A Review of “Planet Of Slums” by Mike Davis
Published by Verso Books
Shacks stretching on the outskirts of a city as far as the eye can see and poverty entrenched like an occupying army, slums are a growing phenomenon in the global south. In his brilliant book Planet of Slums, prophet of doom Mike Davis, presents slums as the creation of complex socioeconomic forces that produce profound poverty but also a new class existing on the margins of marginality.
Peasants uprooted from their lands, public sector workers laid-off due to Structural Adjustment Programs, refugees fleeing war and just plain poor migrants looking for opportunity in the cities of the Third World make their claim on plots removed from the urban core of metropolises like Kinshasa, Mumbai, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Sadr City in Baghdad and Beijing. Physically, the slums sit precariously on unstable hills, sink in their own excrement, choke on their toxicity and are ripe for repression from landlords and cops. Over a billion people live in the world’s slums, and Davis estimates that 25 million more flood into these areas a year. Many citizens of the slums labor in the informal work sector in survival mode selling wares, food and engage in petty bartering creating a new informal slum class.
“The global forces ‘pushing’ people from the countryside – mechanization in Java and India, food imports in Mexico…civil war and drought throughout Africa…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 an inevitable recipe for the mass production of slums. Much of the urban world, as a result, is rushing backwards to the age of Dickens.”
In the last chapter of Planet of Slums, Davis makes connections between the downward spiral of living conditions and the rise of evangelical Christianity. In Kinshasa, parents, spurred by preachers encouraging bizarre talk of child witches, put their kids to the street. The irrational belief in witches aside, many parents unable to provide for their family hope their children find square meals and a roof in the custody of NGOs.
Planet of Slums started as an essay in the New Left Review and was heavy on the role of Pentecostalism in the slums. Readers of that essay may be perplexed to see only the last chapter devoted to this emerging conservative social movement. But this is Davis’ only let down. In the Epilogue, Davis flips the right’s rhetoric of class of cultures in Iraq, claiming the slum will be the new resistance to global capitalistic domination.
“The unemployed teenage fighters of the ‘Mahdi Army’ in Baghdad’s Sadr City taunt American occupiers with the promise that their main boulevard is ‘Vietnam Street.’ But the war planners don’t blanch. They now assert that the ‘feral, failed cities’ of the Third World, will be the distinctive battlespace of the twenty-first century. This is the true ‘clash of civilizations.’”