Cities are understood to be bounded spaces of urban infrastructure inside a bordered national territory, however, in an ever-increasing integrated global economy, they have become nodes or hubs within a planetary architecture of governance. According to Michel Foucault, governance is a set of techniques for the control of the population and the normalization of its massive effects upon a given territory. In this sense, slums are governance spaces where globalization’s most malicious effects are normalized and embodied by the poorest through supranational policy forceful implementation. Slums tend to fall under the rubric of “informality” as if they lacked form, nevertheless, it is not that they are “formless” but their form is taken as illegitimate by hegemonic typologies of governance.
From the seventeenth century onward, cities have served as the ideal models for the creation of a series of utopias designed to govern the State as if it were a “big city”. Ever since Utopia was coined by Thomas More in 1516 from the Greek words ou (not) and topos (place), utopias have served political purposes for envisioning ideal societies. When it comes to neoliberal capitalism, mass sovereignty has been the utopian desire churning the “machine’s” engine.
In the case of slums, they need to be thought of as capitalist accumulation enclaves rather than its “wasteland”. It is within the informal economies “ecology” where capitalism keeps moving. The “shifting” character of slums ––much celebrated by the “human development” enthusiasts who picture them as unexploited “investment” opportunities, and by some scholars who conceptualize them as the quintessential postmodern milieus–– is what allows pervasive forms of profiting to morph into “causes” rather than political antagonisms.
A case in point is the concept of resilience, which is being promoted as a moral value of self-reliance, whether that be of the individual or the community. Resilience has come to replace subversion and confrontation for a managerial relationship between institutions and the poorest, whom, it seems, can only hope to stoically manage the pain and suffering that new forms of “development” throws at them. In other words, resilience is a form of neoliberal self-governance.
Slums, hence, are a “spatial fix” for capital’s inherent uneven structure and, moreover, a disciplinary technology to submit the poor to a ferocious adaptive mode, since their very lives depend on that. Nevertheless, as Judith Butler puts it in The Psychic Life of Power, subjection also produces agency. Slums are, in many cases, places of creativity, hope, and resistance, which is not the same as resilience. The slum “habitat” enables survival tactics that are perceived as “illegitimate”. However, as Ananya Roy has repeatedly argued, informal urban tactics are not a property of slum dwellers but are continuously deployed by the upper classes to curb urban ordinances. For Roy, informality operates by, simultaneously, criminalizing the poor’s urbanization and by “laundering” the wealthiest fraudulent enclaves.
In this sense, slums are technologies of subjection and subjectivity. In the case of resilience, slums operate to yield obedience from its dwellers to the many international instances who have a stake in it, but in respect to resistance, slums wrought kinds of agency that are not subservient to development models and its harbingers, regardless of the negotiations that take place. Lastly, slums dwellers are not “bare life” nor peripheral to the city but nodes of governance in a planetary network that coerces the poorest to sustain the world’s economy structural “adjustment’s” worst burdens.