Overaccumulation: Capital and Fat


[audio here] The economic crisis that we face today, and that we are battling in Wisconsin, in Portland, and in occupations and activism around the world, is just an acute phase of one of the regular crises that capitalism faces.

Capitalism always needs to grow, to find new sources of profit, and regularly faces crises of "overaccumulation" when there are too few opportunities for generating profit. That leads to stagnation, and since the 1970s, capital has been battling stagnation and scrambling for new places to make money.

One place it has found has been wages. In real terms, wages have stagnated and indeed declined in the last 40 years. This leaves more profit for capitalists, but less money in the pockets of workers and consumers. So one solution has been financialization and the extension of credit, which allows workers to keep buying despite falling wages. As we know, however, this also has limits, since the increase in values of, say, houses, is not based on real wealth but on complex credit instruments, and such "bubbles" necessarily burst.

So capitalism has shifted from the economic model in which workers were paid enough to buy the products they made –known as Fordism, from its proponent Henry Ford—to the current form, widely known as neoliberalism. Neoliberal cultural values endorse ideas of individual achievement, "personal responsibility," entrepreneurial prowess, and competitive spirit as markers of spiritual worth. Neoliberal economic theory emphasizes what it calls free enterprise, but what is really profit-making by any means possible. It entails privatizing public resources; minimizing labor costs by busting unions; reducing public expenditures on entitlements, subsidies, and other redistributive welfare such as public health and education; eliminating regulations seen as unfriendly to business such as health, labor, and environmental regulations; and reducing taxes on the wealthy on the argument that it will spur private sector investment.

In practice, however, as you might have noticed, what neoliberalism has done is not so much generate wealth as redistribute it upward to restore class power. So we have a stagnant economy, in which, as Stephen Colbert has pointed out, the only growth field America has left is our bodies.

Along with most of us getting poorer, Americans have, as a group, been getting fatter. As Julie Guthman argues in her book Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism, a recent "spatial fix" for capitalism's problems of overproduction and overaccumulation has been to put the excess into our poor bodies.

Since the 1970s, declining wages have meant more people entering the labor force (or trying to) and more people working longer hours. So workers need fast, convenient, cheap food. The fast food industry has been aggressive in keeping wages low, and has also been one of the places absorbing the overproduction of agribusiness. Further, costs have been cut and profits increased by substituting cheaper products—high fructose corn syrup instead of cane sugar, for instance—as well as by industrialized agriculture, which works better for things like corn and soy than for things like broccoli and strawberries, which require more labor-intensive growing and harvesting practices. As food aid programs like food stamps and the women, infants, children WIC program have been cut back, the cost of fresh food has become even more prohibitive for many. As schools have faced cutbacks, lunch programs have turned to mass production and fast food franchise contracts, bringing more fast food to children.

In addition, neoliberal tax policies have encouraged the development of strip malls & big box retail stores on the cheaper land on the outskirts of cities, places one needs a car to get to, and neoliberal tax policies have concomitantly encouraged disinvestment in cities and thus helped create food deserts, where fresh food is far away.

Perhaps most dramatically, the failure of environmental and food safety regulation can be traced back to neoliberalism and forward to obesity. The regulation of agricultural chemicals has been largely put on hold, and the Environmental Protection Agency has declined to enforce existing regulations. This means that our environment, and our bodies, are increasingly full of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that research increasingly links to changes in human metabolism.

Guthman describes this as a political economy of bulimia, where we are enjoined to consume, but not to show the effects of having consumed. Pseudo-food products like fake fats and artificial sweeteners are tailored to this system, designed to pass through the body without leaving a trace, though they may in fact also contribute to weight gain: Splenda, for instance, is evidently another endocrine disruptor.

But you wouldn't learn most of this through the recent four-part series broadcast on HBO and now available on YouTube. The Weight of the Nation was developed in concert with the Centers for Disease Control, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Institutes of Health, as well as in partnership with Kaiser Permanente and the Dell Foundation, which has also been involved in the corporatizing of public education.

Though the last episode of the Weight of the Nation series does address the development of industrial agriculture, the series never mentions the problem of environmental toxins. It also never mentions that although we have collectively gotten fatter, we are also living longer. Indeed, research indicates that those classified as "overweight" actually live longer than those classified as of "normal" weight, and the "underweight" are more likely to die early than are the "obese."

Yet the very notion of an "obesity epidemic" suggests that obesity is itself a disease. The series perpetuates a basic confusion between correlation and causation. Though obesity and diabetes often occur together –there is a correlation between them—that does not mean obesity causes diabetes. It's quite possible both are caused by another factor. It's also possible that if, as some research suggests, fat is a way for the body to sequester dangerous chemicals, fat might be not a damaging cause of health problems but instead the body's attempt to protect us from poisons in our water, air, and food.

But you wouldn’t learn from The Weight of the Nation that it's entirely possible to be fat and healthy, just as it's quite possible to be thin and unhealthy. Instead, you'd have to turn to the work of the Health at Every Size movement, the size acceptance movement, or a different selection of scientific researchers than those called on in the HBO series in order to learn that, say, stress and lack of sleep can contribute to weight gain, which might be relevant to those working 60 or 80-hour weeks, or to those who are suffering the stress of unemployment.

Nor does the Weight of the Nation make clear that food-restrictive diets almost always fail to produce long term weight loss, that yo-yo dieting can cause many of the negative health effects correlated with corpulence, and that such dieting can ultimately lead not only to weight gain but to eating disorders.

As critics of the series have pointed out, the focus on weight rather than health not only stigmatizes fat people, but also offers solutions like individual self control, calorie counting, bariatric surgery, and visits to obesity clinics. Although the series gives lip service to the idea that the problem is social rather than individual, it presents the increase in the population's weight as a medicalized occasion for further profit.

The Weight of the Nation is thus likely to contribute to the vilification of fat people as out of control. And since fat correlates with class, this also means the vilification of poor people and people of color, who are more likely to be poor because of racism. (Though, to be sure, it's also been argued that poverty is a consequence of fat rather than the other way around.)

Meanwhile the wealthy, who can afford organic food and gym memberships, not to mention personal trainers, private chefs, and homes near parks and far from toxic waste dumps, can continue to feel pleased with their status as self-disciplined neoliberal subjects.


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