Planet of Slums, by Mike Davis
IN THE FALL OF 2012, when I was a freshman in high school, I took a class called AP human geography.
It was one of the most eye-opening classes I’d taken up to that point in my life—as well as the most depressing. Rooted in the global study of demographics, the class entailed discussing the breadth of human suffering, matters that provoke most people to drown their apprehension by turning on Netflix: overpopulation, poverty, environmental collapse. On one typical day, I remember we watched a documentary about overpopulation in Indian slums. The imagery within—dust-choked shanties, emaciated mothers, all narrated by a smooth British voice—was so depressing that, by the end of it, I was left despairing at the futility of human existence.
In class, it was accepted that each of these phenomena was driven by a set of historical causalities. But it was also accepted that those causalities were inevitable, in the same way that—though they may be tragic—earthquakes, storms, and lightning are impossible to prevent. Globalization, and the existence of slums, were discussed as if they were theologically predetermined: horrendous, but impossible to stop. To suggest they could have been, and should still be stopped was to be naïve and idealistic. To suggest that the latter may have created the former was more-or-less taboo.
“It’s inevitable,” the teacher would say through his microphone, propping his feet up at the back of the classroom and clicking through the PowerPoint depicting death, destruction, and despair. “Nothing you can do to stop it.”
Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums, a documentary investigation of the forces creating these global urban nightmares, shreds apart the intellectual laziness that says slums simply came out of nowhere by no one’s fault.
Over a billion people globally, roughly a seventh of humanity, are now trapped in slums. For Davis, this is no accident. To insinuate that emergence of slums was mere tragedy, rather than the result of a conscious series of criminal policy decisions, is to be blind to facts and deaf to morality. Slums, for him, are the result of forty years of neoliberal policies—privatization, deregulation, militarization of communities and demonization of the poor—administered by organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). They are the bastard children of globalization—a fact I would’ve unlikely figured out from my human geography class.
His book is many things: a meticulous history of the evolution of slums and a harrowing portrait of life within them. Most of all, it’s a polemical broadside against the think-tank apparatchiks who allowed their proliferation in the first place.
Though slums have existed for several centuries, with many contemporary shantytowns such as Mathare in Nairobi dating back over a hundred years, Davis argues the current explosion of the global slumworld was ignited in the mid 20th century. Myriad forces accumulated into the kindling of the slum explosion:
One of them was the scrapping of colonial era that prevented dark-skinned natives from living near city centers, allowing a sudden deluge of rural people into urban areas. Another was the convergence of droughts and, in places like sub-Saharan Africa, civil war, which made living in the countryside virtually impossible and driving millions into the now-expanding slums.
But Davis, echoing the results of the devastating 2003 UN report The Challenge of Slums, is unequivocal in denouncing the greatest culprit in the rise of favelas, gecekondus, and barrios feos as the retreat of the state.
Contrary to the arguments of doctrinaire free marketeers, the market, at the end of the day, is a random force. It’s not always immoral. But it’s most certainly amoral. Exposing the poor to the juggernaut of the unhinged market, more often than not, puts them in a dangerous and vulnerable situation. On the one hand, they have no social safety net to provide them with consistent healthcare, clean water, or education. On the other, the prices of life-sustaining goods—fuel, for example—are allowed to rise far out of the economic grasp of slumdwellers because governments no longer subsidize them.
To hitch an entire society to random market forces—especially the poorest demographic swaths, who, when markets crash, never receive billion-dollar government bailouts in the way US banks did in 2008-2009—is akin to tying a child to the legs of a horse and being surprised when the horse runs off and kills them.
But that’s exactly what Third World governments have done to slums—often at the metaphorical gunpoint of financial institutions dominated by the United States.
The free market Revolution of the 1980s, the rise of neoliberalism, came at a vulnerable time for Third World nations. Following three decades of failed efforts at economic nationalism, the majority of countries in the Global South were crippled under mountains of foreign debt. With nowhere to turn to except US-dominated financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), they were forced to embrace the same programs of free market “reforms” in exchange for debt relief.
Reforms carry a connotation of positive change, so to refer to them as such can be misleading. These Structural Adjustment Programs administered by the IMF, or “SAPs,” as they’re referred to, demanded that governments withdraw social spending, privatize state-run industries, and cut safety nets for the poor if they were to receive desperately needed debt relief. To be resuscitated economically, they were forced to make a more hospitable environment for foreign corporations. The social fallout from this was catastrophic. The mass-privatizations demanded by SAPS meant the now rising prices of healthcare and other public services would be dangled beyond the economic grasp of slumdwellers. In many Third World slums, this meant getting food or gas entailed walking ten miles or waiting six hours, and that services as basic as hospitals or schools became simply non-existent.
