Pop your own abscess

Rory Scothorne

  • The New Poverty by Stephen Armstrong
    Verso, 242 pp, £12.99, October 2017, ISBN 978 1 78663 463 4
  • Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey
    Luath, 244 pp, £7.99, November 2017, ISBN 978 1 912147 03 8

Two years ago a woman from Dewsbury called Claire Skipper, suffering from toothache, went into her garden shed, clamped the offending tooth in a pair of pliers, and pulled. Her tooth broke. There had been no vacancies at her local NHS practice and she couldn’t afford private care or the journey to the nearest emergency clinic in Bradford. A week later, in ‘indescribable’ pain, she went to the Real Tooth Project, a ‘pay as you feel’ dental clinic that had been set up in Dewsbury with the support of DentAid, an international NGO. DentAid’s UK operations began in 2015, providing a charitable alternative to what Stephen Armstrong calls ‘DIY Dentistry’. In a chapter that’s almost impossible to read without flinching, Armstrong tells story after story of individuals forced by the scarcity of public services and the cost of private treatment into self-dentistry, sometimes aided by cheap off-the-shelf ‘kits’ for basic treatments up to and including replacing lost fillings. Armstrong first came across the phenomenon in Paisley, where one woman, concerned about being fined for a missed dentist’s appointment and apprehensive about future treatment costs, ‘resorted to popping her own mouth abscess with a fork’.

The New Poverty revisits William Beveridge’s Social Insurance and Allied Services Report 75 years after it made the case for a comprehensive welfare state in Britain. Armstrong’s epigraph, lifted from Beveridge, restates the old managerialist dream: ‘The object of government in peace and war is not the glory of rulers or of races, but the happiness of the common man’ – a message that lost its shine a while ago. The book has arrived too late for Ed Miliband, whose efforts to reinvent a British tradition of patriotic, elite paternalism were heavily influenced by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book The Spirit Level, with its strange subtitle, ‘Why Equality Is Better for Everyone’. Its underlying assumption was that inequality could only be tackled by an appeal to the rationality and self-interest of those higher up the chain. In the wake of Miliband’s failure, the left has found itself searching for a populist morality with sufficient emotional heft to counter an increasingly nativist, right-wing articulation of the ‘common man’: enter tooth-pulling, abcess-popping Britain, folk-tales of departure from the collective dignity defended by ideologues on both sides of the Brexit divide.

Reading these stories is supposed to be a visceral experience, punching through the layers of rationalisation, ignorance and self-interest separating those who live comfortably from those who don’t. The risks of this approach are well known. ‘Poverty porn’ is notorious for turning human beings – almost always people of colour – into suffering objects, their intimate moments of pain and grief transformed into fundraising campaigns. Scepticism about these methods among international aid organisations can be traced back at least as far as 1981, to an article in New Internationalist entitled ‘Merchants of Misery’ by a senior aid worker called Jorgan Lissner. Lissner based part of his critique on a comparison with ‘domestic’ equivalents: ‘It is very telling,’ he wrote, ‘that this type of social pornography is so prevalent in fundraising campaigns for the benefit of other races in far-away places but virtually non-existent when it comes to domestic concerns.’ He described an advertisement for a British children’s charity which showed the silhouette of a girl, with a caption explaining that ‘our children’s identities are never revealed so as to spare publicity.’ Such sensitivity was rarely exercised when it came to people in the global south, whose humanity, it seemed, had to be made painfully explicit before it could be recognised. DentAid, by contrast, advertises ‘Claire’s story’ and her photograph on its website. Her ordeal provided the hook for several news stories, their shock value boosted by the fact of a ‘Third World charity’ venturing into austerity Britain.

There are obvious differences here. Claire told her story in order to raise awareness of a project that grew out of local community action. The Real Tooth Project emerged from the Real Junk Food cafe, a charity which made healthy meals using supermarket donations and relied on its customers paying whatever they thought the meals were worth. A local dentist noticed that many customers found it hard to chew their food, and with help from DentAid the project was born. Armstrong is careful to embed examples of individual agony within wider narratives of resistance, or – where resistance seems impossible – imaginative attempts at survival. ‘Rather than focus incessantly on the bleak struggle they face, I also want this book to be about those people who are thinking creatively and acting courageously to combat the worst excesses of poverty for themselves and their community.’ If anything, this sells his book a little short: the outstanding feature of The New Poverty is Armstrong’s persistent effort to connect local experience and action to the systemic context in which poverty is not only thriving, but also taking increasingly sinister forms.

