Posted in Scottish Politics, World Politics

Some thoughts on Xmas in Kazakhstan

(To fill you all in on what’s happening here: I’ve recently began contributing to Scotland’s most listened to lefty podcast – Ungagged! This is the script from my first input to the pod (which was broadcast December 2016), some scattered thoughts that I tried to put together in a coherent way – all relevant to my time in Kazakhstan where I happened to be living and working. I’d been eager to keep myself involved politically in the Scottish left, just doing my bit to help things in whatever way I could. I had been repeatedly offering my services to the Scottish Socialist Party of whom I’d remained supportive even after the RISE debacle. Unfortunately the SSP didn’t seem to have any need or use of the ramblings of an itchy footed international socialist. Luckily for me, Ungagged made contact and were genuinely interested in allowing me to ramble on their time. So here it is, the first of hopefully many contributions.)

Seasons Greetings comrades.

This episode I have the pleasure of conveying to you a message from Kazakhstan.

I’m aware that many of you might not know much about this place. Before being seconded here by my work, I was the same. My only knowledge of Kazakhstan was Borat and that time Celtic played Shakter Karagandy in Europe.

The Kazakhs, I’ve found out, are painfully aware that for many foreigners Borat is the only thing that comes to mind when they hear the name Kazakhstan. The wounded looks on their faces at the very mention of the “B word” are impossible to miss. A big proportion of the conversations I’ve had here have been locals eager to explain to me that Borat in no way what so ever resembles this country.

So the first part of my message from Kazakhstan is to confirm that the locals are correct. This is not a nation of backward simpletons. It might not have many touristy must see attractions, but if you get the chance you won’t regret coming here. Kazakhstan sits on the boundary between Europe and Asia, not only geographically but also culturally and politically. The population is roughly 70/30, between Central Asians and Whites, and between Muslims and Christians.

But far from the “rivers of blood” that many right wingers will try to convince you is the inevitable result of cultures colliding, Kazakhstan is actually one of the friendliest and safest countries I’ve ever experienced. The European and Asian cultures thrive side by side, and it makes living here a wonderful experience.

And don’t think that they only thrive despite each other. The cultures here are incredibly intertwined and supportive of each other. The national identity isn’t one or the other, but an understanding of all the people that call Kazakhstan home.

I witnessed a small but powerful reminder of this while walking through the city recently. One of the mosques has erected, just outside the entrance to its grounds, a small Christmas tree and a sign which simply wishes all Christians a happy Christmas.

I’m trying to not let the Daily Mail hear about this Christmas tree, or no doubt we’ll wake up to headlines screaming at us that Muslims are stealing Christmas. Nevertheless I thought it was a nice message to convey back to you on behalf of these Kazakhs. And also to say that I think there is a nice lesson to learn here. Of course, mosques and churches back in Britain who build bridges between their respective communities should be applauded, there are some unnecessary tensions being created between Muslim and Christian communities and anything done to counter that is commendable. But what is so powerful about this instance is that there are no tensions like that here. This mosque isn’t trying to show itself in a different light to its neighbours, rather it is simply saying, “I value you as a neighbour and I wish the best for you”. There is no need for them to say anything, no problematic media representation of them that needs challenging. They just wanted to be neighbourly. A lesson that especially at this time of year goes well with our supposed Christian values that the right wing harp on about constantly; but also a lesson that if we’re honest we could all do with being reminded of from time to time.

So Kazakhstan is not a country of Borats. Instead, its a modern welcoming country that we could probably learn a thing or two from if we’re prepared to open our minds to the possibility that other countries might do things better than the British.

Here is another example of something we could learn from Kazakhstan, and which is particularly relevant at this time of year. In Britain this winter how many people, especially pensioners, will die of preventable cold related illnesses? In an energy rich country, how many people will die because they couldn’t afford to keep the energy on during the winter? The answer is staggering. Tens of thousands. They will either have turned their own power off from fear of the costs, or if they are behind on their payments the big energy companies simply cut off their power, condemning these people to a cold dark miserable and often deadly winter.

Many people who campaign against fuel poverty will tell you to refuse to let the power companies in to your house to turn the power off. I don’t disagree with that, by all means have a crowd of activists waiting for them when they turn up to cut you off. Lets see how eager they are to turn of your grannies leccy when there is a team of anti-fuel poverty activists there to greet them.

