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Planet of Slums
from Harper's Magazine, June 2004
slums, cities, religion, poverty, inequality
Friday, July 02, 2004 12:48 GMT

(Adapted from an essay by Mike Davis, in the March/April issue of New Left Review. Davis is currently writing a book about slums that will be published by Verso next year.

Also: see Davis' fantastic article on Dubai.)



Sometime in the next year, a woman will give birth in the Lagos slum of Ajegunle, a young man will flee his village in west Java for the bright lights of Jakarta, or a farmer will move his impoverished family into one of Lima's innumerable pueblos jovenes. The exact event is unimportant and will pass entirely unnoticed. Nonetheless it will constitute a watershed in human history. For the first time, the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural.

In 1950 there were 86 cities in the world with populations over one million; today there are 386, and by 2015 there will be at least 550. The present urban population (3 billion) is larger than the total population of the world in 1960. The global countryside, meanwhile, will reach its maximum population (3.3 billion) in 2020 and thereafter will begin to decline. As a result, cities will account for all future world population growth, which is expected to peak at about 9 billion in 2050.

Ninety-five percent of this final build out of humanity will occur in the urban areas of developing countries, whose populations will double to nearly 4 billion over the next generation. The most celebrated result will be the burgeoning of new megacities with populations in excess of 8 million and, even more spectacularly, hypercities with more than 20 million inhabitants. By 2025, Asia alone could have ten or eleven conurbations that large, including Jakarta, Dhaka, and Karachi. Shanghai could have as many as 27 million residents in its huge estuarial metro-region. Bombay meanwhile is projected to attain a population of 33 million, though no one knows whether such gigantic concentrations of poverty are biologically or ecologically sustainable.

But if megacities are the brightest stars in the urban firmament, three quarters of the burden of population growth will be borne by faintly visible second-tier cities: places where, as U.N. researchers emphasize, "there is little or no planning to accommodate these people or provide them with services." In China the number of official cities has soared from 193 to 640 since 1978. In Africa, likewise, the supernova-like growth of a few giant cities such as Lagos (from 300,000 in 1950 to 10 million today) has been matched by the transformation of several dozen small towns and oases such as Ouagadougou, Nouakchott, Douala, and Antananarivo into cities larger than San Francisco or Manchester.

The dynamics of Third World urbanization both recapitulate and confound the precedents of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and North America. In China the greatest industrial revolution in history is shifting a population the size of Europe's from rural villages to smog-choked, sky-climbing cities. In sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, however, urbanization has been radically decoupled from industrialization, and even from development per se. This "perverse" urban boom contradicts orthodox economic models that predict that the negative feedback of urban recession should slow or even reverse migration from the countryside.

The global forces pushing people from the countryside-mechanization in Java and India; food imports in Mexico, Haiti, and Kenya; civil war and drought throughout Africa; and everywhere the consolidation of small into large holdings-seem to sustain urbanization even when the pull of the city is drastically weakened by debt and depression. At the same time, rapid urban growth in the context of structural adjustment, currency devaluation, and state retrenchment has been a recipe for the inevitable mass production of slums. Much of the urban world, as a result, is rushing backward to the age of Dickens.



The astonishing prevalence of slums is the chief theme of the historic and somber report published last October by the United Nations' Human Settlements Programme. "The Challenge of Slums" (henceforth "Slums") is the first truly global audit of urban poverty. It is unusual in that it breaks with traditional U.N. circumspection and self-censorship to squarely indict neoliberalism, especially the I.M.F.'s Structural Adjustment Programs: "The primary direction of both national and international interventions during the last 20 years has actually increased urban poverty and slums, increased exclusion and inequality, and weakened urban elites in their efforts to use cities as engines of growth."

The report uses a very conservative definition of "slum": many readers will be surprised by the U.N.'s finding that only 19.6 percent of urban Mexicans live in slums. Nonetheless, "Slums" estimates that there were about 924 million slum dwellers in 2001: nearly equal to the population of the world when the young Engels first ventured onto the mean streets of Manchester. Indeed, residents of slums constitute a staggering 78.2 percent of the urban population of the least developed countries and fully a third of the global urban population. Extrapolating from the age structures of most Third World cities, at least half of the slum population is under the age of twenty-five.

