Equality Inequality Politics

‘Poverty Safari’ and ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

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Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari (Luath Press, 2017) is a very honest and powerfully written account of growing up and surviving amid poverty, addiction and violence in Glasgow. Darren draws from these experiences to make insightful observations about poverty, social deprivation, their causes and potential solutions. Of particular impact on his life was the addiction and violence of his mother, who died of alcoholism at the age of 36. He has escaped economically, if not emotionally, from these circumstances by turning a talent with words into a career as a writer, broadcaster and rap artist.

Violence both inside and outside the home affected the way he thought and behaved, and Darren outlines the role chronic stress, particularly emotional stress, leads to poor lifestyle choices and behaviours in the seeking of brief emotional reprieve. As he says:

A vulnerable family living in constant economic uncertainty, job insecurity or subject to an inhuman sanctions regime often lacks the capacity to absorb, process and practically address life’s unpredictable adversities.

But he is also sceptical of the professionals supposedly helping poor communities. They appear to be ‘privileged people with little insight into their concerns…being parachuted in to superimpose their values on everyone.’ There is a ‘poverty industry, where even the good guys make a mint from social deprivation’. Community organisations find it difficult to get resources for their activities that do not follow government priorities – as a result people in poorer communities often see professionals as exploitative and patronising. As an example of the mutual incomprehension that results, Darren cites the building of the M77 motorway over the objections of local communities in Pollok.

Our ideas about how to run the area, or even what things should be called, were regarded as well-meaning but misguided. Political participation was not about the community making its voice heard, but rather, it was about corralling the herd to a pre-determined destination, decided behind closed doors.

Yet he is also honest about the tendency to class stereotyping not just among the affluent toward the poor, but also that by the poor toward the affluent, as the latter appear to benefit from different rules being applied to them. This in turn, he argues, leads to resentment and apathy, both personal and political. He goes on to point out that the correlation between poverty and social problems fertilises cultures of abuse. This transcends the left-right political spectrum and will eventually overwhelm any society that refuses to deal with it, Darren argues. He believes poverty is ‘an issue our politics cannot solve because an honest conversation… is too difficult politically, even for the left who are unwilling to acknowledge the degree of personal responsibility involved in all of politics and society. Easy scapegoats are sought because of the complexity involved.

Darren is scathing about tribal politics that leads to illusory quick fixes, over-simplified soundbites and comforting, reassuring platitudes that conveniently ascribe blame to the people we don’t like. Referring to the extreme left whose views he formerly shared, he points out that ‘the only thing worse than an unjust economic system is an unjust economic system when it implodes… Our current system for all its flaws… provide[s] food, shelter and employment, as well as education, training and resources, for the very movements that are openly trying to overthrow it.’

Meanwhile organisations that appear to care about the needs and concerns of the lower classes, like charities or tabloid newspapers, are usually controlled by people who have only a theoretical conception of what being poor entails. As a result ‘the accepted culture, comprising news, politics and entertainment, which they were presented with every day, was contradicted and undermined by the reality of their own lives’. In particular, he believes reports of increased racial attacks after the Brexit vote made little impact on people in poor communities for whom violence and racism continued much as before. Darren argues that the impact of spikes in the migrant population is considerable in deprived communities where psychosocial stress is already endemic and the economic benefits of immigration do not reach. Anger and resentment limit human capacity for empathy, tolerance and compassion, and news about Trump and Brexit appear as sideshows from the struggles of these communities. Politics, he says, must be rooted in the emotional reality of people’s lives.

He is unimpressed with identity politics, alleging that it ‘gentrifies traditional class-based analysis’ and leads to an illiberal and counterproductive style of activism which can come to regard much of what deprived communities think, say and do as a form of abuse. He notes a tendency for ‘working class’ to become synonymous with ‘white male’ and he observes the advantages of the identity approach for large companies as they ‘atomise society into competing political factions and undermine what really frightens powerful people: a well-organised, educated and unified working class’. He identifies problems of the lack of emotional literacy, over-eating, drink and drug problems and psychological problems as issues that compound poverty-related stress and drive much of the self-defeating consumer behaviour that ‘delivers adrenalin’ to the heart of the existing economic system. We all have power to overcome adversity and transform the conditions of our lives, he argues. So we must reclaim ‘the idea of personal responsibility from a rampant and socially misguided right wing that has come to monopolise it.’

He identifies the turning point in his own life as when he stopped blaming other people for the things that were going wrong in it. Believing that only the state can resolve the issue is both disempowering and self-defeating in the short term and the medium term. He argues that ‘the great theme of [his] life was not poverty as [he] had always imagined, but the false beliefs [he] unconsciously adopted to survive it’. He now faces up to ‘reconciling the new reality of [his] life as a parent with the idealism of [his] past’.

Darren McGarvey’s experience and insights are remarkably closely mirrored by those of J. D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy (William Collins, 2016) in which he describes his difficult upbringing, also with an addictive mother, in a Kentucky ‘holler’ and in rustbelt Ohio, from which he emerged to join the U.S. Marines, subsequently attend University and then gain entry to the prestigious Yale Law School. He also attempts to explain ‘what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children… and that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.’ He identifies his Scots-Irish culture as ‘reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible… increasingly encourag[ing] social decay instead of counteracting it… There is a lack of agency here – a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.’ He identifies his own saviours as being his grandparents’ constant presence for him, a love of learning and education from his mother despite her problems and a culture that ‘associated accomplishments in school with femininity’, and family exemplars of happy and successful relationships.

It is noteworthy that while both Darren and Vance downplay the role of government in solutions to poverty and social problems, they were both significantly aided by government interventions at critical points in their lives – Darren in being provided with accommodation and subsistence after being ejected from the family home, and Vance in funding for University tuition. This is not to reject their arguments for self-activism, but to point out that state support has at least a necessary if not a sufficient part to play in the escape from poverty. We are dealing with a vicious cycle in which inadequate or misguided support feeds a negative response in individuals as they feel bereft of the tools and resources to affect their circumstances even when this is not wholly the case. It is probably true that otherwise well-meaning politicians and social professionals have a certain fear of empowering people whose emotions and experiences are very different from their own, but this is what is necessary to break this cycle before it has further very negative effects on our society as a whole. I have described elsewhere the empowerment agenda that I think is required as ‘Equality of Voice’, where those currently denied a say in their society and economy are helped by educational, financial and institutional support to gain and use their voice and thus to acquire the power, motivation and experiences to make those better decisions for themselves, their families and their communities.

Most of these changes do need policy that can only be enacted through engagement with the existing political system, and then they need to be followed through by people in deprived communities taking hold of any new opportunities they are given – not just taking control of their own lives, but also by working with others, taking control of their own communities. One cause for optimism is that a vicious circle reversed may become a virtuous one.

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