System Crash: An Activist Guide to the Coming Democratic Revolution.
The majority of the world’s megacities – with 10 million or more inhabitants – are in the Global South. The majority of the people who live in them are poor. These megacities are also mega-slums.
This is a time of huge flows of people within and between countries, as the desperate rural poor and refugees from violence and climate catastrophe seek somewhere to establish a viable life. Global capital attempts to police this mass of people, to draw it into insecure labour when profitable, then spit it out as ‘surplus humanity’ when no longer useful.
We are around two decades along from when the majority of humanity lived in the countryside and worked in agriculture. The mega-slums of the Global South have been created in large part by the predatory expansion of agribusiness at the expense of peasant farms.
The cities in wealthier Western countries are themselves sites of increasing poverty and inequality. Forty years of neoliberalism and more than a decade of austerity have made labour for millions more precarious and less well-paid. Social welfare nets have been shredded. This has been made especially obvious during the Covid crisis. Take just one example: in New York, poorer, mainly Black and Hispanic, areas were hardest hit.
For many, though, especially the wealthy and affluent, cities are magical – centres of culture, the focus of employment, the places where the restaurants, bars, and clubs of an exciting social life can be found. Nothing could be further from reality for most of the hundreds of millions who live in the megacities of the Global South. As they grow bigger, they become centres of unimaginable human misery – a tragedy of unemployment, inequality, slum housing, random violence, and endemic ill-health. This is where ‘the wretched of the earth’ are especially concentrated.
Although under-reported, and with few reliable statistics, the world’s mega-cities have become raging centres of the Covid pandemic. From Sao Paulo to Karachi to Lagos, these centres of poverty and packed insanitary housing have become natural breeding-grounds of the virus. The effects have spread out into the urbanised corridors around the megacities.
But the sources of this mountain of misery are often misunderstood. Naturalist David Attenborough is the most prominent of those who claim there are just ‘too many people’. But that is not why the megacities grew, or why so many of them face such an appalling social crisis. The basic causes are the imposition of agribusiness in the countryside, and the destruction of state services and public employment by IMF-imposed ‘restructuring’ in the 1980s and 1990s.
Neoliberal globalisation has effectively destroyed nationalist governments and national-developmental programmes aimed at some sort of improvement for the masses, through, for example, state employment, infrastructure investment, and public health provision. All this was destroyed by IMF and World Bank ‘conditionalities’ attached to major government loans.
Neoliberalism has created legions of people who are literally ‘surplus humanity’, either unemployed, working in the informal economy, or forced to migrate, often ending up as ‘illegal’ people in economically more advanced countries. William I Robinson and Yousef K Baker see this ‘surplus humanity’ as a modern-day version of the Victorian ‘lumpen-proletariat’ (‘lumpen-precariat’ in their terminology), an intermittently employed ‘reserve army of labour’, used to push down global wages – either as cheap workers in the Global South or immigrant workers in developed countries. Police control of the migrant flows generated by this ‘surplus humanity’ is a crucial task of the emerging ‘Global Police State’.
The megacities are not natural phenomena. The hundreds of millions of peasants and rural workers who make the decision to up sticks and relocate to them – many harbouring impossible dreams of middle-class lifestyles – are impelled by poverty to do so. Life in the megacities – even in the awful slums of places like Mumbai – can offer more opportunities to make a living than in subsistence-based rural villages.
Mexico City is a classic example of why megacities grow. Every day thousands of newcomers arrive from the countryside and build new barrio districts or join existing ones, to add to the already huge population of 23 million (more than Portugal and Belgium combined). For the most part, the new arrivals are victims of modern Mexico’s version of what Marx called ‘primitive accumulation’: neoliberal ‘reform’ of landownership – that is, handing the countryside over to agribusiness corporations – under Carlos Salinas de Gortari, president from 1988 to 1994.
The Salinas ‘reforms’ ended the ejido system of collective land ownership by peasant farmers and cleared the way for the sale of peasant plots in line with the NAFTA free-trade agreement with the US and Canada. NAFTA also opened the Mexican market to huge imports of American food, further hitting the peasant producers of Mexico’s villages. Peasants formerly engaged in collective farming either became impoverished (mainly seasonal) farm labourers, or, more often, were pushed out completely by the new system. Trekking to the cities became an escape from hunger. Far better to scratch a living as an ambulante street-pedlar in Mexico City than to starve in the countryside.
The consequences of this immense concentration of humanity – 23 million in a space much smaller than Greater London – are deadly for the environment and the health of local people.
