It Migrates to Them

Jeremy Harding

  • Planet of Slums by Mike Davis
    Verso, 228 pp, £15.99, March 2006, ISBN 1 84467 022 8
  • Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb by Mike Davis
    Verso, 228 pp, £12.99, March 2007, ISBN 978 1 84467 132 8

If any of us has seen the places in the developing world that Mike Davis catalogues remorselessly in Planet of Slums, it was probably from an aeroplane. That doesn’t always mean 35,000 feet, for as Davis points out, poorer people tend to colonise the marginal land of cities where air terminals were once built at a comfortable distance from prosperous centres of medium or high population density. Prosperity in the newer, informal urban environment – in Caracas or Lagos, say – is reckoned by incomparably different standards. Davis, the urban historian who also excels at apocalyptic geography, sketches the various ways in which its inhabitants can make ends meet. He also lists ways, based mostly on exploitation, in which they might even profit. In the end, the burgeoning pauper conurbations are as wretched as they look from the cabin window.

Davis’s books are great evidential engines. Planet of Slums howls with figures. Copious examples drawn from around the globe are stacked up to illustrate a single point; comparative tables drive it home. This constant production of numbers – and a seamless access between continents – offers us the world as a single, intelligible place defined by the universal laws of accumulation and deprivation. Any sense that slum cultures and slum cities might have a specific character, beyond the common lot of misery, is tenuous. No book will give readers the impression of covering greater distances, even if they will feel by the end as though they’d been cooped up in a narrow, featureless room. Homogeneity, Davis would argue, is what late capitalism does: already a billion people live in roughly the same extraordinary way in roughly similar environments. Vast, contiguous slums are the habitat of the future for even larger numbers, yet the future looks more and more like it did the day before yesterday.

And so to the figures. By 2015 there will be at least 550 cities with a population of more than one million. Already this aggregate population is growing ‘by a million babies and migrants each week’. The peak will come in 2050, when ten billion people, by then the great majority of humankind, will be living in cities: ‘95 per cent of this final build-out of humanity will occur in the urban areas of developing countries, whose populations will double to nearly four billion over the next generation.’ Even more striking than these huge projected increases and the assertion that they are ‘final’ is the accelerating rate at which they’re taking place – nowhere faster than in China. Davis refers to cities with a population of eight million and rising as ‘megacities’. There are more than 20 megacities in the developing world. Two of these – Mexico City and Seoul – were ‘hypercities’ (with 20 million inhabitants) at the time he published this book. Since then São Paulo and Mumbai must also have hit the 20 million mark, with Delhi fast approaching it.

Concentric sprawl at the edges of discrete metropolitan centres is not the only model of substandard housing growth. There is also the built-up corridor, which takes shape as the hinterlands between smaller and larger cities become developed, or strictly speaking underdeveloped, and an elongated urban swathe begins to form, like that of the Rio/São Paulo Extended Metropolitan Region, effectively a serpentine city 500 km in length, with a megacity at either end and two bulges – medium-size cities – in between. A similar urban ribbon is developing in West Africa; by 2020, according to an OECD study, it will run for 600 km from Accra to Benin City and contain 60 million inhabitants. Davis believes it will be ‘the biggest single footprint of urban poverty on earth’. In China, larger developments are underway on the Pearl River delta, the Yangtze delta and along the Beijing-Tianjin corridor. Unlike the strips in Brazil and the Gulf of Guinea, these ‘post-urban structures’, as Davis calls them, are aggressively planned. They also have a glamorous touch of Asian tiger, hinting as they do at the emergence of a ‘Tokyo-Shanghai “world city”’ as influential as the New York/London axis on ‘the control of global flows of capital and information’.

Planet of Slums is not much interested in the pzazz of the megacity, or even in its dystopian double, the Pacific Rim limbo of Blade Runner. Davis is concerned with the reproduction of inequality that megacities already entail and which he believes will get worse, ‘within and between cities of different sizes and economic specialisations’. He is troubled, too, by urban encroachment on what’s left of rural livelihoods. He cites the work of Jeremy Seabrook on Penang fishermen, their homes cut off from the sea by a large highway and their fishing grounds polluted by the spread of urbanisation: the next generation ended up in Japanese-owned sweatshops. ‘In many cases,’ Davis observes, ‘rural people no longer have to migrate to the city: it migrates to them.’

