Revolution Online, September 23, 2008

From A World to Win News Service

Book review: Planet of Slums

September 15, 2008. A World to Win News Service. Planet of Slums by urban theorist Mike Davis has much to recommend it. (Verso, London and New York, 2006 hardbound, 2007 paperback.)

Davis writes very poetically, both in terms of language and his juxtaposed images, and at the same time his aim is a scientific understanding of just exactly what life is like—and what the future holds—for the more than one billion people who live in Brazilian favelas, Peruvian pueblos jovenes, Manila’s garbage city, the cemetery shantytown that’s home to a million people in Cairo, the millions who live without running water and toilets in Lagos, Mumbai (Bombay) and Jakarta, and the desakota of Colombo (Sri Lanka). His main point is that while today, for the first time, more than half of the planet’s people live in cities, this is due not to the success of capitalism, in human terms, but its failure to provide a real place in this world for those its growth has driven out of the countryside.

His book illuminates very clearly why we need world revolution and why “profit in command” strategies can never solve the problems of poverty, slums, access to clean affordable drinking water and proper sanitation facilities. Particularly recommended is Chapter 6, entitled “Slum Ecology,” a hard-hitting and deeply disturbing exposé of how hundreds of millions of people in the world are forced to live in complete squalor without access to the very basics, such as clean drinking water or a toilet. In Western Europe and the U.S., the vast majority of people do not give a second thought to having taps in the home producing clean drinking water and a private toilet for family and friends to use. Planet of Slums describes people living in appalling living conditions, such as: land poisoned with toxic waste or with chronic ground collapse; frequent slum fires (including arson as a method of slum clearance); breathing air equivalent to smoking two-and-a-half packs of cigarettes a day, as in Mumbai; being forced to defecate in the open, a condition faced by 700 million people in India; and not having access to drinking water. Davis points out, “[D]igestive-tract diseases arising from poor sanitation and the pollution of drinking water…are the leading cause of death in the world.” On the same page, Davis quotes Eileen Stillwaggon saying that, “Every day, around the world, illnesses related to water supply, waste disposal, and garbage kill 30,000 people and constitute 75 percent of the illnesses that afflict humanity.” Obviously with a different world order where the priority of governments was the health of the world population rather than profit, all these deaths would be completely preventable. It is one of imperialism’s greatest crimes that in the twenty-first century an average of 30,000 people die every day because they don’t have access to safe drinking water and waste disposal.

In another chapter, Planet of Slums outlines how in some countries of the world the slum population accounts for more than 90 percent of the total urban population—for example, in Afghanistan 98.5 percent of the urban population live in slums. Davis also reports that in Iraq, another country “liberated” by the U.S. and UK, hepatitis and typhoid epidemics rage out of control, and two years after the invasion “the naked human eye can discern filaments of human excrement in the tap water.”

People in Europe tend to take for granted access to universal health care, and it can be easy to forget that for most people of the world this is nothing more than a dream. A shocking fact from Planet of Slums is that “an estimated 60 percent of Cambodian small peasants who sell their land and move to the city are forced to do so by medical debts.” The illustrations of the variations in infant mortality rate are also disturbing. For example, in Quito (capital of Ecuador) infant mortality is 30 times higher in the slums than in the wealthier neighborhoods.

Planet of Slums also provides vivid exposure of the outcomes of interventions by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose activities benefit the imperialists and the already better off, whilst generally leaving the poor untouched or worse off. One example is housing projects that only benefit the urban middle-classes and elites rather than the slum dwellers. It is often under instruction from the World Bank and IMF that healthcare budgets are cut: for example, in Mexico after the adoption of a second IMF program in 1986, “the percentage of births attended by medical personnel fell from 94 percent in 1983 to 45 percent in 1988, while the maternal mortality rate soared from 82 per 100,000 to 150 in 1988.” Davis quotes the recommendations of the World Bank’s Investing in Health program: “Limited public expenditure on a narrowly defined package of services; user fees for public services; and privatized health care and financing.” He goes on to describe what happened when this approach was adopted in Zimbabwe, where, when user fees were introduced in the early 1990s, infant mortality “doubled.”

