Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Victims Of The Metropolis

makoko
Where are the heroes, the colonisers, the victims of the Metropolis?
Brecht, Diary entry, 1921
It's been about twenty years since I first saw Ajegunle for the one and only time. I was young and just beginning an extended period of fieldwork in Nigeria. I stayed in Lagos for a few days and went to Ajegunle (known locally as "Jungle City") with Tunde, a social activist. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could have prepared me for what I witnessed: the utter pity of human deprivation where people - hundreds of thousands of people - somehow eked out the conditions of survival.

In his brilliant essay on the South's Planet Of Slums, Mike Davis quotes Dickens:
I saw innumerable hosts, foredoomed to darkness, dirt, pestilence, obscenity, misery and early death.
In part, some of today's slums have recapitulated the early experiences of unfettered industrialisation. But others, like those in Lagos, confound this link. Slums exist despite the absence of industrialisation with economies broken apart by catastrophic economic primitivisation and market anarchy.

I was reminded of this formative experience by a recent piece written by John Vidal, headlined "Everyone here wakes up angry" - the words of the Lagos poet and activist, AJ Daga Tola. AJ goes on:
Everyone here wakes up in anger. The frustration of being alive in a society like this is excruciating. People find it very hard and it is getting worse. Day in, day out, poor people from all over Africa arrive in this place, still seeing Lagos as the land of opportunity. They are met at the bus stops by gangs of youths who demand payments. There is extortion at every point. Only one in 10 people have regular work.
Vidal offers us an exemplary piece of first-hand reporting. And he provides a much-needed reality check against the pieties and platitudes of the Commission for Africa's recent report. There is plenty of evidence here that the Commission's rhetoric will not be matched by action if recent policies are anything to go by: the niggardly attitude of the G8 and World Bank; the absence of any serious plan for debt relief (Nigeria has paid its debts twice over and still owes $67 billion); the multilateral institutions promoting still more disastrous privatisation schemes; and so on.

Why has this happened? A recent report of the United Nations' Human Settlements Programme offers a partial answer. Its findings move beyond the usual circumspection ofUN reports and lay the blame squarely on the policies of neoliberalism.
The primary direction of both national and international interventions during the last twenty years has actually increased urban poverty and slums, increased exclusion and inequality.
It's neoliberalism they're talking about, not "bad governance" or "cultural failings" or the usual excuses. And yet, despite all the evidence, the Commission for Africa offers nothing but more of the same. The result is already the global catastrophe of urban poverty. Today, Lagos is the node of what Mike Davis calls "probably the biggest continuous footprint of urban poverty on earth". The Commission's policy prescriptions will likely make things worse.

In the face of this stark reality, the "planet of slums", something urgent and proundly radical needs to be done. A new politics and a new sense of social action will have to be framed by and for the wretched of the earth. The Left has, by and large, shirked its responsibility to the world's informal proletariat whose organisational spaces are the marketplace and slum streets, not the factory floor. Grassroots activists like AJ offer some hope for change as do examples from elsewhere. Once, in the nineteenth cetury, the great movements for working class emancipation came from the fetid industrial cities. In the twenty-first century will a new movement for emancipation spring from the victims of the dystopian metropolis?

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