Review: Planet of Slums – Mike Davis

Review: Planet of Slums – Mike Davis

Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums is not, as Arundhati Roy too generously comments on the cover, ‘A profound enquiry into an urgent subject…a brilliant book.’ It is true that as he rushes to his apocalyptic conclusions Davis does pull down numbers and quotes from a dazzling ranging of literature with a flamboyant confidence. And much of the research that he cites points to general truths of urgent importance. There are already a billion slum dwellers on the planet and our current trajectory is thrusting us into a future with many major cities primarily built on shit, made of mud, plastic and scrap wood and constantly at risk from fire. Post-colonial elites have aggressively adapted racial zoning to class and tend to withdraw to residential and commercial themeparks. Where states offer some alternative to shack dwellers it is usually forced removal to bleak ghettos outside of cities.

But this avalanche of information hasn’t always been pulled out of the library with sufficient care. South African readers will be astonished at Davis’ confusion of townships with shack settlements. And although he describes the World Bank’s professional staff as the ‘postmodern equivalent of the colonial civil service’ and ascribes the growth of the slum to neoliberal polices he never problematises the fact that he relies so heavily on the work of the Bank and other institutions of contemporary imperialism. He seems to lack the courage to take his analysis seriously which would, amongst other things, require him to approach most of his sources with a large degree of suspicion rather respectful collegiality.

The thinking of people who live in shacks is entirely absent from this book. Davis does pose the question about the extent to which shack dwellers may or may not have the capacity for historical agency but misses numerous opportunities to indicate that the very question is profoundly prejudicial. For example he uses phrases such as ‘despite riots and protests’ but never enquires into what the rioters and protesters were thinking. The riot appears as a natural phenomenon. Similarly his, again naturalising, description of Soweto as ‘having grown from a suburb to a satellite city’ leaves out the history of the shack dwellers’ movement, Sofasonke which in 1944 led more than ten thousand people to occupy the land that would later become Soweto. And he makes no attempts to show that shack dwellers have often been cultural innovators. He could, for example, have pointed to the large gay section of the Cato Manor settlement in Durban where homosexual marriage was pioneered in South Africa in the 1950s or noted that so much American music stems from a shack dweller – Woody Guthrie.

But as his book rushes to its apocalyptic conclusion Davis’s slips into what can only be called racism. There are warning signs along the way. He observes that in Accra 75% of waste in black bags contains foetuses and chooses to mention only one cause of the African AIDS holocaust – ‘the poverty-enforced prostitution of poor women’. These are bizarre statements without any credible empirical basis that clearly pander to racist stereotype. But things fall apart when he concludes the book with a look, largely through imperial eyes, at Kinshasha. He notes in passing that the city has been ‘officially expelled from the world economy by its Washington overseers’ and makes a couple of comments about the damage done by the IMF’s successive structural adjustment programmes. The civil war is just noted in passing and even then the comment comes via USAID. Congolese soldiers are described as ‘rapine’ but similarly pejorative language is not used for the IMF or the imperial forces working with local war lords to support rapacious extraction by multi-nationals. Davis even cites an anthropologist declaring the 1991 ‘popular pillaging of factories, stores, and warehouses’ to be ‘perverse’. But the real horror, which Davis without Conrad’s ultimate ambiguity calls ‘Kurtzian’, is reserved for the ‘fear of sorcery’ (described as ‘renascent’ and as ‘perverse’) which has led to ‘the mass-hysterical denunciation of thousands of child ‘witches’ and their ‘expulsion to the streets, even their murder.’ ‘USAID researchers’, we are told, ‘blame the industry of self-made preachers’. This image of a general ‘Kurtzian’ horror is accepted uncritically, despite its powerful resonance with racist stereotype, and Davis sees no reason to label USAID, who work to legitimate state murder, as well as rapacious modes of extraction to the metropole, in similarly pejorative ways. They appear as neutral eyes, white eyes dutifully confronting the horror out there in dark Africa. When he does make the quick gesture of briefly citing a local intellectual, who speaks of ‘an economy of resistance’ conferring honour on the poor, he describes him, in high colonial fashion, as “an authentic Kinois”.

In his epilogue Davis notes that the American military is planning to fight its future wars in urban slums and calls their thinking in this regard ‘the highest stage of Orientialism, the culmination of a long history of defining the West by opposition to a halluncinatory Eastern Other…(a) delusionary dialectic of securitized versus demonic urban spaces.’ The problem is that this is a pretty accurate description of his own work. His final sentence declares that while ‘the empire has Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side.’ So much for transcending pejorative binaries. Last I heard the empire was unleashing a fair degree of chaos and resistances in shack settlements were often highly ordered and rational affairs.

*See the attachments for various other more recent reviews, positive and negative.