“The IMF and World Bank…” Davis writes, “promoted regressive taxation through public-service user fees for the poor, but made no counterpart effort to reduce military expenditure or to tax the incomes or real estate of the rich. As a result, infrastructure and public health everywhere lost the race with population increase. In Kinshasa… ‘the population refers to basic public services as ‘memories.’”
Up until very recently in history, social conservatives farcically offered LGBTQ+ liberation as an explanation for the disintegration of family structures. But the truth all along is that economic scarcity, the inability to easily access water, food, heating, gas, schools, or healthcare, has been the culprit in eviscerating family structures. For slumdwellers, that scarcity was astronomically worsened by IMF-structural adjustment. In turn, an inordinate amount of pressure was placed on women, upon whom capitalism has historically depended for their unpaid labor power in taking care of children, to keep their families afloat in hard times.
“Everywhere in the Third World,” Davis writes, “the economic shocks of the 1980s forced individuals to regroup around the pooled resources of households and, especially, the survival skills and desperate ingenuity of women. As male formal employment opportunities disappeared, mothers, sisters, wives were typically forced to bear far more than half the weight of urban structural adjustment… poor urban women under SAPs had to work harder both inside and outside the home to compensate for cuts in social service expenditures and male incomes… Somehow, they were expected to cope. Indeed, some researchers argue that SAPs cynically exploit the belief that women’s labor-power is almost infinitely elastic in the face of household survival needs. This is the guilty secret variable in most neoclassical equations of economic adjustment: poor women and their children are expected to lift the weight of Third World debt upon their shoulders.”
The situation was worsened by the end of the Cold War, when there was no longer the demand for social reform when First World superpowers delivered military aid to Third World client regimes. During the Cold War, in order to win the ideological battle against the Soviets, US foreign policy demanded at least a rhetorical concern for the well-being of poor third-world residents. But that concern was shirked by the time the inevitability of a US victory became clear in the late 80s. Conditions requiring concomitant social spending in exchange for military aid were quietly forgotten. The State Department, instead, began urging Third World countries to focus solely on deregulating privatizing, and militarizing the communities destabilized by said reforms to maintain social order. In short, they were urged to create more hospitable environments for capitalism at the expenses of the poor masses who lived there.
Let the poor rot—it wasn’t as if, after 1990, they had any ideological alternatives to which they could turn.
It would be easy to assume that the ideology of the World Bank and IMF grew solely out of meetings in glossy corporate boardrooms. But the truth is that it came from an amalgamation of neoliberal economics and anarchist aestheticism—in particular, the philosophy of one man, who became a Rasputin whispering ideology into being at the World Bank.
John Turner was an English anarchist and writer who was captivated by the architecture in Peruvian slums. For Turner, who famously wrote that “housing is a verb,” the construction designs in shantytowns represented the highest expression of collective human ingenuity and community building practices. If left to help themselves, slumdwellers would build communities, and therefore economies, that could overcome poverty without needing state intervention. Slums were the solution to poverty—not the symptom of it.
This philosophy of promoting architectural “self-help,” popularized in works such as Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments, was embraced in the mid-70s by the policy-making establishment of the World Bank, including then-President Robert McNamara, the man notorious for directing the Vietnam War. For McNamara, Turner’s philosophy served as a cost-effective and intellectually attractive justification to withdraw government support for the poor. Not that the poor had any say in this, of course—all evidence indicates that construction of the slums was never an entirely self-executed process, and that as “beautiful” as they may be, they have never been safe to live in. As Davis writes, “praising the praxis of the poor became a smokescreen for reneging upon historic state commitments to relieve poverty and homelessness.”
If aestheticizing the “beauty” of slums was how the powerful preemptively justified the implementation of neoliberalism, fetishizing the “informal sector” that flourished within slums was how they justified its reinforcement afterwards.
The “informal sector” is a euphemism for what most people simply understand as the dark economy. But the shadowy underworld of unregistered capital, goods, and businesses tends to be termed the informal sector by those who benefit from not having to address its existence. As Davis writes, “innumerable studies—often sponsored by the World Bank and other pillars of the so-called Washington Consensus—have sought consolation in the belief that the informal sector is potentially the urban Third World’s deus ex machina.” Like aestheticizing the architectural beauty of slums, many people in positions of power sought to reconfigure participation in the informal sector not as a forced activity, carried out for survival, but as an empowering iteration of the pure free market in action—in other words, as an transformative accident.
