My first appearance on the BBC took place at my auntie’s flat in Govanhill, on Glasgow’s southside, where she lived with my two cousins and a mother and child she had taken in who were fighting deportation. Having got involved in the Pollok Free State, she later became a local environmental activist and was eventually elected to the Scottish Parliament as an MSP. By this point I was about to leave secondary school but had trouble getting work. I had been working as a temp in Next but was not offered a contract after the Christmas period. There was speculation that certain employers were screening potential employees based on their postcode – which was an indicator of social class. BBC Radio Scotland was covering it on the news and I was asked to come on and talk about it. It went well and I was asked back more over the course of the year.
Charities, arts organisations, youth workers and even politicians were becoming familiar with me. At events like gala days or fetes, I would be presented as an example of a young person who was doing something positive with his life. I’d be allotted time to perform or speak about my experiences and this was becoming a regular fixture of my life, even after I became homeless.
The BBC, after letting me host their flagship news programme as a guest presenter, asked me to present a four-part series called Neds. In Scotland, a ‘ned’ is like a ‘chav’; a poor person, usually young, who causes disruption in their community through anti- social behaviour – which was high on the news agenda at the time. Now working at the BBC, my life represented something of a schism: on one hand I was homeless and developing a dependency on alcohol and drugs and had no self-esteem, but on the other hand I was about to become a radio presenter who travelled the country like a proper journalist. When you have no real sense of self to anchor you to reality then you become whatever the world decides you are that day. Some days I was flying high, thinking I was on my way to some kind of job and would make my family proud. Other days I was unable to get to the BBC on time because I was so hungover and depressed.
When the series ended, another was commissioned, this time a three-part show about Shettleston, a housing scheme which had among the worst health statistics in the country. I had a growing public profile and was involved with several organisations as a volunteer while making a name for myself as a local rap artist. But whether it was low self-esteem, imposter syndrome or just a self-sabotage instinct, I began to question people’s motives for wanting to help me. Beneath everything, all I was looking for was connection; to feel understood, heard and supported. To feel respected, safe and loved. The praise and platforms I received certainly made me feel I was heading in the right direction, but once the novelty wore off and I began to consider what was going on more deeply, some things started bothering me. The big contradiction of my life at this point was that the people who apparently wanted to help me, with whom I craved a connection, were all being paid to be there. So it wasn’t that big a leap to assume that if they weren’t getting paid then they’d be away doing something else.
I also noticed that while people were always keen that I tell my story, in whichever form it took, they seemed to prefer that I stick to certain parts of it. The testimony about my childhood was fine but they were less keen on the observations I started to make as my understanding of poverty, its causes and impacts, deepened. I was growing and learning and evolving, as I had been all my life, and this created new lines of inquiry that I would immediately pursue, no matter the consequences. Queries such as ‘Who makes the decisions about your budget?’ and ‘How do we solve poverty if all your jobs depend on it?’ were making people around me nervous.
This sort of sentiment didn’t seem as popular among the various youth workers, charities and journalists as the story about my dead mum. When I realised this, I soon learned to use that story as a Trojan horse, mainly because without it, people seemed much less interested in anything I had to say. It was as if the only thing that qualified my opinion was the fact I had been poor. The second I wandered off that topic people started shuffling their papers and things got awkward. It seemed my criticism was often deemed not to be constructive enough. Despite the constant talk of empowerment and giving voice to the voiceless, it was obvious many of these people were only interested in my thoughts if they were about my experience as a ‘poor’ person. It was assumed that people like me had very little insight on anything else. This was disheartening and confusing. I couldn’t figure out if people wanted to associate with me because I was smart or because they wanted to use me in some way. Having very little self-esteem, it led to wild fluctuations in my sense of who I was. Sometimes I felt my ideas were of value, other times I was crushed by the terrible thought that I had just been kidding myself. That I was worthless and stupid. But rather than buckle beneath that confusion it seemed to stoke the flames of my anger. The conflict seemed to concentrate my mind, just like fear, and the things that upset me, just like traumatic experiences, became a form of fuel.
Even mental illness and problems in my personal life didn’t stop me from pursuing my lines of inquiry and going after my targets. I followed my instincts, right or wrong, despite the fact I could sense resistance to the message I was transmitting. Eventually, like the books and poems teachers tried to make me read, I began to take an adversarial attitude towards the people and organisations I believed were trying to influence how I thought and spoke about these issues. I began to lash back against anybody I felt was manipulating me, either to pacify my criticism or to extract narrative or data for their own agendas.
