Whilst this is an easy book to read, it is however at times a distressing description of the depths to which our society has sunk. Written 80 years after Orwell’s ‘Road to Wigan Pier’, it is a sad indictment of the extent to which our society continues to be divided by wealth, and of the needless suffering by those who have the least.
In the first part of the book McGarvey shows the harsh reality of being born into and growing up in poverty. He then describes his struggle to be heard as he sets out his ideas about what should be done.
The book starts in a prison where the author is working with young people who are trapped in poverty as he was. He describes prisons as the most violent places in the country, observing that people often leave prison more violent than they were when they arrived. Later he shows how the stress of a prolonged threat of violence can sometimes be worse than the violence itself. Violence, fear, pain and suffering is ever present throughout this read. We also see how class and prejudice continues to dominate our society.
“Whether placing blind faith in the advice of a doctor, being assessed or disciplined by a teacher, interviewed by a social worker or panel, cuffed by a police officer, advised by a lawyer. Class is the elephant in every room.” (p. 124)
The impact of poverty on himself and his four siblings is quantified as follows:
“Four out of five have experienced alcohol or substance misuse problems at some point.
Three have a criminal record.
Five have experienced long term financial problems which involve debilitating debt defaults and poor credit history.
Three were suspended or excluded from school for disruptive or violent behaviour.
Two have attempted suicide on one or more occasions.
One has served a prison sentence for drug-related offences.
Three have never voted in a general election.
Five have experienced abuse and neglect at the hands of a care giver.
Five took up full-time smoking at a young age.
Five have received state benefits.
Five have been in a dysfunctional relationship.
Five have experienced health problems associated with poor nutition and lifestyle such as: being over- or under-weight, difficulty making positive choices in relation to nutrition or using high calorie, nutrient void food to self-soothe.
Five have poor concentration that has impacted on their education.
Five suffer from social anxiety.
Five have experienced emotional and mental health problems that predispose them to stress.
Zero have gone to university.
Zero are on the housing ladder.
Zero have any savings.
Zero have access to the bank of Mum or Dad.
Zero are involved in an activist group.
Zero are active members of a political party.
Zero regularly visit libraries or places of cultural interest.
Zero go on foreign holidays at least once a year.
And none of us care for Radio 2, yoga or Quorn-based food products either. (p.89-90)”
The list illustrates not only the dreadful human cost that poverty inflicts on the individuals, but also an ongoing financial burden on society, a burden that has given rise to the ‘poverty industry’. In neo-liberal Britain any revenue stream is an opportunity for commodification for the wealthy to extract income. So it is that poverty actually makes a positive contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP)! This not only exposes the obscenity of using GDP as a measure of anything, but also begs the question: “Is keeping people in poverty a deliberate policy?”.
The major political parties don’t want to engage with the poor and the poor don’t want to engage with them. The media only report things of interest to their own class. In the 1990s politicians of both the main parties recognised that the troubles in Northern Ireland were an ongoing financial drain for the taxpayer. Then politicians on all sides were motivated to work hard to bring about a sustainable peace. Today’s politicians though are seemingly blind to the benefits of eliminating poverty.
Improving the quality of housing, education and public transport, as well as ensuring that people have enough food to eat and power to stay warm, would all improve the quality of life for millions. This would also cut the level of stress that drives many towards: comfort eating, smoking, gambling, drinking, drug taking, aggression and violence; and so reduce the demands placed on: social care, health care, policing and justice. The levels of stress that those in poverty have to live with is almost written in to every page.
“I appear to be ordering food against my will … stress triggers the urge to resume habitual behaviour … it’s like my brain forgets that I am full …. the thought at the end of the meal is always the same: I don’t know why I did that” (p. 114-116)
As we arrive at the heart of this book, he starts to explain his view that even the poorest and most desperate can make choices that will progressively bring about improvement in the personal circumstances of the individual. It seems that some left-wing politicians disagree. McGarvey asks:
“… when was the last time you heard a prominent left figure speak of the power within each of us to overcome adversity to transform the conditions of our own lives … we peddle the idea that all will be fine if we change our political or economic system. … its easier to redesign an entire society to sort out our ever-evolving personal needs than to make adjustments to our own thinking” (p 112)
The need for individuals to take some responsibility is also mentioned in Tim Jackson’s book “Post Growth”. There Jackson links personal health to the health of the planet, noting that the struggle to control our cravings has been an important aspect of personal development throughout history. For centuries many have recognised the inherent dangers of what has become the consumer society for the physical and mental health of the individual. Figures from Aristotle and St Augustine to the Buddha sought to show their followers how to break free from the control that our cravings have over us.
Clearly no government that pledges to increase growth will show any interest in also encouraging people to stop spending on things they don’t need or doing things for pleasure that they really don’t need to do. Helping people to resist the temptations that corporations spend millions putting in front of us, is totally against the culture of the consumer society, and the interest of those corporations who fund the main political parties.
Two hundred years ago non-conformist faith groups connected people to the ancient teachings so they could more clearly see the injustice that surrounded them. These communities then led the way in the social reforms that we now see being steadily eroded.
McGarvey has shown the extent to which these injustices continue to persist and grow, and has hit on one of the most important lessons that the ancients gave us. Society really needs to listen to this message, and respond by providing the space for people to come together to help each other, and do what they can do to change their own condition, rather than have others impose their ‘improvements’. Then we might just be closer to obtaining the level of engagement with those caught in poverty that is needed to bring about the wider changes to our political and economic system that we clearly need.