The world's highest percentages of slum dwellers are in Ethiopia (an astonishing 99.4 percent of the urban populations), Chad (99.1 percent), Afghanistan (98.5 percent), and Nepal (92.4 percent). The poorest urban populations, however, are probably in Kinshasa and Maputo, where two thirds of residents earn less than the cost of their minimum required daily nutrition. In Delhi planners complain bitterly about "slums within slums" as squatters take over the small open spaces of the peripheral resettlement colonies to which the old urban poor were brutally removed in the mid-1970s. In Cairo and Phnom Penh, recent arrivals squat or rent space on rooftops, creating slum cities in the air.

Whereas the classic slum was a decaying inner city, the new slums are more typically located on the edges of urban centers. The governor of Lagos State told reporters last year that "about two thirds of the state's total landmass of 3,577 square kilometers could be classified as shanties or slums." Indeed, writes a U.N. correspondent,

"Unlit highways run past canyons of smouldering garbage before giving way to dirt streets weaving through 200 slums, their sewers running with raw waste. So much of the city is a mystery. No one even knows for sure the size of the population – officially it is 6 million, but most experts estimate it at 10 million – let alone the number of murders each year [or] the rate of HIV infection."

Lagos, moreover, is simply the biggest node in the shantytown corridor of 70 million people that stretches from Abidjan to Ibadan, probably the biggest continuous footprint of urban poverty on earth.



Slum ecology, of course, revolves around the supply of settlement space, and indeed more than half of the residents of cities in the developing world occupy property illegally. National and local political machines usually acquiesce in informal settlement as long as they can control the political complexion of the slums and extract a regular flow of bribes or rents. Without formal land titles or home ownership, slum dwellers are forced into quasi-feudal dependencies, where disloyalty can mean eviction or even the razing of an entire district.

Infrastructure development, meanwhile, lags far behind the pace of urbanization, and peri-urban slum areas often have no formal utilities or sanitation whatsoever. As in early Victorian London, the contamination of water by human and animal waste remains the cause of the chronic diarrheal diseases that kill at least 2 million children each year. An estimated 57 percent of urban Africans lack access to basic sanitation, and in cities such as Nairobi the poor must rely on "flying toilets" (defecation into a plastic bag). In Bombay, meanwhile, the sanitation problem is defined by ratios of one toilet seat per 500 inhabitants in the poorer districts. Only 11 percent of poor neighborhoods in Manila and 18 percent in Dhaka have formal means to dispose of sewage. Quite apart from the incidence of the HIVjAIDS plague, the U.N. considers that two out of five African slum dwellers live in a poverty that is literally life-threatening.

The urban poor, furthermore, are everywhere forced to settle on hazardous and otherwise unbuildable terrains – steep hill slopes, riverbanks, and floodplains. Likewise, they squat in the deadly shadows of refineries, chemical factories, toxic dumps, or in the margins of railroads and highways. Poverty, as a result, has "constructed" an urban disaster problem of unprecedented frequency and scope, as typified by chronic flooding in Manila, Dhaka, and Rio, pipeline conflagrations in Mexico City and Cubatao, the Bhopal catastrophe in India, and deadly mudslides in Caracas, La Paz, and Tegucigalpa. The disenfranchised communities of urban poor, in addition, are vulnerable to sudden outbursts of state violence such as the infamous 1990 bulldozing of the Maroko beach slum in Lagos (an eyesore for the wealthy neighboring community of Victoria Island) or the 1995 demolition in freezing weather of the huge squatter town of Zhejiangcun on the edge of Beijing.

As "Slums" emphasizes, the I.M.F.-mandated Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) of the 1980s displaced or immiserated millions of traditional urbanites and were, in fact, "deliberately anti-urban in nature," designed to reverse any "urban bias" in welfare policies, fiscal structure, or government investment. The I.M.F.acting as bailiff for the big banks and backed by the Reagan and Bush administrations-offered poor countries everywhere the same poisoned chalice of devaluation, privatization, removal of import controls and food subsidies, enforced cost-recovery in health and education, and ruthless downsizing of the public sector. At the same time, SAPs devastated rural smallholders by eliminating subsidies and pushing them out, "sink or swim," into global commodity markets dominated by First World agribusiness.

