Slavoj Zizek points to the he explosive growth of slums in the last decades, from Mexico City and other Latin American capitals through Africa to India, China, the Philippines and Indonesia, is perhaps the crucial geopolitical event of our times.
The case of Lagos, according to Mike Davis, ‘the biggest node in the shanty-town corridor of 70 million people that stretches from Abidjan to Ibadan’, is exemplary: no one even knows the size of its population.
Davis quotes a UN report: ‘Officially it is six million, but most experts estimate it at ten million.’ Since, some time very soon, the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural population (this may already have happened), and since slum inhabitants will constitute the greater part of the urban population, we are in no way dealing with a minority phenomenon. We are witnessing the rapid growth of a population outside the control of any state, mostly outside the law, in terrible need of minimal forms of self-organisation.
Although these populations are composed of marginalised labourers, former civil servants and ex-peasants, they are not simply a redundant surplus: they are incorporated into the global economy in numerous ways; many of them are informal wage-earners or self-employed entrepreneurs, with no adequate health or social security provision. (The main reason for their rise is the inclusion of the Third World countries in the global economy, with cheap food imports from the First World countries ruining local agriculture.)
One should resist the easy temptation to elevate and idealise slum-dwellers into a new revolutionary class. It is nonetheless surprising how far they conform to the old Marxist definition of the proletarian revolutionary subject: they are ‘free’ in the double meaning of the word, even more than the classical proletariat (‘free’ from all substantial ties; dwelling in a free space, outside the regulation of the state); they are a large collective, forcibly thrown into a situation where they have to invent some mode of being-together, and simultaneously deprived of support for their traditional ways of life.