The new barrios, where arrivals are often harassed and robbed by the police, do not at first have basic amenities like sanitation. So people dig their own trenches, and what the sun dries out is often blown into the atmosphere – already polluted by cars and factories. A survey in the late 1990s showed that all of the city’s thousands of street-food stalls had offerings infected with faecal matter.
The poor in the megacities face linked crises of employment, housing, security, education, and health that make their lives next to impossible. Stable employment and decent wages are fundamental, but for hundreds of millions of the world’s people today they are not available.
Many of the urban poor in and around megacities are pulled into the global production networks of neoliberal capitalism. These are the urban poor who work in the garment sweatshops of Bangladesh, the huge electronics factories in China, the garment and footwear factories of Indonesia and Vietnam, and the assembly plants of the maquiladora belt along the Mexico-US border. These workers often endure long hours for low pay in bad working conditions. In many places they are young women, regarded as more pliable, and having good eyesight and dexterity for work in the garment and electronics business.
Even if there is little or no job security, they are the lucky ones. In this semi-formalised sector, there is the possibility of long-term employment and some minimal economic security. But for most of the megacity poor, who have to work in the unregulated informal sector, the situation is bleaker.
Classic jobs in the informal sector are things like a pedicab driver, a street pedlar (selling almost anything), a worker on a food stall, or someone forced into criminal activity like drug dealing or prostitution. As Paul Martin reports:
As there are limited positions available in the formal economy, many urban dwellers resort to working in the informal sector, which plays an important role in megacities. The informal economy comprises half to three-quarters of all non-agricultural employment in developing countries, and includes those parts of a country’s economy that lie outside any formal regulatory environment. The informal sector accounts for 65% of all jobs in Dhaka, approximately 50% of Mexico City’s workforce, and 25-30% of Bangkok’s urban population… Jobs in the informal sector are often low in pay, labour intensive, low in productivity and security, have poor working conditions, and have great potential for exploitation, especially of children.
The employment crisis fuels the huge waves of emigration from the Global South – of desperate people in search of a better life, or indeed of any sort of life.
Wealth, corruption, and squalor
Former Labour cabinet minister Peter Mandelson notoriously said that he was extremely comfortable with some people being filthy rich. He forgot to add that some people are filthy rich because many millions are dirt poor.
In the Global South this is true everywhere; in the worst cases nearly all the wealth is captured by a small elite and the Western companies they collaborate with, and their dominance is enforced by mega violence, electoral fraud, and corruption. This rebounds into the crisis of the megacities. Take Lagos, the major metropolis and former capital of Nigeria.
Nigeria is Africa’s richest country, yet, among its 195 million people, 130 million lack adequate sanitation, 57 million lack safe water, 10 million of its children get no schooling, and between 12 and 22% of its youth are jobless. Mass urban and rural poverty have led to a semi-collapse of state functioning, while a corrupt officer caste are incapable of fighting the reactionary Islamic insurgency of Boko Haram in the north.
The dominant foreign currency earner is oil, but its revenues are stolen by the tiny elite who control the army, the political parties, and the government. The specific form of economic theft by the capitalist elite is corruption, which is all-pervasive. How does the corruption-theft system work?
The Nigerian example is just an extreme version of how numerous neoliberal elites in the countries of the Global South operate. At the top, all the major party groups have been captured by kleptocratic capitalists. Elections are about who is going to rob the state and the people. Corruption cascades from above into every sector of economic and public life. Crucial is the ‘brown envelope’ corruption aimed at keeping journalists and the media onside. Key economic sectors like the oil industry divide up the spoils with government ministers; the army and police are also key recipients of mega-fortunes.
A grotesque example from elsewhere in Africa is the case of Isabel dos Santos, daughter of the former Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos. Isabel dos Santos had herself made head of the Angolan state oil company, Sonangol, and then stole the money – all of it, or at least many years’ worth of oil profits. In one transaction she paid $57 million from the oil company to a friend for unexplained ‘consultancy services’. At one point the state oil company was left with just $309 dollars in its account. Western finance and accountancy companies like Britain’s Price Waterhouse Cooper were deeply involved in the management of de Santos’ international financial operations.
In January 2020 she was charged with corruption in Angola, but is believed, at the time of writing, to be still at large somewhere in Europe. The Angolan government is demanding the return of $2 billion in all. The moral of the story is that if you control large parts of a state’s financial resources, you have to spend it around, not keep it all for yourself, or the rest of the equally corrupt capitalist elite will turn on you.
