Poverty Safari: why class matters

Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of the British Underclass, by Darren McGarvey, won this year’s Orwell prize for political books.

It has quite a backstory. McGarvey, aka Loki, a rapper and columnist, grew up in extreme poverty in Pollok on the outskirts of Glasgow. He battled addiction and homelessness in his teens and early adulthood. It was only because he crowdfunded Poverty Safari that he was able to write it at all. But such was the power of its argument that it quickly rose up bestseller lists and has been praised by many liberals. This is no mean feat for a book that is not only hard-hitting, but that also shows the negative consequences of the ‘well-meaning but privileged assumptions’ of a rather paternalistic left-leaning elite.

McGarvey was fast approaching his final deadline for Poverty Safari when he awoke to the horrific and devastating images of Grenfell Tower ablaze. A recurring theme in Poverty Safari is the danger and futility of kneejerk reactions to complex problems. We owe it to the dead and their relatives to try to understand how such a dreadful tragedy could have occurred in one of the richest cities in the world. The ease, and cynicism, with which so many went for the ‘evil Tories’ explanation was shocking. This was not a simple morality tale; various factors – and both major political parties – were likely to have contributed to the disaster.

McGarvey puts his finger on one of the key problems which contributed to the Grenfell disaster – the exclusion of sections of society from democratic decision-making. Grenfell residents had been warning for years about potentially fatal fire hazards in the tower. ‘Having been ignored – and dismissed – for so long, now suddenly everybody was interested in what life in a community like this entailed’, writes McGarvey. ‘But most people, despite their noble intentions, were just passing through on a short-lived expedition. A safari of sorts, where the indigenous population is surveyed from a safe distance for a time, before the window on the community closes and everyone gradually forgets about it.’

Poverty Safari is a much-needed exploration of class politics in Britain today. As McGarvey points out, some like to believe we now live in a classless society. But McGarvey argues that class remains the ‘primary dividing line’ in our society. The middle and upper classes – who he describes at times as ‘the specialist class’ – ‘have their hands firmly on the levers at every level of society’ and assume ‘their interests, preferences and aspirations are universal’. The issues that dominate public discourse are primarily the concerns and preoccupations of the middle and upper classes. They are ‘more likely to possess the knowledge, resources and agency to make their voice heard and, crucially, for that voice to be taken seriously’, McGarvey writes. In Pollok and other working-class estates, people feel they are excluded from conversations about their own lives. ‘This belief is deeply held by people in many communities and there is a very good reason for it: it’s true’, he continues.

In Scotland, he points out, 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.’

The tendency to ignore the voices of those in deprived communities has led to a pervasive sense of hopelessness in many of those communities. McGarvey recognises that sometimes people are their own worst enemies and warns against the futility of passivity. But he also tries to understand why people have become apathetic. In these communities, he argues, the desire to participate is beaten out of people. People quickly realise that local democracy is about people from outside the community retaining control, over the heads of the residents. He writes: ‘In Pollok, this tension between the concerns and culture of working-class people and those from more affluent backgrounds, who tended to be in positions of influence or authority, was the crucible of my early political experience.’

McGarvey argues that when local people were involved in standing up to the authorities, occupying land and fighting against school closures, ‘the quality of life rose substantially’. This was because people were taking some responsibility for their own community. ‘In this shared purpose, our lives gained new meaning and our quality of life improved, even though our material circumstances remained the same.’ He counterposes this experience to that of being reliant on benefits, in particular the Disability Living Allowance, and receiving professional support. ‘On DLA and surrounded by professionals, I started to see myself as a sick person with serious mental-health problems beyond my own control’, he writes. ‘Rather than accept I had a drink and drug problem, I became fixated on the idea I was mentally ill… My sense of victimhood closed me off from reality behind a wall of delusional self-justification.’

Although McGarvey is grateful to, and writes warmly about, some of the professionals who tried to help him, he is also scathing about what he calls the ‘poverty industry’. He explains that this industry tends to view poor people as ‘containers from which data and narrative are extracted to justify and perpetuate the roles of the organisations charged with managing their lives. It’s a steady procession of well-meaning students, academics and professionals, descending into the bowels of poverty, taking what they need before retreating to their enclaves to examine the artefacts they retrieved on the safari.’

He became increasingly frustrated when working for the BBC as a radio presenter travelling the country ‘like a proper journalist’. The questions he posed and issues he raised were making people around him nervous. Asking questions about the poverty industry ‘didn’t seem as popular among the various youth workers, charities and journalists as the story about my dead mum’. We learn early on in Poverty Safari about McGarvey’s alcoholic mother who once tried to attack him with a kitchen knife. But McGarvey does not wish to define himself as someone whose life is forever blighted by an abusive mother. Despite years of anger and resentment, he writes with compassion and empathy about his mother’s desperate struggles throughout her far-too-short life.

