Friday, June 08, 2007

Apocalyptic slums and the solidarity of the superfluous

The trouble with books by Mike Davis is that he so thoroughly and insightfully describes the agony of our condition that this reader feels she might as well go back to bed. And then I remember that, unlike millions of people in the world according to Davis, I should at least be glad I have a bed.

Planet of Slums is the author's eleventh book chronicling, in his signature baroque prose, humanity's unjust social constructions. This time, megacities, their suffering inhabitants, and what they say about our possible futures are his subject.

Sometime in the next year, a woman will give birth in the Lagos slum of Ajegunle, a young man will flee his village in west Java for the bright lights of Jakarta, or a farmer will move his impoverished family into one of Lima’s innumerable pueblos jovenes. The exact event is unimportant and it will pass entirely unnoticed. Nonetheless it will constitute a watershed in human history, comparable to the Neolithic or Industrial revolutions. For the first time the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural. ...

The global countryside, meanwhile, has reached its maximum population and will begin to shrink after 2020. As a result, cities will account for virtually all future population growth ...

Davis describes how contemporary slums grow outward from the centers of the world's poorer cities as new migrants driven off the land by hunger or dispossession balance their needs for access to jobs, secure tenure, adequate housing, and municipal services like clean water and garbage disposal. Sometime access to a job nearby makes huddling under an urban overhang a desirable living situation; alternatively, building flimsy shanties on peripheral land with no sewers or water can seem palatial to people with no other choices.

And everywhere, whenever the very poor create a toehold allowing for a semi-stable living situation, even in a riverbed or on a garbage dump, slightly better off people buy up or force out the very poorest to grab their own privatized living space. The very poor are pushed into ever smaller areas.

Urban inequality in the Third World is visible even from space: satellite reconnaissance of Nairobi reveals that more than half of the population lives on just 18 percent of the city area. ... In Dhaka 70 percent of the population is estimated to be concentrated into only 20 percent of the surface area...Bombay, according to some urban geographers, may be the extreme. 'While the rich have 90 percent of the land and live in comfort with many open areas, the poor live crushed on only 10 percent of the land.'

Both the kleptocratic post-colonial elites in the Global South and the international lending institutions that enforce neo-liberal economic regimes on their states have contributed to creating the slums that ring Mexico City, Caracas, Lima, Bogota, Baghdad, Karachi, Cairo, Lagos, Nairobi and other cities.

So how do the one billion people who live in these great urban slums survive? They do whatever they can. At least 40 percent of adults in the slums don't hold regular jobs with such niceties as wages and regular hours. Instead, everyone scrambles in the informal sector, selling a little here, hiring out for brutally hard labor, exploited and abused at will by 'employers' sometimes only a smidgen more well off but desperate to keep a foot up the ladder. Children in particular are subject to extremes of exploitation often indistinguishable from slavery. Davis points to 'kidney farms,' areas outside Madras and Cairo where buyers with enough cash can buy the internal organs of the poor, as the most "ghoulish" manifestation of the capitalist market carried to its logical conclusion.

Ultimately, the people of our planet's new urban slums are simply superfluous; no one will pay for their labor because those who have money don't need all those people who endlessly drive their own value down by competing for crumbs.

...there is no official scenario for the reincorporation of this vast mass of surplus labor into the world economy. ...The last gasp of development idealism is the United Nation's Development Goals (MDGs) campaign ... the MDGs will almost certainly not be achieved in the foreseeable future... top U.N. researchers warned that at current rates of "progress" sub-Saharan Africa would not reach most MDGs until well into the twenty-second century. ...only the slum remains as a fully franchised solution to the problem of warehousing this century's surplus humanity.

Mike Davis is lucid, a font of well-researched information, and an apocalyptic pessimist. Planet of Slums is absolutely worth a read but for hope the reader will have to look elsewhere.
The only amplifying vision I've ever encountered that both accepts and genuinely challenges Davis' bleak vision oddly enough dates from 1990. Franz J. Hinkelammert is a German economist who has spent much of his working life in Latin America. He observed the demise of "actually existing socialism" when the Berlin Wall fell -- and he coupled his thinking about that demise with the assassination of the Jesuits at the University of Central America in El Salvador the same week. "The latter was an issue of 'liquidation' in classic 1930s totalitarian style, in which one of the western world's centers of liberation theology was 'eliminated.'"

