Poverty Safari is written by Darren McGarvey – perhaps better known as Loki a Glasgow rapper, performer and broadcaster. It is subtitled “Understanding the anger of Britain’s underclass”. Its a book that is still a best seller and has had rave reviews…
“One of the best accounts of working class life I have read.” Nick Cohen, Guardian
“Savage, wise and witty….It is hard to think of a more timely, powerful or necessary book.” J. K Rowling.
” If The Road to Wigan Pier had been written by a Wigan miner and not an Etonian rebel, this is what might have been achieved. McGarvey’s book takes you to the heart of what is wrong with the society free market capitalism has created.” Paul Mason.
Despite this last quote Poverty Safari is not an anti-capitalist rant. Instead it is a perceptive, moving, informative and well written insight into what life is life in much of Scotland’s and the UK’s urban poor. I loved it. It’s not a Christian book and at times the language is rough. It raises the problems, offers hints at solutions, but ultimately misses the one thing needful. Nonetheless I would encourage every Church leader and most Christians to read this book. It helps to listen. This is my book of the year so far..
I won’t write a fuller review because I have asked Mez McConnell of 20 Schemes to do a review for The Record.…he liked it so much that he wrote 5,000 words! So starting this November we will a three part review from Mez. Meanwhile here are a few quotes (I have over 100 highlighted) to give you a flavour. All the quotes are in italics. All are worth thinking about….
Intended as a place of rehabilitation – as well as punishment – prison is by far the most violent place in society. The violence is so tangible that you cannot inhabit this place for very long without being altered or deformed by it in some way, which is why people tend to adjust to it quickly.
What I’ve just done is what people generally do when they turn on the news; observing complicated matters from a distance, we rush to conclusions about the nature of society and our place within it. These conclusions become the basis of new beliefs whether they are true or false. Every day we turn on our televisions or pick up our newspapers and we make the exact same sort of leap I just made here: we decide that some other group is always being privileged above our own. That this group benefits from a slew of unseen advantages we can’t quite put our finger on but are certain they exist. We feel like the people who make the news – and the rules – are either too removed from the reality of our lives to accurately portray them, or worse, that they are deliberately misrepresenting us as part of some broader conspiracy. We draw conclusions about why and how this happens and these conclusions become the windows through which we see the world.
In these communities, the desire to participate is, in many ways, beaten out of people. It’s always assumed that poverty is a by-product of apathy; that the poor remain so because they are inactive with respect to the business of their own lives. But often the opposite is true. Enthusiasm to take part and be active in communities quickly dissipates when people realise the local democracy isn’t really designed with them in mind; that it’s designed primarily so that people from outside the community can retain control of it, over the heads of those who live there.
PEOPLE END UP homeless for all sorts of reasons. However, just like those who end up in prison, one recurring factor in the lives of those who become residentially challenged is family breakdown or dysfunction. Issues like child abuse, addiction and homelessness are often discussed in isolation, but as anyone working with homeless people, addicts or victims of abuse will tell you, the problems are often interconnected.
People don’t go out searching for crack or heroin, they often stumble upon it through a social circle they become part of when they are experiencing personal problems. People are often handed the drugs that kill them by friends they love deeply. In these circumstances, the drugs are not seen as the problem, the pain is. Through a mix of peer pressure and natural curiosity, people decide to try something once and for many it soon becomes a habit.
Truth be told, much of the work carried out in deprived communities is as much about the aims and objectives of the organisations facilitating it as it is about local needs. And notably, the aim is rarely to encourage self-sufficiency. Rather the opposite, each engagement and intervention creating more dependency on outside resources and expertise, perpetuating the role of the sector as opposed to gradually reducing it.
It may help, therefore, to remain mindful of the fact that while poverty is relative, meaning it’s not as bad in the UK as it is in Bolivia, one area where this relativity does not so easily apply is in the risk it presents to children.
So much of the system is presided over by people who only understand poverty in the simplest of terms, and therefore it also reflects everything they misunderstand too. Take the UK welfare system at present, where it appears that humiliation is being used to incentivise people into finding a job. Such an approach could only be dreamt up by people who have no idea of what being born poor is really like. What it does to your mind, body and spirit. Poverty is not only about a lack of employment, but about having no margin for error while living in constant stress and unpredictability. And for children growing up in this chaos, the experience can leave them emotionally disfigured, at odds with everything around them.
Blame the Tories
Contrary to what we’ve been told, the issue of poverty is far too complex to blame solely on ‘Tories’ or ‘elites’. It’s precisely because of the complexity at play, and how difficult it is to grasp, that we look for easy scapegoats. Whether it be the left blaming the rich or the right blaming the poor, we tend only to be interested in whichever half of the story absolves us of responsibility for the problem. That’s not the sort of thing a politician looking to get elected can say to a potential voter.