In theory, of course, the 1990s should have righted the wrongs of the 1980s and allowed Third World cities to regain lost ground and bridge the chasms of inequality created by SAPs. The pain of adjustment should have been followed by the analgesic of globalization. Indeed, the 1990s, as "Slums" notes, were the first decade in which global urban development took place within almost utopian parameters of neoliberal market freedom:

"During the 1990s, trade continued to expand at an almost unprecedented rate. . . . All the basic inputs to production became cheaper, as interest rates fell rapidly, along with the price of basic commodities. Capital flows were increasingly unfettered by national controls and could move rapidly to the most productive areas. Under what were almost perfect economic conditions according to the dominant neo-liberal economic doctrine, one might have imagined that the decade would have been one of unrivalled prosperity and social justice."

In the event, however, urban poverty continued its relentless accumulation, and the gap between poor and rich countries widened, just as it had done for the previous twenty years. By the end of the century, global inequality had reached an incredible Gini coefficient level of 0.66, the mathematical equivalent to a situation in which the poorest two thirds of the world receive zero income and the top third, everything.

The brutal tectonics of neoliberal globalization since 1978 are analogous to the catastrophic processes that shaped a "third world" in the first place, during the era of late Victorian imperialism. In the latter case, the forcible incorporation into the world market of the great subsistence peasantries of Asia and Africa entailed the famine deaths of millions and the uprooting of tens of millions more from traditional tenures. The end result, in Latin America as well, was rural "semi-proletarianization": the creation of a huge global class of impoverished semi-peasants and farm laborers. Structural adjustment, it would appear, has recently worked an equally fundamental reshaping of human futures. As the authors of Slums conclude: "instead of being a focus for growth and prosperity, the cities have become a dumping ground for a surplus population working in unskilled, unprotected and low-wage informal service industries and trade." "The rise of [this] informal sector," they declare bluntly, "is... a direct function of liberalization."

Overall, informal workers constitute about two fifths of the economically active population of the developing world. "Slums" estimates, moreover, that fully 90 percent of urban Africa's new jobs over the next decade will somehow come from the informal sector. Indeed, the global informal working class (overlapping but not identical with the slum population) is almost one billion strong, making it the fastest growing, and most unprecedented, social class on earth.

The pundits of bootstrap capitalism may see this enormous population of marginalized laborers, redundant civil servants, and ex-peasants as a frenzied beehive of ambitious entrepreneurs yearning for formal property rights and unregulated competitive space, but it makes more obvious sense to consider most informal workers as the "active" unemployed, who have no choice but to subsist by some means or starve. With even formal-sector urban wages in Africa so low that economists can't figure out how workers survive (the so-called low-wage puzzle), the informal tertiary sector has become an arena of extreme Darwinian competition among the poor.



Slums originate in the countryside, where unequal competition with large-scale agroindustry is tearing traditional rural societies apart. As rural areas lose their "storage capacity," slums take their place as a sink for surplus labor, which can only keep pace with subsistence by ever more heroic feats of self-exploitation and the further competitive subdivision of already densely filled survival niches.


Tendencies toward urban involution, of course, existed during the nineteenth century. The European industrial revolutions were incapable of absorbing the entire supply of displaced rural labor, especially after the 1870s, when Europe's agriculture was exposed to the devastating competition of the North American prairies. But mass immigration to the settler societies of the Americas and Oceania provided a safety valve that prevented the rise of mega- Dublins as well as the spread of the kind of underclass anarchism that had taken root in the poorest parts of southern Europe. Today, surplus labor, by contrast, faces unprecedented barriers to large-scale migration to the wealthier countries-a literal "great wall" of high-tech border enforcement. Likewise, controversial population-resettlement programs in "frontier" regions such as Amazonia, Tibet, Kalimantan, and Irian Jaya produce environmental devastation and ethnic conflict without substantially reducing urban poverty in Brazil, China, and Indonesia.

