Bright Lights, Big Cities

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Review of 'Dead Cities', Mike Davis, New Press, £16.95

Mike Davis brings to each subject a completely idiosyncratic vision, with a huge passion to tell stories, explain and reveal. Dead Cities is a brilliant kaleidoscope of essays. Each section revolves around a different theme, together revealing the power and arrogance of political leaders in cahoots with corporate capital. In the preface, 'Flames of New York', he cites Ernst Bloch's comparison of pre-bourgeois towns with modern cities. It is the Americanised, 'big city' ideology that believes all problems can be technologically solved. But the operations of capital and the market have produced not facile optimism, but radical uncertainty, and this urban-technological 'perversion' is creating the crises typical of much urban life in the US.

Today, faced with what they consider to be 'catastrophic terrorism', the leaders in the US are responding by building the 'Fear Economy and the Fear State'. Anti-Arab racism is now enshrined in laws and statutes, such as the Patriot Act, and the Homeland Defence Command (led by John Poindexter of Watergate and Iran Contra fame) is bolted onto a system that hacks away at any public provision and incarcerates a huge proportion of black and Latino young men. The cities of capitalism's corporate culture will destroy their inhabitants more and more surely. Davis's focus is pitiless. In one of the most devastating essays, 'Ecocide in Marlboro Country', he turns to the 'pulverised landscapes' of Nevada, Utah and Idaho, and writing in accents reminiscent of DeLillo's Underworld, reveals the effects of 60 years of military 'testing'.

But this is no traumatised requiem. Combating the prevailing climate of doom are the protesters. Groups, from Native Americans--Downwinders, the Western Shoshones--to the Utah Progressive Alliance, the Sierra Club or the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, have been mounting increasingly militant campaigns to stop chemical and nuclear waste facilities, prevent nuclear testing and block the opening of further sites. With thousands of troops now massing in the Gulf, the stories about the battles that took place over the use of Dugway, Utah--birthplace of napalm--need to be read. One of the campaigners says, 'If the army's justification for resuming tests at Dugway (in 1990) was the imminent Iraqi bio war threat, then why did the commerce department previously allow $20 million of dangerous "dual-use" biological materials to be sold to Iraq's Atomic Energy Commission? Were we trying to defend our troops against our own renegade bugs?' Gulf War syndrome has still not been officially recognised or explained. The essay 'Berlin's Skeleton in Utah's Closet' is a searing account of the firebombing of Berlin and Tokyo in 1945, and recounts the carnage that was almost enough to dwarf that of Hiroshima!

Much of Davis's work is about Los Angeles, but in this volume he also covers Las Vegas and London. But his range is not limited to urban themes. Not for the first time he integrates new hard science into his work, including here a fascinating and rewarding essay, 'Extreme Science'.

His preface concludes, 'Terror has become the steroid of empire. And imperialism is politically correct. However nervously, the established order everywhere has rallied around the Stars and Stripes. As a gloating, and still undead Henry Kissinger has pointed out, it is the best thing since Metternich last dined with the Tsar.' In this very fine volume Davis forces us to look intently at the chaos, while urging us to participate in the struggle.