Beneath all the theoretical discussion and torturous terminology about politics and economics, these problems of mind, body and spirit and what we do to manage them as individuals, families and communities, are the unglamorous, cyclical dilemmas that many people are really struggling with. These are the issues that compound poverty-related stress. These are the problems that make people apathetic, depressed, confrontational, chronically ill and deeply unhappy. And it’s these painful emotions that drive much of the self-defeating consumer behaviour that delivers adrenalin to the heart of the very economic system many on the left allegedly want to dismantle. Yet on these matters we, on the left, have very little to say. Or at least, very little that people in deprived communities are interested in listening to. And it’s not hard to understand why.
Just as we are products of our environment, our environments are also a product of us. From the foods we consume, to the products we buy. The newspapers we read to the politicians we vote for. So many of the problems we face, that we often attribute to ‘the system’ are, to some extent, self-generated. Therefore, many of these problems (though certainly not all) are within our individual and collective competence to positively affect. Considering this, and in the absence of a bloodless revolt any time soon, the question for people on the left is no longer simply ‘how do we radically transform the system’, but also, ‘how do we radically transform ourselves?’
POVERTY IS ABOUT more than money. Hopefully, I’ve convinced you of that by now if you weren’t already. Poverty is more like a gravitational field, comprising social, economic, emotional, physiological, political and cultural forces.
Note: He forgets the spiritual…
If you come from a more affluent background and are more socially mobile, then it’s comparatively easier for you to move up the ladder and maintain your position because you have less distance to travel and aren’t carrying as much baggage. This explains why, those who begin life farther up the food chain tend to end up either owning, managing, prescribing, running, directing, publishing, commissioning, editing, administering or legislating for every aspect of our lives. Even 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.
The Poverty Industry
In Scotland, the poverty industry is dominated by a left-leaning, liberal, middle class. Because this specialist class is so genuinely well-intentioned when it comes to the interests of people in deprived communities, they get a bit confused, upset and offended when those very people begin expressing anger towards them. It never occurs to them, because they see themselves as the good guys, that the people they purport to serve may, in fact, perceive them as chancers, careerists or charlatans. They regard themselves as champions of the under class and therefore, should any poor folk begin to get their own ideas or, God forbid, rebel against the poverty experts, the blame is laid at the door of the complainants for misunderstanding what is going on. In fact, these types are often so certain of their own insight and virtue that they won’t think twice before describing working class people they purport to represent, as engaging in self-harm if they vote for a right-wing political party. Not only does this broadcast a worrying lack of self-awareness regarding why many are turning away from the left, but it also implies that those who no longer see the value in our ideas or methods are not just ungrateful, but also stupid.
Brexit and the Poor
Brexit Britain, in all it dysfunction, disorder and vulgarity, is perhaps a glimpse of what happens when people start becoming aware of the fact they haven’t been cut into the action but have no real mechanism to enfranchise themselves beyond voting. Brexit Britain is a snapshot of how things sound when people who are rarely heard decide to grab the microphone and start telling everybody how it is. When people vote against their own interests because they don’t think it’s going to matter either way. People who are then called ‘arseholes’ and ‘scum’ by middle class liberals for expressing genuine shock that their vote actually did bring about change – for the first time in their lives. Luckily, the ‘liberal intelligentsia’ and the ‘metropolitan elite’ possess enough influence, cultural capital and personal agency to construct their own vast parallel reality in the event that coarse, under class concerns do start bleeding into the conversation. A parallel reality where ‘twibbons’, safety-pins, free-hugs, Huffington Post think-pieces, Tumblr blogs and gender-neutral gingerbread products are all that’s needed to resolve a crisis. When the full wrath of working class anger is brought to bear on the domain of politics, sending ripples through our culture, it’s treated like a national disaster. Following these political earthquakes, a deluge of condescending, patronising and emotionally hysterical social media posts, blogs and online campaigns are launched, ruminating about the extinction level event – which is what is declared whenever this specialist class, on the left or right, get a vague sense that they are no longer calling the shots. That they have been defied. That culture is no longer being curated with them in mind. For these people, not getting their way feels like abuse.
Being underclass is to sit, day after day, and scroll through a news feed full of Guardian articles that are confirming things you knew were the case 20 years prior. ‘Study finds children living in dysfunction can’t learn’, ‘Experts say sugar is addictive’ or, my personal favourite, ‘Survey discovers the arts is dominated by middle class people’. If only there was a way of getting the people who shape the narrative, to check in with the people at the bottom of the food chain every now and then. It might interrupt the steady stream of assumptions many affluent assertions are based on and bring the conversation about society into sync with how society is really being experienced.
The Advantage of Libraries
When you are in a public library, you are in the presence of people who are attempting to take a massive stride forward in their often chaotic and stressful lives. Aside from this more obvious function, the library performs a much simpler one – one which any librarian worth their salt will guard jealously. As well as not costing any money, the library is one of the few places in a deprived community that is quiet enough to hear yourself think.
