Richard Pithouse, Mute Magazine
Taking up the gauntlet of pessimism thrown down by Mike Davis’ account of the global slum epidemic, Planet of Slums, Richard Pithouse draws on his involvement with the struggles of slum dwellers in Durban to offer an alternative and engaged perspective. Against Davis’ homogenisation of slum life, misrepresentation of slum politics, and ‘imperialist’ methodology, he argues for an analysis grounded in specific settlements, histories, people and struggles – a ‘politics of the poor’
But by the late 1980s the World Bank backed elite consensus was that shack settlements, now called ‘informal settlements’ rather than ‘squatter camps’, were opportunities for popular entrepreneurship rather than a threat to white settlers, state and capital. NGOs embedded in imperial power structures were deployed to teach the poor that they could only hope to help themselves via small businesses while the rich got on with big business. At the borders of the new gated themeparks where the rich now worked, shopped, studied and entertained themselves the armed enforcement of segregation, previously the work of the state, was carried out by private security.
There are now a billion people in the squatter settlements in the cities of the South. Many states, NGOs and their academic consultants have returned to the language that presents slums as a dirty, diseased, criminal and depraved threat to society. The UN actively supports ‘slum clearance’ and in many countries shack settlements are again under ruthless assault from the state. Lagos, Harare and Bombay are the names of places where men with guns and bulldozers come to turn neighbourhoods into rubble. The US military is planning to fight its next wars in the ‘feral failed cities’ of the South with technology that can sense body heat behind walls. Once no one can be hidden, soldiers can drive or fire through walls as if they weren’t there. Agent Orange has been upgraded. Gillo Pontecorvo’s great film The Battle of Algiers is used as a training tool at West Point. The lesson seems to be that that kind of battle, with its walls and alleys that block and bewilder outsiders and give refuge and opportunity to insiders, must be blown into history. The future should look more like Fallujah.
Image: March from the Kennedy Road Settlement, early 2005. Indymedia South Africa
But other metropolitan leftists are becoming more interested in the prospects for resistance in shanty towns. Mike Davis’ first intervention, a 2004 New Left Review article, ‘Planet of Slums’, famously concluded that ‘for the moment at least, Marx has yielded the historical stage to Mohammed and the Holy Ghost’ and so ‘the Left (is) still largely missing from the slum’. This was a little too glib. For a start the left is not reducible to the genius of one theorist working from one time and place. And as Davis wrote these words militant battles were being fought in and from shack settlements in cities like Johannesburg, Caracas, Bombay, Sao Paulo and Port-au-Prince. Moreover proposing a Manichean distinction between religion and political militancy is as ignorant as it is silly. Some of the partisans in these battles were religious. Others were not. In many instances these struggles where not in themselves religious but rooted their organising in social technologies developed in popular religious practices. Davis’ pessimism derived, at least in part, from a fundamental methodological flaw. He failed to speak to the people waging these struggles, or even to read the work produced from within these resistances and often read his imperial sources – the UN, World Bank, donor agencies, anthropologists, etc – as colleagues rather than enemies.
At around the same time as Davis wrote his Slums paper Slavoj Zizek, writing in the London Review of Books, argued that the explosive growth of the slum ‘is perhaps the crucial geopolitical event of our times’. He concluded that we are confronted by:
The rapid growth of a population outside the law, in terrible need of minimal forms of self organisation … One should resist the easy temptation to elevate and idealise slum-dwellers into a new revolutionary class. It is nonetheless surprising how far they conform to the old Marxist definition of the proletarian revolutionary subject: they are ‘free’ in the double meaning of the word, even more than the classical proletariat (‘free’ from all substantial ties; dwelling in a free space, outside the regulation of the state); they are a large collective, forcibly thrown into a situation where they have to invent some mode of being-together, and simultaneously deprived of support for their traditional ways of life. ... The new forms of social awareness that emerge from slum collectives will be the germ of the future ...Zizek, being Zizek, failed to ground his speculative (although tentative) optimism in any examination of the concrete. But it had the enormous merit of, at least in principle, taking thinking in the slum seriously.
As Alain Badiou explains, with typical precision, there can be no formula for mass militancy that holds across time and space:
A political situation is always singular; it is never repeated. Therefore political writings – directives or commands – are justified inasmuch as they inscribe not a repetition but, on the contrary, the unrepeatable. When the content of a political statement is a repetition the statement is rhetorical and empty. It does not form part of thinking. On this basis one can distinguish between true political activists and politicians ... True political activists think a singular situation; politicians do not think.
The billion actual shack dwellers live in actual homes in communities in places with actual histories that collide with contemporary circumstances to produce actual presents. Many imperial technologies of domination do have a global range and do produce global consequences but there can be no global theory of how they are lived, avoided and resisted. Even within the same parts of the same cities the material and political realities in neighbouring shack settlements can be hugely different. This is certainly the case in Durban, the South African port city, from which this article is written. There are 800,000 shack dwellers in Durban but the settlements I know best are in a couple of square kilometres in valleys, on river banks and against the municipal dump in the suburb of Clare Estate. In this small area there are eight settlements with often strikingly different material conditions, modes of governance, relations to the party and state, histories of struggle, ethnic make-ups, degrees of risk of forced removal and so on. In the Lacey Road settlement, ruled by an armed former ANC soldier last elected many years ago, organising openly will quickly result in credible death threats. In the Kennedy Road settlement there is a radically open and democratic political culture. Kennedy Road has a large vegetable garden, a hall and an office and some access to electricity. In the Foreman Road settlement the shacks are packed far too densely for there to be any space for a garden and there is no hall, office or meeting room and no access to electricity.
Image: Foreman Road Protest, 14 November 2005. Indymedia South Africa
Although Davis notes the diversity within the shanty town in principle, in practice his global account of ‘the slum’ produces a strange homogenisation. This is premised on a casual steamrolling of difference that necessarily produces and is produced by basic empirical errors. For instance a passing comment on South Africa reveals that he does not understand the profound distinctions between housing in legal, state built and serviced townships and illegal, squatter built shacks in unserviced shack settlements. He casually asserts as some kind of rule that shack renters, not owners, will tend to be radical. No doubt this holds in some places but it’s far from a universal law of some science of the slum. In fact most of the elected leadership in Abahlali baseMjondolo (the Durban shack dwellers’ movement whose local militancy has, to paraphrase Fanon, made a decisive irruption into the national South African struggle) are owners, or the children or siblings of owners.
Robert Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, also published this year, is vastly more attentive to the actual circumstances and thinking of actual squatters. Neuwirth lacks Davis’ gift for rhetorical flourish but his methodology is radically superior to Davis’ often insufficiently critical reliance on imperial research. Neuwirth lived in squatter settlements in Bombay, Istanbul, Rio and Nairobi. Once there he took, as one simplyhas to when one is the ignorant outsider depending on others, the experience and intelligence of the people he met seriously. In Neuwirth’s book imperial power has a global reach but there is no global slum. There are particular communities with particular histories and contemporary realities. The people that live in shanty towns emerge as people.
Davis sees slums in explicitly Hobbesian terms. As he rushes to his apocalyptic conclusions he pulls down numbers and quotes from a dazzling range of literature and some of the research that he cites points to general tendencies that are often of urgent importance. Parts of his account of the material conditions in the global slum illuminate important facets of places like Kennedy Road, Jadhu Place and Foreman Road, which were the first strongholds of Abahlali baseMjondolo, as well as aspects of the broader situation people in these settlements confront. For example, Davis notes that major sports events often mean doom for squatters and here in Durban the city has promised to ‘clear the slums’, mostly via apartheid style forced removal to rural ghettos, before the 2010 football World Cup is held in South Africa. It is possible to list the ways in which Davis’ account of the global slum usefully illuminate local conditions – post-colonial elites have aggressively adapted racial zoning to class and tend to withdraw to residential and commercial themeparks; the lack of toilets is a key women’s issue; NGOs generally act to demobilise resistance and many people do make their lives, sick and tired, on piles of shit, in endless queues for water, amidst the relentless struggle to wring a little money out of a hard, corrupt world. The brown death, diarrhoea, constantly drains the life force away. And there is the sporadic but terrifyingly inevitable threat of the red death – the fires that roar and dance through the night.
But even when the material horror of settlements built and then rebuilt on shit after each fire has some general truth, it isn’t all that is true. It is also the case that for many people these settlements provide a treasured node of access to the city with its prospects for work, education, cultural, religious and sporting possibilities; that they can be spaces for popular cosmopolitanism and cultural innovation and that everyday life is often characterised, more than anything else, by its ordinariness – people drinking tea, cooking supper, playing soccer, celebrating a child’s birthday, doing school homework or at choir practice. It is this ordinariness, and in certain instances hopefulness, that so firmly divorces purely tragic or apocalyptic accounts of slum life from even quite brief encounters with the lived reality of the shack settlement. Furthermore, in so far as general comments about such diverse places are useful, an adequate theory of the squatter settlement needs to get to grips with the fundamental ambiguity that often characterises life in these places.
On the one hand the absence of the state often means the material deprivation and suffering that comes from the absence of the basic state services (water, electricity, sanitation, refuse removal, etc) required for a viable urban life. But the simultaneous absence of the state and traditional authority and proximity to the city can also enable a rare degree of political and cultural autonomy. This ambiguity is often a central feature of squatters’ lives and struggles. A.W.C. Champion was the head of the famous African Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) that helped to organise resistance against the atrocious material conditions in the huge Umkumbane settlement in Durban. Speaking in 1960, just afterthe state had destroyed the settlement and moved its residents to formal township houses outside of the city, he recalled Umkumbane, not only as a bad memory of shit and fire, but also as ‘the place in Durban where families could breath the air of freedom’.
Neuwirth is able to capture this ambiguous aspect of shack life. He doesn’t shy away from the horror of the conditions in some settlements. Indeed he begins with Tema, a resident of the Rocinha settlement in Rio, telling him that ‘The Third World is a video game’ and goes on to show why this statement matters. But because he has lived in the places that he describes and spoken to the people that he writes about he is able to capture the ordinariness of the ordinary life of people and communities and the fact that there are, at times, certain attractions to slum life. He quotes Armstrong O’Brian, a resident of the Southland settlement in Nairobi, who says, ‘This place is very addictive. It’s a simple life, but no one is restricting you. Nobody is controlling you. Once you have stayed here, you cannot go back.’ Perhaps it is rumours of this air of freedom, this lack of control, that fill the sail on Zizek’s radical hopes for the slum.
It also needs to be recognised that shanty towns are very often consequent to land invasions and that services, especially water and electricity, are often illegally appropriated from the state. Fanon insisted that ‘The shanty town is the consecration of the colonised’s biological decision to invade the enemy citadel at all costs’. Most of the writing produced by contemporary imperialism tends to take a tragic and naturalising form and to present squatters as being passively washed into shack settlements by the tides of history. Unfortunately Davis generally fails to mark the insurgent militancy that is often behind the formation and ongoing survival of the shack settlement. So, for example, his naturalising description of Soweto as ‘having grown from a suburb to a satellite city’ leaves out the history of the shack dwellers’ movement Sofasonke which, in 1944, led more than ten thousand people to occupy the land that would later become Soweto. However, Neuwirth’s book is very good at showing that the shanty town often has its origins in popular reappropriation of land and often survives by battles to defend and extend those gains and to appropriate state services.
No doubt Human Rights discourse takes on a concrete reality when one is being bombed in its name. But when grasped as a tool by the militant poor it invariably turns out to contain a strange emptiness. Hence the importance of Neuwirth’s assertion of the value of the fact that squatters are ‘not seizing an abstract right, they are taking an actual place’. But he sensibly avoids the mistake of assuming that popular reappropriation is automatically about creating a democratic commons. If the necessity or choice of a move to the city renders rural life impossible or undesireable, and if the cosmopolitanism of so many shanty towns puts them at an unbridgeable remove from traditional modes of governance, there is no guarantee that the need to invent new social forms will result in progressive outcomes. Shiv Senna, the Hindu fascist movement that built its first base in the shanty towns of Bombay, is one of many instances of deeply reactionary responses to the need for social innovation. At a micro-local level the authoritarianism and misogyny that characterises the governance of the Overcome Heights settlement, founded after a successful land invasion in Cape Town earlier this year, is another. As Neuwirth shows, choices are made, struggles are fought and outcomes vary. Many settlements are dominated by slum lords of various types. But this is not inevitable and does not justify Davis’ Hobbesian pessimism about life in shack settlements. Communal ownership and democracy are also possible and there are numerous concrete instances in which they occur.
Neuwirth wisely resists the temptation to produce a policy model for making things better and insists that ‘The legal instrument is not important. The political instrument is’ and that ‘Actual control, not legal control is key.’ His solution is old-fashioned people power – the ‘messy, time consuming’ praxis of organising. It is not a solution that sees squatters as a new proletariat, a messiah to redeem the whole world. It is a solution that sees squatters struggling to make their lives better. The point is not that the squatters must subordinate themselves to some external authority or provide the ‘base’ for some apparently grander national or global struggle. Squatters should be asking the questions that matter to them and waging their fights on their terms.
That is as far as the popular literature takes us. But the experience and thinking of shack dwellers’ movements, some of which will travel well and some of which will not, can take us further. In Durban the experience of Abahlali baseMjondolo has shown that the will to fight has no necessary connection to the degree of material deprivation or material threat from state power. It is always a cultural and intellectual rather than a biological phenomenon. It therefore requires cultural and intellectual work to be produced and sustained. Spaces and practices in which the courage and resilience to stay committed to this work can be nurtured are essential. Drawing from the diverse lifeworlds that come together to make the settlements and the movement requires a hybrid new to be woven from the strands of the old. Formal meetings are necessary to enable the careful collective reflection on experience that produces and develops the movement’s ideas and principles. The music and meals and games and prayers and stories and funerals that weave togetherness are essential to sustain both a collective commitment to the movement’s principles and a will to fight.
The Abahlali have also found that even if there is a growing will to fight no collective militancy is possible when settlements are not run democratically and autonomously. If they are dominated by party loyalists, the ragged remnants of a defeated aristocracy, slum lords or some combination thereof this will have to be challenged. Often lives will be at risk during the early moments of this challenge but the power of local tyrants simply has to be broken. The best tactic is to use the strength of nearby democratic settlements to ensure protection for the few courageous people who take the initiative to organise some sort of open display of a mass demand for democratisation. If a clear majority of people in a settlement come out to a meeting against the slum lords, and if the people who break the power of the local tyrants immediately act to make open and democratic meetings the real (rather than performed) space of politics, then a radical politics becomes possible. Part of making a meeting democratic is declaring its resolute autonomy from state, party and civil society. Then and only then is it fully accountable to the people in whose name it is constituted. A movement must be ruthlessly principled about not working with settlements that are not democratic.
People fight constituted power to gain their share and to constitute counter power. Choices have to be made and adhered to. Any conception of shanty town politics that sees the mere fact of insurgency into bourgeois space as necessarily progressive in and by itself risks complicity with micro-local relations of domination and, because local despotisms so often become aligned to larger forces of domination, complicities with larger relations of domination. Despite the speculative optimism of certain Negrians, the fact of mere movement driven by mere desire for more life is not sufficient for a radical politics. A genuinely radical politics can only be built around an explicit thought out commitment to community constructed around a political and material commons. The fundamental political principle must be that everybody matters. In each settlement each person counts for one and in a broader movement the people in each settlement count equally.
People who share some of the terrain of the middle class left (access to email, positions in universities or NGOs, etc) and who do not find casual contempt for the underclass to be problematic, or who refuse to allow themselves to be used as bridges for attempts at co-option, will be excoriated on that terrain as divisive trouble makers. However, they will, as Fanon wrote, find ‘a mantle of unimagined tenderness and vitality’ in the settlements where politics is a serious project – where, in Alain Badiou’s words, ‘meetings, or proceedings, have as their natural content protocols of delegation and inquest whose discussion is no more convivial or superegotistical than that of two scientists involved in debating a very complex question’.