The UK government currently uses two definitions of poverty: ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’. The former is defined in a curiously historical fashion, as an attempt to measure ‘progress’. If your household earnings fall below 60 per cent of the median income of 2010-11, adjusted to include taxes, transfers, household size and composition, then you are absolutely poor. If your household income falls below 60 per cent of today’s median, you are relatively poor. These formulaic ways of measuring poverty help governments avoid the more difficult questions posed by changing societal standards. Beveridge set the level of ‘subsistence’ with the help of a subcommittee of experts, who arrived at a figure not including housing costs in London of £2 11s a week, which – according to the Bank of England’s inflation calendar – works out as approximately £9752.08 a year in today’s terms. Some on the left favour a similar approach, upgraded for changing social expectations. Long before Beveridge, Karl Marx saw these expectations as a key factor in the setting of wage levels, stressing ‘the habits and degree of comfort’ expected by the working class, which would in turn reflect ‘the degree of civilisation’ of a given country. One indicator of Britain’s ‘degree of civilisation’ comes from a series of focus groups run by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation every year, in which representative cross-sections of society identify a reasonable household budget: carpets and tiles, sofas, lampshades, toasters, microwaves, mobile phones, babysitting and childcare are all seen as necessary if household members are ‘to participate in society’.

Poverty has generally been understood on the left as an unjustifiable absence, of spiritual and aesthetic as well as material resources. In 1956, Anthony Crosland called for socialism with ‘more open-air cafes’ and ‘better designed telephone kiosks’ at its heart; Fully Automated Luxury Communism, which promises universal abundance and leisure, enabled by an army of robot labourers under human control, is the rather more ambitious slogan of Corbynism’s radical wing. For the right, poverty is more often a presence, a malignant blockage in the otherwise meritocratic functioning of the market order. During his tenure as work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith sought to redefine poverty in terms of behaviour, emphasising drugs, alcohol, worklessness, family stability and parenting skills, an approach which conveniently sidestepped the distributional consequences of economic policy and wage levels just as the Conservative Party was presiding over a programme of massive upwards redistribution of wealth and an almost unprecedented period of stagnating pay.

Both left and right visions of poverty undoubtedly have their problems, but when woven into the right-wing populism that pervades much of the British press, their worst features are toxically exaggerated. In these representations, the spiritual and aesthetic deficiencies of the poor are matched only by their extravagant and ill-gotten wealth. Armstrong cites one study which found that 10 per cent of UK news stories about poverty, from a sample of 1750 articles, were about benefit fraud, compared to just one such story in an equivalent Swedish sample and none at all in a Danish one. People in poverty were negatively depicted in 59 per cent of the British sample, compared to 38 per cent in Sweden and 45 per cent in Denmark. Armstrong suggests that Britain’s problem is in large part to do with how people respond to particular ways of framing the issue of poverty: one study by the Beatrice Webb Society in 2016 found that terms like ‘benefits’ and indeed ‘poverty’ left people cold; ‘fairness’, on the other hand, struck a chord in ‘a nation that prides itself on fair play’. Whether this is a cause or an effect of media representation is unclear.

Part of what makes the poverty described by Armstrong ‘new’ is that its unfairness has become harder to distort through media caricature: one particularly audacious attempt at myth-making suggested that young people cannot afford houses because they spend too much money on smashed avocado. It’s true that new poverty’s complexity is hard to represent. In 2004-5, official statistics suggested that 12 million people lived in poverty. In 2014-15, the figure was 13.5 million, roughly the same proportion (21 per cent) of a growing population. Yet during that time, the number of families who live in poverty but have one or more adults in work rose from 2 million to 7.4 million. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that the increasingly precarious nature of life above the poverty line means these figures probably downplay the true extent of poverty, since people may dip below the threshold multiple times during the year. ‘Hard work’, the rhetorical wedge dividing the working class into classless ‘strivers’ and feckless ‘scroungers’, is now visibly detached from the promise of disposable income or job security.