Whether the city signals its arrival in the form of public projects, or private development contracts signed off by local authorities, often in return for cash, is really a technicality. Ragged, substandard urban sprawl, constantly reshaping its margins, is for Davis the manifest destiny of cities in poor countries expanding under the pressure of deregulated market economies. If there are countries in the South where more people live in slums than live in cities proper, and if by 2020 half of the world’s urban population will exist in poverty, then the slum deserves more attention than it’s getting from planners, sociologists, environmentalists, epidemiologists and demographers. Davis points out that ‘of the 500,000 people who migrate to Delhi each year, it is estimated that fully 400,000 end up in slums’ and that 85 per cent of Kenya’s population growth in the 1990s ‘was absorbed in the fetid, densely packed slums of Nairobi and Mombasa’.

Davis does not see the new slums seething with economic potential. He mistrusts the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto’s theory that thriving economies would begin to emerge if only land titles in slum areas were formalised, enabling owners to liquidate, or secure loans on the basis of property ownership. Doing away with the ‘artificial shortage of property rights’ in slums, Davis argues, will simply create new divisions between owners and non-owners, making the latter visible to government and adding a new pressure – taxation – to those that exist already: this seems to have been the case with property ‘regularisation’ in Mexico City.

Bootstrap micro-entrepreneurial remedies leave Davis equally unimpressed because, even though they benefit a small minority, they do nothing to halt the growth of slums. In the Victorian era, the typical big city owed its population increase – and its slums – to industrialisation. Towns like Manchester were ‘job machines’ and the industrial revolution was the bitter road to prosperity for hundreds of thousands of people. But there are exceptions, including Dublin, which in the first half of the 19th century showed few signs of industrialising – quite the reverse, according to the historian Emmet Larkin – even as it hosted a large slum population. The ‘canonical trajectory’ of the big city, as understood by classical social theory – ‘Manchester, Berlin and Chicago’ – offers no useful perspective on the vast encampments of poor springing up in the South, even though some have roughly conformed to the old pattern. In Davis’s planet of slums, urban growth is not linked to the capacity of cities to provide work. This, rather than the failure to encourage local business or issue property deeds in the barrios, is the heart of the problem.

The World Bank and the IMF, Davis argues, have been the driving force behind the creation of modern slums. And Structural Adjustment Programmes – drastic mechanisms of conditionality imposed on borrowers or debtors negotiating repayment – have been the means. This is true especially since the 1980s, when both the World Bank and the IMF began carpet-bombing debtors with SAPs. Structural Adjustment required borrowers to cut back on public expenditure and taxation. It encouraged privatisation, public sector lay-offs and the end of price subsidies. Millions were driven into the informal sector. A few got rich, some got a living, but most found themselves reduced to petty barter, minor service or the Third World equivalent of the dole queue, lining up daily outside construction sites in the hope of a couple of hours’ work. Meanwhile, agricultural project funding was severely reduced and SAP-signatories were more or less obliged to fall back on primary agriculture – sugar, cocoa, coffee – in an international market where prices could go through the floor, as they did in the early 1980s. More and more livelihoods on the land, not least among subsistence farmers who had been forced to grow cash crops, failed as a consequence.

About a billion people worldwide operate in the informal sector. Davis tells us they constitute ‘the fastest-growing . . . social class on earth’. In the neoliberal model they are ‘the heroic self-employed’, operating in a paradise of deregulation where initiative and entrepreneurialism will eventually triumph to the benefit of all. In practice, the growth of the informal sector has not even brought about the satisfaction of rudimentary needs – clean water, medical care, a stab at education – for most people living in the 21st-century slum. ‘Informal survivalism’ is Davis’s expression for the economic regime under which they live. Even though there are sweatshop sectors and other labour-intensive niches in this informal economy, there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around. Far from becoming active participants in a virtuous cycle of wealth creation, the huge numbers of people at the lower end of the slum – the petty traders and service-providers – find their specialities endlessly replicated by others and their takings diminished. ‘The informal sector,’ Davis explains, ‘generates jobs not by elaborating new divisions of labour, but by fragmenting existing work, and thus subdividing incomes.’ This holds as well for the platoons of barbers and shoeshine boys as it does for the gaggles of ‘parking attendants’ – usually children – who pile out of their homes every morning and beg for the right to watch over cars outside UN compounds and downtown hotels for a couple of dollars.

