Under the neoliberal regime of accumulation, income differences between classes widen, leading to a reduction in the purchasing power of the proletariat. However, in order to avert severe deficiencies in aggregate demand, contemporary capitalists have constructed Wal-Mart producer-consumer relationships wherein “[c]heap goods made by cheaper labor (including the superexploitation of third world labor) prop up the declining wages of the middle class; their spending keeps the economy plodding along.”
Political Economy of Bulimia
A paradigmatic example of the abovementioned economic relation is the fast-food industry. Unlike the Keynesian era, which was constituted by a social wage that supported demand for Fordist manufacture, the low-wage neoliberal economy “actively produced by McDonald’s and its ilk makes people dependent on fast, cheap food.” In keeping with the neoliberal emphasis on the intensification of commodification, the generalization of fast-food is also accompanied by the creation of new needs and desires that can absorb the increasing supply of cheap food from big corporates. But one soon encounters the problem of market glut – big businesses reach the maximum amount of food that a single person can consume. Neoliberalism’s response is “to create purchasable solutions to the problems it generates. One solution…is to commodify dieting as well as eating”. At the same time as neoliberal discourses encourage people to consume more, they culturally value those who are able to avoid its supposedly harmful physical consequences i.e. fatness. The process of disciplining fat bodies and re-incorporating them into the dominant themes of thinness is paradoxically predicated on further consumption (of exercise club memberships, health foods, diet plans, etc.). This economic model of bulimia – promoting both out-of-control food consumption and hyper-vigilant dieting – turns human bodies into economic assets from which big businesses can profit in multiple ways.
The contradictory processes of a culture of bulimia have been propped up by the Medical Industrial Complex (MIC) and the health industry – branches of the capitalist economy that have functioned in tandem with neoliberal governments and pliant media apparatuses to frame fatness as a grave disease requiring various forms of treatment. These powerful actors have referred to it as the “obesity epidemic” – a narrative that is based on questionable scientific evidence. In “Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic,” J. Eric Oliver writes, “[a]lthough heavier people tend to die more frequently than people in mid-range weights, it is by no means clear that their weight is the cause of their higher death rates.” Whereas doctors, public health agencies, and the corporate media repeatedly highlight “the connections between being too fat and various ailments…this…is a misperception. Obesity has not been found to be a primary cause of any of these conditions. Yes, heart disease, diabetes, and other ailments are more common among the obese than the non-obese, but there is little evidence that adiposity (that is, excess fat tissue) is producing these pathologies.” In other words, major studies have simply compared health status of obese people to others, ignoring confounding factors. Apart from statistical extremes, high body mass is a very weak predictor of mortality. Alternative large-scale studies “have found no increase in relative risk among the so-called ‘overweight’ [Body Mass Index between 25 and 29.9], or have found a lower relative risk for premature mortality among this cohort than among persons of so-called ‘normal’ or ‘ideal’ [sic] weight.” This repudiation of loose statistical conjectures regarding fatness and mortality has led to more logical questions that emphasize how overweight people “are less likely to seek regular medical care, the consequence of the prejudice they often encounter among medical professionals”.
Despite scientific evidence that reveals the inaccuracies of medical narratives about obesity, the idea of fatness as always unhealthy and the concomitant valorization of thinness continue to be entrenched. This is so because it opens the possibly never-ending project of weight loss, making fat people the best consumers. “Sustaining the problem status of fatness is beneficial to a number of actors. The obesity epidemic discourse has promoted fatness as a business opportunity for the dietary, pharmaceutical, fitness, biotechnology, food, news, and entertainment industries among others.” The hegemony of anti-obese narratives has distorted the public’s perception of fat people, giving rise to harmful anti-obesity strategies that “currently involve speculative and costly investment in disrupting energy balance, food taxation and marketing, coercive physical activity, genetic engineering, pharmacological and surgical interventions and sanctions against fat people, as well as public-private partnerships with the weight loss industry”. This medical model regarding fatness depoliticizes the experiences of fat people, considering them to be individuals who have failed in regulating their impulses and thus deserve moral condemnation.
