Thank you to Gary Simons for his considered letter, raising some objections to the scientific content of my article about the government’s recent published obesity strategy (September 3).
I agree with his first point that studies have shown obesity to be a significant risk factor in suffering a serious Covid-19 illness. My point, however, was that it is by no means the only risk factor; and weight loss strategies, no matter how successful, are not going to ‘beat’ Covid-19. My point that even a good obesity strategy would be unlikely to have a significant impact on Covid-19 was made to highlight how quickly Covid-19 is able to spread and kill, versus the time it would take millions of people to successfully lose weight. A point made not to discourage people from losing weight, but to counter some of the misguiding hyperbole made by the government’s PR supporting its obesity strategy.
Moving on to his objections to me citing the ‘set point’ theory for weight loss/gain in humans: firstly, in my defence, the intricacies of the biochemical mechanism of weight homeostasis was slightly beyond the scope of both my article and my expertise. I am prepared to concede that, as the authors of the paper (Muller et al) that Gary quotes from conclude, there has been an overreliance on the textbook biological ‘set point’ model for explaining weight homeostasis. That said, there is nothing in the literature that contradicts the point I was making, which was that weight loss in obesity is a more complex process than simply individual willpower and dieting; one involving our genes, epigenetics and the effects of a modern obesogenic environment. A point, I think, which refutes Gary’s later claim that I “subscribe to the conventional ‘calorie in, calorie out’ model for weight gain”.
Finally, as to Gary’s question, “What survival advantage is there to a hunter-gatherer in an adaptation that causes them to become fat on their natural diet?” I would say, an adaptation that evolved during a time that encompassed the vast majority of human history, where people inevitably experienced episodes of food scarcity and where the balance between calorie availability and daily calorie expenditure was very different to one in a modern/late capitalist society.
Gary’s “abundant herds of buffalo that historically roamed the plains of Africa or North America” sounds great, but we are talking about small human populations, technologically ill-equipped, trying to survive and hunt (and avoid being hunted) over vast distances. Compare this to the environment we now have in the UK, where capitalism increasingly favours workers that are sedentary, time-poor consumers. Where you are in the minority if you manage an hour of moderate exercise a day - something that can be easily undone (and more) in five minutes by drinking a 330ml can of the world’s most advertised and biggest selling soft drink.
Sorry, but Engels is right when he says: “The productivity of land can infinitely be increased by the application of capital, labour and science.” And Chris Gray makes an elementary mathematical mistake when he says, “Yes, these powers of nature can do good, but the possibilities are certainly not limitless” (‘Arguing against the wrong “Marxism”‘, September 17).
Engels was not talking about limitlessness, but about infinite increase, which is very different. The best example of the latter is Zeno’s paradox about an arrow in flight. The arrow takes a certain finite amount of time to complete half its journey, another finite amount to complete the next fourth, yet another to complete the next eighth, and so on. Increase is infinite, since the process can go on indefinitely. But ultimately the distance the arrow travels is finite.
To put this in the language of ecology and Marxism, this means that we can keep increasing agricultural output year in and year out with no end in sight. In the US, agricultural land usage has declined roughly 25% since 1948, while corn output has more quadrupled and real consumer prices have steadily fallen. To be sure, the picture is less impressive when environmental externalities are taken into account. But the basic trend is unmistakable - rising productivity means a growing ability to make more out of less - and there is no indication that the process is about to end any time soon.
This doesn’t mean that limits don’t exist. Theoretically, they must exist somewhere. But we just don’t know where. The bottom line is that Marxists should concede nothing to green pessimism concerning limits to growth.
Although I agree with Daniel Lazare that politics in the United States is in a parlous situation - but then where is it not, I wonder? - I am getting a little tired of his incessant doom-saying and lack of any thought for the future. Yes, indeed, Trump would like to be a dictator, but would it really be in his interests to be carried out of the White House kicking and screaming?
