Customer Reviews: Planet of Slums
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on March 28, 2007
Mike Davis is always someone to seize an opportunity to decry the horrible situation somewhere, but in this case, it is an exposé that cannot be made often enough. "Planet of Slums" is a catalogue of the institutional failures, the despicable destruction, the filth and pollution, the poverty, misery and want, the disease and cynicism, in short the Verelendung of the worldwide poor that is the inevitable and eternal result of the capitalist mode of production. Within three decades, a stunning two billion people will live in the slums of megacities in the Third World, where all public services are absent, there are no toilets or drinking water, and where even the poor exploit the poor.

Mike Davis, as usual, pulls no punches and takes no prisoners in his description of the effects of the Washington Consensus on these undeveloped nations. Refuting the ideological mythologies of self-help such as De Sotoism and microlending, he demonstrates that the situation in the Third World is bleak and will get bleaker still. The longer the current order of neoliberalism and Structural Adjustment Programmes, led by such philanthropical heros as World Bank director Paul Wolfowitz, goes on, the more the absolute poverty, immiseration and loss of dignity of the world's poor will continue, and the greater inequality will become. Already one-third of the world's workforce is unemployed or underemployed, and worldwide average income has decreased the past decades. The megacities of the global south will become centers of hyper-alienation, and the inevitable result can only be the destruction of the current order, or the destruction of the world. The world's five billion poor are at our door - hear them knock!
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on April 24, 2006
Planet of Slums is flambouyant, novel, and tremendously irritating. Mike Davis does a brilliant job of dramatizing conditions in the urban slums of "Third-World" cities, and makes an outstanding contribution in this respect. Predictably, he skewers the usual suspects - the IMF and the World Bank - like clockwork every 10 pages or so.

I looked in vain, however, for heroes or heroines, and for some sense of a way forward. There simply are none in this book. In the neo-Blade Runner urban universe of Planet of Slums, NGOs are agents of donor economic imperialism, the middle classes of countries enslave the poor, the poor exploit each other or are just victims, and the staff of the World Bank and IMF act like colonial bureaucrats overseeing the plantations down South. The author seems to purposely ignore the solutions and great effort of local people and their organizations, country governments, NGOs, private-sector companies, and others. As to the multi-laterals, Davis apparently does not know that many governments are repaying their loans much faster than new borrowing, and that these international organizations have largely become service providers with their clients increasingly in the driver's seat.

This extreme indifference to solutions and the agents of solutions is dangerous. Bad mouth donors and NGOs enough, and they will get gutted (as so much has), and low and middle-income countries will have to rely on capital markets or nothing.

Hopefully, Davis will use a bit of his profound creativity to investigate the way forward in the cities of the South in his next book. Even if he doesn't, I will probably read it.
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on July 10, 2006
Sometime during the writing of this book - 2005 - the global urban population surpassed the global rural population. It has been estimated that both populations stand at about 3.2 billion. What is startling is that Mike Davis has calculated that the rural population has reached its peak and will begin to decline by 2020, and that all future world population growth will be in cities, primarily megacities (8 million or more) and hypercities (20 million or more). The total world population is expected to peak at 10 billion in the year 2050. If I'm still alive, I will be 95. I hope to experience peak global population, even though my actuarial tables would indicate otherwise.

This massive movement to the city has not been accompanied by industialization and development, instead there has been massive urbanization without economic growth. The future cities of glass and steel envisioned by urbanists have not materialized, instead the urban poor are squatting in crudely constructed slum dwellings on the periphery of cities. A "surplus of humanity" is accumulating on the outskirts of urban centers, an "accumulation of the wretched."

It is no surprise that Davis grew up and currently lives in the Los Angeles area. (He also wrote "City of Quartz," a book about Los Angeles.) Angelenos tend to see the world as it is seen on television or at the movies. Davis' images of Third World slums are those of "Blade Runner" or "Escape from New York". One wonders if Davis has ever visited a Third World slum or interviewed one of its denizens. By referring to them as "the wretched," he will never be accused of being too close to his subject.

