The Illegal City: Drugs, Radical Islam, and Informal Settlements in Africa, the Middle East, and the Postwar United States

AHA Session 161
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Iowa Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Allen M. Howard, Rutgers University-New Brunswick
The Audience

Session Abstract

This panel, with papers on Egypt, Nigeria and the U.S., probes the ways that the poor and marginalized respond to state abandonment and neglect. The historical range of the panel is broad, beginning with the 1940’s and  continuing to a contemporary focus on the socio-economic foundations of Islamist activism.

The first paper describes  the state neglect ,characteristic of colonial economic policy. Examining late  colonial urban  and labor policies in West Africa  it describes the contradiction confronting war-time Britain as it sought to prevent the expansion of uncontrollable and politically dangerous squatter settlements amidst the economic constraints  of the war. It was only because of the strategic concerns of the war that the Colonial Office developed reforms  to prevent worker radicalism and challenges to colonial rule. These reforms segmented the working class into a skilled ( and ‘responsible’) sector and a casual (and ’undisciplined’) sector. They then  physically separated the ‘responsible’ workers from the dangerous ‘lumpen’ classes  with whom they lived in poverty and urban squalor. To create an ‘ideal disciplined worker’ the state built modern labor estates, where African family life came under the watchful eyes of colonial social welfare agents.  But African workers fought these incursions into their homes and nonetheless created a militant social movement that facilitated the nationalist struggle .

The second paper is a social history of crack cocaine, which, in the 1980’s,  devastated Black urban communities in the United States .  Focusing on postwar New York City, Washington D. C., Detroit and Los Angeles it links this drug to the economic restructuring and  state abandonment  caused by the collapse of the liberal consensus on Keynesian social welfare.  The drift to neo-liberalism in the 1970’s paved the way for this abandonment in the 1980’s. This created a fertile environment for an underground, illegal and illicit drug economy, especially of crack cocaine,  in communities abandoned by the state and mired in severe unemployment. The  social and political consequences of this epidemic were soon appreciated by many sectors of the Black community and it was they, rather than government policies, that put an end to the epidemic.

The third paper is especially prescient, given the revolution in Egypt. It argues that informal Cairo settlements   have created anxiety in the learned  segments of the  Egyptian middle class which are  unable to come to terms with the social and economic transformations associated with ‘informalization’.  This process, and the proliferation of irregular and illegal settlements,  is deeply connected to the neo-liberal economic policies (infitah) initiated by Sadat in 1973. Focusing on Cairo’s slums, particularly the  Imbaba area, the paper  argues that conditions in these settlements and their consequent informal labor markets are linked to globally induced political and economic factors.  These settlements  have become a breeding ground for militant Islamist activism. Mubarak’s neoliberal state policies have continued Sadat's policies and contributed to the cross class coalition of Egypt’s recent democratic movement .


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