BOOK REVIEW The accumulation of the wretched Planet of Slums by Mike Davis
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Reviewed by Pepe Escobar
SAO PAULO - Pentagon planners must have loved what happened in South America's
premier hypercity in the past few days; as urban warfare goes, it was more
illuminating than Baghdad or Gaza. The leaders of the First Capital Command
(PCC, for Primeiro Comando da Capital) - a super-gang involved in drug and arms
trafficking, kidnappings, bank robberies and extortion and controlling most of
Sao Paulo's overcrowded and notoriously corrupt prisons - declared war against
Brazil's wealthiest state.
From inside their prison cells, using US$150 mobile phones, they
ordered motorcyclist "bin Ladens" - warriors indebted to the PCC, heavily armed
with guns, shotguns, hand grenades, machine-guns and Molotov cocktails - to
conduct a violent orgy: spraying police cars with bullets, hurling grenades at
police stations, attacking officers in their homes and after-hours hangouts,
torching dozens of buses (after passengers had been ordered off), and robbing
banks. Almost 100 people were killed in three days. On Monday, the PCC managed
single-handedly virtually to paralyze Sao Paulo, the third-largest of the
world's hypercities (those with more than 19 million people).
The PCC leaders were demanding better jail conditions; and crucially - as this
is soccer-mad Brazil - a few dozen television sets so inmates can follow the
World Cup in Germany next month. Sooner or later, with better coordination,
of force like this one will inevitably spread to Rio de Janeiro's slums, also a
drug-dealing beehive. Brazil's mega-cities are used to urban civil war. And the
war has been on since at least the late 1970s. "Baghdad is here" has become a
Mike Davis, one of the United States' premier urban theorists and analysts of
urban hell, author of City of Quartz and Dead Cities, should have
been watching Sao Paulo's civil war first-hand; this is everything the future
predicted in his remarkable new book is all about, the slums of the world's
mega-cities rebelling against the state. We're heading toward a world where
"cities will account for virtually all future world population growth, which is
expected to peak at about 10 billion in 2050".
Already the combined populations of China, India and Brazil roughly equal that
of Western Europe and North America. By 2025, Asia will have at least 10
hypercities, including Jakarta (24.9 million people), Dhaka (25 million),
Karachi (26.5 million), Shanghai (27 million) and Mumbai (with a staggering 33
million). Davis also refers to the coming leviathan of the Rio/Sao Paulo
Extended Metropolitan Region, a 450-kilometer-long axis between the two
Brazilian mega-cities already encompassing 37 million people, even more than
the Tokyo-Yokohama conurbation (33 million).
Davis sees the future as a realist, not as an apocalyptic visionary: "This
great dragon-like sprawl of cities will constitute the physical and demographic
culmination of millennia of urban evolution. The ascendancy of coastal East
Asia, in turn, will surely promote a Tokyo-Shanghai 'world city' dipole to
equal the New York-London axis in the control of global flows of capital and
But most of all, the dire consequences of the hypercity explosion will be
inevitable: appalling inequality within and between cities and, as far as China
is concerned, the terror gripping their urban experts - the unbridgeable gap
between small inland cities and coastal hypercities. Nobody yet has examined in
full the implications of China ceasing to be the predominantly rural society it
has been for millennia.
What we already have in the early 21st century, in rich as well as poor
countries, is a new paradigm coined by German architect and urban theorist
Thomas Sieverts: the Zwischenstadt ("in-between city"). Referring to
Indonesia, Davis points out the advanced rural/urban hybridization of
"Jabotabek", the Greater Jakarta region. "Researchers call these novel land-use
patterns desakotas ('city villages') and argue whether they are
transitional landscapes or a dramatic new species of urbanism," he writes.
As Davis points out with glee, "Eighty percent of [Karl] Marx's industrial
proletariat now lives in China or somewhere outside of Western Europe and the
US." Most are ready to explode. This accumulation of the wretched has been
enhanced by "policies of agricultural deregulation and financial discipline
enforced by the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and World Bank" that spawned
"an exodus of surplus rural labor to urban slums even as cities ceased to be
job machines". So this "over-urbanization" was driven "by the reproduction of
poverty, not by the supply of jobs".
This is one of the unexpected tracks down which a neo-liberal world order is
shunting the future. Davis proves his point by quoting an array of United
Nations data, from the 16.4% annual growth rate of Sao Paulo favelas (slums)
in the 1990s to the 200,000 floaters (unregistered rural workers) who arrive
annually in Beijing or the 500,000 who migrate annually to Delhi (of these, 80%
end up in slums). Davis dedicates a whole chapter - "SAPing the Third World" -
to examining the dire consequences of the dreaded, one-size-fits-all,
IMF-imposed "structural adjustment programs" (SAPs).
