Mike Davis on the global crisis: "This moment is not a tunnel with a bright light at the end"

Author and activist on Trump, the pandemic and the crisis of capitalism: "The lives of several billion are at risk"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 9, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Mike Davis and Donald Trump (Getty Images/WikiCommons/Salon)
Mike Davis and Donald Trump (Getty Images/WikiCommons/Salon)

The coronavirus pandemic is a global disaster that is not independent of other crises and disasters.

The pandemic has killed more than 500,000 people around the world, more than 130,000 of those in the United States. It has caused a severe global economic recession.

Global climate disaster continues. There is a heat wave in Siberia.

The United Nations reports that hundreds of millions of people face starvation because of a global food shortage.

When America's global leadership is most needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic — and the imminent danger of other and perhaps greater disasters — the Trump regime has announced that the U.S. will withdraw from the World Health Organization. (If Trump is no longer president next year, this presumably will not happen.)

Global wealth and income inequality continue to grow. Foreign Policy reports that "the coronavirus pandemic is set to push half a billion people into poverty and is expected to double the number of people facing acute hunger to 265 million."

Right-wing fascist-flavored regimes are expanding their control in many countries, including Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, Russia and the Philippines.

In the United States, such problems are even more acute because of Donald Trump and his regime's willful and intentional negligence. Trump has now admitted to denying the American people proper access to coronavirus testing and other health care. In his mind, somehow such cruelty may help him win the 2020 presidential election.

Trump and the Republican Party have radically shifted American public policy away from countering the global climate disaster.

The American billionaire class and other plutocrats have enriched themselves by 20 percent, or a reported $565 billion, during the coronavirus pandemic.  There are miles-long lines in California, Texas and other parts of the country at food pantries and other charities.

While the average American faces the possibility of  economic ruin, the very rich have used the pandemic crisis to capture even more wealth and income through advantageous changes to tax policy, disaster capitalism, and hugely disproportionate direct payments and other subsidies through the various coronavirus relief programs.

Donald Trump and his neo-fascist regime continue to trample on the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the rule of law and American democracy overall.

If the universe was merciful, humankind would only be facing one great crisis at a time. Alas, that is not reality. No such mercy or kindness from the Fates is to be found.

How has the coronavirus taken America's (and the world's) societal fractures and burst them asunder? How have Donald Trump and his supporters shown themselves to be an existential, if not genocidal, threat to the world? How is gangster capitalism destroying the environment and human society?

In their willingness to sacrifice human beings — especially the sick, the elderly, and those who are otherwise vulnerable — to the coronavirus death cult to "save" capitalism, in what ways are Donald Trump and other members of the global right-wing channeling the evils of the Nazis and the Holocaust?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with author, historian and urban theorist Mike Davis. He is a distinguished emeritus professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of more than 20 books, including "City of Quartz," "Planet of Slums" and "Prisoners of the American Dream." His new book (co-authored with Jon Wiener) is "Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties." Davis' writing has also been featured in such publications as The Nation, Jacobin and the New Statesman.

You can also listen to my conversation with Mike Davis on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

This conversation took place before the George Floyd protests and people's uprising. It has been edited for clarity and length.

In your writing and interviews you use the powerful phrase "super capitalism" to describe neoliberalism as manifest through gangster capitalism. How is "super capitalism" and its related forces negatively impacting people's lives on a day-to-day basis in America?

In this country, it was as if people went to bed one evening and woke up and it was the Great Depression and 1933 outside. This is true not just in terms of the immediate shock to the country but also the midterm and long-term consequences as well.

Almost a third of families with children now have insufficient income to purchase the food that they need. If one includes the official count of unemployed people who are registered in the system, the people who are totally unemployed and jobless — but for some reason don't qualify or haven't registered yet — then up to a third of the American workforce has lost their jobs. People are losing their homes as well.

Unfortunately, this is all just the beginning. The World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus a pandemic. The business press and the academic economic press have been discussing not whether there was going to be a recession or not, but when it would occur and how bad it would be. The United States economy really had not recovered from the 2008 Great Recession.

The coronavirus detonated an already existing series of contradictions in the economy, not only in this country, but surely everywhere in the world. The pandemic has made those pains far worse. One of the things that worries me the most is that I do not see an engine that is going to pull this country, and the world as a whole, out of the economic depression that it has entered into.