The book provides a wide-ranging and scathing picture of life for more and more of the planet’s population, not least of all the women and children. “A recent study of slum children in Dhaka, Bangladesh, discovered that ‘nearly half of boys and girls aged 10 to 14 were performing income-generating work,’ and ‘only 7 percent of girls and boys aged 5 to 16 years attended school.’” Dhaka alone has 750,000 child laborers. Every country today has passed laws forbidding child labor, yet tens of millions of the planet’s children are denied an education and compelled to work by the much more powerful laws that govern the way the capitalist system must search to squeeze ever more profit out of people, by whatever means it can.

Davis brings some important understanding of the compelling forces of the global market to an analysis of the ways that the efforts of non-governmental organizations, whose numbers have mushroomed in recent years, are constrained. He argues, “[E]ven as NGOs and development lenders tinker with ‘good governance’ and incremental slum improvement, incomparably more powerful market forces are pushing the majority of the poor further to the margins of urban life.” These same forces also hold these NGOs “captive” to the agenda of their international donors, rather than the agenda being determined by the needs of the people.

Davis focuses on exposure and does not offer much about what is needed to deal with the countless horrors he describes. Unfortunately, he seemingly rejects the most important experience and understanding that has actually been accumulated in this regard when he launches a superficial attack on what he calls “Asian Stalinism,” by which he means revolutionary China (1949-1976), describing the Chinese policy as “ideological antiurbanism.” Having exposed repeatedly how countries have done and are doing nothing constructive about the rapidly growing slums around the world, he then complains about China’s efforts to prevent slum formation, and condemns the Chinese who prevented the influx from countryside to city with “stringent controls over internal migration.” Yet, even Davis concedes that within 11 years of the revolution in China the homeless had been re-housed and most urban shantytowns had been abolished. This was an extraordinary feat unparalleled in history! Davis can’t have it both ways! Furthermore, Davis later acknowledges that, “Since the late 1970s, the distribution of income in China’s cities has gone from the most egalitarian in Asia to one of the most egregiously unequal.” This progress in overcoming the divisions between rich and poor was a reflection of the balanced economic development that China was able to achieve when it broke free of imperialist domination under the revolutionary leadership of Mao Tsetung. Interested readers can turn to the Shanghai Textbook on Political Economy (Banner Press, Chicago, 1995) which came out of the Cultural Revolution period in China, for more on the political and economic thinking behind this extraordinary achievement.

Davis describes a world that is crying out for revolution. At the same time, as becomes clear from the range of sources he draws on, revolutionaries are not the only ones analyzing the profound changes that have taken place in the structure of the world’s population in recent years. He concludes his book by turning to how those who today rule the world are assessing the potential impact of these changes. It is clear, for instance, that in reality they actually expect little if any real progress towards all the shiny promises about eradicating poverty that are regularly trotted out by the UN and other multilateral organizations. For instance, top UN researchers conclude that at current rates of progress sub-Saharan Africa would not reach the much-touted Millennium Development Goals until well into the twenty-second century—and this was written before the recent fuel and food crises. Analysts thus expect the planet’s slums to be hotbeds and breeding grounds of rebellion and upheaval in coming years. As a consequence, the military enforcers of the global imperialist order are ratcheting up their preparations for dealing with greatly heightened challenges in the megaslums of the Third World especially.

Davis quotes a study by the U.S. Army War College that gives a sense of what they consider to be at stake. These imperial military thinkers warn, “The future of warfare lies in the streets, sewers, highrise buildings, and sprawl of houses that form the broken cities of the world... Our recent military history is punctuated with city names—Tuzla [Bosnia], Mogadishu, Los Angeles [!], Beirut, Panama City, Hué, Saigon, Santo Domingo—but these encounters have been but a prologue, with the real drama still to come.”

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world’s Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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