Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Mike Davis – Planet of Slums

I suspect that most of the people who read this book (or indeed this review), will never have seen a slum. I don’t mean the run down bits housing estates that blight the cities of northern England; I mean a slum on a truly different scale. Mike Davis describes in terrifying detail just what sort of world it is, that huge numbers of people live in.

He starts of with the growth of the city, quoting UN reports he says

“In 1950 there were 86 cities in the world with a population of more than one million; today there are 400, and by 2015 there will be at least 550”

This explosion of growth for cities doesn’t bring with it prosperity or jobs. While the “world’s urban labo[u]r force has more than doubled since 1980, and the present urban population – 3.2 billion – is larger than the total population of the world when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated”, huge numbers of these people have no meaningful income from work. According to a CIA report in 2002, by the late 1990s, a third of the world’s labour force, a “staggering” one billion people, had no work, or were underemployed.

The figures for the growth of slums are similarly shocking. People flocking to the cities in the search of employment, or because they have been pushed off the land, form giant illegal or semi-legal areas of housing. 60% of Mexico’s growth is due to people building their own homes on “un-serviced peripheral land”, similarly in the Amazon, “80 percent of growth has been in shantytowns”.

The word un-serviced is important here. These are huge areas of human population with little or no running water, sewerage systems or electricity.

Davis documents two facts that flow from this – how governments and the state ignore or give lip service to the people living in such poverty, and how often the role of NGOs is limited to trying to make the slums slightly better, rather than look at the root cause of the problem.

But Davis’ real fire is reserved for international financial policies that have helped create the slums in the first place and limited the ability of the state and government to provide services to help the poorest of the poor. The neo-liberal policies of the World Bank and the IMF have, since the 1970s, caused unemployment through the destruction of industry and public services and have meant that services that are offered to the poor (such as water provision) are often privatised. It’s an irony, that privatised water companies end up charging the poor huge amounts of money for what should be a basic human right.

“The situation in Luanda is even worse: there the poorest households are forced to spend 15 percent of their income on water that private companies simply pump from the nearby, sewage-polluted Bengo River.”

What's true for drinking water is also true for sewage:

In “India – where an estimated 700 million people are forced to defecate in the open – only 17 of 3700 cities and large towns have any kind of primary sewage treatment before final disposal”.

Mike Davis paints a picture of billions of people living in squalor, poverty and unemployment, unable to find work and ignored by governments more interested in making a few people richer. However he finishes on an interesting point. Military thinkers around the world already plan how they might intervene in such slums. Fearful of insurrection and “anarchy” they worry about how the chaotic unplanned slums could be controlled – But “If the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side”, Davis concludes.

Related Reviews

Davis - The Monster at our Door


carolwilliams said...

I need this book. Living in Istanbul where all the problems of the city are placed at the feet of the migrants from the east and therefore contriubtes to the suspicion and hatred of Kurds, it would be really useful to have an international perspective of these movements. You really need to send it me. (Did you know this page comes up in Turkish here?)

Resolute Reader said...

Sorry, but I kind of need it myself :-) I think though that there are probably books that deal more directly with the issues that you describe. Not least two authors from Turkey that Davis refers too.

The first is a novel by Latife Tekin, "Berji Kristin: Tles from the Garbage Hills" of which he says she "explains why Istanbul's slums are called gecekondus ('setup over night')" apparently she goes on to describe a "homeric" seige where the shanty dwellers rebuild their homes every night because the authorities tear them down daily.

Secondly, you might find the work of postwar, Marxist sociologist Caglar Keyder, who wrote alot about housing in Turkey and the role of the state in undermining public housing.

Davis devotes little of his book to the movement of people, rather he looks at how housing develops around cities, how its slums work economically and how they are used/hated by the state etc

Unknown said...

You can read the book here:

Greg Cameron said...

Mike Davis's "Planet of Slums" is a flawlessly written and argued corrective about much wishful thinking floating around in the Western World as epitomized by (to draw some figures at random) the thinking of Thomas Friedman, Bill Clinton, and Jon Stewart. Globalization is wonderful - if there are problems, it'll all work itself out in the end. Treat this proposition as an academic essay topic - prove your supposition, present the facts supposedly supporting your conclusion, think your premises through, etc. Thomas Friedman often jocularly declares India to be 'the greatest place on earth.' It could be, but is it? David qutes a UNICEF report on child labour: '"most of them are kept in captivity, tortured and made to work for 20 hours a day without a break. Little children are made to crouch on their toes, from dawn to dusk every day severely stuning their growth during formative years. Social activists find it hard to work because of the strong Mafia-like control that the carpet loom owners have on the area."' Davis quotes the UNICEF about India's glass capital Firozabad: "'Children work on all types of jobs, such as carrying molten loams of glass stuck on the tips of iron rods, which are just two feet away from their bodies; drawing molten glass from tank furnaces in which the temperature is between 1500 and 1800 degrees centigrade and the arm is almost touching the furnace because the arm of a child is so small; joining and annealing the glass bangles wwhere the work is done over a small kerosene flame in a room with little or no ventilation because a whiff of air can blow out the flame. The whole factory floor is strewn with broken glass and the children run to and fro carrying ths burning hot glass with no shoes to protect their feet. Naked electric wires ae to be seen dangling everywhere because the factory owners could not be bothered to install insulated internal wiring.'" I put to you this - if,as Thomas Friedman says, India is the greatest place on earth, then let me off! Think of that the next time you see Thomas Friedman and Jon Stewart laughing it up on the Daily Show. This book captures in chilling detail how cities in the Third World have become combination black holes/sink holes of humanity. The author is lacerating in pricking neoliberal pretensions and delusions. The book even incredibly details the return of 'witchcraft' hysteria in Africa, fed by the same American Pentecostal evangelists(shame on them!) many Democrats such as Hillary Clinton would reach out to and 'understand'(Jon Stewart once voiced similar ideas). Feh to the lot of them! Some day globalism(as currently envisaged) will be regarded as every bit as much a secular faith as Marxism. Mark my words. And don't be a mark for the neoliberals' words, who are trying to sell you a very dubious vehicle. Entertainers such as Bruce Springsteen and John Mellancamp are often seen embracing bigwig Democrats, probably because the Democrats used to represent labour interests in the U.S. But this is 'cargo cult' thinking. The ship on this sailed a long time ago - and the ship is heading one-way to the Third World. A whole new form of political thinking will be required to address the problems raised in this very important book. Greg Cameron, Surrey, BC, Canada....

Unknown said...

before here in my country(philippines) we have a squatter (bourgeois term)but in reality we call it urban poor. my pre thinking that slum in the cities is because of land grabbing by landlord and bourgeosie comprador class, and a lot of my counrty side fellowmen go to tue city to find jobs and end ups in Contractual, deregulation in basic commodities.. Mr. Mike Davies is rigth in his matertial analysis.