James Linney, in his last letter to the Weekly Worker, continues to argue for the position that the modern obesity epidemic in the UK results from a biological maladaptation by humans, who, he posits, evolved under conditions of calorific scarcity, compared to the supposed conditions of calorific abundance found under modern capitalism (Letters, October 1).
He again argues that humans acquired a genetic predisposition towards high levels of adiposity as an evolutionary survival mechanism in the pre-agricultural era, in which “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.”
Admittedly, James Linney’s claims appear to be in accord with widespread prevailing common sense. However, can we actually find any data to support his assertions? I will first consider the supposed chronic caloric insufficiency among hunter-gatherers or pre-agricultural peoples, before moving on to consider the evidence, or lack thereof, for his assumption that energy expenditure among such peoples was necessarily greater than among modern western populations.
In 2003, an Australian Aboriginal woman named Mary Pappen found a series of 20,000-year-old fossilised footprints in New South Wales. These footprints were the subject of an article by anthropologist Steve Webb, published in the Journal of Human Evolution in 2006. Webb’s paper includes a stride analysis of the footprints and a study of a collection of 17,000-year-old bones buried near the footprints. He found that the bones suggest the people were tall, in good health, and very athletic and calculated that one individual in a group of five hunters who left footprints at the site was running at the remarkable speed of 37 kilometres (23 miles) an hour - or as fast as a modern Olympic sprinter.
The record shows Australian Aboriginal populations (before the British invaders put them on rations of wheat flour, sugar and tea, whence they soon acquired metabolic dysfunction, obesity, diabetes and other chronic disease of civilisation) to have been tall, extremely fit, lean and highly muscular. If James Linney is not satisfied with this anthropological evidence, then I would strongly urge him to do a search for images of Aboriginal hunter-gatherers on the internet, or even look at the work of Weston A Price on indigenous peoples.
He will probably agree that, compared to fat tissue, which modern western populations carry in abundance, muscle tissue, which people such as Australian Aboriginal hunters and the Maasai moran carry in relatively higher proportions, is extremely expensive metabolically to build and maintain, requiring a consistently greater than adequate-for-survival intake of high-quality nutrients, such as protein, minerals and fat-soluble vitamins. Perhaps James Linney can explain how a population that faced chronic nutritional stress and caloric deficiency would be able to routinely maintain levels of fitness which, among modern populations, are only seen among highly trained and well-nourished Olympic athletes.
If this is not sufficient to discredit the assumption that such ‘technologically ill-equipped’ people as the Australian Aborigines faced lives of chronic poverty and nutritional stress, then consider the evidence of their hunting practices. Norman Tindale records that Aboriginal people prize kangaroo fat and, in their hunts, routinely discard any kill that is found to be too lean: “After killing the animal, they immediately inspect the body for evidence of the presence of caul fat. If the animal is fatless, it is usually left behind.”
Are these hunting practices consistent with chronic poverty or caloric and nutritional stress? I would argue not. I would also point out that, contrary to the racist beliefs held about them up to this day by their colonisers, Australian Aboriginal people had developed one of the most sophisticated human cultures of visual art, music, dance, ceremony and oral history. Such an advanced artistic culture could hardly have been maintained, let alone developed, under the conditions of chronic poverty, hunger and nutritional stress, which James Linney appears to believe to be the norm in all hunter-gatherer or pre-agricultural societies.
In 2005, Richard Steckel published a study of North American Indians, such as the Cheyenne, Sioux, Blackfeet and Comanche. This study questioned the usual Eurocentric stereotypes and assumptions and found that these peoples, who lived on buffalo, prior to their near extermination by the US army in the 19th century, to be among the tallest people in the world at the time (stature, once again, being a proxy for nutritional status) and concluded that, notwithstanding the effects of the diseases brought to North America by the colonisers, “the Plains Indians had a remarkable record of nutritional and health success, despite the enormous pressures they were under. They developed a healthy lifestyle that the white Americans couldn’t match, even with all of their technological advantages” (emphasis added).
One could scour the British colonial and anthropological records of people like the Maasai, Samburu and Dinka in Africa, Tokelau Islanders in the Pacific or the Inuit in the Arctic, and conclude that, before being reduced to consuming those products that Weston A Price called “the displacing foods of modern commerce”, indigenous people were almost universally well-nourished and remarkably free of diseases. If all known markers for nutritional status, including metabolic health, height, physical fitness and animal protein consumption, show indigenous and pre-agricultural peoples to have been more than adequately nourished by modern standards, then what can we say of their daily energy expenditure?
