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on 11 May 2009
Mike Davis is always someone to seize an opportunity to decry the horrible situation somewhere, but in this case, it is an exposé that cannot be made often enough. "Planet of Slums" is a catalogue of the institutional failures, the despicable destruction, the filth and pollution, the poverty, misery and want, the disease and cynicism, in short the Verelendung of the worldwide poor that is the inevitable and eternal result of the capitalist mode of production. Within three decades, a stunning two billion people will live in the slums of megacities in the Third World, where all public services are absent, there are no toilets or drinking water, and where even the poor exploit the poor.

Mike Davis, as usual, pulls no punches and takes no prisoners in his description of the effects of the Washington Consensus on these undeveloped nations. Refuting the ideological mythologies of self-help such as De Sotoism and microlending, he demonstrates that the situation in the Third World is bleak and will get bleaker still. The longer the current order of neoliberalism and Structural Adjustment Programmes, led by such philanthropical heros as World Bank director Paul Wolfowitz, goes on, the more the absolute poverty, immiseration and loss of dignity of the world's poor will continue, and the greater inequality will become. Already one-third of the world's workforce is unemployed or underemployed, and worldwide average income has decreased the past decades. The megacities of the global south will become centers of hyper-alienation, and the inevitable result can only be the destruction of the current order, or the destruction of the world. The world's five billion poor are at our door - hear them knock!
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on 2 January 2013
Very interesting book on the system of slums and not only their inner workings but also how they interact with the economy and greater government.
Some interesting data and numbers to consider too but seeing as this was published about five years ago now, I can only imagine how much worse it has gotten since then.
If you're interested in knowing more about slums then this is a great starter book I would say.
Davis also writes very well and the language he uses makes for a very leisurely light read.
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on 27 July 2009
Would you believe that, according to official international surveys and reports, the U.S.A has more slum-dwellers than Ethiopia? But how, you may ask, do you define a "slum". A New York slum-dweller would surely be "better off" (relatively speaking) than an Ethiopian slum-dweller. For a start, the New-Yorker has a T.V. and running water. In fact, they don't. The poor of the West live in the same conditions as the poor of the East and South. This book redefines your concept of poverty and puts forward such brutal and heart-breaking facts as to make you wish that your voice, along with all the poverty-stricken, could be heard in our so-called "civilised" world. This book makes you realise that pop-stars and well-meaning charities can do nothing to change the rise of mega-slums. Only the abandonment of a capitalist philosophy, a capitalist culture, a capitalist mode of thinking, can do that. In short, only you can. Read this book and be astounded at the true nature of cities, the pride of humankind's development.
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This stunning book compels the reader to a new view of the world. A "Planet of Slums" is pretty scary from a moral point of view. What kind of creatures are we to allow such an enormous number of our kind to live out their lives in squalor and poverty? What does this say for the soul of humanity?

From a national security point of view, of course we are not directly threatened, at least not yet. The percent of urbanites in our cities that are slum dwellers, according to a table on page 24 is 5.8 for a total of a "mere" 12.8 million people. Compare that to China's 37.8% (193.8 million) and India's 55.5% (158.4 million) and we are in relatively good shape. The worst country is Ethiopia with 99.4% of the city population living in slums, followed by the Sudan (85.7%) and Bangladesh (84.7%). I did a quick count of the number of people living in slums in the 20 countries listed on the table and it added up to maybe 700 million. Should we worry?

Davis reveals that the Pentagon and think tank thinkers are worried since the cost of dealing with disruptive mobs, slum-bred terrorists, criminal gangs, etc. not only will be high but will require new tactics and strategies. In a sense, some of the problems we are having in Baghdad are the result of our inability to deal with the people of the great slum of Sadr City. I say this somewhat tongue in cheek since of course our "problem" in Iraq goes well beyond slum dissidents.

