Born in Fontana, California and raised in El Cajon, California, Davis' education was punctuated by stints as a meat cutter, truck driver, and a 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 Ph.D. program in History from the University of California, Los Angeles. 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.
He is now distinguished professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, and an editor of the New Left Review. He also contributes to the British monthly Socialist Review, the organ of the Socialist Workers Party of Great Britain. As a journalist and essayist, Davis has written frequently 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 other Trotskyists such as Max Shachtman, Richard S. Fraser, James Robertson, as well as French anarchist Daniel Guerin, 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.
Reviewers have praised his prose style and his exposés of alleged economic, social, environmental and political injustice. His book Planet of Slums inspired a special issue of Mute Magazine on global slums. City of Quartz is notable for predicting some of the tensions that would lead into the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Davis is not without detractors, however. Veronique de Turenine, in a Salon article entitled "Is Mike Davis' Los Angeles All in His Head?" (December 7, 1998), cites an allegation that Davis distorts or makes up facts to overdramatize his case against the contemporary capitalist city. The claim was made by Malibu Realtor Brady Westwater, and subsequently repeated by commentator Jill Stewart, who in addition called Davis a "city-hating socialist" in the New Times Los Angeles. According to one critic, Davis "has acknowledged fabricating an entire conversation with a local environmentalist, Lewis McAdams, for a cover story he wrote for L.A. Weekly a decade ago; he defends it as an early attempt at journalistic scene-setting. Jon Wiener, however, in the Nation has defended Davis from the charges of poor scholarship, arguing that these charges are made by big city "boosters. Kevin Stannard, in his October 2004 Geography article "That Certain Feeling: Mike Davis, Truth and the City," has argued for the defense that "much of the controversy is explained by Davis’s ambiguous balancing of academic research and reportage, which can act as a prism through which to evaluate interpretations of the postmodern city.
From the liberal-Left, following Jane Jacobs's attacks upon Lewis Mumford in her Death and Life of Great American Cities, Andy Merrifield (MetroMarxism, Routledge 2002) has attacked him as "harsh," (p. 170) and his work, particularly Planet of Slums, has been criticized by urban studies professor Tom Angotti, and Merrifield as "anti-urban," overly "apocalyptic." Such critics also charge that Davis ignores what they see as the potential of activist groups among the poor and working class to address the problems he raises with the contemporary metropolis on a local or citywide basis, as advocated by Manuel Castells and Marshall Berman. Davis, however, is less interested in such local reforms of the existing city as an end in themselves, than he is moving toward a fundamental, revolutionary transformation of the city, along with capitalism itself, by the global working class to become ecologically sustainable, and much of its population decentralized through a socialist regionalism, as Mumford and Eckbo advocated in the past.