Armstrong’s method of exposing this disjuncture is simple: he tells people’s stories on their own terms but in a reporter’s voice, free from the suspicion, cynicism and condescension that have become standard. We are confronted with situations where scarcity, illness and stress have transformed seemingly irrational decisions into the only sensible option. The grim absurdity of the benefits system, designed to ‘make work pay’, is particularly glaring. Worklessness and work are hard to tell apart. Armstrong speaks to Jordan and Scott, two young men recruited through one of the (largely unregulated) private employment agencies job-seekers are compelled to sign up with. They get called to a freezing cold warehouse job by text only to be sent home again due to ‘a miscalculation’, meaning no pay and a £7 round trip on the bus. He also speaks to a man called Nick, who has to make a thirty-minute trip to Newcastle’s city centre library three days a week so that, if a computer is available, he can access the internet for two hours and try to fulfil the quota of 24 online job applications per week demanded in exchange for his benefits. Without broadband, and living miles away from internet access, any interruption to this routine is disastrous. When he runs out of money for the bus fare, he loses his jobseekers’ allowance, his housing benefit and his council tax benefit.

When people do get work, they experience novel forms of exploitation that make it almost impossible to identify their boss, never mind hate them. Armstrong speaks to Emily May, a special needs teaching assistant in London whose Jobcentre places her on the New Enterprise Allowance Scheme. When she lands a teaching job, she becomes self-employed, with minimal employment rights, paid by an umbrella company whose name keeps changing. ‘There’s layers now between everything where there didn’t used to be,’ she says. Armstrong tries to explore the ‘layers’, situating individual stories within global networks, linking local exploitation to international tax avoidance. Similar layers are present in the realm of consumption: indeed consumption and employment appear to be part of a singular, singularly cruel system. One striking example comes during his description of the rent-to-own industry, ‘a supercharged version of the old hire-purchase stores’.

Lisa Chalmers from Barnsley had five items from BrightHouse, including her son’s computer and the family TV … Then her employer cut her hours from forty to 32.5 per week, and she found she was struggling to make the payments. She sent in paperwork from her company and made an offer to pay a smaller amount. Store staff started calling her, aggressively insisting she stick to the terms of the agreement or she’d lose everything … In January 2015, Private Eye reported that BrightHouse had paid less than £6 million in corporation tax between 2007 and 2014 on revenues of £1.6 billion and operating profits of £191 million, using tax havens and interest on intra-company loans to hide its money. Our economy has been restructured so that a single mum on low pay or benefits buying household goods on credit can be generating a much higher profit rate for lenders than a well-paid worker with a steady job – and those profits are vanishing offshore, sucking all that money out of the country.

Armstrong applies the same method, extending out from the individual to the systemic, to everything – from social care to housing to local media – that might be included in an updated understanding of poverty. He does so in a manner that deftly refashions Beveridge’s ‘common man’ for the post-neoliberal era, a fractured mirror-image of decent, hard-done-by Britons, struggling to disentangle themselves from an economic order of infuriating complexity. Yet one could argue that he has only skimmed the ‘respectable’ surface of poverty, ignoring stickier problems. While the claims of employers, politicians and the media are subjected to rigorous cross-examination, the stories of the ‘new poor’ aren’t subjected to a similar level of scrutiny.

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Cynics may find encouragement in Darren McGarvey’s scattergun polemic Poverty Safari, which inverts Armstrong’s approach. While The New Poverty gathers together a quasi-representative sample of the ‘new poor’, exposing poverty’s systemic nature through the interweaving of multiple narratives, McGarvey draws almost exclusively on his own life story to try and shift our focus away from systemic solutions towards ‘personal responsibility’. The first half of the book is ‘designed to elicit a strong emotional response’. McGarvey, who grew up on the Pollok housing estate on the south side of Glasgow, carefully describes his youthful experience of abuse and violence, followed by addiction and homelessness. Telling his story, he explains, has become part of a ‘Trojan horse’ strategy, a trick to get the attention of bleeding-heart liberals before he unleashes his political views on them. His broader critique of ‘middle-class’ interventions in poor communities largely hits the mark: ‘while people were always keen that I tell my story … they seemed to prefer that I stick to certain parts of it … They were less keen on the observations I started to make as my understanding of poverty, its causes and impacts, deepened.’ Might Stephen Armstrong, on his own sort of safari, be guilty of the same thing? What uncomfortable parts of his interviews did he leave out?

Unfortunately, there’s nothing particularly new, interesting or persuasive to the ideas in McGarvey’s book. We learn that the left is weakened by a form of ‘identity politics’ which ‘has become synonymous with a style of activism that many people across the political spectrum find illiberal, censorious and counter-productive. And I am one of them.’ Identical opinions can indeed be found across the political spectrum, and it’s not clear what McGarvey adds to them. The poor people he describes are casually homophobic. In a chapter on what makes people ‘middle-class’, he notes the use of the word ‘unfettered’: ‘A working-class person wouldn’t risk saying something so gay in public.’ Generations of working-class orators – McGarvey even quotes the late Jimmy Reid – would disagree. He also worries that the left conflates ‘legitimate concerns’ about immigration with racism. This is odd, given that the prevailing attitude of the left towards anti-immigration sentiment is, if anything, frighteningly indulgent. Both the Labour Party leadership and their supporters in Momentum appear to be quietly comfortable with the end to the free movement of people that will come as part of Brexit.

