From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Thu Aug 10 2006 - 10:17:20 EDT

New Left Review 40, July-August 2006

Jan Breman on Mike Davis, Planet of Slums. 
Panorama of the epochal shift to a majority urban 
world, with the vast mass of the destitute driven 
to subsistence tactics in their villas miseria.

Our epoch is witnessing a world-historic shift in 
human habitat: for the first time, more than half 
the global population will soon be city dwellers, 
in one form or another. The small-scale 
settlements that have been the cradle of peasant 
work and life for many thousands of years-the 
myriad villages, compact or dispersed, spread out 
across the countryside-are no longer home to the 
majority of mankind. The massive expulsion of 
labour from agriculture, accelerating over the 
last half-century, has been accompanied by an 
exodus from the villages. At present, 3.2 billion 
people are congregated in towns and cities. Their 
number is expected to grow to 10 billion in the 
middle of this century. This gigantic shift is 
mainly taking place in the zones of the South: 
within the next two decades, metropoles such as 
Jakarta, Dhaka, Karachi, Shanghai or Mumbai will 
each have 25 million inhabitants or more.
Urbanization is not, of course, a new phenomenon. 
The push out of agriculture and the trek from the 
countryside are well known themes in 19th and 
20th-century western history. Up to the mid-20th 
century, however, that migration resulted-if not 
immediately, then within a relatively short space 
of time-in regularized employment in the mills, 
docks, construction industry, public-sector 
enterprises or other large-scale and 
labour-intensive worksites, or else in domestic 
service. Another route out of village life was 
through emigration to countries that were still 
struggling with under-population. Economic 
refugees fleeing from Europe were welcomed as 
colonists in these settler states, reputed for 
their perseverance and enterprising spirit. They 
brought to these 'empty' territories the labour 
power required to valorize vast new tracts of 
natural resources. Up to thirty years ago, the 
assumption was that this transformation from an 
agrarian-rural to an industrial-urban mode of 
production would be duplicated in the 'backward' 
parts of the world. But the notion of 
industrialization as the handmaiden of 
urbanization is no longer tenable. This goes a 
long way to explain why huge numbers of the new 
arrivals to the city are slum-dwellers, and are 
likely to remain so throughout their lives.
How and why this is happening is the story 
graphically told in Mike Davis's new book, Planet 
of Slums. While many case studies have described 
what it means to reside in a favela, basti, 
kampung, gecekondu or bidonville, Davis provides 
a properly global portrait, setting such shanty 
towns in comparative perspective.And whereas 
urban specialists have focused on questions of 
space and land use in their discussions of slums, 
and developmentalists on the issue of their 
'informal' economies, Planet of Slums commands 
our attention as a broader historical synthesis 
of the two. Drawing on the 'global audit' 
provided by the UN's 2003 'Challenge of the 
Slums' report, Davis outlines the scale of world 
urban poverty today: Mumbai, with 10 to 12 
million squatters and tenement dwellers, is the 
global capital of slums, followed by Mexico City 
and Dhaka, with slum populations of 9 or 10 
million, and then Lagos, Cairo, Karachi, 
Kinshasa-Brazzaville, São Paolo, Shanghai and 
Delhi, with around 7 million each. If the largest 
mega-slums-contiguous zones of urban poverty-are 
in Latin America (an estimated 4 million living 
in Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, Chalco, Iztapalapa and 
other south-eastern municipios of Mexico City; 
over 2 million in the Caracas shanty town of 
Libertador, or the El Sur and Ciudad Bolívar 
districts of Bogotá), the Middle East has 
Baghdad's Sadr City (1.5 million) and Gaza (1.3 
million), while the corrugated-iron shacks of 
Cité Soleil, in Port-au-Prince, and Kinshasa's 
Masina district each hold half a million souls. 
India has nearly 160 million slum-dwellers, and 
China over 190 million. In Nigeria, Pakistan, 
Bangladesh, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Sudan, over 70 
per cent of the urban population lives in slums.
