Mike Davis interviewed by Tom Engelhardt | May 12, 2006
Victorian England under a triumphant laissez-faire…Wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper; every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two or even three – fruit and ‘sweetstuff’ manufacturers in the cellars, barbers and red-herring vendors in the front parlours, cobblers in the back; a bird-fancier in the first floor, three families on the second, starvation in the attics, Irishmen in the passage, a ‘musician’ in the front kitchen, a charwoman and five hungry children in the back one – filth everywhere – a gutter before the houses, and a drain behind – clothes drying, and slops emptying from the windows; … men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.
Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1839 on St Giles Rookery
TD: It occurs to me that, in Baghdad, the Bush administration has managed to create a weird version of the urban world you describe in Planet of Slums. There’s the walled imperial Green Zone in the center of the city with its Starbucks and, outside it, the disintegrating capital as well as the vast slum of Sadr City — and the only exchange between the two is the missile-armed helicopters going one way and the car bombs heading the other.
Davis: Exactly. Baghdad becomes the paradigm with the breakdown of public space and ever less middle ground between the extremes. The integrated Sunni/Shia neighborhoods are rapidly being extinguished, not just by American action now, but by sectarian terror.
Sadr City, at one point named Saddam City, the Eastern quadrant of Baghdad, has grown to grotesque proportions — two million poor people, mainly Shia. And it’s still growing, as are Sunni slums by the way, thanks now not to Saddam but to disastrous American policies toward agriculture into which the U.S. has put almost no reconstruction money. Vast farmlands have been turned back into desert, while everything focused, however unsuccessfully, on restoration of the oil industry. The crucial thing would have been to preserve some equilibrium between countryside and city, but American policies just accelerated the flight from the land.
Of course, Green Zones are gated communities of a kind, the citadel within the larger fortress. You see this, too, emerging across the world. In my book, I counterpoised this to the growth of the peripheral slums — the middle class forsaking its traditional culture, along with the central city, to retreat into off-worlds with themed California lifestyles. Some of these are incredibly security conscious, real fortresses. Others are more typical American-style suburbs, but all of them are organized around an obsession with a fantasy America, and particularly the fantasy California universally franchised through TV.
So the nouveau riche in Beijing can commute by freeway to gated subdivisions with names like Orange County and Beverly Hills — there’s a Beverly hills in Cairo too, and a whole neighborhood themed by Walt Disney. Jakarta has the same thing — compounds where people live in imaginary Americas. These proliferate, emphasizing the rootlessness of the new urban middle class across the world. With this goes an obsessiveness about getting things as they are in the TV image. So you have actual Orange County architects designing “Orange County” outside Beijing. You have tremendous fidelity to the things the global middle class sees on television or in the movies.
TD: Just to leap to the other Bush urban project, something a little like this seems to be happening in New Orleans, no?
Davis: Absolutely. Unfortunately much of the white upper class in New Orleans would prefer to live in a totally phony, theme-park version of the historical New Orleans rather than confront the real task of reconstructing the city or living with an African-American majority. People’s expectations of authenticity have long lost any reference point in reality. In The Ecology of Fear, I pointed out how Universal Studios had extracted from Los Angeles its icons, miniaturized them, and put them in one gated, secure place called City Walk. And then you substitute going there — or the Las Vegas equivalent — for actually visiting the city. You visit the city’s theme park, which is essentially a mall. If you had a casino, you’d have the full experience. In this process, the poor are increasingly cut off from access to the culture and public space of the city, while the wealthy voluntarily abdicate it to withdraw into what is now a generic universal space that differs little from country to country. The middle ground is falling apart.
But there are still big differences between culture zones and continents. In Latin America, what’s most frightening is the degree of political polarization that occurs, the ferocity of middle-class resistance to the demands of the poor. Chavez has to get Cuban doctors, because he can only get a handful of Venezuelan doctors to work in the slums. The Middle East is very different. In Cairo, for instance, where the state has withdrawn or is too corrupt to provide essential services, the need is met by Islamic professionals. The Muslim Brotherhood has taken over the association of doctors, the association of engineers. Unlike the Latin American middle class, mobilizing just to preserve its privilege, it’s organized to provide services, a parallel civil society, for the poor. Part of that arises from the Koranic obligation to tithe, but it’s a striking difference with important effects on the life of the city.