Why the massive movement toward cities? And why is this dystopian urbanization occurring on this scale? Davis puts the blame squarely on the neoliberal policies of the IMF. In the late 70's and early 80's, the IMF imposed its structural adjustment program (SAP). It was a one-size-fits-all program for debt burdened Third World countries to open up their economies and theoretically participate in global economy. The program (SAP) called for the deregulation of agriculture and the downsizing of the public sector. (Read also Joseph Stiglitz' "Globalization and its Discontents.") The consequences of this policy are still being debated, but Davis focuses only on the negatives. He points out that hundreds of thousands of workers - millions - worldwide are being pushed from the countryside without the pull of jobs in the cities. The results are masses of humanity in shantytowns on the periphery of urban centers.

If this book sounds extremely negative, it's because it is. Davis criticizes governments for not building enough public housing, and when they do, it's not in the right place and it lacks community. He complains when squatters do not have title to their land or cannot formally rent their shanties, but he also criticizes Hernando De Soto's campaign to do just that. He claims it would lead to further stratification and exploitation of the poor.

Davis sees no solutions to the current trends. He ends the book with the following image: "Night after night, hornetlike helicopter gunships stalk enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of the slum districts, pouring hellfire into the shanties or fleeing cars. Every morning the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions. If the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side."

I thought immediately of that scene in the last "Terminator" movie. Davis displays some eloquent prose and solid research, but he may have lost sight of the surplus of humanity living in slums.
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Marxist cultural critic Davis's latest book tackles the global problem of the slums (he uses the U.N. definition: "characterized by overcrowding, poor or informal housing, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, and insecurity of tenure."), which are exploding at a geometric rate across the world. Alas, at the end of this relatively brief work, we have learned of the scale and scope of the problem in mind-numbing detail, and we have learned the source of the problem (at least according to Davis), but that's about it. Alas, anyone interested in a book with this title probably already has a sense of both, and what is utterly lacking in Davis's analysis is any way forward.

Granted, if there were obvious solutions, we'd probably know about those as well -- the real problem is that Davis really, really likes to have it both ways. In other words, there since there is no policy or proposed solution he likes, he attacks all options, even opposite ones, with equal venom, leading one to wonder what the point is. For example: at one point he says that new "periurban" slums lack the community spirit of the inner-city slums people are being relocated from, but then elsewhere he says that this positive community spirit is all a myth and that all slums are Darwinian proving grounds. Governments that don't build public housing come under attack, and those that do also come under attack for it being substandard. Slums are depicted as terrible, and slum clearances are depicted as equally terrible. Sure, none of this is "good", in any sense of the word, but Davis doesn't have anything else to offer either. Most egregious to me is his flailing around on property rights: if the poor don't have titles to their land then they're subject to exploitation, if they do have title they'll just sell it and be exploited. Meanwhile he characterizes Hernando de Soto's interesting vision of how property rights might be used to lift people out of poverty (as detailed in The Mystery of Capital) as a "cargo cult" and "magic wand", which is a disappointingly cynical oversimplification of a rather nuanced and wide-ranging proposal (which is grounded in actual fieldwork instead of the library).

This book is certainly valuable for its description of the problem of slums -- it uses about 700 footnotes (yes, really!) citing an impressive array of books, articles, newsletters, and various published and unpublished reports by the World Bank, UN, governments, and NGOs to draw connections between slums from around the world. Davis paints a picture of slums that are created not by those coming to the city to earn more money, but by the involuntary relocation of those in the way of construction that benefits the wealthy, or the loss of farming at the hands of multinational agribusiness, or civil war, or drought. Of course, all the usual suspects come in for indictment as well (the UN, World Bank, IMF neoliberal capitalism), along with NGOs, the leaders of the third world, the elite of the third world, the middle-class of the third world, and at some points, the poor of the third world. In this book, everyone is guilty (and maybe everybody is, certainly the World Bank and IMF have a terrible track record and are indeed very culpable), but how does this view help anyone? Even worse, nothing we're trying works according to Davis: not micro-credit, not outside NGO help, not militant activism by squatters, and not even the self-help entrepreneurship of the poor.

