[Marxism] RE: Planet of Slums

Tony Abdo gojack10 at hotmail.com
Sat May 15 13:23:47 MDT 2004

The article posted by Lou, Platnet of Slums by Mike Davis, highlights the 
changing environment which the working class now finds itself living in.  
Hypercities replacing ravaged countryside is becoming the norm.  And it also 
highlights that the environment of the giant cities will be more and more 
that of a gigiantic slum, where the working class will be largely only 
marginally employed.  How different that is from the idealized concept of 
the working class held by orthodox marxists, like those residing in the US 
SWP for just one tiny example.  Because the working class of the future may 
well consist of only about half of it employed, even in 'normal' times.

And how different the main opponents to marxists in the working class from 
those conceptialized by orthodox marxist sects!  They invisionalize 
themselves fighting secular labor bureaucrats to gain the upper hand amongst 
a relatively highly skilled block of employed industrial workers. But the 
real core of workers will be marginalized and often very dependent on 
marginalized informal market employment, where friendship with a neighbor of 
two might be the only difference from one's family starving. This is why 
Pentacostalism and Islam spring up, because they provide a network of 
privatized (in a manner of speaking) social services, that neither marxists 
nor capitalists are too willing to provide, or able to provide.

An article that should be a real prod to do some thinking about how working 
class organization must be done in the years ahead. What will it take to 
vitally compete with Fundamentalist Chrisitans and Muslims for leadership 
within the international working class?  Maybe the idea of SOLIDARITY needs 
an entirely new set of definitions for marxism to move forward into having 
success in the new landscape of world capitalism?

Tony Abdo
the concluding portion from the Planet of Slums article by Mike Davis

Indeed, for the moment at least, Marx has yielded the historical stage to 
Mohammed and the Holy Ghost. If God died in the cities of the industrial 
revolution, he has risen again in the postindustrial cities of the 
developing world. The contrast between the cultures of urban poverty in the 
two eras is extraordinary. As Hugh McLeod has shown in his magisterial study 
of Victorian working-class religion, Marx and Engels were largely accurate 
in their belief that urbanization was secularizing the working class. 
Although Glasgow and New York were partial exceptions, ‘the line of 
interpretation that associates working-class detachment from the church with 
growing class consciousness is in a sense incontestable’. If small churches 
and dissenting sects thrived in the slums, the great current was active or 
passive disbelief. Already by the 1880s, Berlin was scandalizing foreigners 
as ‘the most irreligious city in the world’ and in London, median adult 
church attendance in the proletarian East End and Docklands by 1902 was 
barely 12 per cent (and that mostly Catholic). [94] In Barcelona, of course, 
an anarchist working class sacked the churches during the Semana Trágica, 
while in the slums of St. Petersburg, Buenos Aires and even Tokyo, militant 
workers avidly embraced the new faiths of Darwin, Kropotkin and Marx.

Today, on the other hand, populist Islam and Pentecostal Christianity (and 
in Bombay, the cult of Shivaji) occupy a social space analogous to that of 
early twentieth-century socialism and anarchism. In Morocco, for instance, 
where half a million rural emigrants are absorbed into the teeming cities 
every year, and where half the population is under 25, Islamicist movements 
like ‘Justice and Welfare’, founded by Sheik Abdessalam Yassin, have become 
the real governments of the slums: organizing night schools, providing legal 
aid to victims of state abuse, buying medicine for the sick, subsidizing 
pilgrimages and paying for funerals. As Prime Minister Abderrahmane 
Youssoufi, the Socialist leader who was once exiled by the monarchy, 
recently admitted to Ignacio Ramonet, ‘We [the Left] have become 
embourgeoisified. We have cut ourselves off from the people. We need to 
reconquer the popular quarters. The Islamicists have seduced our natural 
electorate. They promise them heaven on earth.’ An Islamicist leader, on the 
other hand, told Ramonet: ‘confronted with the neglect of the state, and 
faced with the brutality of daily life, people discover, thanks to us, 
solidarity, self-help, fraternity. They understand that Islam is humanism.’ 

