Polanyi-Hayek Workshop: Final Programme
Piketty Digest #4: The Metamorphoses of Capital

Planet of Slums, Rebel Cities, Radical Cities

by Adam David Morton on August 4, 2014

‘The vast shanty towns of Latin America (favelas, barrios, ranchos)’, argues Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space, ‘manifest a social life far more intense than the bourgeois districts of the cities. This social life is transposed onto the level of urban morphology, but it only survives inasmuch as it fights in self-defence and goes on the attack in the course of class struggle in its modern forms. Their poverty notwithstanding, these districts sometimes so effectively order their space—houses, walls, public spaces—as to elicit a nervous admiration.’ It is, perhaps, with a similar sense of such nervous admiration that in Planet of Slums, Mike Davis has turned his attention to the spatial explosions evident in the growth of slums that mark late twentieth-century capitalism in the so-called ‘Third World’. At the same time, he also advances an excoriating critique of the neoliberal inequalities at the heart of urbanism in the ‘Third World’ to reveal the burdens of underdevelopment and industrialisation carried by the urban poor. The result is a compelling and disturbing read.

DavisThe book has its origins in an article with the same title that Davis wrote for New Left Review in 2004, available HERE. This earlier article sketched the parameters of the future history of mega-cities in the ‘Third World’, outlining the conditions of urbanism faced by an informal proletariat in cities that will account for all future world population growth, which is expected to peak at about 10 billion in 2050. Indeed, the majority of the world’s poor will be living in urban slums by 2035. By 2025, the populations of these mega-cities will likely surpass Mexico City’s current 22 million inhabitants, and include Jakarta with a projected 24.9 million, Dhaka (25 million), Karachi (26.5 million), and Mumbai (33 million), while second-tier cities such as Tijuana, Curitiba, Temuco, Salvador and Belém will see the fastest growth. The book Planet of Slums picks up the agenda of this analysis by focusing in detail on the report of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), entitled The Challenge of the Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements (2003), while offering more detail on various ‘case histories’ of urbanism in the ‘Third World’. As a result, it contains discussion on issues of slum ecology, the urban sanitation crisis, problems of sustainable urbanism, and the role of the informal working class in ‘Third World’ cities, which makes the book an interesting counterpart to David Harvey’s Rebel Cities. For Davis, ‘Third World’ urbanism and slum ecology are set against a backdrop of neoliberalism and, especially, the IMF structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) that have literally ‘SAPped’ the prospects of betterment from the underprivileged majority through debt restructuring, devaluation, privatisation, the removal of food subsidies, the downsizing of the public sector, and the withdrawal of health and education support.

Amidst these factors, some of the most compelling analysis in Planet of Slums is in its chapters on the role of the postcolonial state in shaping struggles over urban space in the ‘Third World’ (‘The treason of the state’, Chapter 3), and the adoption of racial zoning and the defence of privileged spaces that are linked back to the colonial period (‘Haussmann in the tropics’, Chapter 5). Davis refers to the ‘broken promises of state formation’, describing how the postcolonial state ‘comprehensively betrayed its original promises to the urban poor’ by ‘reneging upon historic state commitments to relieve poverty and homelessness’. It will be interesting to focus more on how postcolonial state forms have developed specific spatial characteristics that continue in the present, at the scalar level of ‘radical cities’, thereby linking with Justin McGuirk’s book. Following Davis, ‘throughout the Third World, postcolonial elites have inherited and greedily reproduced the physical footprints of segregated colonial cities. Despite rhetorics of national liberation and social justice, they have aggressively adapted the racial zoning of the colonial period to defend their own class privileges and spatial exclusivity’. Setting aside the quibble that it is perhaps too nostalgic to claim that such a covenant of class compromises was in the first place shared across postcolonial states, even in the era of state developmentalism, and then broken, the book’s strength comes from its ‘case histories’ on urbanism in the Third World, which evidence a great breadth of analysis. They cover the reproduction of colonial segregation policies by postcolonial elites in Kenya (Nairobi), the Dominican Republic (Santo Domingo), India (Mumbai), sub-Saharan Africa (Accra, Lusaka, Harare, Cape Town, Kinshasa), Malawi (Lilongwe), Ethiopia (Addis Ababa), and Angola (Luanda).

