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Mike Davis on a Planet of Slums
The rising tide of urban poverty

May 12, 2006 | Pages 6 and 7

FOR THE first time in history, a majority of the world's population will soon live in cities. But large parts of this urban population endure dire poverty. MIKE DAVIS, the author and social activist, details these trends in his new book Planet of Slums. He spoke with LEE SUSTAR about the economic, social, political and environmental consequences of the rising tide of urban poverty.

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DISCUSSION OF the rise of the rise of the megaslum has been excluded from mainstream political discussion. Why?

I MUST confess that I have been surprised by the near silence that greeted the publication of the landmark United Nations (UN) report, The Challenge of Slums, three years ago. In addition to the first serious overview of urban poverty on a global scale, UN researchers provide us with a comprehensive balance sheet of the damage done by 30 years of structural adjustment, debt and privatization.

I suppose this is just the sort of news that cheerleaders for the World Bank and, more generally, the "Washington Consensus" don't want to hear about.

The exception, of course, is the Pentagon. The inattention of National Security Council pundits to the global slum contrasts with the avid interest of more pragmatic military thinkers at the Army War College and the Marines' Warfighting Laboratory.

War planners are painfully aware that while their smart bombs are extremely good at taking out hierarchical cities like Belgrade, with their centralized infrastructures and business districts, American high-tech weapons falter before the problem of controlling undeveloped concentrations of poverty, like in Mogadishu in Somalia, and Sadr City in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

The great, sprawling slums on the outskirts of Third World cities neutralize much of Washington's baroque arsenal.

The careful analysis of this problem has led military strategists to a different geopolitical worldview than the rest of the Bush administration. Instead of an overarching terrorist conspiracy or axis of evil, war planners focus on the primacy of terrain, the slum itself.

The "enemy"--which the Pentagon conceives as an eclectic array of potential opponents, ranging from street gangs and radical groups to ethnic militias--is less important than his labyrinth.

YOU DRAW a distinction in your book between urbanization that was pulled by industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries, and urbanization that is pushed by structural adjustment programs in the Third World today.

IN THE 19th century, of course, classical social theory focused on dynamic industrial cities like Manchester, Berlin and Chicago as the shape of things to come. Indeed, Chinese cities--the products of the greatest urban-industrial revolution in history--still fit the template as imagined by Marx and Weber.

But most cities of the Third World have more in common with Victorian Dublin and Naples, with their huge concentrations of poverty and lack of modern industry. Urban growth has been de-linked from industrialization, even economic development per se.

The "push" factors expelling people from the countryside now act independently of "pull" factors like the supply of formal city jobs to ensure a continuing urban population explosion. Outside China, moreover, the former industrial metropolises of the South--including Bombay (Mumbai), Johannesburg, São Paulo and Buenos Aires--have suffered massive deindustrialization during the last 20 years.

"Modernization" theory as a result has collapsed, and urban growth has become de-linked from industrialization, even economic development per se.

This has remarkable implications as well for revolutionary social theory and practice as well. No where in the Marxist canon--not even in the visionary pages of the Grundrisse--can we find any anticipation of today's informal proletariat: a global social class of at least one billion urban-dwellers, radically and permanently disconnected from the formal world economy.

WHAT ARE the common features of what's happening with urbanization in China and, at the other extreme, Africa?

FIRST OF all, it's important to dispel the idea that cities have grown in any linear or unidirectional fashion.

Today's megaslum in most instances is the result, not of the slow, incremental accumulation of poverty, but of the "big bang" that occurred with debt and structural adjustment in the late 1970s and 1980s. Huge exoduses from the countryside encountered rapidly shrinking social investment in urban infrastructures and public services.

The new urban poor were left to improvise their own shelter and livelihood strategies. Their ingenuity indeed moved mountains, but only for a limited period.

Now across the world, there is overwhelming evidence that the famous frontier of free or nearly free squattable land has closed, and the informal economy is tragically overcrowded with too many poor people competing in the same survival niches. In Africa especially, this "miracle" of bootstrapped urbanization now more closely resembles the struggle for existence in a squalid concentration camp than any romanticized vision of heroic squatters and micro-entrepreneurs.

China, of course, is a partial exception, where the state continues to build millions of units of decent housing. Yet supply lags far behind demand, and inequality has grown faster in urban China than anywhere else over the last decade.

Slums, for instance, have returned on a gigantic scale. Traditional city dwellers are being expelled from old neighborhoods, especially in Beijing, to make way for foreign-funded mega-projects and luxury housing. Meanwhile, rural migrants--a gigantic peri-urban underclass of at least 100 million people--crowd into squalid dwellings on the outskirts of every city.

They are, together with poor peasant families, the major victims of China's turn to capitalism.

YOU WRITE about the huge environmental costs of these trends.

IN THE abstract, cities are the solution to the world environmental crisis. From Patrick Geddes to Jane Jacobs, urban theorists have correctly emphasized that the city, not the idealized small farm, is our ultimate ark: potentially the most efficient system for recycling energy and matter between ourselves and Gaia.

Moreover, only the city--through the creation of a democratic richness of public space and communal luxury--can square the circle of environmental sustainability and a globally high standard of living.

