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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

"Planet of Slums"

Although I'm not a regular Mother Jones reader, I found my way today to this review of "Planet of Slums," a new book by Mike Davis.  As a Property Prawf wanna-be, I've blogged often over the past few years about urbanism ("new" and old), cities, suburbs, Jane Jacobs, and Philip Bess, and so I was intrigued by Davis's discussion (as related by the reviewer, Joshua Jelly-Schapiro) of "urbanization without growth," a phenomenon which "has baffled development economists for years—especially those working in sub-Saharan African, where mega-cities like Lagos, Kinshasa, and Dar Es Salaam go on attracting tens of thousands of new arrivals each year even as their formal economies stagnate or even contract."

Now, according to the review, the primary culprit in Davis's book is the IMF and its neo-liberal economic policies.  Maybe so.  Is there a way out, or forward - - or back, even?  This bit from the review caught my eye:

Without formal work, and without the entry into secular politics that such work has traditionally provided, how do the poorest of the urban poor organize their social and political life? What offers them a “communal structure”? To this critical question, Davis offers a one-word answer: religion. “If God died in the cities of the industrial revolution,” Davis writes, “he has risen again in the postindustrial cities of the developing world.”

Today, religious organizations—Islamist, Hindu, Evangelical—are the single most important source of social cohesion among citydwellers in the developing world. Beyond spiritual sustenance and community, religious organizations offer social services no longer provided by the state, laws for virtuous conduct in chaotic environs, and membership in a global polity that transcends the corrupt nation-state that has excluded them. Political Islam continues to spread in power and influence from Cairo to Jakarta; the ascendance of its political parties—and their grassroots appeal—has received nervous attention from the Western media. Hindu fundamentalism, if remarked upon less often, has had an analogous trajectory in the bustees of Delhi and Mumbai. Pentecostal sects attract new adherents at astonishing rates from Brasilia to Johannesburg, altering political and community life in ways as yet not understood.

Here's a question:  Are today's "mega-cities" really "cities," in the way that "new urbanists" think of cities.  Are they, for instance -- in Joel Kotkin's words -- "sacred, safe, and busy"?  Could they be ?

Posted by Rick Garnett on July 4, 2006 at 02:07 PM in Property | Permalink


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I think you pose some very interesting questions here, Rick. I think there are both optimistic and pessimistic stories one can tell.

1) Optimistically, we might say that the churches are a) building a civil society that will provide social capital for an (eventually) growing economy or b) even if they are not, they provide a faith experience either i) intrinsically worthwhile as reflecting the natural order of the universe or ii) comforting to adherents.

2) Pessimistically, one might say that churches promote "urbanization without growth" by providing a "compensational theodicy" (ala Max Weber or EP Thompson's Making of the English Working Class) that narcotizes individuals with uplifting narratives of joy in the "next life" as their earthly existence is ever more straitened by economic forces beyond their control.

All I can say is, often the best physician is also the best poisoner. Also, for rather chilling (if glancing) image of the role of religion in the lives of the very poor, I highly recommend the film Darwin's NIghtmare, reviewed here:

and here's a piece from one of the reviews:

"[Darwin's Nightmare presents] a scene of misery and devastation . . . as the agonized human face of globalization. While the flesh of millions of Nile perch is stripped, cleaned and flash-frozen for export to wealthy countries, millions of people in the Tanzanian interior live on the brink of famine. Some of them will eat fried fish heads, which are processed in vast open-air pits infested with maggots and scavenging birds. Along the shores of the lake, homeless children fight over scraps of food and get high from the fumes of melting plastic-foam containers used to pack the fish. In the encampments where the fishermen live, AIDS is rampant and the afflicted walk back to their villages to die."

In the film, religious authorities appear as one of the very forces capable of providing moral guidance and advice, but also appear too quietist to question the larger social forces impoverishing their congregations.

Posted by: Frank | Jul 4, 2006 9:28:56 PM

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