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 Inverclyde Politics

Meandering through Fuel Poverty, via Yugoslavia and the USSR

Fuel poverty is defined as paying 10 percent or more of your household income on heating and lighting, or in other words 10 percent or more on your gas and electricity bills. Now 10 percent might not sound like much at first, but when you take into account all your other household bills such as rent/mortgage, council tax, food, transport, telephone, childcare, clothes, insurance, debt repayments, and so on it soon becomes apparent that 10 percent of your income is a rather significant amount.

In Inverclyde alone there are roughly 8000 households in fuel poverty. A recent study, which actually appeared on the front page of the Tory friendly Daily Express, found that 84% of Scottish households ration their energy usage during the winter as they can’t afford the bills. 84% of us in an energy rich nation! That is simply not good enough, and it is about time the politicians did something about it. The big energy companies make obscene profits every year, and yet they continue to put our bills up. People have had enough of being ripped off! At the Scottish Socialist Party we want to see the energy industry returned to public ownership to ensure the needs of the people come before the greed of shareholders. That is the essence of socialism – arranging our society and industries so that everyone benefits, not just the rich.

Now of course, any-time we speak about nationalizing industry, there are those who repeat the line that we somehow need private companies. They claim that private investment is what makes our economy work, and that we shouldn’t use government to interfere with the markets in an attempt to solve our nation’s problems. One of the fundamental beliefs held by that sort of person is that if we leave the markets alone and unregulated then the markets will correct themselves and everything will be fine. Despite literally centuries’ worth of evidence to the contrary, many people still accept this faith in private markets unquestioningly.

The ideological universe that these people inhabit is one that has been removed from the social context of the real world. History records that in the 1840’s, when it was becoming apparent that Ireland was facing a famine, a delegation from Ireland visited the Prime Minister of the day (Lord John Russell) to plead for relief for the starving poor people. Russell answered their pleas by reading to them from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, to explain to them that the markets would solve everything and that the government shouldn’t interfere. As a result, over 1 million people starved to death in Ireland. In effect, over a million people starved to death because of the capitalist’s economic ideology.

Fast forward to today, and we see the same dangerous ideology still claiming millions of lives annually: poor people sacrificed at the altar of capitalism. Last year that included 31,000 UK pensioners who died of preventable cold related illnesses, and all because they couldn’t afford to keep their heating on during the winter. Meanwhile, the profits of the biggest six energy companies rose by 77%. At the Scottish Socialist Party we demand that the profiteering be taken out of this vital industry. We should be cutting prices and profits, not people’s lives!

Frankie Boyle was onto something when he noted that to certain people capitalism is a religion. Acolytes believe in its principles even when these are proved wrong. As Frankie says, “Business people, in case you haven’t noticed, dress in costume, go off on retreats together, and speak with the same glassy-eyed passion about their orthodoxy as Christians.” In their world, the market is our God. It’s everywhere. When the market is angry, ‘sacrifices’ have to be made. Go to your nearest scheme, look at the lives of the kids there, and tell me that the market doesn’t demand sacrifices.

Frankie goes on to wonder what kind of God the capitalist’s market actually is. Clearly a God that thinks you shouldn’t receive medical treatment unless you can afford it; that tells us patent profits in the developing world are more important than affordable medicines. It will be interesting to see how their God fares against the Chinese. The Soviet Union was bought off with promises of jeans and cars and cheap stereos. It’ll be difficult to sell the same mirage to China, because they already make all that stuff.

So let’s reject this capitalist notion of free markets, the weight of evidence collected over the centuries is evidence enough that we should. That millions are starving to death while food literally rots in the fields is simply indefensible. It is interesting how famine deaths become ‘mass murder’ only when they occur in a Communist Party-led state. If we use the same criteria that are used to tally up the astronomical death counts attributed to the USSR and PR China, the British Empire is responsible for nearly 50 million deaths in India alone, as a result of the famines in the 1870’s and 1890’s. In fact, in that case there is far more convincing evidence that the deaths were intentional. The historian Mike Davis documents that at the height of the famine grain was being exported for profit outside India, and that foreign observers witnessed British troops massacre starving mobs as they tried to storm the grain silos.