Abandon all hope those who dream about the glamorously high-tech cities of the
future. They will be largely constructed of "crude brick, straw, recycled
plastic, cement blocks and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring
toward heaven, much of the urban 21st century squats in squalor, surrounded by
pollution, excrement, and decay". To see it live, right now, one just has to
drive by Kolkata, Mumbai, Manila, Jakarta, Cairo, Changing or Sao Paulo.
According to UN-HABITAT figures, most places with the world's largest
percentages of slum-dwellers are in Asia: Afghanistan (98.5%) and Nepal (92%).
Mumbai holds the dubious record of being the slum capital of the world - as
many as 12 million squatters - followed by Mexico City and Dhaka and then
Lagos, Cairo, Karachi, Kinshasa-Brazzaville, Sao Paulo, Shanghai and Delhi.
Exclusion, of course, is the norm, as this correspondent, who has lived and
worked in many a teeming, vast, messy hypercity in the developing world, can
attest. Mumbai is a classic case, as Davis quotes research according to which
the rich own 90% of the land, while the poor are overcrowded in the remaining
10%. "These polarized patterns of land use and population density recapitulate
older logics of imperial control and racial dominance. Throughout the Third
World, post-colonial cities have inherited and greedily reproduced the physical
footprints of segregated colonial cities ... despite the rhetoric of national
liberation and social justice."
As far as exclusion is concerned, Davis could not but refer to the most
Orwellian "urban beautification" program in Asia - the preparation for Visit
Myanmar Year 1996 undertaken by the junta that rules Myanmar. "One and a half
million residents - an incredible 16% of the total urban population - were
removed from their homes ... and shipped out to hastily constructed
bamboo-and-thatch huts in the urban periphery, now creepily renamed the 'New
Fields', thus leading to Rangoon [Yangon] being transformed into 'a nightmare
combination of a Buddhist tourist wonderland, a giant barracks and a
Another crucial process, the criminalization of the slum - as it happened,
among other examples, in Rio and Jakarta - runs parallel to what Davis
describes as the "explosive growth of exclusive, closed suburbs on the
peripheries of Third World cities. Chinese urban designer Pu Miao has called
this 'the most significant development in recent urban planning and design'."
Gated-community heaven - be it in Beijing or Sao Paulo, Bangkok or Manila,
Bangalore or Cairo - is an "off world", and Davis is happy to borrow the
terminology from the film Blade Runner. These replica southern
Californias are also the epitome of an "architecture of fear", as Nigerian
researcher Tunde Agbola, quoted by Davis, defines fortified lifestyle in Lagos.
Davis correctly points out that its most extreme forms are "in large urban
societies with the greatest socio-economic inequalities: South Africa, Brazil,
Venezuela and the US".
It is indeed a "culture of the absurd" - as every upper-middle-class condo in
Sao Paulo comes with armed guards, banks of closed-circuit-television cameras,
electrified wiring connected with emergency alarms and sometimes connected to
"armed response" security companies. Rich and poor, in this environment, rarely
intersect. It's what some Brazilian writers call "the return to the medieval
city". Gated-community heaven, as reached by the upwardly mobile in the
developing world, elevates them, in Davis's words, into "fortified,
fantasy-themed enclaves and edge cities, disembedded from their own social
landscapes but integrated into globalization's cyber-California floating in the
digital ether". The whole thing also means the death of civil society as we
All over the world, hundreds of millions survive by juggling within the
so-called "informal sector". Davis agrees with an array of multinational
researchers: the rise of the informal sector is a direct byproduct of
neo-liberal policies. Some Brazilian sociologists, as Davis points out, call
the process "passive proletarization". According to the UN, informal workers
already constitute "two-thirds of the economically active population of the
In Latin America, the informal economy already supplies four out of five "new
jobs". In the end Davis cannot but mock development aid bureaucrats and their
air-conditioned utopian vision of slums as Strategic Low-income Urban
Management Systems (SLUMS). There's nothing romantic about Varanasi, the "world
capital of enslaved and exploited children", or the 200,000-plus rickshawallahs
of Dhaka - "the unsung Lance Armstrongs of the Third World" earning about $1
for pedaling at least 60km every day.
Davis saves the best for last - the chapter titled "Down Vietnam Street".
Reflecting reality in the streets of the world's hypercities, where the
permanently redundant masses will never stand a chance of being included in
socio-economic terms, he writes that "the late capitalist triage of humanity,
then, has already taken place". The enterprising Central Intelligence Agency
(CIA) has also reached the same conclusion, he notes, as a 2002 report stressed
that already by the late 1990s "a staggering 1 billion workers representing
one-third of the world's labor force, most of them in the South, were either
unemployed or underemployed".