The Nigerian ruling class is more careful than dos Santos to share the spoils; but the pillage of the people is no less. Instead of using oil wealth to boost the collapse infrastructure of Lagos, the rich are trying to seize pitiful waterfront slums to build luxury housing. In April 2017 Remi Adekoya reported:
This month, thousands of Nigerians have been rendered homeless after police stormed Otodo-Gbame, a riverbank community in the country’s commercial capital, Lagos, razing homes and chasing away residents with bullets and teargas. This comes after 4,700 people in the settlement had their homes demolished in March, and 30,000 were evicted last November, so altogether tens of thousands of people have been systematically chased off lands that they have inhabited, in many cases, since the colonial era.
Adekoya accurately pinpoints the relationship between state power and wealth in Nigeria – and hundreds of cities worldwide:
On paper, all Nigerians have rights. In practice, state power is often brazenly deployed to subjugate the poorest and weakest citizens in the interests of the rich and powerful, who usually operate above the law. Hence, Nigerians often say the only true crime in Nigeria is being poor. In a state where to be poor means to be utterly powerless and stripped of dignity, many see wealth as the only means of safeguarding themselves from such wanton oppression, a perception which helps propagate the corruption Nigeria has become notorious for, as many resolve to get rich by any means necessary.
According to Leilani Farha, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on housing, Lagos has some of the worst housing in the world. ‘People are living in some of the worst, if not the worst, conditions I’ve seen in the world,’ she says, ‘and I’ve been to all the big slums in India, Kenya, South Africa.’
But Lagos is in the middle of a construction boom. Huge apartment towers are going up, intended to house wealthy Nigerians and foreign oil-workers. The occupants of the slums, on the other hand, face multi-dimension poverty – of income, housing, health, education, and security. The poor are the victims of every conceivable type of crime. Murder, robbery, sexual violence, and the kidnapping and trafficking of young women are rampant. But the police in the megacities of the Global South are not there to defend the people. This epidemic of lawlessness is especially prevalent in the Brazilian favelas and the South African townships, which are among the murder capitals of the world.
Gangs, drugs, and femicides
The counterpoint to the rambling slums of the Global South are the gated communities and flashy shopping malls of the rich and affluent. Often, as in Rio de Janeiro, the gated communities are cheek-by-jowl with the townships and slums, but the latter are no-go areas for anyone but residents, because of the level of crime; in Brazil, they are more-or-less completely controlled by drugs-based criminal gangs.
To be poor in the megacities is often to be faced with extreme danger – from both the police and violent criminals. This is especially true for women. In places which are desperately poor and where police rarely go – like the South African townships – sexual violence and rape are routine. Where the police and criminal gangs are actively engaged in the perpetration of sexual violence, the situation is particularly grim.
The Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez on the US border has become a world centre for the mass murder of women – femicide. María Encarnación López says that between 2010 and 2018 more than 900 women were reported murdered, and that since the mid-1990s more than 30,000 in total have disappeared. Mexico’s National Femicide Reporting Observatory says that an average of six women a day are murdered in Ciudad Juárez. Most victims are found strangled, stabbed, dismembered, and torched in sewers, rubbish dumps, vacant lots, and river beds around the city. Nearly all the victims are young women workers, often single mothers and family breadwinners, who have jobs in the maquiladora factories which manufacture or assemble goods for export to the US.
Nearly all these crimes are unsolved, most never investigated, and human rights organisations believe the police are involved. Most of the murdered women – because they tend to be young, single, visible, and independent – are objects of resentment and are seen as ‘soft targets’ in a highly misogynist society. The Mexican authorities are inclined to avoid demands for an investigation into their deaths by labelling them as ‘prostitutes’ – as if that somehow makes their deaths justifiable. The maquiladora system, complicit police, and an intensely patriarchal culture combine to prevent effective action against the pandemic of femicide – despite mass protest both in Mexico and internationally.
The Global South’s megacities are giant centres of environmental destruction. Take, again, the example of Mexico City. Because of the vast demand for water, the aquifer under the city is drying out. Like Indonesian capital Jakarta – an even bigger megacity – Mexico City is sinking. Eventually it will become uninhabitable because of lack of drinking water and building collapse. Mexico already has one of the highest rates of water-borne gastroenteritis in the world. More affluent people get their water delivered in giant plastic bottles. Waste water (‘black water’) eventually finds its way to the surrounding countryside, polluting agricultural land in addition to the city. Fruit and vegetables have to be disinfected before consumption.
