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Booms and Slums

Anyone who has read Frederick Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England will long remember much of what it says. Page after page describes the lives of workers in the big cities in 1844. Two boys in London, for instance, were arrested for stealing a half-cooked calf’s foot from a shop: the magistrate discovered that their mother had sold or pawned all the family’s possessions in order to buy food. Many others had little or no furniture and slept on the floor, covered in rags.

The accounts of slum dwellings are sometimes hard to believe. Perhaps the worst was the Little Ireland area of Manchester, where four thousand people lived in overcrowded, unsanitary, decrepit cottages and the filth and stench were all but intolerable. Similar conditions were found in Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford, Glasgow, and so on. It is difficult to disagree with Engels’ statement that working people were enduring ‘a condition unworthy of human beings’.

In 1971 Robert Roberts published The Classic Slum, an account of his upbringing in Salford in the early twentieth century. In 1910, he records, his mother cajoled their landlord into installing a cast-iron bath (which meant an extra shilling a week in rent). Several neighbours came to look at the bath, its taps and so on: they had never used or even seen a bath before. Workers scrimped and saved to afford a rag rug and a couple of framed pictures, let alone ‘luxuries’ such as a watch or a bike. Getting by from week to week often relied on pawning their Sunday best clothes. In looking back at his childhood and the lives of his neighbours, Roberts refers to ‘the spoiled complexions, the mouths full of rotten teeth, the varicose veins, the ignorance of simple hygiene, the intelligence stifled and the endless battle merely to keep clean’. Such were the good old days amid the flourishing of the British Empire.

And is it all just in the Victorian and Edwardian past? While homelessness and bad housing still exist, can it be said that slums — crowded, filthy, nasty — are no longer the lot of most? Mike Davis’ book Planet of Slums describes a world where one in three of the urban population, mainly in the ‘Third World’, live in slums. It goes without saying that slum life is bad for your health and life expectancy. Landslides, floods and earthquakes threaten those who live in shoddy housing in marginal areas. Fires, whether accidental or deliberately set by property developers, can spread so fast that nobody can escape.

Sanitation is another disaster area, with the situation having changed little since Engels’ day. Sewage systems are virtually non-existent in many cities: Davis cites one slum area in Nairobi which had just ten working toilets for forty thousand people. But there is hope for the future, as in some places pay toilets have become a hugely profitable growth industry — though of course they’re not so convenient for the millions who cannot afford to use them.

Profiting from poverty is widespread. Such is the population density in slums that landlords make plenty of money from even the poorest neighbourhoods. Many cities in Asia and Africa are effectively owned by small numbers of landlords, and those who rent from them are the most powerless of all. Squatting becomes increasingly difficult as vacant land is developed and forcible evictions increase: over three-quarters of a million evicted in Harare in 2005, for instance. Slum-dwellers often have little choice but to fight back by building their own homes or resorting to food riots.

Cities like Manchester in Engels’ time were essentially the result of the Industrial Revolution. But in contrast, Davis argues, the growth of megacities and hence of megaslums over the last twenty years or so has been marked by deindustrialisation, as factories have closed in places such as Mumbai, Johannesburg and Sao Paulo. Like Mexico City and Jakarta, these have enormous populations but far smaller economies. The new slums are also mostly on the peripheries of the cities rather than in inner-city areas, and so usually lack any half-way decent transport infrastructure.

The financial institutions of global capitalism have played a major role in maintaining the regime of slum living. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have helped finance slum ‘improvement’ programmes in city after city, via privatisation of housing supply and the ending of food subsidies. The result has not been to eradicate slums, of course, but to spread ‘informal’ employment which lacks contracts and bargaining power. Along with this has come an expansion of child labour along the lines recorded by Engels and Dickens.

The development of capitalism, then, has not done away with the horrors of slums. Inadequate housing continues to exist in ‘advanced’ countries, with an estimated 100,000 homeless people in Los Angeles and one child in seven growing up in bad housing in the UK. Perhaps two million American families will lose their homes over the next couple of years, as the sub-prime crisis bites. Worldwide, as many as one billion people live — or do their best to create some kind of life — in slums. While the rich reside in their gated communities, the poor dwell in conditions of scarcely-imaginable squalor, marginalised in terms of work and family life. A Socialist society would face a tremendous task in replacing slums with decent housing, but that is a problem that capitalism can never tackle let alone solve.