News & Politics

Slum Politics

The squalid mini-city states known as slums now house at least one billion people across the world, living outside normal regulations. As their ranks swell, some are saying that it's time to start thinking of them a little differently.
In the last three months, the Bombay Municipal Corporation has demolished 80,000 shanties in a city where 3 million people are slum dwellers. The local government recently granted legal status to homes built before 1995, and bulldozed everything else. The devastation is "tsunami-like," according to the Indian Inter Press news agency. Three hundred and fifty thousand people have been made homeless but only 50,000 new apartments have been provided. The program is part of Bombay's plan to re-model itself on the ruthlessly prosperous Shanghai, which has tried to eradicate its slums.

But Shanghai's slums remain, as they do in other cities, as part of an inexorable global trend: 200,000 people a day are carrot-and-sticked from the countryside to cities that then refuse to accommodate them. In Bombay they end up in shacks by the road, on railway tracks and next to the airport – embarrassingly visible from landing planes. In Lagos, two-thirds of which is made up of slums, a shanty town has sprouted up on an enormous, slowly burning garbage dump. In Kibera, the slum surrounding Nairobi, raw sewage flows over the few water pipes, and latrines are so scarce that people simply defecate in plastic bags and then throw them as far away from their dwelling as possible – a phenomenon called "flying toilets."

Eighty-five percent of the developing world's urban population now lives in slums, and 40 percent of slum dwellers in Africa live in what the UN calls "life-threatening" poverty.

Elsewhere though, squatter communities are so well developed that they can't properly be called slums. With multi-story buildings, shops, businesses and offices – even a squatter town hall – Sultanbeyli in Istanbul is now almost indistinguishable from the adjacent "legal" city. Despite the varying conditions, the world's squatters hold certain things in common: they live in semi-sovereign, if squalid, mini-city states, paying no taxes and leaching services like water and electricity and, occasionally, some rights, from the legit world. They operate in an illegal or informal economy, and have only the most tenuous relationship with the state. According to the UN, by 2030 a quarter of the world's population will be living like this. In the midst of the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe of slum-growth, we could be in for some major social, political and economic consequences that are only just starting to be discussed.

The rock star philosopher Slavoj Zizek has called the growth of slums the "crucial geopolitical event of our time," and an "opportunity" for a truly "'free' world." Slum dwellers, though in sore need of health care and minimal means of self-organization, are free in the double sense of the word, says Zizek, writing in the London Review of Books: "'free' from all substantial ties; dwelling in a free space, outside the regulation of the state." Zizek warns against idealizing squatters as a new "revolutionary class" – their freedom really is another word for nothing left to lose – but in the next breath he marvels at how beautifully squatters seem to fit into Marx's definition of a proletarian revolutionary subject.

With the apparent collapse of the anti-globalization carnival and the impotence of the anti-war movement, could the left be on to something, at last, with squatters – not the anarchists in developed cities who do it as a lifestyle choice, but the billion ex-peasants, entrepreneurs and derelicts who are starting to numerically dominate every city in the world outside of the northern and western hemispheres?

Two new books touch tentatively – inadvertently even – on this possibility, without endorsing it. It might seem pretty callous to speculate from the comfort of the West about political "opportunity" in third world slums when people don't have clean drinking water or flush toilets. Or is it utterly necessary to move beyond the standard pity and fear of slum-dwellers and start recognizing them as political agents, not just victims?

This seems to be Robert Neuwirth's aim in Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World (Routledge), although he doesn't actually note or promote the development of squatters' political capital. Neuwirth, a journalist based in New York, spent two years living in some of the world's burgeoning slums. He was dazzled by squatters' resourcefulness and doggedness, but these individualistic qualities don't seem to lend themselves to the building of co-operation within or between communities. While living among relatively prosperous squatters in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro's 150,000-strong shadow city, Neuwirth says that people hardly noticed the army's forced eviction of squatters in the capital, Brasilia – "Their solidarity did not extend much beyond their street."

The most interesting section of Shadow Cities isn't the reportage, which is often robotic and impatient, like a 30-second TV news piece. It's the chapter on "Proper Squatters, Improper Property," where Neuwirth discusses political scientists Hernando de Soto and Peter Marcuse's views on squatters, which represent the difficulties of grappling with the phenomenon of squatting in traditional ideological terms. De Soto, a free marketeer, wants to release the "dead capital" that squatters' property and entrepreneurship represents by immediately granting legal title deeds. Then the credit cards and consumerism will come. Marcuse, looking from the left, surprisingly seems to have rather less hope for squatters. As a result of their selfish pursuit of their own betterment, Marcuse says that squatters' communities – if they can be called that – are disorganized and inefficient, no model for a radical urban future.

There are further complications to the seductive idea of squatters harboring – or already enacting – some revolutionary potential. Rocinha, the largest of Rio's 600 favelas, now has all the trappings of normal urban life: grocery stores, banks, video rental stores, restaurants, a nightclub, even three health clubs and a postal service. Rocinha also has a small McDonald's, credit card companies, loan shops, and a cable TV supplier – there are more TVs than fridges in the favela.