The city’s air pollution is notorious, a product of cars, buses, and lorries, as well as the factories around the city edges. The five million cars registered in Mexico City jam the urban motorways, while the majority of people travel on the ultra-cheap metro and buses, or, if they can afford it, the huge number of taxis.
Air pollution and water contamination combine with packed housing to make ill-health ‘normal’ for the city’s poor. And, of course, Mexico City is a major contributor to the greenhouse gases that cause global heating.
Each of the Global South’s megacities has these, and other, environment problems in different combinations. Kinshasa, capital of the Congo, has no city-wide waste disposal system. Rubbish fills the streets. When flooding comes, the situation becomes intolerable as massively contaminated water fills the houses of the poor – a typical problem in the megacities.
There is no way out of the escalating environmental crisis of the world’s megacities short of a massive redistribution of wealth in favour of the poor and public infrastructure. But this is not profitable – not to the police and gangsters who control the slums, not to corrupt local elites, not to the giant corporations that profit from the human and ecological devastation across the Global South.
Covid-19 in the megacities
Nobody knows how many people in Lagos have the virus, but if it is not widespread now, it soon will be. For the moment, the Nigerian epicentre of the virus is the northern city of Kano, the country’s second city, with a population around four million. The gravediggers there say they are working overtime. And so many doctors and nurses have been infected that few hospitals are accepting new patients.
Kano’s state government, until recently, claimed that a spate of unusual deaths was caused not by the coronavirus but by hypertension, diabetes, meningitis, or acute malaria. There is little social distancing, and few people are being tested. But doctors in Kano say that the disease is rampant and thousands have died.
Covid-19 has crashed into the Latin American megacities and their surrounding urban corridors because their physical and social structure makes their occupants particularly vulnerable. A crystal-clear example is the rampage of the pandemic through the maquiladora towns and cities on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border. This corridor runs from Tijuana (twin city of San Diego) in the west, to Ciudad Juárez (twin city of El Paso), to Matamoros on the east coast.
Hundreds of low-paid maquiladora workers have died and thousands have been become sick. At least 400 workers in Baja California’s maquiladora industry have tested positive, and at least 83 factory employees have died. Baja California is adjacent to San Diego County in the US, where infections and deaths are 25 times lower. A good number of the deaths on the Mexican side of the border are among younger people – people under 50, many in their 20s and 30s.
What explains this epidemic and the deaths among younger people? According to Mexican health experts, there are two key factors. First, many locked-down maquiladora companies came under pressure from US companies to re-open to supply US car plants, suffering from a lack of parts. Second, though the workers in the maquiladora companies are overwhelmingly young, they often lead highly stressed lives and occupy cramped, overcrowded housing.
None of the maquiladora cities is a megacity, but the corridor as a whole is the equivalent of one and reproduces the patterns of employment that you find in many cities of the Global South – part of the workforce drawn into low-paid work for capital, another part focused on the informal sector.
According to Nina Ebner and Mateo Crossa,
The Mexican government, and the association of maquiladora companies, are opening centres on the Mexican border to receive ‘illegal’ immigrants sent back from the US. From there they will be pressurised to seek employment in the maquiladora factories and workshops. Many of these workers come from Central America, not from Mexico…
We are witnessing a joint effort between the US and Mexican governments to deepen labour precarity along the border… anti-migrant policies and the militarisation of the US-Mexico border are integral to maintaining a low-wage labour force in northern Mexican border cities… the low wages of maquiladora assembly-line workers have long been key to the competitiveness of Ciudad Juárez in a restructuring global economy.
The virus has been through other parts of Latin America, hitting Ecuador and Brazil particularly hard, with Peru not far behind. At first the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil was the hardest hit, but now Brazilian cities have caught up, especially the megacity and economic centre Sao Paulo – one of the most unequal cities in the world.
Far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro refused to contemplate a lockdown because ‘the spread of the virus is inevitable’. So far there have been 40,000 deaths in Sao Paulo state, most of them in the city. But the virus affects different social classes in different ways. Despite Bolsonaro, the swanky bars and restaurants in affluent areas are all closed down. So are the gleaming high-rise towers of the financial district. But the impoverished millions in the favelas cannot stay at home. Dejair Batista, a hairdresser in Brasilandia, one of the biggest favelas, told CNN reporter Daniel Motta, ‘If you stay at home, you’ll just starve to death.’
