Global cities, global workers in the 21st century

Issue: 132

Mike Haynes

We live in a world of workers. Global social change in the last generation has seen workers become the majority class in the world for the first time in history. Between 1970 and 2010 the number of workers in advanced countries rose from some 300 million to 500 million but in poor countries their numbers, including immediate dependants, rose from 1.1 billion to between 2.5 billion and 3 billion. Of course, social relations are complex but this simple fact is important. No longer is the majority of the world’s population engaged in peasant or even more primitive forms of agriculture. We live in an urban world too for the first time in history. In the last ten years the global balance has more or less tipped in favour of the town and against the countryside. Of course, social relations in the city are also complex but again this simple fact of the central role of the town and city is important. The aim of this article is to focus on these two points in a way that is both ambitious and limited. It is ambitious in the sense that it tries to sketch out these trends from the perspective of the globe rather than a single country or region. It is limited in that it makes no big theoretical claims but rather tries to draw together some data and hints and suggestions out of which a deeper analysis might be built.

The world’s population, which will pass 7 billion in the autumn of 2011, is divided into over 200 states which range from microstates—small in population and area like Monaco or Andorra—to states giant in area terms such as Russia or giant in population such as China (1.3 billion) and India (1.2 billion). It is these states that measure and count what is happening. The global statistics compiled by institutions like the United Nations and World Bank depend on national statistics which themselves vary in extent and quality. Global data therefore tend to have higher margins of
error—combining statistics with estimates and guesstimates.1 But as we are interested in megatrends this should not be too much of a problem provided too much emphasis is not put on marginal differences when some margins of error could be as high as +/-10 percent. But this also means that any analysis will tend to be crude. More or less sophisticated class analyses, based on things like a census of jobs and occupations, can only really be done nationally for the most advanced countries and regions. At the level of global analysis we have to rely on more basic indicators such as the shares of population in the countryside and the town or different sectors of the economy. But something illuminating may still be gained from thinking about big processes.

In these terms we will first sketch out the pattern of global urbanisation. We will then look at how cities grow. From this we can move on to the issue of the nature of urban life—especially in the developing world—and its relationship to processes in global capitalism. We can then more briefly consider the countryside and how closely it is tied in to the global economic system before finally raising the issue of the global pattern of working class organisation.

Global urbanisation

Table 1 shows how the world’s population has become urban over the last two centuries including a regional breakdown. Urbanisation is closely linked to the pattern of capitalist development. Urban centres in pre-capitalist
societies were always the exception rather than the rule. The pattern of urbanisation, therefore, to an extent follows the pattern of capitalist development and especially industrial development, spreading out from its base in Western Europe and the eastern seaboard of the United States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In Table 1 this is reflected in the relatively early dominance of the town in Europe (especially Western Europe), North America and Oceania. Most precocious of all was the United Kingdom where the census of 1851 revealed it to be the world’s first predominantly urban society with 50 percent living in the towns. Germany was the second major economy to follow just before 1914.

Table 1: Urban share by region (percent)

Source: UN Urban Population Projections.2

1800 1900 1920 1950 1980 2000 2030
Global 2 15 19 30 37 46 59
Europe 11-13 40 46 51 65 71 59
North America 45 52 64 74 79 87
Oceania 47 62 72 70 72
Europe 11-13 40 46 51 65 71 59
LA and Caribbean 14 18 22 44 61 75 85
Asia 10 10 9 16 24 37 53
Africa 4 4 7 15 25 36 48

To contemporaries in the advanced world the 19th century seemed to be the age of cities but globally they were still very much the exception rather than the rule.3 Table 1 shows that in the 20th century Latin America began to follow the path of urbanisation, despite the ups and downs of that continent’s economic situation. Today Europe, North America, Oceania and Latin America are all so urbanised that there will be only limited change in the urban share in the future though perhaps bigger change in how cities are organised. The big change is that occurring in Africa and Asia. Table 1
shows that although there was some increase in the first half of the 20th century the urban shift on these continents really began in the second half of the 20th century and it is continuing apace as an early 21st century phenomenon. Not the least affected here are the world’s two biggest countries in
population terms. China, for example, was only 12.5 percent urban in 1950 but was 36 percent urban in 2000 and is predicted to be 60 percent urban in 2030. India was ahead of China in 1950 at 17.3 percent urban but grew slightly less fast to 23 percent in 1981 and 29 percent in 2000, a figure which is predicted to rise to over 40 percent in 2030. Sub-Saharan Africa is also urbanising fast—from around 28 percent in 1990 to 37 percent in 2010 and possibly 45 percent by 2025.4

Regional figures are slightly misleading because most of the world’s population lives in Latin America (5 percent), Africa (12 percent) and, above all, Asia (60 percent). The advanced countries have the highest urban shares and in 1950 over half the world’s urban population lived there. But already by the early 1980s most of the world’s urban population actually lived in the less developed countries, the “Global South” as some call it. Today only around 28 percent of urban dwellers live in the advanced world and this will fall to 17 percent by 2030. And this concentration of city dwellers (and potentially workers) in the “South” is continuing. One important indicator of this can be seen in Table 2, which lists the world’s megacities. A megacity is defined as a city with a population of 10 million plus. In 1950 there was only one and that was New York. By 2000 there were 17, 11 of which were in the developing world, and by 2015 there are predicted to be 21. In 1976 Asia had two megacities but by 2000 ten of the 17 megacities were there. Table 2 gives the population of these megacities, from which it can be seen that not only are they increasing in number but also in size—indeed the speed of growth is so fast that much of this data can only be approximate.