The middle class tendency to assume a right to lead usually expresses itself in overt and covert attempts to shift power away from the spaces in which the poor are strong. However, the people that constitute the movement will in fact know what the most pressing issues are, where resistance can press most effectively and how best to mobilise. A politics that cannot be understood and owned by everyone is poison – it will always demobilise and disempower even if it knows more about the World Bank, the World Social Forum, Empire, Trotsky or some fashionable theory than the people who know about life and struggle in the settlements. The modes, language, jargon, concerns, times and places of a genuinely radical politics must be those in which the poor are powerful and not those in which they are silenced as they are named, directed and judged from without. Anyone wanting to offer solidarity must come to the places where the poor are powerful and work in the social modes within which the poor are powerful. Respect on this terrain must be earned via sustained commitment and not bought. All resources and networks and skills brought here must be placed in common. There must be no personalised branding or appropriation of work done. The Post-Seattle struggle tourists must be dealt with firmly when they call the inevitable disinterest in their assumed right to lead ‘silencing’ and try to present that as an important issue. Local donor funded socialists must be dealt with equally firmly when they call people ‘ignorant’ for wanting to focus their struggle on the relations of domination that most immediately restrict their aspirations and which are within reach of their ability to organise a collective and effective fight back. Democratic popular struggle is a school and will develop its range and reach as it progresses. But a permanently ongoing collective reflection on the lived experience of struggle is necessary for resistances to be able to be able to sustain their mass character as they grow and to develop. It is necessary to create opportunities for as many people as possible to keep talking and thinking in a set of linked intellectual spaces within the settlements. Progress comes from the quality of the work done in these spaces – not from a few people learning the jargon of the middle class left via NGO workshops held on the other side of the razor wire. This jargon will tend to be fundamentally disempowering because of its general indifference to the local relations of domination that usually present a movement with both its most immediate threats and opportunities for an effective fight back. Moreover the accuracy and usefulness of its analysis will often be seriously compromised by its blindness to local relations of domination and how these connect to broader forces. People who represent the movement to the media, in negotiations and various forums, must be elected, mandated, accountable and rotated. There must be no professionalisation of the struggle as this produces a vulnerability to co-option from above. The state, parties, NGOs and the middle class left must be confronted with a hydra not a head. There needs to be a self conscious development of what S’bu Zikode, chair of Abahlali baseMjondolo, calls ‘a politics of the poor – a homemade politics that everyone can understand and find a home in’.
Some will say that none of this means that global capital is at risk. This is not entirely true – stronger squatters inevitably mean weaker relations of local and global domination. Given that states are subordinate to imperialism and local elites, confrontation with the state is inevitable and necessary. Because some of the things that squatters need can only be provided by the state the struggle can not just be to drive the coercive aspects of the state away. There also has to be a fight to subordinate the social aspects of state to society beginning with its most local manifestations and moving on from there. But in so far as it is true that squatter struggles are unlikely to immediately, as Davis will have it, produce ‘resistance to global capitalism’ what right has someone like Davis to demand that the global underclass fight global capital when he himself does not have the courage to take its representatives on his terrain as enemies? He concludes his book with the image of squatters fighting the US military with car bombs while he, as his book keeps making clear, has cordial and collegial relations with academic consultants for imperialism. This is not untypical. How many left intellectuals will really fight on their own terrain? We must all, surely, assume the responsibility to make our stand where we are rather than projecting that responsibility on to others. And if we are going to enquire into the capacity of the global underclass to resist we should, at the very least, do this via discussion with people in the movements of the poor rather than via entirely speculative and profoundly objectifying social science. This is a route to a left version of the World Bank’s mass production of social science that blames the poor for being poor by rendering poverty an ontological rather than historical condition.
The experience of Abahlali is that for most squatters the fight begins with these toilets, this land, this eviction, this fire, these taps, this slum lord, this politician, this broken promise, this developer, this school, this crèche, these police officers, this murder. Because the fight begins from a militant engagement with the local its thinking immediately pits material force against material force – bodies and songs and stones against circling helicopters, tear gas and bullets. It is real from the beginning. And if it remains a mass democratic project, permanently open to innovation from below as it develops, it will stay real. This is what the Abahlali call ‘the politics of the strong poor’. This is why the Abahlali have marched under banners that declare them to be part of the ‘University of Abahlali baseMjondolo’.