A study published in 2015 by Pontzer, Raichlen et al, titled ‘Energy expenditure and activity among Hadza hunter-gatherers’ found the daily total energy expenditure (TEE) of Hadza individuals to be largely independent of physical activity and not significantly different from other modern human populations. The paper concludes: “Physical activity may not predict TEE within traditional hunter-gather populations like the Hadza. Instead, adults with high levels of habitual physical activity may adapt by reducing energy allocation to other physiological activity.”
This study calls into question James Linney’s commonsensical belief that the high levels of obesity observed in capitalist, relative to hunter-gatherer, societies can be understood as the simple result of higher calorie intake and lower energy expenditure among people in capitalist societies. I will very briefly outline why this variation in obesity levels is actually better understood in terms of qualitative differences between the modern industrial and the hunter-gatherer diets, and the widely divergent responses of the human endocrine and metabolic regulatory systems to these diets.
I acknowledge that James Linney is correct in his understanding that a calorie is just a calorie, when measured in a calorimeter. However, the calorimeter is a poor model to use to understand the impact of different nutrients on the intricate cellular and extra-cellular biochemical regulatory and feedback mechanisms that govern human metabolism, including fat storage. These mechanisms could only begin to be understood in detail in the second half of the 20th century, when Rosalyn Yalow and Solomon Berson together discovered a method capable of measuring insulin and other peptide hormones in blood. Unfortunately, for various reasons - including commercial vested interests and professional scientific conservatism - the true implications of their work are not widely understood today.
Yalow and Berson showed that individuals with type-two diabetes had significantly higher levels of blood insulin than their healthy counterparts. They also found that the tissues of these diabetics did not respond properly to insulin. Later Gerard Reaven discovered the role of this insulin resistance in a cluster of diseases, which are generally referred to as metabolic syndrome.
Significantly, Jack Brink has observed that “fat, not meat, was the food source most sought after by all Plains Aboriginal cultures” - the peoples whom Richard Steckel found to “have a remarkable record of nutritional and health success”. Similarly, the Maasai moran, who today live on a 3000 calorie-per-day diet of milk, blood and meat, constituted of approximately 60% saturated fat, show no signs of insulin resistance or the cluster of conditions characterised by metabolic syndrome and found universally among the modern peoples, who everywhere subsist on “the displacing foods of modern commerce”.
The displacement from modern diets of energy sourced from natural fats like lard, tallow, butter and cheese, by calories from sugars and carbohydrates has led to a population with chronically high levels of insulin - precisely the hormone that promotes fat storage and inhibits the mobilisation of fatty acids for energy. This provides a hormonal mechanism to explain the obesity epidemic, linking it directly to the consumption of the displacing foods of modern commerce.
Those foods are cheap, but highly profitable to agribusiness firms like Unilever, Nestlé, Conagra, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Kraft, Coca Cola, and so on. These foods are consumed in disproportionately large quantities by the working classes and poor, and marginalised populations across the globe. For this reason, the carbohydrate-insulin model makes clear the origin of the double burden of malnutrition and obesity found side by side in capitalist societies. I would therefore argue that metabolic syndrome and obesity are best seen as diseases not of over-nutrition due to caloric surplus, as James Linney might claim, but as conditions of a form of malnutrition that has so far been specific to industrial capitalism.
I am aware that this entire argument conflicts with the modern ideology promoted by big public health, which - in alliance with big food, and discounting all the knowledge and experience accumulated by indigenous and hunter-gatherer peoples across the world over countless millennia - continue to push the idea that all calories are equivalent and that low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets are ideal for human health. I recognise that the notion that not all calories are equivalent from the point of view of human metabolism may wildly contradict James Linney’s world view.
Radical as this suggestion may seem, I would urge him to consider the possibility that some of the most cherished scientific ideas that we acquired from our undergraduate tutors and lecturers may not be the final word for all time on our subjects of specialisation. Indeed, they may turn out to be simply wrong. University of California, San Francisco researcher Cristin Kearns has used documents from university archives across the US to show how, through funding of scientists, the sugar industry was able to manipulate medical research and redirect blame for obesity and other chronic diseases from refined carbohydrates to fat. Meanwhile Anna Mangel, long-time editor of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, has gone on the record to say: “It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines.”
