horizons, 8.[]
  12. Mike Davis and Jon Wiener, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (New York: Verso, 2021), 701.[]
  13. Fredric Jameson, "Periodizing the 60s," Social Text, no. 9/10 (1984), 178.[]
  14. Davis and Wiener, Set the Night on Fire, 703.[]
  15. Mike Davis, "Planet of Slums," November 15, 2015 speech at Rhodes College.[]
  16. Mike Davis, "Planet of Slums," November 15, 2015.[]
  17. Quoted from Dana Goodyear, "Mike Davis in the Age of Catastrophe," The New Yorker, April 24, 2020.[]