The laudable ambition of Planet of Slums is to 
propose a historical overview of the global 
pattern of these settlements; one that will 
provide, as Davis puts it, 'a periodization of 
the principal trends and watersheds in the 
urbanization of world poverty' in the postwar 
period. Broadly speaking, he discerns an initial 
acceleration of Third World urbanization in the 
1950s and 1960s, with the post-Independence 
lifting of colonial pass laws (especially in 
sub-Saharan Africa), the 'push' of civil war and 
insurgency (Latin America, Algeria, Partition 
India, Southeast Asia) and the 'pull' of 
employment opportunities offered by 
import-substitution industrialization policies 
(Latin America, South Korea, Taiwan). Davis 
documents what he terms the 'treason' of Third 
World states in failing to provide housing for 
their new urban workers, as post-Independence 
governments (in Africa and South Asia) or 
dictatorships (in Latin America) abdicated 
responsibility for the poor to rule in the 
interests of local elites.
But the 'Big Bang' of urban poverty comes after 
1975, with the imposition of IMF-World Bank 
Structural Adjustment Programmes which 
'devastated rural smallholders by eliminating 
subsidies and pushing them to sink, or swim, in 
global commodity markets dominated by heavily 
subsidized First World agribusiness'. At the same 
time, the SAPs enforced 'privatization, removal 
of import controls . . . and ruthless downsizing 
in the public sector'. And they were accompanied 
by the 1976 switch of IMF-World Bank 
policies-under the joint influence of Robert 
McNamara and former anarchist urbanist John 
Turner-to 'self-help' slum-improvement schemes in 
place of new house-building, representing, in 
Davis's words, 'a massive downsizing of 
entitlement', which soon hardened into neoliberal 
anti-statist orthodoxy. The net result has been a 
gigantic increase in urbanization 'decoupled from 
industrialization, even from development per se'.
As Davis documents, the relentless waves of 
homines novi pouring into the cities are far in 
excess of the demand for their labour. The 
combination of lack of work plus ultra-low wages 
leaves this foot-slogging infantry of the global 
economy deprived of the basic means of human 
subsistence. One cannot enter the colonies 
populated by these people in Latin America, 
Africa and Asia without being struck by the acute 
poverty that prevails there. Increasingly, 
today's slums are not to be found in the inner 
cities, as used to be the case in the West, but 
are situated on their outskirts, in an extensive 
belt where urban zones gradually give way to the 
surrounding countryside. This in-between 
landscape can also be found in Eastern Europe, 
where the Second World has been dissolved within 
the Third-with the proviso that the eclipse of 
the 'post-capitalist countries' has, by 
definition, also pre-empted the concept of a 
Third World. One consequence of this is the 
urgent need to revise the developmentalist jargon 
that was en vogue during the second half of the 
20th century: that short era has disappeared, 
without leaving a lasting imprint behind. 
Although the lobby of non-governmental 
organizations continues to advocate the ideals of 
development, this form of private initiative has 
often, under the guise of empowerment, aided and 
abetted the surrender of their constituency to 
free-market forces.
In official literature, such as the UN 'Challenge 
of the Slums' report cited by Davis, it is the 
physical features rather than the socio-economic 
dimensions of slums that are foregrounded. In 
this definition, a slum is an overcrowded 
settlement consisting of poor, informal housing 
with inadequate access to safe water and 
sanitation, an intolerably high density of 
habitation, and an absence of drainage, levelled 
roads and waste removal. Title deeds to land 
plots, and whatever is built on them, are 
non-existent. Tenements are usually self-built in 
successive stages, resulting in a motley 
collection of properties, varied in size and 
shape, which often serve a double purpose as 
living space and work-site, without neat 
demarcation of either sphere. The blurred nature 
of these flimsy constructions is underscored by 
their materials: crude bricks, corrugated iron, 
scrap wood, cement or mud blocks, flattened tin 
plates, plastic or canvas cloth, straw, asbestos 
sheets, gunny sacks, cardboard and other waste 
products, recycled for essentially unsustainable 
Nor are the occupants of such shacks necessarily 
their owners. Slumlords-moneylenders, 
pawnbrokers, shopkeepers, policemen, low-ranking 
officials, traders in drink and drugs, 
bucket-shop or gambling operators, vehicle owners 
or gang bosses-rent out the housing space they 
have appropriated; not all slum-dwellers are 
impoverished. Rather, capital is generated by 
raising legal and illegal dues from the poor. 
