For me, criticism is an essential part of my ongoing education and something I try to face head-on. Sometimes I find the criticism insightful and fair, other times not so. A recurring one recently has centred on my argument that personal responsibility is more important in the context of poverty than the current discussion on the left would suggest.
Most of the audience found my argument uncontroversial but, every now and then, someone does challenge it. Last week, two such complaints were lodged with yours truly. The first, a robust critique of my book Poverty Safari in the London Review of Books by a left-wing academic. The second, a robust critique of my book in a community centre in York by a left-wing academic. I’m not going to claim I am anywhere near as insightful or intelligent as a left-wing academic, because that would be provocative and confrontational.
Instead, I’m going to claim I’m as insightful and intelligent as two left-wing academics. The thorny issue for my assailants: their belief that my argument for personal responsibility is, essentially, giving neoliberalism a free pass. That people living in poverty have no chance of escaping it until a change of the ideological guard. That they ought to postpone trying to better themselves until left-wing academics redesign the world for them. That acknowledging some of the positive aspects of capitalism, like free (or relatively cheap) access to revolutionary information technology is a naïve cop-out. That someone working in Asda may as well just throw in the towel and give up trying to find a better job because “what’s the point?” when there are no paths to progression (that particularly patronising point was made, somewhat ironically, by a left-wing academic who used to work in Asda).
Ultimately, the charge is that by claiming every person possesses the ability to progress in some way, whether in the domain of personal growth, education or mental and physical health, I am consigning them to a neofeudalistic, individualist dystopia where they will be forced to perform their own dental surgery.
Admittedly, my socialist credentials are tenuous at best. My commitment to the socialist cause has been somewhat hampered by my irritation with many aspects of socialism and socialists. While I am certainly of the left, I am far too willing to admit when I’m wrong to be a proper socialist.
I do align with socialists in a number of areas, like my belief that poor people should not be used as economic crash-test dummies and that there are some things in this world that free markets are ill-equipped to provide, like healthcare and guilt-free Nike Air Max.
But my fear of being seen as having anything remotely in common with left-wing academics who find the idea of personal responsibility naïve, malign or offensive means I, as a genuinely working class person who has experienced genuine poverty, need to keep my distance from the terribly clever people acting in my best interests.
What confuses me most is why this recurring conundrum – that so many left-wing academics find themselves furiously detached from their target market – isn’t what they spend more of their time contemplating. That said, the scepticism felt by some people at the mention of personal responsibility is understandable. The principle has been used as a Trojan horse to justify everything from Tory decimation of public services to a welfare system which relies solely on economic humiliation as an incentive for motivating people into work.
But my argument is not that we need to adopt a Conservative principle. My argument is that the left needs to reclaim and redefine personal responsibility – as opposed to fainting or phoning in sick every time it’s mentioned.
The evidence that personal agency is not only a self-evident truth but vital in helping people to manage and transcend their difficulties is all around us. It’s not about telling people they are on their own, or even that support is conditional, it’s about acknowledging the decisive factor that catalyses many people’s transcendence through personal adversity: they decide to act. Everything else follows from that.
From addicts in recovery, trying to clear up the carnage of their substance misuse, to formerly homeless people moving from hostels into their first flat. From people struggling with mental health problems like depression and anxiety, PTSD and eating disorders, to people with weight problems, the long-term unemployed and people trying to quit smoking.
Their recoveries depend not only on the compassion of others, the passion of activists or the provision of public services – though these are important – but also on their ability and willingness to identify decisions, attitudes and behaviours, often formed in periods of acute hardship and stress, that may be undermining their progress.
Step off the campus and go and spend time with a drug-addict, a young person in care, a mother in prison. Stop playing the role of all-knowing consultant, humble yourself and join the nurses on the ward.
Support and services only work when people make a choice to participate. Therefore, personal agency is a significant enough factor to warrant acknowledgement in any discussion about poverty. This is not giving neoliberalism a free pass; it’s an attempt to educate the left-wing academics working-class people gave up on a long time ago.
It occurs to me that those intellectuals on the left, for whom the notion of personal responsibility is so troubling, may lack the visceral insight into what an important part it plays in overcoming adversity. I’d argue they may also lack understanding of the power a person may bring to bear on their own circumstances should they marshal their will in conjunction with support provided by the community or state.
I am qualified to say that because I have lived it. Sadly, you don’t get initials after your name for surviving this society.