But startling though the growth of megacities has been, most of the world’s urban population lives in smaller cities and towns with perhaps less direct links to the global economy and possibly even more marked problems than those which grab the attention of the world’s media. In 1950, for example, there were 86 cities with populations of more than a million but by 2010 there were perhaps 500 plus. And below them were even more numerous towns and cities with populations in the tens and hundreds of thousands making up 60 percent of the total urban population of the world.5

Table 2 The rise of global megacities (population in millions)

Source: UN World Urbanisation Prospects, 2009 Revision

1950 1975 2000 2015
New York (12.3) Tokyo (19.8) Tokyo (25.2) Tokyo (27.2)
New York (15.9) Sao Paulo (18.3) Dhaka (22.8)
Shanghai (11.4) Mexico City
Mumbai (22.6)
Mexico City
New York (16.8) Sao Paulo (21.2)
Sao Paulo (10.3) Mumbai (16.5) Delhi (20.9)
Los Angeles (13.3) Mexico City
Kolkata (13.3) New York (17.9)
Dhaka (13.2) Jakarta (17.3)
Shanghai (12.8) Kolkata (16.7)
Buenos Aires
Karachi (16.2)
Jakarta (11.4) Lagos (16.0)
Osaka (11.0) Los Angeles (14.5)
Beijing (10.8) Shanghai (13.6)
Rio de Janeiro
Buenos Aires
Karachi (10.4) Metro Manila
Metro Manila
Beijing (11.7)
Rio de Janeiro
Cairo (11.5)
Istanbul (11.4)
Osaka (11.0)
Tianjin (10.3)

How are cities growing?

Each day some 200,000 people are added to the population of the world’s cities and towns. This is 5 million a month or 60 million a year—more in one year than the 45 million added to the whole of the urban population of Europe in the whole of the 19th century. Urban populations can grow either by natural increase—when the birth rate exceeds the death rate—or by migration or the outward expansion of cities drawing in neighbouring units and overwhelming the countryside around them. In the 19th century towns were major centres of disease and often for long periods had higher death rates than birth rates. Growth could therefore be put down primarily to rural to urban migration either within a country or across international borders or seas (as in the case, for example, of the United States). Today urban health across the world is much better although urban death rates are still too high, and especially for the poor. But, with young populations in the child-bearing years, natural increase plays a more significant role in the growth of many urban centres. But still it is migration from the countryside to the town and from smaller centres to larger ones that is important and of most interest and especially in the early stages of industrialisation. On a daily basis it is estimated that 150,000 migrate from the countryside to the town across the globe. Why? The crudest way to think about this is in terms of push and pull pressures. People are pushed out of the countryside by poor conditions and attracted into the towns by the prospect of better times:

Contrary to the idealised Western view of the countryside as a haven to which city-dwellers yearn to escape, conditions are far worse in the rural areas… The cities may be poor, but the countryside is poorer still… The brutal fact is that, while one third or more of city-dwellers in the developing world live on or below the poverty line, only about one third of the rural population lives above it. A typical study of urbanisation in the developing world concludes that despite appalling housing conditions, lack of fresh water and services, minimal healthcare and few chances of finding a job, the urban poor are on average “better off than their rural cousins, on almost every indicator of social and economic well-being”… for many millions of people cities are the solution, not the problem.6

Despite urban problems then, incomes in the towns—even when work is precarious—are often higher than in the countryside. Cities tend to have higher per capita incomes than the national average—look at London in the UK. But in advanced countries the gap is limited. In the poorer countries big city incomes might be between two and four times higher than the national average. In Shanghai it is reckoned to be three times higher, and similar in Bangkok.7 Average per capita income in India is around $1,500 but in Delhi it is over $3,500. Of course, averages can be very misleading but a worker in an urban slum who is only employed for eight months a year might be still better off than living as an agricultural labourer in the countryside where he might only get four months work.

Other conditions too are often better in the town—the level of health and access to healthcare (if only in name), for example—although the variation by social class is enormous. The big exception is HIV/Aids, which is a more heavily urban phenomenon though whether it affects the poorest more is still a matter of debate. Poor though urban facilities may be they are still often better than those in the countryside. One set of data suggests that only 7 to 8 percent of the world’s rural poor have access to flushing toilets and 47 percent to pit ones—the others must go where they can. The comparable estimates for the urban poor are 28 and 52 percent.8 Similar gaps exist in relation to access to water. Cities also provide excitement and the prospect of greater opportunity even if it cannot be realised. The countryside offers the prospect of a daily grind under the observation of family and neighbours. This is one reason why, when the opportunities are appropriate, women tend to be enthusiastic about moving. Limited though their choices are in the towns, they can still be better than at home.

Of course, simply dividing the answer to the question of why people move into push and pull factors is hardly very sophisticated. Capitalist development is a process of uneven development that accentuates differences between the town and country. It produces poverty and wealth side by side, and encourages a process of dispossession where property ownership, including both rural and urban land ownership, is concentrated. As both farmers and workers are integrated into the global economy, their fate too becomes determined by fluctuating commodity prices and economic crisis. Borrowing from moneylenders provides a further screw on the rural poor that is periodically turned against them. Migration is therefore part of a deeper process which explains both the push and the pull elements and it contributes to this as migrants learn to live in the city or send home money (remittances) to keep families going and periodically return themselves.9

It is here that we come to a fundamental contrast in different types of development. One path is through the expansion of the more modern industrial
and service economy. Here the pull is in no small part a reflection of the dynamism of the global economy. The growth of Chinese cities serving the Western market is the central example but there are others. Factories, even if they are dangerous sweatshops, can be more attractive places to be than surviving on the margins of the rural or urban economy. “Exploitation is a privilege rather than a curse,” writes Michael Burawoy in just these terms.10 Vulnerability still exists—in 2008 in the special economic zones of Shenzhen and Guangdong in China 7,000 factories are estimated to have closed, leading to millions of workers being laid off—but while the machines turn there is a greater degree of stability for those who work them.