The only valuable scientific service - if we can call it that - performed by researchers who refuse to admit to the possibility that their most cherished ideas may be incorrect is to vindicate the physicist, Max Plank, in his dictum that “science advances, one funeral at a time”.
James Harvey assumes that a “demand for self-determination and the reunification of Ireland in a federal republic is top of the agenda for challenging the political power and constitutional status of capitalism” (‘Class struggle and reunification’, September 17). But his follow-up is full of evidence that no major social, political or economic force drives Ireland towards reunification - especially since he concedes that “the nature of the [reunified republic of Ireland], federal or otherwise, and the basis on which rights would be accorded to the British-Irish population still need to be defined” (‘Shared island or democratic republic?’, September 24).
This grudging reference to the “British-Irish population” - aka the Protestant/unionist community - undermines his bald claim that reunification is a - nay, the - democratic demand for the peoples of Ireland.
He rightly states that the power-sharing structure of the Good Friday agreement continues to shape the (political and) communal divisions within the Six Counties. But what does not follow is his deduction that this purportedly democratic demand must be at the top of the agenda for socialists and the labour movement in Ireland and Britain.
For those power-sharing structures avowedly privilege communalism in both major communities; the “internal dynamic within the unionist bloc” is by no means “given” (‘Class struggle and reunification’), but is nowadays the product precisely of its ‘divide and rule’ on the British-Irish community. Previously (1920-72) the dual neo-colonialist structure, and from 1972 direct rule, similarly operated a ‘divide and rule’ policy. But pointing this out does not lead to, or even towards, Harvey’s assumption that a 32-county decision is guaranteed to be democratic, even if a majority for reunification is the result. For it begs the question of how to convince the British-Irish community that the 32-county island is the right forum for a unitary decision (all this is clearly expressed in the requirement of two separate referendums, north and south, for unification to have a democratic validity). This is not rocket science.
What is still clearer now than in 1920 (two years after the 1918 general election results showed a clear majority in the Six Counties for unionist candidates taken together) that the British-Irish have not been convinced to accept an all-Ireland majority, unless it coincides with a majority on their part. This is the notorious ‘unionist veto’. Comrade Harvey has shown us no immediate or proximate way of overcoming it. So we are left with a status quo in which partition is currently entrenched and indeed secure.
Blaming British imperialism for this impasse shows no way of escaping from it. So by comrade Harvey’s own evidence Westminster will continue to retain sovereign power over the Six Counties. The Labour Party is therefore doomed to aim at eventually ruling the province, and certainly to providing the opposition to a Tory government which currently does so, and will do so well into the 2020s. While residents of Northern Ireland are subject to this system without the right to vote for or effectively against Westminster governments, they are oppressed by a profoundly undemocratic system - neo-colonialist to a T.
The ability to vote Labour - indeed actually casting a Labour vote - is no more Labourist in Northern Ireland than it is in Britain. Comrade Harvey’s “programme and perspectives” are thus empty and in the medium term at least, utopian; this gives the lie to his claim that he offers a link between class struggle and reunification. The democratic way forward is through democracy - the right to vote Labour. In the absence of that right, no UK government constitutional policy can carry any credence.
The UK figures for deaths from Covid-19 are overestimated because they include people who died ‘with’ the virus rather than ‘from’ it. That is why they were adjusted downwards. ‘Excess deaths’ is even more misleading, because it’s not Covid that is responsible for them, but the fact that lockdowns resulted in hospital admissions being curtailed, operations delayed and other factors that led to additional deaths that have nothing to do with Covid.
Similarly, the statement that 10% of people infected suffer some ‘long Covid’ illness is also poorly supported. For one thing, the data on such cases appears somewhat fuzzy, and can cover a wide range of symptoms and levels of seriousness. Moreover, as professor Sunetra Gupta has pointed out, such long-term effects are common to all viruses, not just Covid. But the proportion, even setting all that aside, is clearly wrong. We know that 30% of positive cases amongst those that are tested are not picked up. So, if we take a current average of positive tests of around 7,000, the real number should be 10,000. But that is only 10,000 positive cases amongst those tested - which represents a very small proportion of the population, and of those actually infected.
Given that 80% of people who are infected are asymptomatic, and that an additional number may experience worse symptoms, but not sufficient to seek medical help or testing, the number of positive, confirmed infections is actually only about 10% of the actual number of additional infections. So the actual number of new daily infections is around 10 times the reported infections - or around 100,000 new infections per day. This is one reason test and trace is never going to work.
