"What prompted this extraordinary growth in the last century? I mean, slums have been around for quite a while, but suddenly they exploded."
"Historically, slums have especially grown since the 1970s. Before that there were factors that retarded the growth; in fact, retarded the entrance of rural people into cities. Obviously in the former state socialist countries -- Stalinist countries -- migration was strictly controlled. China was remarkable in restricting the growth of its cities in the '50s and '60s, just as colonialism forbade, or made it extremely difficult, for instance, for Africans to move to British colonial or French colonial cities.
"Likewise, Latin America, in the '50s and '60s, had political regimes that fought the growth of slums; they fought the migration of the poor into the cities. But a combination of wars of national liberation, national independence, and more free-market regimes opened the floodgates to a countryside being rapidly transformed, just as its people were pushed off the land.
"What's happened, particularly since the 1980s, is [that] cities are taking the place of the countryside as warehouses of surplus labor. And the vast majority of people coming to the cities are being born in the slums. They're no longer incorporated into the formal economy."
"The other thing I was struck by, as I read, was that it doesn't seem to matter whether the prevailing system is capitalist or communist or totalitarian. They all seem to have failed in anticipating this universal phenomenon of the megaslums. Continuous corridors of human misery surviving in housing built of discards -- garbage. Human dumps teeming with the unwanted, occupying even graveyards in some instances, like the City of the Dead in Cairo, where one million people have taken up residence in cemeteries, in tombs, stringing laundry between headstones, filling mortuary shelves with pots and pans and TVs."
"There are two things that underlie this. One is the question of jobs, and, above all, of formal employment. Or for that matter, an informal sector which offers some kind of mobility. The second is the way that shelter is provided. And there are some exceptions. China, you know, has managed, even though it has this huge floating population of workers from the countryside. China has been outstanding in some ways in the provision of housing. Likewise, Singapore and Hong Kong. I explain a little bit about the special case of Hong Kong, where housing has been provided but with a density that would be intolerable in other countries. So I don't think it's correct to say that all social systems produce the same result."
I paraphrase Mike Davis back to him. "China also now boasts gated communities, called things like 'Orange County,' 'Long Beach' north of Beijing, 'Palm Springs' in Hong Kong. But I was more alluding to each system failing to anticipate slums. Even Karl Marx seems to have missed the boat on this, and he certainly had enough personal contact with impoverished living. You'd think he'd get the idea, but he too seemed not to have."
"The slums that Engels wrote about, of course, were different kinds of slums. Those were the slums in the shadow of the Industrial Revolution, inhabited by people who worked in factories. The slums today are inhabited by people who are essentially exiled from the world economy, from the world of branded commodities made by giant corporations. And, at the end of the book, I peruse what I think is the most profound problem of our time, as profound and threatening in its long-term implications as global warming. And that is the fact that such a large portion of humanity essentially has become surplus to the world economy.
"I mean, you go back in the '60s and post-Stalinism, and both Russia and America claimed to be able to solve the problem of humanity and offer a future to everybody in the world. Nobody makes claims like this at all now. Nobody is talking about fundamental solutions to poverty or housing. The last blast at that kind of global idealism has been the millennium goals program of the United Nations, and now it's almost unanimously agreed that those goals won't be achieved. In fact, some of them probably won't be achieved for a century at the current rate, much less within the next decade.
"So the book, at the end, starts to pause and reflect a little bit: What are the potential consequences of this idea of this surplus humanity, warehoused where free 'squattable' land is disappearing and the informal economy is supersaturated with people competing for jobs? What are the political and moral implications of it, and to what extent is current world disorder an expression of this?"
"In the '60s, American administrators like Robert McNamara saw Third World revolutions as 'diseases of modernization,' which they addressed with everything from land reforms to B-52s, carrots and sticks. That has surrendered to pessimism in the face of these urbanized hells filled with people without jobs or futures. Places like Mogadishu (made famous by Black Hawk Down), like Sadr City in Baghdad, where Iraqi teenagers taunt American troops by calling a main boulevard 'Vietnam Street.' Do you want to talk about Vietnam Street for a moment?"
"An example that haunts me is the kids in Casablanca who came into these cities to conduct suicidal, al-Qaeda-like terrorism a few years ago. It turned out they had all grown up on the outskirts of Casablanca, but far beyond traditional poor neighborhoods and traditional urban life. For some it was the first time they had ever been in the city center. And they were staggered by the kind of affluence they found, even as they were throwing bombs at Jewish cultural centers and five-star hotels.
"This is a subject that I'm taking up in a sequel to this book, with a young friend of mine, Forrest Hylton, who's lived for years in Colombia and Bolivia and has just written a book for Verso on that. He actually has two books coming out: one on Colombia and one on Bolivia."