From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Thu Aug 10 2006 - 10:17:20 EDT
New Left Review 40, July-August 2006 Jan Breman on Mike Davis, Planet of Slums. Panorama of the epochal shift to a majority urban world, with the vast mass of the destitute driven to subsistence tactics in their villas miseria. JAN BREMAN SLUMLANDS Our epoch is witnessing a world-historic shift in human habitat: for the first time, more than half the global population will soon be city dwellers, in one form or another. The small-scale settlements that have been the cradle of peasant work and life for many thousands of years-the myriad villages, compact or dispersed, spread out across the countryside-are no longer home to the majority of mankind. The massive expulsion of labour from agriculture, accelerating over the last half-century, has been accompanied by an exodus from the villages. At present, 3.2 billion people are congregated in towns and cities. Their number is expected to grow to 10 billion in the middle of this century. This gigantic shift is mainly taking place in the zones of the South: within the next two decades, metropoles such as Jakarta, Dhaka, Karachi, Shanghai or Mumbai will each have 25 million inhabitants or more. Urbanization is not, of course, a new phenomenon. The push out of agriculture and the trek from the countryside are well known themes in 19th and 20th-century western history. Up to the mid-20th century, however, that migration resulted-if not immediately, then within a relatively short space of time-in regularized employment in the mills, docks, construction industry, public-sector enterprises or other large-scale and labour-intensive worksites, or else in domestic service. Another route out of village life was through emigration to countries that were still struggling with under-population. Economic refugees fleeing from Europe were welcomed as colonists in these settler states, reputed for their perseverance and enterprising spirit. They brought to these 'empty' territories the labour power required to valorize vast new tracts of natural resources. Up to thirty years ago, the assumption was that this transformation from an agrarian-rural to an industrial-urban mode of production would be duplicated in the 'backward' parts of the world. But the notion of industrialization as the handmaiden of urbanization is no longer tenable. This goes a long way to explain why huge numbers of the new arrivals to the city are slum-dwellers, and are likely to remain so throughout their lives. How and why this is happening is the story graphically told in Mike Davis's new book, Planet of Slums. While many case studies have described what it means to reside in a favela, basti, kampung, gecekondu or bidonville, Davis provides a properly global portrait, setting such shanty towns in comparative perspective.And whereas urban specialists have focused on questions of space and land use in their discussions of slums, and developmentalists on the issue of their 'informal' economies, Planet of Slums commands our attention as a broader historical synthesis of the two. Drawing on the 'global audit' provided by the UN's 2003 'Challenge of the Slums' report, Davis outlines the scale of world urban poverty today: Mumbai, with 10 to 12 million squatters and tenement dwellers, is the global capital of slums, followed by Mexico City and Dhaka, with slum populations of 9 or 10 million, and then Lagos, Cairo, Karachi, Kinshasa-Brazzaville, São Paolo, Shanghai and Delhi, with around 7 million each. If the largest mega-slums-contiguous zones of urban poverty-are in Latin America (an estimated 4 million living in Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, Chalco, Iztapalapa and other south-eastern municipios of Mexico City; over 2 million in the Caracas shanty town of Libertador, or the El Sur and Ciudad Bolívar districts of Bogotá), the Middle East has Baghdad's Sadr City (1.5 million) and Gaza (1.3 million), while the corrugated-iron shacks of Cité Soleil, in Port-au-Prince, and Kinshasa's Masina district each hold half a million souls. India has nearly 160 million slum-dwellers, and China over 190 million. In Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Sudan, over 70 per cent of the urban population lives in slums. The laudable ambition of Planet of Slums is to propose a historical overview of the global pattern of these settlements; one that will provide, as Davis puts it, 'a periodization of the principal trends and watersheds in the urbanization of world poverty' in the postwar period. Broadly speaking, he discerns an initial acceleration of Third World urbanization in the 1950s and 1960s, with the post-Independence lifting of colonial pass laws (especially in sub-Saharan Africa), the 'push' of civil war and insurgency (Latin America, Algeria, Partition India, Southeast Asia) and the 'pull' of employment opportunities offered by import-substitution industrialization policies (Latin America, South Korea, Taiwan). Davis documents what he terms the 'treason' of Third World states in failing to provide housing for their new urban workers, as post-Independence governments (in Africa and South Asia) or dictatorships (in Latin America) abdicated responsibility for the poor to rule in the interests of local elites. But the 'Big Bang' of urban poverty comes after 1975, with the imposition of IMF-World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes which 'devastated rural smallholders by eliminating subsidies and pushing them to sink, or swim, in global commodity