Chewing the fat

How it is important to avoid fatuous pronouncements about obesity if one wants to have a sensible di

CAESAR: "Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous."

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was able to see the upside of obesity in a way that would be unimaginable for our contemporary politicians.

Current rhetoric about the weight of the nation has, indeed, tended towards the hyperbolic and apocalyptic.

There is much talk of an “obesity time bomb”, and of an “epidemic of obesity” that challenges both the longevity not to mention the public finances of the nation.

In stark contrast to Caesar’s sanguine feelings about expanding waistlines, last week saw perhaps the most delightfully absurd pronouncement on this epidemic of fatness when Health Minister Alan Johnson claimed that obesity was a “potential crisis on the scale of climate change”.

It is worth stopping for a second to appreciate the sheer silliness of Alan Johnson’s claim. It is certainly true that the spread of obesity may curtail the upwards progress of life expectancy in the developed world, and may diminish the quality of life of many of the world’s affluent citizens through contributing to life years spent coping with diabetes or coronary heart disease. But even this unhappy prospect pales into insignificance when compared with the dangers of climate change.

Flooding and extreme weather have the capacity to cause hundred of thousands of deaths throughout the world, whilst desertification and rising sea levels have the capacity to displace tens of millions of people from their homes, leading to war, famine and unpredictable political upheavals.

Obesity is a problem of the affluent, comfortable, and (overly) well-fed, whereas those who will bear the brunt of climate change are the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged.

If obesity is among the worst problems faced by a nation, then what this tells us is that this nation is actually doing rather well. Johnson’s remarks equate the lifestyle problems of the world’s wealthy with the real matters of imminent life and death that are faced by the world’s poor.

It does a disservice to the importance of action on climate change to bracket it alongside problems caused by eating too much and not getting enough exercise.

It is not so much that the government’s response to obesity is itself nonsensical, but that much of the way it is reported and communicated is hysterical or confused.

The report of Foresight, the government’s science think tank, on Tackling Obesities: Future Choices contains a good ideal of sober analysis about the social, environmental and physiological mechanisms that lead to obesity, together with different proposals for how the problem might be tackled.

But discussion of the causal processes that increase the likelihood of obesity seem always to be stuck in an overly simplistic dichotomy – either it’s a matter of individual choice, and hence nothing to do with government, or else it’s the inevitable consequence of modern life, and therefore something for which individuals are not responsible.

The Foresight report attempted to make a number of nuanced points, but the predictable reaction from the media was that this meant that obesity “is not the fault of individuals” or, as John Humphrys put it, somewhat mysteriously, on the Today programme, people are obese because “our biology is out of step with the abundance and convenience offered by the modern environment”. (As if we might have expected “our biology” to have kept up with the modern world, and are free of the responsibility to make better choices in any circumstance in which it has failed to do so!)

Reasonable debate about social problems related to problems of addiction and unwise choices seem stuck in a rather reductive ‘blame game’. But the plausible positions in this area are neither the unsophisticated determinist view that sees obesity as nothing at all to do with fault or choice, nor the avowedly tough-minded (but hopelessly simplistic) position that sees this as a realm of individual choice untouched by broader issues of social policy.

In fact, there is nothing inconsistent in thinking that certain problems can result from individual’s choices (whether those problems are obesity, addiction, alcohol abuse or whatever else) whilst at the same time allowing that certain sorts of environmental and social backgrounds make some choices easier than others.

The overly reductive question of that asks who is “at fault” or “to blame” for problems like these needs to be pulled apart. There are causal questions here that range over issues about social, environmental and psychological mechanisms.

There are also irreducibly normative questions about who should bear the costs of these problems, and what should be done by governments and by individuals to tackle them. Good answers here will be boringly complex (like the Foresight report itself). Easier answers tend to suggest lazy thinking, but easy answers make better headlines.

This is not to say that there is nothing with which one might quibble in the government’s Tackling Obesities report.

Firstly, there is the bizarre pluralisation: from ‘obesity’ to ‘obesities’: a piece of wilful jargon-making without justification.

Secondly, one needs to be very careful when reading research that makes claims such as “if current trends continue, most people in the UK will be obese by 2050”.

Social trends, like economic trends, are malleable, unpredictable and subject to reversal. For example, current trends in obesity are not themselves 45 years old, which might suggest the debatable wisdom of a projecting them 45 years into the future without severe caveats.

Conditional claims that turn around substantial hypotheticals such as this need to be read as what they are, not as confident scientific predictions for how things will certainly be. A bit of reticence in making some of these big claims could hopefully only add to the plausibility of the overall analysis.

There is one claim, though, that should be excluded from further debate without further delay, in part because it seems to be irredeemably subject to misinterpretation. Again and again we hear that the spread of obesity will lead to “children dying before their parents”.

This conjures up visions of a generation of obese children who will predecease their mother and fathers.

But what is actually meant is simply that, with the growth of obesity, life expectancy might drop in such a way that many people will die at a younger age than their parents did. Whilst this is still, of course, an unpleasant prospect, it isn’t quite the horrific vista of losing a generation to obesity.

If claims like this aren’t made carefully, they can sound shrill and alarmist – fine, perhaps, for grabbing headlines, but not so good for reasoned reflection on difficult matters of policy.

Alan Johnson’s remarks about obesity and climate change bring to mind an altogether more sensible pronouncement on fatness from George Bernard Shaw. As Shaw rightly pointed out, “no diet will remove all the fat from your body because the brain is entirely fat. Without a brain, you might look good, but all you could do is run for public office.” Alan Johnson might give a bit more thought to his public utterances if he isn’t to end up unwittingly proving Shaw to be all too correct.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain