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Commentary :: Environment
Life and Death in Our Cities
11 Apr 2004
the globalization of misery
I don't know if it's my glum frame of mind recently, or...the weather perhaps? It's a time of year as I write this during which it's consistently grey and overcast, yet cold enough to make you wonder if it just might snow instead of rain. So, maybe the generally bleak external environment is having an adverse affect on my inner perception of things. Whatever, the case may be, I just couldn't help noticing the other day as I rode my bicycle to work how ugly and rundown the core of the inner-city is becoming.

As I maneuvered my way through congested traffic and gritty sidestreets, it semed like every minute or so, in whatever direction I happened to look, a scene right out of the pages of a Charles Dickens novel jumped out at me. Abandoned, dilapidated buildings with chipped, peeling paint, all the colour faded from old and worn bricks, with garbage strewn all over the front and sides. Aging, rundown prostitutes coughing and hacking as they strolled the strip, hoping to entice a 20 dollar trick with the remnants of whatever good looks they may once have had. As I moved closer to the inner core from my place out in the west end, I also couldn't help noticing that the sidewalk demographic was heavily dominated by those who live on the margins: the homeless; the mentally-ill, wandering from nowhere to nowhere while talking to themselves or barking at traffic; winos; crack addicts; and the ubiquitous crews of bored youth from the projects, all dressed up in the latest hip-hop gear with no place to go, really. Most residents in this part of the city, however, stay inside, well off the streets, locked up safely in their apartments and houses with their TVs and computers the only things keeping them in contact with the outside world as night settles in. No doubt about it, this part of town can be pretty desolate and barren after the hustle and bustle of rush-hour traffic subsides.

Sadly enough, I was actually GLAD to get to work because it at least offered the warmth of the familiar and known compared to the harsh unpredictability of the streets.

This probably goes a long way towards explaining why I'm not exactly Mr. Chuckles lately. It's hard to smile very often when the whole world looks/feels dirty, chipped, cracking, grey, faded, chaotic and cold. Seeing people all around you dropping like flies with nobody there to pick them up isn't very heartening, either. But, it's happening far too often to far too many people for comfort nowadays. And, all this is taking place right in the heart of capitalism's "developed" world! I never thought I'd live to see the day when the world would start to look THIS harsh and ugly. I remember a teacher of mine from high school telling me that if there was a paradise on earth, we were living in it. He went on to say that a friend of his had visited the ghettos and projects here in Canada and was absolutely amazed by how well-kept and clean they were. He said that ghettos where he was from (Detroit) were REAL ghettos. After that conversation, I felt pretty good about living in Canada and more hopeful about the future in general. 15 years later, though, and it feels like the poor areas here in Toronto have become just as atrocious as anywhere in the United States.

I couldn't even begin to imagine what people must be forced to endure in capitalism's colonies, the area of the world most of us know as the Third World. At least I couldn't until I came across a very informative essay by Mike Davis in the most recent issue of the New Left Review called "Planet of Slums." It's a pretty insightful essay in that it both paints a picture of what life in the slums of the developing world must be like and destroys the notion put forward by many of the apologists of neo-liberalism that unfettered capitalist globalization would be some kind of benevolent palliative for the problems of the region. Allowing multinational capital the flexibility to move its operations across borders to where labour was the cheapest was supposed to provide the panacea of jobs and increased levels of "wealth" to those countries already devastated by neo-colonialism and brute accumulation. The playing field between the First and Third Worlds was supposed to be levelled a bit by the free, unregulated global market...or so the argument went, anyway.

The plain fact of the matter is, however, that the Structural Adjustment Programmes mandated by the IMF and World Bank have proven to be about as beneficial to the people of the Third World as a "great natural catastrophe" (in the words of Nigerian novelist Fidelis Balogun). Small-scale rural farmers around te world were forced to compete in the global marketplace with large-scale industrialized First World agribusinesses as subsidies and tariffs on imports were removed. The result? A mass exodus of the countryside's poor to the urban centers, where they hoped to find whatever means of subsistence they could. The wave of privatization and massive downsizing of the public sector, however, only served to ensure that things weren't much better there, either. In fact, these policies resulted in the almost overnight creation of a whole new sector of the destitute in cities around the world as the middle classes rapidly disappeared and the gap between the richest and poorest widened dramatically.

Even though neo-liberal economists and theorists assured critics that globalization would mean more jobs and prosperity in the developing world, it becomes pretty apparent after reading this article that its predominant feature has been the globalization of misery. Shockingly enough, those who currently reside in urban slums around the world comprise 78.2 percent of the population in poor countries and a third of the total global populace. As if this weren't enough, by the year 2020 urban poverty could affect 45-50 percent of the total global populace living in cities. And, by 2035 the world could be faced with the staggering prospect of having to deal with 2 billion slum dwellers by CONSERVATIVE estimates. With "lifeline infrastructures" around the world being rapidly dismantled by compliant nation-states, the only certainty is that the world won't be ready to deal with this deluge of the immiserated at all.

Too many people I talk to still think that this state of affairs isn't terribly relevant to those of us living in the technologically-developed and prosperous First World, that we have nothing to worry about in the land of television sets, computers, mega-popstars and celebrity multi-billionaires. Pick up the newspaper on any given day of the week, or take a little leisurely stroll through the downtown core of our cities, however, and a different picture may begin to emerge. Downsizing, restructuring, unemployment, privatization have all become prominent keywords and issues in popular discourse. The news of public-sector employees on strike as they battle to keep their jobs has become so prevalent it now almost fails to qualify as newsworthy anymore. As the social safety net our forefathers fought so long and hard for is dismantled seemingly overnight, our streets have become increasingly violent as the poor fight amongst themselves for whatever scraps are left over once the all-sacred bottom-line has been satiated. And, as the drug trade becomes the only real career option left for far too many of the burgeoning underclass, the shooting deaths that dominate headlines now will fade to the back pages as they become more frequent and therefore banal. So, the prognosis isn't good, folks, even for those of us who live in the land of milk and money.

Overall, as capitalist globalization tosses more and more people everyday "on the scrap-heap of history," cities EVERYWHERE are likely to become surreal amalgams where deindustrialized war-zones of exploitation, misery and despair coexist alongside the fantasy high-tech entertainment centers and gated communities of those relatively few still needed by the system to reproduce it. I'm not prescient enough to be able to predict with any degree of certainty what the ultimate outcome of such a social dynamic might be, but it's sure to be a wild, tumultuous ride with not much smooth-sailing ahead for most of us. The streets are, indeed ours, and in the near future hundreds of millions will be forced to live on them. How many will be forced to die on them is another question.

Rant over. Here's the article I'm referring to:
See also:

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