But do you know what happens in Kazakhstan? Nothing, because the power companies here simply aren’t allowed to cut off your power. In this country, as well as most of the former Soviet nations, that ability to heat your home and cook hot meals is viewed as a human right – one which you don’t lose just cos you got into debt.

So lets take that fight to the politicians. Lets make them understand that staying warm during winter is a human right – one which we refuse to let the big energy companies take away from us. And as I always say, don’t let that fight seem too daunting for you. You don’t have to do it all yourself. There are established networks out there for these sorts of things. Get involved and help them. Or sign a petition or write to your MP. Someone can’t do everything, but everyone can do something. So please do your bit, whatever and however much that is.

I’m Beinn Irbhinn, until next time comrades, stay safe. ungagged-portrait

Posted in Scottish Politics

Social justice warriors showcasing faux offence are fostering a fear of political debate

A thought provoking read. Try not to be offended by it! I think it’s fair to say “you don’t have a right not to be offended”. Even if you don’t agree, I think it’s clear the electorate don’t respond well to wannabe politicians who seem to think it is a good election strategy to lecture us all about why they are better people than us. I for one want my politicians to know how to manage an economy, I don’t particularly care if they’re the sort of person I would go for a pint with.

Britain’s Left is boiling up at the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn and I am very excited

A compelling read from a Labour insider about the attempted coup against Corbyn. The left inside and outside of Labour, for the sake of the working class majority of the UK, must unite behind Corbyn.

Socialist Voice ☭

Labour is officially in civil war. Blairites and their cohorts have carried out their threatened coup against Jeremy Corbyn and he will now have a leadership challenge after losing a vote of no confidence.

40 MPs backed Corbyn and 172 traitors voted against him. This has caused widespread anger and militancy in and outside of Labour. Grassroots MPs and supporters are furious and disappointed; trade unions are now in fighting mode; Momentum is to organise and manage Corbyn’s leadership campaign and hold demonstrations outside Labour MPs’ constituency offices, but most interestingly the SNP has come out in support of Jeremy Corbyn while Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale calls for him to resign. She has effectively committed political suicide and Scottish Labour’s support will undoubtedly recede further to the advantage of the SNP. Well done, Kezia; you really do know how to make friends and influence people.

Corbyn is now being…

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Posted in Scottish Politics

Immigration and the Left

For me, a depressing aspect of the immigration “debate” is that it shows just how impotent the left currently is in the UK. This is obvious when we see the debate being framed by the right, and the “leftie” spokespeople being naive enough to be sucked into talking about immigration on the right wing’s terms. This reduces talk about immigration to talk of who can and can’t come to our country.
The left wing microphone grabbers have lost sight of what distinguishes us from the right. It’s not that we would let more immigrants in (although I guess most of us would).
This losing sight of things is evident across all political discourse. Take crime for example. The talk from the right was always about rules and laws, about who can we send to jail. They said they were tough on crime. The left, on the other hand, would talk about the causes of crime and how we could remedy them. We wanted to be tough on the causes of crime, to stop people becoming criminals in the first place and so not need to send them to jail.
Then along came New Labour. One of Tony Blair’s famous campaign promises was to be “tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime”. This brought the left into the kinds of discussions that were previously the preserve of the right. Unfortunately, as things transpired, New Labour became quite keen on the “tough on crime” part of their promise and never had much to do with the “tough on the causes of crime” bit. The result being the left on the whole, with the only exceptions being small disjointed movements, have lost sight of their role in eliminating the social conditions (such as poverty and lack of economic opportunities) that lead to crime.
Something similar has happened on the topic of immigration, although we lack a famous slogan such as Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” with which to explain it. The right have always been obsessed with rules and laws. With regards to immigration this manifests itself as a debate about who should and who shouldn’t have the right to live and work here. The left, with a focus on social conditions and internationalism, should really be talking about the forces driving immigration and how to remedy them. 
Let’s be clear, this isn’t an anti-immigration stance. I want to live in a world where every single person has an equal right to immigrate. I just also want to live in a world where immigration is a free choice rather than an economic necessity. Can we genuinely say that we can have a sensible debate on immigration when there exists such pronounced inequality between nations? Let’s work to eliminate poverty and then watch the immigration debate quickly change; from talk of how to keep people away from our country to talk of how to attract people here! 