Additionally, four themes are traced out in the book’s descriptive research, and they are urban segregation (in Manila, Dakar, Bangalore, Delhi, Lagos, Nairobi, Kolkata, Luanda and Shanghai); city beautification (in Lagos, Manila, Santo Domingo, Seoul, Beijing, Rangoon and Mandalay); slum clearances (in Jakarta, Beijing, Harare, Bulawayo, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Cairo, Lusaka, the West Bank and Kuala Lumpur); and gated communities (in Cairo, Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangalore, Jakarta, Manila, Lagos, Johannesburg, Cape Town, São Paulo, Managua and Buenos Aires). The book also tackles the questions of subdivisions within the periphery and the way urbanism in the ‘Third World’ renews old patterns of urban fragmentation while transcending traditional segregations, which leads to the dislocation of elites through an imitation of California-style boundedness and isolation. In one of the world’s most famous slums, Kibera in Nairobi, we are told that over 800,000 people are caught up in the struggle for survival, while in the nearby leafy suburb of Karen there are fewer than 360 inhabitants per square kilometre. The equivalent space in the aforementioned slum houses more than 80,000 people. A further disturbing irony is revealed in the fact that inhabitants of Kibera pay up to five times more for a litre of water than does the average US citizen.

More generally, in relation to the sanitation crisis in slum-based urban spaces, Davis points out that such exigencies have their origins in colonialism, whereby European empires generally refused to provide modern sanitation and water infrastructures in ‘native’ neighbourhoods, preferring instead to use racial zoning and cordons sanitaires to segregate garrisons and white suburbs from epidemic disease. As Davis states, ‘postcolonial regimes from Accra to Hanoi thus inherited huge sanitation deficits that few regimes have been prepared to aggressively remedy’. Today in ‘Third World’ cities, the coercive panopticon role of ‘Haussmann’ is typically played by special-purpose development agencies, financed by the World Bank to clear, build and defend islands of privilege ‘amidst unmet needs and general underdevelopment’. However, Davis also admits that slums are ‘frequently seen as threats simply because they are invisible to state surveillance and, effectively, “off-Panopticon”’. Such are the contradictions faced by the urban poor throughout the ‘Third World’. But the book’s strengths in terms of coverage also expose the central frustration, perhaps weakness, at the core of its argument. The analysis shoots too rapidly across the ‘case histories’, flitting from one example to the next without distilling the general and specific conditions of the comparative dynamics inhering within a set of clear studies.

Conceivably, a more detailed historical sociology of the history and future of slum-based existence and struggle might have been contemplated that would have delved into the detail of concrete comparative studies on urbanism in the ‘Third World’. One has in mind here the realisation of a project more detailed and substantive, akin to Davis’s stunning Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (2001), rather than this shorter and briefer exposition. While such points are partly anticipated by Davis in his epilogue to Planet of Slums—he also notes that a fuller account of governance and resistance to global capitalism in the ‘Third World’’s urban slums will be given by Forrest Hylton in a forthcoming work—it begs the question as to why the current study did not incorporate and offer the reader such riches in the first place.

In Graham Greene’s classic novel, Our Man in Havana, Mr James Wormold rhetorically asks: ‘What accounted for the squalor of British possessions? The Spanish, the French and the Portuguese built cities where they settled, but the British just allowed cities to grow’. In Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums, we are offered the basis for an analysis of the different pathologies and comparative dynamics of urbanism in the colonial and postcolonial contexts. However, the real detail on such issues will have to await future study on the extant continuities, contrasts, connections and differences between and within regional cases of class struggle over urban space in the ‘Third World’.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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