With all of his hype and bluster, he needs to do something afterwards. He is first and foremost a businessman. Hopefully he will go back to business, where he can lose money to his heart’s content. But his oft quoted statement that he will “make America great” is clearly not believed by any except his most fanatical followers. In the US’s declining state, whoever wins the next election may wish he hadn’t.
But my major difficulty with Daniel Lazare’s constant negativity is not his analysis: it is his complete lack of any suggestions of what leftwing Americans should do. ‘A plague on both your houses’ is a popular way of absenting oneself from any action or responsibility, and in my mind it is a dereliction of duty.
If DL is correct, and change has to come to the US - and possibly soon - then surely any leftwing person would want to help energise the forces that might propel that change. With only 16% of workers being in trade unions, massive struggle is not going to come from that direction. So surely Americans have to look for another avenue in which to help foment action. Unfortunately for political struggle, the US is enormous, and there is no left party that appears in all states. All third parties throughout the history of the US have reached at most 20 states. So activists have to work where they are. The only party that appears in all states is the Democratic Party.
Certainly, the Democratic Party is not leftwing, but some of its adherents are moving in that direction. Surely the appropriate thing to do in these circumstances is to be involved in both a left organisation and the Democratic Party, and to work to undermine the right from within.
If one votes in the US (as I do) one cannot simply sit in a corner and carp. One has to be involved in some way - in my case by helping get the vote out there and being involved in left politics here. I know that Biden is a conservative, and I know that we’re dealing with the ‘evil of two lessers’, which is what they used to say in my young days. But I agree with Lazare in this sense - that what is happening now is possibly one of the greatest threats to not only American politics, but to world politics. But, unlike DL, I am not going to sit still and let it happen for another four years.
Every day the press - or at least the finance pages - bears grim news of company failures, shop chain closures, redundancies. One can only read them in wonder and think, ‘What a surprise!’ Last week Rishi Sunak warned of a winter of rising unemployment and “Axe set to fall on 1m jobs this year,” said the Financial Times (September 26). The already inadequate furlough is set to be replaced with something even more inadequate.
Beyond the headlines we are looking at hundreds of thousands or even millions of lives ruined - and that’s just in Britain. But we don’t know how many and we probably never will.
Mrs Thatcher came to power in part based on a campaign of ‘Labour isn’t working’ - fair enough, with unemployment at around one and a quarter million - but the Tories quickly managed to drive that up to over three million. Norman Tebbit famously said that when his father faced long-term unemployment he “got on his bike to look for work”. Nearly as famously at the time, though largely forgotten now, was Tebbit’s determination to “massage the figures” on unemployment.
When he left office as the (un)employment minister, The Guardian reported that the ways of counting unemployment had been changed 19 times. One of the biggest changes made at the time was the encouragement of unemployed workers to get signed off as sick by their GP. In many cases this was quite simple, given the prevalence of bad backs, black lung and many other work-related ailments. This particular device has, of course, been reversed under ‘austerity’, as people with debilitating or even terminal illnesses are with sadistic formality deemed ‘fit to work’.
I would suggest that nobody now has the faintest idea of how many workers are unemployed. The press, again, quotes figures every now and then, generally without question, but I think we can confidently assert that they are woefully underestimated. It may be that an academic or a union researcher can get some idea by poring over assorted statistics, but certainly neither the government nor the mainstream media has any interest in letting us know the truth.
There are millions of workers now classed as self-employed - either struggling with a small business of their own (window cleaning, anyone?) - or are forced to describe themselves as such to get work in the so-called ‘gig economy’. I recall reading that a very high proportion of the ‘self-employed’ are getting less than half the minimum wage.
People who have their benefits cut off are taken from the figures until, in so many cases, they win their appeal. Asylum-seekers don’t count, and many immigrants stay under the radar to avoid the risk of deportation - look what happened to so many of the ‘Windrush generation’.
This government is set to make a bad situation even worse - it seems to be what they do. Millions of workers and their children face utter destitution and homelessness. There are foodbanks and Momentum is launching an “eviction resistance campaign”. The fight against evictions played a big part in working class struggles in the latter part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. And good luck to them all, but the working class needs a lot more than this; the need for a Communist Party becomes ever more urgent.
