Tag Archives: Reportage

For ye have the poor always with you

But, according to Mike Davis, we need not have had them in the numbers and living in the unimaginable conditions of squalor and degredation that we have today.

Mike Davis is an American left-wing academic, Planet of Slums is his 2006 study of the immiseration of roughly a fifth of humanity (immiseration, a word I hadn’t encountered before this book and which I rather wish I hadn’t). Davis studies the growth of slums globally, the conditions within them, the dismal prospects for improvement and the sources of the consequential vast explosion in poverty and misery that has taken place over the past 30 years or so. He does so in a work that is packed with figures and footnotes, every charge and comment backed by reference to external sources (of which, more later), his overall thesis being both readable and persuasive, if utterly dispiriting.

There is a tendency, in discussing books of this sort, to simply summarise the argument and state whether or not one agrees with it, but not to address the book’s qualities as a literary effort. That’s a shame, because readability matters for non-fiction too, if we can’t get through the text, the argument (however persuasive) is lost. Fortunately, although Planet of Slums was for me an extremely difficult and slow read, that difficulty arose due to the density of information within it and the grinding misery it depicts, page after page. Davis’s style however is clear, his lapses into sociology-speak rare and his passion evident on the page. With a work which contains more statistics on the average page than most economics texts, that prose clarity and that sense of anger are vital, without those elements it would be wholly unreadable. Too dry and too dark.

Davis opens with an explanation of the staggering growth in slums over the past three decades or so, the increasing pace of urbanisation and how the rate of slum expansion is so rapid and so extensive that “in many cases rural people no longer have to migrate to the city: it migrates to them.” Vast conurbations connecting city to city in long strips of semi-urbanised countryside form megacities, but megacities characterised by marginalisation and poverty for the vast majority of their inhabitants.

Davis spends time explaining the sheer scale of the problem, backing his analysis with a series of statistics which are so terrible they are I think genuinely hard to grasp, not due to complexity but due to their implications. The sheer volume of humanity living today in horrific conditions without access to basic sanitation or any form of formal job market becomes incomprehensible from scale alone.

Davis moves on to explore the historic causes, particularly colonialism and its legacy, describing the practice in the developing world of maintaining colonial systems of segregation so as to ensure the national elite was kept physically isolated from the rural and urban poor. He cites deliberate examples of French and British colonial policy in which rights of sanitation and desirable habitation were restricted to certain power groups, restrictions which were then continued post independence.

More recently, government after government he shows as having taken a deliberately punitive approach to their own poor. He is particularly scathing on South Korea and China’s treatment of slum-dwellers in preparation for the Olympics. He speaks of urban beautification programs which largely consist of shuttling people out of sight, often forcibly relocating the poor to overcrowded settlements where they are out of the immediate gaze of the more prosperous world. For him, the ultimate effect is as something from the writings of Philip K. Dick, a world consisting of fortified enclaves and edge cities of poverty (distopian versions of the edge cities celebrated in Joel Garreau’s groundbreaking book on the topic).

Davis also explores how governments across the world demonise the poor, identifying slums as crime epicentres and carrying out brutal raids and clearances, the land frequently being sold to property developers thereafter. Indeed, he shows clear links between slum clearances and property development, often with government officials personally profiting from the crackdowns they announce in the name of public safety. It is as I said a passionate book, one that it is difficult to read at times without feeling tremendous anger, though my more common emotion was one of simple despair.

Davis addresses too how the poor frequently pay more for those few services they actually receive than we in the wealthier parts of the world do, slum rents for example are typically far higher per square foot than rents in the most desirable parts of the same country, often by significant multiples. Equally: “Water sales is a lucrative industry in poor cities, Nairobi, as usual, is an egregious example, where politically connected entrepeneurs resell municipal water (which costs very little to families wealthy enough to afford a tap) to the slums at exorbitant prices.”

Davis keeps his real fury however for the IMF and World Bank. His thesis, again painstakingly supported by references and statistics, is that IMF structural adjustment programs have wreaked extraordinary havoc on the developing world, leading to an explosion of poverty in the past 30 years almost without precedent in human history. He cites requirements for public sector layoffs and salary cuts which in many cases lead to whole segments of society being suddenly cast into abject poverty, while the social services the poor depend on are eliminated. He notes too the effect of requiring free markets for the poor, but not for ourselves, explaining “SAPs devastated rural smallholders by eliminating subsidies and pushing them sink or swim into global commodity markets dominated by heavily subsidised First World Agribusiness.” Here he speaks to matters I have some knowledge of, and I am persuaded by his argument that essentially it is unjust to expose the developing world to free market pressures which in the developed world almost every government protects its own public from. The fall in public sector and agricultural sector incomes that results is staggering, for without subsidies and without the ability to sell to the West in the face of import controls and our own agricultural subsidies the farmers of the developing world simply cannot make enough to survive. To make matters worse, SAPs often require a retooling of the economy to be export rather than subsistence driven, exports which are made into a global market which is far from free.

Davis has been criticised for failing to offer solutions. For me, that is shallow thinking, the existence of a problem does not mean there exists also a neat solution to it. Davis describes the world as it is for much of its population, a world of Hobbesian squalor and horror in which the burden falls increasingly on women who work ever harder to help undemployed families living in unimaginable conditions keep going another day. Davis writes from a clearly left wing perspective, helpfully a consistent one (I don’t really care about a writer’s politics, as long as they’re clear enough to be recognisable and taken into account). My impression was that he would regard violent resistance as probably the poor’s best option, and that he probably thinks we largely deserve it.

Not everything is flawless, in a couple of places I noticed citations went to newspaper articles and in one case an extraordinary claim was supported only by an interview in a regional newspaper, but in fairness the strength of his approach of providing citations for his arguments is that it allowed me to look at his source and decide that it didn’t persuade me in that instance. In a curious way, I found the book as a whole more persuasive because he gave me the tools to reject parts of it (small parts).

Still, the statistics are the meat of the book, the simple mathematics of the volume of human faeces generated in many cities each day cross-referenced to the vastly smaller disposal capacities of those cities, such that over time the poor come to literally live in shit that is being produced faster than it can be taken away. The lack of water, the unsafe housing, the settling of fringe regions which are innately prone to earthquakes, mudslides, natural disasters, the litany of human misery. The statistics bludgeon the reader, reminding me that the human condition of which so many authors write is essentially a luxury of that part of the planet which knows where its next meal is coming from.

Davis ends with a vision of the security implications, bleakly assessed by US military planners who have no requirement to pretend the optimism of their political masters. Their analysis is of a future in which wars are increasingly waged in feral urban environments where “Night after night, hornet-like helicopter gunships stalk enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of the slum districts, pouring hellfire into shanties or fleeing cars. Every morning the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions.”

For the interested, there is a much more detailed writeup of Planet of Slums available at the LRB website here. It’s an excellent piece which delves into Davis’s analysis with more space than I have chosen to take here and which is extremely well written. I recommend it, and indeed anything else written by Jeremy Harding, unreservedly.

Planet of Slums


Filed under Davis, Mike, Economics, Reportage