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'Planet of Slums'

Grim guided tour of world’s worst 'hoods.

Derrick O'Keefe 12 Apr
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Later this year, from June 19 to 23, Kofi Annan and company will converge on Vancouver for the third World Urban Forum, a grandiose-sounding gathering of United Nations bureaucrats, academics and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Were the esteemed gatherers really planning to sink their teeth into the problems of the 21st century city - rather than staying in luxury hotels, enjoying the early summer weather and issuing platitude-laden proclamations - they might take as their starting point Planet of Slums, the latest insightful book by radical urban theorist Mike Davis.

The author of City of Quartz (the definitive critical examination of Southern California's urban landscape) delivers, once again, his trademark scorching polemic. An honest portrayal of the disastrous plight of the world's urban poor, as is presented in Planet of Slums, calls forth no less than indignation, and Davis - unlike too many obfuscating scholars - is blunt and meticulous in assigning blame for the current state of affairs.

Predicted New Orleans debacle

Mike Davis has never been shy in broadcasting the urgency of a situation; for this, in fact, critics have branded him a Chicken Little (his other recent book also happens to deal with the threat of Avian Flu). Last fall's abandonment of hurricane-stricken New Orleans, however, should be enough to once and for all acquit Davis of scaremongering charges. In 2004, he wrote in Mother Jones a prophetic article about the dangers of neglecting to adequately prepare for disaster on the Gulf Coast:

"New Orleans had spent decades preparing for inevitable submersion by the storm surge of a class-five hurricane. Civil defense officials conceded they had ten thousand body bags on hand to deal with the worst-case scenario. But no one seemed to have bothered to devise a plan to evacuate the city's poorest or most infirm residents. The day before the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, New Orleans' daily, the Times-Picayune, ran an alarming story about the 'large group…mostly concentrated in poorer neighborhoods' who wanted to evacuate but couldn't."

The conditions described by Davis, of course, are not some potential future scenario; they are a brutal, contemporary reality. Planet of Slums begins with a survey of the phenomenon of urban growth, concentrating on the mega-cities of the underdeveloped world where inequality rates and economic segregation dwarf even those of a city like New Orleans. The facts are staggering; the squalor and suffering created over a generation of neo-liberal globalization is truly Dickensian:

"There is nothing in the catalogue of Victorian misery, as narrated by Dickens, Zola, or Gorky, that doesn't exist somewhere in a Third World city today. I allude not just to grim survivals and atavisms, but especially to primitive forms of exploitation that have been given new life by postmodern globalization - and child labour is an outstanding example."

Wasted childhoods

Child labour is a reality, in fact, for tens of millions of the estimated one billion slum dwellers worldwide. Davis dispatches the arguments of the apologists for the interests of capital with a mountain of evidence. For instance, he exposes the glorification of the 'informal sector' as dynamic entrepreneurialism. In fact, the devastation of the formal, not to mention unionized, employment sector has created a mass reserve army of labour forced to eke out their survival hawking wares, scrounging through trash, begging, being prostituted, or otherwise trading their quality of life for a semblance of a livelihood.

Davis's prose can be dizzying, jumping as it does from example to example of slum living conditions across the continents of the Global South, from Rio de Janeiro to Kinshasa to Mumbai and many points in between. Responsibility is pinned on the workings of international capital and its institutions like the IMF and World Bank, and on a myriad of governments. The NGO sector, whose advance has been concurrent with the retreat of the state during the neo-liberal era, also comes in for sharp criticism, being described as "soft imperialism":

"…Third World NGOs have proven brilliant at co-opting local leadership as well as hegemonizing the social space traditionally occupied by the Left. Even if there are some celebrated exceptions - such as the militant NGOs so instrumental in creating the World Social Forum - the broad impact of the NGO/ "civil society revolution," as even some World Bank researchers acknowledge, has been to bureaucratize and deradicalize urban social movements."

Urban warfare

Planet of Slums concludes with some preliminary assessments of the implications for humanity in the 21st century of the radically expanded landscape of urban poverty. The traditional emphases of the political Left - landless peasantry in the countryside and formal sector labour movements, for example - will need to shift along with the social and geographic locations of the poor majority. Indeed, some of the most inspiring political struggles of recent years have been waged by those making up the bloated and marginalized 'informal sectors' of the world's major cities, from the hillside barrios of Caracas, to Port-au-Prince's rebellious slum of Cité Soleil, to the segregated banlieues of Paris.

The powers that be have already begun preparing for the new urban theatre of poverty, war and resistance. Davis details the importance that Pentagon military strategists now place on MOUT, or Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain. Stressing realistic training (including in North American cities), the MOUT doctrine is a brutally rational perspective for the planners of empire. The battle lines of an unequal urban world are clearly drawn in the unreconstructed poor neighbourhoods of Baghdad, where the young militia fighters in the slum of Sadr City "taunt the American occupiers with the promise that their main boulevard is 'Vietnam Street'".

A rare academic who refuses to soft-pedal his anti-capitalist analysis, Mike Davis has, with Planet of Slums, reinforced his standing as one of our most important public intellectuals. He has indeed produced a must read for anyone seeking to understand and change the vast inequalities that scar our world and its cities.

Derrick O'Keefe is a founding editor of Seven Oaks Magazine.

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