Davis remembers how the administration of US president John Kennedy "officially
diagnosed Third World revolutions as 'diseases of modernization' and prescribed
- in addition to Green Berets and B-52s - ambitious land reforms and housing
programs". Everyone living in Latin America in the 1960s remembers the dreaded
Alliance for Progress - advertised US-style as a sort of Marshall Plan that
would "lift pan-American living standards to southern European, if not gringo,
levels". The results were disastrous, just as the heavily advertised UN
Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will not be met. Davis quotes the UN's
Human Development Report 2004, which warns that measuring by recent "progress",
sub-Saharan Africa will not reach most of these goals "until well into the 22nd
So we're left with repression - the definitive neo-liberal paradigm, a literal
"Great Wall" of high-tech border repression trying to suppress migration to
rich countries - as in the conservative US vis-a-vis Mexico and Central America
and the European Union vis-a-vis the Maghreb. Meanwhile, slum populations,
according to UN-HABITAT, will keep growing at least by 25 million people a
Squattable land is eroding. So welcome to "the radical new face of inequality",
as Davis put it, "a grim human world largely cut off from the subsistence
solidarities of the countryside as well as disconnected from the cultural and
political life of the traditional city". This is the edge of the abyss, the new
Babylon; and its inhabitants more than ever will include the young,
dispossessed neo-terrorists who attacked Casablanca in May 2003 as well as the
motorized "bin Ladens" attacking Sao Paulo police only a few days ago.
As much as he can't stand the IMF-World Bank "development" crowd, Davis's
post-modern neo-realism has no time for "portentous post-Marxist speculations"
like Toni Negri's "multitudes" acting in "rhizomatic spaces". This book is as
much a scholarly effort - grounded in solid research ranging from
urban-planning papers to the general media - as a cry of alarm. Davis presents
the intractable problems but also sets the stage for finding solutions - the
subject of his next book, to be written alongside Forrest Hylton, on the
history and future of slum-based resistance to global capitalism. The only
thing missing would be Davis himself spending more time in the developing
world's hypercities and adding an element of reportage to his theoretical tour
It may be an apocalyptic urban background that virtually no politicians,
corporate types or think-tank "experts" ever visit - but this is real life, not
virtual reality. As Davis correctly puts it, "the rulers' imagination ... seems
to falter before the obvious implications of a world of cities without jobs".
Thus the French elite's perplexity with the Paris banlieues on fire late
last year, the US perplexity with the dispossessed becoming Salafi jihadis in
the outskirts of Istanbul, Cairo, Karachi and Casablanca, the Brazilian
authorities' impotence facing street gangs and narcotraficantes.
For the powers that be, the easiest way out is to demonize. Thus the "war on
terror", the "war on drugs" and the obliteration of any serious and honest
debate about the unspeakable daily violence of perpetual economic exclusion.
Davis sums it all up thusly: "The categorical criminalization of the urban poor
is a self-fulfilling prophecy, guaranteed to shape a future of endless war in
the streets." And this is happening while virtually nobody in positions of
political power is examining the terrifying geopolitical implications of a
planet of slums.
So back to the standing order - to repress, repress, repress. Davis embarks on
a short, brilliant analysis of the Pentagon's take on global urban poverty. He
inevitably has to talk about MOUT - Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain.
As the journal of the Army War College declared, Davis quotes, "The future of
warfare lies in the streets, sewers, highrise buildings and sprawl of houses
that form the broken cities of the world." The Santa Monica, California-based
Rand Corporation - which helped to set strategy for the Vietnam War in the
1960s - has added a little more concept to MOUT.
Rand has concluded that the urbanization of world poverty has produced "the
urbanization of insurgency"; insurgents are "following their followers into the
cities, setting up 'liberated zones' in urban shantytowns". The Rand experts
are obviously talking about Baghdad's Sadr City - one of the world's largest
slums - where the young and the wretched join Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army to
make life hell for the American occupier (no wonder Sadr City's squalid main
boulevard is nicknamed "Vietnam Street").
But the Rand crowd could also be talking about the drug-infested slums of Sao
Paulo, where "faculties" are prisons dominated by the PCC, monthly
contributions by members - ranging from $25 to $250 - finance drug trafficking,
prison exchange and attacks, and "bin Ladens" have either to fulfill their
mission and pay their debt to the organization, scoring points with the
criminal elite, or they become traitors to the "Party of Crime".
So this is the way the world ends: not with a whimper, but with bang after
bang, the "homeland" cities of the world crouching in their defense against
"forces of darkness", or the "axis of evil", or "terrorists", Islamic and
otherwise, who threaten the "free world".
"Night after night, hornet-like helicopter gunships stalk enigmatic enemies in
the narrow streets of the slum districts ... every morning the slums reply with
suicide bombers and eloquent explosions." It's happening right now, over there
in Baghdad and over here, in the vast, messy hypercity of Sao Paulo. Welcome to
the (overcrowded) Dome of Hell - and this one is not digital, it's the real
Planet of Slums by Mike Davis. Verso, 2006. ISBN 1-84467-022-8. Price
US$24, 256 pages hardcover.