Posted in Scottish Politics

Rethinking Public Ownership

Traditionally Marxists (and socialists in general) have supported and argued for public ownership of the “means of production”. I’m proposing we make a change here, not to our demand for public ownership but what we mean by that. The dogmatic Marxists argue for a centrally planned economy, but this ignores the fact that any attempts to create a centrally planned economy have failed. I made the point here that one thing the capitalists got right was the importance of competition, so I was pleased to read a genuine socialist and economic expert like Paul Auerbach say something similar in his latest book “Socialist Optimism”. This summary by Auerbach of his arguments against the traditional socialist model of public ownership are helpful here:

The failure of the Soviet economic experiment was not due to historical accident or contingent events, but resulted in weaknesses inherent in the concept of central planning as it emerged from the technocratic planning paradigm. In the debate on socialist calculation, a solution to the problems of centrally planned socialism was put forth: an alternative form of socialism was created that simulated the economic behaviour of a well-functioning capitalist free market. The ultimate demise of both these attempts at socialist construction – the Soviet centrally planned alternative to capitalism and the market socialist solution of economic theory – is to be located in their inadequate conceptualisation of capitalist economic development. They both foundered on their failure to understand the roles played by competition and finance in the fostering of dynamism, economic growth and development in capitalism.

So the question becomes this: how do we reconcile the justifiable socialist demand for public ownership with an economic model that preserves the roles played by competition and finance in capitalism? My proposal is that we use the practice of shareholding for the purpose of public ownership. This isn’t very revolutionary as such, many local governments (for example) already use shareholding to raise revenue for their pension funds, although the exact details of who owns shares in what company is notoriously difficult to ascertain. What I am suggesting is we use this practice in a more direct and democratically accountable way.

So here is the proposal: all shareholders will surrender 10% of their shares to a democratically accountable public body which will be set up to manage the collection of this revenue (some work will need to be done on establishing the details of this company, but if the proposal is accepted in principle we can work on filling in the blanks later).This public body will also be responsible for observing corporate behaviour, and any companies which fail to live up to ethical standards (such as worker’s rights, environmental responsibility, etc) will see their shareholders have to surrender further shares (with perhaps a limit of 51% of the total shares in any company being held publically).

I see this proposal as having two main benefits. First it would be an immediate source of extra income for public spending. At current levels of dividend payouts the initial 10% figure amounts to about £8.46bn per year (going by these figures). That is about 1% of the current government income (from taxation) and the total can obviously fall or rise according to how the market performs, but will be much needed revenue for the public sector regardless of how much is actually collected.

The second benefit is that it gives us a degree of democratic control over these private businesses, control that is currently badly lacking. These companies have a great deal of influence over our everyday lives, but we have no way of influencing their decisions. This proposal gives us that influence. If shareholders are in danger of having to surrender more shares because of the companies behaviour then this proposal will encourage shareholders to pressure companies into behaving ethically, rather than simply demanding larger and larger profits.

I hope that this can serve as the start of a discussion inside and outside the party on this topic. Currently very few politicians are talking about public ownership, and while it may not be my proposal that wins popular support I hope to at least help put public ownership back on the agenda. I will also be taking this to my branch with the intention of putting together a motion for a future party conference, assuming branch is in agreement with me. I ask for genuine feedback on this proposal, although constructive criticism will obviously help with putting together a stronger motion.

Posted in Book Reviews

Marxism and Feminism, by Shahrzad Mojab (ed)

As a man I usually get uncomfortable with asking myself the question, “Am I a feminist?”. Certainly in relation to my political activism I have no real right to call myself one – I simply haven’t done enough to earn that title. On the other hand, I do try to be as supportive as I possibly can of comrades who are pushing to further feminist goals, and I do take part in many discussions on the subject where I try to support and spread feminist ideas. So I guess it really depends on how the question is interpreted.

A related issue, one which arises when I take part in these discussions, is which feminist ideas should I try to support and spread? Feminism after all is not some sort of hive mind, there are many different schools of thought represented under the umbrella term “feminism”. I attended a feminist convention in Russia recently, for example, where there were speakers representing liberal feminism, anarchist feminism, socialist feminism, eco-feminism, radical feminism and so on. With such a diverse range of views within the subject, and often mutually exclusive views, which views should I take away with me as the ones to spread within my community of peers? And how do I, as a man, avoid simply picking and choosing the bits that sit most comfortably with me?

