A Review of Pauperland, by Jeremy Seabrook
Jeremy Seabrook’s lucid style of writing makes this book about a harrowing and disturbing subject a pleasure to read. Some of descriptions are almost poetic. Take for example, “the glitter in the eyes of the consumptive youth planning for a future cancelled.”
We are taken on an historical survey of poverty and society’s attitudes to it from the medieval period to the present day. Throughout he traces the attempts to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor, which find expression today as the government maintains pensions, but sees those who rely on the benefits system as people who can be coerced into more desirable patterns of behaviour.
Seabrook’s history is constantly related to the present. Previous centuries have seen attitudes like those of Iain Duncan Smith and Margaret Thatcher, the concept of the Big Society, the influence of the popular press and the incidence of mothers pursuing absent fathers for maintenance or having children in order to claim benefits. He offers a clear and well-reasoned analysis of the causes of the riots of 2011.
Indeed, in those sections of the book which do not cover the history of poverty, Seabrook is incisive and penetrating, yet also sympathetic, in his observation of poor people. He sees them in their homes, on the streets or travelling on buses. Here is the fruit of fifty years in social work and his writing carries the authority of an informed and passionate observer. The people he writes about are real, and we are able to enter their world.
There is irony here, which he uses powerfully to alert his readers to the sheer absurdity of poverty in a world which “could easily provide a decent sufficiency for everyone on earth”. He writes, “One of the uncelebrated wonders of the modern world has been the survival of poverty, in the face of the vast productive power of globalism. It seems that more care has been bestowed upon protecting the poor than upon the conservation of any endangered species.”
Though financial poverty dominates the book, he writes powerfully of poverty in its wider forms. “Perhaps this is because we are so accustomed to money measurements of poverty that we cannot count other costs of life spent in the waste products of affluence.”
I work “Connecting Church and the Economy” in the West Midlands. The heavy industry which gave employment and identity to communities is largely gone, and poverty in all its forms pervades some areas. I recognised his description:
“One result of this is that the social experience of young and old has been separated by something even more impermeable and the passage of time, which does its work of estrangement well enough. The transmission of a culture of work, chapel and trade union has faltered in the rearranged décor. A new generation is articulated to a life from elsewhere, no longer anchored in this sometime site of coal, steel and heavy manual labour.”
His analysis takes in the wider context, and his succinct phrases make us stop and think: “… the economy, the "health " of which takes priority over the health of the people…” There is criticism not just for capitalism and those who grow wealthy from it, but also for those who should have taken forward the cause of the poor: “…the inheritors of the Labour Party would consign their painful struggle to oblivion as a lost cause, in the superior interests of securing for their children a place in the capitalist garden of earthly delights.”
Throughout, I find myself asking whether Seabrook is guided by religious faith. His references and allusions to the Christian scriptures are numerous and his conclusion has something of the tone of a sermon:
“Greed, covetousness and avarice have shown themselves as destructive of human happiness in our late, wise, age as they ever were; yet the greedy and covetous are everywhere regarded with emulous awe.”
It may just be that a proper attitude and response to poverty is a more prominent theme in the bible than ever those who read it realise or take action upon. The former Bishop of Liverpool, David Shepherd wrote a book entitled “Bias to Poor”, but followers of religion have not always been characterised by either generous response or farsighted reforms to this age old and pervasive fact of life. The same chapter of the Bible, Deuteronomy 15, tells us that “there need be no poor people among you”, but acknowledges the inevitability that “There will always be poor people in the land.”
There is perhaps a longing for the benefits which true religion should bring in a passage which echoes Jesus’ words, “what shall it profit someone if they gain the world and lose their soul?”:
“While the great truth remains, that the absence of the means to procure survival dooms human beings, it is an even greater falsehood to claim that the amassing of those means leads to a corresponding heightening of well-being. It does not; it is, as it has always been, a form of idolatry, and one takes on a particular malignity in the world that has forsworn religion.”
If there is one thing missing in the book, it is a clear set of remedies which would help alleviate poverty. There is no mention, for example, of Universal Basic Income. For this, I would recommend Rutger Bregman’s recently published “Utopia for Realists”. He draws our attention to “…the fallacy that a life without poverty is a privilege you have to work for, rather than a right we all deserve.”
The book acknowledges forms of both poverty and wealth which are present in human relationships and considers the question of poverty in the context of the crisis we face in our environment.
I met Seabrook more than 50 years ago when he was a teacher at my school in Northampton, the town where both he and I grew up. As a group of 12 year old boys, we heard that he was leaving teaching to do social work and to write. We probably didn’t understand what this was all about, but this book has shown that he made a wise choice.In a world where, as he notes, “Definitions of poverty are always crafted by the rich” he gives an authoritative overview of the subject shaped with both passion and compassion.