Slums, 21st Century Wars

Against the Current, No. 130, September/October 2007

Ron Warren

Planet of Slums
Mike Davis
New York and London:
Verso Books, 2006. 206 pages, $24 cloth.

“In 1950 there were 86 cities in the world with a population of more than one million; today there are 400, and by 2015 there will be at least 550. Cities, indeed, have absorbed nearly two-thirds of the global population explosion since 1950, and are currently growing by a million babies and migrants each week… Cities will account for virtually all further world population growth, which is expected to peak at about 10 billion in 2050. Ninety-five percent of this final buildout of humanity will occur in the urban areas of developing countries, whose populations will double to nearly four billion over the next generation.” (Planet of Slums, 1-2)

HOW HAVE HOMO sapiens managed to achieve a highly technological, seemingly advanced “civilization,” while producing the horrors described by Mike Davis in Planet of Slums?

Modern human beings only arose 200,000 to 250,000 years ago, a blip in geologic time. About 40,000 years ago, it is estimated,  humans emerged from the African savannah to eventually colonize the entire world and end the existence of all other hominid species. These early modern humans lived in small groups and subsisted on wild plants and animals (hunting and gathering). Population growth was slow and somewhat steady, with ups and downs as the geographic expansion provided increasing areas of subsistence.

World population,  however, did not experience any dramatic growth until the advent of animal husbandry and then agriculture. Through agriculture, humans were able to become more settled, feed larger groups and form communities, leading to the development of cities. This transformation took place 8,000-10,000 years ago. It is estimated that there were five million humans at this juncture.

By the beginning of the first millennium CE [Common Era, or AD — ed.], population had grown to the neighborhood of 200 to 300 million. The world total had not reached one billion until around 1800; but between 1700 and 1800 had increased by 50%.

With this accelerating growth came the systematic burning of fossil fuels, namely coal. While coal had been in use for 4,000-5,000 years (since the Bronze Age), it had been used mainly for heat and later for light. It became increasingly important after the massive cutting of forests depleted that fuel source.

By the 14th century mining began in earnest, mostly in Britain. As the mines went deeper into the earth, they naturally flooded and in the late 1600s the steam engine was perfected from necessity, to run pumps. The steam engine was refined throughout the 18th century; James Watts was able to apply it to machinery around 1775. Thus began the Industrial Revolution.

Evictions Then and Now

“Urban segregation is not a frozen status quo, but rather a ceaseless social war in which the state intervenes regularly in the name of ‘progress,’ ‘beautification,’ and even ‘social justice for the poor’ to redraw spatial boundaries to the advantage of landowners, foreign investors, elite homeowners, and middle-class commuters…The contemporary scale of population removal is immense: every year hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of poor people — legal tenants as well as squatters — are forcibly evicted from Third World neighborhoods. The urban poor, as a result, are nomads…” (98)

This describes today’s urban counterpart of an old countryside story. “Enclosure of the commons,” the forced privatization of commonly held peasant village lands, began in 12th century England and was largely completed by the 19th. Small farmers and laborers were progressively forced by circumstance to abandon the land and migrate to the growing cities, first to toil as artisans in cottage industries and day laborers and later in the growing factories.

The industrial slums of London, Birmingham, Manchester, etc., described in Dickens’ novels, were in existence long before the Victorian era. However, the British “agricultural revolution” of the later middle ages, combined with the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution, pushed ever more toward the slums.

The spread of the British “agricultural revolution” to the rest of the world had the same effect. The mechanization of agriculture began with coal and steam and intensified after the first producing oil well in 1859 and the invention of the internal combustion engine in the late 1800s. This had two seemingly opposite results: loss of livelihood on the land and dramatic population increase.

Mechanization vastly expanded food production as it forced the agricultural workforce into the cities.  As we have seen the slums of Britain long predated the Victorian era, but were magnified by the incredible increase of productivity provided by the internal combustion engine, electricity and the transformation of production from manual labor to mechanization.

Industrial agriculture began the rapid increase of population. The 100 years from 1800 to 1900 saw population increase by 65%. Still, the world was yet to see the explosion of the 20th century. The next 100 years saw the world population jump from 1.65 billion to just over 6 billion, with 3.5 billion of this growth in the second 50 years! This was also the century when liquid petroleum and later gas became inextricably intertwined with economic growth.

Industrial capitalism sought to mechanize everything in order to increase accumulation.  But at the same time as we see exploding population, we also see the loss of the need for so many workers. This is the world today, so meticulously researched and described in the grim yet exquisitely readable prose of Planet of Slums. (For the record, Mike Davis is a four-decade comrade and friend.)

Davis, a lifelong Marxist scholar and activist, teaches history at the University of California Irvine. After publishing a study of U.S. working-class history, Prisoners of the American Dream, his coming of age in Los Angeles led him to research his groundbreaking publication of City of Quartz, a highly controversial best-seller on the city’s elites, followed by Ecology of Fear and Magical Urbanism. Davis is heralded by many as the foremost scholar on the history and sociology of Los Angeles.

Dead Cities, published in 2002, broadened the studies of urban life and its future, if any. As advertised on the book’s jacket: “Writing by the light of burning cities — Berlin in 1945, LA in 1992 and New York in 2001 — he explores the future of urban life in the face of catastrophic terrorism, global warming and runaway capitalism. His unifying theme — and challenge to conventional theory — is the radical contingency of the metropolis.”

