Selling Sickness: Capitalism and Health (Part II)

This article is part of a series; find the first part here

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Does capitalism have its own ideology? Though you might hear those like Bono refer to capitalism as being “amoral”, and claim that it only seeks profit, the truth is far from how he wants you to see it. Bono is what you might call a beneficiary, he enjoys his tax status. But capitalism, as you may have been led to believe, is not just an economic system, it has its own ideological counterpart. In order to survive and expand, capitalism needs those who participate in the productive processes to believe in it, and with the level of engagement we currently have, an integrative system of ideas is mandatory for the economy to function. People generally want to believe that what they are engaging in is good, and this is the exact image that capitalism wants to keep, that it is good. Far from being neutral, capitalism is in fact very opinionated in how it classifies certain actions and behaviours, and whether or not they are favourable to its survival, and whether it strengthens the position of those who sit at the top in maintaining hegemonic control without the need for a more direct form of rule. There are certain instances when the class nature of society and the state are revealed, but these are only during moments of crises when the survival of capitalism is under serious threat and at risk of being toppled. Capitalism prefers to rely on its institutions to perform the role of influencing and setting trends through the various mediums at its disposal, whether it is via the media, in movies, or even sometimes in the books you read. Under capitalism, Marx describes the commodity as a “mysterious thing” and that, “This Fetishism of commodities has its origin…in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them”. Marx also points to the “alien power” which confronts workers in the form of the goods they have produced, and in a society which places importance on the accumulation of such wealth, Marx could be said to have predicted the widespread consumer culture we see today. Like Marx, our analysis will start with the commodity and what happens when health has become one.

In his book Democracy for the Few, political scientist Michael Parenti explains how the “fact of real significance is that almost all of our cultural institutions are ruled by non-elected self-perpetuating boards of affluent corporate representatives” and how “advertising sells not only particular products but a whole way of life… plutocratic culture teaches that material success is a measure of one’s worth… in a society where money is the overriding determinant of one’s life chances, the drive for material gain is not merely a symptom of a greed-driven culture but a factor in one’s very survival”. In a society where wealth accumulation is very one sided, it is propitious indeed that those same behaviours are those advocated. Capitalism has had a transformative effect on our society’s approach to health. To say that health is an unchanging aspect of all cultures or historical epochs is simply not true. For example, there is a lot to be said about how capitalism fosters and promotes physical health. Under capitalism, it is usually done for purely individualistic aesthetic purposes. In the hands of companies, these become powerful ideological forces which grant advertisers a worrying degree of influence over us, as they can essentially control the images we think we should have of ourselves. Health becomes almost domineering and transforms into its opposite, a sickness. Women are still generally promoted as sex objects for consumption and men are also presented by companies in the same narrow manner.

Now, this is not to say that companies cannot see where the wind is blowing, as the idea of rainbow capitalism is certainly catching on. We now have companies with a conscience who are all for the rights of the LGBT community and other marginalised groups. But this is only to dress up what is still at its core just a marketing mechanism, designed to draw you into a world of fairness and progressive values, a world where bigotry is a thing of the past. Not that these movements aren’t significant by themselves, but it’s important to recognise that it’s the idea here that is being purchased in many instances, not just the product, and that those who work in marketing are very aware of this fact. Ads have almost become small theatrical productions that are saturated with emotion, and these are beamed into our heads, each with their own stories, messages, and mini dramas. Echoing Fisher, you can set the world right if you just “buy the right products”. But behind all these lovely stories and reassuring messages lies the underbelly of the corporate world, it’s the side we tend to ignore, and it’s the side that capitalism wants us to turn a blind eye to. This is the place where  child slavery is just a part of the business cycle, and is a key ingredient in making sure your favourite items stay cheap. There is no getting away from the fact that the consumption patterns enjoyed by many in the west are based on the fact that in the global south, it is a corporate sentencing to a life of imprisonment. But we are talking about health here, aren’t we? Yes, but with health as with any other topic, it is important to understand that capitalism has some stake in ensuring that profitability stays high, and consumers do not ask too many questions, or rather the wrong type of questions. This can involve asking what values are companies really trying to project about our health? 

In The body-politic, discussed are many of these issues regarding the “faux-concern” shown by those in the health industry as they beam in seasonal reminders, in case you’d forgotten that you’re not perfect. It’s not hard to conceive how the health of countless individuals has been jeopardised by practicing the advice taken from the industry’s frauds. For years people were told to starve themselves, and there is a weird sense that good health is reserved for those who can suffer the most. The whole idea of good health immediately becomes an unattractive proposition for many. As studies indicate, it is the working-classes who suffer the worst health consequences, which does make it seem rather cruel and sinister to wave right in people’s face what advertising companies would have us believe is our one true shot at happiness. TV shows have started to appear where the contestants have to prove their worth by losing a certain amount of weight each week, and for the people who watch these shows, there is a sort of sick amusement when it comes time to have a look inside their cupboards and fridges, and gasp in horror wondering is that how they live? Is the role of health authorities just being made redundant in these instances so people can fill their heads with common stereotypes about how overweight working-class people are just lazy, are incapable of helping themselves, and deserve what they get? It’s amazing how capitalism has been able to repackage its failings and turn them into cultural showpieces. The body begins to take on a new meaning in these programmes and becomes the centrepiece, the product to be consumed, and in many instances, working-class life is portrayed as a problem that needs to be fixed. You have to wonder if on some level whether a feeling of alienation exists, especially in the case of the contestants, as their last shreds of privacy are stripped away as their lives are sold through the television.