We have been catapulted into a new historical era. Virtually all epidemiologists believe that the coronavirus is just the first in a series of pandemics. We are going to see a convergence of forces on all fronts — including a global food crisis. This moment is not a tunnel with a bright light at the end of it.

The coronavirus pandemic and the economic devastation it has caused in American has been described as a type of "crisis" for capitalism. But capitalism has long been described as being in some type of "crisis," yet it adapts and survives. Isn't the obituary premature?

Capitalism changes through economic crisis, and even more profoundly through war.

And of course, as has been widely discussed since 2008, the financialization of the economy with hedge funds and private equity accelerated the exported jobs from this country. The American economy is also ruled not by giant corporations but through the small billionaires such as the DeVos family, oil billionaires and others of that ilk. This type of destructive economic policy has been impacting the world as well.

Capitalism continuously changes. But in the most important analysis we must understand that capitalism threatens human survival in four major respects.

First of all, it doesn't guarantee, and I don't believe can guarantee, human survival in terms of food security or water. The standard prediction for a long time has been that grain outputs in the world have to increase by 50% to accommodate the world's population in 2040 or 2050. That's not happening. The second aspect is, of course, global warming. And there's two aspects to confronting climate change. One is mitigation, where we decarbonize our economies as quickly as possible. But the other is adaptation, which requires the movement of hundreds of millions of people away from the oceans.

Capitalism no longer exploits enough of us, meaning that it does not create enough jobs. Capitalism is not providing income or meaningful social roles for people.

And finally, there is a revolution that has been happening for 15 years if not farther. Not only meaning research on specific diseases, but the development of new biological technologies, being able to do biological design down to the atomic level. New forms of vaccine production, next-generation sequencing. There has been a revolution in biotechnology. But we are incapable, right now, of translating that into public health for all Americans and the other people who live on this planet.

If we continue with capitalism as it now exists for another 30 or so years, the lives of several billion people are at risk. Ultimately, in the most fundamental way, since many of them have already been triaged by today's capitalism.

How are you making sense of the language from Trump, his Republican followers, the plutocrats and other gangster capitalists and their propagandists that people should be willing to sacrifice their lives for "the economy"?

The most evil word in the entire Nazi lexicon is a German phrase which means "lives not worth living." This was the official term applied during the mass murder of mentally and physically handicapped people. This also included the murder of people with dementia and elderly people killed by the thousands by the Nazis in hospitals. Almost the same diabolical ethics and principles are acceptable now. And it is not only in the United States but in Great Britain as well.

The language of Trump and Republican leaders and others about the economy, the elderly and other vulnerable people about sacrificing them to the coronavirus is essentially a Nazi ethic, a Nazi form of eugenics and social Darwinism.

It is not just that profits come before people, but that people now must be sacrificed to profits.

Ordinary people are being put into situations where they're being asked to make monstrous choices between the health and the survival of, say, older family members or people with disabilities on one hand and trying to prevent an entire personal economic collapse on the other.

Regular people are being forced to choose between losing their homes and their savings accounts and surviving the pandemic.

American society is now infested by another virus. And this is a virus of being forced to make impossible choices by elites who are all too willing to sacrifice other human beings to maximum their goals. I'm sure when they found out that 60% of people in many cities who were dying were African Americans, that gave those same elites even more satisfaction in demanding that people go back to work without personal protection equipment or without considering the risk to their family members.

How have the American people been socialized into accepting the financialization of their lives and the misery it causes as somehow normal?

The first few decades of the 21st century are looking much like the middle of the 19th century, with a return to a kind of a Dickensian logic. I feel like I'm listening to voices from the 1840s or 1850s about the undeserving poor.

People feel like they have no control over the forces impacting their lives. The financialization of the economy and the social world, for example. Did you vote for it? Did I vote for it? We do not understand those issues. We as a public do not know who is really behind those policies.

What could be more urgent right now than universal health care? People are losing their jobs by the many millions, and when that happens, they lose their health care too.  

In the United States we are seeing private hospitals and clinics collapsing at a time of almost infinite demand for emergency services because of the coronavirus. Half of the American medical industry is being left to be "rescued" by hedge funds or private equity firms. The system will be even worse than the one that is partially responsible for coronavirus crisis.