The counterpart of populist Islam in the slums of Latin America and much of 
sub-Saharan Africa is Pentecostalism. Christianity, of course, is now, in 
its majority, a non-Western religion (two-thirds of its adherents live 
outside Europe and North America), and Pentecostalism is its most dynamic 
missionary in cities of poverty. Indeed the historical specificity of 
Pentecostalism is that it is the first major world religion to have grown up 
almost entirely in the soil of the modern urban slum. With roots in early 
ecstatic Methodism and African-American spirituality, Pentecostalism ‘awoke’ 
when the Holy Ghost gave the gift of tongues to participants in an 
interracial prayer marathon in a poor neighbourhood of Los Angeles (Azusa 
Street) in 1906. Unified around spirit baptism, miracle healing, charismata 
and a premillennial belief in a coming world war of capital and labour, 
early American Pentecostalism—as religious historians have repeatedly 
noted—originated as a ‘prophetic democracy’ whose rural and urban 
constituencies overlapped, respectively, with those of Populism and the iww. 
[96] Indeed, like Wobbly organizers, its early missionaries to Latin America 
and Africa ‘lived often in extreme poverty, going out with little or no 
money, seldom knowing where they would spend the night, or how they would 
get their next meal.’ [97] They also yielded nothing to the iww in their 
vehement denunciations of the injustices of industrial capitalism and its 
inevitable destruction.

Symptomatically, the first Brazilian congregation, in an anarchist 
working-class district of São Paulo, was founded by an Italian artisan 
immigrant who had exchanged Malatesta for the Spirit in Chicago. [98] In 
South Africa and Rhodesia, Pentecostalism established its early footholds in 
the mining compounds and shanty towns; where, according to Jean Comaroff, 
‘it seemed to accord with indigenous notions of pragmatic spirit forces and 
to redress the depersonalization and powerlessness of the urban labour 
experience.’ [99] Conceding a larger role to women than other Christian 
churches and immensely supportive of abstinence and frugality, 
Pentecostalism—as R. Andrew Chesnut discovered in the baixadas of Belém—has 
always had a particular attraction to ‘the most immiserated stratum of the 
impoverished classes’: abandoned wives, widows and single mothers. [100] 
Since 1970, and largely because of its appeal to slum women and its 
reputation for being colour-blind, it has been growing into what is arguably 
the largest self-organized movement of urban poor people on the planet. 

Although recent claims of ‘over 533 million Pentecostal/charismatics in the 
world in 2002’ are probably hyperbole, there may well be half that number. 
It is generally agreed that 10 per cent of Latin America is Pentecostal 
(about 40 million people) and that the movement has been the single most 
important cultural response to explosive and traumatic urbanization. [102] 
As Pentecostalism has globalized, of course, it has differentiated into 
distinct currents and sociologies. But if in Liberia, Mozambique and 
Guatemala, American-sponsored churches have been vectors of dictatorship and 
repression, and if some us congregations are now gentrified into the 
suburban mainstream of fundamentalism, the missionary tide of Pentecostalism 
in the Third World remains closer to the original millenarian spirit of 
Azusa Street. [103] Above all, as Chesnut found in Brazil, ‘Pentecostalism . 
. . remains a religion of the informal periphery’ (and in Belém, in 
particular, ‘the poorest of the poor’). In Peru, where Pentecostalism is 
growing almost exponentially in the vast barriadas of Lima, Jefrey Gamarra 
contends that the growth of the sects and of the informal economy ‘are a 
consequence of and a response to each other’. [104] Paul Freston adds that 
it ‘is the first autonomous mass religion in Latin America . . . Leaders may 
not be democratic, but they come from the same social class’. [105]

In contrast to populist Islam, which emphasizes civilizational continuity 
and the trans-class solidarity of faith, Pentecostalism, in the tradition of 
its African-American origins, retains a fundamentally exilic identity. 
Although, like Islam in the slums, it efficiently correlates itself to the 
survival needs of the informal working class (organizing self-help networks 
for poor women; offering faith healing as para-medicine; providing recovery 
from alcoholism and addiction; insulating children from the temptations of 
the street; and so on), its ultimate premise is that the urban world is 
corrupt, injust and unreformable. Whether, as Jean Comaroff has argued in 
her book on African Zionist churches (many of which are now Pentecostal), 
this religion of ‘the marginalized in the shantytowns of neocolonial 
modernity’ is actually a ‘more radical’ resistance than ‘participation in 
formal politics or labour unions’, remains to be seen. [106] But, with the 
Left still largely missing from the slum, the eschatology of Pentecostalism 
admirably refuses the inhuman destiny of the Third World city that Slums 
warns about. It also sanctifies those who, in every structural and 
existential sense, truly live in exile.

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