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Proletarian issue 55 (August 2013)
Obesity and malnutrition on the rise as poverty increases
Blame capitalism, not the poor!
Scotland has “a moment” to tackle type 2 diabetes, or the “consequences ... could be severe”. These were the words of the Scottish director of Diabetes UK regarding the increase in diagnoses of the obesity-related illness, with one GP from Glasgow reporting “an almost 50 percent increase in diabetes in the past five or six years”.

Life-threatening illnesses, with an average diagnosis age of around 45, are now being found in children as young as 13. Obesity increases the likelihood of fatal conditions such as organ failure, heart disease and amputation. According to data released by the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, amputation claims the life of four out of five amputees within six years.(BBC News Online, 24 June 2013)

Besides a small percentage of the population for whom obesity is a medical issue from birth, there exist a vast number of people in Britain for whom poverty, unemployment and depression are all contributing towards a poor diet and alcoholism, which in turn contribute to obesity and bad health.

The data released in relation to the growing diabetes problem in Scotland provide further evidence to demonstrate the direction in which the mass of British workers are being driven. The widespread illness and the consequent lowering of life expectancy that looms are the direct result of the capitalist system and its thirst for profit.

The socially-necessary minimum

Capitalist economics dictate that workers are paid on average the minimum socially accepted amount on which they can manage to reproduce their labour-power (ability to work).

This ‘socially-accepted’ norm is set in large part by the prices of the everyday essentials that workers must consume in order to live – the cheapest available food, the cheapest available clothes, the cheapest available rent etc. But what any given society considers to be a ‘basic necessity’ is also subject to change – it is the result of historical, material conditions, and of class struggle.

There is thus a constant antagonism and struggle between capitalists and workers. Employers will always try to push wages down in order to increase profits, and workers’ socially-accepted minimum wages will tend to be reduced unless they are organised effectively to resist such pressures.

In the battle to justify the constant attacks on living standards, economic crisis, unemployment and the capitalist media play key roles.

Junk pushers

Meanwhile, the mass production and incessant promotion of fast, cheap and unhealthy foods has been turned into a high art-form by such corporations such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola, which have become adept at associating their toxic products with sporting events such as the Olympics and international football tournaments.

Workers and their children are constantly bombarded with the attractive images and seductive packaging used by these brands (designed by teams of highly-paid psychologists, designers and marketeers), their taste buds are tricked by the highly-addictive salt-and-sugar-laden recipes (perfected by highly-paid teams of scientists) and their worries about health risks are assuaged by misleading ‘health’ advice (dreamed up by more of those highly-paid scientists and marketeers).

The London Olympics was a case in point, providing a fine demonstration of the domination and omnipresence of the fast-food monopolies in Britain’s cultural and sporting life. Such was the control exercised by these advertisers (‘sponsors’) that no other vendor in the Olympic village was allowed to sell chips than McDonalds!

These days, the route to riches for a sporting star is not so much through the direct wages of success as through the product endorsements they agree to undertake. David Beckham, for example, famously netted $30m from a 10-year advertising deal with Pepsi – a deal that just happened to be revived on the eve of his appearance as one of the star turns at the London Olympics’ opening ceremony.

In their quest for profit, the giant food monopolies will use any avenue to push their products at the working class – and particularly at our children – laughing all the way to the bank as they deliberately set about creating the next generation of fast-food junkies.

It matters little to these shit-shovellers that the ‘food’ they sell has no useful nutritional value, or that it is full of ingredients so over-processed and polluted that they do positive harm to the human body. Nor do they care that the intensive agricultural methods they employ are raping the soil of nutrition for future generations and destroying its ability to support life. So long as we can be persuaded to eat it, they will continue to sell it – and so long as they are able to produce it so cheaply, wages will continue to remain at such a level that the masses of people will have no choice but to continue to eat it!

A malnutrition epidemic

So, the cheapest food available to workers in this time of crisis, when wages and benefits are being forced down to – and in many cases below – the barest minimum, is often both addictive and toxic. A lethal combination indeed. And, to cap it all, the slackening of all regulation that has accompanied all the other attacks on working-class living standards means that what it says on the packet does not necessarily reflect what is actually in the packet!

It’s not surprising, then, that not only diabetes, but also poverty-related illnesses that we associate with the Victorian age such as rickets and scurvy are on the rise. The British Medical Association declared recently that “Food standards in the UK are worse now that they were during the rationing during the war.” And that was a time when food adulteration was notoriously rife, as black marketeers sought to make capital out of shortages!

When today’s low-income families rely on processed foods that seem to satisfy their hunger pangs and fulfil their needs, they are in fact denying their children’s and their own dietary needs. And while education has its part to play, this is not simply a question of ignorance. Large numbers of workers in Britain living on or below the poverty line are simply not in a position to start buying healthy foods.

Organic and fresh products come at very high prices that are far beyond the budgets of minimum-wage or benefit-dependent working-class families. Instead, they have no choice but to opt for cheap, unhealthy food – and to continue to suffer the physical and mental consequences of their poor diets.

Blaming the victims

In order to obscure this truth, to confuse workers and to justify the harsh conditions under which so many victims of capitalist exploitation live, the corporate media are at pains to peddle all sorts of myths about the laziness and stupidity of the poor.

Our rulers want better-off workers to believe that all the ills that are suffered by their less-privileged counterparts are somehow ‘deserved’ or ‘chosen’. They aim to divide us from each other and to encourage the better-off sections to look down their noses at their compatriots instead of joining together to defend their collective interests.

The media are filled with lurid stories aimed at hammering home this message, pushed in a thousand subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Unemployed? Refuses to work (a ‘lifestyle choice’). Obese? Eats too much and is lazy (another ‘lifestyle choice’). Bad diet? Uneducated (stupid). Unhealthy children? Bad parents (stupid and lazy). Addicted to fast foods, drugs or alcohol? Weak-minded (stupid). Poor? A failure (stupid and lazy) ...

On the other hand, any determined collective action taken by workers to prevent or hold back the incessant attacks on their living standards is immediately labelled ‘undemocratic’ by the same media. The brave stand of Arthur Scargill and the miners’ union was branded as an attempt at ‘dictatorship’, and hysterical assertions that Scargill was trying to ‘take over the country’ are still being bandied about 30 years later by capitalist media and politicians.

Meanwhile, the children and grandchildren of those who were vilified for fighting for their right to a decent job are today being vilified for their inability to find any work at all!

It should be clear to everyone by now that we cannot trust the important business of providing healthy, nutritious food to profit-motivated corporations. The evidence of the increase in type 2 diabetes in Scotland is just the latest proof of that all-too familiar refrain: capitalism is bad for your health.

Problems that have been created on such a vast scale will not be solved by individual ‘consumer choices’, even if we were all free to make them. The answer lies in taking all agricultural and food production and distribution into common ownership and running them to meet the nutritional needs of the people.
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