Few intellectuals embodied informal sector fetishization better than Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto. An acolyte of Friedman and Hayek, De Soto gained notoriety for theorizing that slum poverty could be ameliorated by granting property rights to squatters and allowing the free market, now legalized through the recognition of private property—capitalism’s bedrock—to take its course. He saw a mass of enterprising proto-capitalists in slums, not oppressed proletarians. (“Marx,” De Soto once wrote, “would probably be shocked to find how in developing countries much of the teeming mass does not consist of oppressed legal proletarians but of oppressed extralegal small entrepreneurs”). He glorified the heroic “micro-entrepreneur,” the teenager on the street hawking useless knickknacks or slices of mango in cellophane, and was convinced that the repressed proto-capitalist’s only hindrance to wealth was the lack of formal titling. The solution, for De Soto, was to withdraw regulations and unions from the economy entirely, to give micro-credit loans to micro-entrepreneurs, and to allow the unleashed free-market, freshly legalized, to run its course.
Like John Turner—like all intellectuals whose work varnishes prevailing power structures with an attractive intellectual gloss—De Soto’s economic philosophy was glorified by elites, in part because his diagnosis on the origins of slums exculpated them from any wrongdoing and because it said they didn’t have to do anything to fix it.
Davis, in a nine-point argument, lays waste to this semi-utopian romanticization of the informal sector embodied by people like De Soto:
He writes how most people in the informal sector were formerly salaried public sector workers who were laid off because of IMF-demanded budget cuts and privatizations. They aren’t in the informal sector because they wanted to be there: they ended up there because they were kicked out of their previous jobs. He writes how, despite the image of the informal sector’s heroically self-employed entrepreneur, the truth is that the majority in the informal sector are still mere employees, and that they endure even more rank forms of exploitation in the dark economy than they would in the formal. The informal sector, after all, by its very own definition implies a lack of regulations. “Petty exploitation,” he writes, “is (the informal sector’s) essence, and there is growing inequality within the informal sector as well as between it and the formal sector. De Soto’s Invisible Revolution of informal capital is really about myriad invisible networks of exploitation.” The total lack of regulation, in turn, ensures the extreme abuse of women and children. The informal sector doesn’t create new jobs, but merely fragments the old ones and subdivides pre-existing incomes, a process Davis refers to as Urban Involution. He writes about how the desperation caused by the Darwinian competitiveness of the informal sector often induces people into the volatile world of wishful thinking. The Darwinian competition fomented in the informal sector disintegrates the social fabric holding poor communities, forcing everyone against one another and commodifying goods previously considered part of the community commons.
“Now everything is for sale,” an NGO worker in Haiti lamented. “The women used to receive you with hospitality, give you coffee, share all that she had in her home. I could go get a plate of food at a neighbor’s house; a child could get a coconut at her godmother’s, two mangoes at another aunt’s. But these acts of solidarity are disappearing with the growth of poverty. Now when you arrive somewhere, either the woman offers to sell you a cup of coffee or she has no coffee at all. The tradition of mutual giving that allowed us to help each other and survive—this is all being lost.”
There are other rejoinders to informal sector utopianism. Perhaps the most terrifying is the fact that when the government doesn’t regulate the free market, gangs, cartels, and ethno-religious groups will. With this newfound control, “the godfathers and landlords of the informal sector (invisible in most of the literature) intelligently use coercion, even chronic violence to regulate competition and protect their investments.”
The violent manipulation of informal economies is particularly prevalent throughout Latin America, where bloodshed is carried out by extra-state armed groups wielding leftover Cold War weapons financed by the drug trade. In the “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, for example, entire swaths of the slums are economically and politically dominated by mareros, the tattooed gangmembers from MS-13 or 18th Street. In Colombian slums, such as Lleras in Buenaventura, many young men, bereft of job opportunities, are drawn into work for right-wing paramilitary death squads, filling the void where the government vacated. The governments in those countries—in Central America, narco-trafficking oligarchies which remain standing only because of US support during the quashed revolutions of the 1980s—have traditionally done little to intervene in the economy of the slums, allowing the gangs and cartels to impose their own economic influence on the regulatory void. There is a reason that taxi drivers in those city are often forced to flee: they are subjected to “war-taxes” from the gangs in their zones of influence. When they refuse to pay, the answer is visible in any number of the lifeless bodies that emerge on street corners after dark nights: they’re summarily killed.
