A Socialist Perspective on Poverty Safari

Rapper and commentator Darren 'Loki' McGarvey's book 'Poverty Safari' has helped reopen essential debates around poverty and class. Editorial board member Ben Wray reviews the book from a socialist perspective, putting the book's key themes and topics into context...

Trump’s election victory and the Brexit vote put the left on the opposite side of the debate from the constituency it seeks to serve most  – the poorest in society, who across the board were willing to embrace the Rightist transgression of Trump and Leave over warnings about the dangers of demagoguery and bigotry.

In that context, Darren ‘Loki’ McGarvey’s story about the experience of poverty, and his own political journey from young angry socialist to approaching middle-age left sceptic, is a book the left should reflect on deeply. Its value isn’t in his prescriptions, which are thin and overly burdened with warnings about how complex everything is, but in his analysis of the “emotional reality” of poverty and the disconnect he sees between that reality and the left.

‘Poverty Safari’ is illuminating about the difference between those of us (this reviewer included) who have flitted in and out of poverty as statistically defined, always with the safety net of parents to fall back on in extremis, and systemic poverty, where your life is defined by a set of social structures of which poverty and its various offshoots – anxiety, stress, violence, low self-esteem, stigma, bad diet, alcohol and drug abuse, and much more - are unyielding.

This difference is important, sociologically and politically. We should look at class in two ways, both with value. The first is a Marxian approach which typically starts from one’s relationship to work. This is useful for revealing a common interest and power between those who actually do all the work that keeps the economy ticking, differentiating them from a boss class of managers and owners.

In a culture increasingly defined by a narcissistic obsession with individual identity, the class unity implicit in a classical Marxian approach has obvious strengths for those who seek to pursue the sort of majoritarian politics most commonly associated with Corbyn and Sanders.

However, in and of itself, this approach is limited in informing us about the genuine differences between the communities that define much of our conscious reality. This perspective, which tends to be based less around an objective analysis of labour position and more on a experiential assessment of socio-cultural experience, is valuable because it can tell us much about what the key constraints and fissures around class and culture are.

For instance, if your block of flats has been bulldozed to make way for artisan cafes, and you visit said ‘regenerated’ area and find a culture that is totally alien, it’s probably not going to help much if a Marxist tells you that you and those in the café who (consciously or not) participated in the destruction of your community both sell your labour to a capitalist and should unite to overthrow them.

The key case study for McGarvey in this respect is the third sector (or ‘the poverty industry’), which he sees as illustrative of a class divide between those who make a living out of the official government mandate to tackle poverty, and its various funding strands, and those who actually experience it (hence Poverty Safari). The book powerfully problematises local democracy, community empowerment and the role of government through the lens of class.

For the left, the take home message is that “politics is rooted in the emotional reality of people’s lives”, and that reality for those in systemic poverty is permeated by a type of class consciousness that the left does not always appreciate, or even acknowledge, because it doesn’t really live it and is part of a cultural milieu that can be alien to those who do live it.

McGarvey makes a considered and well thought through case for the exclusivity and priggishness of left political culture, which can act as a major barrier to participation, particularly for those from a background of systemic poverty, so much so that it can lead to an oppositional attitude to the left along class lines.

This is (or should) be a nightmare position for the left to get itself into – where it becomes so detached from the community that its politics are supposed to be about empowering that said community abandons them, potentially looking to the radical right for solutions. Trump and the Leave campaign should serve as big flashing warning signs of this danger.

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McGarvey’s view that debate on immigration should be pursued robustly but with empathy for opposing views and a sensitivity to community concerns is entirely sensible. Demonisation, or assuming ignorance, can make you feel good about yourself but it has never been a good way of actually convincing anyone of your case.

If you speak to anyone on the left in person about this, all of the above is usually perfectly agreeable. The key problem appears to be internet culture, and how it has created an environment that is almost entirely free of compassion for those you disagree with.

The left is as inebriated in this toxic culture as anyone else, with perhaps an above average tendency for self-righteousness. Inevitably, the worst cases grab the attention of critics, and therefore their size and influence are inflated. But there is a genuine problem here – as McGarvey says, the left sometimes can look like it consists entirely of “people who had been taught to believe that everything in the world had to change – but them”.

This is ugly and unappealing, and is in fact a rejection of materialist philosophy; that being determines consciousness, and that only by changing our material reality can we change ourselves. This emphasis, on the agency of class as a collective force (‘change through struggle’), appears to have lost ground to what Angela Nagle has called “the deep intellectual rot of contemporary cultural progressivism”. She continues: “…the very idea of winning people over through ideas now seems to anguish, offend and enrage this tragically stupefied shadow of the great movements of the left.” McGarvey calls on those of us who reject this culture to be more explicit about this, and we should.

Some of the criticisms of the left McGarvey makes are quite small-c conservative: that big transformations won’t happen, so we must accept piece-meal reform; that there’s a danger in change that things will get worse; and that proposing straightforward solutions on to a complex social order is inevitably demagogic. This is the traditional intellectual armoury of political gradualism, and it leads to an overly simplistic take on leftist philosophy.

For instance, McGarvey argues that the left thinks revolution would be “painless”. I’ve never known anyone to actually think this, as it is patently utterly naïve. The left argument is that the pain of transformation is preferable to the slow death of late capitalism (the biodiversity that is the basis of our very existence may not even survive the logic of capital accumulation) and that a system that is crisis prone will inevitably stoke revolt - if the left do not offer a revolutionary answer, the radical right will.

But the interesting thing about McGarvey is that he reflects a genuine contradiction in working class consciousness: between a desire and fear of change. On the one hand he says that “what really frightens” elites is “a well organised, educated and unified working class” and on the other hand he ends the book by stating that “now with a child to raise, the thought of a revolution frightens me”.

The job of the left is to build a political consciousness and organisation that adds confidence and dynamism to the former idea, and thereby acts to negate the latter idea in practice. To do that we need to retain a belief in the power of working class unity in action to change ourselves and the world around us, while being conscious of and attentive to “the emotional reality” of poverty and how it breeds division as well as unity, hope as well as fear.

@Ben_Wray1989