Sunday, April 11, 2010

Planet of Slums Precis

Mike Davis believes that the conditions that define poverty have been dramatically worsened compared to more classic definitions and understandings of poverty. These conditions have been brought on by urbanization and technological advances the compound the dangers of being poor. As Davis predicts, 2035 will be the point where a greater urban population exists than the rural poor. These urban poor are characterized by new circumstances that exacerbate the squalor of their conditions. The lack of space in which they live is dangerous because it creates horrible living conditions. Moreover, with the small spaces the urban poor do lay claim to, they are exploited because they have no legal recourse or ownership over the space. Davis goes on to show that industry and poverty sectors are pushing up against each other in new, profoundly more hazardous ways than ever before; urban poor are pushed into industrial areas where they are forced to co-habitate with industrial waste. More troubling is that these hostile environments are intentionally designed to exclude and control the homeless.
Davis is definitely playing for what we as a class have pinned down as the “B team”. That comes across most clearly in his willingness to identify a neoliberal set of destructive forces that define a new super poverty based in urban centers. Unlike the text CEHM, Davis is able to identify the features and structure of the neoliberal project that he is citing as responsible for a ‘Planet of Slums’ filled with the new urban poor. Most importantly this book lets loose a barrage of horrific imagery and information to contextualize exactly what the new urban poor are up against.
Despite not being on the inside of the system and lacking a distinct confessional tone, Davis does a better job of describing the basic workings of American imperialism through his discussion of “soft imperialism” (75). Perhaps not being an insider simplifies his explanation. He explains NGOs and connects the dots with far less self-aggrandizement than John Perkins in CEHM. Davis’s location of the IMF within the system and illumination of structural adjustment programs all yield a much clearer description of free market tactics that endorse American interests at the cost of the global poor. He describes the IMF and World Bank acting as “bailiffs” as they offer the “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,” (153). In this light, the IMF and World Bank free market reforms contribute to the growing poverty affecting the Third World, rather than helping spread human rights through economic growth as the A tem would want to suggest.
Davis, in conjuring the image of abject poverty, is responding to what Hernando de Soto would characterize as an asset rich type of poverty. The way Davis talks about the new urban poor refutes de Soto’s argument by problematizing de Soto’s claim that the global poor hold assets that cannot be unlocked. By focusing on the danger and the destitution of the urban poor Davis renders a clear more realistic picture of the problems facing the global poor-- that their position is one of insecurity and toil. This rendering demystifies the ‘mystery’ of capital by showing extremely poor urban dwellers don’t have any capital. Also Davis takes a different approach to the extralegal status of the poor by illuminating how extralegal/illegal activities make the poor vulnerable to exploitation. Without legal rights the poor often find themselves at the mercy of those who do.
In my opinion, Davis is a heavy hitter on the “B team”.


1 comment:

  1. Nice post. I agree with you that Davis directly refutes Hernando de Soto's romanticization of slum dwellers as heroic entrepreneurs ("Despite the persistent heroic images of the squatter as a self-builder and owner-occupier, the reality in Korogocho and other Nairobi slums is the irresistible increase in tenancy and petty exploitation" (44)), however it seems to me that he is not simply rendering the poor as victims who are vulnerable to exploitation. Unlike Hernando de Soto, he does not mobilize a sweeping category called "the poor," but rather discusses the development of the "poor tenant stratum." Instead of rendering the poor as monolithic "barking dogs," he seems to focus on how a system of exploitation develops among the dwellers within the slums: "Lee-Smith emphasizes the petty landlordship and subletting are major wealth strategies of the poor and that homeowners quickly become exploiters of the more impoverished people" (44). Because Davis fleshes out a more nuanced account of exploitation among the different individuals in the slums, his argument generates more force and intelligibility than De Soto's simplified argument of the "entrepreneurial" slum hero.


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