Our Dark Places

Mike Davis offers a grim preview of the planet’s political future.


Planet of Slums
By Mike Davis
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THOUGH WE SCARCELY NOTICED, our descendants will look back on 2005 as the year the planet crossed into a new epoch: for the first time in history, more of the earth’s inhabitants lived in cities than outside them. From this point onward, all future growth in the earth’s population—which is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050—will take place in cities. Of this growth, the overwhelming majority will occur in the cities of developing countries, where the bidonvilles, favelas,and villas miserias of the very poor—characterized by astonishing density, decrepit housing, disease-laden water, horrid sanitation, minimal or nonexistent social services, and unemployment upwards of 50%—will continue their inexorable expansion.

In Planet of Slums, Mike Davis begins in these dark places, offering the reader a sharply drawn sketch of the growing urban anti-world, but what distinguishes his essay is his determined attempt to explain how it came to be. Davis offers a concise analysis of this global ghetto’s past half-century, in typically kinetic prose. But what the reader ultimately takes away from his account is a persistent tone of apocalypse, and a grim preview of what an ever-swelling, billion-strong slum population portends for the political future of the planet.

From Brazil to New Guinea, Senegal to Pakistan, farmers, sheepherders, and other rural people have been abandoning centuries-old ways of life and streaming toward their nations’ crowded cities. In Africa and Latin America, many are driven to cities by war or famine; in China and Southeast Asia, many are drawn by the lure of jobs in the factories that produce the world’s sneakers, t-shirts, and toothbrushes. This mass movement from countryside to city is of course not new; it has been ongoing since at least the first Industrial Revolution. What is new today—aside from its sheer magnitude—is how often such migration appears not to depend on economic growth in the cities. Unlike the industrial pilgrims who once flocked to Manchester, Chicago, Tokyo and the other great capitalist centers of the 19th and 20th centuries, country-dwellers in the developing world today stream toward cities that hold little promise of real jobs. They arrive with everything they have; they settle in the city’s slums, or the squatter camps and shantytowns that ring its perimeter, and survive, in a line Davis takes from the Martinican novelist Patrick Chamoiseau, by “[holding] onto the city ‘by its thousand survival-cracks.’”

In Planet of Slums, Davis’s first concern is to explain this puzzle of “urbanization without growth,” which has baffled development economists for years—especially those working in sub-Saharan African, where mega-cities like Lagos, Kinshasa, and Dar Es Salaam go on attracting tens of thousands of new arrivals each year even as their formal economies stagnate or even contract. Davis finds the answer to this puzzle in the imposition of neoliberal economic policies on the Third World—policies dating, in particular, from the debt crises of the 1970s and 80s, and the subsequent restructuring of Third World economies in the 1980s and 90s, led by the International Monetary Fund.

For Davis, the so-called “Structural Adjustment Programs” of the IMF—designed to help poor countries both pay down foreign debt and attract foreign investment—are the single most important factor in the dramatic exodus from the countryside and consequent spike in urban poverty in the developing world since the 1970s. Under the IMF’s tutelage, governments were forced to cut spending and limit regulation: to slash funding for hospitals and schools; privatize public utilities; lay off civil servants; eliminate agricultural subsidies; slash their tariffs and throw open their borders to foreign imports. In Davis’s account, it was these policies (especially eliminating subsidies that support farmers and the tariffs that protect them from competition from cheaply grown foreign food) that destroyed rural livelihoods and drove country-dwellers to the cities—where, at precisely that moment, the government, under pressure to slash public spending, was ceasing to build the public infrastructure that might have housed and transported them, and ceasing to fund the basic social services that might have kept them healthy. Rural economies, in other words, were decimated at the very moment when cities were being made unable to incorporate new arrivals.

DAVIS’S ANALYSIS MIGHT SEEM like predictable leftist critique, which locates the source of all evil in the IMF and the other demonic acronyms of the “Washington Consensus.” And one can certainly quibble with his causal history: the harshness of Structural Adjustment varied greatly from country to country; other factors, ranging from drought to corruption, played a larger role in many. What is inarguable, however, is that, over the last few decades, the governments of many the world’s poor countries, saddled with unpayable debts, have been forced to abdicate the promise of providing for the common good in the societies they govern. The United Nations, in its landmark habitat survey Challenge of the Slums (2003), concludes with precisely this point: “the main single cause of increases in poverty and inequality during 1980s and 1990s was the retreat of the state.” What is also inarguable is that the scope and nature of urban poverty everywhere has dramatically changed. In cities lacking both industry and public services, an astonishing number of persons subsist beyond the surveil of state authorities and economic planners—through scavenging, illicit trade, prostitution, domestic servitude, sweatshop manufacturing. “Informal survivalism,” as Davis writes, “is the new primary mode of livelihood in the majority of Third World cities.”

It is when Davis turns from analysis of causes to the prospect for political change that his vision of these new slums reaches its most incisive, and its darkest. How do we understand – understand politically – these tens of millions of city-dwellers almost wholly excluded from the formal economy? They certainly cannot be seen as a traditional proletariat. In the absence of organized industry, building the labor unions and the worker’s parties that have traditionally emerged from them is impossible. And a Maoist or Guevarist guerilla uprising is designed for the rural peasants of the Third World’s past, not the urban poor of its present. The grim fact is, that in these new urban milieus, none of the Left’s traditional strategies for organizing the economically oppressed are of much use.

