Patrice Riemens on Sat, 3 Jul 2004 11:49:08 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> fwd: Mike Davis: Planet of slums

By the author of "City of Quartz", and with apologes for X-posting

----- Forwarded message from Rana Dasgupta <> -----

To: <>
Date: Fri, 2 Jul 2004 13:24:21 +0530

Stunning overview of the vast and fast-growing global population of
informal workers living in large illegal settlements and the religious
systems they have chosen as their personal and political ideologies.


Rana Dasgupta

Planet of Slums
from Harper's Magazine, June 2004

Keywords: slums, cities, religion, poverty, inequality

(Adapted from an essay by Mike Davis, in the March/April issue of New Left
Review. Davis is currently writing a book about slums that will be
published by Verso next year.)

Sometime in the next year, a woman will give birth in the Lagos slum of
Ajegunle, a young man will flee his village in west Java for the bright
lights of Jakarta, or a farmer will move his impoverished family into one
of Lima's innumerable pueblos jovenes. The exact event is unimportant and
will pass entirely unnoticed. Nonetheless it will constitute a watershed
in human history. For the first time, the urban population of the earth
will outnumber the rural.

In 1950 there were 86 cities in the world with populations over one
million; today there are 386, and by 2015 there will be at least 550. The
present urban population (3 billion) is larger than the total population
of the world in 1960. The global countryside, meanwhile, will reach its
maximum population (3.3 billion) in 2020 and thereafter will begin to
decline. As a result, cities will account for all future world population
growth, which is expected to peak at about 9 billion in 2050.

Ninety-five percent of this final build out of humanity will occur in the
urban areas of developing countries, whose populations will double to
nearly 4 billion over the next generation. The most celebrated result will
be the burgeoning of new megacities with populations in excess of 8
million and, even more spectacularly, hypercities with more than 20
million inhabitants. By 2025, Asia alone could have ten or eleven
conurbations that large, including Jakarta, Dhaka, and Karachi. Shanghai
could have as many as 27 million residents in its huge estuarial
metro-region. Bombay meanwhile is projected to attain a population of 33
million, though no one knows whether such gigantic concentrations of
poverty are biologically or ecologically sustainable.

But if megacities are the brightest stars in the urban firmament, three
quarters of the burden of population growth will be borne by faintly
visible second-tier cities: places where, as U.N. researchers emphasize,
"there is little or no planning to accommodate these people or provide
them with services." In China the number of official cities has soared
from 193 to 640 since 1978. In Africa, likewise, the supernova-like growth
of a few giant cities such as Lagos (from 300,000 in 1950 to 10 million
today) has been matched by the transformation of several dozen small towns
and oases such as Ouagadougou, Nouakchott, Douala, and Antananarivo into
cities larger than San Francisco or Manchester.

The dynamics of Third World urbanization both recapitulate and confound
the precedents of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and North
America. In China the greatest industrial revolution in history is
shifting a population the size of Europe's from rural villages to
smog-choked, sky-climbing cities. In sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America,
the Middle East, and parts of Asia, however, urbanization has been
radically decoupled from industrialization, and even from development per
se. This "perverse" urban boom contradicts orthodox economic models that
predict that the negative feedback of urban recession should slow or even
reverse migration from the countryside.

The global forces pushing people from the countryside-mechanization in
Java and India; food imports in Mexico, Haiti, and Kenya; civil war and
drought throughout Africa; and everywhere the consolidation of small into
large holdings-seem to sustain urbanization even when the pull of the city
is drastically weakened by debt and depression. At the same time, rapid
urban growth in the context of structural adjustment, currency
devaluation, and state retrenchment has been a recipe for the inevitable
mass production of slums. Much of the urban world, as a result, is rushing
backward to the age of Dickens.

The astonishing prevalence of slums is the chief theme of the historic and
somber report published last October by the United Nations' Human
Settlements Programme. "The Challenge of Slums" (henceforth "Slums") is
the first truly global audit of urban poverty. It is unusual in that it
breaks with traditional U.N. circumspection and self-censorship to
squarely indict neoliberalism, especially the I.M.F.'s Structural
Adjustment Programs: "The primary direction of both national and
international interventions during the last 20 years has actually
increased urban poverty and slums, increased exclusion and inequality, and
weakened urban elites in their efforts to use cities as engines of

The report uses a very conservative definition of "slum": many readers
will be surprised by the U.N.'s finding that only 19.6 percent of urban
Mexicans live in slums. Nonetheless, "Slums" estimates that there were
about 924 million slum dwellers in 2001: nearly equal to the population of
the world when the young Engels first ventured onto the mean streets of
Manchester. Indeed, residents of slums constitute a staggering 78.2
percent of the urban population of the least developed countries and fully
a third of the global urban population. Extrapolating from the age
structures of most Third World cities, at least half of the slum
population is under the age of twenty-five.