markets dominated by heavily subsidized First World agribusiness'. At the same time, the SAPs enforced 'privatization, removal of import controls . . . and ruthless downsizing in the public sector'. And they were accompanied by the 1976 switch of IMF-World Bank policies-under the joint influence of Robert McNamara and former anarchist urbanist John Turner-to 'self-help' slum-improvement schemes in place of new house-building, representing, in Davis's words, 'a massive downsizing of entitlement', which soon hardened into neoliberal anti-statist orthodoxy. The net result has been a gigantic increase in urbanization 'decoupled from industrialization, even from development per se'. As Davis documents, the relentless waves of homines novi pouring into the cities are far in excess of the demand for their labour. The combination of lack of work plus ultra-low wages leaves this foot-slogging infantry of the global economy deprived of the basic means of human subsistence. One cannot enter the colonies populated by these people in Latin America, Africa and Asia without being struck by the acute poverty that prevails there. Increasingly, today's slums are not to be found in the inner cities, as used to be the case in the West, but are situated on their outskirts, in an extensive belt where urban zones gradually give way to the surrounding countryside. This in-between landscape can also be found in Eastern Europe, where the Second World has been dissolved within the Third-with the proviso that the eclipse of the 'post-capitalist countries' has, by definition, also pre-empted the concept of a Third World. One consequence of this is the urgent need to revise the developmentalist jargon that was en vogue during the second half of the 20th century: that short era has disappeared, without leaving a lasting imprint behind. Although the lobby of non-governmental organizations continues to advocate the ideals of development, this form of private initiative has often, under the guise of empowerment, aided and abetted the surrender of their constituency to free-market forces. In official literature, such as the UN 'Challenge of the Slums' report cited by Davis, it is the physical features rather than the socio-economic dimensions of slums that are foregrounded. In this definition, a slum is an overcrowded settlement consisting of poor, informal housing with inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, an intolerably high density of habitation, and an absence of drainage, levelled roads and waste removal. Title deeds to land plots, and whatever is built on them, are non-existent. Tenements are usually self-built in successive stages, resulting in a motley collection of properties, varied in size and shape, which often serve a double purpose as living space and work-site, without neat demarcation of either sphere. The blurred nature of these flimsy constructions is underscored by their materials: crude bricks, corrugated iron, scrap wood, cement or mud blocks, flattened tin plates, plastic or canvas cloth, straw, asbestos sheets, gunny sacks, cardboard and other waste products, recycled for essentially unsustainable usage. Nor are the occupants of such shacks necessarily their owners. Slumlords-moneylenders, pawnbrokers, shopkeepers, policemen, low-ranking officials, traders in drink and drugs, bucket-shop or gambling operators, vehicle owners or gang bosses-rent out the housing space they have appropriated; not all slum-dwellers are impoverished. Rather, capital is generated by raising legal and illegal dues from the poor. Following these flows of labour and capital makes it clear that the slums are not a separate circuit of production, distribution and consumption, but are well connected-if subservient-to mainstream economic practices. At the same time, criminality of all sorts is rampant, originating both inside and outside the slums, but with their inhabitants largely playing the role of victims rather than perpetrators. To live and work in poverty entails a systematic exposure to violence. The hierarchy of deprivation has its parallel in the gradations of vulnerability: topping both lists are women, children, the elderly, the chronically ill and the disabled. The life cycle of a slum begins with the arrival of the first batch of squatters. If these pioneers are not instantly thrown out their number soon increases, and their makeshift shacks are gradually upgraded to somewhat better forms of shelter. Davis sketches a typology: urban-core or peripheral, informal or formalized settlement; for what follows, once the squatters are established, are efforts to regulate their homes. It may take many years but, in the end, city authorities will usually acquiesce in the existence of the settlement and hand out papers saying so; generally in exchange for votes, and without any reciprocal obligation to provide basic facilities such as drinking water, access roads or electricity, let alone public health or schooling. As Davis documents in his chapter, 'Haussmann in the Tropics', evictions can still occur, often justified by the argument that the space occupied is needed for formal urban expansion, or simply as a show of brute force: the removal of people who appear a nuisance to mainstream city perceptions, or whose presence keeps land prices low. Building contractors, in collusion with the strong arm of the state, drive through a mise-en-valeur operation, their bulldozers demolishing in a morning what many hands had painstakingly constructed over months or years. Those who are driven