The coming of Brexit and Donald Trump has provoked a lot of soul-searching on the part of the socially conscious. The easy explanation as to why these calamities have come about is that they are the cries of a resentful underclass, who decided to take a swipe at their supposed oppressors in revenge for poverty and mass immigration. This analysis only gets you so far, not least because the ‘underclass’ is often ignored even when it is the subject of the debate.
Poverty Safari is an attempt to better understand the damage inflicted by deprivation, but it is also a huge moment in the life of its author. Not long ago, Darren McGarvey lived like a minor character in Trainspotting, pumping himself full of heroin in a manky bedsit as a motherless child dies of malnutrition in the next room. How he transformed himself into a rapper, journalist, and now author is what makes this book so compelling.
Incidentally, Trainspotting was one of the few glimpses this and many other middle class Scots had into the lives of the so-called ‘underclass,’ made glamorous in a way for the purpose of entertainment. But for McGarvey watching the film was like staring into a mirror. He grew up in Pollok, on the south side of Glasgow, not far from this reader’s home in the affluent northern suburbs of Bearsden and Milngavie, but in every other sense half a universe away. After the Second World War, a vast new housing estate was built in Pollock by councils too short-sighted to realise that people needed community and opportunities as well as an affordable home. McGarvey’s mother chose drugs and alcohol over the tough responsibilities of raising a child, while school failed to provide any chance of escape. It is in these communities that the seeds of Brexit and so many other problems were sown.
Paul Mason has compared this book to The Road to Wigan Pier, in which the intrepid George Orwell went on his own poverty safari through the slums of pre-war Britain. Unlike an old Etonian with a social conscience, McGarvey is the product of the background he writes about. Yet he is similar to Orwell in so many ways. For instance, he has an acute sense of the power of language and its relationship to truth, reality and class. He also shows an ability to grow out of the many prejudices with which he was brought up. Most importantly of all, however, McGarvey recognises the importance of confronting the problems of your own side. He has what Orwell himself called a power of facing unpleasant facts.
For instance, McGarvey tackles head on one of the greatest shortcomings of left-wing thought: the belief that the government is the cause of all your problems. Very often, the same people who denounce the state as organised psychopathy, bailing out the banks and enforcing punitive austerity on the vulnerable, are also those who expect the ruling elite to transform their lives. To such people, the caricature of the Tory as someone who blames the poor for their own misfortune is always at hand. McGarvey asks us to remember that although politics has both the capacity to damage or improve our lives, a little personal responsibility goes a long way.
Accepting and overcoming your own mistakes is one of the most difficult things anybody can do, especially when the comforting alternatives are so readily available. Be it binging on fast food, scapegoating immigrants for stealing all the jobs, or taking out anger on spouses and loved ones, these junk alternatives blighted the young McGarvey’s life or became obvious to him in his activism. But he is smart enough to know that denouncing someone as a drug-addict, a slob or a racist isn’t going to make them change. A person has to put in the effort for themselves. Addictions of all kinds are transactions between two parties, which can be cancelled if the consumer has the determination.
This book is, as well as a memoir, a rejoinder to those who claim to represent people like McGarvey. The left has, for decades, forgotten that class is still the central fault line throughout society, applauding and encouraging a regressive form of identity politics while denouncing those concerned about immigration as ‘racists.’ If they’d had McGarvey’s sense, they would have realised that when the left doesn’t deal with its own shortcomings, the far right will do it for them, exploiting such prejudices in order to engineer, for instance, wrong-headed votes to leave the EU. And yet they continue to bang their heads against the wall, promising as each new crisis emerges that as long as the capitalist order is brought down, society’s problems will be resolved. ‘If I read one more think-piece on why neo-liberalism is the root of all our problems,’ McGarvey admits at one point, ‘I might start drinking again.’
In his book McGarvey has attempted to summarise the essential message of his life, that no matter how much you feel like the world is out to get you, shaking yourself down and reviewing your situation can empower you more than placing your trust in some big-promises politician. His example of the Pollok Free State, in which the community got together and organised a campaign against the construction of an intrusive motorway, is an important one. The disgruntled Southsiders proved that it was possible to make their voice heard through less destructive ways than quitting the EU or electing a demagogue as president. Poverty Safari doesn’t call for the workers of the world to unite, but it reminds them very eloquently that it does pay to get your act together.