Capitalism Series #1 – Introduction

Sitting at the bottom of my closet now are 6 pairs of near-identical white trainers, albeit second-hand. Every time I open the door and happen to see them, I’m transported back to Paris this August just passed, to a street right in the centre overlooking the famous Seine where the picturesque and elegantly decaying buildings housed the likes of Prada. Gucci and Chanel, some of the most well-known and sought-after fashion brands. Even at 9am there was a lot of foot traffic – primarily tourists – who would glance and stare at the windows as they passed. There were few people actually in the shops. I reached a corner and was about to turn when the shoe display of one such store caught my eye (surprise, surprise) and what I saw caught me right off guard. There, behind the glass, were four pairs of designer white trainers lined up in a row with three digit price tags, pristine white except for the strategically placed artificial scuff and dirt marks on their surface. Really. The people who could afford such shoes i.e. the rich were willing to pay several hundred euros for shoes that looked already worn. God forbid they actually just go on eBay and buy a pre-loved pair for €5. No, instead people are willing to pay to get the clout that comes with designer brands but also the appearance of being relaxed, a person not overly preoccupied by fashion or their appearance. Ha.

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Capitalism itself is based on an ideology, namely that the more work one puts in, the more benefits they reap. It’s been a while since Adam Smith wrote of the “invisible hand” that guides the market and we’re still recovering from that post-WWII slap in the face.We say that so-and-so is ‘self-made’, that anyone from any walk of life can change their circumstances and go from rags to riches provided that they’re willing to work and sacrifice for it. In short, the capitalist system is founded on the illusion that we live in a meritocratic society, an illusion that actually favours those born into privilege and hurts those who aren’t. In truth, we do not live in a world where one’s hard work pays off; the individual must first overcome any number of social and psychological barriers that make such a transformation near impossible.

Benjamin is born at St Mary’s Hospital in London at 03:06 to parents Lucy and Richard. Manawa is born on the same ward 27 minutes later to parents Maia and Ari. Though they live in the same borough they go to different schools, Benjamin attending a private academy while Manawa goes to the good local state school. Benjamin receives extra tuition and is taught by academics who are famous in their field. Manawa achieves top grades in school thanks to her natural intellect and drive to succeed, even though she misses lesson time when she is on her period or if her teachers go on strike, which happens three times in her schooling career. Benjamin achieves todes at A-level and Lucy and Richard are both proud and relieved that their time and means allowed their child to achieve academic success. Manawa also achieves top grades for which she is grateful to her parents and school for the support they were able to give her through a difficult though formative time. Benjamin applies and is accepted to a Russel Group university where he studies comfortably throughout his degree. He goes out with his friends a couple of nights a week and though his grades aren’t perfect he likes that he’s been able to juggle school and a social life. He mainly relies on his maintenance loan to live day-to-day, though his parents pay is annual rent and occasionally pay for his shopping. Manawa also receives a place at a Russel Group university. With her parents unable to subsidize her living costs, Manawa must work a part-time job on the side to compensate for the living costs her loan doesn’t cover. She rarely socializes and sometimes struggles to study as she fairly regularly experiences burn-out. While Benjamin identifies with many of his fellow classmates and the major names studied on his course, Manawa –  though she has friends – feels a distinct sense of isolation. She studies few women on her course, let alone women who are not white. In later life, Manawa finds it more difficult to get a job as employers are put off by the name on her CV. Benjamin is easily and warmly accepted into the fold. Both Benjamin and Manawa marry and have children, however childcare is so expensive that Manawa must take time off work and subsequently is not put up for the promotion she was hoping for while Benjamin’s earning potential continues to grow.

I could go on, but it’s easy to see how we do not live in a society that rewards merit above all else, that in fact circumstance, sex, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion and class are all key determinant factors in how our lives play out. That’s why I’ve decided to begin a short series on capitalism and its intersections. I want to explore the differing ways in which our social model responds to or neglects the needs of the people as the social, economical and political are all intricately woven into the fabric of modern society.

The Importance Of…battling burnout

Today, we live in a burnout culture. I have mentioned this phenomenon before in previous posts and no wonder, because it is has such a pervasive, damaging effect on how we work and live our lives in the 21st century. This ‘burnout’ may manifest itself in different ways i.e. stress, fatigue or anxiety, though what is clear is that the primary offender is often one’s work life.

When trying to juggle and manage a demanding schedule and unrelenting work commitments, the first sacrifice to be made is almost always sleep. The clinical psychologist Vicki Culpin writes in The Business of Sleep that we are currently suffering from a “sleep epidemic”; Denis Campbell draws attention to the findings of The National Sleep Foundation in an article for The Guardian, which indicates that 16% of adults in the UK sleep for less that 6 hours a night. Inevitably, people often turn to artificial stimulants to compensate for the consequences of a lack of sleep with energy drinks, strong coffee and even caffeine tablets presenting themselves as a way to continue to function throughout the working day. Never mind leisure time, any spare moment throughout the week or even the weekend is precious and to be used to catch up on all things that pile up outside of work, such as doctors appointments, laundry, shopping or cleaning. When one has an unhealthy work/life balance, all other areas of life become marginalized so that life has little purpose outside an office cubicle.