out have to start all over again somewhere else. The ceaseless rotation of this footloose proletariat in the nowhere land between city and countryside makes it hard to produce reliable estimates of the slum population. Official statistics deliberately undercount the number of squatters trying to carve out a niche in these hermaphroditic zones-desakotas in Indonesian. Governments try to keep the teeming mass out of public view, if only to pre-empt future claims of rights in the wake of settlement registration, while established urban property owners aggressively collude in the non-acceptance of these hordes of migrants as citizens. Census figures therefore need to be read as conservative appraisals. Yet the slum population estimates cited above may be set in comparative perspective: while in the developed regions of the world a mere 6 per cent of the urban population are slum-dwellers, this proportion escalates to more than three-quarters of all urban inhabitants in what are still, despite all evidence, known as 'developing' countries. The cancer of slums is spreading even more rapidly than the growth of cities. While citing the effects of structural adjustment programmes, Davis does not elaborate on the crisis of the countryside and the reasons why increasing numbers of people are unable to sustain a rural way of life. Arguably, the fortunate few who manage to find a fixed abode and regular, long-term work are genuinely better off in the city's mega-slums. The lot of the millions roaming in the twilight zone where the countryside ends and the city begins is more debatable. In addition to these floaters or drifters of the extended urban periphery, who have left but not arrived, there are even more who cannot be defined as one-way migrants, a term which suggests at least an extended departure from the countryside. Doing fieldwork both in Java and in Gujarat, I was struck by the phenomenon of ongoing labour circulation, which pulls people out of their rural habitat for part of the year but pushes them back again when the seasonal employment comes to an end. This pattern of constant movement to and fro has become an important feature of the informal economy. The upshot is that the nowhere landscape is populated with nowhere people, who are absorbed and expelled again according to the need of the moment. A further development has been the rapid rise in village slums, inhabited by a landless underclass that has become redundant in the agricultural economy but lacks the cash and the contacts to venture outside its own segregated locality. This is an urgent problem, but one in which policy makers and politicians have no interest whatsoever. They prefer to keep preaching the UN's 'millennium goal' of cutting poverty by half within fifteen years, despite the fact that seven years have already elapsed since the mission statement was adopted, with the trends all moving in the wrong direction. How then do slum-dwellers support themselves? Davis tackles this issue by analysing labour relations and conditions in the 'informal economy'. This container concept, which applies to roughly four-fifths of the total workforce, was coined in the early 1970s to point out that the masses of peasants flooding into the cities are not employed in factories or other structured and regulated workplaces, but make their living from a wide range of unskilled and low-paid casual jobs without being able to claim any form of security or protection. They obtain occasional work either as waged labourers or in self-employment: some at home, others tramping the streets or locked in small-scale sweatshops. Their labour power is disseminated across all sectors of the economy: industry and crafts, petty trade and transport, construction and services, or a combination of all these. Sometimes they own their tools or other means of production, sometimes these are hired out to them, or provided by employers or their agents. It is a form of organization lauded by the apostles of market fundamentalism as the best strategy for poverty alleviation. In the writings of Hernando de Soto and others, the huge masses of informal-sector workers are characterized as petty entrepreneurs, excluded from the supply of formal credit as a consequence of the unregistered nature of whatever property they own. Micro-credit extended to them by banks on commercial terms would, according to this line of reasoning, enable them to increase their productivity and thus help them to get out of their precarious existence. It is a Baron von Münchhausen model of self-upliftment. Davis rejects this 'solution' as a myth, created and propagated by the World Bank and its protagonists to hold the have-notsaccountable for the misery in which they continue to live and work. Large segments of informal-sector workers constitute a reserve army of labour, hired and fired at will. The conditions of employment are not negotiable. They include an extreme extension of the working day, alternating with long and erratic periods of unemployment; dragooning children and the aged into the labour process; the subjugation of women and other dependents to the diktat of the head of the household-all for the lowest possible remuneration. It is, in short, a regime of relentless flexibilization from which, in line with neoliberal doctrine, public authority has disappeared as a regulatory force and given up even the fiction of balancing the interests of capital and labour. Privatization and the retreat of the state have evacuated the public sphere, which used to offer