TD: I want to take just a brief side trip. The book you wrote before Planet of Slums was The Monster at Our Door on the avian flu and I realize, as we talk, that it’s thematically linked to Planet of Slums because it’s also about a kind of planetary slumification — of agriculture.
Davis: A Dickensian world of Victorian poverty is being recreated, but on a scale that would have staggered the Victorians. So, naturally, you wonder whether the preoccupation of the Victorian middle classes with the diseases of the poor isn’t returning as well. Their first reaction to epidemics was to move to Hampstead, to flee the city, to try to separate from the poor. Only when it was obvious that cholera was sweeping from the slums into middle-class areas anyway, did you get some investment in minimum sanitation and the public-health infrastructure. The illusion today, as in the 19th century, is that we can somehow separate ourselves, or wall ourselves off, or take flight from the diseases of the poor. I don’t think most of us realize the huge, literally explosive concentrations for potential disease that exist.
More than twenty years ago, the leading infectious disease researchers in a series of volumes warned about new and reemerging diseases. Globalization, they observed, was causing planetary environmental instability and ecological change likely to shift the balance between humans and their microbes in a way that could bring about new plagues. They warned as well of the failure to create a disease-monitoring or public-health infrastructure commensurate with globalization.
In my book, I looked at the relationship between the pervasive global slum, everywhere associated with sanitation disasters, with classical conditions favoring the rapid movement of disease through human populations; and on the other side, I focused on how the transformation of livestock production was creating entirely new conditions for the emergence of diseases among animals and their transmission to humans.
Influenza is an important paradigm for infectious disease. Its ancient reservoir lies in the uniquely productive agricultural system of southern China with its long, intimate ecological association among wild birds, domestic birds, pigs, and humans. As for bird flu: On the one hand, you’ve created optimal conditions in the modern world for its spread; on the other hand, even the growth of poor cities has been increasing the demand for protein in people’s diets and this demand can no longer be met by traditional protein sources; it’s met by industrialized livestock production.
What that means quite simply is the urbanization of livestock. Instead of 15 or 20 chickens in someone’s yard and a couple of hogs on the farm, we’re talking about, around Bangkok for instance, a chicken-raising belt very similar to what you’d find in Arkansas or northwestern Georgia — millions of chickens living in warehouses, in factory farms. Bird densities like this have never existed in nature and they probably favor, according to epidemiologists I’ve talked to, maximum virulence, the accelerated evolution of diseases.
At the same time, wetlands around the world have been degraded and water diverted, usually for the sake of irrigated agriculture, displacing migratory wild birds to irrigated fields, rice paddies, farms. And all of this — the livestock revolution, the growing urban demand particularly for chicken (now the number two protein meat source on the planet), the growth of slums, the degradation of wetlands — has happened with particular speed in the last ten to fifteen years; and all of it we were warned about a generation ago by experts on infectious disease. This is ecological disorder of a very radical kind and it has changed the ecology of influenza and the conditions under which animal diseases pass to humans. It’s also happened at a time when public health in much of the urban Third World has declined. One of the consequences of structural adjustment in the 1980s was to force hundreds of thousands of doctors, nurses, and public-health workers to emigrate, leaving Kenya or the Philippines to work in England or Italy.
This is a formula for biological disaster and avian flu is the second pandemic of globalization. It’s very clear now that HIV AIDS emerged at least partially through the bush-meat trade, as West Africans were forced to turn to bush meat because European factory ships were vacuuming up all the fish in the Gulf of Guinea, the major traditional source of protein in urban diets. There’s also a hypothesis, with a lot of circumstantial evidence, that HIV probably reached a critical mass in Kinshasha [in the Congo], a great city that is the ultimate current example of what happens after the state collapses or withdraws.
So HIV, avian flu, SARS — another disease that emerged from the bush-meat trade, this time in the cities of southern China, and spread around the world with frightening speed. This is the future of disease…
TD: …and slumification.
