[Marxism] Planet of Slums

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Mar 25 13:30:52 MST 2004

(This appears to be the presentation that Mike Davis gave to the 
Columbia University conference on imperialism that I reported on a while 
back. It is extremely good stuff.)

New Left Review 26, March-April 2004

Future history of the Third World’s post-industrial megacities. A 
billion-strong global proletariat ejected from the formal economy, with 
Islam and Pentecostalism as songs of the dispossessed.


Sometime in the next year, a woman will give birth in the Lagos slum of 
Ajegunle, a young man will flee his village in west Java for the bright 
lights of Jakarta, or a farmer will move his impoverished family into 
one of Lima’s innumerable pueblos jovenes. The exact event is 
unimportant and it will pass entirely unnoticed. Nonetheless it will 
constitute a watershed in human history. For the first time the urban 
population of the earth will outnumber the rural. Indeed, given the 
imprecisions of Third World censuses, this epochal transition may 
already have occurred.

The earth has urbanized even faster than originally predicted by the 
Club of Rome in its notoriously Malthusian 1972 report, Limits of 
Growth. In 1950 there were 86 cities in the world with a population over 
one million; today there are 400, and by 2015, there will be at least 
550. [1] Cities, indeed, have absorbed nearly two-thirds of the global 
population explosion since 1950 and are currently growing by a million 
babies and migrants each week. [2] The present urban population (3.2 
billion) is larger than the total population of the world in 1960. The 
global countryside, meanwhile, has reached its maximum population (3.2 
billion) and will begin to shrink after 2020. As a result, cities will 
account for all future world population growth, which is expected to 
peak at about 10 billion in 2050. [3]


Where are the heroes, the colonisers, the victims of the Metropolis?
Brecht, Diary entry, 1921

Ninety-five per cent of this final buildout of humanity will occur in 
the urban areas of developing countries, whose population will double to 
nearly 4 billion over the next generation. [4] (Indeed, the combined 
urban population of China, India and Brazil already roughly equals that 
of Europe plus North America.) The most celebrated result will be the 
burgeoning of new megacities with populations in excess of 8 million, 
and, even more spectacularly, hypercities with more than 20 million 
inhabitants (the estimated urban population of the world at the time of 
the French Revolution). [5] In 1995 only Tokyo had incontestably reached 
that threshold. By 2025, according to the Far Eastern EconomicReview, 
Asia alone could have ten or eleven conurbations that large, including 
Jakarta (24.9 million), Dhaka (25 million) and Karachi (26.5 million). 
Shanghai, whose growth was frozen for decades by Maoist policies of 
deliberate under-urbanization, could have as many as 27 million 
residents in its huge estuarial metro-region. [6] Mumbai (Bombay) 
meanwhile is projected to attain a population of 33 million, although no 
one knows whether such gigantic concentrations of poverty are 
biologically or ecologically sustainable. [7]

But if megacities are the brightest stars in the urban firmament, 
three-quarters of the burden of population growth will be borne by 
faintly visible second-tier cities and smaller urban areas: places 
where, as un researchers emphasize, ‘there is little or no planning to 
accommodate these people or provide them with services.’ [8] In China 
(officially 43 per cent urban in 1997), the number of official cities 
has soared from 193 to 640 since 1978. But the great metropolises, 
despite extraordinary growth, have actually declined in relative share 
of urban population. It is, rather, the small cities and recently 
‘citized’ towns that have absorbed the majority of the rural 
labour-power made redundant by post-1979 market reforms. [9] In Africa, 
likewise, the supernova-like growth of a few giant cities like Lagos 
(from 300,000 in 1950 to 10 million today) has been matched by the 
transformation of several dozen small towns and oases like Ouagadougou, 
Nouakchott, Douala, Antananarivo and Bamako into cities larger than San 
Francisco or Manchester. In Latin America, where primary cities long 
monopolized growth, secondary cities like Tijuana, Curitiba, Temuco, 
Salvador and Belém are now booming, ‘with the fastest growth of all 
occurring in cities with between 100,000 and 500,000 inhabitants.’ [10]

Moreover, as Gregory Guldin has urged, urbanization must be 
conceptualized as structural transformation along, and intensified 
interaction between, every point of an urban–rural continuum. In his 
case-study of southern China, the countryside is urbanizing in situ as 
well as generating epochal migrations. ‘Villages become more like market 
and xiang towns, and county towns and small cities become more like 
large cities.’ The result in China and much of Southeast Asia is a 
hermaphroditic landscape, a partially urbanized countryside that Guldin 
and others argue may be ‘a significant new path of human settlement and 
development . . . a form neither rural nor urban but a blending of the 
two wherein a dense web of transactions ties large urban cores to their 
surrounding regions.’ [11] In Indonesia, where a similar process of 
rural/urban hybridization is far advanced in Jabotabek (the greater 
Jakarta region), researchers call these novel land-use patterns 
desokotas and debate whether they are transitional landscapes or a 
dramatic new species of urbanism. [12]

Urbanists also speculate about the processes weaving together Third 
World cities into extraordinary new networks, corridors and hierarchies. 
For example, the Pearl River (Hong Kong–Guangzhou) and the Yangtze River 
(Shanghai) deltas, along with the Beijing–Tianjin corridor, are rapidly 
developing into urban-industrial megalopolises comparable to 
Tokyo–Osaka, the lower Rhine, or New York–Philadelphia. But this may 
only be the first stage in the emergence of an even larger structure: ‘a 
continuous urban corridor stretching from Japan/North Korea to West 
Java.’ [13] Shanghai, almost certainly, will then join Tokyo, New York 
and London as one of the ‘world cities’ controlling the global web of 
capital and information flows. The price of this new urban order will be 
increasing inequality within and between cities of different sizes and 
specializations. Guldin, for example, cites intriguing Chinese 
discussions over whether the ancient income-and-development chasm 
between city and countryside is now being replaced by an equally 
fundamental gap between small cities and the coastal giants. [14]

full: http://www.newleftreview.net/NLR26001.shtml


The Marxism list: www.marxmail.org

More information about the Marxism mailing list