Selected and edited by Fran Lock

Culture Matters  £12

reviewed by Alan Dent


In December 2019 the poor had a choice between Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn. In Barrow, Leigh and Grimsby, to select only three, they chose the Tory. These are by no means wealthy towns and elections aren’t won there without garnering a fair proportion of the votes of the poor. The puzzle is: why has democracy ie, essentially, universal suffrage and parliamentary representation failed not only to replace capitalism but to eliminate or seriously attenuate poverty?  

The introduction to this anthology of poetry and prose is called What Is Poverty and Who AreThe Poor”? Fran Lock provides no definition of either but does claim that “the middle classes have all the wealth”. Wealth and income are different. To take the latter first, the bottom fifty percent of  full-time employees earn between the minimum wage and about £30,000 a year, an income which barely takes you to the edge of the middle-class. Ninety percent of employees earn between the minimum wage and about £50,000 a year, which raise the question: why not a hundred percent? The important point, however, is that it’s when you hit the top ten per cent that incomes start to take off, but the astronomical rise doesn’t happen till you reach the top one percent. The richest one thousand people in Britain are worth beyond £500 billion. The top fifth have 40% of income. The bottom fifth, 8%. The fourth fifth, 23% and the next to the bottom fifth, 13%. The top 10% own 44% of the wealth. The bottom 50%, 9%, the same figure for the richest 0.1%. There is, of course, significant regional variation: in the south east the median wealth is £387,400 and in the north-west, £165,200, largely a reflection of house prices.  

Figures may seem rather cold and unromantic but they matter because if we are going find a democratic means of eliminating poverty, we will have to convince most of those people in the third fifth of income, those with 17% of the income, that it’s not in their interest to vote with the 0.1% who own as much wealth as the bottom 50%, and we aren’t remotely near doing so. As matter of fact, even people in the bottom fifth who share five times less income than the top fifth, still vote with the rich.  

However, you look at it, this is a colossal failure of the left. 

The contributions to this timely book are sympathetic to the poor, but so was Iain Duncan Smith when he devised Universal Credit. It’s important to grasp that Duncan Smith was genuinely sympathetic, he just happens to be stuck up an ideological drainpipe which prevents him seeing that capitalism is the problem. Capitalism, of course, in all its forms. The USSR was marked by vast inequalities of wealth and income, so is China and Castro was, by any standards, a rich man. If we are going to get rid of poverty, we have to be hard-headed about what it is, what causes it and how it can be remedied 

In 1938, in a review of Workers’ Front by Fenner Brockway, George Orwell wrote: “In all western countries there now exists a huge middle class whose interests are identical with those of the proletariat but which is quite unaware of this fact and usually sides with its capitalist enemy in moments of crisis.” The middle class is bigger today but still behaves in the same way. No one has done more to explain why than Noam Chomsky. It is manufactured consent which is our enemy and we need to understand how that works and how to combat it if we are going to persuade most teachers, social workers, nurses, legal aid lawyers, bank clerks, call centre supervisors and so on not to vote for the parties which look after the rich (which today, of course, includes Labour). That parenthesis shows just how dire our situation is.  

Chomsky has been at pains over decades to point up the nefarious role of intellectuals in propping up capitalism. The language of the left and the thinking that goes along with it was forged in the nineteenth century and the intellectuals responsible never asked how radical change could be brought about through the ballot box. There was no ballot and their assumption was violent uprising would do the work. That’s one of the things which makes the old language utterly useless. Mention “the ruling class” today and no one thinks of Paul McCartney and Victoria Beckham, but they have vast wealth which they invest and the people who manage the investments have more power over government policy than the voters. Democracy is being bought by the super-rich and it is the only means we have of bringing about change. The responsibility of intellectuals who want capitalism replaced by a co-operative, egalitarian economy is to produce a language which hits home to the majority. If the bottom fifty percent who own 9% of the wealth vote for change, it will come.  

