When international charities illustrate the immensity of poverty and deprivation in areas of the ‘Third World’, they often use a statistic of how many children die per minute from preventable diseases due to a lack of cleaning drinking water and sanitation. A common response to the brutal realities of capitalist production, distribution and consumption on a global scale is to externally lament the plight of far-off peoples while internally feeling glad that we live safe and secure in the developed world, the land of the ‘have’s’ and not the ‘have not’s.’
Yet, poverty and deprivation also affect our own societies profoundly. A fifth of the UK population lives in poverty , while around 4 million children live in low-income households.
Many vulnerable people, particularly the elderly, are choosing between heating and eating this winter
With Christmas approaching and one of the coldest winters in living memory gripping the country, one of the clearest examples of how deeply poverty affects our society and how brutal its effects are is this: every nine minutes last winter a pensioner died of a cold-related illness. In fact, last winter there were 25,400 cold-related deaths (i.e. deaths occuring in the winter months due to cold that are above average levels of deaths during the rest of the year) in England and Wales, which is relatively far higher than other countries with colder climates than ours.
What is disgraceful is that just as with a lack of clean drinking water in Africa, cold-related winter deaths are prevantable. They happen in the home where with adequate heating people can protect themselves from the health consequences of dangerously low temperatures. The elderly are particularly vulnerable: of the 25,400 deaths last winter mentioned above, 20,600 (81%) were people aged 75 and over. The central cause is fuel poverty: when households spend over 10% of their income just to keep warm, and extreme fuel poverty, where over 20% is spent. In Scotland, a third of Scots live in fuel poverty: 770,000 households, and the figure has been rising steadily over the previous decade: it was under 300,000 in 2002. This Christmas, vulnerable groups of the population are choosing to forego food in order to afford their heating, and many families are choosing to live in only one room of the house in order to afford their heating and keep warm. As a spokesperson of Citizens Advice Scotland recent reported in the Herald:
“One-third of Scots are now officially living in fuel poverty and that is completely unacceptable.
“Advisers across Scotland have reported to us that many people are so worried about their fuel bills that they are going without food in order to keep the heating on.
“Others are planning to spend the Christmas holiday period living more or less in one room, so they don’t have to pay to heat the whole house.
“We’re hearing of too many vulnerable people – including pensioners, sick people and families with young children – who are sitting shivering in their homes this Christmas. Many of them are suffering adverse health problems as a result.”
Four of the biggest six energy suppliers, who provide around 97% of British domestic energy, have increased their prices this winter, prompting criticism from Consumer Focus and Ofgem.
And that is the culprit driving up fuel poverty and inflicting such suffering and even death upon the most vulnerable people in our society: capitalism. Energy companies have been increasing the cost of heating, far above increases in the wholesale price of fuel, in order to make increasing profits from selling us the gas and electricity we need to keep warm. In fact, prices have increased by almost 20% between July 2008 and July 2009. When wholesale prices (the prices at which energy companies buy fuel) rise, energy companies invariably pass this onto consumers, and thus still maintain and increase their profits. When wholesale prices fall however, bills stay the same or even continue to rise, so the energy companies still make massive profits. This the logic of the profit motive, and how it utterly conflicts with human need: as winter hits and the need for heating increases (most of all from the vulnerable) energy companies increase bills to profit from the human need to stay alive through keeping warm. The result is increased profits for the companies, and increased fuel poverty, deprivation, missed meals, and winter deaths for the vulnerable.
This is where calls from socialists for a system which values “people not profit” and “human need and environmental protection, not private profit and ecological destruction” show themsevles not to be just slogans, but real demands which draw attention to the contridictions of capitalism. In the example of fuel poverty, there are two ways of dealing with the problem. One is to put a ‘human face’ on capitalism: increasing winter fuel payments to the vulnerable, one-off ‘windfall’ taxation of company profits and using the money to subsidise heating bills and improve home efficiency. However, while massaging the logic of capital in this fashion may help to alleviate the worst effects of the problem, but it will not eradicate or solve it. This is because the privately-owned energy companies exist to make profit: without this they cannot exist. As soon as these are threatened, political moves will always be made to scrap those measures which hinder the ability to make maximum profit, including protecting the vulnerable from the negative effects of the profit logic. In many ways, this is the story of what has happened to the welfare state. Rather, in today’s political climate the impulse is for the opposite, where winter fuel support may be further reduced. In any case, such a solution is like a temporary patch on a permanent leak: it never fully deals with the problem and it always in conflict with the overall logic of the situation.
The other solution is to remove the profit motive and to run the system on the motive of serving human need instead. Such a system requires the means of energy extraction and distribution to be publicly owned, i.e. owned by and run for the whole of society, not in order to make a profit for stockholders. The result is that rather than being seen as a commodity to make a profit, energy is seen as a resource by which we are able to heat ourselves in order to stay alive, protect the vulnerable from the negative health effects of winter cold, and allow us to get on with our lives without having to choose between heating and eating. Such an energy system could operate in several ways which would have to be debated, including maximum billing (e.g. no more than 2.5% of any households income) with the rest of the cost met through taxation, to high billing of the super-rich and corporations for energy with the money used to reduce bills of the poorest, to a combination of taxation and subsidies to remove bills from either the most vulnerable or everyone altogether.
Of course, the details of such a move would need to be debated democratically and on a mass basis. The point is: this winter, both poor families in Africa, and in Scotland, indeed all over the world, will be suffering from the logic of capitalism: private profit coming before human need. In our society, fuel poverty is but one example of the structural violence capitalism inflicts upon us all. For me, the only answer for humanity is to develop an alternative that puts human need and the logic of human development at the heart of society. That is why we must debate, develop, and struggle for a socialism fit to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
For an excellent and personal article on fuel poverty in Scotland, read Aiden Kerr’s previous post on the blog here.