Mike Davis

The New Slum Dwellers

BY Brian Cook

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It’s tempting to call Mike Davis, a history professor at University of California at Irvine, a modern-day seer. One of his first books, City of Quartz, published in 1991, essentially predicted the L.A. riots, along with other, less dramatic phenomena of the ’90s, such as the exploding prison population and the rise of gated communities. “Poor, Black and Left Behind,” a 2004 article he wrote for TomDispatch.com after Hurricane Ivan narrowly missed New Orleans, reads eerily prescient in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Seeing as the United States has done little to address the concerns he laid out in his last book, The Monster at Our Door, about an avian flu epidemic, we can only hope that, this time, he’s wrong.

But Davis isn’t some divine prophet. He’s simply an incredibly astute observer, whose analyses of the natural (and artificial) world factor in race, class, geography, ecology, history, economics, politics, literature and any other discipline that might lead to new insights.

In his most recent book, Planet of Slums, Davis applies this polymathic approach to the exponential increase in the number of slum dwellers in the Global South during the latter half of the 20th century. In These Times recently spoke to him about the book.

What compelled you to write the book?

The book is a response to the truly epochal report of the United Nations, “The Challenge of Slums,” that came out three years ago. Before this report there simply wasn’t the data or even the methodology to look at the condition of the urban poor worldwide. It’s an enormously ambitious and important study, and I wrote an essay in response to it. The book is an expansion of that, a kind of armchair exploration of a rather vast literature about the urban poor. I focus particularly on what are really the key questions: Is there still enough free or cheap land to sustain informal urbanization? Is there still enough economic opportunity in the informal sector–the main employer of new immigrants of the poor in the major Third World cities–to sustain the role of the informal sector? I think the answer to both is that we’ve come to a closing frontier of opportunity, and the book explores the consequences of that.

How many people are living in slums today?

Two years ago, the head of U.N. HABITAT [the United Nations Human Settlement Program] estimated that 1 billion people were living in slums, classically conceived as having inadequate, substandard housing and missing some essential services. A much larger number, perhaps 2 billion people, live in cities and are poor.

More than a billion people, again overlapping with slum dwellers, really exist outside the formal economy and formal employment. These developments are gigantic, and in some ways unexpected. No social theory predicted that urbanization would take this course at the end of the 20th century or on such a vast scale.

How do the slums today in the Global South differ from the 19th century slums?

The slums in St. Giles in London and in Old Town Manchester that Friedrich Engels explored in his pioneering report, “The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844,” were slums in the shadows of factories. The residents were factory workers or industrial workers. Most of the slums of today’s world resemble Naples or Dublin in the 19th century–cities that grew by absorbing poor people pushed out of the countryside or who were made redundant in traditional handicraft jobs by the industrial revolution. These cities were manifestly not industrial cities. If Europe had not had the safety valve of immigration to the New World for tens of millions of people, undoubtedly you would have seen more Dublins, more Naples.

So while it would be easy to find cases where slum dwellers work in some sweatshop–making something for Wal-Mart or another multinational–slum dwelling now goes hand-in-hand with informal employment. Industrialization, except in southern China and parts of East Asia, doesn’t drive city growth. Instead, there’s this phenomenon of cities growing at extraordinary speeds in African countries where formal economies are shrinking or in depression. This shows that the forces pushing people into the cities, pushing them out of the countryside, are more powerful than the forces pulling them into the cities–i.e., formal urban employment.

What are the forces pushing people into the cities?

Slums grew most rapidly beginning in the late ’70s and continuing through the ’80s. It was the period of debt and debt-adjustment, and the cities started to grow because these policies had the most dramatic impacts on rural employment. But while these cities grew rapidly, urban investment–at least on a per capita basis–was declining dramatically under the so-called “structural adjustment programs” administered by the World Bank. The price for countries wanting to stay in the world economy was to restrict public spending and in some cases to literally dismantle public sectors precisely when that investment was most urgently needed to meet the demands of population growth. So the question then is: How did cities actually grow if there was no public investment, no new infrastructure?

The answer: People bootstrapped urbanization through building shanties and their own infrastructures, eking out employment as domestics or street vendors or laborers. So, people begin to celebrate this miracle of informality, of informal housing and informal employment. But the literature clearly shows that that moment has now passed. There always will be exceptions, but there are far more slum communities in which new arrivals and the children of previous slum dwellers find themselves worse off, without access to free or cheap land, faced with tremendous overcrowding in these survival niches of informal employment.

This is particularly true for what researchers call the “peri-urban” slums. About a third of the slum dwellers in the Third World live in traditional inner cities, but most live on the peripheral edge in peri-urban slums: sprawling, endless slum-suburbs. They have become one of the most important sites in world politics, because it’s the social reality we know least about, where the city meets the countryside in a hybrid and unprecedented form.

At the same time as the explosion of this peri-urban slum area, there is also a parallel growth of what you call “off-worlds.” Can you explain the term?

Sure. Off-worlds come about from the flight of the global urban middle-classes into often fantasy-themed, gated housing projects and suburbs–self-contained realities. It is a measure of the failure of urban integration and urban reform, driven not just by pure crime or disorder, but as a way to kind of consolidate scarce resources for infrastructure. What you find are middle-classes connected to global cyberspace, living almost American or California-type lifestyles, whereas the rest of the city is often cut off from modernity, without any of the essential infrastructures. This is a strikingly universal phenomenon in Latin America, East and South Asia and the few countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have big enough middle classes. Of course, this is rapidly increasing the existential and social distance between classes within the city.

What’s striking about it is the uniformity of these off-worlds. Whether you’re talking about Jakarta or a nouveau-riche suburb of Beijing or a suburb of Cape Town or Cairo or a development outside of Buenos Aires, they all tend to be fantasy theme parks of California lifestyles, and some of them are indeed modeled in detail after TV versions of California reality. So you have several of these communities actually called “Orange County,” you have Disneyland-themed suburbs. It’s a rather extraordinary phenomenon.


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Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.

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