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A review of Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari

By Lynda McEwan

Darren McGarvey has invited us all on a Poverty Safari. Interspersing tales from an impoverished childhood with useful statistics and his own personal analysis of today’s precarious economic climate, McGarvey’s debut book does exactly what it says on the tin.

Through his engaging prose and ability to take the reader out of their comfort zone he offers them a vividly depressing opportunity to feel like they may have strolled through some of Glasgow’s less salubrious areas, observing the inhabitants of this concrete Serengeti from just a safe enough distance that one can still exit without imbibing too much of the trauma.

However, also meandering throughout the book is a narrative that asks questions of the left in Scotland. Questions that even a few times challenges the validity of Marxism. Of course, as is his right. Many before him have attempted to denigrate Karl Marx, albeit most of those tend to live on the right of the political spectrum and are desperate for poverty to continue to dominate the murky landscape of modern society. Surely McGarvey, a self confessed “leftie”, doesn’t want that?

Let’s examine the evidence. McGarvey rightly and eloquently draws the conclusions that poverty is at the root of many of society’s social ills. From inadequate housing, addiction, violence, including gender based violence, mental health issues, crime and unemployment, he makes the point that poverty and its far reaching tentacles isolates and disenfranchises the most vulnerable and working class, which in turn maintains the status quo, a system whereby the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite few. What it fails to do though is offer an alternative to this all-pervasive poverty or decisively uncover the root of it.

Touching extremely briefly on the current economic system of capitalism and its polar opposite, socialism, McGarvey rejects capitalism and the inherent tenets of sexism, racism and lgbt+ phobia which are woven into it’s very fabric, and on which it relies for it’s every beastly breath.

He pours scorn on socialists, writing them off as self congratulatory intellectuals unable to reach the working class due to their inability to talk the language of that class. He does this whilst ignoring the historic gains that the working class have won often under the leadership of those Marxists he dismisses so easily. Particularly those of the Russian revolution, led by Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin, Bolsheviks who mobilised the largely illiterate peasantry and working class of a backward Russia at the turn of the 20th century to a triumphant overthrowing of the ruling class, implementing some of the most progressive policies we have ever witnessed.

Again in the 1980s when the socialist council of Liverpool defeated Thatcher, winning millions of pounds for the city, investing in council housing, leisure, parks and services. And most recently in his own home town of Glasgow where a majority low paid female workforce won their more than decade long fight for equal pay through heroic strike action. In fact Socialists have been intrinsic to all social movements and have intervened in lgbti+ struggles, against racism, fighting women’s oppression and in defence of workers’ rights all around the globe.

In fact it was the Marxist Militant Tendency, which Darren does briefly mention, in the late 80s, early 90s who led a mass non payment campaign of the hated Poll Tax, defeating not only it but toppling Thatcher’s Tory government in the process. That 18 million people followed Militant’s non-payment strategy obliterates the argument that Darren makes of socialists being unable to engage with the working class. It’s sad that he doesn’t recognise this, growing up in Pollok where the campaign was born.

So, what is McGarvey’s approach to fighting and combating poverty? In the course of the book he oscillates wildly from acknowledging the power of grassroots movements and promoting an individualist solution based strategy. He rightly raises the powerful community campaigns such as The Pollok Free State and Save Our Schools fight back in the 90s, recognising the potent affect on the consciousness of the working and middle class people who participate even if the desired outcome isn’t achieved but will then overemphasise the role of individual responsibility.

Having survived a personal battle with alcohol and drugs, he has immersed himself in self help culture and whilst he should be applauded for overcoming his demons, this tactic both allows the government a free pass from their savagely barbaric policies and excludes those unable to do the same, specifically due to Tory austerity diminishing the NHS, blocking access to adequate mental health services.

The fundamental awareness needed to address how complicit one is in their own destruction isn’t a simple process open to all. Societal conditions under capitalism often dictate the level of emotional intelligence allocated to certain individuals, squashing their development and rendering them feeling hopeless. Only by dismantling the system and implementing a socialist society could everyone fully participate, get the help they need and reach their potential.

Darren McGarvey states “the truth whether we want to accept it or not, is that when it comes to poverty – not as a political football but as a global phenomenon in which we all play an active role – there is no one actor or group that we can blame with any certainty.”

Capitalism 

Nonsense. Capitalism alienates the working class through the bosses relentless determination to extract as much surplus value from the workers as possible. The worker, never owning the items of value from goods and services produced by their own labour, cannot govern their own destiny so become detached from their own relationships and life. Capitalism deliberately creates a reserve army of the unemployed to divide the working class, with successive governments, both Tory and Labour, attacking and smashing the trade unions as a means of enforcing this division.

