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Mike Davis Revisits His 1986 Labor History Classic, Prisoners of the American Dream

The late socialist writer's first book was a deep exploration of how the US labor movement became so weakened.

The death of the legendary socialist writer Mike Davis last week of esophageal cancer at age seventy-six has produced an outpouring of tributes and remembrances of Davis, including several here at Jacobin. But particularly in mainstream outlets, few have spent time on Davis’s first book, published in 1986: Prisoners of the American Dream. His New York Times obituary said little more than “the formidable title was off-putting, and so was the text”; his Los Angeles Times obituary didn’t even mention it.

But Prisoners is one of the most rigorous, searching explorations of American labor history in the last half century. Which is why, last summer, Davis spoke with Daniel Denvir, host of the Jacobin podcast The Dig, to revisit the book as part of a discussion of how labor ended up in such a desiccated position today. You can listen to the full interview here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Daniel Denvir

In your book, Prisoners of the American Dream, written at the height of the [Ronald] Reagan era, you set out to determine why the United States had long been so exceptional. You write, “A signal absence of working-class self-organization and consciousness comparable in scope to that represented in every other capitalist country by the prevalence of laborist, social-democratic, or Communist parties is the specter that has long haunted American Marxism.”

What was the general question you were trying to answer, and what was your general answer? And to what degree do you have the same analysis today, more than three decades later?

Mike Davis

The book was written in the mid-1980s. It was an attempt to address that particular moment, just after Reagan’s reelection, at the beginning of a massive US intervention in Central America and sweeping changes in the American economy, including the beginning of plant closures.

The book has two parts. The first part looks at the question of American labor’s failure to obtain independent representation of its interests via a socialist or labor party. That’s a very traditional question that quite a few books have tried to address. The second part is an anatomy of Reaganism, and the deep transformations of the social structure and the economy at that time.

Traditionally, there have been two approaches to the question of why there was no socialism in America and no labor party. The classical Marxist approach conceded that the American working class was simply still in formation. It was an immature working class, which would rapidly mature, in an explosion of militant class struggle. Soon, it would follow what you might call the “normal” path of labor movements in Western Europe, Britain, and in its colonies of white settlement.


The Surprisingly Socialist History of America

How socialism failed to take-off in the fertal soil of American capitalism and class division.