On the other hand, we might ask, whose fault is it that so many people in the world are locked into such squalid conditions? Certainly you and I had nothing to do with it. Well, that is NOT Davis's point of view. He sees globalization and the policies of governments (especially rich Western governments) and NGOs (especially the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) as the leading cause of slum proliferation and growth. He writes, "night after night, hornetlike 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." (p. 206)

This vision, which ends the book, comes from the Epilogue, "Down Vietnam Street." "Vietnam Street" is what the "unemployed teenage fighters of the 'Mahdi Army' in Baghdad's Sadr City...taunt American occupiers with," the implication being that the same failure we experienced in Vietnam is what awaits us in Iraq. (p. 205)

Could this be America a couple of generations down the road? The massive growth of slums in our inner cities in my lifetime as been staggering, even though it is not much compared to places like Mexico City, Mumbai, Cairo, Shanghai, etc. One of the differences between the typical American slum and that of many cities throughout the world is that American slums are of the inner city variety while the others are mostly "peripheral slums." Peripheral slums are worse at least in one sense: the poor not only live in filth without basic services, but they have to commute long distances to their jobs. This is something of an irony since the growth of slums is usually equated with their close proximity to low paying jobs.

Davis gives the official UN definition of a slum as a place "characterized by overcrowding, poor or informal housing, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, and insecurity of tenure." (pp. 22-23) Clearly from a demographic viewpoint slums are occupied by poor people and poor people have little power, and that is one of the reasons they stay poor. Davis writes as someone who is on the side of the poor and an advocate for doing something about the eternal phenomenon expressed as "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."

The people in the slums, as Davis points out, represent surplus labor or even--to use his terminology--superfluous labor. They are the dregs of humanity, caught in a downward spiraling situation in which lack of education, lack of nutrition, high instance of disease and mortality, low wages, bare subsistence, etc. guarantee that they and their children will stay in the same situation. The odds against a leap from the depths of poverty to a middle class existence are greater than ever.

At least that is the message I got from reading this sobering book. By the way, this is the sort of book that is a bit difficult to read because it is so jammed full of facts, figures and jargon terminology. Additionally Davis uses a lot of foreign words that he doesn't define (as though to show the reader that he's been there with the natives), although many of them are self-explanatory. I like the native terminology however and the use of the local names of slums within the larger city.

The overarching question that I was left with was, what does this incredible proliferation of poverty mean for the human race as a whole? What does it say about us? How does it bode for the future? Are we looking at not a perpetual war between nation states (as Orwell had it), but at a perpetual war between the haves and the have nots? It used to be the case that when things got really bad or just incredibly decadent, a revolution or an invasion from without would change things. Now it would appear that the difference between those at the bottom of the economic pyramid and those in the middle and upper classes will only widen. With the exponential explosion in technology that gap may become so great that the haves may someday regard the have nots as member of a different species.
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on 11 June 2007
The scale and velocity of world population increase over the last fifty years has been unprecedented in human history. Urbanisation, with over a billion people living in cities has become the key signature of this growth, with the urban population for the first time greater than in the country. These facts are startling, if common knowledge, however they are not much examined in the mainstream. Mike Davis's book looks at this global phenomenon in detail, and shows clearly how the city has been turned into slums, and how poverty has been urbanised.

Slum mega cities have strange geographies, and densities that defy analysis and seeming logic. Here Peri urbanism where city and country are virtually indivisible is covered as is the continual subdivision of wealth and free space by mega slums that turn earthquake prone mountainsides into dense housing. These city slums are where the worlds problems will start, and where they must be solved.

But if you are looking for light reading this is not it, and although global capitalism is firmly blamed for this there are no fixes suggested in this book either. This story though is worth telling and the book is a powerfully argued proof that much of the world is suffering under impossible odds.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 14 February 2007
Marxist cultural critic Davis's latest book tackles the global problem of the slums (he uses the U.N. definition: "characterized by overcrowding, poor or informal housing, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, and insecurity of tenure."), which are exploding at a geometric rate across the world. Alas, at the end of this relatively brief work, we have learned of the scale and scope of the problem in mind-numbing detail, and we have learned the source of the problem (at least according to Davis), but that's about it. Alas, anyone interested in a book with this title probably already has a sense of both, and what is utterly lacking in Davis's analysis is any way forward.

