A growing number of US citizens are leaving the middle class and joining the ranks of the poverty stricken. This is happening one job loss, one foreclosure, one bankruptcy, one divorce at a time. But worldwide, more than a billion people already live in poverty. In Haiti, for example, over 50% of the population live on less than a dollar a day and that was before the recent tragedy.
Haiti’s population of 9.6 million has a per capita income of about $560, with 54 percent of Haitians living on less than $1 a day and 78 percent on less than $2 daily, according to the World Bank. The gross domestic product was $7 billion in 2008. The country is still recovering from four tropical storms or hurricanes that killed at least 800 people in 2008.
Why in a time of unprecedented wealth and technological development including smart phones, HDTV, 3 dimensional movies, the internet, satellite radio and ipods do more than half of a poor country's population have to live on less than a dollar a day? And Haiti is just a microcosm of the misery that exists around the world. If it hadn't been for the recent earthquake causing even more unimaginable misery and an outpouring of compassion and aid, the plight of Haiti's poor would have been out of sight, out of mind. Where was all the concern about Haiti's grinding poverty before the earthquake?
In "Planet of Slums" Mike Davis makes the case that this endemic worldwide poverty is directly caused by World Bank and IMF policies that have led to a transfer of wealth from poor to rich - much as is happening at an accelerated level in the US today where we have seen rich bankers giving themselves million dollar bonuses while denying foreclosure relief to thousands. Since the US ideologically has dominated the rest of the world in recent decades, its policies of privatization, diminution of social programs and encouragement of large scale corporatization have, as is now becoming apparent, only served the wealthy while further aggravating the plight of the poor.
According to the united nations, more than one billion people now live in the slums of the cities of the South. In this brilliant and ambitious book, Mike Davis explores the future of a radically unequal and explosively unstable urban world.
From the sprawling barricadas of Lima to the garbage hills of Manila, urbanization has been disconnected from industrialization, even economic growth. Davis portrays a vast humanity warehoused in shantytowns and exiled from the formal world economy. He argues that the rise of this informal urban proletariat is a wholly original development unforeseen by either classical Marxism or neo-liberal theory.
Are the great slums, as a terrified Victorian middle class once imagined, volcanoes waiting to erupt? Davis provides the first global overview of the diverse religious, ethnic, and political movements competing for the souls of the new urban poor. He surveys Hindu fundamentalism in Bombay, the Islamist resistance in Casablanca and Cairo, street gangs in Cape Town and San Salvador, Pentecostalism in Kinshasa and Rio de Janeiro, and revolutionary populism in Caracas and La Paz.
Planet of Slums ends with a provocative meditation on the “war on terrorism” as an incipient world war between the American empire and the slum poor.
“In this trenchantly argued book, Mike Davis quantifies the nightmarish mass production of slums that marks the contemporary city. With cool indignation, Davis argues that the exponential growth of slums is no accident but the result of a perfect storm of corrupt leadership, institutional failure, and IMF-imposed Structural Adjustment Programs leading to a massive transfer of wealth from poor to rich. Scourge of neo-liberal nostrums, Davis debunks the irresponsible myth of self-help salvation, showing exactly who gets the boot from ‘bootstrap capitalism.’ Like the work of Jacob Riis, Ida Tarbell, and Lincoln Steffans over a century ago, this searing indictment makes the shame of our cities urgently clear.” — Michael Sorkin
One would think that "progress" would alleviate the plight of the poor, not contribute to it, but in fact just the opposite seems to be the case. This "progress" does not trickle down to the poor. The mindset that encourages the development of technology and the promotion of the best and the brightest in terms of entrepreneurship only serves to increase private wealth which exists amid a sea of poverty. The reasons for this are not hard to fathom. The notion that private wealth is not to be shared leaves the poor to stew in their own fetid juices. A rising tide does not raise all boats, just the yachts of the wealthy. So a society which encourages a meritocracy at the expense of an ethic of sharing will always lead to the rise of immense wealth floating in a sea of poverty. Now that Haiti has endured a natural catastrophe which only exacerbates its status quo as a national basket case, there is an outpouring of compassion. But where is the compassion in general for the plight of the world's poor? It's not rocket science to provide clean water, decent sewage systems and basic food and shelter. And it is best provided by public means not privatization.
The technology for these basics was well known hundreds if not thousands of years ago. All the "progress" of recent years has utterly failed to provide for even a rudimentary standard of living for the world's population. And that's a direct result of what might be called sins of omission as well as sins of commission for lack of better terms. In short the developed world has left the world's poor to their own devices, but more than that, the policies of the world's richest nations, primarily the US, have promoted a transfer of wealth from poor to rich instead of the other way around by favoring elites and large corporations.
And the continued plight of the world's poor has been a major cause of terrorism. Instead of fighting terrorism by spending money alleviating poverty in the world, the US spends upwards of $600 billion a year on its military and attempts to control the world's poor by oppressing them instead of by alleviating the basic cause of terrorism: poverty. The US spends a pittance on poverty alleviation while spending enormous sums on oppressing the poverty stricken in the mistaken notion that only bad people would do anything but acquiesce in their miserable circumstances. The root cause of terrorism is poverty and other perceived injustices like building military bases on foreign soil whose prescence only serves to intimidate and undermine sovereignty. The US seeks to beat down the poverty stricken who step out of line rather than to elevate them to a basic standard of human decency. And it has sought in the past to overthrow or undermine any regime, democratically elected or not, that attempts to come to the aid of the poor rather than represent the interests of the rich.
Meanwhile, as the US kills three children a day in Afghanistan, another poor nation, it is only continuing its reputation as the world's bully, only in a less strident manner under Obama than under Bush. While the US augments its reputation as the world's bad guy, China is being the good guy by spending its money on development deals in poor countries while simultaneously cementing deals for purchasing their natural resources. One might ponder the question: why isn't China afraid of the terrorists? Or why is China standing for peaceful development and mutual assistance while the US goes all out to rid the world of a few terrorists? Why aren't the terrorists attacking China? Could it be that China has given them no reason to attack them while the US and US policy towards the Third World has? Or is Uncle Sam just Uncle Sucker making the world safe for Chinese investment?
The recent Great Recession has only shown the world how bankrupt US policy and laissez-faire free market capitalism really are. Only the bankers are saying 'let's just forget all this happened and continue with business as usual'. Let's reinstate the status quo ante and go on as before - huge bonuses and all. Well, it's apparent to any casual observer that something has changed and that something is that the rest of the world is not going to continue to believe that the US has all the answers and even knows what the hell it's doing any more. The free market principals it has tried to impose on the rest of the world have been shown to be a bunch of BS. The rest of the world went along with them only because they promised development, and there has been development in India and China among other places which has resulted from outsourcing the jobs of American workers and accepting floods of cheap imports further undermining American manufacturing. Still none of this development has raised the bottom billion of the world's population out of poverty and they are the fertile source of terrorism. At the same time US policy favoring transnational corporations has sold out the American middle class while fostering some world development and totally neglecting the world's poorest citizens.
So the US needs to change its model, its Weltanschauung, from one of free market, laissez-faire capitalism, privatization and elimination of social programs that help the poor to a less arrogant one of maybe the US doesn't have all the answers. Instead of a huge outpouring of compassion when there is a natural catastrophe, maybe a slow trickle of compassion that would change US government policies from overspending on militarism to spending to help the poor and provide a decent level of public services, sharing private wealth to create public wealth in terms of basic infrastructure to include clean water, decent sewage systems, public education and health care - all the things which privatization and private wealth have failed to provide.