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“Planet of Slums” a Book by Mike Davis Essay

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Updated: Aug 26th, 2020

Planet of Slums, written by Mike Davis in 2006 and published in 2007, is a morbid yet informative read about the spread of poverty, disease, death, and exploitation within many cities of the Third-world countries. Throughout human history, cities were viewed as centers of economic development, growth, and industrialization. In the Third world, however, corruption and economic crises turn big cities into capitals of poverty. In his book, Mike Davis explains to the readers the mechanisms of how slums work, and puts forth an idea that the blame for slums being dangerous and miserable lies not on the inhabitants of said slums, but on the state, the corrupt rich, and the influential financial organizations such as the World Bank and the IMF.

The book is comprised out of eight chapters, each dedicated to a subject about the slums or a topic directly related to their existence. Chapter 5, named “Haussmann in the tropics,” addresses the topic of wealth disparity between those who live in the elite centers of many third-world cities, and those forced to survive on its peripheries.

The examples are numerous: Nairobi, Manila, Cairo, Mumbai, and others. In this chapter, the author claims that the reason why slums are becoming worse is due to the poor being ostracized by the rest of the society. According to Davis, “implicitly or explicitly, the poor were denied a place in civic life and urban culture, and were seen as an impediment to progress and betterment of society.”

The subject of poverty being generated by outside sources is further elaborated in the following chapter, called “Slum Ecology.” Here, the author puts forth an idea that the parts of the city currently occupied by slums were never meant to become safe or prosperous. Slums are often built over dangerous grounds, where the surface is unstable, and the underground water levels are dangerously close to the surface. If the land beneath them is considered suitable for building something better – the slums are brought down, often forcefully, and the dwellers evicted and left homeless.

Frequently, slums are brought down in the wake of a large international event. The governments think that the sight of poor people would make their countries look bad. The key idea of this chapter is that the poor do not choose to live in slums, they are forced into them, only to be blamed for it later. The chapter is ended with a transition to the next one, suggesting that the reasons for poor slum ecology are not only the “corrupt officials and an indifferent middle class.” The blame also lies on the foreign interventions into third-world country economies.

The 7th chapter, called “SAPing the Third World,” attempts to seek the roots of poverty not within the afflicted societies, but outside of them. Poverty is generated by the economic struggles of the countries. In this part of the book, Mike Davis describes the mechanism the IMF and the World Bank are using in order to dominate third-world country economies. Through giving loans for urbanization, these organizations acquire levers to control the countries’ social policies and welfare. According to the author, they “promote regressive taxation through public-service user fees for the poor,” which in turn further aggravates the situation. Slums are famous not only for their low quality of living but also for a complete lack of social services that the dwellers cannot afford.

“Surplus humanity” is the last chapter of the book. It addresses the economic factors born out of the presence of slums. The availability of desperate, extremely cheap, and unskilled workforce inevitably leads towards “informal employment.” Mike Davis demonstrates this by providing a few vivid examples of countries where more than two-thirds of the population are already under informal employment. Informal employment brings about many problems, as it basically takes away all the rights and liberties workers earned during centuries of protests.

According to the author, “informal employment by its very definition is the absence of formal contracts, rights, regulations, and bargaining power.” This means low wages, withholding of payment, child labor, inhumane conditions, and long hours. Davis makes a point that the issue of informal employment is circular, and greatly contributes to the overall levels of poverty – when informally employed, the workers are paid less, which leads to their further impoverishment. In addition, the state does not receive any taxes from such businesses, meaning it becomes poorer itself, and lacks resources to assist its impoverished citizens.

The epilogue ends on a grim note. The author believes that the only way of combating the present state of slums, where countless of urban poor are sentenced to a self-destructive struggle for what little scraps they are given, is through violence. He reflects on how fighting in slums has proven to be exponentially difficult for well-armed and well-trained modern armies, and states that “the future of human solidarity depends upon the militant refusal of the new urban poor to accept their terminal marginality within global capitalism.”

Planet of Slums is not a book for the faint of heart, as it describes real tragedies that happen to people everywhere around the world. It is wrong to think that the poor would be able to get out of the slums and build them up by themselves. There are many other factors involved, most of which are outside of the peoples’ control. Adaptation of neo-liberal economics brought many third-world countries to its knees. As the book thoroughly demonstrates, there are wealthy individuals and organizations that are satisfied with the current status quo.

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