It is abundantly clear that this emphasis on overwork and the idea that salary and career should come first has a hugely detrimental impact on the psyche of workers and society as a whole. A recent study shows that when people feel a degree of power after, say, after a promotion or a salary increase, they are less likely to be empathetic towards others – in indication that the philosophy our work culture is based on favors an unhealthy breed of individualism over collective social well being. Christopher Harvey’s article for GQ calls attention to the urgency and gravity of the issue, hilighting that

Half of all employees do not feel their workplace is an emotionally healthy environment, with 55 per cent of organisations having no formal strategy for handling employee wellbeing. Absenteeism increased 25 per cent over the course of the past year in the UK, highlighting that burnout is set to get worse, not better.

Overwork and burnout have become badges of honor that employees wear with pride, many people familiar with the routine smug moaning bragging of their colleagues over how little sleep they’ve had or how many hours overtime they just had to put in the night before. How much one works has morphed into a way to judge others on their work ethic, with colleagues routinely battling it out to be the most assiduous worker, a phenomenon known as “busy bragging”.

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Though this might appear to work in the favour of employers, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that work-related stress and sleep deprivation, however dedicated employees may be, leads to a less productive and efficient work force. When companies exert too much pressure on their employees, it becomes harder and harder to retain staff, leading to a high staff turnover. A Forbes article calls attention to the fact that

As many as one million people per day miss work because of stress. Studies suggest that all of this translates into a loss of anywhere from $150 billion to $300 billion annually for U.S. employers. The effects of burnout take a toll not only on individuals, but also on businesses and the economy.

Paradoxically, overwork does not equate to higher levels of productivity but instead only to those of work-related mental and physical health issues such as depression, anxiety and high blood pressure.

Perhaps, to curb the effects of this dangerous trend, we should re-envision what it means to be a working man or woman in 2018. Though it may sound naive and idealistic, this should be the year that we change our workplace culture so that the well being and mental health of employees comes before profit at all costs. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle sets out how he believes the ideal state should be constituted, happiness the central idea behind a functioning, flourishing society. For Aristotle, all actions have ends though some are subordinate to others, the ultimate end being that of ‘eudaimonia’ or human flourishing, essentially “doing and living well”. Moreover, while individual happiness is of value, it again is subordinate to the happiness and flourishing of a community, a philosophy we would do well to incorporate into our profit-driven modern society. Work is a means to an end – that being the happiness or flourishing of ourselves and our community – rather than an end in itself.

More and more, we are seeing corporate wellness programmes enter the workplace which give staff the opportunity to engage in activities such as mindfulness, yoga and exercise to improve their mental and physical health, though admittedly these are the companies that can afford such expenditure on their staff – often not the case for the majority of businesses. Instead, then, perhaps employers could be encouraged to try to engage with staff more on a personal basis, give them more credit for the work they put in and cease to encourage employees to work until breaking point by removing the individual pressure placed on them. It is becoming abundantly clear that businesses need to start putting people before profit not only because it is the right thing to do but also because a happy, healthy workforce is crucial to a well-functioning economy.

the filth of ‘clean’ eating

The other day, I was stacking shelves where I work and was shocked at the conversation I overheard between two young girls popping in for a post-workout snack which went something like this: “I want to buy something healthy – what about these gluten-free dairy-free brownies? Or the vegan wheat-free flapjacks?” “Oh but look at the price” “Oh yeah *groan* it’s so hard to eat healthy – it’s all so expensive”. The girls left the shop with only a small pot of melon slices each – apparently it was the only ‘healthy’ food on offer that they could afford. I was left rather confused and disgusted, having been confronted with the inescapable force of the food trend that everyday shows itself to be more and more problematic, that being the ‘clean’ eating phenomenon that seems to have stealthily taken over attitudes towards food in recent years.

The link between poor mental health and ‘clean’ eating is undeniable, particularly when in is exacerbated by the pressure and strains of social media. The subject has been well documented by health organizations, the eating disorder charity Beat recording a rise in the number of calls to its hotline over the past few years linked to anxiety overly restrictive food rules.bloog1 Documentaries such as the BBC’S Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets and Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth have exposed the fragility of many of the claims being made and the impact they have on those exposed to them. Eating disorders are serious mental conditions that can have devastating consequences – anorexia having the highest mortality rate of any mental illness – and affect all age groups, ethnicities and genders. Recently, the phenomena of orthorexia, defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy”, has come to popular attention, though it cannot currently be clinically diagnosed. Social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook alongside other sharing platforms like Youtube act like a petri dish, facilitating the growth of myriad restrictive and absolutist diet trends that often overlap and contradict one another, flying in the face of well-researched evidence on what a truly healthy diet for body and mind might actually look like.