Brasilandia is the deadliest neighbourhood for Covid-19 in the city, with hundreds of deaths. Many local people work in the informal economy, which has all but disappeared during the virus outbreak, and now have to queue for food handouts. As in all favelas, social isolation is very difficult. Multiple generations are often packed under one roof, and there are few public parks or other outdoor spaces. For healthcare, there are clinics, but no big hospitals. And for the people in the locality who can afford to buy food, it means visiting local markets, which are virus hotspots in many Latin American countries. The whole of Brazil is short of doctors and nurses, and the universal health care system created in 1988 is ‘universal’ in name only.
According to the city’s Health Secretary Edson Aparecido, the virus was brought back from Colorado ski resorts like Aspen, and then spread outwards to the poorer favelas, where the impact has been much greater than in middle-class areas. In mid-May the city’s health-care system was said to be near collapse. Of course, the affluent go private and their health care is not in danger. Brasilandia is a classic case of poverty creating or magnifying ill-health.
Workers and the poor have been crucial to some of the most important radical movements worldwide in the last 20 years. But the situation varies markedly from city to city and country to country, because the structure of employment and local political traditions are very varied. In the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, for example, hundreds of thousands are concentrated in sweatshops supplying the global garment trade, and trade unionism is strong.
The barrios and favelas in countries like Brazil, Venezuela, and Bolivia have been crucial sites of support for the left-wing governments that came to power in Latin America from 1999 onwards. The explosion of support for the Workers Party in Brazil, the ‘Chavist’ movement in Venezuela, and Evo Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) in Bolivia represented a spontaneous understanding of something fundamental: that the struggle in the cities poses problems that cannot be resolved at city-level. A glance at the so-called ‘water wars’ in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba in 2000 makes this clear.
In 1999, at the ‘suggestion’ of the World Bank, the Bolivian government proposed Law 2029 to privatise Cochabamba’s water supply and to sell it to a new company, Aguas del Tunari, a consortium of local and international capital, including Bechtel of the US (massive profiteers during the Iraq occupation) and Abengoa of Spain.
This was an almost pristine-pure example of David Harvey’s description of neoliberalism as ‘accumulation by dispossession’. Prior to the privatisation, 80% of the one million people in the greater Cochabamba area had their water supplied very cheaply. Afterwards, under the new law, they were not even allowed to collect rainwater, which henceforth was the ‘property’ of Aguas del Tunari. Water bills shot up.
The result was months of near insurrection, with workers and local peasants taking over the city, thanks to the forging of an alliance between factory workers and local community and peasant organisations. Faced with this, the government eventually backed down.
One of the movement leaders, Oscar Olivares, recounts in his book ¡Cochabamba! how a poor middle-aged woman came up to him when they discovered they had won and said, ‘Okay, so we won on the water supply, but what have we really won? My husband struggles to find work, I have to sell things in the street, and I cannot afford to educate my kids.’
So there was a sequel. The government defeat in the water wars started a near-insurrectionary movement that eventually brought down two corrupt presidents and led to the election of left-wing president Evo Morales in 2006.
The woman who spoke to Oscar Olivares had put her finger on a crucial point. There are megacity battles over land and resources all the time, often involving the attempt to dispossess slum dwellers and the poor of their land and all-too-meagre resources. But where do these battles end up? What is really needed is a unified movement for radical social change across the issues and campaigns; one that can fuse into a movement for popular power at a national level.
Everywhere, radical movements face ferocious resistance from the rich, backed by international capital. Remi Adekoya’s insights on Lagos apply across the Global South. In countries where the real crime is to be poor, the rich know they cannot afford to give an inch. You stay rich or you descend into hell. To remain on top they will resort to any amount of corruption, crime, and violence. In any case, relatively secure inside their gated suburbs, they subcontract the business of social control to the army, the police, and, if necessary, armed thugs. Their contempt for the poor – ‘the wretched of the earth’ – is visceral and vindictive.
But the enemy of the urban masses of the Global South is not just venal local elites, but transnational capital as a whole. Transnational corporations are hand-in-globe with local elites in stealing the oil of Nigeria, Ghana, and Angola, exploiting the labour of garment workers in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia, and in appropriating the mineral wealth of the Congo and South Africa.
The internationalisation of capital should give rise to international solidarity with the struggles of the peoples of the Global South – the struggle against the land-grabs of the rich, the struggle for democracy, and the fight against IMF-World Bank privatisation and ‘restructuring’. In the era of transnational capital, the fate of ‘surplus humanity’ is linked to the fate of workers and the poor everywhere.
Anti*Capitalist Resistance will soon be publishing this new book on the world crisis and the popular resistance in print format. Because of the urgency of the political situation, however, we will be publishing the book chapters as a series of long-read online articles over the next month or so. This is the fourth chapter.