This is asfaltizaçâo: the inevitable, probably welcome, gentrification of slums that will eventually happen everywhere if governments – made to feel insecure by people who apparently don't need them – can resist the temptation to tear down these rebellious neighborhoods. But does asfaltizaçâo mean that these lawless, propertyless rugged individualists simply can't wait to integrate their slums into Mall World, where the rest of us live? Who can blame them?

In Planet of the Slums (Verso), another new book (to be released in June) on the urban poor, sociologist Mike Davis is cautious about perceiving slums as bubbling political volcanoes: "the [l]eft [is] still largely missing from the slum," he says. Islam and Pentecostalism are the unifying forces in the slums of Morocco, Latin America and Africa, occupying "a social space analogous to that of twentieth-century socialism and anarchism." While squatters don't fit into old-fashioned categories, or demonstrate much political solidarity, Davis notes that slum dwellers are "the fastest growing, and most unprecedented, social class on earth." We didn't forecast the catastrophic growth of slums, and we may not be able to predict the political implications either – but there must be some.

Are we really seeing an accelerated version in the developing world of the slum stages that western cities went through, as Neuwirth intimates? Or are we seeing a humanitarian crisis of a different order, one caused by neo-liberal pressures on agriculture and simultaneous loss of jobs in cities? Planet of the Slums is a more foreboding book than Shadow Cities: Davis sees an under-recognized humanitarian catastrophe, and not much redeeming political opportunity, yet. Worse, it's a catastrophe that is irreversible under present conditions: "The labour-power of a billion people has been expelled from the world system, and who can imagine any plausible scenario, under neoliberal auspices, that would reintegrate them as productive workers or mass consumers?" The development of Rocinha offers one such scenario of integration – or appropriation – of the outside world into the (former) slum, but this is only a tiny sliver of the humanity that has been rendered surplus. Who knows if this model of slum gentrification will transplant itself, and should we care if it neuters the possibilities of new models of ownership and informal economic activity latent in the world's slums?

After speaking to Celine D'Cruz, one of the founders of Slum Dwellers International (Zizek would surely find the name encouraging), such intellectual and theoretical questions suddenly seemed frivolous in the face of the immediate and perpetual crisis her organization deals with. SDI was founded in South Africa in 1996 to give more than a token voice for the urban poor in the decisions made by lofty NGOs, development agencies, the UN, and local municipalities. There are now dozens of groups affiliated with SDI across the global south, but according to its web site, the primary focus of the group is "emphatically local."

I phoned D'Cruz in Bombay shortly after she had visited one of the freshly demolished slums. People had started to rebuild their homes, she told me, but that day the Municipal Corporation had paid another visit and attempted to remove the roofs of the hastily reconstructed shacks. "When the city comes with force like this it's very difficult to resist. People get pissed off," she said. "They sometimes throw chile powder in [city officials'] eyes, scream and shout, stand in front of their house. Today they had a big fight, the [corporation] guys got frightened and they left. But it's no fun guarding your house every day."

SDI is trying to negotiate the proper resettlement of Bombay's squatters. This means including them in the process – not, as has happened in the past, housing fishermen and vendors in high-rise new tenements where they can't carry their equipment up the stairs. When you don't ask squatters where and how they want to live, D'Cruz says, "you deliver and construct houses that aren't good enough for the poor." So it's no wonder they often just sell the property that was given to them and move to another shanty town where they can determine their own lives again.

Still, D'Cruz is wary about "romanticizing" the impressive defiance of the squatters (something Neuwirth occasionally lapses into in Shadow Cities). She insisted that none of them relish their place on the margins. "Speak to any woman: she doesn't want to live on the street or on railway tracks. She dreams of a better home for her children. She doesn't want to leave them plastic sheets when she's dead."

Eighty percent of the membership of SDI is women. "That's a big difference from conventional movements," said D'Cruz. "I think housing is something that's very important to women. A man can come to a city and live under a bridge, a sheet, anywhere. But if a city can't provide for a woman, she's extremely vulnerable. Women have a much greater stamina for dealing with the complexities" of securing housing rights.

The composition of SDI is one aspect of an unfamiliar but also unassuming radicalism. D'Cruz says that slum dwellers don't necessarily have a macro view of the neo-liberal conditions that shape their lives, "But they are surely able to make choices in their cities that work for them without holding the city to ransom." SDI seeks local and immediate solutions – they're don't seem to be interested in big rhetoric or new theories – and then shares their knowledge internationally: "Our point is if a Japanese businessman can go to the other side of the world to do business, what's to stop a slum dweller representing themselves in another part of the world?" With that, D'Cruz had to leave, with a delegation of slum dwellers and NGO representatives, to catch a plane to Kenya for an international SDI board meeting. On the agenda: AIDS, demolitions, the loss of a lot of their leadership in the tsunami, and resettlement of its living victims – the harrowing practicalities that come before theory.
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