Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A System That Lets People Live In Shit

A Review of Planet of the Slums (Verso 2006) by Mike Davis.

In the mega-cities of the global south, massive slums and squatter settlements have shattered modernity’s optimism with an unprecedented Dickensian squalor - now for the first time in our history the urban population of the earth outnumbers the rural. Planet of The Slums is Marxist belligerent Mike Davis’ attempt to map our world's breakneck urbanization and the impact of this watershed.

Historically he explains how once European colonialism resisted urban migration with its threat of fostering an anti-imperialist solidarity straight out of the Battle of Algiers, but now there is a staggering 400 cities with a population of one million while in 1950 there were only 86. Famine and debt, civil war and counter insurgency were the most "ruthlessly efficient levers of informal urbanization" in the fifties and sixties. Then from the seventies IMF structural adjustments tore away even the dream of third world states’ playing a role in housing provision.

As the most dominant alternative to public housing we Davis runs us through a topology of slum forms. Presented with the familiar “hand me down” of western inner city housing, the pirate urbanization of squatting and renters in invisible property markets. Finally we are confronted with the nightmarish figure of the permanent refugee camp such as Gaza on “the pariah edges” of the mega-city.

In Davis’ view, the very organization of these urban spaces has become a theatre for the play of class; sometimes its beautification drives; sometimes criminalisation. Poor people dread international events such as the Seoul 2008 Olympic games, that justify land grabs and mass evictions. Using criminalising myths that obscured their potential as resistance centres, Argentina’s generals determined to destroy the villas miserias of Buenos Aires on their return to power in 1976.

Davis explains that the class politics of urban space are best symbolized in sci-fi-esque“off-worlds” like Alphaville in Sao Paulo; heavily militarized private suburbs constructed by a super rich connected to global networks of wealth and ignorant of localized poverty. On the surface of the more mundane everyday, there is vastly differentiated access to simple infrastructure like roads and electricity - or statistics on who ends up dead in traffic accidents, predicted by the WHO to be the third largest killer of the poor by 2020.

The ecology of slums is a dangerous one too. Terms like “classquake” come to designate just who bears the brunt in natural disasters like Turkey in 1999 or man-made environmental disasters like Bhobal chemical plant. More metaphorically, in cities like Kinshasa with its population of 10 million and no waterborne sewage treatment, capitalism quite happily leaves whole swathes of humanity living in shit.

Snapping heavily at the “soft imperialism” of NGOs, Davis rushes on the failure of their talk of democratization, self-help and participation, to highlight how they diminish grassroots mobilization and increase corrupt elites. Tearing into market based solutions that celebrate “boot strap capitalism” and a small business led “transubstantiation of poverty into capital,” he describes how such ideology dissolves self-help networks essential to the survival of the very poor.

What bothers Davis most is how contrary to traditional visions of urbanization, capitalism has created “a surplus humanity” excluding billions from its labour markets and leaving them to an informal bare survivalism that defies traditional visions of class. In the absence of the left, Pentecostal Christianity and political Islam weave new social solidarities but the social technologies these religious forms leave often breed nihilistic terror. Of course there are other models such as the indigenous organizations of El Alto that provided the back bone to Bolivia’s resource wars.

As he explains in his conclusion, US military think tanks have their own take on this dose of neo-liberal reality, with crash courses in how to fight under slum conditions in an “asymmetric combat” that literally goes through walls instead of using winding streets. Haunted by this lurking counter-insurgent terror, Planet of the Slums merely provokes and prepares the reader with a preliminary over-view for Davis’ next project, with its promised leaps of scale between global warming, slum life and a future of resistance to capital.

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