Without formal work, and without the entry into secular politics that such work has traditionally provided, how do the poorest of the urban poor organize their social and political life? What offers them a “communal structure”? To this critical question, Davis offers a one-word answer: religion. “If God died in the cities of the industrial revolution,” Davis writes, “he has risen again in the postindustrial cities of the developing world.”

Today, religious organizations—Islamist, Hindu, Evangelical—are the single most important source of social cohesion among citydwellers in the developing world. Beyond spiritual sustenance and community, religious organizations offer social services no longer provided by the state, laws for virtuous conduct in chaotic environs, and membership in a global polity that transcends the corrupt nation-state that has excluded them. Political Islam continues to spread in power and influence from Cairo to Jakarta; the ascendance of its political parties—and their grassroots appeal—has received nervous attention from the Western media. Hindu fundamentalism, if remarked upon less often, has had an analogous trajectory in the bustees of Delhi and Mumbai. Pentecostal sects attract new adherents at astonishing rates from Brasilia to Johannesburg, altering political and community life in ways as yet not understood.

Religious groups, however, don’t have the slums entirely to themselves. Non-Governmental Organizations have also stepped into the breach vacated by the state; they direct an ever-greater portion of social welfare programs and development projects in Third World cities. Major international funders—the World Bank, the UN Development Program, USAID—“have,” as Davis notes, “increasingly bypassed governments to work directly with regional and neighborhood NGOs.” Tens of thousands of such organizations are now active in developing countries—from global giants like Oxfam down to neighborhood food banks; they vary greatly in their ideologies, methods, and effectiveness. Yet for Davis, the essential significance of the “NGO revolution” is to shift responsibility for social welfare further from the government (the only entity capable of redistributing wealth or enacting systemic change), and to an often uncoordinated panoply of local charities and international partners, each with their own distinct program for “empowering the poor.”

Davis is unpersuaded by those who offer a more sanguine view of such programs, or by those, such as the celebrated Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, who see in the “informal sector” an untapped stirring of entrepreneurial dynamism that needs only a formal process of “titling” to take flight. De Soto argues that granting squatters legal title to their shacks and meager possessions could allow such persons to borrow on credit, build businesses, and join the formal economy. For Davis, this “bootstrap capitalism” is little more than a fantasy cure-all, a romantic vision that fails to account for the great number of slum residents (especially children and women) who are neither squatters nor self-employed entrepreneurs, but rather street-dwellers, low-level renters, or destitute laborers. The “informal sector,” in Davis’s view, is not a prospective component of the formal economy, but rather its permanent outside—the garbage can into which a “surplus humanity” can be tossed and discarded, abandoned to a life of bare subsistence.

PLANET OF SLUMS, LIKE much of Davis’s work—Late Victorian Holocausts, The Monster at Our Door, Dead Cities—is shot through with apocalyptic foreboding, and the book’s concision and intensity—it runs to barely two hundred short pages of text—only compounds the sense of doom. Davis presents an ambitious account of urban poverty that, while global in scope, rarely expends more than a paragraph or two on any single locale. Reading this book, one imagines Francis Ford Coppola’s operatic adaptation: a helicopter-borne camera racing over the surface of the earth, swooping down into one demonic concrete jungle after another, ominous chords suggesting an epic end-of-days battle to come.

By taking this chopper-eye view, Davis rarely ventures close enough to take account of local nuance, or to notice successful urban reform when it is achieved, be it by Chavista misiones in Caracas, or micro-financers among the women of Dhaka. He also ignores the views of the many urbanists toiling at earth-level —planners, anthropologists, activists—who remain stubbornly if cautiously hopeful about the new politics emerging in cities, particularly in those places where the grip of clientelist regimes has waned. Davis’s more serious failing is his tendency to ignore the will and desires—the so-called “agency”—of the slum-dwellers themselves; in his effort to indict the global structures that oppress them, Davis too often portrays the people that are (after all) his subject only in the abstract, as insurrectionary mass whose future “depends upon [their] militant refusal to accept their terminal marginality within global capitalism.” The quote is revealing: he sees their power as, essentially, one of refusal.

The question is: in what will such “refusal” consist? Though it never becomes explicit, an air of eventual but inevitable violence hangs over this account. A “planet of the slums,” in the long view, is a planet doomed to violent encounters between those living in the slums and those outside them; Davis is hardly alone in this appraisal. Inside the Pentagon, strategists “now assert,” as Davis writes, “that the ‘feral, failed cities’ of the Third World will be the distinctive battlespace of the twenty-first century.” Spurred by the recent travails of their forces in the blighted alleyways of Mogadishu, Fallujah, and Sadr City, the military’s sharpest minds—who a short time ago were devising counter-insurgency tactics for the jungles of South East Asia or Central America—have turned to the challenges of “Military Operations in Urbanized Terrain” – MOUT, in Pentagonese. Davis concludes Planet of Slums with the war planners; he leaves us with a Blade Runner vision of the dystopic urban future: “hornetlike helicopter gunships [stalking] enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of the slum districts, pouring hellfire into the shanties night after night, the slums [replying each morning] with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions.”

Such melodramatic flights aside, Davis is a synthesist and rhetorician of rare abilities. In Planet of Slums he has written an important, necessary book. Already these dark places occupy the center of our politics. They will be the stage on which our history will play, whether or not we can bring ourselves to look.