Leisure  :: Books


The new poor

Published: 11-SEP-06

“An epochal transition” that’s how author and social activist, Mike Davis, sums up the trend towards informal cities in his new book Planet of Slums. And for good reason: more than one billion people now live in the slums of the cities of developing countries.

Davis fittingly proceeds with a documentation of the scale of urbanisation in the developing world by introducing readers to statistics that have surprisingly gone unnoticed in public discussions. He portrays a vast humanity warehoused in shantytowns and exiled from the formal world economy.

“The world’s urban labour force has more than doubled since 1980, and the present urban population — 3,2 billion, to be precise — is larger than the total population of the world in the 1950s. Meanwhile, growth in the global countryside has reached its maximum population and will begin to shrink after 2020.”

Ninety-five percent of this buildout of humanity will occur in the urban areas of developing countries. The scale and velocity of Third World urbanisation utterly dwarfs the growth of mega–cities in the developed world, according to Davis. He estimates that Dhaka, Kinshasa, and Lagos today are each approximately forty times larger than they were in 1950.

But it is the social and economic impact that’s the main concern of Planet of Slums. What Davis describes as “epochal migrations” to the cities is tragically an “urban firmament” that is probably also the biggest single footprint of urban poverty on earth.

The combined assault of greater demand for resources, massive plant closures and tendential deindustrialisation as a result of the IMF-sponsored structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s has left a necklace of poverty in urban slums around the cities.

The African situation, of course, is even more extreme. African slums, writes Davis, are growing at twice the speed of the continent’s exploding cities. An incredible 85 percent of Kenya’s population growth between 1989 and 1999 was absorbed in the fetid, densely packed slums of Nairobi and Mombasa.

“And so the cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood.”

In subsequent chapters, Davis trenchantly traces the retreat of the state during and after the liberalisation phase of the Structural Adjustment Programmes as one of the primary causes of massive unemployment and unplanned settlement patterns.

“In the rest of the Third World, the idea of an interventionist state strongly committed to social housing and job development seems either a hallucination or a bad joke, because governments long ago abdicated any serious effort to combat slums and redress urban marginality,” writes Davis. In other words, the creation of slums as a permanent feature of African cities is no accident but the result of a “perfect storm of corrupt leadership, institutional failure, and IMF-imposed Structural Adjustment Programmes” leading to a massive transfer of wealth from poor to rich.

Writes Davis, “The spread of slums is not the result of an incremental accumulation of poverty, but of a ‘big bang’ that occurred with debt and structural adjustment in the late 1970s and 1980s. Huge exoduses from the countryside encountered rapidly shrinking social investment in urban infrastructure and public services.”

In the concluding chapters, one is left with little doubt that slums, or “flexible informalism” in Davis’s words, is an irreversible feature of modern global economics.

“A point of no return is reached when a reserve army waiting to be incorporated into the labour process becomes stigmatised as a permanently excessive burden that cannot be included now or in the future, in economy and society.”

Of course, this sense of fatalistic paralysis leaves one questioning the ideological reference point of the book.

If there’s a general point to Davis’s discussion it’s that there’s no solution to the crisis of over-urbanisation within the current system of trade. So the ritual recommendations by the more liberal variety of academics is left to the reader. Instead, Davis chooses to demystify attempts at solutions, arguing that self-help programmes, so-called “bootstrapped capitalism”, are a false dawn.

If there’s a conclusion, albeit implicit, it’s that the poor will either revolt against a system of informal urbanism they see as a dead-end, or seek innovative solutions to their terminal marginality within the system of global trade.

Book Information

  • Author: Mike Davis
  • Publisher: Verso
  • Price: R 239,00

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