15 November 2017
As something of an iconoclast on the left/nationalist wing of Scottish politics, Darren ‘Loki’ McGarvey is inevitably a contradictory character. So there’s the touch of intellectual snobbery juxtaposed with the recurring theme of inverted snobbery. There’s the familiar lefty tropes about poverty, inequality and social mobility but with an element of small-c conservatism about how to address these perennial problems.
And while central to McGarvey’s personal credo is an inclusive and ecumenical approach to reaching out across Scotland’s ideological and constitutional divides, this conflicts with his often snarling and swearing approach on social media, while a promotional video to accompany the book is prefixed by a warning about aggression and bad language.
Which is why his sage advice that encouraging stressed-out communities to “get angry” isn’t “emotionally literate” clashes somewhat with his personal mien, albeit that he often seems to be ‘in character’ as Loki the rapper rather than Darren McGarvey the author and opinion former.
But all of the above can be gleaned from his now ubiquitous media and online presence - to a degree the book simply fleshes out the bones of his extremely challenging personal life and expands on his political philosophy.
So in keeping with McGarvey’s stance of telling it like it is rather than conforming to easy groupthink and divisive tribalism, he slaughters several of the Scottish left’s sacred cows.
Thus in an understandably cautious section (perhaps slightly at odds with his intellectual honesty) McGarvey acknowledges that immigration is not the unalloyed good that it’s often portrayed as, and that there are downsides, with the less well off often being those most exposed to such negatives. But his take on the topic is slightly repetitive and unduly defensive, and portrays the impression that he’s holding back, and to that degree he only tangentially addresses the issue in any substantive form.
Similarly, a chapter on identity politics and intersectionality (ie what I think is often termed ‘cultural Marxism’) takes on several contemporary left shibboleths, but again this is a bit vague and more guarded than what McGarvey has written and said elsewhere. More specifically, it’s perhaps surprising the book doesn’t use the related term ‘political correctness’, but maybe his intention was to criticise by implication rather than use unduly pejorative and antagonistic words and phrases.
But all that – and as a Yes supporter his refusal to simply conform to the polarisation and groupthink increasingly characterising the question of Scottish independence – is why McGarvey’s now something of a bête noire to many on the nationalist left of Scottish politics. He’s either pilloried, misrepresented or completely ignored by many of the usual suspects.
And that he’s to a degree been ostracised and even considered taboo by many is perhaps underlined by even prominent activists in his wider family completely ignoring the publication of Poverty Safari, publicly at least.
But sadly that’s the price to be paid for attempting to ‘reach out’ (OK, I know that only the Four Tops should use those words together) across the political and social divide in a predominantly Manichean debate of easy binaries and crude dichotomies, and for eschewing the ‘class war’ style of approach and rhetoric.
Indeed, and as McGarvey himself acknowledges, parts of his thesis read like some sort of (small-c) conservative manifesto, with more than a nod towards self-reliance and personal responsibility, and he has stated that many on the left find his critique compelling until they get to his claim that to an extent it’s up to the victims of poverty to find their own way out of the quagmire rather than wholly blame-shifting and relying solely on the state for a solution. In that regard, it’s perhaps odd that he doesn’t specifically mention the ‘dependency culture’ often denounced by those on the right, and while that idea might be inferred from McGarvey’s criticism of his own previous conduct, on the other hand he doesn’t really extend the idea to poorer communities and the underclass more generally.
Interesting, though, that parts of his manifesto read (from my limited understanding) like some sort of addiction recovery/rehab program, used as a kind of political metaphor and extended to the debate more generally. Of course, McGarvey is at pains to emphasise that he’s still ‘of the left’, but maybe, like his earlier life, and drug and alcohol problems in particular, he’s in denial about where precisely he stands politically. There’s no doubt that his addiction issues and a degree of associated self-indulgence have been instrumental in forming his current philosophy and, while he’s sketchy on how precisely he managed to put many of those demons behind him, maybe that process has also influenced his current thinking. The book is full of self-reflection and self-censure, and while the path McGarvey has followed from young radical to a more conservative lifestyle and political maturity replete with wife and kids is well worn, on the other hand his particularly tough upbringing and later ‘chaotic lifestyle’ are maybe responsible for making him sound almost abstemious and puritanical at times. Likewise, there’s a quasi-religious, confessional tone to much of the book, with repentance aplenty, and a strong yearning for some sort of familial, societal and political redemption.
