Born in Fontana, California and raised in El Cajon, California, Davis' education was punctuated by stints as a meat cutter, truck driver, and a Congress of Racial Equality and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) activist. He briefly studied at Reed College in the mid-1960s but did not begin his academic career in earnest until the early 1970s, when he earned BA and MA degrees but did not complete the PhD program in History from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Davis has stated that one of the moments prompting him returning to study after working was a violent strike, "I had this job with a bus-tour company when suddenly this insanely violent strike broke out. A strikebreaker ran a bus over one of our guys, and next thing I knew I was in a room with forty guys voting on whether each of us is gonna put up $400 to hire a hit man to kill the head of the strikebreakers. I said, 'Hey, guys, this is just crazy,' and made the best speech of my life. I was outvoted thirty-nine to one. I thought to myself, 'Typical American workers'; I think I said 'pussies.' Instead of coming up with a political strategy, they reach for their guns as soon as they see a scab driving their bus. And here I am about to become a freshman at UCLA, and I'm going to get arrested for criminal conspiracy."
He was a 1996–1997 Getty Scholar at the Getty Research Institute and received a MacArthur Fellowship Award in 1998. He won the Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction in 2007.
Davis is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, and an editor of the New Left Review. Davis has taught urban theory at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and at Stony Brook University before he secured a position at University of California, Irvine's history department. He also contributes to the British monthly Socialist Review, the organ of the British Socialist Workers Party. As a journalist and essayist, Davis has written for, among others, The Nation and the UK's New Statesman.
He is a self-defined international socialist and "Marxist-Environmentalist". He writes in the tradition of socialists/architects/regionalism advocates such as Lewis Mumford and Garrett Eckbo, whom he cites in Ecology of Fear. His early book, Prisoners of the American Dream, was an important contribution to the Marxist study of U.S. history, political economy, and the state, as well as to the doctrine of Revolutionary integrationism, as Davis, like Trotskyists such as Max Shachtman, Richard S. Fraser, James Robertson, as well as French anarchist Daniel Guérin, argued that the struggle of blacks in the U.S. was for equality, that this struggle was an explosive contradiction fundamental to the U.S. bourgeois republic, that only socialism could bring it about, and that its momentum would someday be a powerful contribution to a socialist revolution in the U.S.
Davis is also the author of two fiction books for young adults: Land of The Lost Mammoths and Pirates, Bats and Dragons.
Reviewers have praised Davis' prose style and his exposés of economic, social, environmental and political injustice. His book Planet of Slums inspired a special issue of Mute magazine on global slums. City of Quartz describes some of the tensions that would lead to the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
In spite of the popular success of Davis' critical studies, they have been criticized. Malibu Realtor Ross Ernest Shockley (aka "Brady Westwater") argued that Davis distorts or makes up facts to overdramatize his case against the contemporary capitalist city. This argument was subsequently repeated by Los Angeles communications professional Jill Stewart, who labeled Davis a "city-hating socialist" in the New Times Los Angeles. These views were brought to a broader audience in Salon.com.
According to Todd Purdum's unfriendly 1999 piece, Davis "acknowledged fabricating an entire conversation with a local environmentalist, Lewis McAdams, for a cover story he wrote for L.A. Weekly a decade ago (in the late 1980s); he defends it as an early attempt at journalistic scene-setting." However, in his October 2004 Geography article, "That Certain Feeling: Mike Davis, Truth and the City," Kevin Stannard held that this "controversy is explained by Davis's ambiguous balancing of academic research and reportage".
Jon Wiener has defended Davis in The Nation, maintaining that his critics are political opponents exaggerating the significance of small errors.
Some academic leftists have also criticized Davis's focus on modern urban structures. In a review essay on "City of Quartz," geographer Cindi Katz criticized its apocalypticism as masculinist and tied it to the flattening of people's subjectivity as they are made into "characters" more than social actors. Citing Jane Jacobs' attacks upon Lewis Mumford in her Death and Life of Great American Cities, Andy Merrifield (MetroMarxism, Routledge 2002) wrote that Davis' analysis was "harsh" (p. 170). Davis' work, particularly Planet of Slums, has been criticized by Merrifield and urban studies professor Tom Angotti as "anti-urban" and "overly apocalyptic".
These critics charge that Davis fails to focus on activist groups among the poor and working class in solving problems—as advocated by Manuel Castells and Marshall Berman.
As he states in Planet of Slums, however, Davis is not interested in such a "reformist" approach. He argues that most reforms have failed because they treat the symptoms rather than the cause: economic and political inequality. He argued in Ecology of Fear that realistic solutions lie in a radical transformation of the city and of capitalism by the global working-class, as Lewis Mumford and Garrett Eckbo advocated.1996–1997: Getty Scholar at the Getty Research Institute
1998: MacArthur Fellowship
2002: World History Association Book Prize, Late Victorian Holocausts
2007: Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction
Beyond Blade Runner: Urban Control, The Ecology of Fear (1992)
Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class (1986, 1999)
City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990, 2006)
¿Quién mató a Los Ángeles? (1994, Spanish only)
Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (1998)
Casino Zombies: True Stories From the Neon West (1999, German only)
Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City (2000)
Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (2001)
The Grit Beneath the Glitter: Tales from the Real Las Vegas, edited with Hal Rothman (2002)
Dead Cities, And Other Tales (2003)
Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, with Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew (2003)
Cronache Dall’Impero (2005, Italian only)
The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu (2005)
Planet of Slums: Urban Involution and the Informal Working Class (2006)
No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border, with Justin Akers Chacon (2006)
Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (2007)
In Praise of Barbarians: Essays against Empire (2007)
Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism, edited with Daniel Bertrand Monk (2007)
Islands Mysterious: Where Science Rediscovers Wonder – a Trilogy, illustrated by William Simpson
1. Land of the Lost Mammoths (2003)
2. Pirates, Bats, and Dragons (2004)
3. Spider Vector (forthcoming)
"The Democrats after November". New Left Review. New Left Review. II (43). January–February 2007.
"Fear and money in Dubai". New Left Review. New Left Review. II (41): 47–68. September–October 2006.
"Who Is Killing New Orleans?". The Nation. April 10, 2006.
"The Winged Killer Flies In". Red Pepper. December 2005.
"Twenty-five questions about the murder of New Orleans". TomDispatch.com. September 27, 2005.
"Monster at our door". TomDispatch.com. August 16, 2005.
"A paradise built on oil". TomDispatch.com. July 14, 2005.
"Vigilante man". TomDispatch.com. May 6, 2005.
"Political sidelining of Blacks". TomDispatch.com. September 23, 2004.
"Remembering Bill and Ivan". Z Magazine. June 7, 2004.
"Planet of slums". New Left Review. New Left Review. II (26). March–April 2004.
"Believer Interview". The Believer. February 2004.
"The great Californian fire". TomDispatch.com. October 27, 2003.
"The Californian recall". TomDispatch.com. September 3, 2003.
"The flames of New York". New Left Review. New Left Review. II (12). November–December 2001.
"Urban renaissance and the spirit of postmodernism". New Left Review. New Left Review. I (151): 106–113. May–June 1985.
Davis, Mike (May–June 1985). "Urban renaissance and the spirit of postmodernism". New Left Review. New Left Review. I (151): 106–113.
Articles by Mike Davis at The Rag Blog