SLUMS: The problem

(above) Slum in Mumbai, India.

There are some problems that seem beyond solution. This is because the causes of the problems are either not known, not well understood, or are so paradoxical and contradictory, so hopelessly intertwined with one another that they cannot be effectively identified and addressed. The problem of slums [some prefer the term ‘squatter communities’] is one of these seemingly insoluble problems. They are a global problem and a growing one, as exponential population expansion in many countries forces a disproportionate number of people into increasingly untenable living conditions.

Most slums exist in countries struggling to emerge from colonial exploitation, economic isolation, political anarchy, sectarian violence, and a host of other conditions that do not effect more developed countries, or not so drastically. Poverty is the cause of slums—people do not have money, and little prospect of getting any. Thus they don’t have adequate food, drinking water, medical care, education, or any way to escape their poverty by moving away or up. They are trapped in poverty, more or less without hope. But what is the cause of their poverty? The answer is brutally simple: an unequal distribution of wealth and the resources it can buy and control. Why is a country’s wealth unevenly distributed? Again, painfully simple: because the people who have been able to get the money and resources want to hang on to them, and to get more. Their justification for doing this, even in the face of the visible horrors of poverty and the human suffering it causes, is that those who have the wealth and resources are best able to manage them well. If they were turned over to the poor, they would be squandered and wasted, because the poor have no experience at managing them. The stability of society itself would be threatened. Further justification lies in the presumption that if the owners of the wealth and resources are allowed to do their good job of managing, the poor will benefit, too, because the whole community will prosper. This is sometimes called the Trickle Down Effect.

The problem with these justifications is that they are much too optimistic, particularly for the emerging communities and countries where the most terrible poverty is rampant. The poor are in desperate condition and cannot wait for bits of wealth to filter down to them from the upper socio-economic strata, even if that were to happen. Tragically, the upper strata in the societies most afflicted by poverty and the slums it creates are most likely to be comprised of corrupt and rapacious managers of the wealth, whether in the form of political leaders or private entrepreneurs. Presiding over a politically disempowered and disenfranchised populace, the managers have no one to hold them accountable. Cycles of coups, civil wars, and revolutions usually replace one set of self-enriching despots with another, and the state of the poor is unaffected or made worse. One would hope for the enlightened despot to come along who would enforce true reforms that would improve the lot of the poor, but this has not happened and no one, especially the poor, can count on it. Meanwhile, their lives, played out among the most abject and dehumanizing conditions, goes on. Somehow, and in spite of everything.

Human beings are resourceful. Adaptiveness is the essential human quality, enabled by self-conscious intelligence. Where other animals can live only within a relatively narrow, biologically determined range of conditions, humans can modify either the conditions or themselves to such an extent that they can live at the extremes. Extreme heat, extreme cold, extreme poverty. People adapt and use their ingenuity and inventiveness to survive, but also to find meaning and purpose, and whatever degree of pleasure, even happiness, that humans may know. Living in the slums, which means living without many beneficial, even necessary, things, but also with so many threatening, even dangerous, things, is a great test of human ingenuity, and of the human spirit, which means nothing less than finding, or creating, a degree of satisfaction in being human. In the slums, people’s ability to modify the living conditions is minimal, because they do not have the resources to do so. A few pieces of tin, scrap lumber, cardboard make a house. Clothing and food are scavenged from the refuse of others with more. Health care is homeopathic, and life expectancy is short. Education is in the home, but more often in the dirt paths that pass for streets in the slums. Childhood is truncated; children have to do something useful for the family’s survival, as soon as they are able, or—orphaned at any early age, or cast out because they are too expensive to keep—fend entirely for themselves. Slum dwellers have no choice but concentrate on modifying themselves: adjusting their expectations from life to a minimum; surviving on a minimum of material means; learning how to deal emotionally with daily deprivations that would crush the pride and sense of self-worth of those accustomed to having even a modicum of material comfort and security. In the face of these conditions of existence, their resourcefulness is crucial. People with steady jobs and incomes, who are assured of having enough money to go to school, to the doctor or clinic; who can save some money, buy enough food and clothing to last a while; who can plan for the future; all too often coast along without thinking very much or having to fall back on their resourcefulness. But there is no coasting for the slum dweller. Everything is now, today, and each day is a new struggle for survival. The gains made yesterday were maybe enough, but they were consumed yesterday. Nothing carries over, except the needs.