But a second path of urbanisation is also evident in the failing parts of the world economy in other parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa. For all the talk of market dynamism and the abolition of poverty, in many parts of the world poor economies have performed worse in recent decades than in earlier ones. In the 1960s and 1970s income per head in the developing world as a whole grew at 3 percent per year but in the neoliberal 1980s and 1990s it grew at only 1.5 percent.11 Behind this average some countries went backwards. But “urbanisation without growth” has not stopped, indeed in some cases economic failure seemed to speed it up—a testimony perhaps to the worse conditions in the countryside. This has happened before. Mike Davis points to 19th century Ireland where, while Belfast grew on the basis of engineering, shipbuilding, textiles, etc, Dublin became a classic city of slums, feeding perversely off the poverty of the Irish countryside and the handling of goods produced as they moved in and out of the Irish economy.12 But today this type of growth is far more common as free market policies, debt crises and structural adjustment programmes have undermined old structures. One critical UN report says of this type of urban growth that “instead of being a focus for growth and prosperity, the cities have become a dumping ground for a surplus population working in unskilled, unprotected and low wage informal service industries and trades”.13

We can see the contrasting patterns by comparing China with Africa’s largest state, Nigeria. In China between 1950 and 2000 income per head grew nearly eight times albeit from a very low basis. The urban population increased from around 13 percent to 36 percent. But in Nigeria (population some 150 million) between 1950 and 2000 per capita income, still very low, grew by only 50 percent and was more or less stagnant for long periods. (Britain’s nearly tripled in the same period.) But the urban share of the population still rose from 10 percent to 42 percent and Lagos grew from a city of 350,000 to one of perhaps some 10.5 million.14 This does not alter the fact that migrants might have a better life in the slums of this or other cities but it does mean that for the majority the future is life as a temporary worker, a street seller of some kind, a cleaner, a labourer, a nanny, a servant, a prostitute. Clearly these differences point to significantly different patterns of urban life in terms of the balance between more and less formal economic relationships in urban life.

The nature of urban life

What is life like in the burgeoning new cities and towns in the poor world? Is it following the pattern of urban development of the advanced capitalist states? There is plenty of diversity between and within the different towns and cities of the different regions. But some common elements exist around which we can organise a discussion. The first is the disorienting speed of change. Towns, and even villages, can become cities within the lifetime of a single individual. Stabilisation can only really occur when the number of people left to migrate from the countryside begins to fall.

Then we can notice the levels of inequality. Inequality has physical manifestations. Inner cities become dominated by shopping malls and commercial complexes. Cartier, with boutiques in 125 countries, pips McDonald’s, which exists in some 120 countries, or Kentucky Fried Chicken (109 countries), etc. Louis Vuitton has stores in 62 countries but the global super-rich can also travel or have their personal shoppers travel to London, Paris and New York. In the global cities the route from the airport to the Marriott Hotel (70 countries) is possibly no different from in a hundred and one other centres of the global system. The local privileged come into these centres from their select housing, sometimes from gated communities—”the fortresses of the rich”. But for the urban masses life is lived much more on the margins. Instead of living in “cities of light soaring toward heaven”, writes Davis, many of the world’s urban poor “squat in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement and decay”.15 And, of course, behind this physical inequality in space and buildings stand the inequalities of wealth, income and power.

On one estimate, at the start of this century, only 5 percent of the world’s population lived in states in which economic inequality was declining. Some 60 percent lived in states where it was increasing and these were largely those which had the most embedded pro-market policies.16 The level of urban inequality tends to be higher than national averages. It also tends to be worse in the earlier stages of development although in recent decades it has increased sharply again in key advanced economies (including the UK and the US): “A major urban economic trend in the developing world is increasing inequality. Between 1990 and 2004 the share of income of the poorest one fifth of the population dipped from 4.6 to 3.9 percent”.17 Much of this redistribution went to the top despite attempts by neoliberal commentators to show that a strong middle class was growing in these developing cities.

The measure of inequality used for comparison is the Gini coefficient, which defines complete equality as 0 and complete inequality as 1. The UN sets a Gini coefficient of 0.4 as its alert level at which, in its terms, inequality is beginning to reach dangerous levels (the Gini coefficient for household income in the UK is around 0.34). As can be seen from Table 3, Asia is effectively at this point (China is at 0.45) and Latin America and Africa are way past it. Individual cities, especially in Latin America and Africa, have much higher levels. 0.6 is the alert level where the majority of the population are excluded and set against the top group. In these terms some of the most unequal cities are to be found in post-apartheid South Africa, where scores of more than 0.7 have been measured—another indicator of the disaster wrought by free market policies that have mistakenly suggested that wealth will trickle down.18

At the bottom poverty is becoming an increasingly urban phenomenon with the numbers of urban poor overtaking the numbers of rural poor. This poverty is not just about incomes but these are important. The World Bank uses the measure of the numbers living on a $1 a day as its measure of extreme poverty but such a statistic takes no account of the much higher cost of living that exists in many big cities. But poverty is also about lack of access to good housing, health and leisure, susceptibility to violence and crime, and the lack of any real ability to make individual and collective choices that matter.19 Many, in some countries most, of the urban poor and even the urban population as a whole have no secure rights to live where they do. They effectively squat or live on land where ownership is confused and contested and this discourages infrastructure development and makes people dependent and vulnerable to pressure. Some countries demand residence permits which they may not have. In China between 80 and 120 million are said to be without them and therefore vulnerable to actions by the authorities.20