Does capitalism, by projecting its own images of health, at the same time alienate others? In The Morning Star, an interesting article was published titled “‘Fatphobia’ and ‘fat activism’ are helping no one” which touches on some of the same issues. “Fat activism” presents itself more as a conjured up reactionary ideology than of a political movement which actually has any meaningful and clear set goals: “Being Fat is not ‘misunderstood’ by doctors. It is not stunning and brave, it is not a challenge to oppressive systems, be it capitalism, patriarchy and so on”. With the possibility to connect millions, we instead have a move in a direction which seems to suggest that individuals should embrace their diseases. Pellagra, which develops due to Vitamin B3 deficiency, is a disease which used to plague working-class communities, and with a reduction in the consumption of fruits and vegetables especially in these same groups, will issues like these return? How are those who are involved in current movements which strive to increase wages and improve our access to decent, nutritious food so we can attain better health to react to ideas like these? It should be pointed out that this idea which involves taking back control of your body by reducing it to a diseased state is actually its opposite. Are those who suffer from obesity and who struggle to move really in control? Are those who develop auto-immune disorders like type 2 diabetes really taking back their autonomy? By becoming addicted to corporate junk, have you now won? Potentially derailed are attempts for access to better health opportunities because what is mistaken as enjoying real power is actually an all-too-common alienation from capitalism’s oppressive beauty standards. That being said, any of these criticisms should never lead to bullying, or exercises in body shaming. Discussions on health can be a sensitive topic, and while fighting for those services we must not create toxic environments which might alienate individuals further. Discussions must be inclusive, where we seek to learn from one another.    

Any article that attempts to promote, critique, or lay down a method used to observe how we should act on our own health has to avoid certain pitfalls, and these are usually centred around issues of being too authoritative, judgemental, and making it seem as if mental health is something that can be solved by a quick fix. To avoid or to not even promote health in the broadest sense for fear of these repercussions means a sufficient analysis will never be drawn or adopted, and for a topic as political as health, this shouldn’t be the case. To elaborate on one of those points, the link between physical health and mental health, it is an issue well documented at this stage, but that isn’t to say if every individual were to incorporate certain changes or adopt a different lifestyle, the results obtained would be an instantaneous remedy to all grievances. To think about it this way is to misunderstand how health should be approached. To build new societies means to build new cultures that go along with it and this is the approach that must be promoted. To approach health in a new way. To lay the responsibility for change solely on the individual who is guided by corporate values would be to repeat the same mistakes, so a collective change in health culture must be our aim. But first the rot has to be cleared out, and this involves taking a look at the health industry, the values it continues to project, and what role it plays in mainstream culture. 

If we look at other areas of the health industry, the same degradative effects have occurred. The wall-street drug abusing excessive lifestyle choices characteristic of the financial sector has reproduced itself here, and you have to constantly remind yourself that this is what is considered to be the modern health industry. Fitness models who present themselves as the apex of modern health are generally half starved, steroid abusing, and in some cases cocaine-addicted victims of the same industry, where in order to achieve that beach body look, the athletes are forced to starve themselves before shows and require substances like cocaine and anabolic steroids just to maintain the energy levels required when eating sufficient calories has begun to diminish. In that area of fitness culture, unspoken but otherwise necessary acts are carried out, one of which is gay for pay. This is where athletes perform webcam shows for money in order to feed their drug habits. Steroid abuse reaches such an extent that many individuals who would generally be considered healthy die before they hit 30. These are the consequences of a culture with a seriously unhealthy attitude towards achieving unrealistic beauty standards. These fitness models and bodybuilders generally receive some sponsoring from supplement companies and are used to push sales, so mostly impressionable young men will buy the latest protein powder. If a product allows profit to be made, capital will flow into it, its existence will be flooded through the appropriate channels, and in health and fitness culture, what is also sold are the very damaging habits and ideas which have hurt and sometimes killed people. That is why the health industry can be referred to as a grotesque contradiction, behind the white smiles and perfectly sculpted physiques lies neglect, addiction, and abuse. The mass aversion comes as no surprise when what is propagated here is an extremely shallow, atomised, sick, and joyless way of life with insecurity used to sell and manufacture sickness on a mass scale.   

That these are all symptoms of a sick and fractured society should be clear to anyone. The type of society that we should be striving for is one that doesn’t degrade individuals and shame them into changing their lifestyles, but seeks to encourage change by incorporating health in the broadest sense in education and in providing the greater part of humanity access to basic facilities and services which should form a critical component when making that conception. Good health should reaffirm our existence and not lead to mass denial. For a society to use its ability to propagate health, strengthened should be the ties between those communities and its peoples. The current health paradigms we operate within are not self-generating, but are in fact fundamentally linked to the economic structures which govern our society. Current issues over entitlement and what we should expect from our governments has taken centre stage as capitalism has proven itself to be totally inadequate at dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Prior to its emergence, health officials and those operating our institutions have been calling out for much needed reform, and in essence, Covid-19 has put on an exhibition displaying how a purposefully neglected health care system functions, and what measures have to be resorted to in order to ensure the entire system doesn’t collapse.  The effects produced by Covid-19 will eventually pass, but in order to understand why it has had such a devastating impact on certain groups will require an investigation into those areas where economic disparities have been the driving force, and where the desire for change can still be heard.  

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