As someone whose own ‘misery memoir’ will hopefully be published online one day (doubt if a book deal is on the cards!), crime and policing would be central to that, so the almost complete absence of the topic from Poverty Safari is another obvious lacuna, at least from a personal perspective, and particularly since McGarvey has worked with Police Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit. One possible explanation for this omission is that the VRU seems more about policing as social work rather than policing as law enforcement, but no doubt McGarvey has a lot more to say on the subject than he’s outlined in the book.
(Appositely, since the publication of the book McGarvey has publicly supported the Scottish Government’s minimum pricing for alcohol strategy, thus perhaps indicating that he conforms to the zeitgeist in treating drunkenness as effectively decriminalised, thus at odds with his stance on personal responsibility.)
But all that shouldn’t detract from the book itself, not to mention McGarvey’s incisive wider analysis of the status quo and manifesto for change. Of course, such a manifesto is necessarily seminal in nature, and he’s astute enough to acknowledge that fundamental reform is unlikely to happen any time soon (if at all) and there’s just too much in situ as regards establishment inertia perpetuating the status quo and inhibiting radical change.
And that points to what is perhaps my favourite dimension to McGarvey’s book, namely why even many of those in the ‘poverty industry’ turn out to be self-serving and exploitative, and more concerned with maintaining or advancing their position in the food chain, with inconvenient voices frozen out if they don’t conform to the narrative.
Which in turn echoes what one of my favourite commentators, Professor Walter Humes of the Scottish Review, has to say about the self-interested, self-aggrandising and self-perpetuating nature of much of Scotland’s officialdom and bureaucracy. McGarvey and Humes move in very different spheres life- and career-wise, but there’s a common thread between them that’s profoundly cynical about public life, but focuses perhaps a bit more on what happens at the coal face rather than the party politics and political process which more normally dominates any examination of our democracy and public sector.
During my more politically formative years I recall that one of the most infuriating things I’d heard was Ronald Reagan’s dictum: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I'm from the government and I'm here to help.”” These days I think there’s a lot of truth in what Reagan said, and suspect McGarvey might think similarly.
And perhaps that’s why he’s sceptical about achieving the agency and momentum necessary for change. If capitalism is all about self-interest and maintaining and enhancing the income and status of those further up the pecking order, to an extent the public sector is also characterised by producer capture and vested interests. If politicians and officials have made a career out of the poverty industry, then why would they wish to eradicate it, however well meaning they are, and whatever fine words they utter. Likewise, the political tribalism and class divides McGarvey is attempting to bridge have to a degree come back to hit him in the face. Of course, there’s always a degree of inevitability about that kind of thing, and you’ve got to crack a few eggs to make an omelette etc, but on the other hand perhaps the negative reaction demonstrates the intractability of the whole thing.
But Poverty Safari is a must read for anyone interested in the politics of poverty in Scotland, and indeed in the UK and the world more generally, even assuming the reader disagrees with part or all of what McGarvey has to say. In particular, any Scottish MSP or prominent commentator or opinion former is essentially in denial if they don’t intend reading such an important contribution, particularly as the book is priced at bargain basement levels, and can be downloaded to various devices for only a couple of pounds.
However, as someone who was aware of much of McGarvey’s life story and political views before the publication of Poverty Safari, the book perhaps didn’t have the personal impact that it might have had a couple of years ago, so for that reason and the other shortcomings outlined above it’s a four-star rating rather than the full compliment.
And returning to the author’s contradictory character mentioned at the outset, maybe the central paradox here is that McGarvey himself is on a poverty safari of sorts, as he indeed acknowledges. So upwardly mobile and increasingly part of the establishment, to an extent he too has exploited poverty to make some headway up the greasy pole. Of course, societies will always be at least partly hierarchical and meritocratic, and by the same token people like McGarvey will always be internally conflicted and open to accusations of hypocrisy, but at least he offers a nuanced argument rather than crude and easy virtue-signalling, not to mention a refreshing degree of honesty.