The relationship between social justice and personal responsibility is an inescapable subject in discussions about poverty. Where is the line between what is the state’s responsibility and the responsibility of the individual?
Most of the conferences and events I attend focus on ‘systems change’ and how resources are allocated and managed. Focussing on the failures of structures and systems is generally the preferred emphasis of the liberal-left thinking which dominates the statutory and charity sector.
The subject of personal responsibility and individual change is more difficult territory. Talking about these areas carries more risk of being seen as judgemental or reactionary.
Recently, in a discussion about homelessness, I heard a statement which summed up these sentiments:
‘There is no such thing as complex needs, just broken systems.’
This kind of message may go down well in liberal echo-chambers but are simply not convincing in the real world. In contrast, Darren McGarvey says:
‘Even in the event of our hypothetical utopia becoming a reality, where a service rises to greet every unmet need, and every resource is made available to tend to every ailment, all the experts and money and time in the world will not prevent an alcoholic from drinking until they decide to stop.’
Darren McGarvey was raised within a chaotic family in a deprived area of Glasgow. A deep mistrust of ‘the system’ was ingrained into him. Later, he would also experience homelessness and his own battle against addiction.
He is an inspiring voice because he articulates more boldly and bravely than anyone the connection between social justice and personal responsibility. Poverty Safari is the best book on poverty I have read and this week he gave a BBC Reith Lecture on Freedom from Want.
Fog of denial
McGarvey describes how the trigger for his own recovery from addiction was ‘like having a mug of cold water thrown in your face’ and provoked ‘a self-awareness which pierced the thick fog of denial’.
His account of his recovery resonates strongly with my friend Chris Ward:
‘For years, I had dined out on my trauma, my losses, my grief, and my anger, using them as excuses of varying plausibility to justify my descent into alcoholism. It’s true that I faced significant adversities in my youth. They had a lasting impact on my character and emotional nature for better and for worse. But at some point, I lost touch with the idea that a better life was even available to me. I became resigned to the misery of depression, the painful solitude of self-isolation and the invigorating if toxic effects of my righteous anger.’
His reflections on what actually enabled him to overcome his addiction are challenging to those (like me) who work in ‘the industry of poverty’:
‘How was this achieved? Where did the power to stop drinking come from? Did it come from the state? Was it supplied by the market? I got sober in run-down community centres and churches, where no experts or professionals were present. Indeed, my many interactions with public services throughout the years played some part in my adopting the false belief that I would never get free of addiction.’
It is important to state that McGarvey’s politics are staunchly on the left. He is no reactionary and strongly deconstructs ‘the ludicrous notion that one person, by sheer force of will, can offset multiple deprivations merely by changing their attitude or by working harder’.
But, like George Orwell (with whom he is compared), what makes his message convincing is his willingness to go beyond political tribalism and call out the left’s blind-spots and weaknesses:
‘On the left, it can be offensive to suggest that not all individual problems are rooted in failing systems, that some of our problems are of our own making and therefore our own to solve…Individual sovereignty is over-stated by the right and underemphasised by the left.’
The best politics, the best theology and the best community activism, synthesises personal and collective responsibility. Darren McGarvey articulates this vision brilliantly and illustrates it with his own experiences:
‘I have seen with my own eyes and experienced that in my own life and witnessed it in the lives of many people that are around me, what a profound impact it can have when an individual learns to assume a certain level of culpability for some aspects of their life or their behaviour and then, having freed themselves up from those problems, can turn their attention to the wider community.’
His lecture ends with these rousing words:
‘The status-quo’s days are numbered in low digits. This is your society. This is your life. This is your time. And so, all I ask is this: what are you going to do about it?’