As any follower of Marxist geographer David Harvey will eagerly tell you, boom-and-bust cycles are the cornerstone of “free” markets. Harvey’s writings since the financial crisis of 2008, including The Enigma of Capital and the essays republished in Rebel Cities, have shown the history of capitalism to be littered with crises that started out as booms. Property markets, Harvey stresses, are especially volatile—a point hammered home by the 2008 financial collapse—but all under-regulated markets foster bubbles that eventually burst.
A war in one country, for example, might fuel reckless financial speculation on the other side of the globe—as was the case in Bombay from 1861-65, when the American Civil War temporarily crippled U.S. cotton exports to Britain and forced the Crown to turn to India for its raw cotton. Demand for labor in the port city of Bombay prompted explosive urbanization, and Bombay’s financiers, emboldened by the cotton boom, responded by dispensing credit liberally, only to find that no one could pay them back when the Civil War ended and British demand for Indian cotton declined. Chaos ensued.
Meanwhile, on the western frontier of the United States, the Gold Rush fueled a comparable spurt of urbanization, inflation, and land speculation, as did the “black gold” (oil) rush shortly thereafter. In each case, variations on imperialism and war—”Manifest Destiny” in the case of the American West—laid the ground for breakneck economic growth and inevitable subsequent collapses. And in each case, rising urban areas—”boomtowns”—bore witness to the perils of exuberant capitalism.
A series of recent articles—two in Harper’s and one in the London Review of Books—have splendidly depicted some of today’s boomtowns: the oil towns of North Dakota, a war-torn Kabul, and a San Francisco Bay Area morphing into Silicon Valley’s playground. My own interest in these boomtowns was first piqued by Matthieu Aikins’s story on Kabul in the February issue of Harper’s. He writes:
Since 2001, Kabul has been transformed from a ghost town ruined by civil war into a busy metropolis. While there hasn’t been a proper census since 1979, the city’s population is estimated to have grown from about 2 million to more than 4 million in the past ten years. Refugees returned from abroad and rural migrants fled violence in the countryside, cramming the narrow river valley, all seeking a share of the development and military funds being spent disproportionately in the capital. While rural Afghanistan still suffers from appalling levels of poverty (nearly one third of the children in the south of the country are acutely malnourished), the urban centers — not only Kabul but also Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-i-Sharif — have become boomtowns. Newcomers crowd into slum housing hoping to find a foothold in the wartime economy. This influx has pushed up prices for labor, for consumer goods, and most of all for land. Houses in central Kabul sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars — in a country where per capita income averages $528 a year.
As in other cities of the Global South, squatting is the only way for most rural and war-displaced migrants to settle in, and as a result, “Some 70 [if not 80] percent of the city’s population lives in unplanned and illegal construction,” while the elites enclose themselves in towers of glass and concrete, avoiding “The smoke from burning scrap tires, wood, coal, and plastic garbage [that] fills the air” as well as the pollution from hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks burning leaded fuel. The water is polluted, too, and sanitation is vastly inadequate.
Yet migrants continue to flock to the city chasing the “wild and haphazard growth” fostered by Kabul’s aid boom. They have yet to be informed that the numbers behind the boom don’t add up.
In 2010, total aid spending was $15.7 billion — equivalent in size to the entire Afghan GDP. A decade of easy money has made Afghanistan one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world. The Afghan government doesn’t come close to having a balanced budget: during the 2010 fiscal year, public spending was $9.4 billion, against just $1.65 billion in revenues. Two thirds of the government’s payroll is covered by international donors. When the money stops — and so far the United States and the international community have made commitments only through 2015 — a severe recession will almost certainly follow.
In the meantime, awash in misplaced foreign money, Kabul’s “businessmen, contractors, and warlords … drive through the rutted streets in caravans of armored cars and build colossal, gaudy palaces.” Since 2001, Aikins writes, urban Afghans have been seized by a “paroxysm of conspicuous consumption,” epitomized by vast new wedding halls. But they would be hard-pressed to buy anything produced domestically. “Finding products made in Afghanistan—even something as simple as a traditional robe—is nearly impossible,” notes Aikins.
Kabul’s is an unusual boom, then, in that it springs from the perverse economy of the war on terror rather than from a local commodity (though poppy and cannabis exports no doubt still fit into the equation). Ravaged by war and propped up by war guilt, Kabul finds itself in an especially precarious situation. The North Dakota oil towns described by Richard Manning in the following issue of Harper’s fit a more classical boomtown model, thriving off the hasty extraction of a precious commodity—in this case, shale oil made available by fracking—but they share Kabul’s mix of exhilaration and desolation.
Surrounded by some of America’s most mythic wilderness, towns like Williston, North Dakota are now dotted with oil wells and trailer parks, as well as “Walmarts, Holiday Inn Expresses, ATV dealerships, gun shops, strip clubs, and greasy spoons.” With no shortage of nostalgia, Manning laments not only the environmental damage but also the rise in drug abuse, sexual harassment and assault, and other forms of crime that have accompanied the town’s oil boom. “What reaches the outside world,” however, “is the bottom line: North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation,” and “Skilled workers of any level easily make six figures,” strippers among them. Rents, meanwhile, have skyrocketed.
Is it any surprise that many locals are willing to exchange economic growth for “Gunplay, the roads, the rigs, the noise, the trucks, the off-duty oil workers on ATVs, the general disregard for anything living that is the consequence of industrializing a once-wild landscape”?
Not all boomtowns share the glaring contrasts of Kabul and Williston. Sometimes the boom plays out more quietly; sometimes, it leaves the noisy, polluting trucks behind and instead sneaks in on “gleaming white [buses] with dark-tinted windows, like limousines,” in which “there is of course wifi.” Such is the case in San Francisco, as Rebecca Solnit described it recently in the London Review of Books. With the help of private, employee-only buses, Silicon Valley is turning the Bay Area into “a bedroom community for the tech capital of the world,” sending San Francisco real estate prices and eviction rates soaring. The city’s famed “dissidents, queers, … writers, artists, activists, environmentalists, eccentrics” are becoming “a relic population,” while the city’s minimum-wage, primarily immigrant, service workers get pushed further and further to the margins.
In an eloquent synthesis, Solnit notes: “Lots of money sloshes around boomtowns, but everyday life is shaped by scarcity, not abundance.” This is as true for the small towns pumping out fracked fuel as it is for San Francisco and Kabul, and it will be even more vivid when their bubbles burst. Until then, we’ll keep pumping them with toxic chemicals and equally toxic investments, and hope for the best.
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