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Adobes of the apocalypse


The slum has long exercised its fears, but there have fascinations aplenty, as well. Rudyard Kipling’s poetic tribute to the Dickensian underworld of Victorian Calcutta plunged his readers deeper and deeper into “the lowest sink of all” in what he fondly dubbed “the city of dreadful night.” Poet laureate of Empire, Kipling fancied himself a connoisseur of the pungent smells of the slum, claiming to be able to discern the “Big Calcutta Stink” from other debased urban environs and their unique odours.

Southern slums rewrite history

In his olfactory sensibility Kipling had a nose for the new. Unlike nineteenth-century slums, the southern hemispheric shantytowns Mike Davis explores in his most recent book are largely the product not so much of industrialization as of late twentieth-century deindustrialization. Exceptions do exist, but for the most part contemporary slum growth is premised on unemployment.

Davis shows that, from 1950 to 2004, 23 Third World megacities grew from combined populations of 45.1 million to an astounding 315.2 million. Driven from the once-dominant peasant communities of a landed society by agribusiness and mechanization, food imports, civil war, drought and the impact of a relentless “adjustment policy” ideology fomented by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the displaced persons of late capitalism’s globalization flock to the cities of the impoverished South.

There they meet with a rude awakening to the ravages of the market’s much touted “freedoms.” Shell-shocked import-substitution industries offer no jobs. Pathetically inadequate and fast-fading public-sector infrastructures simply cannot accommodate the tidal wave of rural migrants. Rampant inflation erodes any semblance of hope for the future. Militantly defensive middle and upper classes barricade themselves against the hordes of threatening poor, investing fortunes in escape to gated communities, security-guard armies and technologies of isolation.

The resulting Malthusian “urban climeractic” is paced by squatting, sidewalk-dwelling, rooftop-perching, nomadic populations of the chronically underemployed, and migrant seizures of all available space, however marginal and precarious. Slum formation captures space on social, geological and political peripheries, a cartography of catastrophic colonization that spreads beyond urban outskirts, often appearing, mushroom-like, atop garbage dumps or toxic-waste sites, traversing flood planes, climbing unstable hillsides and rambling along rivers clogged with sludge. Urban services – transport, sewage disposal, electricity, adequate water supplies – are either rudimentary or non-existent.

Geographies of extraction

The poor of Southern slums have themselves become the target of a truly primitive accumulation, in which pirate capitalism raids the main resource of a Third World locked into underdevelopment: its burgeoning and ever-devalued population.

Slums provide vast opportunity for a corrupt political economy of relentless extortion and tribute-taking. Pavement dwellers in India’s Mumbai, estimated to exceed one million persons in 1995, pay regular fees to “strongmen” – police or syndicates of urban entrepreneurs. In Lagos, such free-market hucksters borrow wheelbarrows from construction sites, and rent them out as makeshift beds to the homeless, capitalizing on cycles of use value.

Squatters do not so much take over abandoned housing stock, or unwanted, seemingly unencumbered land, as find themselves captives of invisible, extra-legal real-estate markets. On the edges of Mexico City, Harare, Manila and elsewhere, the poor rent undeveloped plots from dalals (an Indian word that translates as “middleman,” as well as “pimp”), who have secured guarantees of tenure from powerful politicians, tribal leaders, or criminal cartels. Mafia-like orders have been known to encourage squatter militancy and even slum revolts the better to capitalize on their investment in public “holdings.”

Even defecating has come to have its price, transformed of late into a business. The military government imposed user fees for public toilets in Ghana in 1981; by the 1990s they were a “gold mine” of income generation.

Shit city

Human excrement looms large in Davis’s understanding of the current urban crisis. Engels long ago catalogued the measure of Manchester’s slum-ology, his bourgeois shock registering in recognition that in some streets over 200 people shared a single privy. In Delhi in 1990, or in the shack cities of Beijing in 1995, this ratio would have been a nirvana of personal hygienic largesse. One public toilet might service tens of thousands. Forced to use public parks as latrines, Delhi slum dwellers are targeted by middle-class opponents in a war over “defecation rights.” Three of the city’s poor were shot dead in 1998 for “shitting in public places.”

Fat may be a feminist issue in the abundance of the First World. Bodily waste and the trauma associated with relieving oneself with a measure of privacy is a greater one in the Third. Waiting until darkness to wash or relieve themselves, Third World women face harassment and even violent sexual assault. “Going to the ladies’ room” is not a luxury they enjoy.

Amidst the neon skyscrapers and pseudo-postcolonial glitz of Jakarta, open ditches of waste still serve as the main mechanism of disposal. Davis describes southern slums as “stinking mountains of shit.” The health of the slum is a sanitation disaster, maintenance of potable water supplies in the Southern cities a battle lost long ago.

Excrement’s proliferation has made it a weapon of choice among the poorest youth of Nairobi. Ten-year-olds with plastic solvent bottles wedged in their mouths have recently been witnessed accosting suburban commuters entering the city, threatening to toss balls of human dung into open car windows if drivers don’t ante-up. Squeegee kids with an attitude and an arsenal!

Megaslums are now incubators of disease that presently imperil those who live in their fetid squalor. The illusion that these mushrooming nurseries of physiological epidemics and social malaise are somehow separable from the safeties and sanitations of the First World is little more than an ideological façade keeping the desperate need for investment in a global public-health infrastructure out of sight and, seemingly, out of complacent, bourgeois minds. But disease in our global village is easily airborne, jet-transported from Singapore to San Francisco and from there to New York, London, Paris, or Montreal. If nothing else, Toronto’s recent brush with SARS is evidence that Davis’s warnings need to be heard and acted upon.

Apocalypse Now!

Those familiar with Mike Davis’s past writings – which include dissections of the tortured class divisions and fear-generating ecologies of Los Angeles, wildly dystopic visions of the urban imaginary, accounts of imperial-ordered famine in the late Victorian period, and the threat of avian flu in our time – will be aware that he is an author who sees the world darkly and has been a persistent apocalyptic voice, warning for some time that capitalism’s skies are falling. It would be the most dangerous of follies to close our ears to this impassioned and persistent critic.

Almost a century ago the organ of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, Industrial Canada, warned that, “Out of the slums stalks the Socialist with his red flag, the Union agitator with the auctioneer’s voice, and the Anarchist with his torch.” The enemy today, however, is virtually never described as drawing upon socialist or trade-union principles, and only rarely are anarchists seen as all that threatening. Islamic terror is the scapegoat of choice in our times.

The Bush Administration has effectively masked much of the ecological and political crisis of the southern hemisphere’s shantytowns and street dwellers in a moral absolutism that pits the free world and its civilization against the violent designs of an axis of evil, one part of which runs through the slums of the Third World. Our times are thus ordered from above, in Davis’s words, by a “delusionary dialectic of securitized versus demonic urban places.” The resulting “sinister and unceasing duet” echoes in a nightly sonnet of “hornetlike helicopter gunships” stalking “enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of slum districts, pouring hellfire into shanties or fleeing cars.” This song of increasingly jaded experience is responded to every morning, as “the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions.” In the apocalypse that is now, Davis offers us a simple oppositional truth: “If the Empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side.”

Perhaps. But we cannot trust in the deities of disorder. Only the godless materialism of revolutionary change can save us from the barbarism at our gate, be it in Sao Paulo or Saskatoon.

Bryan D. Palmer is the author of Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers’ Strikes of 1934 (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014) and a past editor of the journal, Labour/Le Travail. He is the Canada Research Chair, Canadian Studies Department, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario.

This article appeared in the September/October 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Good to the Last Drop).


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