A light in the dark pools of squalor

Issue: 111

Kieran Allen

A review of Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (Verso, 2006), £15.99

Soon there will be more people living in the city of Mumbai than in the continent of Australia. Like Mexico City or Seoul- Injon it is set to become a ‘hypercity’ with a population of over 20 million. Two hundred years ago, at the time of the French Revolution, the total urban population of the world was no greater than present day Mumbai.

Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums is a gem. The book grew out of an assessment of an official United Nations Human Settlements Programme report entitled The Challenge of the Slums and explores the many dimensions of urban poverty and sustainability in late capitalism. His grasp of the literature and his ability to write in a thoughtful and clear way are awesome. It is a book that socialists should study because it outlines the contours of an urban working class as it is being shaped at the intersection of neo-liberalism and uneven development.

The term ‘slum’ originally connoted both physical location and a sense of moral depravity. One of the earliest definitions linked it to a ‘racket’ or ‘criminal trade’. In Victorian Britain early social researchers such as Charles Booth explored slums much like anthropologists reported back from the colonial conquests. To be fair, Booth at least mapped out the cruel dimensions of poverty, if only to warn his middle class readers how dark pools of squalor might rise to engulf them.

Davis breaks from all the sermonising and concentrates on the physical dimensions of the slum—overcrowding, informal housing, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, insecurity of tenure. The cold marshalling of facts paints a terrifying picture of what neo-liberal capitalism is doing to humanity.

There are probably 200,000 slums on the Earth where millions live. The five great metropolises of South Asia—Karachi, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Dhaka—contain a slum population of 20 million. In the past the ‘horizontalisation’ of cities was an America phenomenon caused by the expansion of suburbs outwards. Before the 1960s the poor often lived in inner city districts, in the classic tenements and run down housing. Today, however, the slums are found on the edge of cities, and as a result there is massive expansion of urban space. Khartoum, for example, was 48 times larger in developed area in 1988 than it was in 1955. Slum dwellers face the added burden of travelling far for work and suffer all the new ailments associated with a car society. The World Health Organisation has noted that the economic cost of road deaths and accidents is now twice the total development assistance received by poorer countries. And, of course, basic social infrastructure is virtually non-existent on the periphery of cities.

The relationship between the poor and urban space has gone through many transformations. The European colonisers often tried to keep the poor out of cities by denying them rights to land ownership. Africans were only considered temporary sojourners in the racially zoned Nairobi, while the French carefully restricted rural migration and kept public lighting for the European quarters. However, the paradoxical combination of counterinsurgency strategies and the victory of anti-colonial movements broke down these barriers. In Vietnam, for example, intense US bombing produced a wave of migration from the countryside, to the delight of the war strategist Samuel Huntington, who argued that the Vietcong ‘could not be dislodged from its constituency so long as that constituency continues to exist’. After independence the flow into the cities escalated as people sought relief from rural poverty.

Migration accelerated as neo-liberalism came into its ascendancy. Not only did these economic policies bring greater impoverishment to the countryside but pressure from the IMF and the World Bank to reduce the role of the state created immense problems when migrants arrived in the cities. Social housing became non-existent but so too did water provision, sanitation and schooling. The poor were literally thrown back on their own meagre resources.

Davis carefully documents the results in a fashion that is similar to the way Engels described Manchester by showing how millions literally live in shit. Kinshasa, for example, has a population of 10 million but no waterborne sewerage system. He quotes the filmmaker Prahlad Kakkar on Bombay who notes that ‘half the population doesn’t have a toilet to shit in, so they shit outside. That’s 5 million people. If they shit half a kilo each, that’s two and a half million kilos of shit each morning.’ Only neo-liberal politicians could turn pay toilets into a growth industry for Third World cities! The retreat of the state also brings a toxic combination of polluted water and waste disposal which kills 30,000 people every day.

Neo-liberals can no longer simply rely on a brutal economic logic to defend their positions. Increasingly they cloak their policies in the softer and sweeter language of ‘empowerment’ and ‘stakeholder’ rights. In an excellent chapter Davis makes a devastating criticism of the way the World Bank uses the ideas of the Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto to give an illusion of sympathy for the poor. De Soto has been popularised in tame intellectual circles for advocating microentrepreneurial solutions to slum poverty. The roots of this outlook lie in a strange intellectual marriage between World Bank president Robert McNamara and the English anarchist architect John Turner.

This led to a particular stream of writing which rhetorically praised the praxis of the poor and counterposed their efforts to alleviate poverty to big, bad state housing schemes.

In more recent years the World Bank has linked up with NGOs to fund De Soto schemes for promoting popular capitalism among slum dwellers. The strategy is to extend property rights and to regularise unauthorised settlements in the belief that micro-accumulation of capital will create enough small-scale enterprises to turn rags into riches. Davis, however, uses the work of Gita Verma to challenge such cruel illusions. Her book, Slumming India: A Chronicle of Slums and Their Saviours, describes how NGOs have become a new class of middlemen who use foreign philanthropy to usurp the authentic voice of the poor. She argues against the rhetoric of ‘saving the slums’, claiming that it translates into an inequality whereby one fourth of the population are living on 5 percent of a city’s land.

Davis’s book is not just a descriptive account but raises important questions about the global working class. An earlier article in New Left Review was more pessimistic as it drew sharper distinctions between the ‘informal proletariat’ and the classic working class of Marx’s day. Here he is more cautious and concentrates his fire on De Soto who uses the concept of informalisation to claim that ‘Marx would be shocked to find how in developing countries much of the teeming masses does not consist of oppressed legal proletarians but of oppressed extra-legal small entrepreneurs’.

Against this, Davis argues for a continuum between the formal and informal working class. The casualisation of work and the denial of legal rights to migrant workers are not far removed from the depths of the informal sector. Most participants in the informal economy are not De Soto’s heroic self-employed but actually work for someone else. The informal economy often grows out of new divisions of labour which fragment existing work. Davis challenges writers like Manuel Castells, who claim that the working class is fading away, and argues that the real issue is not the complexity of social positions but a struggle for legal rights for the informal working class.

The growth of the informal working class has important political consequences. But these cannot simply be read off from a sociology of the slums. As current developments in Latin America show, struggle and politics play a big role in the capacity of the formal and informal working class to reshape themselves as actors who change history.