With current deaths at an average of around 50, that gives a mortality rate currently of around 50:100,000 - or 0.05%, which is significantly lower than in the initial period. Then the rate was inflated by the high number of deaths in hospitals and care homes, where no protection for vulnerable people was provided. Similarly, in terms of long Covid, it means that the proportion is more like one in 100, not one in 10. The reality of the testing is that it’s pretty useless, with many of the same people being repeatedly tested, and tests only detecting (at best) if you currently have the virus, not if you have already had it and developed immunity against it - or if you contract it an hour after being tested: hence the need for repeated testing.
On ‘who controls’, clearly, under capitalism, capital controls, and there is no likelihood of that changing any time soon. So, as you point out in the Weekly Worker, no-one can consume unless workers produce, so for the benefit of all of us it’s important that the lockdown be ended, that the 80% of the population not at risk from the virus go about life as normal, and quickly develop herd immunity, given that a vaccine is at least a year away. The risk then to the vulnerable will also disappear. It’s also important that the lockdown be ended and production resume as normal, so that society can produce all of the resources required to ensure that the vulnerable 20% of the population can indeed be enabled to isolate from the risk of infection, and that all of the resources required for that can be produced.
As a result of Turkey’s foreign dependency and keeping up with the capitalist order, labour has always been competitive. In pre-Covid times, the elementary needs of the workers were always opposed by the bourgeoisie - including people who wanted to get rich in a short time. Covid has reminded us how to get rid of this foreign-dependent economy - by promoting production, agriculture and labour again.
Although Turkey contains much fertile and productive soil, even lentils have been imported. Even before Covid-19 the big cities were crowded - people had migrated there from the countryside, causing unemployment and poor working conditions. Instead agriculture should have been given financial support by the government, encouraging country craftsmen to stay and produce.
Since the country has been dependant on foreign sources, under the pro-market policies of the government, Covid testing and treatment has been very poor. And the recent ‘normalisation’ process was put into effect without any precautions to protect the health of working people. Governments all around the world should have imposed an absolute quarantine for 15-30 days in order to reduce and eliminate the pandemic before it spread.
Covid-19 has become an issue for drug monopolies around the world. Not only have working people become more impoverished, but also the gap between wealthy people and middle class has been growing - which is obvious in Turkey.
For example, while students attending private colleges and universities are able to access the information they need through technological devices and an education system which was easily adapted to distance learning, their peers attending state schools living in poor districts cannot easily access the website operated by the ministry of national education - some of them do not even have a computer.
But Covid-19 has made people aware of nature’s healing properties, which means some have moved to the countryside, in the hope of living in more comfortable conditions.
It is not pessimistic to point out facts, limits, barriers and dangers. The science around climate change is not a pessimistic science; it is just science, albeit with certain interests. But what science doesn’t come with interests?
Comparing the flight of an arrow to agriculture is not helpful in addressing these problems; it certainly doesn’t put the green movement to bed once and for all. I do hope Marxists are not peddling this line out there in the ‘real world’. Is it any wonder we are not taken seriously in academic circles with drivel like this?
According to Daniel Lazare, “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” (Letters, October 1).
It is probably too soon to make that assumption - yes, 300 years really is too soon. It is also not the correct trend to look at, or the only one. The rate of growth of productivity is important too. This rate is non-linear, and is more a punctuated trend, where specific developments can result in huge leaps of productivity. For example, the change to the power loom raised productivity massively rather than incrementally.
The limits, which are becoming ever more evident - both in technological progress and natural - will also affect the trend. The rate of technological progress is difficult to ascertain, but can be measured, and what is the relation between the rate of technological progress and the advancement of science? We have known about nuclear fusion for decades, but harnessing this science is problematic. So the rate of technological progress has slowed markedly in this area. What will the future trend be? Who can tell? But the limits of nature can be ascertained, given what we know now.
To illustrate, we went from the invention of the aircraft to landing on the moon relatively quickly, but getting to Mars is a whole different challenge. But by Daniel Lazare’s logic we should be on Alpha Centauri by now! But, if we reach the same impasse in agriculture that we have reached with space travel, then the rate of productivity can go the other way. So to say it is infinite is just plain wrong. And, more to the point, it doesn’t actually solve the real-world problems.
Engels said a lot of really stupid things: for example, the more science progresses disinterestedly, the better it is for the labour movement. As if science ever progresses disinterestedly!