My story, which I had been conditioned to retell like a party piece, got me so far and then people became wary of me, aggravating my sense of rejection and exclusion. I was learning that there were limits to what you could say when you wanted to talk about poverty. I was learning that even the harshest childhood experience wouldn’t get you a free pass to cast a critical eye on the structures around you. But I was also learning that the emotional damage that growing up in poverty had done to me, made it that much harder for me to engage with the very people deployed to help me. I often projected my pain, mistrust and sense of exclusion onto people who really did mean well. I was never quite sure if my instincts were right or if I was in the grip of an episode of mania.
What I soon learned was that, no matter your background, you are cast out the second you offend the people who’re in charge of your empowerment. Sometimes it’s a person, other times it’s an organisation. Sometimes it’s a movement and other times it’s a political party. But the minute you start telling your story in service of your own agenda and not theirs, you’re discarded. Your criticism is dismissed as not being constructive. Your anger is attributed to your mental health problems and everything about you that people once applauded becomes a stick they beat you with. Look out for these people. The people who pay wonderful lip service to giving the working class a voice, but who start to look very nervous whenever we open our mouths to speak.
I never regarded my childhood as hard until I saw the look on people’s faces when I talked about it. I never assumed that my life, or indeed I, was interesting or significant in any way until people started telling me so. I never assumed I had anything of value to say until people began prompting me to repeat this poverty narrative over and over. But if I happened to stray off script, then curtains would mysteriously close, lights would mysteriously fade, microphones would mysteriously cut out. The BBC didn’t offer me any more work. The anti-social behaviour news agenda had moved on. They didn’t even respond to my pitch about another programme. The week the Neds series came out, the Sunday Mail, who had interviewed me earlier in the week and sent a photographer out to take pictures to promote the show, ran a story called ‘Neddy Burns’. In it they used a picture of me in which my hat had been blown up by the wind, appearing to sit at the same angle as the stereotypical ‘chav’. The minute the social deprivation agenda dried up in the media, there was no longer any need for me. I thought I had been asked to take part because people valued my insight. Because I had something to say. Then one day it dawned on me why they had asked me to present Neds in the first place: it was because they thought I was a ned.
Today I know better. Today I understand that my poverty narrative is viewed by many as an opportunity, as opposed to something with inherent value that people who read books could learn from. Please understand that I think no less of those who inadvertently helped create that impression, nor do I think for one moment that people employed in the poverty industry have anything but good intentions. The issue here was my assumption. Perhaps due to my radical roots in far-left communities and maybe my naivety as a young person, I always just thought the aim was to dismantle poverty. However, once you see the mechanics of the poverty industry up close, you realise it’s in a state of permanent growth and that without individuals, families and communities in crisis there would no longer be a role for these massive institutions.
I’ve been wheeled out by organisations and political groups and had my ‘powerful’, ‘honest’, ‘heart-breaking’ testimony offered as proof of the changes we need to make as a society when it comes to poverty. But the moment my lines of enquiry change, relative to my growth, understanding or aspiration, and my critical eye turns to those who would repurpose my story for their own agendas, whether it be an activist, a charity or a politician, then I am cast out as an ‘arrogant’, ‘aggressive’, ‘dangerous’, ‘self-sorry’, ‘indulgent’, ‘ego-maniacal’ ‘pseudo-intellectual lightweight’ ‘sell-out’ ‘who always makes everything about him’. All fair criticisms. I am certainly not a flawless person. But all I’ve ever done is talk about poverty. And the only way anyone would listen to what I had to say was if I prefaced my opinion with personal testimony about my dead, alcoholic mother and what a difficult childhood I had. I don’t write about myself because I think I’m important, it’s because that’s what I’ve been conditioned to do in order to be heard. That’s the sort of window dressing that is required before the great and the good become willing to take lower class people seriously.
Even at 33 years old, this theme continues to define my life. Well I’ve told you all about my life, now here’s what I would really like to say.
I no longer believe poverty is an issue our politicians can solve. Not because they don’t want to, but because an honest conversation about what it will require is too politically difficult to have. If those in power were straight about what addressing this problem would require it would shock us to our core. And not merely because of the magnitude of the task facing society, which is unconscionable in scale, but also because there is a certain level of personal responsibility involved that’s become taboo to acknowledge on the left. For all the demand we in left-wing circles feign for fundamental change and radical action, people get a bit touchy and offended when you suggest that might apply to them too. The truth, whether we want to accept it or not, is that when it comes to poverty – not as a political football but as a global phenomenon in which we all play an active role – there is no one actor or group that we can blame with any certainty.
Contrary to what we’ve been told, the issue of poverty is far too complex to blame solely on ‘Tories’ or ‘elites’. It’s precisely because of the complexity at play, and how difficult it is to grasp, that we look for easy scapegoats. Whether it be the left blaming the rich or the right blaming the poor, we tend only to be interested in whichever half of the story absolves us of responsibility for the problem. That’s not the sort of thing a politician looking to get elected can say to a potential voter.
