Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Rushing Backward to the Age of Dickens
I went back to college as a full-time student in the mid 1990s (an incredible luxury I recommend to everybody), and one summer I had a history colloquium taught by an ivory-tower Marxist who hated students. Because it was a colloquium, we were supposed to participate in discussions, but few of us did, for fear of bringing down the professor's withering scorn at our apparent stupidity, which we'd get no matter what we said. Despite his utter unfitness to teach, the prof had a hell of a reading list--one of the books, City of Quartz by Mike Davis, remains a favorite. Davis writes extensively about urbanization and the way people live in cities. (City of Quartz was about Los Angeles in the '80s, and how it coped with its shifting demographics of growing minority populations and increased economic inequality.) Recently he's written an article in New Left Review called "Planet of Slums," which examines the "future history of the Third World's post-industrial megacities."

We Americans like to believe (and are encouraged to believe) that nothing happens on this planet that we can't shape or control. But what's going on in those Third World post-industrial megacities, while shaped by American (more broadly, Western) political and economic thought, is likely headed in a direction that we will not be able to control.

If you remember what you learned about the Industrial Revolution, you know that cities grew as they industrialized, and economic growth and development went along with population growth. Today, however, some cities in Africa, to take one example, are growing in size by five to eight percent a year while their countries' economies contract. How does this happen? The causes are many, but Davis lays some of the blame on the structural adjustment programs (SAPs) of the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the other institutions responsible for modernizing third-world economies:
Everywhere the IMF--acting as bailiff for the big banks and backed by the Reagan and Bush administrations--offered poor countries the same poisoned chalice of devaluation, privatization, removal of import controls and food subsidies, enforced cost-recovery in health and education, and ruthless downsizing of the public sector. . . . At the same time, SAPs devastated rural smallholders by eliminating subsidies and pushing them out, "sink or swim," into global commodity markets dominated by First World agribusiness.
The consolidation and privatization the IMF and WTO prescribe renders much of the population of these countries surplus, and with no job prospects, the only option for these people is to squat in an urban slum somewhere in hopes of surviving.
The pundits of bootstrap capitalism . . . may see this enormous population of marginalized labourers, redundant civil servants and ex-peasants as actually a frenzied beehive of ambitious entrepreneurs yearning for formal property rights and unregulated competitive space, but it makes more obvious sense to consider most informal workers as the "active" unemployed, who have no choice but to subsist by some means or starve. The world’s estimated 100 million street kids are not likely . . . to start issuing IPOs or selling chewing-gum futures.
Davis notes that the economic haves who run the IMF and the WTO got to be haves because they could benefit from the kinds of shelters, tariffs, and subsidies they're taking away from other countries. This process began in the late 70s and accelerated through the 80s--and you'd think that the prosperity of the 90s, coupled with the further spread of globalization, would have really made a difference in the Third World, like it was supposed to--but it didn't. In short, Davis says, "Much of the urban world, as a result, is rushing backwards to the age of Dickens."

With one-third of the global population now living in slums, what's likely to happen there as the world's population peaks around 10 billion in 50 years or so?
Everywhere the continuous accumulation of poverty undermines existential security and poses even more extraordinary challenges to the economic ingenuity of the poor. Perhaps there is a tipping point at which the pollution, congestion, greed and violence of everyday urban life finally overwhelm the ad hoc civilities and survival networks of the slum. Certainly in the old rural world there were thresholds, often calibrated by famine, that passed directly to social eruption. But no one yet knows the social temperature at which the new cities of poverty spontaneously combust.
Davis concludes by noting that it's Islam and Pentecostal Christianity that are likely to hold the keys to the future, and shape the combustion of these slums, if combust they do.

"Planet of Slums" is not a five-minute read, and it helps if you can tolerate academic prose, but it's worth it.

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