While many think-tank intellectuals sought to obscure neoliberalism’s complicity in the global expansion of slums, slumdwellers themselves refused to passively accept their fate.
In the 1970s and 80s, a series of massive “Food Riots” convulsed Third World cities and slums in response to rising food prices caused by IMF SAPs. For two decades, the slums of the Global South pulsated with mass disturbances that, in many cases, were tantamount to full-scale urban rebellions.
“The first wave of anti-IMF protests,” Davis writes, “peaked between 1983 and 1985, only to be followed by a second wave after 1989. In Caracas in February 1989 a hugely unpopular IMF-dictated increase in fuel prices and transit fares sparked a riot by angry bus riders and radical university students, and police batons quickly turned the confrontation into a semi-insurrection. During the week-long Caracazo, tens of thousands of poor people came down from their hillside barrios to loot shopping centers, burn luxury cars, and build barricades. At least 400 were killed.”
Violence was also pronounced in the Middle East, with many governments being forced to ingest IMF SAPs after running afoul on their foreign debt. In Egypt in 1977, an IMF and World Bank-mandated termination of food-subsidies caused a mass uprising of lower class residents across the country, one unlike few that had been seen before. In the space two days, state repression of rioters led to the death of 79 people, the injury of 550 and the arrest of over a thousand. Similar riots would soon after convulse Jordan, Morocco, war-stricken Lebanon. One paper identified 146 such disturbances in 39 debtor countries from 1976 to 1992.
It wasn’t coincidental that the food riot was reborn in the era of the IMF’s ascendancy. The unrest flaring throughout the Global South came the exact moment classical liberalism—the laissez-faire capitalism notorious for producing Dickensian panoramas of poverty in the 1800s—was resurrected in the late 1970s, this time through the refurbished ideology of neo-liberalism. This era marked a return to a more violent form of gloves-off capitalism. Workers, revolting violently against the deepening precarity they were being forced to endure, were merely responding in turn.
Today, the IMF riot has returned as new SAPs are administered onto new countries, the subterranean lava of discontent erupting into violent protests in Honduras, Haiti, Lebanon, Ecuador, Chile.
Wars against the Slums
Slums are anathema to governments. Their geography is so labyrinthine, their construction so multilayered, that it’s virtually impossible to map, monitor, and control them. Their populations, resentful over political invisibility, turn many slums into pressure cookers of radicalism and resistance. They are a persistently bubbling threat, one which needs to be periodically razed. As IDF generals have said about their murderous forays into Gaza’s slums: “The grass needs to be mowed sometimes.”
The pretexts under which governments have sought to wage war against slums varies. In Burma during the 90s dictatorship, vast slums in Rangoon were summarily bulldozed under the visage of “beautifying the city,” and similar “beautification” projects have been undertaken in Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, Beijing, Jakarta. During the Southern Cone dictatorships of 1970s South America, the specter of anti-government armed rebellion, through Guevarist guerrilla focos, was the driving forces behind which Argentina, Brazil, and Chile orchestrated militarized operations to raze entire slum neighborhoods.
The invocation of a military threat isn’t always inaccurate. In El Salvador in 1989, slums proved that even the full breadth of military hardware often can’t stand to the power of the slum. After a decade of US-financed counterinsurgency chipped away at the leftist FMLN’s rural insurgency, the large influx of internally displaced people, accumulating into San Salvador’s densely packed slums, ironically created the mass urban base from which largest offensive of the war—long thought to be over—was launched. In 2014, when Israel assaulted the Gaza Strip, one of the places IDF soldiers were held off was in the slum district of Shujaiya, one of the most densely packed urban centers in the world; the Israelis were unable to locate Hamas’ al-Qassam fighters, who knew the neighborhood like the back of their hands and attacked the invaders at a range too close for supporting airstrikes or artillery. During the US occupation of Iraq, one of the most dangerous places for American soldiers was Sadr City, one of the Middle East’s largest slums.
From the 1990s to the early 2000s, it was fashionable, even among some liberal circles, to believe a “Clash of Civilizations” was emerging between the Islamic East and the Enlightened West. But the truth is that the real clash all along had not been between Christian and Muslim, but rich and poor, the haves and have-nots. That clashes true battlefield would be the shantytowns of San Salvador, Baghdad, and the Gaza Strip. The real clash of civilizations would take place, as warfare over the past thirty years has largely shown, in an invisible but alternate reality consuming over a seventh of humanity: the planet of slums.
