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.
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.
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.
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.
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 enemy of this human solidarity, capitalism in the persons of its winners, sees solidarity as diabolical.
Like Davis, the German sees little rational reason to hope. But he insists:
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.