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Planet of Slums

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Mike Davis charts the expected global urbanization explosion over the next 30 years and points out that outside China most of the rest of the world's urban growth will be without industrialization or development, rather a 'peverse' urban boom in spite of stagnant or negative urban economic growth.

228 pages, Hardcover

First published October 1, 2006

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About the author

Mike Davis

70 books520 followers
Mike Davis was a social commentator, urban theorist, historian, and political activist. He was best known for his investigations of power and social class in his native Southern California. He was the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award. He lived in San Diego.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 308 reviews
Profile Image for Kelly.
878 reviews3,978 followers
April 15, 2011
This is one long howl of rage, interspersed with shockingly brief lucid sections, followed by another info dump of ineffable horror. You know how in The Dark Knight there's that line, "Some men just want to watch the world burn"? Mike Davis would like to inform you that the world is burning, that it is your fault, and that there is nothing that you can do to stop it. If this were the Middle Ages, Davis would have made a fine living as a fire and brimstone preacher, leading rows of self-flagellating monks through the streets and warning you that Judgment Day is coming. Except in this version, hell is not a pit of fire. Instead, it is most probably a pit of human excrement.

Davis takes us on a tour of "megacities" throughout the world- though, mostly they are located in the Third World South, let's be honest. He has eight different chapters describing a different aspect of why these slums are horrible beyond imagining, plus subdivisions into different shades of horrible so we don't confuse each source of awful with another. It's everything from the incredible density of people to the shoddy, amazingly small housing, the system of "slumlordism" that develops even with "petty" landlords with a few 10 sq ft clapboard rooms to sell (which means an amazing labyrinth of levels of desperately poor within the category of poor), the awful ecological conditions the slums are founded on, the terrible diseases, the toxic wastes and the daily body counts of people dropping in the streets because of this. And as if this weren't enough, he goes on to tell you why even the most selfish of first worlders should care- because the Pentagon is already preparing for slum warfare, because of course the oppressed of the earth will rise up one day. If their daily horror doesn't arrive in the form of pollution, overwhelming tides of migration or diseases that do not recognize borders, it will arrive through uncontrollable conflicts that spread, or through increased terrorism as more and more people give up on a system that they have never been inside to begin with.

That's one of his more fascinating ideas- that the capitalist world system has deemed these tens of millions of people "surplus" population, and never changed their status. They have always been outside. Slums have sprung up all over the world in an "illegal" way and cities have never given these areas even basic infrastructure- roads, sewers, electricity, you name it. State and local authorities routinely bulldoze the areas to try to "clean up the slums" and millions of people just end up moving somewhere with worse conditions that will involve even more deaths. If the state admitted them as a part of the "legal" system, they would have to do something about them, and quite frankly no one knows what to do about 20 million people in Kinshasa, a city that essentially has no industry at all, and no hope of providing for a tenth that many people. Europe got to offload its "surplus" to the New World. There is no New World anymore- these slums are hundreds of times the size of Victorian London, and ten times worse than the worse parts of seedy, colonial Dublin.

I thought that this was a good point to make, because I think when a lot of Euro-American people hear "slums" they think of the projects of Detroit or the soot filled back streets of Dickens. Just to give some perspective on this book... "projects" are actually considered a dream in many of these places. The state sometimes builds "low income housing" and the middle class usurps it, partially because "low" is still not low enough. The slums of the First World imagination are the middle class of certain areas of the Third World. This was one of the more affecting points of the book. Though the most affecting is an entire section entitled "Shit" where Davis describes in excruciating detail the "toilet" industry of the slums, where people actually pay to have access to a latrine, as public ones are about 1 per 1000 people in some areas. To get into some latrines you have to wade through rivers of urine and crap, as you do to get across the streets near them. Since the pay latrines are often too expensive and the public ones buried under piles of excrement, many people simply go anywhere- in the streets, in the parks. There are actually wars over "defecation rights" in certain cities (I am not making this up) between the middle and lower classes. Women can't go to the bathroom during the day because of societal expectations about modesty, so they try to wait to shit until nighttime (and often skip eating during the day so they don't have to until then). Except then when they go out to do it at night they get raped, beaten, and/or killed. This section I thought really got at the essence of just how horrible these lives are. I mentioned in class that it had made me physically ill to read, and everyone agreed with me. Do not approach this part with any food in your stomach, I warn you now.

However, his relentless assault of examples, numbing numbers and statistics and apocalyptic pronouncements don't really... accomplish anything. The reader is not left with a sense of wanting to do something about this... just really a sense of hopelessness. Davis tears down every attempt, native or foreign, rich or poor, to try to help slum areas as ineffective, condescending, evil, or worse. There is no way to be a person with any kind of resources and try to help the slum situation without being wrong in some way. He also emphasizes the sheer size of the problem over and over again- numbers one can't even begin to comprehend really. Any "high tech miracles" can't even begin to cover the number of people in these areas- all it does is increase inequalities. It's like facing the numbers that Stalin killed v. the numbers Hitler did. 6 million in the Holocaust, while an unbelievable existential horror is a number that pales in comparison to the 20 million plus who disappeared during Stalin's purges and because of his policies. It's much less talked about than the Nazi crimes. Because what do you do with a number like that?

I think that this translates to the slums. I've seen the slum problem acknowledged in popular culture- most recently of course in Slumdog Millionaire and all the run up/follow up to that about the actors' lives who were actually from the slum (apparently the slum that one of the child actors still lives in burned down the other week, by the way. Another pervasive hazard of slum life). There was a good deal of sanctimonious commentary about the directors' treatment of the people in this film, but I don't remember there being a lot of wider discussion about solving the problems of slum life. It was like acknowledging it was all people could do. This seems to be the case in other depictions I've seen as well- even stretching back into the 90s. I find myself doing the same thing.

I have errands to run, jobs to do-I don't even really have the time to spend writing this review about this book. What do you do with this idea when you finish this book and then need to go pick up your dry cleaning before the shop closes? It's difficult. I don't know. I'm glad I read this, but I wanted something more.
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,283 reviews21.5k followers
April 26, 2019
I’m going to include some quotes at the end of this review from the book itself - I’ve added page numbers, but since I’ve the e-book version I’m not sure how they relate to the page numbers in the print book. I found this book utterly fascinating. If you can get your hands on it, I would highly recommend it.

One of the ideas that particularly interested me was the reason given for why the growth of slums occurred when it did, rather than earlier in the twentieth century say. In large part this was due to the continuing influence of colonialism in many parts of the world. Colonial powers sought to ensure that native populations remained tied to the countryside, but as the author says at one point in this, that meant that many of the national liberation struggles were effectively peasant revolts. When these were successful, there was often a rush to the cities.

I would have thought before reading this that one of the forces pushing people towards cities (and therefore into slums) was the increasing industrialisation of the cities and the agricultural revolution removing land from subsistence farmers. That is, ‘progress’ is what has forced people into slums, but this is seen as being a temporary and a necessary step towards the better life that economic development will ultimately bring. Except that often none of these conditions exist, the cities have no jobs and the countryside is not becoming more productive either. At one point the author talks of the UN referring to African cities having a poverty paradox, where it isn’t at all clear how people are able to go on living despite getting increasingly poor. In fact, the author points out that one of the things neoliberal policies have imposed on the poor in slums is a Hobbesian war of all on all, with the subsequent smashing of community solidarity and even extended family support. And that this too often then manifests in either religious or racist conflict.

Inhumanity is a near constant theme here - often dressed as either ‘for their own good’ or the need to be ‘tough on crime’. The worst of it is the fact that slums are built in areas that are generally ‘not being used’ for other purposes - and there are often good reasons for that. And slum necessarily are built using what is to hand, rather than necessarily from what is appropriate given local conditions. So, the fact that Manila is on a flood plain or that many slums are in earthquake prone areas isn’t something that those using these building materials can take into consideration. Slums are often likely to be built on land that is contaminated with industrial waste, and if not before being set up, then the high concentrations of humans that live in slums with no sewers provide their own contaminants.

I’m also one of those who just assumed that most people who live in slums are squatters - and apparently that simply isn’t the case. That is, most people who live in slums pay some form or rent. This goes a long way to undermine the neoliberal solution to slums - that is, to give slum-dwellers title to their property. The assumption that property ownership will fix all social evils runs deep in capitalism mythology. As is made clear here, even when this has been tried, it often just means that the poorest people in the slums get moved into even more precarious housing and slum landlords reap the benefits.

In large part, the problem with slums is the growth in inequity that we have witnessed at all levels of society internationally since the 1970s. The estimate given here is that we have a ‘reserve army of unemployed’ that amounts to about a third of the working population of the planet. And no one, not even the most Pollyanna apologist for capitalism, is suggesting that we are going to witness a fifty percent increase in employment anytime soon. That means that crushing poverty or debilitating ‘non-standard’ employment will remain key features of life for large numbers of people living in cities. And so slums are going to remain a constant feature of cities, particularly in the developing world.

Much of this book is a catalogue of horrors. The worst are connected with fire - large numbers of people living in basically cardboard and cooking with kerosene are going to make fire a terrifying and nearly daily reality. And it will be made all the worse by the fact that even if the local fire brigade wanted to come into the slum to put the fire out, they might not be able to given the maze of ‘streets’ slums consist of - you don’t have town planners in slums. But slum land might also go from being worthless to becoming potentially very valuable indeed - particularly those in the centre of cities, but as cities grow anywhere can become potentially more valuable. And so those who would like to see poor people moved on sometimes use ‘hot eviction’ techniques - the most disgusting being pouring kero onto a rat or cat and then setting it alight and letting it run into the slum to set houses on fire. It is hard to imagine people could think of such a thing, but money makes innovators of us all, it seems.

We are living in a world where over half of all people now live in cities. In many of those cities the majority of these people also live in slums. It should come as no surprise that eventually some of those people might look around and wonder why the hell they scrap and suffer when just over there, there are people living in what would have to look like obscene luxury. Inevitably, those in power see slums as potential hotbeds of rebellion. We could, I suppose, try to alleviate the suffering of these people as a way to reduce the threat they might pose - but in the zero sum game we prefer to play, whatever they get just means less for us. So, instead, we are preparing for wars that will be fought in slums and learning to consider the logistic challenges such wars will impose. As he quotes right at the end of this: “‘The future of warfare’, the journal of the Army War College declared, ‘lies in the streets, sewers, high rise buildings, and sprawl of houses that form the broken cities of the world’” (p.258).

I can’t pretend this is an amusing read, but it pulls together threads I hadn’t really seen as being in anyway connected before. Here are some quotes:

Since the market reforms of the late 1970s it is estimated that more than 200 million Chinese have moved from rural areas to cities. 17

80 percent of Marx’s industrial proletariat now lives in China or somewhere outside Western Europe and the United States. 18

Elsewhere, urbanisation has been more radically decoupled from industrialisation, even from development per se and, in Sub-Saharan Africa, from the supposed sine qua non of urbanisation, rising agricultural productivity. 18

‘Over urbanisation’, in other words, is driven by the reproduction of poverty, not by the supply of jobs. 21

The formal housing markets of the Third World rarely supply more than 20 percent of new housing stock. 22

In the Amazon, one of the world’s fastest-growing urban frontiers, 80 percent of city growth has been in shantytowns largely unserved by established utilities and municipal transport, thus making ‘urbanisation’ and ‘favelization’ synonymous. 23

Of the 500,000 people who migrate to Delhi each year, it is estimated that fully 400,000 end up in slums. 23

Residents of slums, while only 6 percent of the city population of the developed countries, constitute a staggering 78.2 percent of urbanites in the least developed countries; this equals fully a third of the global urban population. 33

‘Housing is a verb’ 38

The American poor live on Mercury, the European poor, on Neptune or Pluto. 41

Lima’s Callejones were built specifically to be rented to the poor: many by the city’s leading slumlord, the Catholic Church. 45

Los Angeles is the First World capital of homelessness, with an estimated 100,000 homeless people. 47

Both the popular and scholarly literatures on informal housing tend to romanticise squatters while ignoring renters. 53

Thus Gaza - considered by some to be the world’s largest slum - is essentially an urbanised agglomeration of refugee camps (750,000 refugees) with two-thirds of the population subsisting on less than $2 per day. 59

Caracas and other Venezuelan cities consequently grew at African velocity during the 1960s, the country went from being 30 percent urban to 30 percent rural. 78

Praising the praxis of the poor became a smokescreen for reneging upon historic state commitments to relieve poverty and homelessness. 95

Titling, in other words, accelerates social differentiation in the slum and does nothing to aid renters, the actual majority of the poor in many cities. 104

In India, meanwhile, an estimated three-quarters of urban space is owned by 6 percent of urban households, and just 91 people control the majority of all vacant land in Mumbai. 108

There is no housing shortage per se. In fact, Cairo is filled with buildings that are half empty. 110

A slumlord who pays $160 for a 100-square-foot shack can recoup the entire investment in months 112

Since the 1970s it has become commonplace for governments everywhere to justify slum clearance as an indispensable means of fighting crime. 141

Slums, not Mediterranean brush or Australian eucalypti as claimed in some textbooks, are the world’s premier fire ecology. 163

Erhard Berner adds that a favourite method for ‘hot demolition’ is to chase a ‘kerosene-drenched burning live rat or cat - dogs die too fast - into an annoying settlement...a fire started this way is hard to fight as the unlucky animal can set plenty of shanties aflame before it dies. 164

In India, more than 50,000 hectares of valuable crop lands are lost every year to urbanisation. 171

In Mumbai, slum-dwellers have penetrated so far into the Sanjay Gandhi National Park that some are now being routinely eaten by leopards (ten in June 2004 alone) 172

The global sanitation crisis defies hyperbole 175

In Beijing, where one toilet served more than six thousand people. 177

Poor women are terrorised by the Catch-22 situation of being expected to maintain strict standards of modesty while lacking access to any private means of hygiene. 177

In Mexico, following the adoption / of a second SAP in 1986 the percentage of births attended by medical personnel fell from 94 percent in 1983 to 45 percent in 1988, while maternal mortality soared from 82 per 100,000 to 150 in 1988. 184-5

Uganda spends twelve times as much per capita on debt relief each year as on healthcare in the midst of the HIV/AIDS crisis. 196

Global inequality, as measured by World Bank economists across the entire world population, reached an incredible GINI coefficient of 0.67 by the end of the century 209

The biggest event of the 1990s, however, was the conversion of much of the former ‘Second World’ - European and Asia state socialism - into a new Third World. In the early 1990s those considered to be living in extreme poverty in the former ‘transitional countries’, as the UN calls them, rocketed from 14 million to 168 million: an almost instantaneous mass pauperisation withou precedent in history. Poverty, of course, did exist in the former USSR in an unacknowledged form, but according to World Bank researchers the rate did not exceed 6 to 10 percent. Now, according to Alexey Krasheninnokov, in his report to UN-Habitat, 60 percent of Russian families live in poverty, and the rest ‘can only be categorised as middle-class by a considerable stretch’ 210

India gained 56 million paupers in the course of the boom 215

Upward mobility in the informal economy is largely a ‘myth inspired by wishful thinking 227

Religious devotion revolves around attempts to influence fortune or importune good luck 232

By the late 1990s, a staggering one billion workers representing one-third of the world’s labour force, most of them in the South, were either unemployed or under employed. 254

There is no official scenario for the reincorporation of this vast mass of surplus labour into the mainstream of the world economy 254

If the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side 262.
Profile Image for Michael.
657 reviews966 followers
July 17, 2020
relentlessly bleak. begins bordering on poverty porn, with a deluge of horrifying stats, then morphs into a lucid analysis of why slums exploded in the wake of decolonization + what housing, sanitation, and work are like for the over 1 billion people who are confined in them today. t/o the work Davis differentiates b/w two overlapping groups, the global informal working class and the slum population, and thinks through how neoliberal policies have fueled the growth of each. the extent to which either has historical agency and can effectively resist the dominant world order is a problem that can be considered only through case studies, he insists near the end—just after he predicts a state of low-intensity, perpetual world war b/w the downtrodden and the states that have abandoned them, to be fought in rapidly expanding megaslums.
Profile Image for Ted.
515 reviews744 followers
January 7, 2018
The subject of this book doesn't get very much mainstream media attention, other than the occasional tangential mention. It is sort of overwhelming when one reads chapter after chapter on the enormous (and growing) slums of the world.

The author, Mike Davis (almost as old as I am), writer, political activist, urban theorist, historian. One time member of CORE, SDS.


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Profile Image for Emma Sea.
2,176 reviews1,047 followers
December 26, 2014

man, we've fucked everything up, haven't we.

Profile Image for David M.
442 reviews390 followers
July 4, 2019
"Because things are the way they are, things cannot stay the way they are." - Bertolt Brecht

This book is filled with descriptions of degradation that truly beggar belief. Millions of people living in shit. A growing market for the organs of the poor. Child labor that exceeds even the most harrowing accounts in Capital.

Living up to its title, a global survey. Davis is endlessly attentive, curious, compassionate. Personally I found some of the most, er, memorable stops to be in Varanasi, Kinshasa, and Cairo. Beyond these conditions, surely, can only lie famine, mass slaughter, or maybe revolution.

Soon after finishing this book today I happened to have a conversation with a young Egyptian American woman. She'd been in her parents' country in 2010, right before Mubarak fell, and then again in 2013 when Sisi took over in a military coup.

She said that right up until it happened, no one saw the Arab Spring coming. I asked if she had any idea if another uprising might occur today. She said no, there was no way to tell, but one thing is different from how it was in 2011. Back then the Egypt's middle class got excited by the idea of revolution. Today, however, they do not want it. Not a wholly irrational calculation on their part. Sisi can point to Syria to bolster his own legitimacy. See where that sort of thing leads. There are plenty of people in Egypt who would like to live in a democracy, and maybe even despise Sisi, but simply have too much to lose in the event of another revolution.

But then there are also many millions in Egypt who live in abject poverty, the ones whose kidneys are the target of wealthy Gulf organ harvesters. It's hard to imagine them ever becoming reconciled to their condition. One way or another, for better and worse, the ghetto is bound to explode again.


Mike Davis is one of the greats. A brilliant scholar and man of the people, committed to the idea that it’s possible to tell the story of humanity as a whole. This book does not make for easy reading, but then there’s some consolation to be found in his courage to face reality.


Marx wrote Capital in 19th century London - the largest city in world history up to that point. At that time it was easy to assume that urbanization was a concomitant of industrial development. In Marx's telling, this meant that there was a silver lining to urban poverty and exploitation. The very same process that caused this misery also created a new class - the proletariat, an agent capable of transforming it.

Marx's story is not wholly irrelevant to the 21st century. China's development in the past quarter century fits pretty closely to the framework laid out in Capital; industrial development leading to the growth of massive cities.

However - and this is where one starts to get a sinking feeling - China is more the exception than the rule today. Throughout the global south massive cities have sprung up without any attendant economic growth or industrial development . Rather than the birthplace of a new revolutionary class, cities have become the place to warehouse superfluous humanity. The implications here are potentially rather dire.
Profile Image for Andrew.
1,975 reviews689 followers
April 25, 2011
Mike Davis doesn't like you. You unwitting colluder with the atrocities of late-stage capitalism. That's right, child of the first world, the blood is on your hands.

I read City of Quartz. I liked City of Quartz. Planet of Slums is like City of Quartz, but it's not just LA that's fucked, it's everywhere. Neoliberalism builds the garbage cities of Manila, the City of the Dead in Cairo, the great spiraling nightmare that is Kibera in Nairobi. Davis is an exceptionally talented reporter, and he paints a stunning portrait of the slum world.

But it is is a Grand Guignol of third world poverty, and there's something weirdly pandering about it. His history of what causes slums is minimal and weakly supported, and no policy suggestions are made, even tentatively. The globalists and DeSoto-ites don't care. They fully believe their market panaceas will cleanse the slums, and recite the mantra of trade liberalization with the faith and determination of sadhus.

And he doesn't seem to take into account the human element of the slums other than their sheer misery and squalor. It's ultimately a privileged-class perspective in which his writings transform the slum from a place of living humans into an object of transfixing horror. Good for agit-prop, yes, but it totally feels like he's writing it from a comfortable office in Southern California. I'd like to hear more from the slum-dwellers themselves, and about their lives.
Profile Image for Anna.
14 reviews
February 2, 2009
This was certainly an interesting book and after finishing it I understand more about the topic - the world's slums and the back-slipping that seems to be happening for the urban poor). That said, I do think this is probably the most grim and sensational version that could have possibly been painted. Universally critical of all governments, classes, NGOs and other international organizations, the author takes the stance that absolutely nobody really knows how to handle this problem and anything they do, even a strategy that produces local gains will in the end do nothing to fight (and may even worsen) the absolutely catastrophic dimensions of the problem.

It's discouraging in a sense, but I have to revolt against this perspective. At one point after describing a slum population so beat down it is unable raise itself from the (literal) muck, the author discusses the presence of NGOs working to get sanitation, micro-financing and other humane services to people in slums. He says sneeringly "They are staffed by retired civil servants and businessmen at the top and, lower down, by social workers, from among the educated unemployed and by housewives and others without roots in the slums." HOUSEWIVES! How dare they?! How could educated people who know only democracy and domestic comfort attempt provide relief effort? I think this mentality is the key fault of this book. It is so focused on problems and critique that it feels obligated to tear down everything in its path, pull out every quote and statistic possible to point out that the whole business is completely hopeless. In that way, although it is very informative and a (somewhat disorganized) survey of the most prominent and desperate slums in the world, it is not really a "helpful" book. I am now very interested in reading some scholars who are proposing alternatives to the type of one sided relief and active suppression that is currently being practiced.
Profile Image for Jonfaith.
1,837 reviews1,343 followers
February 18, 2020
Seismic hazard is the fine print in the devil's bargain of informal housing..

Planet of Slums begins as a torrent of statistics. One is easily lost in the scale of such misery. Debt management is the devil, even if we have to invent one. The restructuring of such debt has human consequences. Our feel good antidote is the micro-credits of Herman DeSoto. Despite our own fortune, we like those stories of empowerment, however unlikely such remain. This is the majority narrative of what it means to be alive in 2020 and yet it remains hidden, obscured by the need to avert our eyes from injustice. I spoke at length with Joel last night about this time as well as the other works of Davis I’ve encountered as of late. Joel met Davis back in the 90s when the latter arrived at SUNY Stony Brook. Joel suggested that Davis always wanted to be Lewis Mumford and if incapable of such aimed to be Bill Vollmann.
Profile Image for dianne .
626 reviews98 followers
January 27, 2022
The title is a tip-off - but before you think I’d rather not... - this is a very readable, fascinating book. Yes, it’s a tale of greed, human tragedy and depersonalization, hopelessness and death all brought to you courtesy of the neo-liberal policies that were wrought on the world via the Structural Adjustment Programs pushed onto the developing world by the IMF and the World Bank - starting in the 1970s and continuing today despite the fact that they've been a dismal failure.

The neo-liberal restructuring beginning in the 70s has devastated healthcare especially for women and children. SAPs (structural adjustment programs) - the protocols in which indebted countries surrender their economic independence to the IMF and World Bank - usually require significant cuts in public spending, including health and education spending (but not military spending, of course, as that is the only product the USA still makes). In Latin America and the Caribbean, SAP enforced austerity during the 1980s reduced public investment in sanitation and potable water, thus eliminating the infant survival advantage previously enjoyed by poor urban residents. In Mexico, after a second SAP in 1986 the percentage of live births attended by medical personnel fell from 94% in 1983 to 45% in 1988, maternal mortality soared from 82/100,000 1980, to 150/100,000 in 1988.
In Ghana “adjustment” led to an 80% decrease in education and health spending, and the departure of 50% of the nation's doctors.
In thoroughly “SAPed” Nigeria, one out of every three children die before age 5. Nigeria’s extreme urban poverty increased from 28% in 1980 to 66% in 1996.

There is much to learn about even those we might consider “the good guys”. Clarification of the role of slum oriented NGOs (often of the recipients of philanthropic and international grants) is elucidated by an activist in Mumbai, P.K. Das:
“Their constant effort is to subvert, dis-inform and de-idealize people so as to keep them away from class struggles. They adopt and propagate the practice of begging favors on sympathetic and humane grounds rather than making the oppressed conscious of their rights. As a matter of fact these agencies and organizations systematically intervene to oppose the agitational path people take to win their demands. Their effort is constantly to divert people’s attention from the larger political evils of imperialism to merely local issues and so confuse people in differentiating enemies from friends.”

Gita Verma, the author of Slumming India characterizes NGOs as the new middlemen who, with the benediction of foreign philanthropies, usurp the authentic voices of the poor.
“She rails against the World Bank paradigm of slum upgrading that accepts slums as eternal realities…”

The effects of these neo-liberal policies have devastated women and children, forcing brutal working conditions on children, and placing women in impossible situations of attempted survival: “SAPs cynically exploit the belief that women’s labor-power is almost infinitely elastic in the face of household survival needs. This is the guilty secret variable in most neoclassical equations of economic adjustment: poor women and their children are expected to lift the weight of Third World debt upon their shoulders.”

This book, now 15 years old, describes the cruel inequality then, which has become orders of magnitude worse now*:
“Global inequity, as measured by World Bank economists across the entire world population, reached an incredible GINI coefficient level of 0.67 by the end of the (last) century - this is mathematically equivalent to a situation where the poorest two-thirds of the world receive zero income, and the top third receives everything.”

Now, it seems we have reached the late-capitalist triage of humanity:
“A point of no return is reached when a reserve army waiting to be incorporated into the labour process becomes stigmatized as a permanently redundant mass, an excessive burden that cannot be included now or in the future, in economy and society.”

Profile Image for Anna.
1,656 reviews618 followers
February 26, 2018
Reading this book gave me an intense and depressing sense of deja vu. It was published in 2006, the year I finished my undergrad degree. I remember writing various essays about the problems of informal urban settlements in the developing world, in other words slums. Davis’ book is a devastating indictment of how neoliberal capitalism and the Washington Consensus created unimaginable levels of urban poverty in the developing world. (He calls it the Third World, but that term has since gone out of fashion. Too deterministic, presumably.) I can’t say that ‘Planet of Slums’ told me much that I didn’t already know, however it reminded me of many things I hadn’t thought about for a while. In these current times of schism in Europe and America, we in the West have become even more self-obsessed and less interested in the plight of the world's poorest people. I have no doubt that the problems of slums described by Davis twelve years ago continue, and in many cases have probably got worse. I just haven’t kept track, being distracted by other depressing things: climate change, neo-fascism, financial crisis, disaster capitalism, etc, etc.

Of particular note in the succinct and relentless narrative are the condemnation of ineffective NGOs, the explanation of how true squatting has become impossible due to rising land values, and the shocking final chapter on informal labour. Davis is rightly enraged by the appalling effects of Structural Adjustment Programmes and the total decoupling of urbanisation and poverty alleviation. He places this in historical context neatly:

From Karl Marx to Max Weber, classical social theory believed that the great cities of the future would follow in the industrialising footsteps of Manchester, Berlin, and Chicago - and indeed Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, Pusan, and today, Ciudad Juarez, Bangalore, and Guangzhou have roughly approximated this canonical trajectory. Most cities of the South, however, more closely Victorian Dublin, which, as historian Emmet Larkin stressed, was unique amongst ‘all the slumdoms produced in the western world in the nineteenth century… [because] its slums were not a product of the industrial revolution. Dublin, in fact, suffered more from the problems of de-industrialisation than industrialisation between 1800 and 1850.’

Likewise, Kinshasa, Luanda, Khartoum, Sar-es-Salaam, Guayaquil, and Lima continue to grow prodigiously despite ruined import substitution industries, shrunken public sectors, and downwardly mobile middle classes. The global forces ‘pushing’ people from the countryside - mechanisation of agriculture in Java and India, food imports in Mexico, Haiti, and Kenya, civil war and drought throughout Africa, and everywhere the consolidation of small holdings into large ones and the competition of industrial scale agribusiness - seem to sustain urbanisation even when the ‘pull’ of the city is drastically weakened by debt and economic depression. As a result, rapid urban growth in the context of structural adjustment, currency devaluation, and state retrenchment has been an inevitable recipe for the mass production of slums.

The horrible irony of the subsequent twelve years has been the western world’s imposition of failed structural adjustment programmes on ourselves. Austerity in the UK has caused a pervasive urban housing crisis; informal underemployment has been re-branded as ‘the gig economy’; the growth of the unregulated private rented sector is a slide towards slums. I can only hope that while the international neoliberal institutions have been preoccupied with destroying Greece and other feats of anti-development, the cities of the developing world have been able to improve their situations without so much outside interference. Given the forces arrayed against them, though, I'm not terribly hopeful.
Profile Image for Gabriel Avocado.
187 reviews95 followers
May 19, 2021
reading some of the reviews on here, i realize just how deeply this book disturbs and even angers first world readers. i am brazilian, reading this from rio de janeiro, and this book just chills me to the core. i dont live in a slum. but the favelas are ever-present to anyone outside the massive gated communities in barra or recreio. but the violence FROM the favela is vastly outshadowed and barely stands in comparison to the violence of the state, ever-present in brazilian society.

the clearances of favelas are now done by militias, an issue that is too complex to delve into here. this month, may 2021, the military police of rio de janeiro slaughtered 29 people in jacarézinho under the excuse of fighting drug dealing gangs. this is rio de janeiro in 2021, during a pandemic where at least two thousand people are dying every day from the already out of control pandemic.

no, davis does not 'offer solutions' to make some intrepid white reader, sitting comfortably in their goddamn brooklyn apartment paid for by their fucking parents, feel better about themselves. what an unbelievably selfish sentiment. youre reading a book about the horrors of capitalism inflicted onto BILLIONS of people and your first thought is 'this makes me feel sad ):' and your second is 'its not MY fault!'

indeed, white brooklynite crying to themselves, there is no solution under capitalism. this book does not exist to make you feel good about yourself. im actually shocked at how many of the reviews were negative because the book was 'too sad' and somehow hurt their feelings. why does it hurt your feelings to know that the third world is a gigantic slum, created in your own image, to provide you with cheap fuel and iphones and avocados? why are you so attacked by this?

i later read some of the other criticisms around this book about how it's 'anti-urban' and 'city-hating' and i think its actually fucking laughable how drastically people miss the point. its not cities themselves that inherently produce poverty; davis at several points discusses rural proletarianization, which destroys existing ways of life to create jobless, floating proletariats who must sell their labor power rather than live off the land but are unable to do either because there is no work and there is no land. to come away thinking that davis 'hates cities' is, i think, one of the stupidest fucking things you could do. i figured id address this because there seems to be a fundamental unwillingness to engage with the core argument of the book, which is how imperialism shapes the very geography of the third world.

another thing i saw was how davis was 'apocalyptic' in this book. and that, again, is something that you, the white first world reader, must sit with. yes, most of the world is actually in dire straights and has been for centuries. yes, most of this is a direct result of the way the global economy is structured to favor the first world over the third. no, you have no right to feel attacked over this simple statement. if you believe planet of slums is 'apocalyptic' then i beg you to live in the conditions that some of these people live in, near open sewage drains, without toilets, on hills threatening to give way at every thunderstorm, huddling in terror of police 'operations' (the only time the state recognizes the slums). the way most of humanity lives IS apocalyptic.

i think people dont seem to understand just how serious the crisis of capitalism is, how even when the economy is good for the first world, life is an endless hell for 2/3s of the planet. from experience and just from casual observation, first world people inherently lack complete empathy for third world people. but davis' epilogue discusses the possibility of eventual overthrow of the system. and i think you will have to accept that perhaps you are not the only human beings on the planet,; that there is another 2/3s of the world that one day, will not accept being treated as subhuman sewage.
Profile Image for Morgan.
26 reviews
February 3, 2008
People sometimes ask me to recommend good books about cities and architecture; it's a pretty hard question - for the most part, contemporary urbanism is a vast wasteland of aesthetic critique lacking any social context. About the only writer I can recommend on these subjects is Mike Davis. Planet of Slums is an amazing book that describes the develop of and life in the shantytowns that are on the margins of cities across the Global South - that is, the cities were most people already live, and where most future population growth will happen.

Davis starts with some dense and sobering statistics on the scope and scale of urbanization, and it's tone and character in a selection of Asian, Latin American, African, and Indian cities.

But this is not a folio of statistics and demographics; Davis is one of the few writers on cities that I'm aware of who understand that contemporary urbanization is different from the process that developed nations went through during the Victorian "Industrial Revolution." "From Karl Marx to Max Weber," writes Davis, "classical social theory believed that the great cities of the future would follow in the industrializing footsteps of Manchester, Berlin, and Chicago..." however, rapidly urbanizing areas like "Kinshasa, Luanda, Khartoum, Dar-es-Salaam, Guayaquill, and Lima continue to grow prodigiously despite ruined import-substitution industries, shrunken public sectors, and downwardly mobile middle classes."

All of which is to say that Planet of Slums is the only book I have found so far that so completely outlines the process of the development and explosive of neoliberal cities. The IMF and the World Bank, trans-national corporations, debt, aid, and structural adjustment - Planet of Slums is about how these institutions and forces shape the urban landscape for the majority of the world.

Planet of Slums is a harsh book. You will find no romance in the revolution prose here. Squatters aren't heroic figures on the cusp of achieving their dreams, but rather a deeply exploited underclass facing the dual oppression of illegitimacy in the eyes of the state as well as subjugation to a exploitative class of illegal shantytown landlords with either (or both) government or gang connections - a condition that has been going on, in some places, for generations. These are glimpses into a world were homeless pedicab drivers have to pay rent to someone even to sleep on the sidewalk, where the organized squatter communities are still living on toxic dumps, flood zones, or in areas with 100,000 to one person to toilet ratios.

Further, Davis writes of the appropriation of anarchist anti-statist self-help ideal by the World Bank. Specifically, he writes of the use of the ideas of anarchist-urbanist John Turner by the World Bank under Robert MacNemera, (something I found fascinating and deeply disturbing), as well as a broader discussion of NGO's and their less then benevolent or democratic roles in the creation and perpetuation of urban misery.

Planet of Slums is challenging and insightful, brutal in it's descriptions of slums and it's lack of "rays of hope" or upbeat conclusions. It is well researched and dense with theory and analysis, and is, in that way vital to anyone who wants to understand how contemporary cities develop.
Profile Image for unperspicacious.
124 reviews37 followers
July 18, 2011
Dear little Swallow," said the Prince, "you tell me of marvellous things, but more marvellous than anything is the suffering of men and of women. There is no Mystery so great as Misery. Fly over my city, little Swallow, and tell me what you see there." - Oscar Wilde, The Happy Prince.

There are at least four ways that this book can be read. Much depends, of course on the positioning of the reader.

First, straight up, as a catalogue of some truly horrific evidence of what human beings are able to do and endure on a daily basis. Not much point going into detail here; others on goodreads have done it much better...

Second, as a practical example of how to write incendiary literature in clear and simple prose.

Third, as an extended essay written in measured polemic, partly to help carry across some rather complex (but fragmented) ideas to a relatively broad Western readership.

Fourth, as a call to arms for socialists everywhere; to acknowledge, investigate and act on a central issue of political sociology within labour, i.e. overcoming the 'struggle over class' prior to the 'struggle between classes.'

Once the book is gutted the ideas are actually much more palatable and less hallucinatory than the examples that Davis selects and uses to bludgeon the reader with...although I suppose what can be judged as hallucinatory probably still depends on one's political leanings....

The entire premise of this book can be summed up in one paragraph early on, in the opening chapter:

"Rather than the classical stereotype of the labor-intensive countryside and the capital-intensive metropolis, the Third World now contains many examples of capital-intensive countrysides and labor-intensive deindustrialized cities. "Overurbanization," in other words, is driven by the reproduction of poverty, not by the supply of jobs. This is one of the unexpected tracks down which a neoliberal world order is shunting the future."

In other words, brace yourselves, wherever you are...slums, slums, slums, everywhere, as far as the eye can see...or the mind can fathom...

Davis' paradigm really does add another layer to the usual socialist questions about future economic change, the agrarian question, the revolutionary potential of labour and the immiseration thesis.


But there is also the issue of the Davis Paradigm's applicability to actual recent events after publication. Davis wrote and published the book in the midst of the foreign policy excesses of Bush II's administration, making a speculative link between slum-based political resistance and the 'war on terror'. However, it seems like much of what he warned about (in terms of the organised revolutionary potential of the informal sector) has already indeed taken place in the Maghreb/Mashreq (although I could be very wrong about drawing this parallel). Fast forward to the first phase of the 'Arab Spring' in 2011 - Egypt, Tunisia, and perhaps even Libya (on the grounds of massive urban unemployment): in a way, Davis was there long before the Middle East watchers even knew what was happening before their very eyes...which probably isn't a bad thing...

For more constructive views, Davis has a much shorter and marginally more uplifting read in New Left Review 61, Jan-Feb 2010, entitled "Who Will Build the Ark?". Aside from what is a very astute assessment of the energy conundrum, he actually does offer some personal positive urban guidelines for living the good life, courtesy of the Constructivists. Not quite the doom-monger that some readers tend to make him out to be...
Profile Image for Mary.
92 reviews14 followers
July 8, 2010
Good luck figuring out what to do with yourself once you've finished this book. The title might sound hyperbolic, but Davis underpins his terrifying thesis exhaustively with this tidal-wave-o'-super-scary-facts-delivered-nonchalantly prose style, which, along with the occasional offhand allusion to Bladerunner and the profligate use of the adjective "Orwellian," makes this probably the scariest thing I have ever, ever read.

Which is not to say it isn't also incredibly erudite and well researched. That is, of course, what makes it scary. It's one of those books that makes you entirely reorganize the shelves in your brain. Here's Davis's take on war, for instance: "The demonizing rhetorics of the various international 'wars' on terrorism, drugs, and crime are so much semantic apartheid: they construct epistemological walls around [slums:] that disable any honest debate about the daily violence of economic exclusion."

Here is just a smattering of the super-scary facts:

One third of the global urban population lives in slums.

Right now, almost half of the developing world's urban population is sick from a preventable disease associated with poor sanitation. There will be about 5 million preventable deaths of children under five years old in slums by 2025.

In Cairo's slum, called the City of the Dead, a million people live in homes they made out of tombs.

"In Mumbai, slum-dwellers have retreated so far into the Sanjay Gandhi National Park that some are now being routinely eaten by leopards."

Because of disinvestment in public services like heat and water and housing required by the IMF, "Millions of poor urban Russians... suffer conditions of cold, hunger, and isolation uncannily reminiscent of the siege of Leningrad."

In wealthy suburbs in Cape Town, the rich and middle class encircle their communities with ten-thousand-volt fences that were originally designed to discourage lions, so great is their fear of the poor who live in the hellish slums they build HIGHWAYS OVER to avoid seeing. Similar walled communities in China and Southeast Asia have names like "Orange County."

A slum in Nairobi has 10 working latrines (which are really just glorified pits) for 40,000 people. (This from a horrifyingly informative sub-chapter titled "Living in Shit.") In Indian slums, women can only defecate between two and five in the morning, because the only places to relieve oneself are public parks, and modesty demands that they not be seen doing this, so they don't eat during the day.

Desperately poor slum-dwellers in Kinshasa have taken to blaming their poverty on disabled children, whom Pentacostal preachers have convinced them are evil witches. The children are torturously "exorcised" and then abandoned in the streets.

And it just goes on and on. This litany of awful, awful facts.

Here's the closest thing Davis offers to a solution. It's one sentence in the last chapter, nestled into a discussion of how the Pentagon and military academies are now basically training our armies the art of fighting poor people in slums: "Indeed, the future of human solidarity depends upon the militant refusal of the new urban poor to accept their terminal marginality within global capitalism."

Oh, and here's the last sentence: "If the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos of their side."

Sleep tight.
Profile Image for Fritz.
49 reviews
June 14, 2007
probably the most important thing you can read.
Profile Image for Harris.
140 reviews14 followers
January 19, 2021
There are two things I really like about Davis.

1) He practices a very practical, grounded, and compassionate leftism that provides a nice balance when overdosing on theory.

2) His furious non-stop info-dumps remind me of reading some of Thomas Bernhard’s more drawn-out works.

Profile Image for Esin.
142 reviews10 followers
December 10, 2018
Kent kuramcısı, tarihçi ve aktivist kimlikleriyle bilinen yazar Mike Davis’in nitelikli araştırmaları ile oluşturulmuş, Üçüncü dünya ülkelerinin hızlı kentleşmesi sonucu meydana gelen megakentlerin, bu megakentler içinde gittikçe büyüyen gecekondu bölgelerinin, kent yoksullarının incelendiği kitap çokça istatistiki veri içeriyor ve bu verilerle gerçekleri bir bir ortaya çıkarıyor.
Yazar, tüm bu gecekondu yaşamını düzeltmek için verilen ekonomik ve sosyal uğraşların aslında orta sınıfın işine yaradığı, IMF, Dünya Bankası ve Stk’ların gecekondular üzerindeki etkilerini, yerinden edilen yoksulların durumlarını, yaşama koşullarını, gecekondu bölgelerinde suç unsurlarının varlığını, neoliberal kapitalist etkinin sonuçlarını ülkelerden örneklerle tek tek anlatılıyor. Hükümetlerin ve uluslararası örgütlerin gerçeklere yönelik acımasız eleştirilerini kağıda döküyor.
Sağlık konusunda en aşırı farkların kent-köy arasında değil, kentli orta sınıf ve kentli yoksul sınıf arasında olduğu gerçeği aslında kentleşmenin her zaman kentlileşme getirmediğini açığa çıkarıyor. Nüfusun yarısından fazlasının gecekondu bölgelerinde yaşadığı kentler gün geçtikçe daha karmaşık bir hal alıyor. Yazar öyle örnekler kaleme almış ki okurken insanın inanası gelmiyor. Örneğin;
• Nüfusu 10 milyonu aşma yolunda hızlıca ilerleyen Kinşasa megakentinde atıkların suyla taşındığı kanalizasyon sisteminin bulunmaması dolayısıyla dünyanın en sağlıksız kentleri arasında yer alması
• Nairobi’de 1998’de Kibera semtindeki Laini Saba gecekondu bölgesinde 40.000 kişiye 10 tane tuvalet çukuru düşmesi, Mathare’de 28.000 kişiye 2 umumi tuvalet düşmesi nedeniyle insanların tuvaletlerini torbalara yapıp sokaklara atması olayının suç unsuru haline gelmesi: arabaların önünü kesip para isteyen çocukların bu torbaları arabalara fırlatmakla şoförleri tehdit etmesi
• Bangalore kentinde gecekonduda yaşayan kadınların tuvalet ve banyo ihtiyaçlarını ortalık yere gündüz vakti yapamadıkları için gündoğumu öncesini ya da gündoğumu sonrasını beklemeleri ve bu yüzden gündüzleri pek bir şey yememeleri…
Bu kitap bilmediğimiz yaşamlar üzerine çokça şok edici bilgi içerir. Kente iç yüzüyle beraber bakmak isteyenler mutlaka okumalı.