Thus only the slum remains as a fully franchised solution to the problem of warehousing the twenty-first century's surplus humanity. But aren't the great slums, as a terrified Victorian bourgeoisie once imagined, volcanoes waiting to erupt? Or does ruthless competition, as increasing numbers of poor people compete for the same scraps, ensure self-consuming communal violence as the highest form of urban involution? To what extent does an informal proletariat possess that most potent of Marxist talismans, "historical agency"? Can disincorporated labor be reincorporated into a global emancipatory project? Or is the sociology of protest in the immiserated megacity a regression to the pre-industrial urban mob, episodically explosive during consumption crises but otherwise easily managed by clientelism, populist spectacle, and appeals to ethnic unity? Or is some new, unexpected historical subject slouching toward the supercity?

For the moment at least, Marx has yielded the historical stage to Mohammed and the Holy Ghost. If God died in the cities of the industrial revolution, he has risen again in the postindustrial cities of the developing world.

Today, populist Islam and Pentecostal Christianity (and, in Bombay, the cult of Shivaji) occupy a social space analogous to that of early twentieth-century socialism and anarchism. In Morocco, for instance, where according to some estimates half a million rural migrants are absorbed into the teeming cities every year, Islamist movements like Justice and Welfare, founded by Sheikh Abdessalam Yassin, have become the real governments of the slums: organizing night schools, providing legal aid to victims of state abuse, buying medicine for the sick, subsidizing pilgrimages, and paying for funerals. As Moroccan prime minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi, the Socialist leader who was once exiled by the monarchy, recently admitted, "We [the left] have cut ourselves off from the people. We need to reconquer the popular quarters. The Islamists have seduced our natural electorate. They promise them heaven on earth." And indeed, a Justice and Welfare activist recognized that "confronted with the neglect of the state, and faced with the brutality of daily life, people discover, thanks to us, solidarity, self-help, fraternity. They understand that Islam is humanism."

The counterpart of populist Islam in the slums of Latin America and much of sub-Saharan Africa is Pentecostalism. Christianity, of course, is now in its majority a non-Western religion, and Pentecostalism is its most dynamic missionary in cities of poverty. Indeed, Pentecostalism is the first major world religion to have grown up almost entirely in the soil of the modem urban slum. Unified around spirit baptism, miracle healing, charismata, and a premillennial belief in a coming world war of capital and labor, early American Pentecostalism originated as a "prophetic democracy" whose rural and urban constituencies overlapped, respectively, with those of Populism and the Industrial Workers of the World. Its early missionaries yielded nothing to the I.W.W. in their vehement denunciations of the injustices of industrial capitalism and its inevitable destruction.

Since 1970, largely because of its appeal to slum women and its reputation for being colorblind, Pentecostalism has been growing into what is arguably the largest self-organized movement of urban poor people on the planet. Recent claims of "over 533 million Pentecostal/charismatics in the world in 2002" are probably hyperbolic, but there may well be half that number.

In contrast to populist Islam, which emphasizes civilizational continuity and the transclass solidarity of faith, Pentecostalism, in the tradition of its African-American origins, retains a fundamentally exilic identity. Although, like Islam in the slums, it efficiently correlates itself to the survival needs of the informal working class (organizing self-help networks for poor women, offering faith healing as para-medicine, providing recovery from alcoholism and addiction, insulating children from the temptations of the street), its ultimate premise is that the urban world is corrupt, unjust, and unreformable. With the left still largely missing from the slums, the eschatology of Pentecostalism admirably refuses the inhuman destiny of the Third World city that Slums warns about. It also sanctifies those who, in every structural and existential sense, truly live in exile.

The new urban poor, indeed, are the ghosts at the table of world politics. Every debate about the war on terrorism, the future of the Middle East, the AIDS crisis in Africa, and the international narcotics trade is haunted by their presence and growing desperation. The helicopter gunships that hover over the megaslums of Gaza and Sadr City, the nightly gun battles in the shantytowns of Bogota and Karachi, the bulldozers in Nairobi, Delhi, and Manila-is this not already an incipient world war between rich and poor?