For the first time in human history the majority of the world’s population live in cities. Of those people around 1 billion live in slums. Whatever images of Victorian tenements the word slum conjures up, Mike Davis’s picture of 21st century slum life in the Third World is infinitely more horrifying. With population densities comparable to cattle feedlots, millions of people are swamped in filth and disease.
These slums are no temporary phenomenon that will disappear as Third World countries develop economically. These slums are the product of deliberate development strategies enforced by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) over the last past few decades. There is already a kind of nostalgia for the slums of the 1950s and 1960s, which sprung up where free land was squatted by people pouring into cities for work.
Today we have urbanisation without industrialisation and, as investment in productive industry yields little return, rampant property speculation means it is not cheap and certainly not free any more to live in a slum.
Alongside this squalor there is the unreality of the urban rich in gated communities – self-contained worlds. Beverly Hills, Utopia and Dreamland are the names of private cities in the suburbs of Cairo, Egypt. There is an Orange County on the outskirts of Beijing, China.
Globalisation has meant access to all the trappings of a luxuriant Western lifestyle for a minority, but for the vast majority the neo-liberal consensus of privatisation and declining state intervention has been a disaster. Third World governments are actively barred from implementing the kind of reconstruction plans seen in the West following the Second World War, or the development programmes that were attempted by nationalist regimes after colonial rule.
Various IMF structural adjustment programmes have instead promoted a strategy of self-help loans to “enable” the poor to improve their own slums. This strategy has only directed much-needed funds to the middle-classes who can afford to repay such loans, and left the poor untouched.
A particularly perverse strand of neo-liberal thinking on dealing with slums has been to re-label them “Strategic Low-Income Urban Management Systems”, where the millions who eke a living in informal work are considered “entrepreneurs”.
The neo-liberal bankers peddle this swill to excuse their own failures, but at least the military men are honest about the real nature of ever-expanding “failed cities”. In the past, governments were aware of the insurrectionary dangers that bred in conditions of abject poverty, but their response often involved a certain degree of investment to stabilise and buy off sections of society.
That is no longer considered an option. The Pentagon believes that the wars of the 21st century will increasingly be fought with the criminalised sections of the urban poor across the world. In a slightly odd way this actually provides a hopeful indicator that this wretched poverty can provoke resistance, and will continue to do so. That resistance will be the subject of Mike Davis’s next book, which I hope will be as widely read as Planet of Slums deserves to be.
Women between revolution and counter-revolution
Animated film retells Anne Frank’s story
A pick of the highlights