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Thorough Description with No Prescription
on 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.