There’s a line in Robert Burns poem, A man’s a man, about ‘the man o’ independent mind’. Judging by the number of times it’s quoted, not least on Burns Night, this is something Scots value. But men, and women, o’ independent mind are in short supply, in Scotland and beyond.
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that
We’re now living in a world that’s increasingly intolerant of free speech and hearing different opinions. At universities, once bastions of intellectual discussion, speakers can be shouted down or even prevented from voicing alternative opinions. People use social media as an echo chamber – only willing to hear the views of those who think the same as them. Thus chasms have opened up between the left and the right, the Nos and the Yessers, the Brexiteers and Remainers, feminists and traditionalists … Unfortunately this creates an environment where new thinking, desperately needed in such troubled times, is unlikely to emerge.
This is why I could have cheered as I read Darren McGarvey’s book Poverty Safari. It’s both a political tract and personal memoir about growing up in Pollok, a deprived community on the outskirts of Glasgow. Throughout the book the author breaks free of various intellectual and political taboos and invites us to see the world differently. Equally impressive is the fact that McGarvey can change his mind. Examples of this can be seen throughout his book.
Limitations of the left
McGarvey identifies with the left and repeatedly links the challenges of people living in places like Pollok to deindustrialisation, poverty and inequality. He also returns frequently to issues of unfairness – not just economic inequality but how poor people are marginalised and excluded. How right they are to feel angry. He is excoriating about the ‘poverty industry’ and what happens under the banner of ‘regeneration’.
But while McGarvey accepts a left-wing analysis he is also aware of how little it has to offer. He argues that poverty is a complex problem, deeply embedded in our society. That it’s wrong to make out that one group in society, such as the Tories, are to blame. Neither the economic forces which create poverty nor the capitalist system itself, he argues, are going away anytime soon. For McGarvey the left’s problem is that those involved talk endlessly about changes that are not likely to happen. In the process they fail to discuss changes that could make a difference to people’s lives:
On the left, I see constant talk of new economic systems, of overthrowing elites or of increasing public spending. I see endless debate about the overlapping, interdependent structural oppressions of western society and the symbolic violence inherent in capitalism. But I rarely see anyone talking about emotional literacy. It’s rare to see a debate about overeating. I never see activists being more open about their drink problems and drug habits or the psychological problems fuelling them.
Later he adds it is as if ‘somehow we can postpone action on the things that are demoralising, incapacitating and killing us until after the hypothetical revolution.’ In other words, for the left economic issues, and abstract structural solutions, always trump discussion of vital problems related to ‘mind, body and spirit’. This wasn’t always the case. Just look at the Independent Labour Party (ILP), influential in Glasgow in the early part of the twentieth century, and you will see socialist idealists who also talked about spirituality. What’s more, many were passionate tee-totalers who campaigned for prohibition because they saw the damage alcohol caused in their communities.
The Labour Party which ultimately eclipsed these radicals was much more managerialist in its approach. For me the male dominated nature of the left is partly responsible for the failure to engage with emotional, psychological or family issues. But political ideology undoubtedly plays an important part. McGarvey is particularly interested in agency and personal responsibility. He is acutely aware that as the left abandoned this agenda it has become the preserve of the right. It is to McGarvey’s credit that he ventures bravely into this contested territory. It’s not surprising that some of the critical comments about Poverty Safari have been about how McGarvey is individualising the problem.
Personal power to change
Like it or not, personal responsibility matters crucially. If we don’t recognise the importance of agency we effectively render people powerless in their own lives. This is one of the main conclusions of J.D. Vance, author of Hill Billy Elegy: A memoir of a family and culture in crisis which became an unexpected international best-seller in 2016. Vance grew up in the Ohio rust belt. But his forebears emigrated to Kentucky and were Scots Irish. This is why Vance calls himself a ‘Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart’.
Vance is aware that the dominant analysis of his community’s problems is economic – the movement of industry from these areas and the loss of working-class jobs accompanied by the fact that middle-class jobs are more difficult to obtain. He accepts that these are all relevant factors yet he doesn’t think it’s the whole story. Vance writes: ‘whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, the feeling that our choices don’t matter.’ Later he adds ‘There is a lack of agency here – a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.’
McGarvey is equally clear that he was brought up to blame others for anything he disliked about his own life. ‘All my life I was told that the system was to blame for the problems in my family and that my family were to blame for the problems in mine’, he writes. He then adds, ‘This belief that it was always someone else’s fault was reinforced by the poverty industry and politicians …’
Both McGarvey and Vance are thoughtful men who understand that blaming others for everything you don’t like about your life is a dead-end. It renders you powerless and unable to grow and develop as an individual. After all development results from taking action and learning from mistakes and this can only happen if we accept some responsibility for what we do. What’s more, our happiness and mental health depend on our personal relationships with family and friends, as well as the state of our inner lives. And the choices we make on a daily basis have an enormous impact both on our relationships and how we feel.