Days like this
Faced with rising tides of rightwing populism and even neo-Nazi nationalism within its member-states, the European Union has conceded changes to its rules about their absorption of “quotas” of migrants arriving from overseas - now to be replaced with a scheme whereby a prompt “repatriation” can take place for those deemed to be “irregular”. On the other side of the pond, head honchos within the Republican Party have announced that an “orderly” and “peaceful” transference will take place, should Donald Trump lose the November presidential election.
Meanwhile, schools in inner London are being constructed with luxury apartments towering above them, given the investment ‘opportunity’ and gentrified location - of course, with the parents of those school kids along with any other local working families only able to dream about being the tenants.
And some fools around would have us believe that history ended with those late 20th century implosions of Stalinism’s regimes; that the post-World War II economic boom somehow negates Marxism’s fundamental tenets; moreover, that capitalism is neither authoritarian nor despotic. They are fools with those genius concepts of theirs about bourgeois democratic structures having an intrinsically progressive nature; about capitalism being wonderfully good or at least a better system than any ‘realistic’ alternative.
An ocean-going yacht, standing in a landlocked backyard, next to the shed in which it was built - that’s the communist movement, as currently both perceived and projected. And the stuff on offer from capitalism? Well, ghost trains to nowhere hurtling along twisted old tracks, but still presented as an exciting race! Now surely this is what people who know perfectly well they’re the working class are waiting to engage with - these messages being sent out that their ears will hear as music. This communist truth is about a future of clean-air woodlands with dappled glades, rather than a clambering over slippery rocks in rat-encouraging caves, as is the promise from our current elites.
But, then again, as Van ‘The Man’ Morrison advises in his song, “My mother told me there’d be days like this!”
A friend of mine once asked me why I write letters to my local newspapers, given that I cannot change things. My answer to him is that I am not trying to change things: I am just trying to make people think. This is something that also applies to the letters I write to the Weekly Worker. By the method of contrasts similar to a mini-polemic, I try to make the readers of the Weekly Worker think, even though many readers often fervently disagree with what I write.
My letter writing became more prolific in 2003 after I read Persistence - the story of a British communist, the autobiography of John Peck, who had been a CPGB district organiser for Yorkshire in the 1950s. In 1988 Peck became a CPGB councillor in Nottingham. Unfortunately, by the late 1980s, he was a Eurocommunist, and in 1991 joined the Green Party.
However, what I learnt from the book was the importance for communists of writing regularly to our local newspapers. In the book John Peck details a conversation he had in the early 1950s with Phil Piratin - former CPGB MP and at the time circulation manager of the Daily Worker. Phil’s advice to Peck was that he had a short name, so he must let everybody know it by regularly writing to the press. Peck took note of that advice and wrote regularly to his local newspapers. This is something I have tried to copy.
In writing letters to these two local newspapers I can get the pulse of the local population via the replies to my letters the following week. My biggest response to one of my letters came in 1995, when I had a letter in the Fenland Citizen about married women working. I had 19 replies in the first week following my letter, and another six in the second. The first 19 replies took up a double page spread of closely typed text.
Over the years I have developed a good rapport with the editors of both the Fenland Citizen and the Wisbech Standard/Cambs Times. To keep in the editors’ good books, I often tip them off about things going on - I helped a family who were being evicted on Boxing Day get featured on the front-page of the Citizen and as a result it was postponed.
I find writing extremely hard work. However, I have been aided by reading the book: Lucid, vigorous and brief - advice to new writers, by the late Peter Fryer - ex-Daily Worker journalist and then a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party. I highly recommend this book, which explains how to communicate your thoughts clearly.
Whilst not all comrades are lucky enough like me to have two excellent local papers to write to - some parts of Yorkshire, Wales and Scotland have no local papers at all - I suggest that writing short letters where they can will help ground communists in the real world.