We the people are not aware of how much money hedge funds, banks, pharmaceutical companies and fossil fuel industries are paying to control elected officials. Without the knowledge and the ability to make clear choices and without having candidates who offer real alternatives, it is nearly impossible for people to properly navigate through this morass.

The Republican Party right now is probably as big a threat to humanity as the Nazis were in Germany. One example: the Republicans have literally been the single most important force in preventing action on global warming for the last 30 years.

The Democratic Party, which is supposed to provide alternative policies and represent the interests of the working class in this country, has really been in thrall to neoliberalism and the financialization of the economy.

Huge corporations such as Whole Foods, Target, CVS, Walgreens and others have created a perverse narrative where their "essential employees" are "heroes." These are low-wage employees who are being exploited and risking their lives because most of them do not have a choice. 

It is all disgusting — lauding people as heroes and sending them off into dangerous circumstances without protection. Refusing to give people hazard pay. In other words, treating them like garbage but then applauding them as our "heroic sales associates and essential workers." Health care workers are part of this too. They are applauded while they die from a lack of proper equipment and other protection.

But it does show the fear that these companies have of the underpaid service workers and distribution workers in the American economy.

People are in rebellion. It is astonishing to see these scores of workplace protests across the country. From Jeff Bezos on down, the corporate elites have a new fear of the power that their employees have.

And of course, on the other side, the pandemic and economic collapse is a near-extinction event for family-owned businesses and small businesses — particularly businesses that employ lots of immigrant workers. In Darwinian terms, the coronavirus is tilting the scale in favor of the velociraptors like Amazon, who will quickly destroy smaller retail and family-owned businesses.

Portions of the middle class, or even the upper middle class, are being now forced down into a state of near destitution. They are falling into the abyss as well. This crisis will not be recovered from in three or four years. We are looking at a snowball effect from the pandemic and then the economy and then the food crisis and the water crisis, etc.

Here is a post-coronavirus pandemic scenario: in America and in other countries in the West, and elsewhere, there will be a regime of democratic authoritarianism. The corporatocracy will have even more power. The surveillance society and surveillance capitalism will be even more dominant — and accepted by the majority of the global public as being regular parts of day-to-day life which are necessary for health and safety. How should we orient ourselves to this present-future dystopia?

The threat is so very dire. We have a president with Donald Trump, his ego is so enormous and sucks everything into himself. For him there is no reality outside of himself. Trump, through Attorney General William Barr and the Republicans, has claimed absolute powers while at the same time denying any presidential responsibility.

America is on the edge of tyranny. But we have also seen how these seemingly omnipotent surveillance and other technologies are full of vulnerabilities. Look at the degree of system collapse which has occurred since January. People need to resist, using any nonviolent methods available. The American people must stay in the streets. I do know one thing: People have to fight in every way, in a scrupulous manner, and a nonviolent manner, against compliance with a lot of this. I argued from February onward that we had to stay in the streets. I do not see any contradiction between social distancing and socially responsible resistance and protest behavior.

What do you see when you look at these right-wing anti-public health coronavirus "rallies" In Michigan and other parts of the country with the guns and threats of terrorist violence, spurred on by Trump, the Republican Party and their media?

I worry that there is a clear possibility of seeing something like low-intensity civil war in the United States if progressives ever became the majority in the Democratic Party or in Congress. The reaction by the right wing will be that great. There is the threat from right-wing paramilitaries, of course. But also remember the role of "massive resistance" in the South to the civil rights movement. The White Citizens Councils mobilized millions of people to violently confront and try to stop the progress of the civil rights movement. They defied the federal and state government to stop integration and voting and other progress. I believe that a contemporary version of "massive resistance" and other types of violence will take place in this country in the next few years. 

How should people balance hope and despair in such a challenging time? And what does resistance look like? 

I believe that we fight because we must fight. We do this because we must do what is necessary to save ourselves, our families, all of humanity. No matter how desperate the odds or hopeless the situation is, we must resist. I was politicized by and developed my first real social conscience within the civil rights movement. I saw miracles, ordinary people doing things that were so utterly unpredictable given the power of Jim Crow and the other ideologies we were fighting to overthrow.

My hopes now rest in the agents of change in this current generation and especially young people of color. To resist and triumph we must reject the realistic and do what is necessary.


By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Activism Books Capitalism Donald Trump Editor's Picks Interview Mike Davis Pandemic