Davis: Yes, disease in a world of slums. Something like the avian flu’s spread to humanity is almost inevitable, given the combination of the global slum and large-scale shifts in the ecology of humans and animals. What’s more troubling than the mere threat of a disease like avian flu, though, is the reaction to it — an immediate hoarding of vaccines and anti-virals, an exclusive focus on protecting the health of populations in a handful of rich countries which also monopolize the production of these lifeline medicines. In other words, the almost reflexive abandonment of the poor without a second thought. If avian flu happened not this year, but five years from now, the difference would be in the degree of protection in the United States, Germany, or England. The poor would be in the same place, particularly Africans who are most at risk because the HIV holocaust creates a population optimally susceptible to other infections.
TD: So that’s one potential exchange between the imperial city and the slum city. The other virulent exchange is of violence, our wars on terror, drugs, whatever. I mean if you think about Vietnam and then Iraq, the jungle quite literally becomes the slum city in the annals of modern war.
Davis: Without minimizing the explosive social contradictions still stored up in the countryside, it’s clear that the future of guerrilla warfare, insurrection against the world system, has moved into the city. Nobody has realized this with as much clarity as the Pentagon, or more vigorously tried to grapple with its empirical consequences. Its strategists are way ahead of geopoliticians and traditional foreign-relations types in understanding the significance of a world of slums…
TD: …and of global warming.
Davis: Yes, because they realize the potential instability it will create and also perhaps imagine advantageous shifts in the balance of power in its wake.
What the U.S. has demonstrated in recent years is an extraordinary ability to knock out the hierarchical organization of the modern city, to attack its crucial infrastructures and nodes, to blow up the TV stations, take out the pipelines and bridges. Smart bombs can do that, but simultaneously the Pentagon discovered that this technology isn’t applicable to the slum periphery, to the labyrinthine, unmapped, almost unknown parts of the city which lack hierarchies, lack centralized infrastructures, lack tall buildings. There’s really quite an extraordinary military literature trying to address what the Pentagon sees as the most novel terrain of this century, which it now models in the slums of Karachi, Port au Prince, and Baghdad. A lot of this goes back to the experience of Mogadishu [in 1993], which was a big shock to the United States and showed that traditional urban war-fighting methods don’t work in the slum city.
TD: …Although nobody mentions that while a small number of American soldiers were killed in the streets of Mogadishu and we were shocked, an unknown but vast number of Somalis also died, in the hundreds at least.
Davis: Well, you can commit carnage on a huge scale; you can kill thousands of people. What you lack the ability to do is surgically take out the crucial nodes because they hardly exist; because you’re dealing neither with a hierarchical spatial system, nor generally with hierarchical organizations. I’m not sure the National Security Council understands this, but many military thinkers certainly do. If you read studies from the Army War College, for example, you discover a different geopolitics from that embraced by the Bush administration. The war-planners don’t emphasize axes of evil or over-arching conspiracies, instead they stress the terrain — the sprawling peripheral slum and the opportunities it provides to a miscellany of opponents — drug barons, al-Qaeda, revolutionary organizations, religious cults — to carve out fiefdoms. As a result, Pentagon theorists are studying architecture and urban-planning theory. They’re using GIS technology and satellites to fill in missing knowledge, because the state usually knows very little about its own slum peripheries.
The question of the exchange of violence between the city of slums and the imperial city is linked to a deeper question — the question of agency. How will this very large minority of humanity that now lives in cities but is exiled from the formal world economy find its future? What is its capacity for historical agency? The traditional working class — as Marx pointed out in the Communist Manifesto — was a revolutionary class for two reasons: because it had no stake in the existing order, but also because it was centralized by the process of modern industrial production. It possessed enormous potential social power to go on strike, simply shut down production, take over the factories.
Well, here you have an informal working class with no strategic place in production, in the economy, that has nonetheless discovered a new social power — the power to disrupt the city, to strike at the city, ranging from the creative nonviolence of the people in El Alto, the vast slum twin of La Paz, Bolivia, where residents regularly barricade the road to the airport or cut off transport to make their demands, to the now universal use of car bombs by nationalist and sectarian groups to strike at middle-class neighborhoods, financial districts, even green zones. I think there’s much global experimentation, trying to find out how to use the power of disruption.
