Monday, November 26, 2007

Planet of Slums


As if it were not already a challenge trying to rationalise the grotesque sums changing hands at the top of the international art market, that task just got a whole lot harder having read Mike Davis's astonishing eye-opener of a book, Planet of Slums.

I was guided towards this bleak chronicle by Laurie Taylor's BBC Radio Four programme Thinking Allowed, but nothing could have prepared me for what the book contained. Indeed I defy anyone but the most emotionally-cauterized Pentagon policy wonk to emerge unaltered from its conclusions.

Davis has been called the Raymond Chandler of urban geography, but while that might suggest something of the pacy nature of his story-telling — urban geography as film noir — it rather belittles the import of what he's recounting. I took it as nothing less than the descent of humanity into a hell that not even Dante could have dreamt up. And if you think I'm exaggerating, then grab a copy here and see what you think.

The evils of colonialism are not new to me, but the longer term impact of the catastrophic modernity which colonialism helped shape (a process which is by no means fully played out, as Davis's book makes clear) is truly terrifying. Add to that legacy the venal instruments forged from the Bretton Woods agreements — namely the IMF and the World Bank — and the result is that two thirds of the world's population are now living, quite literally, in shit. (Nairobi's infamous Kibera slum, (Google Earth image above right), home to an estimated 1m people, is the site of the scatological innovation known as the 'flying toilet' or 'scud missile' — in which residents, deprived of formal sanitation, defecate into plastic bags which are then thrown onto the roof of the nearest house.)

Davis begins by outlining a world urban population growing at a staggering velocity, viz:

London in 1910 was seven times larger than it had been in 1800, but Dhaka, Kinshasa, and Lagos today are each approximately forty times larger than they were in 1950.

The present urban population is larger than the total population of the world when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated.

Slum populations, according to UN-HABITAT, are currently growing by a staggering 25 million per year.

China — urbanizing 'at a speed unprecedented in human history' — added more city-dwellers in the 1980s than did all of Europe (including Russia) in the entire nineteenth century.

The neoliberal restructuring of the Indian economy in the early 1990s produced a high-tech boom that created one million new millionaires, but 56 million more paupers.


Drilling down through the statistics reveals the unpalatable impact on human lives, with women and children often the real victims. For example, human organ-harvesting has become an integral part of the hypertrophic informal economies of the Third World as poor women sell their kidneys to raise money to support themselves and their children.

The material Davis has assembled to describe the planet of slums makes uncomfortable reading:

"In Accra, the Daily Graphic recently described 'sprawling refuse dumps, full of black plastic bags containing aborted fetal bodies from the wombs of Kayayee [female porters] and teenage girls in Accra. According to the Metropoloitan Chief Executive, '75 percent of the waste of black polythene bags in the metropolis contains human aborted fetuses.'"

Elsewhere, we find the re-emergence in parts of Africa of indigenous witchcraft in which children become "sacrificial receptacles" for poverty-induced "family immiseration and urban anomie."

Meanwhile, the wealthy barricade themselves into 'edge-cities', a Shangri-la of high-tech security and sanitation. As Davis observes, "these fantasy-themed enclaves bring us full circle to Philip K. Dick. In this 'gilded captivity', Jeremy Seabroook adds, the Third World urban bourgeoisie 'cease to be citizens of their own country and become nomads belonging to, and owing allegiance to, a superterrestrial topography of money; they become patriots of wealth, nationalists of an elusive and golden nowhere.'" (I'm tempted to add that this is where a fair proportion of blue-chip contemporary art ends up).

Another by-product of the disastrously polarised world we are creating is the changing nature of urban conflict. In the words of one leading US military theorist, rapid urbanisation results in "a battlespace environment that is decreasingly knowable since it is increasingly unplanned."

Davis's closing paragraph evokes a rapidly approaching cycle of epic mayhem reminiscent of the scenes enacted in Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down:

"This delusionary dialectic of securitized versus demonic urban places, in turn, dictates a sinister and unceasing duet: 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. If the Empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side."

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