‘There will be no revolution. Not in your lifetime. This system will limp on and so must we.’ For McGarvey, limping on is about altering our own behaviour: ‘we must open another frontier in politics,’ he announces, ‘reclaiming the idea of personal responsibility from a rampant and socially misguided right wing that has come to monopolise it.’ Set alongside the impossible demands that Armstrong’s ‘new poor’ desperately struggle to meet, McGarvey’s concerns about ‘responsibility’ are strangely anachronistic, stuck in an era when the basic economic foundations for ‘responsible’ behaviour had not been obliterated. His criticisms of the ‘poverty industry’ are largely based on his experiences in the 2000s, when he says ‘the welfare system seemed flush with cash’ and he was ‘surrounded by professionals’ employed to help. He argues that ‘many people will only recover from their mental health problems, physical illnesses and addictions when they, along with the correct support, accept a certain level of culpability for the choices they make.’ As a proposal for tackling poverty, this lethally understates the importance of ‘the correct support’ just as it is being stripped away. This argument is embedded in a wider set of hackneyed right-wing ‘gotcha’ moments which McGarvey repeats as if they’re revelatory: reflecting on the role of capitalism in shaping our lifestyles, he considers ‘the fresh, locally sourced produce I can get delivered to my door’, ‘resources like YouTube, where I can literally learn anything I desire about food’ and ‘all the cheap 24-hour gyms in my area’. ‘Aren’t these things also available because of capitalism?’ he asks. ‘As a leftie, is it taboo to acknowledge this?’ The book abounds in limp provocations of this kind.

It has done extraordinarily well in Scotland, propelling him to the front cover of Holyrood magazine, effectively the house publication of the Scottish political class. It has earned praise from Nicola Sturgeon, J.K. Rowling and Irvine Welsh, the latter two providing glowing quotes for the book’s cover, and has received positive reviews. It’s worth noting that one element of his critique which hasn’t been embraced concerns class: the journalist Dani Garavelli argued in the Glasgow Herald that ‘his insistence on viewing the world through the prism of class is outdated and reductive,’ reflecting a wider unease in Scottish society with class politics. The small-n nationalism which extends across Scottish public life is a professional nationalism in every sense, a gigantic lobbying strategy targeted at international capital and the UK Treasury, keen on the sort of internal negotiation and compromise in which an ostensibly classless, disinterested ‘expertise’ plays a starring role. The devolved elite that oversees this system prides itself on its inclusivity: parliamentary oaths are taken in as many languages as possible, the government is consulting on legislation allowing for self-definition of gender and legislating for equal representation of women on public boards, and until recently four of Scotland’s party leaders were openly LGBTQ+. Yet the Scottish working class has remained difficult to include. It is fortunate for Scottish elites, then, that McGarvey buries his call for ‘a well-organised, educated and unified working class’ in an argument attacking the ‘identity politics’ of feminists, LGBTQ+ activists and anti-racists. For Scotland’s rulers, McGarvey is a perfect representative, giving the poor a ‘voice’ while associating them with enough stereotypes – bigotry, danger, irresponsibility – to justify their continued exclusion from real political power.

McGarvey attempts to pre-empt these criticisms. He accepts that his emphasis on ‘introspection’ will inevitably be portrayed as ‘an extension of neoliberal economics that encourages individuals to avert their eyes from the injustice in the world and, instead, focus on self-improvement’. He tells us: ‘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.’ Take personal responsibility for your situation, and give up hope in the promise of genuine social transformation: what other name is there for this but neoliberalism? Armstrong shows us a new poverty, and with it a way out: a society that consigns the idea of the undeserving poor to the Victorian era where it barely belonged. He tells us about Scott, who injures his arm lifting a 35kg box onto a pallet in a warehouse. His manager tells him if he goes home he’ll need a doctor’s note, which costs £7. Scott decides to carry on working. When ‘choices’ like these are becoming normalised – should you lance your abscess with a knife or a fork? – McGarvey’s pleas for responsibility leave a bad taste in the mouth.