Ecology and the Slums

Slums begin with bad geology. Johannesburg’s shantytown periphery, for example, conforms unerringly to a belt of dangerous, unstable dolomitic soil contaminated by generations of mining. At least half of the region’s non-white population lives in informal areas of toxic waste and chronic ground collapse. Likewise, the highly weathered lateritic soils underlying hillside favelas in Belo Horizonte and other Brazilian cities are catastrophically prone to slope failure and landslides…

Caracas (2005 population, 5.2 million), however, is the soil geologist’s ‘perfect storm’: slums housing almost two thirds of the urban population are built on unstable hillsides and in deep gorges surrounding the seismically active Caravas valley. Originally, vegetation held the friable, highly-weathered schist in place, but brush clearance and cut-and-fill construction have destabilized the densely inhabited hillsides…

Informal urbanization has everywhere multiplied — sometimes by a decimal order of magnitude or more — the inherent natural hazards of urban environments [as illustrated by] the August 1988 rainstorms and Nile flood that displaced 800,000 poor residents of Khartoum…while the flood highwater mark was lower than the 1946 peak, it did ten times as much damage, largely due to the increased sprawl of slums without drainage in the floodplain. (122, 124)

In 2001 Davis stepped back into history, while moving toward his powerful integration of the studies of political economy, human and natural ecology, with Late Victorian Holocausts, El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World. That study takes a new and unprecedented look at weather, liberal capitalism, imperialism and how late Victorian Britain doomed India.

Davis conclusively demonstrates that the three mass famines of the second half of the 19th century, though precipitated by drought, did not have to lead to starvation. It was the distribution (or lack thereof) and high prices caused by the forced export of grain to Britain, even though regions of India were starving. Where in times past local rulers stored surplus grain for hard times, liberal capitalism demanded profits.

This leads us directly, in my opinion, to the present era of neoliberalism and the devastating analysis offered in Planet of Slums. The data and research synthesized in this book are prodigious; Davis appears to have absorbed everything written on the subject. What follows is my own summation of the process he lays out.

As explored above, technological innovation during neoliberal capitalism has continued exponentially and led inexorably to the marginalization of entire regions and populations of the world. Arguably, the neoliberal capitalists have written off vast areas as producers and or consumers of commodities. These regions will only be exploited for their resources.

Since subsistence agriculture had essentially been subsumed into the industrial farm, the redundant masses were forced to the margins of the cities, into vast makeshift slums.  While it seems that this applies mostly to sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the developing third world is realizing the same result.  We now see this also returning to the “first world.”

Davis’s great achievement here is to tie together the disparate publications (including the United Nations “Challenge of the Slums” report of 2003) and present a global picture of the causes and results of runaway neoliberal capitalism. The greatest urban slums by orders of magnitude are concentrated in the global south: Mumbai, Mexico City and Dhaka with upwards of 10 millions each, a second tier of seven or eight others with 7 millions or more (Lagos, Cairo, Sao Paolo, Shanghai, etc.),  encompassing 190 million in China and 160 million in India.

Economies SAPped

Davis shows how this urban nightmare mushroomed into what is seen today in these teeming slums, within just the last 30 years or so. It was assumed that in the second half of the 20th century, the global south would repeat the industrialization of the north. However, the postwar boom could not and would not last. Around 1975 began the neoliberal Structural Adjustment Programs of the IMF and World Bank.

Forced on the countries of the south, SAPs quickly took their toll, forcing the small rural landowners and farm workers into the cities. Subsidies and state responsibility for its poor were abdicated in favor of the local elites. Part of the SAP targets were state industries which were in most cases privatized and “rationalized.”

The cities had little use for the mass of uneducated and sometimes illiterate mass of rural migrants, except on the margins, to be super-exploited when needed and discarded at will. Most are forced by necessity into the informal or small-scale economy of peddling, begging, day work and thievery, “a living museum of human exploitation.” (186)

Slums arise on the periphery of the cities, on hillsides and floodplains. Many of the mega-slums are at some point regularized (that is licensed or given ownership), but almost always without the provision of services — water, sewers, electricity, etc. In other cases as land becomes attractive the squatters are cleared and forced farther from the center, making subsistence ever more precarious. The logic and misery of this is presented by Davis in excruciating detail.

As Davis outlines at the outset, the beginning of the new millennium witnesses for the first time in history the fact that the majority of the world’s population will live in cities. It is only the last few hundred years (geometrically increasing in the last 50) that humanity has been forced to give up the villages and subsistence agriculture extant for thousands of years. These vast slums will inexorably rapidly expand and as inexorably descend into chaos, violence and starvation.

Davis concludes with some thoughts on the potential of popular movements, and promises in future to follow with a study of the history and future of resistance of the urban slum populations. He also points to the expectations of elite military strategists that 21st-century warfare will have everything to do with “asymmetric warfare” against enraged slum populations — think Mogadishu, Ramadi, etc. — with “Orwellian technologies of repression” on the empire’s side versus the slums’ “gods of chaos,” and sees George W. Bush’s “war on terror” and “dark forces” rhetoric as a forerunner of this grim emergent reality. (206)

A POSTSCRIPT TO this brief review: It is my own opinion (controversial as it is) that the world’s population will increasingly find resistance futile, without a fundamental restructuring of the economic ways of existence especially in the industrial north and the emerging giants of China, India and Southeast Asia. With the imminent peaking of oil and gas extraction, the industrial economies will be hard pressed to feed their own populations, much less the vast slums of “surplus populations.” Mass starvation will spread from the countryside of the global south to the cities.

I believe we are at a crossroad of civilization; poised on the abyss of barbarism. It is my fervent hope that Mike Davis takes a reasoned look at this possibility in his forthcoming book. We must put this scenario to examination, and make the plans that will be necessary to avoid the catastrophe of the collapse of industrial society that will assuredly lead to mass die-offs. In fact, this has already begun. Africa is in the beginning throes of barbarism, exemplified by civil wars, starvation, drought, disease and any and all maladies we can only imagine. It is time to act! —R.W.

from ATC 130 (September/October 2007)