Following these flows of labour and capital makes 
it clear that the slums are not a separate 
circuit of production, distribution and 
consumption, but are well connected-if 
subservient-to mainstream economic practices. At 
the same time, criminality of all sorts is 
rampant, originating both inside and outside the 
slums, but with their inhabitants largely playing 
the role of victims rather than perpetrators. To 
live and work in poverty entails a systematic 
exposure to violence. The hierarchy of 
deprivation has its parallel in the gradations of 
vulnerability: topping both lists are women, 
children, the elderly, the chronically ill and 
the disabled.
The life cycle of a slum begins with the arrival 
of the first batch of squatters. If these 
pioneers are not instantly thrown out their 
number soon increases, and their makeshift shacks 
are gradually upgraded to somewhat better forms 
of shelter. Davis sketches a typology: urban-core 
or peripheral, informal or formalized settlement; 
for what follows, once the squatters are 
established, are efforts to regulate their homes. 
It may take many years but, in the end, city 
authorities will usually acquiesce in the 
existence of the settlement and hand out papers 
saying so; generally in exchange for votes, and 
without any reciprocal obligation to provide 
basic facilities such as drinking water, access 
roads or electricity, let alone public health or 
schooling. As Davis documents in his chapter, 
'Haussmann in the Tropics', evictions can still 
occur, often justified by the argument that the 
space occupied is needed for formal urban 
expansion, or simply as a show of brute force: 
the removal of people who appear a nuisance to 
mainstream city perceptions, or whose presence 
keeps land prices low. Building contractors, in 
collusion with the strong arm of the state, drive 
through a mise-en-valeur operation, their 
bulldozers demolishing in a morning what many 
hands had painstakingly constructed over months 
or years. Those who are driven out have to start 
all over again somewhere else.
The ceaseless rotation of this footloose 
proletariat in the nowhere land between city and 
countryside makes it hard to produce reliable 
estimates of the slum population. Official 
statistics deliberately undercount the number of 
squatters trying to carve out a niche in these 
hermaphroditic zones-desakotas in Indonesian. 
Governments try to keep the teeming mass out of 
public view, if only to pre-empt future claims of 
rights in the wake of settlement registration, 
while established urban property owners 
aggressively collude in the non-acceptance of 
these hordes of migrants as citizens. Census 
figures therefore need to be read as conservative 
appraisals. Yet the slum population estimates 
cited above may be set in comparative 
perspective: while in the developed regions of 
the world a mere 6 per cent of the urban 
population are slum-dwellers, this proportion 
escalates to more than three-quarters of all 
urban inhabitants in what are still, despite all 
evidence, known as 'developing' countries. The 
cancer of slums is spreading even more rapidly 
than the growth of cities.