It is counterproductive to hold the view that anyone with concerns about immigration must be misinformed, racist or stupid. For instance, I find the word ‘junkie’ quite offensive, but if I decided I wasn’t going to listen to the opinion of anyone who used that word, I’d only be creating more problems for myself – especially if my goal is to create better dialogue around the issue. Sometimes, much as it pains us, we must grudgingly adjust ourselves to reality before seeking to reorder it. Superimposing our own values on other people, in the hope of corralling them to our way of thinking, is not only naive, it is futile.
White men from lower class backgrounds, many of whom have suffered social exclusion and abuse, become the whipping boys of privileged students. Moreover, activists claim the moral high ground because they purport to place people’s lived experience at the heart of everything they do. But this only extends to the approved in-group. If you find yourself on the outside, with an opinion they disagree with, your feelings become inconsequential, something to mock, and your experience as a victim of abuse, trauma or oppression, an afterthought. Identity politics, in this virulent, weaponised and uncommunicative form, selectively elevates the experiences that validate and perpetuate it while minimising – or monstering – the ones that don’t.
Honesty (Lokis honesty is a great feature of Poverty Safari)
The fact I couldn’t see what a terrible example I was setting – and what a complete fraud I was – was perhaps a clue to the true depth of delusion one must entertain to continue feeding an addiction.
What I began to realise, as I peeled back the layers of pretension and self-justification laid down over a period of ten years, was that my political principles were not quite the beacon of selfless integrity and virtue I had long imagined they were. Quite the opposite in fact. I’m sure I’m not just speaking for myself when I say that my left-wing beliefs were something I inherited, much like one inherits a title or a religion. While many of these beliefs have served me well and have benefits for wider society, had I been born and raised in a community where another ideology was prevalent, like Christianity or Conservatism, I’d likely have adopted that instead – and felt as strongly about it.
Taking responsibility is a hard thing to do. Especially when you believe it’s someone else’s job to pick up the slack. All my life I was told that the system was to blame for the problems in my family and that my family were to blame for the problems in mine. This belief that it was always someone else’s fault was reinforced by the poverty industry and politicians who stood to gain from my willingness to defer to them. I never got sober, at least for any length of time, until I admitted to myself that many of the predicaments in my adult life were of my own making. This, of course, is another taboo subject on the left. The idea of taking personal responsibility wherever you can and that this is an important virtue in life is offensive to many. I can’t speak for everyone else who has experienced poverty, all I can say is that my own life began to improve when I stopped blaming other people for the things that were going wrong in it.
The Advantages of the Capitalist System.
Our system is riddled with internal contradiction, injustice and corruption, but is also very dynamic and offers a great many freedoms. For example, our current system, for all its flaws, is so dynamic that it can provide food, shelter and employment, as well as education, training and resources, for the very movements that are openly trying to overthrow it. This sort of liberty is not to be sneered at or taken for granted. Nor should we pretend that such freedom is easy to facilitate.
I had used the ‘working class’ as a Trojan horse to advance my own personal agenda. And I did all of this while believing myself to be well informed and deeply virtuous, unaware of how personal resentment was subtly directing my thinking. I am sure you have no idea what I’m talking about.
‘Life is long enough,’ he wrote, ‘and it’s been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it’s spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realise that the life which we didn’t notice passing has passed away.’ Much of my own life has been squandered in years of careless or misdirected thinking. The replaying of old arguments and perceived victories, the simulation of rich fantasies that go beyond the mundane and into the absurd or extreme. Too much of this for too long made me deeply unhappy. Unable to ascertain why, I adopted false beliefs that appeared to explain it.
To them I say this: you are no use to any family, community, cause or movement unless you are first able to manage, maintain and operate the machinery of your own life. These are the means of production that one must first seize before meaningful change can occur. This doesn’t mean resistance has to stop. Nor does it mean power, corruptions and injustice shouldn’t be challenged, it simply means that running parallel to all of that necessary action must be a willingness to subject one’s own thinking and behaviour to a similar quality of scrutiny. That’s not a cop out; that’s radicalism in the 21st century.
When I look at the left, I see a worrying lack of self-awareness and a pathological belief in the legitimacy of our own resentment which is beginning to undermine the broader objective of social justice. I see working class people who don’t suit the agenda being written off by the activists, artists and politicians that are supposed to defend and inspire them. And worst of all, I get the sense that views like mine are increasingly unwelcome. Sometimes I feel the left is no longer a safe place for someone like me.
What I can say is that it would be a far greater betrayal of myself and my community to deny or conceal the fact that, despite my best efforts, I have changed. Which is the most radical thing a person can do.
I would love to meet Loki. I don’t know if I have ever read such a brilliant and moving autobiography. What struck me again was that although he recognises the importance of structural and political change, he acknowledges the most important is personal change. Ultimately that is why all of us need the Good News of Jesus…and that is why when middle class Christians want to help the poor (a great desire) and try to plant churches in urban housing areas (a great ambition) they need to forget the middle class cultural values which they have imbibed and remember that the poor don’t need charity, we all need Christ.