Some have inferred that Davis is inherently suggesting a reversal of the policies that brought this miserable state to pass, and that massive public spending might be the answer. The problem Davis points out himself is that many of these policies are interwoven with global capitalism, so it's not a simple matter of passing some new resolution. Nor does Davis care for massive public spending (at least not in China or India), and since he points out over and over that third-world elites will simply steal their nation's wealth, the notion that some form of worldwide nationalization of natural resources doesn't seem particularly promising either. Given all this, one has to presume that Davis's unarticulated "solution" is that one day the revolution's gonna come and tear this mother (ie. global capitalism) down. Or maybe that's not what he thinks... we don't know, because Davis never tells us.
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on June 22, 2006
In this book, Mike Davis surveys the literature regarding the mass urbanization of the third world, mostly in the form of gigantic, unspeakably vile and wretched slums. This process is occurring beneath our very eyes, yet goes unseen in the first world by all but a few. The material Davis offers is skillfully organized and presented along with his own trenchant analysis. He leaves no doubt that the process has political as well as economic origins: the imposition of draconian neo-liberal economic policies by wealthy nations and the looting of poor nations by their own elites. Perhaps the most disturbing information in this book comes in the Epilogue, where Davis reveals that the United States military regards the slummification of the world primarily as a *military* problem. In essence, billions of our fellow human beings are to be regarded as potential enemies and criminals who will have to be dealt with militarily.

Although Davis offers no solutions, they can easily be inferred from the text. What is needed is reversal of the policies that have led to the present predicament, massive public spending on infrastructure and the return of third world resources to the nations and peoples to whom they rightly belong.

I cannot recommend "Planet of Slums" too highly. It is a great book, and I believe that any concerned person who reads it will be changed by it.
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This stunning book compels the reader to a new view of the world. A "Planet of Slums" is pretty scary from a moral point of view. What kind of creatures are we to allow such an enormous number of our kind to live out their lives in squalor and poverty? What does this say for the soul of humanity?

From a national security point of view, of course we are not directly threatened, at least not yet. The percent of urbanites in our cities that are slum dwellers, according to a table on page 24 is 5.8 for a total of a "mere" 12.8 million people. Compare that to China's 37.8% (193.8 million) and India's 55.5% (158.4 million) and we are in relatively good shape. The worst country is Ethiopia with 99.4% of the city population living in slums, followed by the Sudan (85.7%) and Bangladesh (84.7%). I did a quick count of the number of people living in slums in the 20 countries listed on the table and it added up to maybe 700 million. Should we worry?

Davis reveals that the Pentagon and think tank thinkers are worried since the cost of dealing with disruptive mobs, slum-bred terrorists, criminal gangs, etc. not only will be high but will require new tactics and strategies. In a sense, some of the problems we are having in Baghdad are the result of our inability to deal with the people of the great slum of Sadr City. I say this somewhat tongue in cheek since of course our "problem" in Iraq goes well beyond slum dissidents.

On the other hand, we might ask, whose fault is it that so many people in the world are locked into such squalid conditions? Certainly you and I had nothing to do with it. Well, that is NOT Davis's point of view. He sees globalization and the policies of governments (especially rich Western governments) and NGOs (especially the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) as the leading cause of slum proliferation and growth. He writes, "night after night, hornetlike 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. If the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side." (p. 206)

This vision, which ends the book, comes from the Epilogue, "Down Vietnam Street." "Vietnam Street" is what the "unemployed teenage fighters of the 'Mahdi Army' in Baghdad's Sadr City...taunt American occupiers with," the implication being that the same failure we experienced in Vietnam is what awaits us in Iraq. (p. 205)

Could this be America a couple of generations down the road? The massive growth of slums in our inner cities in my lifetime as been staggering, even though it is not much compared to places like Mexico City, Mumbai, Cairo, Shanghai, etc. One of the differences between the typical American slum and that of many cities throughout the world is that American slums are of the inner city variety while the others are mostly "peripheral slums." Peripheral slums are worse at least in one sense: the poor not only live in filth without basic services, but they have to commute long distances to their jobs. This is something of an irony since the growth of slums is usually equated with their close proximity to low paying jobs.