Table 3: Inequality and poverty in the Poorer Countries c2000-2005

Source: Compiled from data in UN Habitat, 2008, 200921

% world % urban % urban in slums % urban poor as % poor Gini Coefficient
World 100 47.7 31.2
Developed 16 76.5 6.0
Developing 79 40.9 42.7
Latin America 9 76.2 31.9 59.0 0.5
Asia 0.39
East Asia & China 22 39.1 36.4
South Asia 24.0 29.6 59.0
South East Asia 9 38.3 28.0
West Asia 3 65.7 25.7
Africa 0.46
North Africa 2 52.0 28.2
Sub-Saharan 11 34.6 71.9 30.2

The extent of urban poverty is in part a function of the nature of work relations. Workers for foreign companies are massively exploited in terms of what they produce for global brands but usually better paid and with better conditions than those working for domestic capital, who in turn tend to do better than the masses in the informal sector which is the largest of all. Informal economies have always existed in cities—Henry Mayhew described at length that of London in the mid-19th century. But its scale in the new cities is enormous. Some 51 percent of non-agricultural employment in Latin America is said to be in the informal economy, 65 percent in Asia and 72 percent in Africa, and these are averages.22 Overall in the developing world roughly one third of workers survive in the formal sector and two thirds in the informal sector.

These informal city poor are sometimes represented as marginalised but in these terms marginality has been argued to be a “myth”. As Janice Perlman once put it, the poor are “not economically marginal but exploited, not socially marginal but rejected, not culturally marginal but stigmatised, and not politically marginal but manipulated and repressed”.23 Moreover “informality” itself varies and so, therefore, does any degree of marginality. While the shift towards a greater degree of informality is important, the category can be argued to conflate very diverse groups in the cities and towns with quite varying relationships to capital. Jeremy Seabrook captures some of this in his description of the settlements of Mumbai. People there, he wrote:

must find work in the gaps of the city economy that already looks impermeable, yet they do create work, selling, recycling rags or metal; or plastic, labouring in foundries and metal works reminiscent of Engels’s descriptions of the Black Country in Britain, cart-pulling or begging, prostitution or smuggling, drug dealing or finding a fragile stability in subcontractors to the multinationals, sewing shorts or jeans, making sportswear with printed logos, shoe cleaning or paper-selling.

Women help form part of the “vast army of servitude” which supports the better off and even the recycling chains run by children turn out to be the bottom rung of a complex economic system.24 These linkages mean that geographically too the poor can never be too far away—the rich need their labour and the poor need the work.

Many of these informal workers live or squat in the slums of the urban world—their housing built from scavenged wood, brick, metal and plastics. The UN defines a slum dwelling as one where people living under the same roof lack any one of the following: access to improved water; access to improved sanitation; a sufficient living area; durable housing; security of tenure. Approximately one third of the world’s urban dwellers are slum inhabitants in these terms, much more in the poor world, and their numbers, probably under-counted, are growing faster than the urban population as a whole offering the spectre of a “planet of slums”.25 But in many countries the majority of urban poor do not live in slums—in India as many as 80 percent are non slum dwellers. Equally not all slum dwellers are poor—at least in the income sense.

It is in the slums that the urban infrastructure is at its weakest. Because of the speed of development and the relatively low incomes at which urbanisation is taking place the prospects for improvement are not good. Building good water and sanitation systems, getting rid of solid waste, creating reliable energy supplies, etc, are all expensive. States pushing development do not give these the priority they should have and local government lacks resources. Whereas local governments in the advanced world are reckoned to dispose of some $3,000 per head per year, in Asia it is $150, in Latin America $90 and in Africa a mere $15 per head.26 The lack of democracy and corruption can then further undermine pressure from below for improvement. The results are painful. “Like the universal prevalence of parasites in the bodies of the poor, living on shit…crudely demarcates two existential humanities,” says Davis.27
Evaluating this mix is not easy. Supporters of neoliberalism and not least those identified with the World Bank tend to put the most positive spin on urban development. “The wonder”, write two of these, “really is how well the world has coped and not how badly.” Writing of Asia these same authors say that “in all probability the quality of life in developing Asian urban areas is significantly better than the situation witnessed in the 18th and 19th centuries in European cities, which had grown under similar circumstances, but perhaps at higher prevailing incomes”.28
This enables them to argue that things will go on improving if more regulations are abandoned and more faith is placed in the private sector or private-public partnerships. This argument is then extended to the analysis of the urban masses. The big problem for these commentators is that workers in the formal sector act as a protective labour aristocracy defending their own positions by excluding others. But those on the margins are not only knocking on their doors. They are also imagined to be budding entrepreneurs whose ability to survive in the most desperate of circumstances is seen as a manifestation of an ability to become a local Bill Gates, if only they are given a chance, have some property rights given to them and are allowed access to small-scale capital. The slums dwellers of the poor world, so the story goes, are “natural entrepreneurs”. Wherever the IMF and World Bank have pushed structural change the result has been that millions more have been thrown into the informal sector so this talk of the business potential in the slums helps market enthusiasts to salve their consciences as they view the regressive consequences of their policies.

More critical commentators stress the scale of poverty and the day to day vulnerabilities of the poor not only to economic misfortune as the world economy moves up and down but to disasters like landslides, floods on river plains and in coastal cities, earthquakes and the like.29 The romance of the slum entrepreneur is akin to seeing a budding capitalist in every Big Issue seller in the West. What people are really doing is trying to survive. People in the informal sector are also caught up in networks of small-scale and large-scale exploitation. There are always huge profits to be made out of poverty. The poor tend to pay the most—perhaps the highest rent per square metre, the most expensive water, etc, so some significant fortunes in the developing world are built on this exploitation of the slums and informal economies. The top-down attempts to formalise their position often risk undermining the limited achievements that they have made despite the best intentions of those who propose them. The money that has been poured into NGOs, for example, has encouraged their co-option into the system as “New Gods Overseas”. The reality of the neoliberal myths is captured in Aravind Adiga’s satirical novel The White Tiger about what a boy from the village must really do to succeed in India. But even a film like Slumdog Millionaire, for all its weaknesses, punctures some of the complacent rhetoric of the World Bank and IMF even as a strange set of chances allows one slumdog to escape and find true love.