Neoliberalism’s remedies for mass poverty are so counterintuitive as to be indistinguishable, in Davis’s view, from nonsense. Yet there were already economies in trouble before 1978 – arguably the date when SAPs came into their own. Several countries with large public sectors and balance-of-payments deficits were hit hard, and left reeling, by the 1973 oil crisis. Even as their leaders took on the biggest debts that most of these young states would ever incur, public employees had begun driving cabs and repairing transistor radios to stay above water. Corruption in the upper echelons of the civil service, and in government, skimmed off impressive amounts of GNP.

Casting a retrospective gaze across the wastes of structural adjustment, Davis discerns a better past, in which the state played an important role as job provider, national project manager and sovereign decision-maker on fiscal and monetary policy. He quotes an article by Stefan Andreasson in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies to the effect that the ‘virtual democracy’ which obtains in countries hit by structural adjustment has come ‘at the expense of inclusive, participatory democracy’. He finds reason, too, in the assertion of a 2003 UN-Habitat report, The Challenge of Slums, that the ‘main single cause of increases in poverty and inequality during the 1980s and 1990s was the retreat of the state’.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s dwindling population of fiftysomethings would be surprised to hear that there was ‘inclusive, participatory democracy’ at a national level before the epidemic of structural adjustment. Others would have mixed feelings about the demise of the state. There was, it’s true, a magnanimous, inclusive aspect to sub-Saharan government bureaucracy in the old days: thousands of civil servants slumped over reams of single-spaced copy, all of it in triplicate, with sheaves of addled carbon paper set beside abandoned typewriters, the whole scene sanctified by a row of overhead fans which had ceased turning when the grid installed by the former colonial power ran into a parts problem. But too often the rattle of the Weimar wheelbarrow was the theme tune of the Third World functionary in this period that Davis regrets. Not all public sector employees did badly, however. From Jakarta to Kinshasa and west to Guatemala City, various well-paid servants of the state enforced the curfews and ran the detention centres.

Despite there having been no golden era, Davis’s account of the destruction visited on the poor by SAPs is compelling. The woes of the early 1970s grew far more serious with the hardening of IMF and World Bank conditionality: Davis thinks of it as ‘urban poverty’s Big Bang’. In a chapter called ‘SAPing the Third World’, he follows the effects of structural adjustment, through a synthesis of work by other scholars and researchers, from the broad picture of crumbling infrastructure and soaring prices to the microcosm of the family unit whose adult males are thrown out of jobs while the children leave school to begin scratching a living and the women bear the burden of extra, unpaid work – a hidden burden that hardly ever shows up in World Bank reckonings. There is a touching elegy to solidarity – the solidarity of daily gestures and simple courtesies between the poor – now that a cup of coffee at your sister’s or a measure of oil from your neighbour has to go on the slate, and a warning that even the two success stories of dynamic neoliberalism in action, India and coastal China, have involved ‘soaring inequality’ (and in China’s case, millions of redundancies).

Planet of Slums cannot see a way back from the brink, and it would be odd if it could. Davis’s vestigial admiration for the USSR and Maoist China, based on Communist housing supply, will not convert into a programme for the 21st century. He notes that the ‘late capitalist triage of humanity’ has ‘already taken place’ and quotes Jan Breman, the Asia specialist and labour anthropologist: ‘A point of no return is reached when a reserve army waiting to be incorporated into the labour process becomes stigmatised as a permanently redundant mass, an excessive burden that cannot be included now or in the future, in economy and society.’ A prospectus of slum ‘resistance’ is offered, from tactical squatting and food riots to the less rhetorical challenge of families and individuals hanging on through thick and thin; and perhaps it’s true that people who ‘stubbornly refuse to let go’ are expressing a kind of dissent, however inchoate.