The world's highest percentages of slum dwellers are in Ethiopia (an
astonishing 99.4 percent of the urban populations), Chad (99.1 percent),
Afghanistan (98.5 percent), and Nepal (92.4 percent). The poorest urban
populations, however, are probably in Kinshasa and Maputo, where two
thirds of residents earn less than the cost of their minimum required
daily nutrition. In Delhi planners complain bitterly about "slums within
slums" as squatters take over the small open spaces of the peripheral
resettlement colonies to which the old urban poor were brutally removed in
the mid-1970s. In Cairo and Phnom Penh, recent arrivals squat or rent
space on rooftops, creating slum cities in the air.

Whereas the classic slum was a decaying inner city, the new slums are more
typically located on the edges of urban centers. The governor of Lagos
State told reporters last year that "about two thirds of the state's total
landmass of 3,577 square kilometers could be classified as shanties or
slums." Indeed, writes a U.N. correspondent,

"Unlit highways run past canyons of smouldering garbage before giving way
to dirt streets weaving through 200 slums, their sewers running with raw
waste. So much of the city is a mystery. No one even knows for sure the
size of the population ??? officially it is 6 million, but most experts
estimate it at 10 million ??? let alone the number of murders each year
[or] the rate of HIV infection."

Lagos, moreover, is simply the biggest node in the shantytown corridor of
70 million people that stretches from Abidjan to Ibadan, probably the
biggest continuous footprint of urban poverty on earth.

Slum ecology, of course, revolves around the supply of settlement space,
and indeed more than half of the residents of cities in the developing
world occupy property illegally. National and local political machines
usually acquiesce in informal settlement as long as they can control the
political complexion of the slums and extract a regular flow of bribes or
rents. Without formal land titles or home ownership, slum dwellers are
forced into quasi-feudal dependencies, where disloyalty can mean eviction
or even the razing of an entire district.

Infrastructure development, meanwhile, lags far behind the pace of
urbanization, and peri-urban slum areas often have no formal utilities or
sanitation whatsoever. As in early Victorian London, the contamination of
water by human and animal waste remains the cause of the chronic diarrheal
diseases that kill at least 2 million children each year. An estimated 57
percent of urban Africans lack access to basic sanitation, and in cities
such as Nairobi the poor must rely on "flying toilets" (defecation into a
plastic bag). In Bombay, meanwhile, the sanitation problem is defined by
ratios of one toilet seat per 500 inhabitants in the poorer districts.
Only 11 percent of poor neighborhoods in Manila and 18 percent in Dhaka
have formal means to dispose of sewage. Quite apart from the incidence of
the HIVjAIDS plague, the U.N. considers that two out of five African slum
dwellers live in a poverty that is literally life-threatening.

The urban poor, furthermore, are everywhere forced to settle on hazardous
and otherwise unbuildable terrains ??? steep hill slopes, riverbanks, and
floodplains. Likewise, they squat in the deadly shadows of refineries,
chemical factories, toxic dumps, or in the margins of railroads and
highways. Poverty, as a result, has "constructed" an urban disaster
problem of unprecedented frequency and scope, as typified by chronic
flooding in Manila, Dhaka, and Rio, pipeline conflagrations in Mexico City
and Cubatao, the Bhopal catastrophe in India, and deadly mudslides in
Caracas, La Paz, and Tegucigalpa. The disenfranchised communities of urban
poor, in addition, are vulnerable to sudden outbursts of state violence
such as the infamous 1990 bulldozing of the Maroko beach slum in Lagos (an
eyesore for the wealthy neighboring community of Victoria Island) or the
1995 demolition in freezing weather of the huge squatter town of
Zhejiangcun on the edge of Beijing.