Yet contemporary urbanization, in both rich countries and poor, is paradoxically destroying the very preconditions of the truly urban.

In the United States, the increasingly oversized environmental footprints of wealthy exurbs--those dedicated to the McMansion and Hummer lifestyle--make the Levittowns of the 1950s look almost like green utopias.

In poor countries, meanwhile, the sprawl of informal urbanization overwhelms the watersheds and open spaces that constitute cities' essential environmental infrastructures. Water tables are depleted or degraded, sewage and toxicity contaminate every aspect of daily life, and in the constant search for shelter, poor people make increasingly fatal wagers with disaster as they build on unstable hillsides or along the crumbling banks of polluted rivers (in India, hundreds of thousands of people sleep a few feet from railroad tracks).

Poverty constantly amplifies urban hazards and, in combination with climate changes, promises a world where all incremental progress in achieving development and public health goals will be wiped away by the ever-rising costs of floods, earthquakes, landslides and pandemics.

HOW DO slums in the Western countries--including the U.S.--fit into this picture?

THE URBAN Third World is here. In addition to the traditional dereliction in inner-city neighborhoods and older suburbs, the U.S. Southwest is now spawning informal settlements that are virtually identical to those on the outskirts of any Latin American city.

Within spitting distance of million-dollar homes in the Palm Springs, California, area, for example, you will find shantytowns on Indian reservations, housing thousands of local farmworkers. The poor colonias of Juarez are now mirrored by their doubles on the Texas side of the Rio Bravo.

Western Europe has Third World slums (so-called clandestinos) as well, particularly on the outskirts of cities like Lisbon and Naples. The worst slum in Europe, however, is probably "Cambodia" in Sofia, Bulgaria, where 35,000 Roma live like Dalits in India.

But the most shocking picture is the former USSR, where slums have proliferated even faster than millionaires.

Since 1989, many of the most crucial urban services (like district heating), as well as recreation and culture (all tied to factories) have collapsed, leaving old people to freeze to the death in the winter.

In Moscow, moreover, huge populations of squatters, mainly undocumented foreign immigrants or national minorities, occupy abandoned factories and housing estates, toiling anonymously in the sweatshop economy that is the pride of the new order. Gorky must be turning over in his grave.

SOME PEOPLE look at your book as evidence of a new popular class--described by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri as the multitude--which has overwhelmed, if not subsumed, the working class.

I DON'T see it that way at all.

Revisit the Communist Manifesto for a moment. Marx and Engels argued that the factory proletariat was a revolutionary class in two fundamental aspects. First, because it had "radical chains"--that is to say, it had no vested interest in saving or perpetuating large-scale private property. And secondly, because its location in modern industrial production conferred extraordinary capacities--which no earlier subaltern group has possessed--for self-organization, science and culture.

Today's informal proletariat also wears radical chains, but it has been expelled from social production (at least in Marx's sense), and, in many cases, from the traditional culture and solidarity of the city. Living on the slum outskirts, cut off from formal employment, and exiled from traditional public space, it searches for sources of unity and social power.

Indeed, what you see across the world today is a vast process of experimentation, in which young slum-dwellers--sometimes in alliance with the traditional working class, but often not--are seeking radical solutions to their peripherality.

Where there is some transmission or inheritance of working-class tradition--as say in El Alto, the Quechua-speaking slum sister of La Paz, where former miners often take the lead in mobilizations--the result may be the reinvention of the left.

Poor, urban people are discovering that the gods of chaos are on their side: that they can blockade, shut down and lay siege to the economy of the "formal" middle-class city. Creative mobilization and guerrilla-like disruption of the city's various grids of services and supplies can compensate for the loss of power in the production process.

But too often, the informal economy goes hand in hand with Darwinian competition that leads to the division of the poor and the control of the slum by bosses, patrons and ethnic supremacists.

A famous and tragic example is Bombay. A quarter century ago, when the textile industry was still running full blast, Bombay was celebrated for its powerful left and trade union movements. Sectarian differences (Hindu versus Muslim or Maratha versus Tamil) were largely subordinated to trade-union solidarity.

But after the closure of the mills, the slums were colonized by sectarian politics--in particular, by the rabid Maratha and Hindu party, the Shiv Sena. The result was riots, carnage and seemingly irreparable division.

I think, therefore, that the centrifugal forces within the informal working class are on the whole greater than labor-market competition within the canonic industrial working class.

But the whole history of the workers' movement over the past two centuries has been about the overcoming of supposedly insuperable disunities. In the meantime, there is little value--à la Hardt and Negri--of trying to pull metaphysical rabbits out of philosophers' hats.

Marx's method was to begin with a case study of the concrete before coming to any constructed concept of the general; and clearly, what is needed now are activist case studies of the politics of the urban poor in their great diversity of settings--from the new revolutionary social movements of Caracas to the infernos of sectarian competition in Karachi or Baghdad.

But it would be erroneous to undertake such a comparative investigation without recognizing that many seemingly entrenched conflicts and identities are probably transitional.

The "war of civilizations" that neo-imperialists believe justifies today's white man's burden is, of course, just a self-serving illusion. The real bedrock of contemporary history remains the structural contradictions of a global capitalism that cannot create jobs, homes or futures for the earth's burgeoning urban population.

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