Finally, Davis picks his way through the publications of the war-planners, noting the strategic fashion, at the Pentagon and the RAND Corporation, for MOUT, or ‘Military Operations on Urbanised Terrain’ – places like Mogadishu or Sadr City. But who are the enemies of the wealthy West, apart from (the wealthy) al-Qaida and the new wave of adversaries we’ve recruited with the invasion of Iraq? For an answer, Davis quotes a 1995 article by the Fort Leavenworth researcher Geoffrey Demarest: potentially the ‘dispossessed’ in general; ‘excluded populations’ everywhere; ‘criminal syndicates’; slum children coming of age (ripe for child soldiering as religious martyrs or warlord cannon fodder). In short, the extremely poor and extremely oppressed, which as this book makes clear means an awful lot of enemies. To Davis, the new strategic thinking is largely demonisation and delusion, yet he can imagine how it will go. ‘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.’

This book about the global future we already inhabit without facing up to the fact is also an invocation of the past. The period in question predates the Soviet and Maoist command economies. We get intimations of it once Davis has signed off an intriguing passage about the etymology of the term ‘slum’ and started coming to grips with contemporary urban poverty: absence of amenities; local power struggles for control of income-sources, including garbage; the politics of squatting; the crackly, intermittent dialogue between shrinking states and swelling multitudes of abandoned outsiders.

Davis has a rich sense of the Victorian era, yet much of the story of the modern-day slum pulls its own precedents along as a subliminal narrative, without his having to flag them. So, for example, when he turns to the subject of water, we are carried back a century and a half to the arguments in Victorian cities about utilities and how they should be made available to the poor. There are striking links between the dismal story of water privatisation in Luanda or Dar es Salaam, as told by Davis, and the story of private owners of pumps in Manchester resisting moves for a publicly administered water supply, as told by Edwin Chadwick in his report of 1842 on the health of Great Britain’s labouring population. And when Davis writes of the money made by owners of substandard or slum accommodation in Brazil, there are clear echoes of the medical officer in Whitechapel telling Chadwick’s colleagues how high the rents were set in the deplorable ‘courts’ – or tenements – off Rosemary Lane.

Davis prefers Engels to Chadwick, who had more pettifogging detail to hand, being an outstanding public official concerned to maximise the efficiency of the working classes. All three evince a commitment to the state that is much harder to conceive now that public responsibility for almost everything, including the reconstruction of bombed countries, has been subcontracted or devolved away to NGOs and corporations with hungry shareholders. Davis isn’t a slave to statism: Planet of Slums contains eloquent passages about the corporatist evolution of contemporary China – corporatism minus trade unions – and a wonderful section about prestige demolitions (evidently it’s a black moment for the poor in the capitals of developing nations when they get to host the Olympics). Yet his undeclared message to onlookers in prosperous countries is that they should hope fervently for the resurrection of the state – which failed to wither away in the manner advertised on the menu fixe – in the hope, perhaps, of watching it wither correctly next time around. They should also protest the effects of IMF and World Bank strategies in places which, if they’re lucky, they will never get to see from lower than two or three hundred feet, at the edge of a Third World airport runway.

In other ways, the high-maintenance habits of wealthier countries will make it hard for many readers to get on the right side of the war against global poverty. At the end of his litany of misery and injustice, Davis seems prepared, even a trifle too prepared, for the day this war is carried to the rich world. He has announced a sequel to Planet of Slums, in collaboration with Forrest Hylton, which will focus on ‘slum-based resistance to global capitalism’, a box that gets ticked in the present volume with the promise of more to come. In the meantime he has produced Buda’s Wagon, a short and fascinating history of the car bomb. From Palestine in the 1940s, through Algeria, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Corsica, various Mafia badlands, Lebanon, Oklahoma and on to the present wars of asymmetry, he plots the incidental progress of a weapon prized by insurgencies, mad persons and secret services alike. Davis calls it the ‘poor man’s air force’.