Poverty has become a game played between a few competing political teams. The teams vary from country to country but the rules of the game are usually the same. Blame for poverty is always ascribed to someone else; an outgroup that we are told not only enables poverty and benefits from it, but also gets a kick out of people being poor. This game is so underhanded and cynical that the truth, itself, only becomes true when it can be appropriated, weaponised and redeployed by one side against the others. Rather than admit that nobody really knows what to do, besides tweak some knobs here and there, our hapless leaders, with their own immediate political dilemmas to consider, simply pretend to have the situation under control. And when they inevitably break their empty promises, made in haste to placate our anger, they tell us it’s because the other teams are deliberately impeding progress. This game is played by all parties, regardless of which end of the spectrum they claim. And we eat this nonsense up like f***ing children.
Let’s take a moment to truly consider the damage this game is doing to our society.
When one political party blames another for the problem, it creates a false impression in the public mind that this complex issue is within the competence of one political actor or group to solve. This is a dangerous oversimplification. An oversimplification which forces us to cast one another as heroes and villains in the long-running saga of poverty, often based on our unconscious bias, false beliefs and, increasingly, our resentments. Just like stress creates a demand for relief through alcohol, food and drugs, so too does our refusal to get serious about grappling with the complexity of poverty; creating a demand for the sort of political juvenilia that reduces every person to a caricature and every issue to a soundbite. These partisan rivalries are now so toxic that the idea of getting around a table with your opponents, in good faith, is almost laughable. Proposing such an idea is regarded widely as naive. Meanwhile, trying to build a consensus or, God forbid, acknowledging the virtue or integrity of people you disagree with politically or conceding where other ideas have succeeded, can get you publicly shamed and lynched – by your own team.
Not even the stark reality of child abuse, the inexorable rise of crime, the ubiquity of violence, the horror of domestic abuse, the scourge of homelessness or the tragic inevitability of alcoholism or addiction that underscores so much of it is enough to humble us into showing some contrition in the face of this issue. This despite knowing fine well that we’ll never be able to address a problem of this scale in any meaningful way without input from right across the political spectrum. We’d rather play games. Sadly, there is absolutely no incentive whatsoever for a politician to be honest about the true extent of this problem. Let’s be honest, we wouldn’t accept it. We all need someone to blame. For some it’s the bankers and for others it’s the poor themselves. We’ve become so tribal in our thinking that politicians have little choice but to supply our demand for illusory quick fixes, over-simplified soundbites, scapegoats and comforting, reassuring platitudes that conveniently ascribe blame to the people we don’t like. It’s a truly sorry state and if blame is being apportioned, there’s certainly enough to go around every one of us.
In these conditions of tribalism, bad faith and political uncertainty, the problem is only likely to get worse. The time has come to face this reality which will place a heavy burden on those of us who are resolved to see progress on this matter. With no appetite for cross-party consensus and even less for radical change, despite the odd flourish of rebellion every few years, people with an interest in helping the poor (or themselves for that matter) must now begin grappling with the notion that this system, and all its internal contradiction, is here to stay for the foreseeable future – certainly for the lifetime of anyone reading this.
And while insurgent political parties and social movements may force grudging concessions from the powerful, much as they did throughout the last century on a range of issues, the sort of fundamental shift required to truly tackle poverty at the root is unlikely to materialise within our lifetimes. That doesn’t mean people should stop fighting for what they believe in. Nor does it mean we should submit to forces that are clearly acting against our interests. Just that we should let go of the idea that all we require is for capitalism to collapse or for a new country to be created and everything will just work itself out. It won’t.
The only thing worse than an unjust economic system is an unjust economic system when it implodes. The idea of rubbing our hands waiting for this to happen is, at best, exceptionally uninspiring. At worst, it’s short-sighted and slightly sinister. Once we accept this is wishful thinking, we can channel our energy in other directions based on a more realistic assessment of what is currently possible. As well as discussing and debating the abstracts of ‘the system’ we can also begin considering less intangible aspects of poverty that are within our immediate grasp to address. As I’ve already outlined, poverty comprises many domains of the human experience: social, psychological, emotional, political and cultural. Some things we can’t immediately impact, like the economy. Others we can affect intermittently, like political parties. But other areas, such as our mental health, consumer behaviour or lifestyle, which also play a significant role in our quality of life, are not as intangible and inalterable. What we now need to ask ourselves, as a matter of urgency, is which aspects of poverty can we positively affect through our own thinking and action? If poverty is negatively affecting our quality of life, is there any action we could take to mitigate this harm? Ultimately, which aspects of poverty are beyond our control and which are within our capability to change?