As "Slums" emphasizes, the I.M.F.-mandated Structural Adjustment Programs
(SAPs) of the 1980s displaced or immiserated millions of traditional
urbanites and were, in fact, "deliberately anti-urban in nature," designed
to reverse any "urban bias" in welfare policies, fiscal structure, or
government investment. The I.M.F.acting as bailiff for the big banks and
backed by the Reagan and Bush administrations-offered poor countries
everywhere the same poisoned chalice of devaluation, privatization,
removal of import controls and food subsidies, enforced cost-recovery in
health and education, and ruthless downsizing of the public sector. At the
same time, SAPs devastated rural smallholders by eliminating subsidies and
pushing them out, "sink or swim," into global commodity markets dominated
by First World agribusiness.

In theory, of course, the 1990s should have righted the wrongs of the
1980s and allowed Third World cities to regain lost ground and bridge the
chasms of inequality created by SAPs. The pain of adjustment should have
been followed by the analgesic of globalization. Indeed, the 1990s, as
"Slums" notes, were the first decade in which global urban development
took place within almost utopian parameters of neoliberal market freedom:

"During the 1990s, trade continued to expand at an almost unprecedented
rate. . . . All the basic inputs to production became cheaper, as interest
rates fell rapidly, along with the price of basic commodities. Capital
flows were increasingly unfettered by national controls and could move
rapidly to the most productive areas. Under what were almost perfect
economic conditions according to the dominant neo-liberal economic
doctrine, one might have imagined that the decade would have been one of
unrivalled prosperity and social justice."

In the event, however, urban poverty continued its relentless
accumulation, and the gap between poor and rich countries widened, just as
it had done for the previous twenty years. By the end of the century,
global inequality had reached an incredible Gini coefficient level of
0.66, the mathematical equivalent to a situation in which the poorest two
thirds of the world receive zero income and the top third, everything.

The brutal tectonics of neoliberal globalization since 1978 are analogous
to the catastrophic processes that shaped a "third world" in the first
place, during the era of late Victorian imperialism. In the latter case,
the forcible incorporation into the world market of the great subsistence
peasan tries 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 impoverished semi-peasants and farm
laborers. Structural adjustment, it would appear, has recently worked an
equally fundamental reshaping of human futures. As the authors of Slums
conclude: "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." "The rise of [this] informal sector," they declare bluntly, "is...
a direct function of liberalization."

Overall, informal workers constitute about two fifths of the economically
active population of the developing world. "Slums" estimates, moreover,
that fully 90 percent of urban Africa's new jobs over the next decade will
somehow come from the informal sector. Indeed, the global informal working
class (overlapping but not identical with the slum population) is almost
one billion strong, making it the fastest growing, and most unprecedented,
social class on earth.

The pundits of bootstrap capitalism may see this enormous population of
marginalized laborers, redundant civil servants, and ex-peasants as a
frenzied beehive of ambitious entrepreneurs yearning for formal property
rights and unregulated competitive space, but it makes more obvious sense
to consider most informal workers as the "active" unemployed, who have no
choice but to subsist by some means or starve. With even formal-sector
urban wages in Africa so low that economists can't figure out how workers
survive (the so-called low-wage puzzle), the informal tertiary sector has
become an arena of extreme Darwinian competition among the poor.

Slums originate in the countryside, where unequal competition with
large-scale agroindustry is tearing traditional rural societies apart. As
rural areas lose their "storage capacity," slums take their place as a
sink for surplus labor, which can only keep pace with subsistence by ever
more heroic feats of self-exploitation and the further competitive
subdivision of already densely filled survival niches.

Tendencies toward urban involution, of course, existed during the
nineteenth century. The European industrial revolutions were incapable of
absorbing the entire supply of displaced rural labor, especially after the
1870s, when Europe's agriculture was exposed to the devastating
competition of the North American prairies. But mass immigration to the
settler societies of the Americas and Oceania provided a safety valve that
prevented the rise of mega- Dublins as well as the spread of the kind of
underclass anarchism that had taken root in the poorest parts of southern
Europe. Today, surplus labor, by contrast, faces unprecedented barriers to
large-scale migration to the wealthier countries-a literal "great wall" of
high-tech border enforcement. Likewise, controversial
population-resettlement programs in "frontier" regions such as Amazonia,
Tibet, Kalimantan, and Irian Jaya produce environmental devastation and
ethnic conflict without substantially reducing urban poverty in Brazil,
China, and Indonesia.