Davis gives the official UN definition of a slum as a place "characterized by overcrowding, poor or informal housing, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, and insecurity of tenure." (pp. 22-23) Clearly from a demographic viewpoint slums are occupied by poor people and poor people have little power, and that is one of the reasons they stay poor. Davis writes as someone who is on the side of the poor and an advocate for doing something about the eternal phenomenon expressed as "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."

The people in the slums, as Davis points out, represent surplus labor or even--to use his terminology--superfluous labor. They are the dregs of humanity, caught in a downward spiraling situation in which lack of education, lack of nutrition, high instance of disease and mortality, low wages, bare subsistence, etc. guarantee that they and their children will stay in the same situation. The odds against a leap from the depths of poverty to a middle class existence are greater than ever.

At least that is the message I got from reading this sobering book. By the way, this is the sort of book that is a bit difficult to read because it is so jammed full of facts, figures and jargon terminology. Additionally Davis uses a lot of foreign words that he doesn't define (as though to show the reader that he's been there with the natives), although many of them are self-explanatory. I like the native terminology however and the use of the local names of slums within the larger city.

The overarching question that I was left with was, what does this incredible proliferation of poverty mean for the human race as a whole? What does it say about us? How does it bode for the future? Are we looking at not a perpetual war between nation states (as Orwell had it), but at a perpetual war between the haves and the have nots? It used to be the case that when things got really bad or just incredibly decadent, a revolution or an invasion from without would change things. Now it would appear that the difference between those at the bottom of the economic pyramid and those in the middle and upper classes will only widen. With the exponential explosion in technology that gap may become so great that the haves may someday regard the have nots as members of a different species.
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on June 25, 2007
If one just looked at the figures over the last twenty or so years there has been a lot of economic growth in Asia and Latin America. Africa is still troubled with a lot of the sub Sahara countries having negative growth. On balance though one would expect the lot of people in poor countries to be improving. Not so according to this book. What has been happening is incredible increases in urbanisation. However this urbanisation is in the form of slums.

Slums in poorer countries are portrayed as hell holes. People live in grossly overcrowded housing with no access to fresh water. In the slum cities of the third world there is no provision for removal of sewerage so that it runs into the fresh water supply (Sao Paulo) or simply is deposited on the ground. The failure to treat sewerage results in large numbers of deaths mainly to children through dysentery and cholera.

The vast majority of those who live in the slums have the most marginal of jobs. Sitting beside a road selling a few vegetables, cleaning shoes a few times a day. Driving taxis for a few dollars a day. (Apparently one in 7 cars in Lima is a taxi.) One of the tragedies of the slums is that the desperation of families leads to children below 14 being the bread winners of families. Working in Indian textile or carpet factories for minuscule wages for 12 hours a day, losing their childhood and any access to education.

The book is a sustained attack on the Peruvian economist De Soto who posited a theory that the way to overcome the problem of slums is to give title to the slum dwellers of the land they squat on and to make available small loans for "business enterprises". What the book suggests is that in the last twenty or so years since the development of free market ideologies have led to the enforced retreat of the state in poorer countries from economic life there has only been disaster. Potentially the state could do something about water provision, housing or sewerage removal but the poorer countries are at the mercy of international institutions which prevent such anti market activity by tying conditions to loans. The life of slum dwellers is so marginalised that title to slum land will achieve nothing.