Slum dwellers share something with people caught in a war zone, where the infrastructure of society has been interrupted or destroyed. They have to scrounge and improvise, just to have the basics pf shelter, food, heat. To survive, they have to be inventive. But the people in the war zone can look forward to the end of war, the restoration of society and its services. The slum dwellers have no such prospect. For them the war, its brutalities and atmosphere of cruelty and indifference to human life, never ends.

It is easy enough for people who do not live in the slums and who are nestled more or less comfortably in their lives to shudder at the unhappy fate of their fellow creatures, while at the same time feeling relieved that it is not their fate. Their security seems assured by their ties to the institutions, and persons, managing the wealth and resources. Their roles in the grand scheme might be small, but they fulfill them earnestly, and steadily, and surely they are necessary to the ‘system,’ so long as they are loyal and useful. Or so they believe, or must believe. Actually, they—the middling servants of the great system—are mere fodder and entirely dispensable. Tomorrow, they could get their pink slips and be out of work, for reasons completely independent of their loyal servitude. Corporate mergers. Downsizing. Outsourcing. Accounting corrections. Computer errors. Their being cast into the streets, however, is largely metaphorical. Even unemployed, they are still part of the system. Someone will pick them up. They have experience, education, they are certified, conditioned, too valuable to be thrown away. Or so they hope.

The slum dwellers have not been thrown away either, because they have never been part of the system. A relative few manage to find paid work in factories, or as day laborers, but most fend for themselves, the system’s illegitimate children, its orphans. They scavenge in city dumps, living in one way or another on the waste that others, better off than they, produce. And they do this ingeniously. Like the can collectors in New York City, where the state levied a bounty on a few recyclable materials, slum dwellers work hard to collect from the dumps recyclable materials like plastics, fabrics, rubber and even metals like iron from construction refuse and aluminum from domestic discards, selling them to scrap companies, who in turn sell them by the ton to major recyclers. From there the materials are returned in semi-raw form to factories and the cycles of consumption that constitute the global economy (see below). The slum dwellers, the scavengers and pickers, are part of the big system, but not officially, in the sense that they find a recognized and rewarded place. They get no benefits or perks from the companies that benefit from their labor, but get only what they can earn daily from the crumbs that fall off the big table.

From a safe distance, it is tempting to demonize, or romanticize, slum dwellers. On the demon side, they are parasites, unclean, unwanted, unhealthy, attached to the body of organized society. On the romantic side, they are outsiders, struggling subversively within the system, surviving by their wits and stubbornness, masters of that indispensable human quality, ingenuity. Each view is an extreme of the reality, and each serves the purposes of different interest groups occupying higher social strata. Consequently, both views in effect accept the existence, and persistence, of slums.

Of course, only the most rabid ideologues would openly admit such a thing. “We’ve always had the poor, and always will!” proclaim those on the political far right. “The poor will rise up, and revolutionize the whole society!” proclaim those on the political far left. Sad to say, the far right position is more widely accepted. The idea of radicalizing the poor is a dream or a fantasy of people who do not actually share their desperate conditions. They, the slum dwellers, have no time for political idealism—they are too busy trying, day to day, to survive.

There is much that is admirable in the way that slum dwellers struggle against overwhelming adversity, but admiration must be tempered by the realization that they do not struggle because they choose to, out of principle, or in the service of high social or political ideals, but because of their desperation at the brutal limits of survival. It is a mistake—and a grave disservice to them—to imagine that their ingenuity, resourcefulness, and capacities for self-organization can in any way serve as models for our present global society. To believe so would be to endorse the dog-eat-dog ethics that rule their lives and, all too often, those occupying society’s more economically advantaged classes. To believe so would be to endorse the most cynical and degraded vision of the human future imaginable, a throw-back to the barbarous 19th century perversion of believing in ideas such as ‘the survival of the fittest’ and ‘the nobility of poverty,’ which justified the blatant exploitation of many by a few.

The only thing we can learn from slums today is that they cannot be tolerated in any form, or under any circumstances; that poverty, their most terrible feature, must, as rapidly as possible, be alleviated; that the wealth and resources of any community—which prominently includes its human resources—cannot be controlled for the benefit of an elite, under whatever name or ideology it goes; that the survival of the emergent, global society depends on its reformation of institutions—public and private—presently managing society’s material and cultural wealth; and that reform must come not by violence from the lower social strata, but from enlightened leadership from the higher, if not the highest, strata of the social and economic structure.

[to be continued]


(below) Slum dwellers scavenging in a computer dump in Accra, Ghana:

See and read more in the New York Times article:

For more about the topics discussed above see TWO FOOTNOTES TO DANTE, a post on this blog:

Additional images and thoughts about slums:

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