Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Fighting Poverty for Dummies 5

Any discussion of poverty needs a prophetic figure willing to challenge the prevailing wisdom. Since western Christians have pretty much abandoned any prophetic challenge to capitalism and our current economic arrangements you’ve gotta get it where you can :^)

Even better if the prophet is a stream of consciousness, idea-cascading-upon-idea prose poet writing with urgency and unusual honesty about the desperation of the global urban poor.

I promised encouragement about poverty fighting. Be patient with this post. Sometimes you’ve gotta see the thing slant before you can get on with the right next steps.

Mike Davis

Who’s Who? American ex-truck driver, ex-labor organizer, professor, author and neo-Marxist social critic

Must Read: Planet of Slums (see my sidebar) and City of Quartz.

What’s the Big Idea?
The global urban poor are screwed six ways to Sunday and current market-oriented solutions to their plight are mostly an illusion. I think that sums up Planet of Slums pretty neatly.

Davis points out that 1 billion people live in the informal urban squatter settlements and hard core urban slums of the global south with another billion likely to join them by 2035. If he's right my kids will live in a world with two billion 'surplus' poor warehoused in squalor and surrounded by excrement and urban decay and largely banished from the world economy.

He argues that the unprecedented migration of desperate rural peoples to cities all over the world no longer leads to the ‘slums of hope’ of the 1960’s. At that point, in the earliest days of the largest migration in human history, squatters had a chance to gain their own land and start a new life with some chance of improving their lot. But at this point most of the slums around the world’s mega-cities are controlled by corporate or political elites. Squatters pay rent to live in urban wastelands beyond the imagination of most westerners.

He shows persuasively that the massive urban squatter poor population of the south wasn’t predicted and couldn’t have been predicted by either classical Marxist or current neo-liberal (capitalist, market oriented) thinking. The soon-to-be-billions of squatters and urban poor reveal the failures of both socialist and capitalist thinking and practice.

He does an overview of ‘self help’ and ‘market oriented approaches’ and argues that it's more hype than hope. He refers to the truly religious reverence so many young conservative westerners have for capitalism and ‘self help’ approaches to poverty like de Soto’s as ‘cargo cultism.’ That phrase made me laugh out loud since I know what he’s talking about even though I can’t say that kind of thing in polite Christian company these days.

In one of his most interesting insights he argues that radical Islam and Pentecostal Christianity are the misguided and dangerous ‘hope songs’ of the radically dispossessed. He believes both are irrational and reactionary in their approach to the world but that both give the hopeless a basis for some dignity in the face of relentless economic oppression. Like any good Marxist, he believes that Pentecostalism serves to anesthetize the poor to their own plight. On the other hand, he departs from normal Marxist interpretations of religion and points out that the Pentagon believes the wars of the 21st century will be fought with the criminalized and radicalized members of the world’s billions of urban poor, with some of the religious (radical Islamists) leading the way.

Davis argues that the only way the urban squatters in the south will truly make progress is to organize and resist the gross inequalities that current forms of capitalism help create and perpetuate. He believes those currently benefiting in obscene ways from capitalism will only surrender benefits to the poorest of the poor if the poor speak loudly and together and carry a big stick. He believes that many self help approaches and current NGO's are naive about what it will take to rest control from capitalist elites and distribute power and influence more widely in grossly unequal societies. He also believes those naive approaches and organizations often serve to make the poor more docile in the face of economic injustice and inhibit them from seeing their oppression more clearly and organizing to confront it.

Who’s Walkin’ the Talk?
Strong reaction against neo-liberal economics and globalization is spreading around the world.

My Take: I’m not a fan of Marxist thinking. And Davis often goes over the top and sometimes gets it wrong, though he does both in such a brilliant and fascinating way :^) Maybe he can give the market oriented, self help types a lesson in both writing and in showing more believable compassion for the hundreds of millions being shredded in the urban slums of the world.

His argument that economic self help approaches like de Soto's won't do the job unless the poor assertively and aggressively organize and confront the systemic injustice is right on target in my mind. As a neo-Marxist Davis doesn't advocate violent revolution but he leaves no doubt that violence against both the west and against local elites is coming. He interprets the dangerous violence of current Islamic radicalism as simply one variety of the uprising of the urban dispossessed and their first world symathizers against those who dominate the current world economic system.

In my view, Christian folks who are serious about changing the situation for the urban poor in the global south have got to realize that helping the poor own their own property or getting loans is only one piece of the puzzle. Helping and encouraging the poor to organize themselves and challenge their oppression is essential. Two billion people aren't going to sit back and take it forever. The only question is whether their challenge will be constructive and non-violent or violent and super destructive. I hold out hope it can be the first but fear it will be the second.