McGarvey is not being simplistic, telling members of his community to stop moaning and pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps. He is all too aware that childhood trauma can lead people to be angry and aggressive, trying to numb the pain by overeating or abusing substances. He knows first hand how constant poverty and feelings of inferiority, grind people down and encourage them to take decisions which are ultimately self-defeating. But, like Vance, he sees how toxic it is for people to believe that the choices they make in life don’t matter. It’s this realisation which helped him turn his own life around.
Instead of continuing to blame the middle classes or his mental illness for everything he disliked about himself or his life McGarvey started to see his own complicity. In one Scotsman article he succinctly described the connection between his own behaviour and his feelings:
If I am growing overly fond of red wine or codeine has found its way into my diet or I spend two hours a day watching violent pornography then I shouldn’t act confused as to why I feel tired, paranoid, agitated and emotionally distant from my partner – and myself.
If I sleep in late, wake up and drink three cups of industrial coffee, smoke five cigarettes and have a fudge doughnut for breakfast, then I have to be prepared to accept that I may experience what feels like a mild downer later that afternoon.
Anger management and self-awareness
Since he argues that blaming others was a major feature of his upbringing, how did Darren McGarvey develop such insight? There’s little doubt that his referral for anger management to the Notre Dame Centre when he was an adolescent and the work he did with his psychologist Marilyn were a major turning point. This doesn’t save him from sliding into alcohol and drug addiction. But it sows the seeds of self-awareness. Eventually this helps him to make better, more responsible choices for himself.
A few years on he had a major epiphany which, he claims, changed the way he engages with people. McGarvey had been a very vocal critic of the work of the artist Ellie Harrison and her ‘Glasgow Effect’ project. When he finally met her he realised his actions had had a profoundly negative effect on her as an individual. He also realised that his criticism of her had been unfair. He writes: ‘I was so consumed by my own anger and moral certainty, it had blinded me to the fact that Ellie Harrison, in all her middle class glory, was not an enemy, but an ally in the war I’d been fighting all my life.’
I read Poverty Safari shortly after editing Alan McLean’s perceptive book, Knowing and Growing: Insights for Developing Ourselves and Others, so I was acutely aware of the importance of self-awareness and reflection and the significance of our interactions with others. I was a personal development trainer for many years and know that these skills and insights are in short supply in Scotland. So when I read McGarvey’s book I was blown away by his level of self-awareness and his willingness to analyse his own motivations.
As can be common in someone who was maltreated as a child he has a great capacity to read other people’s behaviour. Of course these skills can make someone appear narcissistic and manipulative, and McGarvey acknowledges that danger. However, on the basis of what he writes I offer a more generous view.
Experience drawn from real life – not books
McGarvey did not get the ideas he outlines in books. Each chapter heading in Poverty Safari is a book title but, other than a few quotes, these books play a remarkably small part in McGarvey’s analysis. In fact he begins by explaining how hard it is for him to read books. For years he thought it was because books had nothing to tell him or were ‘full of pretentious upper class nonsense that said nothing about my community or experience’. Years later he sees this was mainly an elaborate defence mechanism and that the problem originated in his own youth – mainly from his inability to concentrate.
I find his lack of bookishness a strength, not a weakness. One of the things I admire about McGarvey’s writings is that his insights principally emanate from first hand experience or intuition. Because so much of McGarvey’s analysis comes from discussions, observations, and personal reflections, not from theories and books, it has a freshness which reminds me of some of the writings of early Enlightenment thinkers who used their own experience and observation as their basis for thought.
It is telling that Scotland’s most original thinker for decades has not been to university. Some of his critique of the limited focus of the left could be extended to academia. Partly as a result of subject specialisation and fragmentation academics focus narrowly on specific topics. The way academics operate means they are not going to come up with a broad view of any social problem. They can’t help us out of the either/or trap – the idea that the main problems facing impoverished communities either comes from structural problems or what McGarvey calls ‘mind, body and spirit’. It’s all these things as McGarvey helps us to see.
I’m with McGarvey, the independent thinker. The problems facing poor communities are complex and stubborn. Of course, we need to argue and campaign for more welfare, jobs, and better houses but, as I show in my book Hiding in Plain Sight, where I focus on Milngavie’s council estate, on their own they aren’t the answer. There are other things people in deprived areas must do for themselves as individuals, or as part of families and communities, to improve their own lives. To believe otherwise is to reinforce powerlessness. To argue that what people do in their lives doesn’t matter.
In Part 2 of Carol Craig’s review she looks at what Poverty Safari tells us about Adverse Childhood Experiences and stress.
Main image by Fay Young: David Hume wearing a traffic cone during Edinburgh Fringe