Division and Reconciliation in Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari

Back in the early 1980s, my Dad, still a schoolboy, was taken on a school trip to Glasgow. The trip was part of his Higher Modern Studies programme, an opportunity to see first-hand the redevelopment projects taking place in the city’s modernist housing schemes. Journeying some sixty miles south, my Dad and his classmates arrived in Easterhouse, an estate in the north-east of the city. Coming from a small highland village, the contrast in living conditions was striking. Here there were no dense forests or steep hillsides, only grey buildings and overgrown scrublands. As the oversized coach crawled through the scheme, struggling here and there on the particularly tight corners, many in the class began to feel somewhat uncomfortable. The bus did not stop, and nobody was allowed to step outside; instead, they were driven slowly around, left with nothing to do but ogle at the alien conditions. The trip had quickly turned into a perverse safari, one in which the exotic animals had been replaced by social deprivation.

In his 2017 book Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass, Darren McGarvey explores how people from differing social backgrounds are kept at a distance from each other both physically and psychologically. When we talk about a safari, what we are really talking about is distance. The safari grants us access to what would otherwise remain far away, putting us just close enough to taste the thrill of potential danger without danger ever becoming a real possibility. The safari is therefore founded upon a clear separation of spectator and spectacle. It allows us to view something other – a foreign, assumed-to-be dangerous other – while maintaining strict physical boundaries to ensure that this other remains forever and incontrovertibly distinct from ourselves.

To our modern and enlightened minds, the school-trip my Dad was taken on – the literal ‘poverty safari’ – appears ill-judged if not downright offensive. Still, in Poverty Safari, Darren McGarvey is keen to point out how class distancing continues to this day, albeit in more subtle ways. As a case in point, I need only recall my own memory of studying Modern Studies in high school in the late 2000s. Thirty years after my Dad’s trip to Easterhouse, I was tasked with learning the names of Glasgow schemes for use as examples of deprived areas when answering exam questions. From a relatively early age I was taught to associate names like Shettleston, Easterhouse and Drumchapel with mostly negative ideas, namely poverty, knife crime, and low life expectancy. And I was not alone in this; children across Scotland were being taught to make the exact same negative associations as I was. After years of such conditioning, it becomes too easy to forget that these places are also real communities, where people live, work and raise their families.

Again, the key word here is distance; not just the physical distances that segregate working- and middle-class communities, but the psychological distancing which seeks to alienate people of differing social backgrounds from one another. Such psychological distancing is often unconscious and need not be seen as either intentional or malicious. I like to think, at least, that my Dad’s teachers genuinely believed in the educative value of exposing children from rural communities to the social inequalities that existed in Thatcherite Britain. Unfortunately, however, the act of reducing people’s lives to case studies comes with its own negative effects.  As soon as poverty is turned into an object of study, it becomes one step removed from lived reality, and the result is alienation on both sides: From those who view poverty purely through the theoretical lens of a problem to be solved by discussion; and from those who actually experience the material realities of poverty on a daily basis. To be reduced to an object of study, without being allowed to speak for oneself, naturally leads to frustration and disenfranchisement. The more people living in deprived areas find themselves accounted for by academics, politicians, local authorities and third-sector organisations, the more they might start to believe in the invalidity of their own voices. While some institutions and individuals are surely well-intentioned in their efforts to tackle poverty (others, still, opportunistic), the facts are that few of them can approach the issue from the necessary angle of actual lived experience.

Darren McGarvey knows that poverty is more than simply an economic issue. Instead, it is a problem steeped in numerous factors which, when combined, create a quicksand that is almost impossible to escape. Unable to grasp this complex network of factors, many middle-class people end up oversimplifying both the causes and the effects of poverty’s self-perpetuating cycle. As an example, McGarvey highlights the issue of child abuse. He observes that whenever child abuse appears in the media, “[g]reat care is taken to present [it] in a manner that does not upset us as an audience.” (PS p.95) Since everyone agrees that child abuse is sickening, the media would rather appeal to our emotions than analyse in any great detail the root causes that may lead to its perpetration. We as an audience are encouraged to sympathize with the innocent child and feel disgust for the abuser, but we are never asked to engage with the issue beyond prescribing such moralistic judgments. While the news media prefers essentialist dichotomies of good and evil, McGarvey knows that abuse is more often grounded in social and material conditions than in innate predispositions. He points to the fact that abuse often recurs in generational cycles, meaning that a victim of abuse and an abuser may often be the same individual, only at different stages in life. McGarvey knows that childhood experience of abuse can lead to the normalisation of abusive behaviours in adulthood, the same being true for any regressive behaviour, be it alcoholism, drug (ab)use, poor diet or smoking. Despite what the media would have us believe, none of these issues emerge from the void. They are seeds planted in early experience and nurtured throughout childhood, such that they come eventually to be regarded as normal means of coping with stress. Most of us do recognize that our environments are the ultimate shapers of what we eventually become, but this is often forgotten when we start to regard child abuse as an inherently evil act that can only ever be perpetrated by inherently evil people.