Looking at the bleak prospects for the global poor whose aspirations were being killed by the triumph of unchallenged capitalism, Hinkelammert shared various observations on what he saw as their last hope: solidarity.

The solidarity of a population that has been rendered surplus ... has no negotiating power. But as workers' solidarity once was, it is mutual assistance solidarity. It is solidarity of the poor, rather than of proletarians.

It can only become a power to the extent that groups integrated into society join in solidarity with those who are excluded from it, not just with those who are struggling. It must be a human solidarity beyond the confines of any specific group. It must be a solidarity of the preferential option for the poor.

The enemy of this human solidarity, capitalism in the persons of its winners, sees solidarity as diabolical.

Solidarity today presupposes confronting capitalism with demands for a just, participatory and ecologically sustainable society. ... Capitalism, however, by denying the possibility of any alternative, denies the very possibility of human solidarity. ... Such solidarity is declared illusory and atavistic by definition, because if all alternatives are illusory, then so is solidarity. Capitalism then labels any attempt to express solidarity as something ignorant or criminal, a destructive "utopia." ...

What is diabolical in bourgeois thinking is love of one's neighbor, solidarity and the religion of love. ... With solidarity and love for one's neighbor denounced as diabolical, working towards human dignity also becomes so.

Like Davis, the German sees little rational reason to hope. But he insists:

Are we to accept that genocide in the third world is conscionable just because the victimized population has no alternative to offer? If today we have no alternative to the destruction of the Amazon or the Himalayas, does that make this destruction legitimate? We know that the destruction of humankind and nature must end, that all of us must search for an alternative. Capitalism is taking all of humanity on a clear course towards collective suicide. Will that be legitimate simply because no one has drawn up an alternative? An alternative must be found.

I'm in solidarity with Hinkelammert. Human solidarity is where we start, not something diabolical. Those of us who enjoy unparalleled comfort here in the top empire of the day need to use our privilege in solidarity with people who have nothing. Acting together we can all experience our human dignity and hope to improve the material conditions of the poorest humans.


Jane R said...

I have found Hinkelammert very helpful. I haven't read him extensively but I came across him in the work of both U.S. Latina and Latin American theologians with a liberation focus. He makes a distinction between "globality" and "globalization" which I use a lot. His work shows up a lot in connection with EATWOT, the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians. Thanks for this additional info and insight into his work -- and for the book review of Mike Davis's Planet of Slums.

Michael Feikema said...

I studied with Hinkelammert at DEI (el Departamento de Investigaciones Ecumenicos) in San Jose, Costa Rica. I wrote my Masters Thesis in Latin American Intellectual and Cultural History on his work. Hinkelammert is an economist whose theological production arises out of his work as an economist. He moved from a focus on the relationship between economy and ideology to a focus on the relationship between economy and theology in response to the 1973 coup in Chile which overthrew the democratic socialist government of Salvador Allende and the general abandonment of Keynsian capitalism with a human face and the substitution of the neoliberal (Friedman and the Chicago boys)model which sacralizes the market and institutionalizes the sacrifice of human beings in its service. In his first major work of theology, "The Ideological Weapons of Death: A Theological Critique of Capitalism," Hinkelammert drew upon the neglected core of Marx's thought, the theory of the fetishization of commodities, money and capital, in order to develop a truly profound theological critique of capitalism that traces its ideological roots to the inversion of early Christianity by the theology of empire. "Ideological Weapons .." was translated into English by Philip Berryman and published by Orbis Books (Maryknoll) but it did not have the impact in the US that it had in Latin America. I would venture that this was not because the fetishism of commodities, money and capital (the religion of Capitalism) is absent in the US but rather because it is so overwhelmingly powerful, dominant and pervasive that Americans are scarcely able to perceive it, especially when the critical social scientific frameworks for exposing it have been so effectively demonized and placed beyond the pale.
Michael Feikema

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