The prototype is probably the ‘machine infernale’ devised by a handful of royalists in 1800 to kill Napoleon. It consisted of a large barrel charged with gunpowder attached to a cart, attached in turn to an old mare and stationed between the Tuileries and the Opéra. It was detonated on Christmas Eve, but missed its mark by very much more than a whisker: the First Consul and his entourage had passed about a minute earlier. This bizarre episode is so removed from Davis’s modern urban narrative that he locates the origins of the contemporary car bomb 120 years later in another horse and cart left near the intersection of Wall Street and Broad Street by the Italian anarchist Mario Buda, four months after the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti. The result was forty dead and two hundred injured. ‘A poor immigrant with some stolen dynamite, a pile of scrap metal and an old horse had managed to bring unprecedented terror to the inner sanctum of American capitalism.’

The car bomb, Davis says, is ‘a promiscuous equaliser of combat between elephants and fleas’, and at the same time ‘an inherently fascist weapon’, though he finds the use of massive military force by ‘the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Israel’ worse. Dresden in 1945 or the southern suburbs of Beirut last summer lend weight to this assertion. Guernica and London during the Blitz suggest other countries whose names could have gone on the list. Nevertheless, politics cannot ‘inhere’ in a weapon; it’s all far more slippery, and he hints early on that when the right side uses a car bomb (an anarchist at the junction of Wall St and Broad St) it’s a weapon of legitimate grievance, but when the wrong side uses it (the OAS in Algeria), it’s underhand and reactionary. This contradiction, primed and ready to go off, with the possibility of major collateral damage to Davis’s short history, is quickly neutralised by his account of the tactical purposes car bombing has served; he is informative, especially, on the OAS and Lebanese Hizbullah. He also interprets most of the incidents and tendencies he writes about as ‘blowback’: a response to, or consequence of, imperial misadventure, seeds sown with the original failure of judgment. Often, too, he points out, violent groups – jihadists, typically – originally acquired their expertise and technology from secret services such as the CIA or the Pakistani ISI. In this, the biography of the car bomb contains a sinister crux, best described as unwitting complicity – ‘unwitting’ because it is forged across time, with history as the intermediary – between state agencies engaged in killing and maiming and clandestine groups doing the same. The tyre tracks differ, but there is only one road.

This book is commendably free of words like ‘innocent’, ‘indiscriminate’, ‘freedom’ and so on. Of the term ‘terrorist’ Davis simply remarks that it is ‘a playground epithet in the serious business of geopolitics’, leaving us to recall on our own that history regularly elects members of terrorist groups to sit in government: the Stern Gang, Umkhonto we Sizwe and, more recently, the Iraqi National Accord (figurehead Iyad Allawi), which was setting car bombs in Baghdad under CIA supervision long before the recent invasion.

That people understand similar acts of atrocity in different ways suggests that ‘senseless’ violence is a rare phenomenon. Davis tells us early on that the booby-trapped vehicle will not be part of his study, a good decision which avoids overloading Buda’s Wagon. Yet a brief survey of the bomb in the car of the unwanted person would have reinforced his view that violence is full of intention – and confirmed his gritty sense that in this not so new nightmare, tactics and ‘signal’ are always thought through. The car bomb that targets the individual is perfunctory and spectacular at the same time. It proclaims the killers’ ambiguous mastery of the secret and the explicit, inflicting a public punishment on the victim while vaunting its intimacy with his daily routines. It is a warning to his colleagues and supporters. The assassination of the novelist and PFLP member Ghassan Kanafani in Beirut in 1972 was exemplary in just these ways. So was the attempted murder of Albie Sachs, the lawyer and ANC member, in Maputo in 1988. Sachs survived and, through the post-apartheid process, came face to face with the man who organised the attempt on his life. Under what circumstances would an Israeli agent come forward to meet the relatives of Kanafani and his 17-year-old niece, also killed in the car? Probably not even peace. It is too long ago and anyway, as Davis says in Buda’s Wagon, ‘all sides . . . now play by Old Testament rules.’ In the Middle East, this has been true for some time, though Davis suspects that the car bomb has a ‘brilliant future’ everywhere.