TD: I’ll tell you what I suspect may be the greatest of disruptive powers — the power to disrupt global energy flows. Poor people with minimal technology are capable of doing that across the thousands of miles of unguardable pipeline on this planet.
Davis: In that sense, you already see elements of an emergent campaign. In the last month alone, there was an attempted car bombing of Saudi Arabia’s major oil facility and the first car bombing in the Niger delta in Nigeria. It didn’t hurt anybody, but it did raise the stakes.
TD: You end Planet of Slums on this note: “If the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side.”
Davis: And chaos is not always a force for bad. The worst case scenario is simply when people are silenced. Their exile becomes permanent. The implicit triaging of humanity occurs. People are assigned to die and forgotten about in the same way we forget about the AIDS holocaust or become immune to famine appeals.
The rest of the world needs to be woken up and the slum poor are experimenting with a huge variety of ideologies, platforms, means of using disorder — from almost apocalyptic attacks on modernity itself to avant-garde attempts to invent new modernities, new kinds of social movements. But one of the fundamental problems is that, when you have so many people fighting for jobs and space, the obvious way to regulate them is through the emergence of godfathers, tribal chieftains, ethnic leaders, operating on principles of ethnic, religious, or racial exclusion. This tends to create self-perpetuating, almost eternal wars among the poor themselves. So, in the same poor city, you find a multiplicity of contradictory tendencies — people embracing the Holy Ghost, or joining street gangs, or enlisting in radical social organizations, or becoming clients of sectarian or populist politicians.
TD: Just a last observation: You’re often thought of as an apocalypt, a prophet of hopeless, catastrophic doom, but almost everything you write is actually about the human contribution to catastrophe, the way we refuse to come to grips with the realities of our world; and so, to my mind, your work always has an element of use and of hope in it. After all, if it’s a human contribution, it’s also obviously something that we could humanly avoid or deal with differently.
Davis: Well, my obligation is to try to be as clear-sighted and honest as possible about my beliefs, the ideas I’m compelled to hold from my research and observation — and from my limited life experience. I feel no obligation to sweeten any of this with dollops of so-called optimism. Somebody once denounced Ecology of Fear for its almost erotic enjoyment of apocalypse, which said to me that it was either badly written or badly read; because, for instance, in one chapter about the literature of apocalypse in Los Angeles, I make clear that the enjoyment of apocalypse usually tends to be a kind of racist voyeurism.
But finally it’s important to remember the true meaning of apocalypse in the Abrahamic religions, which is, ultimately, in the end time, at the end of history, the revelation of history’s real text, real narrative, not the one written by the ruling classes, by the scribes of power. It’s the history written from below. That’s why I’ve always had a great interest in the religions of the oppressed, why I’ve given — some people think uncritical — attention to phenomena like Pentecostalism.
TD: So is our collective future simply likely to be a downhill ride to destruction?
Davis The city is our ark in which we might survive the environmental turmoil of the next century. Genuinely urban cities are the most environmentally efficient form of existing with nature that we possess because they can substitute public luxury for private or household consumption. They can square the circle between environmental sustainability and a decent standard of living. I mean, however big your library is or vast your swimming pool, it’ll never be the same as the New York Public Library or a great public pool. No mansion, no San Simeon, will ever be the equivalent of Central Park or Broadway.
One of the major problems, however, is: We’re building cities without urban qualities. Poor cities, in particular, are consuming the natural areas and watersheds which are essential to their functioning as environmental systems, to their ecological sustainability, and they’re consuming them either because of destructive private speculation or simply because poverty pours over into every space. All around the world, the crucial watersheds and green spaces that cities need to function ecologically and be truly urban are being urbanized by poverty and by speculative private development. Poor cities, as a result, are becoming increasingly vulnerable to disaster, pandemic, and catastrophic resource shortages, particularly of water.
Conversely, the most important step toward coping with global environmental change is to reinvest — massively — in the social and physical infrastructures of our cities, and thereby reemploy tens of millions of poor youth. It should haunt us that Jane Jacobs — who saw so clearly that the wealth of nations is created by cities not nations — should have devoted her last, visionary book to the specter of a coming dark age.[Much of this two-part Mike Davis interview is based on his eye-opening new book, Planet of Slums. Don’t miss it.]
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing.]