From Mike Davis' 2004 article “Planet of Slums” in the New Left Review:
Sometime in the next year … a watershed in human history. For the first time the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural
Cities will account for all future world population growth, which is expected to peak at about 10 billion in 2050.
Urbanization has been radically decoupled from industrialization, even from development per se. Some would argue that this is an expression of an inexorable trend: the inherent tendency of silicon capitalism to delink the growth of production from that of employment.
Urban population growth in spite of stagnant or negative urban economic growth is the extreme face of what some researchers have labelled ‘over-urbanization’.
Much of the urban world is rushing backwards to the age of Dickens.
UN-Habitat’s The Challenge of the Slums (2003) is the first truly global audit of urban poverty. It says: ‘The primary direction of both national and international interventions during the last twenty years has actually increased urban poverty and slums, increased exclusion and inequality, and weakened urban elites in their efforts to use cities as engines of growth.’
If the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change represent an unprecedented scientific consensus on the dangers of global warming, then The Challenge of the Slums sounds an equally authoritative warning about the global catastrophe of urban poverty.
There may be more than quarter of a million slums on earth. The five great metropolises of South Asia (Karachi, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Dhaka) alone contain about 15,000 distinct slum communities with a total population of more than 20 million. An even larger slum population crowds the urbanizing littoral of West Africa, while other huge conurbations of poverty sprawl across Anatolia and the Ethiopian highlands; hug the base of the Andes and the Himalayas; explode outward from the skyscraper cores of Mexico, Jo-burg, Manila and São Paulo; and, of course, line the banks of the rivers Amazon, Niger, Congo, Nile, Tigris, Ganges, Irrawaddy and Mekong. The building blocks of this slum planet, paradoxically, are both utterly interchangeable and spontaneously unique: including the bastis of Kolkata, the chawls and zopadpattis of Mumbai, the katchi abadis of Karachi, the kampungs of Jakarta, the iskwaters of Manila, the shammasas of Khartoum, the umjondolos of Durban, the intra-murios of Rabat, the bidonvilles of Abidjan, the baladis of Cairo, the gecekondus of Ankara, the conventillos of Quito, the favelas of Brazil, the villas miseria of Buenos Aires and the colonias populares of Mexico City. They are the gritty antipodes to the generic fantasy-scapes and residential themeparks — Philip K. Dick’s bourgeois ‘Offworlds’ — in which the global middle classes increasingly prefer to cloister themselves.
But slums, however deadly and insecure, have a brilliant future. The countryside will for a short period still contain the majority of the world’s poor, but that doubtful title will pass to urban slums by 2035.
UN researchers warn that by 2020 ‘urban poverty in the world could reach 45 to 50 per cent of the total population living in cities’.
The authors of The Challenge of the Slums conclude: ‘Instead of being a focus for growth and prosperity, the cities have become a dumping ground for a surplus population working in unskilled, unprotected and low-wage informal service industries and trade.’ ‘The rise of this informal sector is a direct result of liberalization.’
The global informal working class (overlapping but non-identical with the slum population) is almost one billion strong: making it the fastest growing, and most unprecedented, social class on earth.
According to The Challenge of the Slums, informal workers are about two-fifths of the economically active population of the developing world. And the informal working class - everywhere subject to micro- and macro-exploitation - is almost universally deprived of protection by labour laws and standards.
The real macroeconomic trend of informal labour, in other words, is the reproduction of absolute poverty. But if the informal proletariat is not the pettiest of petty bourgeoisies, neither is it a ‘labour reserve army’ or a ‘lumpen proletariat’ in any obsolete nineteenth-century sense. Part of it, to be sure, is a stealth workforce for the formal economy. A majority of urban slum-dwellers are truly and radically homeless in the contemporary international economy.
Can disincorporated labour be reincorporated in a global emancipatory project?