While citing the effects of structural adjustment 
programmes, Davis does not elaborate on the 
crisis of the countryside and the reasons why 
increasing numbers of people are unable to 
sustain a rural way of life. Arguably, the 
fortunate few who manage to find a fixed abode 
and regular, long-term work are genuinely better 
off in the city's mega-slums. The lot of the 
millions roaming in the twilight zone where the 
countryside ends and the city begins is more 
debatable. In addition to these floaters or 
drifters of the extended urban periphery, who 
have left but not arrived, there are even more 
who cannot be defined as one-way migrants, a term 
which suggests at least an extended departure 
from the countryside. Doing fieldwork both in 
Java and in Gujarat, I was struck by the 
phenomenon of ongoing labour circulation, which 
pulls people out of their rural habitat for part 
of the year but pushes them back again when the 
seasonal employment comes to an end. This pattern 
of constant movement to and fro has become an 
important feature of the informal economy. The 
upshot is that the nowhere landscape is populated 
with nowhere people, who are absorbed and 
expelled again according to the need of the 
moment. A further development has been the rapid 
rise in village slums, inhabited by a landless 
underclass that has become redundant in the 
agricultural economy but lacks the cash and the 
contacts to venture outside its own segregated 
locality. This is an urgent problem, but one in 
which policy makers and politicians have no 
interest whatsoever. They prefer to keep 
preaching the UN's 'millennium goal' of cutting 
poverty by half within fifteen years, despite the 
fact that seven years have already elapsed since 
the mission statement was adopted, with the 
trends all moving in the wrong direction.
How then do slum-dwellers support themselves? 
Davis tackles this issue by analysing labour 
relations and conditions in the 'informal 
economy'. This container concept, which applies 
to roughly four-fifths of the total workforce, 
was coined in the early 1970s to point out that 
the masses of peasants flooding into the cities 
are not employed in factories or other structured 
and regulated workplaces, but make their living 
from a wide range of unskilled and low-paid 
casual jobs without being able to claim any form 
of security or protection. They obtain occasional 
work either as waged labourers or in 
self-employment: some at home, others tramping 
the streets or locked in small-scale sweatshops. 
Their labour power is disseminated across all 
sectors of the economy: industry and crafts, 
petty trade and transport, construction and 
services, or a combination of all these. 
Sometimes they own their tools or other means of 
production, sometimes these are hired out to 
them, or provided by employers or their agents. 
It is a form of organization lauded by the 
apostles of market fundamentalism as the best 
strategy for poverty alleviation. In the writings 
of Hernando de Soto and others, the huge masses 
of informal-sector workers are characterized as 
petty entrepreneurs, excluded from the supply of 
formal credit as a consequence of the 
unregistered nature of whatever property they 
own. Micro-credit extended to them by banks on 
commercial terms would, according to this line of 
reasoning, enable them to increase their 
productivity and thus help them to get out of 
their precarious existence.
It is a Baron von Münchhausen model of 
self-upliftment. Davis rejects this 'solution' as 
a myth, created and propagated by the World Bank 
and its protagonists to hold the 
have-notsaccountable for the misery in which they 
continue to live and work. Large segments of 
informal-sector workers constitute a reserve army 
of labour, hired and fired at will. The 
conditions of employment are not negotiable. They 
include an extreme extension of the working day, 
alternating with long and erratic periods of 
unemployment; dragooning children and the aged 
into the labour process; the subjugation of women 
and other dependents to the diktat of the head of 
the household-all for the lowest possible 
remuneration. It is, in short, a regime of 
relentless flexibilization from which, in line 
with neoliberal doctrine, public authority has 
disappeared as a regulatory force and given up 
even the fiction of balancing the interests of 
capital and labour. Privatization and the retreat 
of the state have evacuated the public sphere, 
which used to offer some counterweight to the 
unbridled discipline of the market.
In what ways do the slum-dwellers themselves 
articulate and assert their interests? The 
traditional imagery, after all, is of slums as 
smoking volcanoes waiting to erupt. There are 
indeed myriad streams of resistance, as Davis 
writes, but a preliminary survey shows that these 
do not amount to much. Davis correctly points out 
that slum populations support a bewildering 
variety of responses to structural neglect and 
deprivation, ranging from charismatic churches 
and prophetic cults to ethnic militias, street 
gangs, neoliberal NGOs and revolutionary social 
movements. The ranks of the slum-dwellers are not 
closed but divided along lines of religion, 
caste, clan and tribe, or plain regional 
identities. Possibly even more obstructive is the 
fragmentation of labour across an enormous span 
of makeshift occupations and forms of 
casual-contractual employment, which frustrate 
the formation of a consciousness based on 
social-class unity. And lastly, there is the 
state, which condemns every desperate act of 
rebellion against oppression and exploitation as 
a breach of law and order. Explosions of 
dissatisfaction do occur-for example, when the 
price of bread or bus fares is raised-but these 
are generally quite spontaneous, short-lived and 
localized rather than organized and sustainable, 
appealing to vertical loyalties rather than 
horizontal solidarity.
