Planet of Slums

Mike Davis. Planet of Slums (New York: Verso, 2006).

In this sweeping account of macro-order global transformation, Mike Davis zeroes in on the urban slum as the key protagonist of postcolonial political economic processes. Planet of Slums spells out the apocalyptic prevalence of slum living, arguing that this portentous trend deserves the world’s full attention:

Thus, the cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood.… The one billion city-dwellers who inhabit postmodern slums might well look back with envy at the ruins of the sturdy mud homes of Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia…. (19)

From the collapse of the waste disposal infrastructure in Kabul to the natural disasters that threaten settlements around Caracas and Manila, Davis takes in a panoply of woes threatening the poor in the “global south.” Effectively incarcerated in poverty, slum populations face a nauseating complex of obstacles to human rights and social reproduction: substandard housing, endemic disease, stymied employment and educational opportunities, disproportionate risk of natural disaster and environmental pollution, political repression (including projects of “urban renewal” or “beautification” that displace entire communities), shriveling entitlements to social welfare, and the privatization of vital resources like public toilets and fresh water. In the summary of a Baghdad slum-dweller, slum existence is “semi-death”: millions of people worldwide, having been made redundant, have been semi-murdered.

Historicizing and politicizing the development of slums throughout the Third World, Davis sheds light on the obscure and maligned particulars of life in these landscapes, tracing a litany of appalling statistics to structural adjustment and “shock therapy” of the 1970s and ‘80s, failed or corrupt governments, and the brutally indifferent self-enrichment of local and global elites. Planet of Slums insists on placing the margin at the center: in Davis’s formulation, the slums of the global south stand at the heart of the postmodern global economic order. The grim forces in the lives of slum-dwellers index the betrayed promises of anticolonial revolutions, neoliberal markets, and what Rita Abrahamsen calls an “iron triangle” of “transnational professionals based in key government ministries… multilateral and bilateral development agencies and international NGOs” (76).

Davis is frequently tagged as a “maverick scholar” for his lack of institutional affiliation and his partisan, expressionistic prose style; his work is more emotionally wrenching than many mainstream academic and policy works that address poverty. He is also impressively omnivorous in his selection of source matter, citing anthropologists, public policy and public health experts, historians, politicians, economists, and novelists to produce a multiperspectival portrait of “bare life” as it takes shape on the ground.

It may also be said that Davis writes fast and loose. Staying away from case studies, Planet of Slums skips around the globe, citing an example in Cité-Soleil, Haiti, touching down in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, and then passing on to the “New Fields” in Rangoon (143f). While this style can leave the reader with the impression of well-researched scholarly buttressing at the global level, it sometimes veers towards the slapdash, with a slum in Bangalore registering as the rhetorical equivalent of a slum outside Mexico City or Beijing. He touches on a host of contemporary concerns: urbanization, neoliberal economic reform, privatization, social stratification and urban planning, HIV/AIDS, gentrification, squatting, gated communities, transportation, pollution, corruption, the casualization of labor and the rise of informal economies, the militarization of borders, and the feminization of poverty, each of which holds the reader’s attention for no more than a few pages.

Despite its occasional breeziness and relative brevity, Davis’s is a convincing introduction to framing and theorizing a phenomenon of irrefutable significance. While the power of the prose almost equals the despair it describes, Planet of Slums avoids any portraiture of sublime, exoticized poverty; nor does Davis present slum dwellers as pathologized or pitiful. Instead, he frames slum and city as constituent parts of a political, economic, and environmental ecosystem. As in the case of a potentially globalized epidemic of avian influenza, the First and Third Worlds are in the same boat. In spelling out the ominous trends that shape the lives of slum-dwellers, Davis does more than catalogue the morbid effects of globalization’s “race to the bottom.” Unveiling the regime that is creating the slum and its Others, Davis exposes the unplanned side-effects of neoliberal policymaking, adding a profoundly spatial dimension to analyses of global trends in poverty and populations. Beyond those substantial accomplishments, Planet of Slums strips away the cosmopolitan reader’s sense of well-insulated distance from raw poverty, leaving troubling questions about one’s consumer freedoms and the ramifications that they entail worldwide.

Reviewed by Martha Lincoln, Graduate student in Cultural Anthropology
City University of New York

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