Thus only the slum remains as a fully franchised solution to the problem
of warehousing the twenty-first century's surplus humanity. But aren't the
great slums, as a terrified Victorian bourgeoisie once imagined, volcanoes
waiting to erupt? Or does ruthless competition, as increasing numbers of
poor people compete for the same scraps, ensure self-consuming communal
violence as the highest form of urban involution? To what extent does an
informal proletariat possess that most potent of Marxist talismans,
"historical agency"? Can disincorporated labor be reincorporated into a
global emancipatory project? Or is the sociology of protest in the
immiserated megacity a regression to the pre-industrial urban mob,
episodically explosive during consumption crises but otherwise easily
managed by clientelism, populist spectacle, and appeals to ethnic unity?
Or is some new, unexpected historical subject slouching toward the

For the moment at least, Marx has yielded the historical stage to Mohammed
and the Holy Ghost. If God died in the cities of the industrial
revolution, he has risen again in the postindustrial cities of the
developing world.

Today, populist Islam and Pentecostal Christianity (and, in Bombay, the
cult of Shivaji) occupy a social space analogous to that of early
twentieth-century socialism and anarchism. In Morocco, for instance, where
according to some estimates half a million rural migrants are absorbed
into the teeming cities every year, Islamist movements like Justice and
Welfare, founded by Sheikh Abdessalam Yassin, have become the real
governments of the slums: organizing night schools, providing legal aid to
victims of state abuse, buying medicine for the sick, subsidizing
pilgrimages, and paying for funerals. As Moroccan prime minister
Abderrahmane Youssoufi, the Socialist leader who was once exiled by the
monarchy, recently admitted, "We [the left] have cut ourselves off from
the people. We need to reconquer the popular quarters. The Islamists have
seduced our natural electorate. They promise them heaven on earth." And
indeed, a Justice and Welfare activist recognized that "confronted with
the neglect of the state, and faced with the brutality of daily life,
people discover, thanks to us, solidarity, self-help, fraternity. They
understand that Islam is humanism."

The counterpart of populist Islam in the slums of Latin America and much
of sub-Saharan Africa is Pentecostalism. Christianity, of course, is now
in its majority a non-Western religion, and Pentecostalism is its most
dynamic missionary in cities of poverty. Indeed, Pentecostalism is the
first major world religion to have grown up almost entirely in the soil of
the modem urban slum. Unified around spirit baptism, miracle healing,
charismata, and a premillennial belief in a coming world war of capital
and labor, early American Pentecostalism originated as a "prophetic
democracy" whose rural and urban constituencies overlapped, respectively,
with those of Populism and the Industrial Workers of the World. Its early
missionaries yielded nothing to the I.W.W. in their vehement denunciations
of the injustices of industrial capitalism and its inevitable destruction.

Since 1970, largely because of its appeal to slum women and its reputation
for being colorblind, Pentecostalism has been growing into what is
arguably the largest self-organized movement of urban poor people on the
planet. Recent claims of "over 533 million Pentecostal/charismatics in the
world in 2002" are probably hyperbolic, but there may well be half that

In contrast to populist Islam, which emphasizes civilizational continuity
and the transclass solidarity of faith, Pentecostalism, in the tradition
of its African-American origins, retains a fundamentally exilic identity.
Although, like Islam in the slums, it efficiently correlates itself to the
survival needs of the informal working class (organizing self-help
networks for poor women, offering faith healing as para-medicine,
providing recovery from alcoholism and addiction, insulating children from
the temptations of the street), its ultimate premise is that the urban
world is corrupt, unjust, and unreformable. With the left still largely
missing from the slums, the eschatology of Pentecostalism admirably
refuses the inhuman destiny of the Third World city that Slums warns
about. It also sanctifies those who, in every structural and existential
sense, truly live in exile.

The new urban poor, indeed, are the ghosts at the table of world politics.
Every debate about the war on terrorism, the future of the Middle East,
the AIDS crisis in Africa, and the international narcotics trade is
haunted by their presence and growing desperation. The helicopter gunships
that hover over the megaslums of Gaza and Sadr City, the nightly gun
battles in the shantytowns of Bogota and Karachi, the bulldozers in
Nairobi, Delhi, and Manila-is this not already an incipient world war
between rich and poor?

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