Abstract conclusions such as the above suggest that poverty exists in a vacuum and that all of the horrific conditions it gives birth to can never be solved. You cannot defeat an enemy if you have no idea who or what that enemy is.

He further says in his chapter ‘The Stranger’ that “the sort of fundamental shift required to truly tackle poverty at the root is unlikely to materialise within our lifetimes” “we should let go of the idea that all we require is for capitalism to collapse or for a new country to be created and everything will just work itself out” and “with no appetite for cross party consensus… this system, is here to stay for the foreseeable future”.

This analysis is extremely short sighted and crude. It suggests that capitalism will reach such a state of crisis that it will just cease to exist and that people should accept that poverty is as inherent to life as water and air. We don’t need a cross party consensus, we need our own mass working class party, mobilised, politicised and active in struggle to fight for the implementation of a socialist transformation of society. Of course even after such an event, there would be much work to be done to reverse the damage of centuries of entrenched capitalist ideology. However, instead, McGarvey is inviting the working class to ignore what is rightfully theirs by way of the labour and services they produce in exchange for some moralistic insight into their own personal behaviours.

By stating that the left is unable and unwillingly to talk about emotional literacy he exposes how little he actually knows about socialism otherwise he’d know that Trotsky wrote extensively on the subject in his book Problems of Everyday Life, which is read and utilised frequently by that same left he seems to dislike so intensely. Marx and Engels also wrote on alienation.

McGarvey writes often about hatred. His hatred for his powerlessness, his mother, who abused him as a child, the system and how that hatred clouded some of his judgments, specifically when choosing not to listen to the political arguments of those with opposing views to his, especially on poverty. Unfortunately he conflates this anger with the mass anger that exists in society which gives impetus to social movements and creates change.

He assumes that anyone fighting for a better world must be labouring under some misplaced personal bitterness and derides anyone on the left who correctly harnesses class anger as a powerful force. The only force in society which can truly hope to change things. This shows that McGarvey doesn’t understand the theory of conditions determining consciousness and that he thinks the working class should also be open to the ideas of those on the right which can only lead to the dangerous conclusion that capitalism can be reformed. In fact you can use his book to chart his shift from angry leftie, enraged at injustice to soft liberal seeking refuge in his new found career, fatherhood and approaching middle age.

In his closing chapter McGarvey has another unprincipled dig at Marx. “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”, he writes, twisting Marx’s famous quote on how workers must seize the means of production of the economy to fit his now fully formed theory that individuals are the driving force for change.

How he imagines the bankers, bailed out by public money in 2008, along with the billionaires, made ever richer through the austerity imposed on the rest of us after the economic crash, will wilfully submit to sharing their wealth just because the working class have disentangled themselves from their personal resentments, I’m not sure. He does say that “as I sit here in Starbucks, on the burial ground of my teenage ideals, I am struck by a comforting sense that life may not be so bad” and whilst that is a wonderful achievement for anyone whose life has been so gruelling, what about everyone else? What about the sick and disabled, sanctioned by the DWP, losing their mobility cars, benefits and in many cases the will to live? What about the millions of children around the world who go without food? What about the families, working all week but still reliant on food banks? What about the homeless, caught up in debates about whether global warming actually exists whilst they freeze to death in unprecedented cold temperatures? What about all of the people struggling as capitalism limps from one crisis to the next? What does Darren McGarvey suggest for them? Starbucks with a copy of whichever self help book is currently en vogue?

Darren McGarvey’s first attempt at author proves without any doubt that he is an accomplished writer. He can conjure up scenes of hardship with an expertise that belies his inexperience. In particular, his opening gambit on the horror that was Grenfell is a beautiful stream of consciousness echoing the thoughts of every person on that fateful morning as we woke to the news of that ferocious fire in London. Had he stuck to writing in this vein he would have been more than a deserving winner of the Orwell prize, but by offering his take on the the politics of poverty he has shown that his understanding is only at a very superficial level.

He fails to even mention the significance of trade unions as a vehicle to direct the fury of the working class into strike action. That, if coordinated on a grand scale, could be the “fundamental shift” he thinks is absent. Strike action has won many of today’s basic workplace rights such as sick pay, holiday pay, maternity leave, the eight hour day and trade union rights. 100 years ago this year trade unions led over 60,000 workers in determined strike action and mobilising into George Square. Working 57 hour weeks in horrendous conditions their bravery, as the government, fearing an organised workforce, sent tanks in to dispel, won them a reduction in hours and has lent rich lessons to today’s socialists for fighting to secure the socialist transformation of society.

As his second book takes shape, this review should serve as a timely reminder that applause for wrong conclusions offer the working class no way out of rising inequality, environmental destruction, continual war and oppression. Socialism on the other hand, does. Fight for it.

Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey was published in November 2017 by Luath Press