[Marxism] Planet of Slums

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Mar 14 08:29:34 MST 2006

A swiftly crumbling planet
Doomsayer Mike Davis offers a new reason to panic: Earth is turning into a 
giant slum.

By Matt Steinglass

Mar. 14, 2006 | In case global warming, avian influenza, AIDS, terrorism, 
nuclear proliferation, Chinese nationalism, epidemic obesity and the state 
of the Knicks don't have you worried enough, Mike Davis has a new reason to 
panic: Planet Earth is turning into a giant slum. For the first time in 
human history, the world's urban population now equals its rural 
population, and the balance tilts further toward the cities with each 
passing year. The overwhelming majority of this growth is occurring in 
shantytowns and tenements stretching from Karachi, Pakistan, to Lima, Peru, 
where people live crowded together in densities that sometime dwarf those 
of such notorious 19th century human anthills as New York's Mulberry Bend. 
As of 2005, a billion people were living in slums, and the number is rising 
by 25 million per year.

The proliferation of slums is an ironic rebuke to the modernist vision of 
the city of tomorrow, which prevailed until a few decades ago. "The cities 
of the future," writes Davis, "rather than being made out of glass and 
steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead 
largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement 
blocks, and scrap wood." The high modernist dream has been pronounced dead 
before, beginning in the 1970s, when Jane Jacobs first attacked skyscrapers 
and freeways in favor of the organic, variegated human-scale neighborhoods 
such mega-projects often bulldozed. But the slums that hold 39 percent of 
China's urban population, 55 percent of India's, and an incredible 99 
percent of Ethiopia's (according to U.N. figures) make a mockery of Jacobs' 
"urban ballet." In Davis' words, "Instead of cities of light soaring toward 
heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, 
surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay."

It's not surprising to hear such apocalyptic rhetoric from Mike Davis, who 
has spent his literary career taking on one disaster after another. His 
classic "City of Quartz" critiqued the chaotic urban history of Los 
Angeles. "Late Victorian Holocausts" recounted the devastating famines 
afflicting British colonies in the late 1800s. And "The Monster at Our 
Door," published just last fall, sounded the klaxon over avian influenza's 
threat to mutate into a massive human pandemic. It is hard to dismiss Davis 
as a serial Chicken Little; his books are simply too well researched. For 
"Planet of Slums," he has digested acres of reports by U.N. agencies, 
governments, academics and non-governmental organizations, along with 
obscure architectural papers bearing titles like "The Incidence and Causes 
of Slope Failure in the Barrios of Caracas."

Yet Davis' relentless dourness does tend to make his conclusions less 
trustworthy. He has a penchant for arguing against all sides of an issue. 
In Chapter 3 of "Planet of Slums," "The Treason of the State," Davis 
excoriates neoliberal governments that fail to build housing for the poor 
-- and criticizes those that do, like China and Thailand, because their 
high-rises are too far from poor people's jobs, or lack the community 
feeling of the old slums. In Chapter 4, "Illusions of Self-Help," the 
reader learns that granting squatters legal title to their land is a false 
solution that only enriches speculators -- and that not granting squatters 
land titles leaves them at the mercy of gangs and police who demand payment 
for squatting rights. Reading Davis can be a bit like sitting down at a bar 
next to a guy who starts out lambasting the president and then proceeds to 
ridicule the opposition, leaving one with the impression that he doesn't 
actually vote.

Well, one might say, what do you expect? It's a book about slums. What's to 
like? But, in fact, many urban thinkers have had positive things to say 
about slums. For example, Davis in several places cites papers published as 
part of a 2002 conference on African urban issues titled Under Siege, held 
in Lagos, Nigeria. I was at that conference, and the tone, while sometimes 
apocalyptic, was a lot more enthusiastic than one would expect from reading 

The conference's most illustrious presenter was the Dutch superstar 
architect Rem Koolhaas, who had just finished a four-year study of Lagos 
conducted with his students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. 
Koolhaas is an inveterate contrarian, the kind of guy who can find humanism 
in a concrete access ramp, and his take on Lagos was typical. He said his 
initial impression of the city, driving in along the freeways that stretch 
over its lagoon and seeing only the indistinct forms of shanties through 
masses of rising smoke, was as a sort of modernist hell. Gradually, 
however, he realized that what he was seeing was Ebute-Metta, Lagos' 
partially waterborne sawmill district, where giant rafts of logs floated 
down from the country's surviving rain forests are hacked up by hundreds of 
small lumber companies. What at first appeared as pure negative chaos was 
in fact a complex, unstable and highly creative informal economy.

Koolhaas and his students came to realize that all of Lagos was like this. 
The book they published, "The Lagos Project," presents dozens of examples 
of the city's mash-up economy: the world's largest markets for used 
electronics and auto parts; unfinished public housing taken over 
semi-legally, the units rebuilt in jury-rigged expansions by the residents; 
a never-completed butterfly highway access ramp converted into a 
cantilevered village by informal colonists, complete with market stalls and 
a church. Koolhaas coined the term "flexscape" to denote large 
indeterminate structures, like highway overpasses or abandoned freighters, 
which can be creatively reappropriated and made to serve changing local 
needs. He came to see the city not as a dystopian nightmare or ruin, but as 
a giant hive of recombinant, sometimes cannibalistic creative energy. Lagos 
is often termed "unlivable" by Westerners and even by its own inhabitants; 
but as Koolhaas pointed out, 12 million people live in this unlivable city, 
and somehow, on their own terms, they make it work.