The book rather resembles Engels' book on the condition of the English working class in 1844. It is full of rather depressing facts and figures with anecdotes to bring home the nature of the misery and the total degradation of life that exists in the slums. Not a pleasant read but something which is a sober reminder that growth rates alone do not translate automatically into the reduction of poverty or human misery.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon November 23, 2007
This is an actually frightening book by the provocative Mike Davis. Well written and very well researched, this is essentially a clear summary of the large secondary literature on the emergence of enormous slums throughout the Third World (joined since the fall of the Iron Curtain by large parts of the former Soviet Union and its former satrapies). Davis describes the magnitude and progressive growth of immiserated urban communities throughout the world. Reliable estimates place the inhabitants of these frequently hopeless locales in the 100s of millions and reasonable projections suggest that a large fraction of the world's future population growth will consist of the growth of these incredibly impoverished communities.
Davis provides a series of devastating accounts of the nature of life in these communities, characterized usually by insecurity of remarkably poor housing, little or absent public services, incredibly poor public health, a lack of economic opportunity, and continuous exploitation. The huge number of desperately poor people are exploited often by people only marginally less poor than themselves, by the local middle classes and elites of their countries, and often by their own governments.
Many factors contribute to the genesis of this horrible situation. Davis describes the legacy of colonialism, the exploitation of peoples by their own governments and elites, and the actions of international institutions supposedly encouraging development. Davis provides a particularly harsh, though I think substantially correct, critique of the neoliberal approach to development. In Davis' description, neoliberal policies have been accompanied by an exacerbation and expansion of the urban slum problem. Since these slums tend to be self-perpetuating, this is a dangerous legacy.
Davis doesn't address one possible contributing factor to the relative failure of the neoliberal experiment - the remarkable industrialization of China. The enormous expansion of the Chinese industrial economy had a strong negative effect on the economies of a number of other developing economies such as that of Mexico. This can hardly be considered a success for the neoliberal program as Chinese expansion is a good example of intelligent and fairly ruthless state economic management.
Davis also doesn't address a major cause of immiseration - population growth. It appears that our present system can produce enough nutrition to maintain fairly high fertility levels and enough control of epidemics to avoid horrible pandemics but providing a reasonable standard of living for all has escaped us.
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on January 5, 2009
Genius. As important as an Uncle Tom's Cabin was in its time. This is a wake up call to a dire humanitarian disaster. If you cross this text with concerns stated by Paul and Anne Ehrlich in One With Nineveh for example then our future is a rough ride no joke. We have to reverse the trends discussed in this book. This is a tough read and not easy to breathe through. Although I feel like I ought to be made totally miserable by this book for some weird reason I feel upbeat. Perhaps by the effort of writing such a mean little package on the subject, Davis at least has given us one more tool to fight against this mess. The fate of the age to a noticeable degree rides on this story.
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on June 24, 2013
Planet of Slums has several arguments but I would distill the primary ones as follows:

1. The end of the Cold War "liberated" capital to spread to all those portions of the world formerly dominated by the Soviet Union and its allies. Parallel to this economic theories known as "neoliberalism" arose in the 1970s and became dominant by the 1990s. Neoliberal ideology advocates deregulation of industry, the downsizing of government social programs, and a broken "truce" with labor that in the US had existed in fragile form since the New Deal.

2. This spread of capitalism, often referred to as "globalization," has produced for the first time a truly global labor force. The competitive pressure is so intense, as any job is better than no job at all, that workers the world over are willing to take what they can. The world is teeming with an awful, terrible, "surplus humanity" living marginalized lives of poverty, misery, and violence.

3. At the same time, the world's population keeps getting bigger, and more and more urban. This in turn continues to expand the potential labor pool, driving wages down even further. The wage gap between the rich and poor, both between nations *and* within nations, grows wider and deeper. The naked reality of this becomes more visible with each succeeding economic crisis.

4. Rather than face the consequences of what neoliberal ideology was allowed to unleash global elites, led by the military might of the United States, whose corporations continue to amass enormous profits, have focused on expanding and developing their instruments of order-keeping, cleverly disguised under misleading umbrellas of "wars on ...". Terrorism, drugs, piracy, are just so many smokescreens.

5. This process cannot continue permanently. There is a simmering anger beneath the surface that, for now, expresses itself only in isolated outbursts that high-tech campaigns of repression are capable of pacifying. Someday, however, the simmer may reach a boil and the eruption will be more than any nation can handle.
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