Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review: Planet of Slums

[Mike Davis. Planet of Slums. New York: Verso, 2007].

If read from a place of willingness to hear its message, Planet of Slums will inflame a fierce hatred of capitalism in your heart. It is an analysis of neoliberalism through the prism of urban space around the globe, and it is a relentless, pounding indictment of the organizing of billions of lives into poverty and suffering by capital.

Humanity is somewhere near the point of becoming more urban than rural -- maybe just past, maybe just before. The population of the planet is expected to continue to increase for at least another 30 or 40 years, and the vast majority of that increase will occur in urban areas of the global South. The next couple of decades will see several individual urban areas with greater populations than the entire urban population of the planet at the time of the French Revolution. By 2015, there will be more than 550 cities with at least a million inhabitants, and there are already 5(ish) that have more than 20 million.

A slum is "characterized by overcrowding, poor or informal housing, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, and insecurity of tenure" [22-23]. There is not complete identity between residents of areas so labelled and the population experiencing urban poverty -- not all slum dwellers are poor and not all people in poverty live in slums -- but there is significant overlap. Fully one third of the global urban population lives in areas that could be called slums -- only 6% of the urban population in the rich countries, but almost 80% of the urban population in the very poorest.

The housing arrangements of people who live in areas that could be designated "slums" take a variety of forms. Some inhabit neighbourhoods that were once prosperous but that money and the people who controlled it have fled, and existing buildings have been taken over and used in new ways. The most talked about arrangement -- and, by some on the left, most romanticized -- are squatters, or those who have simply appropriated land or space to meet their needs, sometimes surreptitiously and individually, sometimes brazenly and collectively. Davis points out that real squatting is actually fairly rare, these days, and much more common is "pirate urbanization," or privatized squatting, in which private developers (or gangster) seize control of the land, often without formally owning it and inevitably without official permission to develop it, and make people pay for the right to stay on it. As well, many in slums actually rent their dwellings, sometimes from other deeply impoverished people who also live there. And in many cities there is a blurred peri-urban edge in which agricultural land is gradually consumed in completely chaotic and unregulated ways by informal housing of those unable to find space nearer the centre of the city.

In these processes, the classic understanding of the city is changing. Many cities no longer have a centre. It does not make sense to talk of downtown, suburbs, exurbs. Many are now chaotic, distributed networks of informal relationships and informal or nonexistent municipal services. Several do or will in the coming decades cover vast corridors of land in a single, largely unplanned, urban or semi-urban agglomeration. In some parts of the global South, urbanization has been completely disconnected from industrialization, which makes it a much different process than "classic" urbanization in 19th century Europe (which, however oppressive and exploitative it was to the newly proletarianized former peasants pushed into slums, was still able to benefit from European colonial predation on the rest of the world).

In the early 20th century, urbanization in much of Africa and Asia was very slow, in large part because European colonizers mostly kept poor rural people from migrating to the cities. In China after 1949, Maoism also severely limited urban population growth. And in Latin America the barriers were less formal but still significant. In the 1950s and 1960s (and a little later in China) the barriers to urban population growth fell away and the number of people in many cities in the global South began to skyrocket. People were pushed off the land and also drawn to cities by new policies of industrialization. In many places, new anti-colonial and nationalist regimes promised affordable urban housing as part of an overall strategy of national economic development. Few were able to deliver in any sustained, useful way. In the '70s, a combination of anarchist and neoliberal thought focused on promoting self-help as liberation within slums, but despite scattered successes this model has not made a dent in the problem as a whole either. It is becoming even less tenable, Davis argues, as classic squatting becomes less possible because of the ways in which urban space in many cities is already used.

Davis also examines various ways in which poor people living in slums get attacked in order for states and the rich to make changes to urban space for their own benefit. He looks at the environmental impact of this model of urban growth, from exhaust fumes to sanitation, and particularly their impact on human health. He examines the immense harm done to poor urban dwellers by Structural Adjustment Programs, imposed on most poor nations by the international financial institutions that serve the interests of the rich nations. He systematically demolishes the myth that informal economic activity and "micro-credit" are the magic bullets to deal with urban poverty in the global South. And he looks at the ways in which the effective abandonment of segments of the urban population in some of the great cities of the global South, and the entire city in some instances, have utterly transformed how people live, and how people can live. The book closes with a brief look at how the Pentagon is thinking about slums as the next frontier in warfare and as a space that the U.S. military must learn to dominate.

There are some interesting aspects about the ways in which Davis puts together the knowledge in this book. His sources are resolutely mainstream -- U.N. and government reports as well as academic studies that deal with everything from the physical aspects of specific slums to ethnographies of how such communities function socially. There is something powerful about condemning the system using the documents the system itself has produced, a la Chomsky, and Davis does it very well. However, given the ways in which that kind of document -- the census, the government report, the study by the outside academic -- inevitably does some violence, or at least some erasure, to the lives it examines, it makes me wonder what is missing from this book. What really goes on in the world's slums that is not reflected in this book? I have no idea, but I know there must be something.

A related question is about the ways in which he makes use of sources that examine a wide range of places. Again, in some ways his seamless combination of analyses from cities around the globe in a single paragraph or passage is very powerful and makes an important point about the homogenizing impact of neoliberal capitalism. At the same time, I have to wonder what is lost in terms of specificity. I should add that Davis is as attentive to specificity as his level of analysis allows -- there are differences in the historical trajectories of the cities of Latin America and China and South Asia, for instance, and he doesn't neglect that. But I still wonder about what is lost in translating the realities of a billion people from many dozens of countries into a 210 page book.

Others have read this book as being pro-state in its orientation. I certainly have a sense that that is the direction of Davis' bias in terms of the ongoing intra-left debates about the state form, but that wasn't how I read this book. Rather than being some wistful plea for a return to the days of strong socialist states, it felt more to me like a cry of despair, a howl of grief and rage that neither state-based nor non-state approaches as they have actually been attempted have done much that was broad and lasting to mitigate the suffering into which capital forces the vast majority of the world's urban poor. And it is hard to know what to do with this pessimism. To what extent is it warranted? How would we know? He points out that he does not talk much about resistance movements among the urban poor, which will be the subject of a future book that he and a collaborator are currently working on. Perhaps that work will be more hopeful. But I also wonder the extent to which this seamless pessimism is made possible by a framework that depends on mainstream sources and that emphasizes the homogenizing impact of neoliberal capitalism at the expense of exploring the inevitable cracks and holes and seedbeds of resistance.

Despite a pessimism about whose unrelenting character I have some doubts, I think this is a valuable book for activists and lefties in North America to read. It is, for one thing, direct and accessible and politically clear. More usefully, particularly for those of us with relative privilege, it can act as an effective kick to unsettle assumptions produced by our social and geographical locations -- it isn't news to most of us that capitalism is at its most brutal with racialized women and men in the countries of the global South, but it is easy to lose focus on the enormity of what a recent event in Toronto named the "actually existing barbarism" of global capitalism. Reading Planet of Slums is a way to counteract that loss of focus in ourselves, and a way to keep alive the ongoing challenge to see how struggles in North America do and can and should relate to struggles around the world.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

No comments: