The author of the 2006 book, Planet of Slums, Mike Davis, is a noted historian and social commentator who is often concerned with the effects of industrialization on societies, the nature of the urban landscape (particularly in the context of industrialization) and a noted critic of neoliberal policies who instead advocates a Marxist ideology.
The title of this text perfectly reflects Davis’ grim vision of a future that will boast a vast majority of the world’s population housed within deteriorating cities with deep class divides which push most people into the slums and the informal economy. Davis does not view the problem of these slums as resolvable through traditional modes of assistance in the form of international aid programs and instead views these institutions, the IMF in particular, as part of the cause for the current imbalance that was created after the first wave of industrialization and mass urban migration.
Furthermore, David does see resolution of the problem of growing numbers of slums in the concept of “bootstrap capitalism” and continues only to see this situation as unavoidable, at least with our current social, economic, and political structures. Davis’ writing style is accessible to the general reader but seems mostly geared at those who would likely be detractors to his ideas, namely those neoliberal groups who receive unparalleled criticism as being responsible for part of the cause and maintenance of the problem. While the general reader with a casual interest in the future of the urban landscape throughout the world would be sated, if not unsettled by this book, it seems to be more of an attack on current systems as opposed to a prediction aimed at revealing a possible future for the purposes of pure speculation for its own sake. The most compelling and convincing argument Davis makes has to do with the conflicted role of aid organizations in the creation and continued problem of international urban slums.
Planet of Slums offers vivid descriptions of the world’s heavily populated slums in the developing world and characterizes them as existing in a hopeless informal sector that is neither tended to adequately by international organizations or host governments who have long since abandoned their urban poor, in part due to the paradigm-shifting policies of the IMF and other unilateral aid organizations. Davis is an expert at finding figures that are astounding in scope and while they do tend to lump all slums together and ignore regional, cultural and other differences, they are staggering. What remains after all the numbers are tallied and Davis’ argument is laid bare, is that the developing world’s slums that are experiencing ever-growing population numbers, despite any promises of economic advantage for those who are migrating from rural areas.
This is a marked shift from the growth of urban areas that has occurred since the beginning of mass industrialization when many rural agriculturalists migrated to cities to participate in the market economy as there are now no identifiable reasons for such migration. Nonetheless, this migration continues, in part due to the structural readjustment programs and other “aid” offered from multinational aid organizations such as the IMF that changed the ability for farmers and rural people in developing nations to adequately exist as they had done for so many centuries. Instead of receiving balanced and helpful assistance from either local or federal governments and international aid organizations, These ever-expanding slums are embracing religion, sometimes in extreme forms that have a distinct political edge, and maintaining an informal economy and way of life on the margins of the world’s society.
Instead of presenting an argument that rambles or is shrouded in a mystery that requires pages of explanation, Davis begins his book with a series of blunt statistics from credible international sources that claim that the cities are going to become home to most of the world’s population before offering country-based statistics that further assert this claim. His focus is clearly on the developing world and for several pages before a more formal description of his own purpose and argument, there is an entire page devoted to a graphic demonstrating urban population growth, a clear table with population comparisons from 1950 and modern times, and follows this up with more in-text citations of figures and facts. This not only allows Davis to establish a tone of authority for his contentious argument—something that seems almost required to establish when proposing an impossible-to-prove future projection, but it provides readers with an idea of just how powerful of a movement the new urban migration is. He situates this movement to cities within the both the context of modern and ancient history, claiming that this movement will “constitute a watershed in human history, comparable to the Neolithic or Industrial revolutions” (Davis 1) impossible to ignore by boldly declaring that his argument will be predicting an event that is on par with some of the most revolutionizing movements in the history of earth itself, not just in terms of more contemporary history.