Marxism with its emphasis on the scientific method, and therefore objectivity, allows for those of us who are epistemically barred from the relevant lived experience to nevertheless gain insight. Putting any problem under a Marxists microscope will always illuminate more than it will hide. Now of course Marxism and Feminism have had a somewhat rocky relationship. Marxists haven’t always given enough focus to issues of sex or gender within the class struggle – but likewise feminists have often failed to acknowledge the class dimension to instances of oppression based on sex or gender. It is primarily for this reason that Mojab’s Marxism and Feminism is such an important addition to the literature of both Marxists and Feminists; Mojab is here offering a point of departure from the current way of doing Marxism and Feminism (separately) in favour of a unified Marxist Feminism or Feminist Marxism.

This will no doubt sound like blasphemy to many of today’s activists who promote a very middle class version of feminism – one more concerned with the balance of female CEOs to male CEOs and how much each is paid. But such a feminism fails to represent the vast majority of women, it only cares for the few women who are complicit with their male counterparts in the oppression of the vast majority of other women. Mojab is not afraid to say that today’s feminism is inadequate, and critiques Women’s and Gender Studies programmes in academia for failing to see the patriarchy as a political system that is firmly connected to capitalist social relations by seeing gender-inequality as only a ‘cultural’ issue.

The book itself is a step towards a revolution, a form of resistance written and practiced by Shahrzad Mojab and her allies, and a sound example of dialectical-materialism in action. It is split into three parts, the first of which serves as both an introduction to Marxism and Feminism and a sort of autobiography-cum-history of revolutionary leftism. It tracks Mojab’s own history through social and political movements in her native Iran through to her academic career in the USA. This introduction sets a challenge for the remainder of the book: to explain how and why Marxism and Feminism as two emancipatory projects and two political affinities should be converged despite all political and ideological projects that are committed to diverge them.

The book is ultimately successful in this endeavor, not least because in the second part of the book (which comprises three chapters) Mojab’s co-authors, in particular Bannerji in the third of these chapters, take some time to respond to these “political and ideological projects”. Being critiqued here are the likes of identity politics and intersectionality. Intersectional approaches to issues such as race or gender seem to be largely unquestioned outside of academia (where they are far from universally accepted). In a sense this is understandable, as intersectional approaches are very attractive to those who want to explain the oppression of white homosexual males or rich African-American females, for example. Intersectional approaches, by explaining people in terms of the social identities or where these identities “intersect” (their race “identity”, their gender “identity” etc) is able to make sense of homosexual white men or rich African-American women being oppressed: they are oppressed in some ways while being privileged in others. This just looks intuitively correct to most people.

After reading this section of Marxism and Feminism (especially the chapter by Himani Bannerji) I couldn’t help but feel that a convincing argument had been made against intersectional theories. They didn’t reject the conclusion that people can be privileged in one way but oppressed in others; they demonstrated that we don’t need to invoke intersectionality to arrive at that conclusion, a properly understood marxist feminism / feminist marxism can also account for this intuitively correct observation. Moreover, a feminist marxism avoids some of the problems that intersectional theory is plagued by, such as its almost “Lego” or “Mechano” explanation of human psychology as a mere construction of different social identities. It’s not that we shouldn’t de-construct into separate “social identities”, it’s that we can’t. An individual’s component social “identities” do not exist independently of each other, they are intertwined within that individual’s lived experience. To treat them as separable simply paints a false  and misleading picture.

The final section of the book applies a marxist feminism / feminist marxism to a range of issues which are normally discussed by feminists. Readers will decide for themselves which of these discussions of feminists key words resonates most strongly with themselves; I particularly enjoyed reading Sara Carpenter’s chapter on democracy. Other keywords which receive attention in this section include patriarchy, reproduction and revolution.

Overall, this is a book that deserves to be read. It strikes a good balance between established respected experts and exciting new voices. Shortly the Scottish Socialist Party will seek to put into place conference’s decision to create a political education for the party. I encourage those who will take responsibility for actualising this conference’s decision to consider this book as part of that political education. The ideas advanced in this book have the potential to lead both Feminism and Marxism into a (in this reader’s humble opinion) much needed revival; a revival that I hope the SSP can play a part in.