The countryside

Where does this leave the countryside? Agricultural output has grown, albeit unevenly, and this has allowed the world’s growing population and urban population to be fed. But it has not brought prosperity to most of the rural population of the world whose 3 billion plus number is now no longer growing and will soon begin to fall in absolute terms. In the poor countries the lives of most in the countryside remain poor and vulnerable, “living on the edge”. The links from the global economy to the village and the farm have grown closer but it is in the countryside that people are most likely to starve. Global agricultural markets are some of the most distorted in the world as highly productive but highly subsidised production in the advanced world puts pressure on prices paid to food producers of all kinds.

Around 64 percent of world agricultural exports come from industrial countries and only 36 percent from the developing world. Only 22 percent of agricultural exports flow from the developing world to the advanced—which is not much more than flow the other way and not much different from the share of manufactured goods moving south to north.30 Worse, a handful of great companies monopolise the commercial inputs into agriculture such as seed and fertiliser and the buying of internationally traded foodstuffs. It is estimated that 30 companies are now responsible for one third of global processed food production. Unilever, Cargill, Nestlé, Wal-Mart and Tesco have enormous control over both agricultural inputs and outputs.31

Together with organisations like the IMF and World Bank these companies have encouraged the undermining of older protections and subsidies in poor countries, arguing that these did not work to the advantage of farmers on the ground. This was true but the promised prosperity has not been forthcoming. One bad system has been overturned for another bad system and producers have been left to deal with wild price swings often around trends of downward prices for outputs and upward ones for inputs (energy, for example).32 The 2008 World Development Report recognised that the promised boost to agriculture had not happened:

Structural adjustment in the 1980s dismantled the elaborate systems of public agencies that provided farmers with access to land, credit, insurance, inputs, cooperative organisation. The expectation was that removing the state would free the market for private actors to take over these functions… Too often, that didn’t happen. In some places, the state’s withdrawal was tentative at best, limiting private entry. Elsewhere, the private sector emerged only slowly and partially—mainly serving commercial farmers but leaving smallholders exposed to extensive market failures, high transaction costs and risks, and service gaps. Incomplete markets and institutional gaps impose huge costs on forgone growth and welfare losses for smallholders, threatening their competiveness and, in many cases, their survival.33

But read this extract carefully, for while admitting the seriousness of the failure it also argues that it arose as much because markets were not “pure” and “complete” as anything. This is the familiar excuse whenever the issue of market failure is raised. The reality is that the perverse processes of development evident in many towns and cities are paralleled by no less perverse processes in the countryside. Developing-country food exports have fallen as a share of all food exports reflecting the distortions of subsidies in the rich countries and depressed markets in the poor ones.

In many parts of the world the poorest peasants produce most of the food they need to survive though they are still subject to the ups and downs of harvest failure. But they have also come to depend increasingly on non-farm work in the countryside (the better off with petty business, the worse off with casual labouring) as well as money sent back by migrants to the towns at home and abroad. Micro-studies in Africa and elsewhere show that now as much as 50 percent of rural income for the poor comes from non-farm sources.34 The next layer up, with surpluses to sell, supplies the local and national markets but, save on the bigger family farms, here too farming may have to be combined with forms of non-farm rural work.

Bigger commercial farms and plantations that link into the global markets selling to the great companies and supermarkets do better, drawing on the labour of agricultural workers. But they often depend on contract work subject to the whim of Western buyers who make spurious demands for quality, standardisation and timeliness of supply. Moreover, their contribution to the rural economy of the poor world is still limited even though the World Bank and others argue that this is the way forward. A moment’s reflection shows that this does not follow. The bigger units tend to use more capital and machinery and relatively less labour so even if growth here could as good as its supporters dream of, it still will not allow the absorption of the mass of the rural poor and smallholders whose livelihoods are under pressure. It is this failure that will continue to drive more people off the land into non-farm rural work and urban migration.

Social organisation in the cities

Every day some people succumb to city life. Premature death by disease, accident, suicide and violence is experienced on an enormous scale. Five million people a year die from diseases caused by water, 3 million of them from diarrhoea.35 But on a much more enormous scale many more people prove incredibly resilient and survive. That this happens is partly explained by the structures created by states, local governments, NGOs, employers, etc, but as we have suggested, these are often weak and ambiguous. Survival and resilience have much more to do with what people themselves do, sometimes with the grain of the market,
sometimes against it.

Cities have always been seen by ruling classes as potential tinderboxes waiting to be ignited. In the 1960s, looking at the earlier urban shoots, Barbara Ward wrote that “there is enough explosive material to produce in the world at least the pattern of bitter class conflict”.36 A generation on, many commentators disparaged these arguments. But if there has not been as much urban class struggle as some hoped for, or rulers feared, there has still been a lot. Since the 1960s in many poorer parts of the world, as cities have grown, the centrality of rural conflicts and guerrilla wars has given way to massive urban-centred revolts many of which played a key role in pushing democratic advance forward in Latin America, Asia and Africa. In 2011 such revolts swept up states in the Middle East that were thought to be frozen. In reality it was social changes such as those discussed here that underlay the weakening of the old order.37

Such conflicts have not become the basis of formal movements—whether
strong trade unions or left wing political parties—as often as might have been hoped for. An obvious factor to consider here is state and private repression. Democratisation has often been shallow. Private repression can often operate with the state benignly looking on. This can leave those who raise their heads vulnerable and spread the fear which—so long as the situation looks
stable—helps to contain resistance or force it underground.

