Kidnapped by affluence

Michael Harrington’s war on poverty, 50 years on.

The poor, Michael Harrington wrote in his book The Other America: Poverty in the United States, published in 1962, “need a novelist as well as a sociologist if we are to see them. They need an American Dickens to record the smell and texture and quality of their lives.” Harrington, a stalwart of Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party of America and a member of the editorial board of the left-wing journal Dissent, was not that novelist. But in his attempt to “describe the faces behind the statistics”, he proved himself to be, if not the Dickens of modern American poverty, then at least its Orwell.

The Other America is a short, furious book – Harrington writes that his “moral point of departure is a sense of outrage” – with a wide geographical sweep. To a readership that was either ignorant of or indifferent to the armies of the poor in its midst, Harrington showed the lives of black meat-packing workers in Chicago, the wretched hill folk of West Virginia and the alchoholic derelicts of “Skid Row” – the Bowery, in lower Manhattan. (He knew the “texture” of life in the Bowery intimately: for two years in the early 1950s, he’d belonged to a Catholic Worker group that shared a house a block away on Chrystie Street. Its members took a vow of “voluntary poverty” – they were unpaid and shared the living conditions of those they were trying to help.)

If, as Harrington contends on the first page of the book, there were 50 million poor people living in the United States in 1962 (poor on a definition supplied by the US Bureau of Labour), why did his outrage seem so unusual, and, in the best sense of the word, immoderate? His answer was that the consciences of the well-off (or of the two thirds of Americans who weren’t impoverished) had been kidnapped by “affluence”. To the millions of Americans who had fled the big cities for the suburbs, the poor were simply invisible. “Here is a great mass of people,” Harrington writes, “yet it takes an effort of the intellect and will even to see them.”

Much of the intellectual effort of The Other America is concentrated in a sharp rejoinder to J K Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, which had appeared to considerable fanfare and national soul-searching four years earlier. Galbraith’s anxieties, and those of most of his readers, were, Harrington points out, the products of abundance. The obsession with GDP as the principal measure of social well-being and the transformation of the US economy into a gigantic machine for “consumer-demand creation” had, Galbraith argued, prevented Americans from grappling with the question of what the good life in an affluent society might look like. As for poverty, Galbraith thought it lingered in two residual forms: “insular poverty”, concentrated in depressed areas such as the Appalachians or the West Virginia coalfields, and “case poverty”, by which he meant the predicament of those individuals prevented by physical or mental debility from sharing in the spoils of postwar economic success.

However, neither category did justice to the scale of the phenomenon Harrington’s book describes. Talk of “islands of poverty” simply didn’t tally with the numbers, while the notion of “case poverty” treated mental illness, alcoholism and disease as individual pathologies rather than as social facts. 

Bad health among the poor, like bad housing and bad education, is part of what Harrington calls the “culture of poverty”, a notion that he took from the anthropologist Oscar Lewis (who had first used it when writing about the slum-dwellers of Mexico City). Harrington’s biographer Maurice Isserman has said he used the phrase to avoid sounding like a “stereo­typical Marxist” (which he never was); but to ­others it “opened the floodgates”, as Barbara Ehrenreich wrote earlier this year, to those who would blame poverty on the “twisted spirits” of the poor. 

Harrington wasn’t responsible for the use others made of his work and he certainly never moralises in the book about the “other Americans” – on the contrary, he writes that they live at a “level of life below moral choice”. Any social programme designed to end poverty must, therefore, first help the poor before they can help themselves.

After the success of The Other America – it sold 70,000 copies within a year of publication – Harrington was briefly engaged as an adviser to the Lyndon B Johnson administration as it drew up plans for the “war on poverty”. He insisted that victory was only possible with a massive federal jobs programme. But Johnson tried to have the “Great Society” on the cheap and Harrington can’t be blamed for that. 

The failure of the war on poverty, he wrote several years later, showed the folly of “getting everyone excited about an imminent utopia and then investing funds that [were] not enough for a modest reform”. Now, that sounds familiar. 

Michael Harrington’s “The Other America: Poverty in the United States” is published by Scribner ($16)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial

Show Hide image

Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.