I spent two weeks reporting in Tegucigalpa, Honduras this summer. The majority of the city consists of slums. Because of its exorbitant murder rate—the country, as a whole, consistently ranks as one of the most violent places outside a warzone—it is one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Nearly everyone in Tegucigalpa has a story of being robbed. Because of the territorial control of gangs like MS-13, who in the absence of the government exert inordinate economic and political control, some parts of the city are too dangerous for outsiders to enter; even for locals who merely come from the neighborhood of an opposing gang. The stories people tell of their scrapes with violence are haunting. One image remains strong in my mind: a friend of mine had been walking down the street was accosted by a child no older than eight or nine. Before he could say anything, the child withdrew a pistol, ripping back the action and letting the metallic CLACK-click speak for itself. The child was likely in the employ of one of the two major gangs. If he wasn’t, he probably would be soon. Given the date of the story, the child is likely nineteen or twenty now, though is doubtful he’s made it to such an age alive.
In April, 2019, Hondurans took to the streets in a series of mass demonstrations that, in many cases, devolved into battlegrounds between protesters and security forces. Protests started with the government’s decision to privatize healthcare and education following a 311 million dollar IMF loan—yet another SAP—dangling these vital services beyond many people’s economic grasp. For many, it seemed representative of yet another Third World government willing to let the poor wallow and die while spending their money, instead, on the protection of capital and wealth. The Honduran government specifically—which has been suspected of rigging elections, killing opponents via death squads, and engaging in cocaine trade—is commonly referred to as a “narco-dictatorship.” Amidst noxious plumes of teargas, protesters with T-shirts wrapped around their faces set up burning barricades and pitched rocks at security forces.
And then there is the ultimate cruelty: that slumdwellers worldwide, in places like Honduras, have their freedom of movement restricted. Leaving the slums—even when it becomes necessary for survival as violence and economic precarity worsen—can be a dangerous, even deadly task for the “surplus humanity” living there.
Something differentiated me from the vast “surplus humanity” trapped in places like the slums of Tegucigalpa: with my US money and citizenship, I could remove from the squalor into the comfortable refuge of gated-off communities, or fly away to the safety of the Global North. I had the power to leave.
I left Tegucigalpa on a Greyhound Bus on a pale blue summer morning. As we rounded a mountain road veering above the city outskirts, I could see the sprawling immensity of the slums slumped over valley ridgelines, shining dully in the dawn sunlight, a sea of corrugated iron roofs threaded with thin columns of rising smoke.
In San Salvador, from where I would fly to Florida the next morning, I took an Uber to an Airbnb in a tranquil upper-class neighborhood. The house was cleanly furnished, with a fully-stocked fridge, hipster decor, and a lushly manicured backyard. As I sat reading while swinging from one of the backyard’s two hammocks, the owners’ corkies dropping a tennis ball at my feet, I couldn’t help but thinking that the the lottery ticket of my citizenship allowed me to hide from the violent reality of San Salvador’s slums, which lay just beyond the perimeter of the yard. From this lovely, gated-off bubble, I listened to the chaotic noise of the city beyond the tall, vine-covered walls: the machine-gun rattle of motorcycles, the honking evening traffic. The wall itself was graced with a hedgerow of barbed-wire. Only few hundred feet away, the community entrance was watched 24/7 by a guard in Kevlar with a shotgun.
I kept reading the book the next morning on the Spirit Airlines flight to Fort Lauderdale. Strange curiosities drove me to understand the forces creating the urban nightmares, which to many people are mere “tragedies,” historical coincidences, problems that can be fixed with by the same forces that created them. Through the window behind me—I was in the exit row—I caught green slivers of El Salvador slipping into the space behind us. I would return to the comfortable, now unsettling ennui of the suburban First World. I could write about the world of the slums without having to experience themselves.
If history sets a good precedent, then there’s a good chance that, as I write this, a boy is walking out of his house in a Tegucigalpa slum.
Perhaps he’s gotten on the wrong side of the gangs, who patrol the city like militias. Perhaps he’s an anti-government organizer, and knows the military police will execute him and frame it as drug violence. Either way, he’s only got a few days, perhaps even a few hours to get out. He wants to escape the slum. But the slum consumes him. Shots ring out. His body collapses. The camera zooms out: the boy becomes a lifeless contortion in a deepening pool of blood, soon little more than a speck swallowed by the vastness of Comayaguela, the unending sprawl of scrap metal. The scene is little different from the vast human refuses that lay wallowing in cities like Rio, Kinshasa, Mexico City, or Caracas: a scene of the world we’ve created.
In the morning, someone ventures out to recover his body. But no one bothers to clean his blood.