Granted, if there were obvious solutions, we'd probably know about those as well -- the real problem is that Davis really, really likes to have it both ways. In other words, there since there is no policy or proposed solution he likes, he attacks all options, even opposite ones, with equal venom, leading one to wonder what the point is. For example: at one point he says that new "periurban" slums lack the community spirit of the inner-city slums people are being relocated from, but then elsewhere he says that this positive community spirit is all a myth and that all slums are Darwinian proving grounds. Governments that don't build public housing come under attack, and those that do also come under attack for it being substandard. Slums are depicted as terrible, and slum clearances are depicted as equally terrible. Sure, none of this is "good", in any sense of the word, but Davis doesn't have anything else to offer either. Most egregious to me is his flailing around on property rights: if the poor don't have titles to their land then they're subject to exploitation, if they do have title they'll just sell it and be exploited. Meanwhile he characterizes Hernando de Soto's interesting vision of how property rights might be used to lift people out of poverty (as detailed in The Mystery of Capital) as a "cargo cult" and "magic wand", which is a disappointingly cynical oversimplification of a rather nuanced and wide-ranging proposal (which is grounded in actual fieldwork instead of the library).

This book is certainly valuable for its description of the problem of slums -- it uses about 700 footnotes (yes, really!) citing an impressive array of books, articles, newsletters, and various published and unpublished reports by the World Bank, UN, governments, and NGOs to draw connections between slums from around the world. Davis paints a picture of slums that are created not by those coming to the city to earn more money, but by the involuntary relocation of those in the way of construction that benefits the wealthy, or the loss of farming at the hands of multinational agribusiness, or civil war, or drought. Of course, all the usual suspects come in for indictment as well (the UN, World Bank, IMF neoliberal capitalism), along with NGOs, the leaders of the third world, the elite of the third world, the middle-class of the third world, and at some points, the poor of the third world. In this book, everyone is guilty (and maybe everybody is, certainly the World Bank and IMF have a terrible track record and are indeed very culpable), but how does this view help anyone? Even worse, nothing we're trying works according to Davis: not micro-credit, not outside NGO help, not militant activism by squatters, and not even the self-help entrepreneurship of the poor.

Some have inferred that Davis is inherently suggesting a reversal of the policies that brought this miserable state to pass, and that massive public spending might be the answer. The problem Davis points out himself is that many of these policies are interwoven with global capitalism, so it's not a simple matter of passing some new resolution. Nor does Davis care for massive public spending (at least not in China or India), and since he points out over and over that third-world elites will simply steal their nation's wealth, the notion that some form of worldwide nationalization of natural resources doesn't seem particularly promising either. Given all this, one has to presume that Davis's unarticulated "solution" is that one day the revolution's gonna come and tear this mother (ie. global capitalism) down. Or maybe that's not what he thinks... we don't know, because Davis never tells us.
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on 5 September 2013
Gives a detailed analysis of cities and slums in the world. The style is quite academic but is nonetheless very thought provoking to see how most of the rest of the "developed" world actually lives.
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on 17 September 2006
Mike Davis turns his sights away from Los Angeles and towards the phenomenon of global slums, and starts shooting away with his trademark machine gun prose style, a rat-a-tat-tat staccato of globalized urban poverty, misery, and exploitation, backed up with plenty of reading and research, but no first hand experience.

Davis' doomsaying Marxist critique of Structural Adjustment Programs, government housing reforms and micro-economic self-help is relentless, but ultimately nihilistic - nothing works, the population of an urban poor underclass is growing, and things are getting worse. There are no solutions offered in the book, not even glimpses into possibilities, small scale case studies or broad brush strokes to start a debate. It's powerful stuff, but it must be hard being Mike Davis.
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on 2 April 2014
A well written overview of the realities of slums. Readable, factual, and heartbreaking. Anyone interested in urbanization and/or development should read this book
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on 31 July 2015
All Good. Many thanks!
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