Davis does acknowledge the views of such slum enthusiasts. In the 1970s, in 
particular, social scientists in Latin America wrote of "slums of hope," 
where families staked an informal claim on open land and built a shanty in 
the expectation of gradually working their way up the income ladder, into 
the middle class. But he invokes these optimistic progressive visions of 
the slum in order to dismiss them. Davis argues, rather trenchantly, that 
the rising inequality associated with globalization and the neoliberal 
economic policies of the Washington Consensus have sawed through that 
income ladder. The very fact that slums are growing much faster than the 
urban population overall is proof that the "slums of hope" are mostly 
hoping in vain.

One of Davis' most original observations is that the explosive growth of 
modern third-world cities stands the model of Europe's Industrial 
Revolution on its head: It is not generally driven by economic growth. In 
East and parts of South Asia, the new jobs are there, but not in Latin 
America and certainly not in Africa, where countries have been losing 
industrial jobs since the 1980s even as their cities ballooned. Today's 
migrants are not lured to the city by the promise of prosperity, but are 
driven from the countryside by ever direr poverty, population growth, 
environmental damage, war and the increasing global domination of high-tech 
agribusiness. "'Overurbanization,' in other words," Davis writes, "is 
driven by the reproduction of poverty, not by the supply of jobs." In the 
cities, they survive not by finding formal employment, which scarcely 
exists, but by scrabbling together an existence as petty traders, artisans 
or day laborers -- entering the so-called informal sector, which Davis 
argues generally subdivides the existing economic pie into ever-smaller 
pieces. The starkest example is Kinshasa, a city that continues to grow 
even as the Congo it supposedly governs has fallen off the map of the world 

Davis goes on to sketch the proliferation of hysterical witchcraft 
accusations against Kinshasa's unfortunate children. He then tops off his 
"Oliver Twist" meets "Blade Runner" vision of the global urban present with 
a chapter on the only U.S. government agency he thinks really "gets" the 
transformations underway in the Third World today: the Defense Department, 
whose planning for anti-insurgent guerrilla warfare in urban environments 
has gained fresh impetus from the conflict in Iraq. Davis sketches Baghdad 
as a kind of blueprint for the future of the planetary city, the world of 
the "war on terror" as a magnified New Los Angeles, with the police 
helicopters of the first world's gated communities perpetually hovering 
over the permanent low-grade conflict of the Third World's smoldering slums.

It would certainly make a great movie. And it's a brilliant paradigm for 
thinking about global inequity: "Planet of Slums" is the first book I've 
read to consider globalization through the frame of the urban landscape. 
But again, Davis sometimes strays too far to the noir side of his cinematic 
imagination. In my own experience of some of the slums Davis describes, I 
haven't found them as bleak as he does. He cites an Organisation for 
Economic Co-operation and Development study hypothesizing the West African 
coast from Lagos to Accra, Ghana, as a single vast urban poverty zone by 
2020; it's possible, but today much of this coast still consists of tiny 
raffia-hut villages under palm trees, or uninhabited scrub. And Davis 
utterly fails to capture the organic vibrancy and thriving street life that 
can make slums attractive: the elbow-to-elbow throngs of Lagos' Idumota 
market, where Igbo teenagers hand-spool videotape for local shot-on-video 
feature film studios, choking in the exhaust of thousands of tiny electric 
generators; the alleyways and gray tile roofs of Beijing's packed old 
hutongs, where barbers trim hair on the sidewalk in front of mirrors hung 
from tree trunks; the sunny, grassy shantytowns of Capetown, South Africa's 

A romance of picturesque poverty? Sure. It's easy to be charmed by 
Khayelitsha when you live in Tamboerskloof. But like Davis' Bangkok 
residents who preferred their old slums to the new public housing projects, 
at least some slum dwellers enjoy aspects of their neighborhoods -- many of 
which they themselves have created. What Davis' book misses is any 
acknowledgement of positive agency on the part of the millions of people 
who move into slums each year. More important, it lacks any acknowledgement 
that some of the negative outcomes he describes from housing policy toward 
the poor are the result of inevitable tradeoffs. Davis scathingly depicts 
the miseries of slum life in one chapter and the miseries inflicted by slum 
clearance in the next, without ever suggesting what other choices might be 
possible. "Planet of Slums" is a brilliant book, but it might have 
benefited from a calmer analytic tone, more like the one taken by Jared 
Diamond in last year's "Collapse" -- an acceptance that even catastrophic 
social developments result from bargaining and competition between 
different groups with different outlooks and interests, and that perfectly 
bad solutions are as rare as perfect ones. It's gratifying to see that 
Davis is now at work on a book about what agents of change might lead to 
positive improvements in the situation of the global poor. Davis is 
extraordinary at staring into the abyss; it'd be nice if he started telling 
us where the handholds are.

-- By Matt Steinglass



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