The book is divided into five sections so the contributions are under a particular rubric. The first, about daily life, includes a sixteen-line poem by Neil Fulwood, Estate. Its six-times repeated refrain, “this is not a symbol” refers to both the general way of thinking and the poetic use of images. Its point is that the decay, decline and neglect it evokes is everyday reality. The poem touches on the mess that is externalised language and the difficulty of using it to evoke pity for the oppressed. It is redolent of Brecht’s: when I say how things are, everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds. Brecht was on the edge of despair because he realised his words didn’t have the effect he anticipated. Much of the writing here is trying to stimulate pity for the poor. One of the most successful pieces is Thomas McColl’s short poem The Chalk Fairy from the section about home and homelessness. What makes it work is that it reaches the reader in the poem not through it and its wit and slightly black humour are uplifting.  

David Hume, like his friend Adam Smith, believed there was a natural sympathy between people which is what makes us respond to others’ distress even when we have nothing to gain. The curious thing is, this sympathy can easily turn into its opposite when people feel it is being played upon. McColl gets round that difficulty deftly. Tiffany Anne Tondut in Gale from the same section also makes interesting use of the page to prevent her poem about loss of home being too much of a button-holing. Martin Hayes does something similar in the employed poor from the section on work. The layout of his poem mirrors the collapsing lives of those he writes about. Hayes is at his best in his work about the courier industry where he has been employed for decades. Like his companion poet Fred Voss, he has made the workplace poem his genre. His approach is often full of witty disdain for bosses and jaded exasperation at the sheer stupidity of management. Here, focussing on the problems of people in work but hardly getting by, he intelligently employs the visual effect of the poem on the page so the reader doesn’t feel like the charity box is being shaken in front of them.

Edward Mackinnon’s Laughing at Poverty employs his usual astuteness. He enumerates some of the pains the poor must endure, but pulls away into disabused reflection on the culture which keeps them impoverished: 

All this, undeniably, is laughable:
How the wrong people are banged up
for our security, how we are lied to
by those in impeccable positions of trust.. 

The poem is psychologically accurate: graveside laughter is engendered by the ludicrous system of injustice and the lies which keep it in place. It is also clever in the way it refers the plight of the poor to the poet’s reactions, rather than seeking to summon up someone else’s pity. 

The work section begins with a fine poem by Owen Gallagher, Clocking Out. In four stanzas it tells the story of Owenie who put his work clothes on the conveyor belt and walked out of the factory, his own version of early retirement: 

His backdoor’s
on the latch. The freezer’s full.
Flowers swoon in the vase.  

It’s a small act of rebellion à la Smallcreep’s Day, and raises the important matter of our personal responsibility. Owenie stages a personal revolution like Fred Voss who, four decades and more ago, gave up a potential career as a Professor of literature to work on the shop floor. Like the Orwell of Down and Out and The Road to Wigan Pier, Voss wanted to write about the lives of the people at the bottom from the inside. Orwell made an interesting comment: his experience at private school and as a colonial policeman left him with the sense that any success, even the most modest, was a form of hypocrisy while the world was set up for injustice. He ruined his health and shortened his life by turning his back on the easy opportunities which could have come his way. In a letter of 1939, he admitted to being penniless. He was thirty-six and had published five books. His point is pertinent: if we seek the best we can from the existing circumstances, how are they going to change? There has to be a willingness to fail in the terms the system offers, Phds, professorships, writing fellowships, nice salaries and big houses, or our pleas for change ring hollow. If the people at the bottom see those above them doing the best for themselves, why shouldn’t they try to do the same? It isn’t serious for the comfortable to call on the poor to revolt. Some lack of comfort has to be the price of change for justice.  

Caroline Maldonado’s Furlough.Florence.1629, reminds us that radical inequality has long been with us. It’s an important perspective because the kind of faith expressed by Bertrand Russell in his Power: A New Social Analysis of 1939 that tyrannies don’t endure is undermined by the continuation of injustice over centuries. In addition, the twentieth century brought us what humanity had never seen; previous despotisms weren’t totalitarian. Nazi Germany, the USSR, today’s North Korea, these are examples of a new kind of tyranny which may make Russell’s conviction naïve. As democracy is shrunk bit by bit, we may be heading for tyrannies of stasis in which the capacity of the rich to deceive the rest is entrenched enough to bring a new Middle Ages.  

There is no question about the urgency of the issue at the heart of this book. It is heartening that so many writers are willing to stand up for the poor. What we need also, of course, is serious thinking and clear expression of how we can get out of the trap we have fallen into. Hopefully some of the work in this book can inspire it.