Profile Image for else fine.
277 reviews107 followers
July 14, 2011
I'm not going to lie: this is dry. Really, really dry. I like dry, as a general rule, or at least it doesn't bother me - but this? Man. Maybe it's because the things he covers are so wrenchingly, horribly emotional and in order to get through it with any objectivity he had to cloak himself in boringness. At any rate, the information is valuable - maybe critical - and well worth wading through the whole of the text. The glimpse of our urban future that Davis provides is one we need to look at, hard. And I tell you: you will never take your toilet for granted again.
Profile Image for Jim.
638 reviews97 followers
October 7, 2009
A very disturbing book well written with alot of footnotes and statistics. No solutions were put forth.

Profile Image for Jeremy.
11 reviews11 followers
January 11, 2010
I read this a few years back and am rereading it now. It's a bit of a downer, i must warn you. It turns out slums are not as fun as they seem.
Profile Image for Taighe Selwood.
20 reviews
March 1, 2021
This definitely did not help my pessimistic world view. But it felt like an important read about things I had no knowledge in.

"If unmitigated capitalism has a mainly unacceptable face, a corrupt state acting on behalf of the rich is still worse. In such circumstances, little is to be gained by even trying to improve the system."

"Varanasi's Silk Sari industry, investigated by Human Rights Watch, is no better: 'The children work twelve or more hours a day, six and a half or seven days a week, under conditions of physical and verbal abuse. Starting as young as age five, they earn from nothing at all to around 400 rupees (US $8.33) a month.' in one workshop, researchers discovered a 9-year-old chained to his loom; everywhere they saw young boys covered with burn scars from the dangerous work of boiling silkworm cocoons, as well as little girls with damaged eyesight from endless hours of embroidering in poor lighting."

"The brutal tectonics of neoliberal globalization since 1978 are analogous to the catastrophic processes that shaped a third world in the first place during the era of late Victorian imperialism (1870 to 1900). At the end of the 19th century, the forcible incorporation into the world market of the great subsistence peasantries of Asia and Africa entailed the famine deaths of millions and the uprooting of tens of millions more from traditional tenures. The end result (in Latin America as well) was rural semi-proletarianization, the creation of a huge global class of immiserated semi-pedents and farm laborers lacking existential security of subsistence. As a result, the 20th century became an age not of urban revolutions, as classical Marxism had imagined, but of epochal rural uprisings and peasant-based wars of National liberation."
Profile Image for Sean Estelle.
368 reviews21 followers
March 8, 2023
devastating critique of ruling class urban politics and the neoliberal global consensus, impeccably researched, Mike Davis was and is a national treasure and everyone should read all his shit as soon as possible and so on and so forth
Profile Image for Majd Hamad.
163 reviews20 followers
January 7, 2023
رائع جدًا، ويستحق القراءة والتكرار
استعراض للعشوائيات حول العالم بالقباحة والجمال والروابط بين كل العشوائيات.
انتابني شعور بالوحدة العالمية للحظة، فكل المدن والعالم يشترك بالعشوائيات وقباحتها.
Profile Image for Mickey Dubs.
161 reviews
July 13, 2022
Mike Davis's searing account of the squalor billions of people are condemned to reveals the definitive result of the neoliberal experiment: effulence, not affulence.

Due to the decisions made by corrupt local politicians, NGOs, and international financial organisations, vast swathes of the world have regressed to Victorian standards of urban living. With millions crammed into slum housing, terrorised by clientelist police forces and surrounded by human sewage - the world is slowly turning into a giant Romford.

Profile Image for Frank Stein.
964 reviews121 followers
December 30, 2009
Mike Davis apparently took those complaints about his slippery relationship to the truth to heart, because this slim book is loaded down with footnotes. Unfortunately most of those cite just a select handful of left-wing texts, and even they often disagree with each other as to the reality of slum life in the Third World. Davis does nothing to reconcile them.

As far as I can tell from the book Davis never visited one of the slums he writes about, he never did any independent primary source research on any of them, and apparently he didn't even bother to coordinate or fact-check many of the figures he tries to swamp the reader with.

At the very least there is an interesting section about the 1950s and 1960s colonial fight to keep Third World cities white and rich and to resign poverty to the farms. Davis shows how after the Europeans left (and the after the early dictatorships fell and civil wars broke out) there was an absolute explosion of unprecedented urbanization. After the fall of the Jimenz dictatorship in Venezuela, Caracas saw 400,000 (!) migrants flood into the city in just one year (1958). Angola, only 14% urban in 1970, now has a majority of its citizens in cities due to the millions displaced by a 25 year communist-led civil war. The "urban bias" of African leaders who under-paid farmers for their crops also led to massive urban migration that the continent was ill-prepared for.

Of course, Davis blames everything on the IMF and the World Bank (and global capitalism more broadly), but he fully admits that almost every government solution to the slums so far has only made things worse (especially in those nominally socialist countries he discusses at length). So his solutions, if he has any, are obscure.

Mainly, the book is an apocalyptic screed attempting to rouse general indignation against amorphous capitalist overlords. If there was any real research backing this extended rant it might have been more convincing.
Profile Image for Avery.
117 reviews64 followers
December 6, 2018
Mike Davis is one of the angriest men on the planet-- with good reason. If you want to learn more about the horrors of modern global capitalism, and I believe you should, then look no further than this book as a little introduction to the suffering and utter destitution of the majority of the world's people in this time of unprecedented decadence in the imperial core.
Profile Image for David Anderson.
226 reviews40 followers
January 11, 2020
A chilling and enraging indictment of the effects of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and neoliberalism upon the urban areas of the Global South, in particular the Structural Adjustment Programs imposed by the World Bank and IMF which have brought the underdeveloped nations to their knees. Even more important today as the chickens are coming home to roost in form of the similar austerity regimes being imposed in most nations of the developed West. An absolutely vital book for all progressives, 5 stars and a must read. Check out this detailed review:

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