What many of us lack, therefore, is empathy – the ability to recognize that other people’s lives are as complex as our own. Across the no-man’s land that separates people of differing classes, there is much room for weeds of mistrust, cynicism and even outright hatred to grow. The easiest thing to do is assume: to assume that middle-class people are all tight-fisted and selfish, born with silver spoons in their mouths; or to assume that working-class people are necessarily lazy and vulgar, unwilling to pull themselves up with just a little bit of effort. McGarvey’s belief in the need for greater empathy between classes is reflected in his style of writing. He strives to recognize the complexity of each person’s lived experience, and even as he details his own history of violence, alcoholism, drug abuse and anger, his writing remains calm, clear-headed and objective. While there does lurk beneath his words a burning frustration with the prevailing conditions, he refuses to let that anger bleed into his measured tone. Some readers will, no doubt, consider this a weakness, the palliation and sugar-coating of a charged issue with the aim of attracting larger reading audiences. The fact that Poverty Safari was a Sunday Times Bestseller and has been positively reviewed by many mainstream critics will likely only compound this misgiving. It is, however, precisely this level-headed approach that comprises the book’s greatest strength. McGarvey knows who his audience is, or at least, he knows who it should be. Rather than preach to a converted mass which no doubt agrees with him anyway, McGarvey recognizes that it is the average, depoliticized reader who requires most convincing. While an impassioned tirade against the dehumanising effects of poverty will always alienate your average middle-class reader, it is due to the sheer gravity of its central issue that Poverty Safari directs itself towards a universal audience. McGarvey understands poverty to be more than a working-class issue. Instead, it is a problem so complex and so prescient that it requires the attention of everyone in society, together.

In today’s political theatre, it is often the case that anger dominates debate. McGarvey, however, understands anger, while oftentimes deserved, to be limited in its actual usefulness. From his own experience he knows that harbouring burning resentment towards the system can often be more corrosive to oneself and one’s family than it is to the system itself. Anger is always a prerequisite for division, a game upon which politics thrives.  While poverty is obviously a complex problem, political spin shuns complexity. It follows, therefore, that politicians will always try to stoke the flames of anger so long as political power takes precedence over constructive cross-party dialogue. This, unfortunately, is a norm that exists across the political spectrum and is not something that can be blamed on any single party. As McGarvey writes:

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.” (p.107)

While many on the Left are quick to condemn the scapegoating of immigrants and minorities, they are equally guilty of singling-out specific groups upon whom full responsibility for society’s problems can be placed. Whether it be the Tories, bankers, elites, or London-rule, the real complexity of the problem is usually overlooked in place of oversimplification and blame assignment. At this stage in the development of Capitalism, many problems are so systemic that they are no longer the responsibility of any sole political party or subsection in society. By now, they are ingrained into the very fabric of the lives each of us lead, perpetuated in our own behaviours, the norms we unconsciously abide by, and in our narrow partisanships which too often place party affiliation over reasoned critique. It is this innate human tribalism that leads us to seek company in those who share our opinions, or conversely to either avoid or angrily confront anyone who dares diverge from them. When we feel a compulsion to rage against the opposition, it is often as much a means of grounding our own personal identities and senses of belonging as it is a selfless call for positive change as its own end. Not always, certainly. But often.

Make no mistake, this is not to suggest that all blame is equal, that calling out government policy is the same as outright racism or active persecution of minorities. Governments should not be absolved of responsibility for policies and actions which very clearly favour those with the most over those with the least. What McGarvey is asking us to do, rather, is consider at what stage our anger stops being useful and becomes simply damaging. Poverty Safari was published in 2017, two years before the recent general election where swathes of working-class communities (in England and Wales) granted their votes to Conservative MPs over the Labour alternative. Many on the Left were outraged, but this outrage has not necessarily translated into serious analysis of where things really went wrong. How could it be that working-class people were so disaffected with Leftist politics, so alienated from the party historically supposed to represent their interests, that they chose to place their votes with the Tories instead? Well, according to many, voters were simply stupid, too ignorant to know what was good for them. As usual, the blame was externalized.

In Poverty Safari, McGarvey highlights several explanations for the increasing alienation of working-class communities with Left-leaning politics. One is the Left’s shift away from class struggle towards identity politics, an issue which McGarvey has prescient views on but which I will gloss over for now. The other reason lies in the Left’s tendency to dwell solely on the dehumanising effects of the capitalist system without advancing a more pragmatic and nuanced path through it. Say what you will about the Tories, but their philosophy of social mobility through personal effort is (if undoubtedly delusional) at least somewhat empowering. Compare that to the oft-heard Leftist argument that capitalism must be wholly upturned before working-class communities can enjoy the better conditions due to them, and you can perhaps recognize which has greater widespread appeal. In order to navigate a path back to gaining electoral confidence, the Left needs to borrow from Tory marketing strategies, wrestling back the philosophy of personal responsibility which right-wing individualism has co-opted for its own ends. For McGarvey, this co-optation of individual effort marks a serious problem for the Left, who have few appealing and marketable philosophies they can offer up as alternatives. He writes, and I quote at length:

Some will argue that … introspection is merely another form of structural oppression; an extension of neo-liberal economics that encourages individuals to avert their eyes from the injustice of the world and, instead, focus on self-improvement. Others will argue that it’s a cop-out because it doesn’t challenge power. To them I say this: you are no use to your 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, corruption 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.” (p.202)

For some on the Left, self-scrutiny and personal responsibility are regarded as naught but neoliberal ploys to atomize people, forcing them away from collective action and towards a focus on ‘self-improvement’. While there are elements of truth to this, it is also true that placing blame on the system is usually far easier than taking the time to consider one’s own role in the perpetuation of the status quo. Let us be frank for a minute here; the use of buzzwords like ‘revolution’ and clichés like ‘smash the system’ simply fail to land with everyday working people whose principal interests are the safety and security of their families, access to basic needs, the availability of quality public services and social securities, not to mention the more qualitative advantage of feeling in control of their own lives and destinies. It does the Left no good to place all evil solely upon Capitalism and to suggest that meaningful change cannot exist within it. This is not centrism, nor does it mean that Capitalism should not be treated for what it is, an inherently flawed, needless to say broken system. By suggesting that we wrestle choice and individual responsibility away from the Right, McGarvey is not suggesting that we settle for things as they stand. Instead, he is asking us to stoically identify the problems we can influence against those over which we have no control. From this perspective, every choice you make regarding your own conduct becomes a political action: The food you choose to eat; the places you spend your money; the activities you take part in; the people you surround yourself with; your involvement within your community – all of these choices suddenly become imbued with extra political dimensions. Empowerment must begin with the personal choice to feel empowered. It cannot be distributed from without; it must start from within.

Of course, recognition of personal responsibility does not minimize the need for social change, nor does it gloss over the difficulties faced by those struggling with addiction, abuse, discrimination, or entrapment within the poverty cycle. It should go without saying that these are not things you can simply choose to leave whenever you want to. What McGarvey wants is for us to start discerning constructive action from finger-pointing. Posting anti-Tory slurs on social media, getting angry at the television, childishly insultingly people you disagree with – as cathartic as these things may be, they just don’t result in any meaningful change. We must become more aware of ourselves and the effect of our actions. In a society that has been neatly split along abstract polarities of individualists and collectivists, we must come to recognize the values lying in both. Only by looking after ourselves can we be an asset to our communities. There is no dichotomy between individual good and the good of society; the health of one duly inspires the health of the other.

For those not directly affected by social injustices, there is a delicate balance to be struck between absolving yourself of all responsibility and letting your position of privilege drown out unheard voices. As a white male, raised in a quiet suburban town, I have no authority to speak for any working-class or persecuted individual or community. For me to pretend that I know anything about the lived experience of poverty or the plight of minorities against discrimination would be downright offensive, and I would only be adding to the problem. Nevertheless, just because I am lucky enough not to have to fight for my existence on a daily basis, this does not mean that poverty or discrimination are none of my concern. I bear responsibility, even in silence, and so it is necessary that I ask myself whether I do enough to promote fairness and equality through my actions. My answer, like most, is that I probably do not. As long as we live in a society where one family requires food support, where one child cannot escape abuse, and where whole communities feel themselves to be voiceless, then we live in a society that cannot be deemed finished. There is much work yet to be done, and I would venture to say that this work cannot be achieved through idle talk of revolution or ‘smashing the system’, whatever that even means. Nor is it work that can be achieved through pinning the blame upon this one group or that. In a political sphere where everything appears in black and white, the only way forward is for some to risk stepping into the grey.

Darren McGarvey is one person who has taken such a risk. Some may shy away from his call for constructive dialogue over the glamour of violent revolution and vehement anger. It is my opinion, however, that his balanced and level-headed approach makes for a refreshing read in a genre often plagued by patronisers and proselytizers. Poverty Safari succeeds because it uncovers poverty’s complexity without resorting to clichés or empty rhetoric. It asks us to consider why people think the way they do and vote the way they do, and to come to terms with the fact that beliefs are not innate and are formed through life experience. Darren McGarvey knows that hatred and mistrust always come from a place of hurt. It is too easy to label the opposition as ‘scum’, and like most easy things, it usually ends up achieving little good in the long run. To heal a sick society, everyone must be treated with the same medicine. It is not enough to concern ourselves solely with those whose views happen to align with our own.

In short, Poverty Safari is a book of reason in a climate of deep emotion, one that I would encourage everybody, of any political persuasion and social background, to read. You may find that it reinforces some of your long-held and hard-fought beliefs. Or, more importantly, you may find that it challenges you right where you thought you had it all figured out. At this moment in time, such books are what all of us need to be reading.

Source:

Darren McGarvey, Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass (Edinburgh: Luath Press Limited, 2017).

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