But when conflicts have taken place they have not been directed by political leaders who were prepared to mobilise people for deep challenges to global capitalism, so allowing their potential to be diverted or deflected in different ways. Trade unions, political parties and broader social movements become politically captured by the system or corrupted. Part of the explanation for this relates to subjective factors—the ideas that people have in their heads about the direction and possibilities of change.38 From the 1950s to the 1980s politics in the Global South reflected the interaction of various nationalisms and the Cold War conflicts of the US and USSR. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 reinforced a drive towards the market and neoliberalism and with this the sense that there was no alternative but to integrate with global capitalism.

This was more attractive still as a policy because within countries it seemed to allow inequality to increase and “reforming” leaders to legitimise their role as direct beneficiaries. South Africa is a striking case. Black economic empowerment was seen as a way forward. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, deputy president of South Africa in 2005-8, is reported to have said that “blacks should not be ashamed to be filthy rich”.39 Certainly in this spirit Cyril Ramaphosa moved from helping to build the South African National Union of Mineworkers to secretary general of the African National Congress and head of their negotiating committee to end apartheid and then on to become a multimillionaire business leader linked to international capital like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola as well as South African business.

But it is also argued by some that part, perhaps the larger part, of any lack of development of more formal organisation is explained by more “objective” elements related to the underlying processes of class formation. The key issue here is whether such structural factors as exist reflect a permanent condition which negates the force for change or whether they reflect more transitory elements that time and successful actions can overcome.

Figure 1 shows a simple and commonly used way of thinking about political action in cities. It shows that alongside more formal types of participation and protest lie a range of informal ones, some individual, some collective. The lines are deliberately drawn broken to show the possibility of one type of action feeding into another with action in the middle drawing on all four parts. But the big question is, how likely is this to happen?

Figure 1: Different types of political action

figure 1

The pessimists stress that although city life and work can bring people together and create some basis of solidarity, the daily grind of surviving on the edge of urban life also divides and weakens by setting people against one another.

Cities have become centres where vast numbers of people compete for the most basic elements of life: for a room within reach of employment with an affordable rent, or vacant land on which a shelter can be erected without fear of eviction; for places in schools; for medical treatment for health problems or injuries, or a bed in a hospital; for access to clean drinking water; for a place on a bus or a train; and for a corner on a pavement or square to sell some goods—quite apart from the enormous competition for jobs.40

More optimistic accounts, however, do not see life so negatively. To survive people must have some degree of active control in their own lives. In this day to day struggle we can, if we listen, hear what John Holloway has called “the scream of insubordination”.41 Much of this struggle and resistance occurs in the upper right hand side of Figure 1. But it is too simplistic to argue that “wherever there is power so too is there resistance”. Drinking yourself silly or making yourself feel better by hitting your wife or child or neighbour are survival mechanisms but hardly ones to be encouraged.42 Illegally tapping into the local water or electricity supply for the rich is better but still not as good as organising to insist on adequate supplies. The trouble is that we know too little about the nature and scale of these basic struggles in so many parts of the world. Much of the existing discussion is based on social movements in advanced Western countries. The most discussed examples of resistance in poorer countries come from Latin America but it is not always clear how typical the movements there are for the continent as a whole, let alone other ones.

Some accounts suggest that the opportunities for both formal and informal collective action may be getting worse. The process of urban degradation in some areas may be increasing as negative forces take advantage of the gaps created by state withdrawal or state failure. Janice Perlman, whose dismissal of marginality we quoted earlier, has argued that some cities in Latin America have now been captured by gang violence in such a way as to undermine more positive forms of resistance. In Rio, she claims, where once there was more vibrant resistance from below now there is only “a handful of discouraged people, afraid to take any initiative or collective action that would draw attention to them”. In this way “marginality has gone from a myth to a reality”.43

This leads to the argument that when a vacuum exists other forces will fill it. People looking for an explanation will turn in less positive directions if no one is there to provide alternatives. Readers will not find it hard to think of examples of brutal and murderous ethnic clashes that have occurred in different parts of the world in recent decades. These feed off the politics of divide and rule and scapegoating. Sometimes the targets are what are called “market-dominant minorities”—ethnic groups thrown into positions of greater wealth and power over others—those of Chinese backgrounds in parts of Asia and Indian backgrounds in parts of Africa are classic examples. But such conflicts can also involve clashes between different groups of the urban masses as one group comes to see a migrant group as the enemy or one religious group another religious group.

But this does not mean that such clashes are inevitable. They tend to feed off despair and political vacuums. They are used by demagogues who the authorities turn a blind eye to or may even support. The conditions for such clashes therefore become more fertile if market-friendly policies are allowed to wreak havoc. Notoriously in an earlier crisis in the 1990s the World Bank was warned that pushing more people into poverty to solve an economic crisis risked ethnic and communal violence, which then did materialise in many countries. But no less than in the advanced world, scapegoating can be limited by the development of more constructive forms of political opposition and mass mobilisation.

