Escape and Personal Responsibility

Is an issue as important as our immediate wellbeing something we can really afford to postpone until the government figures it out?

I’ve just finished reading Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey (aka, Loki the Scottish Rapper). It’s good.

McGarvey shows us how poverty is a hostile environment from which it’s difficult but not impossible to escape. Escape, he says, lies in community engagement and personal responsibility.

He explains that personal responsibility is difficult when you live in poverty. The stress and lack of headspace that come with poverty serve to perpetuate your problems (which could include addiction, malnutrition, emotional problems, domestic abuse) so it’s difficult to gather escape velocity or even to recognize that such a thing might exist. Violence breeds violence, a fact tried and tested in Glasgow where I live and where McGarvey grew up.

He also explains that personal responsibility is “taboo” on the left. We’re supposed to think about systemic, not individualist, solutions. As you probably know, the scale and complexity of this challenge is alienating to the strongest and freest of us let alone those trying to escape poverty. (McGarvey’s acknowledgement and exploration of this issue did not stop a finger-wagging reviewer from making the standard charges against him in the LRB, which was ironically what prompted me to read this book).

He writes:

Eradicating poverty would require a global political consensus of the sort we have never seen. One day it will happen, but it’s not going to be today. Or tomorrow. […] This is not a submission; this is to acknowledge the complexity of the matter.

and:

Aspiring to take responsibility is not about giving an unjust system a free pass; it’s about recognising that we are part of that system and are, on some level, complicit in the dysfunction.

and crucially:

By encouraging people to believe that their immediate problems are beyond their own expertise, the very agency poverty deprives them of is denied.

I tried to explain in my own book that accepting personal responsibility for your escape does not make you a bad leftie. If you read my book and sense hesitation in my voice, it’s because I’m all too aware that I’m middle-class (albeit a recent arrival) and concerned that to champion personal responsibility might overlook the challenges — largely not experienced by me — of those in poverty. What McGarvey gives us now is the same sort of suggestion but from the working-class, poverty-experienced perspective. Thank Christ. This is part of what makes the book so good and so worthy of its winning this year’s Orwell Prize. Read it and weep.

You don’t need an agency or a charity to parachute in and tell you what to do. It doesn’t cost a penny and you can begin right away.

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