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 over-eating. I never see activists being more open about their drink problems and drug habits or the psychological problems fuelling them.
Nobody ever seems to be writing a dissertation on the link between emotional stress and chronic illness or writing an op-ed about how they managed to give up smoking. As if somehow, these day-to-day problems are less consequential to the poor than the musings of Karl Marx. As if somehow, we can postpone action on the things that are demoralising, incapacitating and killing us until after the hypothetical revolution. Beneath all the theoretical discussion and torturous terminology about politics and economics, these problems of mind, body and spirit and what we do to manage them as individuals, families and communities, are the unglamorous, cyclical dilemmas that many people are really struggling with.
These are the issues that compound poverty-related stress. These are the problems that make people apathetic, depressed, confrontational, chronically ill and deeply unhappy. And it’s these painful emotions that drive much of the self-defeating consumer behaviour that delivers adrenalin to the heart of the very economic system many on the left allegedly want to dismantle. Yet on these matters we, on the left, have very little to say. Or at least, very little that people in deprived communities are interested in listening to. And it’s not hard to understand why.
Every problem is discussed like it’s beyond the expertise of the average person. The cumulative effect being that responsibility for poverty and its attendant challenges is almost always externalised; ascribed to an unseen force or structure, a system or some vaguely defined elite. These things are undoubtedly constituent parts of the problem, but our analysis rarely acknowledges the complexity of poverty as it is experienced by human beings, day-to-day. A systemic analysis which focuses on external factors unwisely foregoes the opportunity to explore the role we, as individuals, families and communities, can play in shaping the circumstances that define our lives. A systemic analysis does not account for the subtleties of poverty at ground level; the link between false belief and self-defeating action that keeps so many of us trapped in a spin cycle of stress and thoughtless consumption.
But these problems, as banal as they seem, are as fundamental to tackling poverty at the root as any critique of an economic system. Yet, rather than integrate this truth into our analysis, we have allowed right wing movements to monopolise the concept of personal agency and the notion of taking responsibility. Worse, we vilify anybody who implies that poor people may sometimes play a role in their own circumstances, whether they be desirable or adverse. We’ve forgotten that not every problem or issue can be ascribed to a broader social problem or power dynamic. We deny the objective truth 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. Yet such an assertion has become offensive to our ears despite being undeniably true. When was the last time you heard a prominent left-wing figure speak of the power inherent within each of us to overcome adversity and transform the conditions of our own lives?
Instead, we peddle the naive idea that everything will be fine just as soon as the current system breaks down. We push the lie that trading one political or economic system for another is merely a painless formality. We set forth the proposition that it’s easier to redesign an entire society to suit our ever-evolving personal needs than it is to make some moderate adjustments to our own thinking and behaviour. And we cry foul any time somebody in our own ranks has the temerity to point this stuff out. So, I apologise if you think this isn’t constructive. In the absence of real leadership, it’s time we demanded more of ourselves. Not because it’s easy or fair but because we have no other choice. We must now evolve beyond our dependence on political figures to map out reality on our behalf. Poverty is not a game and it’s going nowhere any time soon. Poverty is here to stay and things will get worse before they improve. That’s the truth our leaders know but don’t have the guts to tell us.
Which is why we must open another frontier in politics. Not one solely based on railing against the system, but also about scrutinising our own thinking and behaviour. One which is about reclaiming the idea of personal responsibility from a rampant and socially misguided right wing that has come to monopolise it. A new leftism which is not only about advocating radical change but also about learning to take ownership of as many of our problems as we can so that we may begin rebuilding the depleted human capacity in our poorest communities.
In this far bleaker context, where politicians have no real solutions and can’t even bring themselves to discuss the matter honestly, what hope can we offer to people living their lives right now – without filling their heads with false hope or lies? What do we have to say to the people who won’t be around when the third industrial revolution begins? The people who’ll never see Universal Basic Income being rolled out? Well, I suppose we could start by being honest: There will be no revolution. Not in your lifetime. This system will limp on and so must we.
Much of the reason this system endures is directly related to how we think, feel and behave as individuals, families and communities. Just as we are products of our environment, our environments are also a product of us. From the foods we consume, to the products we buy. The newspapers we read to the politicians we vote for. So many of the problems we face, that we often attribute to ‘the system’ are, to some extent, self-generated. Therefore, many of these problems (though certainly not all) are within our individual and collective competence to positively affect. Considering this, and in the absence of a bloodless revolt any time soon, the question for people on the left is no longer simply ‘how do we radically transform the system’, but also, ‘how do we radically transform ourselves?’
And something about my dead mum.
Photo credit: Steven Reynolds
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