some counterweight to the unbridled discipline of the market. In what ways do the slum-dwellers themselves articulate and assert their interests? The traditional imagery, after all, is of slums as smoking volcanoes waiting to erupt. There are indeed myriad streams of resistance, as Davis writes, but a preliminary survey shows that these do not amount to much. Davis correctly points out that slum populations support a bewildering variety of responses to structural neglect and deprivation, ranging from charismatic churches and prophetic cults to ethnic militias, street gangs, neoliberal NGOs and revolutionary social movements. The ranks of the slum-dwellers are not closed but divided along lines of religion, caste, clan and tribe, or plain regional identities. Possibly even more obstructive is the fragmentation of labour across an enormous span of makeshift occupations and forms of casual-contractual employment, which frustrate the formation of a consciousness based on social-class unity. And lastly, there is the state, which condemns every desperate act of rebellion against oppression and exploitation as a breach of law and order. Explosions of dissatisfaction do occur-for example, when the price of bread or bus fares is raised-but these are generally quite spontaneous, short-lived and localized rather than organized and sustainable, appealing to vertical loyalties rather than horizontal solidarity. What are the geopolitical implications of a planet filling with shanty towns? Fed by the doomsday scenarios of 'the coming anarchy' by authors such as Robert Kaplan, the notion of une classe dangereuse in a globalized shape has come to stay. The richer countries aim to protect themselves against this threat by closing and fencing their borders. Mass migration to 'empty' or cleaned-out territories is no longer an option for societies wanting to get rid of people who are a drain rather than an asset to productivity. Economic refugees nowadays reach the shores of the promised lands as boat people, or climb the fences and walk through the desert hunted by the state or private gangs. Comparably, the run-of-the mill migrants who end up in an urban slum in their own society are also represented as posing a threat to global security. Davis draws a telling parallel between 'the brutal tectonics of neoliberal globalization since 1978' and 'the catastrophic processes that shaped a "Third World" in the first place' during the era of 19th-century imperialism that he explored in his 2001 work, Late Victorian Holocausts: At the end of the nineteenth century, the forcible incorporation into the world market of the great subsistence peasantries of Asia and Africa entailed the famine deaths of millions and the uprooting of tens of millions more from traditional tenures. The end result (in Latin America as well) was rural 'semi-proletarianization', the creation of a huge global class of immiserated semi-peasants and farm labourers lacking existential security of subsistence . . . Structural adjustment, it would appear, has recently worked an equally fundamental reshaping of human futures. [Thus] 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 trade. It could be added that the new liberal revolution has also seen the return of a form of neo-social Darwinism in the world at large. In the earlier version, not poverty but the poor themselves were stigmatized as defective: if they led miserable lives, it was because they were incapable of taking control of the circumstances in which they were forced to maintain themselves. The instinct among 'civilized people' to sympathize with these wretches, so the warning went, offered them unwarranted support and protection; by tempering the natural play of social forces, modern society had burdened itself with a parasitical underclass. In his Epilogue, 'Down Vietnam Street', Davis cites writings that suggest a return to favour for this late 19th-century line of reasoning, accompanied by the tacit recognition that current economic and social policies will make it impossible to solve the problem of mass poverty. As in Victorian times, 'the categorical criminalization of the urban poor is a self-fulfilling prophecy, guaranteed to shape a future of endless war in the streets'. From the mid-1990s, US military theoreticians have been urging preparation for 'protracted combat' in the nearly impassable, maze-like streets of poor Third World cities. As the journal of the US Army War College described in a 1996 article entitled 'Our Soldiers, Their Cities': The future of warfare lies in the streets, sewers, high-rise buildings, and sprawls of houses that form the broken cities of the world . . . Our recent military history is punctuated with city names-Tuzla, Mogadishu, Los Angeles [!], Beirut, Panama City, Hué, Saigon, Santo Domingo-but these encounters have been but a prologue, with the real drama still to come. The names are those of the cities, but the real danger lurks in their vast slums where alienated and seething masses dwell. In the opinion of researchers operating from state-run American think-tanks, 'security forces should address the sociological phenomenon of excluded populations'. Davis backs up this documentation with quotations from Pentagon sources that argue the case for contingency plans in support of 'a low-intensity world war of unlimited duration against criminalized segments of the urban poor'. Quite rightly he concludes that this mindset reveals the true 'clash of civilizations'.
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