Davis is dark. He's honest. Sometimes it takes a Samaritan to point out some unpleasant and inconvenient truths :^)

And sometimes the most important weapon in fighting poverty is to get clear about the real deal on the ground and then challenge and examine the same old same old ideologies—including economic ideologies--that obviously aren’t living up to the hype. And for Christians it’s important to examine those ideologies in light of biblical teaching and Christian values rather than simply following along with the crowd that controls public opinion and church purse strings right now :^)

More on all that in the next post….

Next Time: Thinking about fighting poverty and getting into the battle....


Anonymous vonstroh said...

I remember being assigned "City of Quartz" back in my urban planning classes at MIT. Never read him, though, unfortunately. Still sitting glossy and largely uncracked on my shelf back in Kansas. "Planet of Slums" sounds interesting, I'll look to pick that up when I swing back through this fall.

I'm getting curious as to what slums and urban poverty looks like west of the Asian tigers. Here in Bangkok, wealth and poverty sit side by side. Its interesting whenever I hear comments from folks back stateside that seem to still think that all of Bangkok is living in a shack. I am, and 30% of Bangkok is, but not everyone. And capitalism does have a heavy influence on things here. Its not totally lifting up the poor, not even close, the educational and worldview gaps are too large. But there is a mixing going on. I often think of places west of here, Calcutta, Mumbai, Nairobi, Cairo and assume how much worse they are. But even though there is extreme poverty there, perhaps there is a developing capitalist class that is growing and having some mixing going on with the poor? I wonder whether my perceptions of those places are similar to the way most people in the West perceive Bangkok and other developing tigers. I guess I'm just weary of doomsayers who sit in their armchairs back in the West and look at statistics but haven't been to these places and say how terrible it is. Has Davis got some relevant field experience overseas? How would you compare these places based on your travels?
I'd be interested in reading some comparitive study on differing factors in "those places west of here" (South Asia, Africa) and the newer tigers in South East Asia that are just going into (I think) a different phase. What is different about the plight of the poor in these places? It would be clarifying to develop something of a matrix together with other field workers across the globe of how these different strategies fit appropriately with different circumstances and factors in our different locations.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Good to have the perspective of somebody living in the middle of it!

I think urban poverty west of Bangkok looks different depending where you go. Gets back to Sachs' 'ladder of development' idea. Places that haven't even gotten on to the ladder tend to look more like huge rural villages--it's wierd to walk around a city of 1 million that is a small rural hamlet in everything but size. These places, ironically, are less depressing than cities on the first couple of development rungs. Those places--Lagos for example--are the vision of the apocalypse that Davis captures so well emotionally. "Dickensian" doesn't begin to describe them. Other cities in similar economic places--like Cairo--are still a vision of hell but assault you less because of the very strong Islamic traditions of helping the poor and frowning on too much inequality.

But still, overall, I think Davis gets the emotional and moral resonance right. He places a Marxist overlay on top of it, but that's not what makes the read so powerful.

11:06 AM  
Anonymous Jon said...

Mark Kramer quoted Davis a couple of times in "Dispossessed". In one long quote, Davis managed to turn me off by directly insulting De Soto, turn me off by using childish mocking rather than actual arguments, and turn me off by clearly holding a lesser view of those in squatter communities. It would be seriously difficult for me to take his arguments seriously if Mark's quote of him is at all representative.

(p.s. - I don't have the book anymore, so I really really hope that I'm thinking of the right guy. :P )

(p.p.s. - What is Davis's personal experience with the poor? If his body of work holds them in higher regard and treats them more personally than the tiny bit that I read, I apoogize.)

1:15 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Yeah, Davis can be pretty scathing in places. If anything, though, his arguments are almost too detailed--he leaves no stone unturned in making his case in all his books. I like the logic and the details but I can feel overwhelmed by the tidal wave of facts and arguments he brings to bear. When he goes emotional and scathing I think it comes out of his obvious passion and a sense that sometimes you've got to do that when you're talking to some folks who really are lost in a 'faith based' and almost irrational committment to market solutions like De Soto's. He thinks the only real solution will be widescale social upheaval among the poor based on organizing and believes De Soto is offering a bandaid solution. When you've spent some substantial time in third world slums and see the history, it's hard not to sympathize with his view at least a little. With his convictions, you can see why he'd be ticked at somebody like De Soto.

He's written some other significant books too--Ecology of Fear (also about LA) and Late Victorian Holocausts (an amazing book about massive 19th century famines in the developing world brought on largely by imperial arrogance and the dynamics of unfettered capitalism).

Give him a chance. I think you might be surprised. Start with City of Quartz, though. Its his most accessable book.

11:43 AM  

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