SLUMS: to the stars


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A lot of attention is being paid to squatters taking over an unfinished skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela, and rightly so. It is both a morality tale from which we can draw many harsh lessons about our contemporary global society, and a prophesy of the future. Surely, with vacant land running out in the vast cities that migrants from rural areas are now flocking to by the millions and in every part of the world, it is inevitable that slums will occupy abandoned, unfinished or unleased skyscrapers. The harshest lesson of this phenomenon is that slums are radically out of the control of governments and private institutions that we have no choice but to look to for treating the existence and the effects of this human scourge. Without some measure of control or at least slowing the spread of poverty and slums, it is conceivable that in the next few decades they will begin to overwhelm organized society and eventually push it to the brink of a new Dark Age. In such an age, it will not only be public services that will begin to collapse from overuse, much of it illegal, but social systems of every kind, from education to art, as the financial burden of paying for the problems created by a vast population that pays no taxes will make many of civilized society’s essential activities unsustainable. This is a grim and frightening prospect indeed and one that is already beginning to happen. The takeover of the Caracas skyscraper is not just an oddity. Rather, it is a first drop of rain in a coming storm caused when the global financial system falters, even a little, and a financier-developer must abandon a project for lack of funds. A crack has opened up and it is immediately filled by people desperate to find shelter and establish a community, people who have every right to them but have been excluded from those provided by established society. These people have no choice but look for cracks in the social edifice and, when they find them, move quickly and decisively. As mainstream society falters more under the increasing weight of the impoverished and excluded, more cracks will appear and be filled. It will be an incremental process, but inexorable. Unless, that is, the powers-that-be in our present society begin to address the root causes of poverty.

Another lesson to be learned from the Caracas story is that all those who have been hoping for a social revolution to emerge from the dispossessed squatters and slum-dwellers—the poor—had better think again. What these people want is not a new, egalitarian society founded on ideals of social justice, but only what most others already have—a consumer society with all the bells and whistles and toys. Clearly, the Caracas tower is not a breeding ground for radical social change. It is an unintended parody of the society that created the squatters’ dire situation to begin with.



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