What are the geopolitical implications of a 
planet filling with shanty towns? Fed by the 
doomsday scenarios of 'the coming anarchy' by 
authors such as Robert Kaplan, the notion of une 
classe dangereuse in a globalized shape has come 
to stay. The richer countries aim to protect 
themselves against this threat by closing and 
fencing their borders. Mass migration to 'empty' 
or cleaned-out territories is no longer an option 
for societies wanting to get rid of people who 
are a drain rather than an asset to productivity. 
Economic refugees nowadays reach the shores of 
the promised lands as boat people, or climb the 
fences and walk through the desert hunted by the 
state or private gangs. Comparably, the 
run-of-the mill migrants who end up in an urban 
slum in their own society are also represented as 
posing a threat to global security.
Davis draws a telling parallel between 'the 
brutal tectonics of neoliberal globalization 
since 1978' and 'the catastrophic processes that 
shaped a "Third World" in the first place' during 
the era of 19th-century imperialism that he 
explored in his 2001 work, Late Victorian 
At the end of the nineteenth century, the 
forcible incorporation into the world market of 
the great subsistence peasantries 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 immiserated semi-peasants and 
farm labourers lacking existential security of 
subsistence . . . Structural adjustment, it would 
appear, has recently worked an equally 
fundamental reshaping of human futures. [Thus] 
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.
It could be added that the new liberal revolution 
has also seen the return of a form of neo-social 
Darwinism in the world at large. In the earlier 
version, not poverty but the poor themselves were 
stigmatized as defective: if they led miserable 
lives, it was because they were incapable of 
taking control of the circumstances in which they 
were forced to maintain themselves. The instinct 
among 'civilized people' to sympathize with these 
wretches, so the warning went, offered them 
unwarranted support and protection; by tempering 
the natural play of social forces, modern society 
had burdened itself with a parasitical 
underclass. In his Epilogue, 'Down Vietnam 
Street', Davis cites writings that suggest a 
return to favour for this late 19th-century line 
of reasoning, accompanied by the tacit 
recognition that current economic and social 
policies will make it impossible to solve the 
problem of mass poverty. As in Victorian times, 
'the categorical criminalization of the urban 
poor is a self-fulfilling prophecy, guaranteed to 
shape a future of endless war in the streets'. 
From the mid-1990s, US military theoreticians 
have been urging preparation for 'protracted 
combat' in the nearly impassable, maze-like 
streets of poor Third World cities. As the 
journal of the US Army War College described in a 
1996 article entitled 'Our Soldiers, Their 
The future of warfare lies in the streets, 
sewers, high-rise buildings, and sprawls of 
houses that form the broken cities of the world . 
. . Our recent military history is punctuated 
with city names-Tuzla, Mogadishu, Los Angeles 
[!], Beirut, Panama City, Hué, Saigon, Santo 
Domingo-but these encounters have been but a 
prologue, with the real drama still to come.
The names are those of the cities, but the real 
danger lurks in their vast slums where alienated 
and seething masses dwell. In the opinion of 
researchers operating from state-run American 
think-tanks, 'security forces should address the 
sociological phenomenon of excluded populations'. 
Davis backs up this documentation with quotations 
from Pentagon sources that argue the case for 
contingency plans in support of 'a low-intensity 
world war of unlimited duration against 
criminalized segments of the urban poor'. Quite 
rightly he concludes that this mindset reveals 
the true 'clash of civilizations'.

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