The medical judgment of fat people as morally irresponsible is closely linked to the healthist ideology of neoliberalism. In contemporary capitalist societies, the lack of safety net or welfare means that people have to endure great pressures to improve their employability and compete on the ruthless arena of market forces. Individuals are expected to constantly work on their bodies in order to prove themselves as morally responsible, and economically productive. The hetero-patriarchal and white supremacist character of neoliberal capitalism means that the ideal citizen is always imagined as thin, white, male and able-bodied. These cultural norms that constitute healthist ideals are formed through discourses of moralization that praise some and enact shame against others, with the underlying goal being to generate new hegemonic narratives of happiness and repress the possible emergence of subaltern resistance. Within these bio-pedagogies of health and happiness, fat people represent failed citizens, “the slow, unwell, undisciplined and unemployable losers in the race of life whose only chance of betterment is by participating within neoliberal health regimes.” The fat body becomes an embodiment of irresponsibility, cast out from mainstream bio-pedagogies as an entity that deserves to be judged negatively in front of everyone. One of the primary parameters of judgment is supplied by the logic of austerity that drives neoliberalism. In a world where “the body is expected to be productive, cost-effective, and dynamic…[the] less the individual needs public services the more cost-effective and productive/profitable the individual appears from the state’s point of view.” Thus, the goal of neoliberal governmentality is to build individuals who are self-responsible, whose efficiency in the personal management of their health renders unnecessary any kind of state intervention. Hannele Harjunen notes how this discursive world of austerity stigmatizes fat people for being costly:
[C]ostliness is constructed, for example, through the stereotype of fat people as ill, overconsuming, unproductive, and morally wanting. Fat people are seen as unproductive, ineffective and as a (public) expense. In public discourse the fat body is regularly used as a representation as well as a metaphor to represent and as a culprit of a “bloated” public economy, which is in need of cuts. Interventions that aim at changing the fat body are treated as analogous to interventions that are needed to fix the ailing public economy…Even the terms used to discuss fatness come from the economic sphere such as a “risk”, “surplus”, “excess”, “waste”, and “burden”.
The failure of fat people to comply with the normative structures of thin, healthy and successful bodies – a social status that is based upon consumption, accumulation and the defense of profit-maximizing behavior – denotes a radical alternative to these dominant modes of engagement. In medical discourses, the failure of fatness to accept healthist values is constantly regarded as highly morbid, associated with the rise of diabetes and heart disease, the coming catastrophe of the “obesity time-bomb” and the degradation of public health systems. In this cultural imaginary, fatness is posed either as a threat to the civilizational vigor of humanity or a self-destructive force that will kill obese people themselves. In “No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive,” Lee Edelman considers this chaotic space of existential threat, this possibility of total death, to be a form of queer resistance. Whereas the societal project of the ruling classes is based on reproductive futurism – the unrelenting movement towards a glorious future – queerness is based on the death drive that is disavowed by this futurist agenda, the anti-social tendency that is repressed by the given social order. The core of futurism consists of the figure of the Child, on whose behalf efforts are undertaken to preserve the status quo. In Edelman’s theory, the Child’s Other is the queer – that which “comes to figure the bar to every realization of futurity,” the radical element that disrupts the political reproduction of the Child and hence opposes ruling class futurism.
Fatness, identified by anti-obesity discourses as a fundamental threat to human health and life, functions as one of the criteria through which the neoliberal subject measures its rational correspondence with the figure of the capitalist Child. Whereas as the fat individual is immoral and unproductive – requiring excessive demands from others – the neoliberal individual is moral and productive – consistently competing in the capitalist market to achieve self-sufficiency. Whereas the former rejects the collective reproduction of the futural Child and instead remains obstinately fixed in the messiness of the present, the latter submissively forsakes the present to work for the capitalist future. Here, the queer failure to conform to neoliberal norms has the political potential to dissect the complexities of the present and open up the privatized individuality and ideal citizenship of neoliberalism to multifarious modes of being. Given the neoliberal hostility towards obese people, these ways of living are not oriented towards participation in the system as no institutions exist to help fat people in any meaningful way. The only way the fat community survives without pursuing a politics of assimilation is by helping each other – queered fatness is maintained by a solidaristic, non-monetary economy of shared, reciprocal care. However, queer fat activism is not something that automatically emerges from experiences of fatphobia. When a fat woman fails to meet the desired expectations of the heteronormative male gaze, or when a fat Black woman is racialized as a parasitic sloth, there emerges a possibility for political radicalization. It is the duty of Communist politics to realize that possibility, to wage a militant struggle for fat liberation and the destruction of neoliberal capitalism.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at email@example.com. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.