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The wretched of the earth

Thomas Hylland Eriksen


There’s an entertaining book about the spread of nondescript products and services by George Ritzer, called The Globalization of Nothing (2004). Ritzer, of McDonaldization of Society fame, argues that a main conflict in the contemporary world is taking place between the globalisation of nothing and the glocalisation of something, and we know what he means. Globalisation is the only game in town, and if you want to retain a bit of local substance, ownership, character or whatever in what it is that you are doing, consuming or producing, opt for the glocal rather than isolation, which is just about impossible anyway.

Hm. Sensible words, but something seemed to be missing. Literally. There are, simply, a lot of people missing from this and similar (but usually less readable) accounts of the consequences of globalisation. A short while after perusing Ritzer’s really nice book, I came across a book which takes on globalisation from the opposite direction, speaking about a global trend which does create some homogeneity across the continents (nothing?), but which has few direct points of contact with the multinationals, the UN, the cultural tourist, the mall and all the other stock characters of the globalisation literature. That book was Mike Davis’ The Planet of Slums (2006).

During this or next year, for the first time in human history there will be more urban than rural people in the world. The urban population of the earth is now larger than the entire global population was when I was born. (Blimey!) And most of the urban growth takes place in the countries that have the least to offer their new inhabitants. Some cities in the rich countries grow somewhat, but in a slow and fairly controlled way. The growth in poor cities, on the contrary, lacks historical precedent. Between 1800 and 1910, the population of London grew by a factor of seven. This sounds dramatic, but in a much shorter period – from 1950 to 2000 – the population in cities like Dhaka, Kinshasa and Lagos has increased forty times! Good thing, one might be forgiven for thinking (or perhaps not), that they lack efficient methods for extracting parking fines.

Some more examples: Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro were large cities already fifty years ago, with 4.6 and three million inhabitants, respectively. Today, both have around 12 million inhabitants. Cairo has grown, in the same period, from 2.4 to 15 million, Delhi from 1.4 to more than 18 million, Seoul from one to 22 million. African cities like Nouakchott and Mogadishu, which were just oases or trading centres a few decades ago, are now home to millions. The Congolese city Mbuji-Mayi, which I hadn’t heard about before reading Davis, has grown from next to nothing to two million in the last decade. Urban slums emerge, especially in China and parts of Africa, in areas where there were initially no urban settlement at all – gigantic slums without a city proper.


As you are reading this, huge swathes of land are growing into enormous, continuous, permanently makeshift settlements of cardboard and aluminium sheets, with millions upon millions of inhabitants but scarcely any plumbing, electricity or police protection. Davis mentions the five hundred kilometre stretch from Rio to São Paolo (pop. 37m.), the central Mexican highlands around Mexico City (estimated to contain half of Mexico’s population, 50m., by 2050), parts of China and the coastal strip from Benin City via Lagos to Accra, which is predicted, in a few years’ time, to contain the largest concentration of poverty in the world.

People move to town for a variety of reasons. Traditionally, a main cause, or cluster of causes, has been a combination of relative overpopulation in rural areas and possibilities for work. The ”bright lights” hypthesis also had its supporters – people swapped boredom, or so they thought, for excitement. Such explanations may still hold true in parts of China and India, but not in Africa or Latin America, where urban economies have been in decline for decades, at the same time as the urban population has grown steadily. An explanation would have to take into account factors such as war, depleted resources as a result of population growth or ruthless modernisation (the construction of motorways and resorts for the rich etc.), along with a dream of prosperity and work which becomes increasingly unrealistic as the years go by.

The authorities in poor countries do little to address the slum problem, but the private sector is in. However horrible living conditions may be in the slums of Kolkata (Calcutta) and Lima, the inhabitants usually have to pay rent to a slumlord. Even if they share a latrine with 93 persons and a standpipe with 85, and live in higher density than people have at any earlier time, they have to pay. Even a dilapidated shed under a highway bridge has a price. Often, slumdwellers have to pay for protection too, since the police only enter the slum to collect bribes.

The main headache for government and comfortably-off people concerns how to control and contain the slum population, in order to prevent them from spreading, with their rags and stink, into prosperous quarters and commercial centres. In many colonial cities, high-ranking military officers, apparatchiks, politicians and businessmen have joined expatriates from rich countries in taking over the lush residential areas left by the colonials. Increasingly, such suburbs of affluence and freshness are becoming gated communities where nobody is allowed to enter without permission. In parts of Cape Town, electrical fences have now replaced human guards. New forms of apartheid-like exclusion develop as a result of rich people’s need to be left at peace with their wealth. They have effectively divorced themselves from greater society in their cosmopolitan, transnational homes.

Sometimes, governments try to alleviate the slum problem by bulldozing the slums, but of course the slums re-emerge, often the very next day, there is nowhere else to go. A more progressive policy, attemplted in Cairo, Delhi, Bombay and Mexico City, consists in building permanent residential areas for poor people on the outskirts of the city, but as Davis points out, it slumdwellers never actually move into these flats; others always seem to get in first.

Like Engels writing about the English working class in the 1850s (or Orwell doing the same thing eighty years on), Davis never succumbs to the temptation of romanticising life in a slum. No intimation is given of the quiet charm of slum life, where solidarity grows amidst shared poverty. On the contrary, living in a slum is – and Davis says so – fundamentally unpleasant. Slums are crowded, filthy and smelly places. They are always located in the least attractive areas; next to a polluted river, a noisy road, a rubbish dump; in a mosquito-infested swamp or a windy dustbowl.

How do slumdwellers survive at all, given that only a minuscule minority have formal work? The answer is the informal sector (a useful term coined by Keith Hart in the early 1970s), that is unregistered economic activity. Some make a living by selling each other services, from haircuts and sex to transport and protection; some run little workshops producing tourist trinkets; some grow cannabis or distil alcohol; and some make a living from the rubbish of the rich, be it old furniture or edible things. Many, not least children, are informally employed by large enterprises. They survive, but just barely.

The distance between life in the slums and the rich suburbs grow. The rich have their health centres and shopping malls, their fast food restaurants and private schools (in Ritzer’s terms, they have an abundance of nothing, but try to say that to a slumdweller!), and in the weekends, they can whisk out to their country houses or resorts on new highways which are built on land that might have been used for other purposes. They are the beneficiaries of a globalisation and a standardisation of lifestyles which liberates them from their own countries. (And, speaking from a global perspective, they are us.) In substantial parts of the world, it is now evident that nation-building and development ”for the whole people” was something one tried to achieve in the 20th century. One now realises that the project was impossible.

The future for at least a billion persons, maybe many more, lies in one of these slums. In Kenya, an incredible eighty-five per cent of the population growth takes place in the seething slums of Nairobi and Mombasa.

So it is, to quote an old favourite. Don’t believe for a second that global capitalism will eventually pull up the downtrodden and help them to achieve what in NGO newspeak is called ”a dignified life”. The slums are growing faster than the GNP of any country. Their inhabitants are human driftwood, superfluous matter, human debris.