The department for education, no less, has recently told schools that they cannot use teaching material that calls for the end of capitalism, because it is an “extreme political stance”. Extreme, sensible (and much over-due, some of us might say), but apparently anti-capitalism is much the same as opposition to freedom of speech; or the endorsement of illegal activities, and violence against people or property. Plus endorsing racism, anti-Semitism and violence, or the overthrow of democracy.
The minister, Gavin Williamson, clearly knows what he’s doing (?). It’s as if Dominic Cummings had set Johnson’s cabinet of clowns a bit of homework. What to do about immigrants - send them to the south Atlantic. What to do about commies - ban them in schools. What to do about Covid 19 - er, don’t know. This is the same Williamson who presided over the A level and GCSE results mess and who ordered the reopening of schools and universities with precious little, if any, guidance or preparation. Many teachers and leaders have fortunately put a good bit more thought into the operation.
Governments like censorship; we only need to look briefly around the world to know that. But, back at home in the UK, Conservative governments especially love censorship. We had Margaret Thatcher’s section 28, which was to stop teachers from ‘promoting’ homosexuality in schools. Not that teachers were doing so, but the act warmed the hearts of Conservatives, while chilling young people’s expressions of their own lived experience - win, win for Thatcher.
But, to quote Wikipedia, “The law’s existence caused many groups to close or limit their activities or self-censor. For example, a number of lesbian, gay and bisexual student support groups in schools and colleges across Britain were closed owing to fears by council legal staff that they could breach the act.” The act was repealed after Thatcher went, but …
How to administer the anti-capitalism rules? Williamson would obviously have no idea, so he would have to outsource it. Deloitte will happily take the money, but, since they would have no idea either, they’d have to sub-contract it. Serco would be happy to take the money too, but who next down the chain? An obvious answer would be the Vatican. It’s been quite some time since the ‘Index Librorum Prohibitorum’ was stopped in 1966, but they’re bound to have written guidance (perhaps in Latin) that could be followed for the task. Johnson would like the Latin bit, even if he too didn’t know what was going on.
Well, next, who to ban. We have William Blake with his ‘dark satanic mills’. We have Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose response to the perfectly understandable Peterloo massacre was to write a poem ending with “Ye are many - they are few”. The variation on this used by Jeremy Corbyn proves it’s anti-capitalist.
Then we have Upton Sinclair, whose 1906 novel The Jungle revealed something of the horrors, in work and sanitary conditions, of the meat slaughter and packing industry in Chicago at the time. Such was the outcry that some sanitary regulation was put through. Working conditions? Less so. But then he and other American writers like, say, Jack London, Ralph Nader … don’t matter, since Michael ‘The Americans can’t write in English’ Gove has already taken care of them.
There is a danger though. Banning a book, or trying to, can make it a sure-fire best seller - just look at Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s the same with pop music. The BBC ban on Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ surely helped propel it to number one! And in schools? Is it wise to try and stop teenagers from reading something you don’t like?
This is a nasty and potentially dangerous move by this rightwing government; so excuse me for not treating it entirely seriously here. But I think that something ridiculous deserves a bit of ridicule.
The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority has been accused of ‘artificially inflating’ the number of ‘affordable’ homes it has delivered.
Apparently, the authority is struggling to prove to the government that it is playing a significant role in the delivery of 540 homes - more than a quarter of its target. Whatever the details of the discrepancy, the government’s attempt to solve the housing crisis by subsidising the private property market has been shown to be a complete failure. It is also a waste of £100 million of taxpayers’ money. It would be far better for this money to be used to build energy-efficient, quality council houses and flats with low rents.
Marxists like me approach the housing crisis in a similar way that Lenin and the Bolshevik Party won over 135 million Russian peasants in the lead-up to the October 1917 revolution. At the time, the peasants wanted their own land. In 2020, opinions polls show that 90% of young couples in Britain want to own their own home. The reality for most young couples is that home ownership is only a pipedream - made worse by the huge expansion of ‘buy to let’ landlordism under Tony Blair’s New Labour.
Ironically, most Tory Party members, activists and councillors are ‘buy to let’ landlords. It is high time that all of them were put out of business. The first thing that must be done is to abolish mortgage interest tax relief for such landlords. The second is that rent controls and rent control officers should be brought back. The third is that the so-called ‘right to buy’ should be ended. The fourth is that local councils should borrow the money to build thousands of new council houses and flats.
Young couples could then occupy council housing with its attendant low rents, whilst they saved up the deposit to buy a home on the open market.