It always galls me how anti-socialists are always going on about the so-called “mass murder” of starvation in communist countries like the Soviet Union and China. Meanwhile in the capitalist world tens of thousands of people are starving to death every single day, even though there is enough food to feed the entire world human population twice over. The famines in the Soviet Union and China were caused by there simply not being enough food to distribute. The constant hunger under capitalism persists even when there is plenty of food. During the famines in Africa a few years ago the countries there continued to export food for profit. Hunger in capitalism exists by design; it is a logical consequence of the capitalist mode of distribution according to profit for the owners rather than human need. Whenever there is a mention of the USSR, the capitalist apologists will say something like “The evil commies starved their own people!!!” But you’ll never hear them say the same thing about Ethiopia or the Congo or any other country where hunger and starvation are a fact of life under capitalism. If communists are “murderers” because they couldn’t wave a magic wand and distribute food that didn’t exist, then capitalists are far worse murderers because they deliberately withhold food and only distribute it according to their own gain no matter how many people are starving.

Of course, these people will say that “socialism doesn’t work”, and that history somehow proves this. They claim as if it were fact that every country that ever tried socialism failed. First of all, even if that were true, it still wouldn’t justify the suffering that capitalism causes around the world. But more importantly it is demonstrably false. Before NATO (led by the USA) went in and totally destroyed their country, the Yugoslavs were leading the way in terms of successful socialism. In the two decades before the crimes committed by NATO, Yugoslavia had an average annual GDP growth of 6.1%, a decent standard of living, free medical care and free education, everyone had a guaranteed right to a job, there was affordable government owned transport and housing, the literacy rate was over 90% and the life expectancy was 72. They achieved all this by implementing their own model of socialism: a mix of public ownership, private investment and workers cooperatives, all of which contributed to give Yugoslavia a higher rate of growth than most western European nations. So let’s just forget that lazy argument that “Socialism doesn’t work”.

Let us instead implement socialist solutions to the problems of our society, problems such as fuel poverty. Let us reject as immoral the government’s own solution that people who can’t afford their heating bills should just put on more clothes, or go to bed early. That sort of attitude by the Tories is demeaning and disgusting. Worse still, it deprives those suffering from fuel poverty from enjoying a true freedom. Freedom in the socialist tradition is understood as man’s power over circumstances, freedom from exploitation and oppression of man by man. Freedom requires overcoming abject dependence, poverty and fear. The exploitation of the masses by the big energy companies, through artificially high fuel bills in order to produce astronomical profits, is one of the biggest threats to the working class today. The current Westminster and Holyrood administrations simply are not doing enough to tackle this problem.

In an independent Scotland the Scottish Socialist Party will campaign to bring North Sea oil and other energy generating industries into the public sector, so that we can eliminate fuel poverty as well as invest in protection of the environment and developing renewable energy. Under devolution, the SSP is committed to campaigning for responsibility for energy to be transferred from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament and for the wealth of Scottish energy resources to be brought into public ownership. This will allow us to put people, and the planet, before profit.

As Colin Fox recently observed in his pamphlet on the subject, fuel poverty is developing into a political crisis in Scotland and it is not unlike the one we faced in the late 80’s with the Poll Tax. In that instance the Tories introduced a highly regressive tax, one which bore no relation to a person’s ability to pay, and just like today’s fuel bills they demanded people paid when they didn’t have the money to do so. In the end the poll tax was abolished because 14 million people refused to pay it. There are many important lessons to be learned from the anti-poll tax struggle in terms of fighting fuel poverty. Most importantly is to realise that opposition to injustice is right and proper.

So if you, like us, feel a sense of indignation at injustices like fuel poverty, perhaps you will find a home in the Scottish Socialist Party. Let me take this opportunity to invite you along to one of our meetings, you will be warmly welcomed. You can find us Facebook or Twitter, or visit www.scottishsocialistparty.org, for more info.