To make matters worse, food becomes a moral issue with a hugely negative impact on the mental health of vulnerable young people. What one eats comes to be placed in to two categories, namely foods that are ‘good’ and those that are ‘bad’. This black and white thinking generates a lot of anxiety for people who feel that they are failing if they do not meet these exacting standards. As mentioned earlier, the emergence of orthorexia nervosa points to a serious problem with our attitude towards food, orthorexia also translated as a “fixation on riteous eating”. This could not be more telling, food not only being a way to fuel our bodies on a daily basis but a means to improve our moral character, to become a “righteous” individual by proxy. Eating the ‘wrong’ food triggers self-loathing and acute anxiety, the message behind the moralism being that we are intrinsically unworthy and it is only through eating the ‘right’ way that we can somehow vindicate ourselves.

It is ironic, then, this obsession with restrictive diets often proves to be unhealthy, not only mentally but physically. Much of the ‘clean’ eating movement is based on pseudoscience concocted by individuals financially invested in this lucrative lie. Restrictive food rules are dressed up as science and packaged seductively, be it in a beautiful and slim food vlogger, an expensive new cookbook or a new range of pricey products in the supermarket. Often, these companies make dubious claims about what their products can do, some saying that they reverse disease, aid weight loss or garuntee an overall ‘healthy glow’. Many, if not most, of these corporations rely on a kernel of truth which they exaggerate and capitalize upon. A significant number of these ‘clean’ celebrities do not have the appropriate medical qualifications to be touting such advice, taking advantage on the vulnerability and ignorance of their customers to turn a profit. In a piece featured in The Guardian, Bee Wilson insightfully points out how

clean eating confirms how vulnerable and lost millions of us feel about diet – which really means how lost we feel about our own bodies. We are so unmoored that we will put our faith in any master who promises us that we, too, can become pure and good.

The promise of wellness is, however, a mirage.

Crucially, this trend is also having a sinister effect on society as a whole, particularly in regards to class and elitism, food offering yet another way to divide and segregate.bloog2 These so-called ‘health’ foods are marketed at inordinately high prices in full awareness that their affluent target market are willing to pay extra to opt into the ‘clean’ eating club. Food is an accessory, a statement of class, completely inaccessible to those who cannot afford to participate. Only the wealthy can afford to pay £3.99 for Deliciously Ella’s Original Granola when Tesco’s own is under half the price, or £2 for Rude Health’s organic oat milk when cows milk costs just £1.50 for more than triple the amount.

The clean, healthy eating movement is essentially a vanity project for the middle class, food being just one more way to distinguish the haves from the have-nots.

This movement is the perfect money-spinner, as where diets or eating trends used to be temporary, this trend is permanent and necessitates a complete and sustained lifestyle overhaul. Despite what the advertising industry would like you to believe, it is entirely possible to lead a healthy lifestyle without emptying your savings account. 

Similarly, this same movement is contributing to the divorce of food from its social and historical context; once deeply embedded in a collective culture, certain foods turn into trivialized fads in the western world. Matcha green tea -an integral part of the ancient Japanese tea ceremony  – has been adopted and can now be consumed as a latte, ice-cream or even a ‘chocolate matcha butter cup’. Quinoa, once an obscure crop from South America to many in the west has become as basic a grain as pasta. Foods that are integral to a culture heritage are taken and commercialized as the next ‘it’ food, only to be dropped and forgotten to make way for the next trend. Food is often imbued with cultural significance so the idea that a middle-class young food vlogger in Shoreditch has just ‘discovered’ the versatility and health benefits of sorghum when it has been growing in Africa for centuries and is the fifth most popular crop in the world is not only arrogant but demeaning too.

The myths of the ‘clean’ eating movement – essentially ‘fake news’ – could be debunked with proper education about the reality of what constitutes a healthy diet. No, eating only alkaline foods will not reverse cancer. No, you do not need to blow your next paycheck on the most expensive products in the supermarket to be well. No, cutting out gluten when you are not coeliac or even intolerant will not necessarily make you feel ‘energised’, neither will it make you a better person. With proper education, many of the ‘truths’ of the industry would be exposed as lies. Yet this would not solve the other equally if not more important issue of the sense of moral superiority associated with ‘clean’ eating.

Until we stop feeling the need to make ourselves feel better at the expense of others and by appealing to the standards set by the advertising industry, this distinctly unhealthy trend and accompanying mindset is here to stay.