The turn to religion has been widespread—Islam in some cases, evangelical Christianity in others and perhaps more regional and local religions elsewhere. Mike Davis argues that religion has been a major beneficiary of both the urban degradation and the failure to develop a left alternative. This is partly because religion offers solace but also because religious forces have to a degree stepped in to help people on the ground as markets and other political forces have failed.44 Religion appears to cut across social divisions and, in opposition, this is part of its appeal, But it cannot cover over social divisions indefinitely. Writing of Islamism and opposition in Egypt, Sameh Naguib makes an argument that extends beyond Islam. Seeing god, of whatever faith, as a solution is both a strength and a weakness for mass populist movements. “It acts as a strength but only so long as the leadership is able to balance different impulses and to avoid concrete actions that would explode a fragile unity”.45

Deep pessimists argue that the forces of disorientation are overwhelming everything. Moderate pessimists have bid “farewell to the working classes” in favour of broader social movements for democracy and change. Moderate optimists see the continuing role of the working class and its organised expressions. not as the dominant force but an “equal part” alongside these wider forces for change. Basic optimists accept that social change always involves wide movements but continue to insist on the centrality of the organised working class to more fundamental change. Much of this debate goes back decades, even to the 19th century. What tends to change is the balance of forces, which in the recent period has tipped to the pessimists as many on the left have become more gloomy.46

In trying to relate to these arguments it is important to remember that the speed of capitalist urban growth has always created a degree of social chaos which takes time to overcome. Ronaldo Munck, lamenting some of the problems of organised labour in poor countries, argues that in the past “industrialisation, urbanisation and unionisation all went hand in hand”.47 But this is not so. Bad history can lead to bad politics in the present. When Britain, with a population of 27 million, became 50 percent urban in 1851 there were only 100,000 trade unionists and most of their organisations would not survive. In 1900, when 80 percent of a population of 41 million were urban, trade union members were 1.2-1.5 million (estimates vary) giving a union density (measured against the labour force) of only +/_ 10 percent. Yet at this point the British working class was considered one of the best organised in the world in trade union terms. There was, therefore, no simple relationship between industrialisation, urbanisation and unionisation.48 What some have called “the forward march of labour” was always uneven with sudden rushes forward and then setbacks.

Beverly Silver argues in her Forces of Labor, “The late 20th century crisis of the labour movement is temporary and will likely be overcome with the consolidation of new working classes in formation”.49 This book has perhaps not received the attention it deserves not least because it disputes the fashionable pessimism of so much recent analysis. Silver argues that global restructuring creates or re-creates working classes in different countries. She pays particular attention, as an example, to the role of car workers in Latin America, South Korea and South Africa, looking at the ways in which they have developed into core groups of militant factory workers and predicting that this will occur even more in China. Nearly a decade on, with key strikes in car plants in China taking place in 2010, this looks a good prediction whatever the outcome of the immediate disputes.

Silver also argues that restructuring is creating new centres of militancy in the workforce including white collar workers and groups like teachers in many poor countries as well as richer ones. This enables her to turn some of the negative discussion on its head by arguing that left commentators too often project their own visions of defeat in the advanced world onto people in poorer countries. In fact the centrality of the factory across the globe is still there and the future is more promising than is often allowed. This argument is also advanced in a more descriptive but still powerful way in Paul Mason’s discussion of “how the working class went global” where he weaves together sense of past struggles and those of the present taking us from early 19th century Manchester to early 21st century China.50

Unfortunately good data on comparative levels of unionisation beyond the advanced countries is hard to find but one recent study using some of what is available suggests that “class remains a pivotal mobilising force”.51 But it would also appear that class struggle does too. For example, where IMF austerity policies have got the upper hand this has weakened not only the formal economy but also workers’ organisations. Workers in countries which have had IMF agreements were found to be 60 percent less likely to be in a union after the austerity programme.52 This has been especially important in Latin America where some policies were deployed on a wide scale in the 1980s and 1990s. So far then from “the death of class” what we are seeing is the perpetuation of class struggle where the initiative has to a degree been seized from above.

But if the social balance lies with the masses in the informal sector then does this not undermine the argument about the role of organised workers in social and political change? For many, sub-Saharan Africa represents an extreme case of this argument. It is here where the already weak formal sector and organised working class has seemingly been most badly hit by economic change and the policies of the IMF and World Bank. There can be little doubt about “the hurricane of job losses” in country after country even as their urban populations have multiplied. But sub-Saharan Africa has also been a region of serious social unrest in the cities in which the links between the formal and informal sectors rather than their separation have been important.

To explain this it is necessary to recognise that restructuring is always uneven within and between countries. The formal jobs that have been lost are important but so too are those which remain and the new ones that have been created. No less there are always different degrees of informality in the “informal” sector. It has never made much sense to counterpose the formal and the informal as if they were polar opposites. This finds its reflection in people’s everyday lives. People live in families and neighbourhoods where those in formal and informal employment live and love, lamenting their failures and celebrating their successes side by side. This creates the basis for the linkages in Figure 1. “There is”, Zeilig and Ceruti have argued, “no impenetrable wall between work and unemployment” and “if there is no clear divide in the world of employment, informal world and formal employment, the potential for a crossover of protest exists”.53

Table 4: Cycle of labour protests preceding Egyptian Revolution54

Total Sit-ins Strikes Demonstrations Gatherings (rallies) Estimated numbers
2000 135
2001 115
2002 96
2003 86
2004a 74 32 11 5 25 386,346
2004b 193 58 32 41 62 Total above
2005 202 59 46 16 81 141,175
2006 222 81 47 25 69 198,088
2007 614 197 110 43 264 474,838
2008 609 174 122 60 253 541,423
2009 478 184 123 79 92 n/a
2010 371 76 102 132 n/a

This crossover is evident in the many protests that have occurred. But so is something else. Despite the claims made about the diminished, even redundant, role of organised labour as against community groups, informal associations, pressure groups and the like, organised labour has continued to pay a strategic role in wider protests. The revolts across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 have helped to make visible stories which reveal in some senses a classic pattern of advances and retreats which leave behind traditions from which future explosions can develop. Table 4 shows the broad pattern of labour protest in Egypt, from which a surge in the second half of 2004 is evident.