McGarvey emphasises the need to be wary of those who are so certain of their own insight and virtue that they will not think twice before describing working-class people they purport to represent, as engaging in self-harm if they do not subscribe to their political views and instead ‘vote for a right-wing political party’. The response to the Brexit vote sums up this seemingly benign paternalism that can quickly veer from concern for working-class people to disgust at their views. McGarvey seems to view the Brexit vote as a protest vote – much like the vote for Donald Trump in the US – rather than a positive aspiration for more control. But he makes some important points:

‘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. For these people, not getting their way feels like abuse.’

Luckily for them, McGarvey writes rather scathingly, ‘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, underclass concerns do start bleeding into the conversation’. That parallel reality is one where the bigots, racists and the uneducated are trying to drag us all down, and 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’.

McGarvey continues:

‘It was infuriating to witness one hyperventilating Guardian subscriber after the other, lamenting how a once-great nation had gone to the dogs. Of course, by “dogs” they meant the working class. In the week following Brexit, I was operating in several communities across the city, all with high migrant populations. However, contrary to the pronouncements of many people on social media, who took the liberty of announcing Armageddon on everybody’s behalf, immigrants and the poor were very calm. Life continued as normal.’

McGarvey’s portrayal of the madness that followed the Brexit vote is perceptive, and again, worth quoting at length:

‘Much of the outrage that was flying around had nothing to do with what immigrants actually thought or felt; it was about people using those issues to conceal their own naked classism. Thankfully, in the following days and weeks, this group of well-meaning millennials managed to compose themselves, exercising tremendous personal restraint by comparing the experience of not getting their way in a vote to fascism and accusing anyone who thought that was a bit over the top of apologising for Nazis.’

Despite growing up identifying as left-wing and hating ‘Tory scum’, McGarvey is scathing about sections of the left. He argues that increasing numbers in communities like Castlemilk in Glasgow are ‘just as hacked off with the left… who’ve come to dominate the liberal institutions of the arts, the media, the public and third sector as well as our universities… as they are with everyone else’. He continues: ‘[The left] has allowed right-wing movements to monopolise the concept of personal agency and the notion of taking responsibility’, and asks: ‘When was the last time you heard a prominent left-wing figure speak of the power inherent within each of us to overcome adversity and transform the conditions of our own lives?’ His description of his battles with addiction, the self-hatred and sense of having no control over his life, is incredibly moving. The key to him overcoming his addiction was a recognition that he had to take responsibility for his own life. ‘For me, getting sober, learning to stay sober and understanding why I was so unhappy has been a profound and life-altering process.’

Although social deprivation can tear communities apart, explains McGarvey, it can also renew them ‘because it forces people to cooperate, innovate and evolve to find the solutions to their common problems’. He makes an interesting observation, which I hope is right: namely, that there is a battle going on for the soul of working-class communities. ‘People are beginning to organise and just like Pollok in the 1990s, the generals are not mainstream politicians, but local people themselves, coming together in spite of them.’

McGarvey does realise that the challenges are enormous. The level of political debate today is dire, a ‘sort of political juvenilia that reduces every person to a caricature and every issue to a soundbite’. ‘Given the sheer scale of bad faith exhibited in debates on any number of issues, across the political spectrum, it’s a bit rich to pretend it’s only racists and xenophobes who are unfairly dehumanising sections of the population’, he writes. McGarvey sees identity politics – and the ‘call-out culture’ that goes with it – as part of the problem. ‘They won’t think twice about attempting to ruin a person’s reputation or disrupt their employment based on second-hand information or social-media gossip. Ultimately, while holding everyone else to account, this culture is itself accountable to no one.’

He is conscious that he is a white working-class man whose views can easily be dismissed on the basis of his apparent ‘privilege’. ‘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’, McGarvey writes. But he does not shy away from addressing controversial topics. For instance, he argues that we need a much more open and tolerant debate on immigration. Those who raise concerns about current immigration policies are often written off as racists and bigots. Those who are in favour of immigration, whether ‘pro-immigration third-sector groups, charities, activists and politicians’ tend to talk up the ‘net gains’ of immigration, he argues. But ‘net gains’, McGarvey writes, ‘are rarely felt this far down the economic pecking order, so it’s a bit of a red herring as far as persuasive arguments go’.

There are important debates that need to be had about the impact of immigration and how it should be best managed. ‘We cannot decide to acknowledge or ignore social concerns or problems purely on the basis of whether we feel personally offended or threatened. Not every degree of concern about immigration is the same and anybody with a genuine interest in social justice must be prepared to hear what people have to say before dismissing them as racist’, McGarvey writes.

Poverty Safari does not provide easy answers. But it does offer a brave, profound critique of the nature of political debate today and mounts an at times inspiring defence of personal autonomy. ‘In the absence of real leadership’, he writes, ‘it’s time we demanded more of ourselves. Not because it’s easy or fair but because we have no other choice. We must now evolve beyond our dependence on political figures to map out reality on our behalf.’

First published on spiked, 19 October 2018

Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass, by Darren McGarvey, is published by Picador. (Order this book from Amazon(UK)).