It also shows the ups and downs within the movement. Despite the focus on the street in popular accounts it is organised labour that has often been the focus of cohesion; it is organised labour that has helped to give direction; and it is often from within the ranks of organised labour that leadership of all kinds has come. Its central role therefore arises less out of theorists’ heads than the specific situations in which people continue to find themselves.55


Our aim here has been to sketch in some of the biggest details and debates and to put the global shifts in their broader context. It is striking, for example, how much writing about new social movements draws only on the experience of advanced countries and if the discussion is extended then this is done only on the basis of gestures towards a global analysis. We do not apologise, therefore, for trying to present the big picture and encouraging people to think how what is happening in each region and country might relate to this. The fundamental point is that class is not disappearing. The workers of the world are more numerous than at any time in history and, if crisis has pushed them back in some places, class and organisation continue to be important.

But this is not to say that global trends determine everything. Struggles arise in specific local contexts. And the local and the national are often the most visible elements to those involved, rather than the global. The result is frequently messy but messiness has always been part of the process of struggle. Class struggle has never been pure but this is not as great a problem as some make out. Looking at the world in the early 20th century and more particularly the events in Ireland in 1916, when revolt brought together people with socialist and labour movement backgrounds, liberals, intellectuals, nationalists and Catholics, Lenin made a comment that remains as true today as it was then:

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletariat and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by landowners, the church and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc—to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.56

The bad news is that, a century on, the need for the social revolution he spoke of is still here. The good news is that changes globally have created an ever larger group of people who have an interest in that change. And as always, crisis—now on a global scale—creates a challenge but also an opportunity.


1:The weaknesses of UN urban statistics and the often arbitrary variations in the definitions of towns and cities are explored in Cohen, 2004.
2: These figures and estimates are subject to frequent revision. The figures in italics are rough estimates drawing on the work of Paul Bairoch (see Bairoch, 1991) and back-projections by the author.

3: Weber, 1899; Vaughan, 1843.

4: UN-HABITAT, 2010.

5: Cohen, 2004.

6: Reader, 2004.

7: Ooi and Phua, 2007, p29.

8: Montgomery, 2009, discusses in detail the variation in health patterns within cities and between cities and the countryside.

9: There is an extensive debate on the detail of these relationships that has been surveyed on a number of occasions.

10: Burawoy, 2010, p308.

11: Chang and Grabel, 2004, p17.

12: Davis, 2006.

13: UN quoted in Davis, 2006, p23.

14: I have used Angus Maddison’s data for GDP per head for these calculations-Maddison, 2003.

15: Davis, 2006, p19.

16: Perry, 2008, p25.

17: UN-HABITAT, 2009.

18: UN-HABITAT, 2008, 2009.

19: See Montgomery, 2009.

20: Cohen, 2004.

21: Table excludes CIS countries and Oceania.

22: ILO, 2008, pp119-121.

23: Quoted in Drakakis-Smith, 1987, p94.

24: Seabrook, 1990, pp64-95.

25: Davis, 2006.

26: Ooi and Phua, 2007.

27: Davis, 2006, p138.

28: Mohan and Dasgupta, 2005, pp217, 218.

29: Although these events are called “natural” disasters they reflect the way that people are physically separated by inequalities of wealth and poverty. The rich live more safely, the poor are vulnerable-so that some have even suggested that earthquakes should be called “classquakes” to reflect who lives and who dies.

30: Aksoy, 2005.

31: UNCTAD, 2009.

32: On the debate about food prices see Morelli, 2008. In 2010-11 they have again risen precipitously. Those in the countryside may not gain from increased food prices if input prices also rise. Worse, growing numbers in the countryside also buy food. So far as the global food supply is concerned it will be adequate if output grows and less of it is used inefficiently to produce meat-which is food and energy intensive as cereal calories are converted into meat ones, or biofuels, which are ridiculously expensive in food terms. To fill the tank of an SUV with a biofuel takes the same amount of grain as would feed a person for a year-McMichael, 2009. For projections of the global population-food supply balance to 2050 see Dorin, Paillard and Treyer, 2011.

33: Quoted in McMichael, 2009, pp238-239.

34: Ellis, 2006; Rigg, 2005.

35: Beall and Fox, 2007, p9.

36: Quoted in Drakakis-Smith, 1987, p49.

37: El-Mahdi and Marfleet, 2009.

38: Zeilig, 2010.

39: Times, 25 June 2005.

40: Quoted in Ooi and Phua, 2007, pp27-28.

41: Holloway, 2002.

42: For some sense of the importance of this in poor cities see Montgomery, 2009.

43: See Perlman, 2009; also Beall and Fox, 2007, p10.

44: He argues this in his 2003 article but the argument is not carried over into his 2006 book.

45: In El-Mahdi and Marfleet, 2009, p119.

46: Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums, for all its power, makes only cursory references to more positive political responses. See Davis, 2006, p185.

47: Munck, 2010, p218.

48: In making this comparison our aim is not so much to search for solace as realism. Levels of unionisation in poor countries are not so different from past experience as is often suggested.

49: Silver, 2003, p171.

50: Mason, 2007.

51: Brady and Martin, 2007.

52: Brady and Martin, 2007.

53: Zeilig and Ceruti, 2007, pp74, 77.

54: I have compiled this from data in Solidarity Center, 2010, and from data on the Egyptian Land Center for Human Rights website. The data is no doubt imperfect and will be improved if change proceeds and the Egyptian state archives are properly opened up. The two entries for 2004 represent the first and second halves of the year.

55: Seddon and Zeilig, 2005.

56: Lenin, 1965, pp355-356.


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