Thursday, August 16, 2018

Dietetic Capitalism

William E. Connolly
Author of Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy Under Trumpism (2017)

On a scintillating panel several years ago, Jane Bennett, Bonnie Honig and Melissa Orlie promulgated the health and political virtues of the slow food movement at an American Political Science Convention. One rump group in the room would have none of it. Such a movement, they insisted, is inherently class based. It speaks only to the upper middle class and the rich who can afford such luxuries of time and expense.

The critics were right about a class dimension of this phenomenon, wrong to the extent they thought the situation does not require a radical class response. It is expensive today to enjoy slow, organic foods that enrich the microbial diversity of the gut, encourage brain health, and protect people on several health fronts. But that is because diet exploitation joins other modes of class/race exploitation in several capitalist societies. Dietetic Capitalism joins the stratification of work, consumption practices, retirement opportunities, housing possibilities, pollution, susceptibility to military duty, longevity, and sources of stress. It even helps to solidify them.

I grew up in a Midwest, working class family before fast food became pervasive and two bread winners were so dominant. We did eat too many potato chips and too much ice cream. We also loved hot dogs, but only as special treats. The working class had not yet succumbed to the fast food industry that now afflicts the health of so many in that class and elsewhere.  Additives of sugar and fat were less pervasive; livestock were less subjected to corn feeding and closed feeding pens, antibiotics were thus less needed; obesity was less common; and several other sicknesses were less frequent. It was an unhealthy diet, certainly, but still a step or two above a fast food diet. Whenever as a teen I was invited to my Italian girlfriend’s upscale house for dinner, olive oil, fish, tomato sauces, fresh garlic, red wine and good cuts of meat were on the menu. I spent evenings there often, for several good reasons.

The recent book by Emeran Mayer, The Mind-Gut Connection (2016) gives the lie to critics of slow, healthy food diets. Mayer is not himself focused on the class composition of Dietetic Capitalism, but his review of recent revolutions in neuroscience do carry implications for that issue on every page.  The older neuroscience of the brain as a self-contained computer is on life support. More recent versions, which concentrate on intersections between multiple body, brain culture processes, are undergoing another revamping too. The new scientists often enough appreciate the reality of creative thinking and judgment.

The more we learn about the role of the dense neuronal system in the gut, its numerous imbrications with the gut microbiome, and the complex communications between both of them and brain regions in the head, the more the subtlety of relations between ingestion, digestion, microbial composition, neuronal systems, moods, thinking, and health come to the fore. One focus in the book is on the two way communications between the neuronal system in the gut, the vagus nerve, and  blood pathways for hormones of numerous sorts from the gut. Gut bacteria and the hormones they produce infiltrate moods, appetites, susceptibility to disease, brain health, and vulnerability to inflammation of the immune system. The food we eat and digest affects the quality of the microbiome; its specific composition then feeds back into the character of the food it seeks. The gut is a complex source of desires, feelings and prejudgments.

Here are just a few things Mayer says:
  • "in recent years the gut-brain axis has taken center stage. This shift can be largely attributed to the exponential rise in knowledge and data about the bacteria, archaea, fungi and viruses that live inside the gut..."(p. 14)
  • benefits of microbiota for health: "Some of the best documented benefits include assistance in the digestion of food components our guts cannot handle by themselves, regulation of our bodies’ metabolism, processing and detoxifying dangerous chemicals,..regulation of the immune system, and prevention of invasion by dangerous pathogens." (p. 15)
  • immunity and its inflammations. "In addition to the gut-brain communication channel involving the endocrine cells, there is another system involving our gut-based immune cells and the inflammatory molecules these immune cells produce., the so-called cytokines." (p. 62)
  • the hidden mood/salience system: "most of the time the salience system operates below the level of conscious awareness. Trillions of sensory signals rise up from your gut every day and are processed in your brain’s salience network. They remain content to..percolate into your subconscious." (p. 173)
  • transmission of the effects of bad diet to the next generation: "If the human genome.. is the  book of life, then a brain cell, a liver cell and a heart cell each reads different sections of the book. Epigenetic tags are the bookmarks..that tell a brain cell to read one passage of the book and a liver cell to read  another." (p. 120)
  • "Epigenetics violated everything modern biologists had learned about inheritance." (p. 121)

The microbiome begins to establish its specific composition in the mother’s womb, continues to do so dramatically for three years, collects “chemical tags” that propel some of these tendencies to the next generation, and is susceptible to further change by the quality of food ingested and stresses adults face. It can contribute to later bouts of depression, diabetes, Irritable Bowl Syndrome, obesity, Parkinson’s, Dementia, immune disorders, cancer, and probably Alzheimer’s when it is not composed in healthy ways. Our moods and cognitive powers partly flow from interchanges between numerous micro-agents moving back and forth between the brain in the head and the gut system, through both the vagus nerve and the blood system. Olfactory sensors on numerous intercommunicating organs play roles of importance as well. Note, too, how such processes do not have to be construed as blind determinants of thinking and judgment; they can be read as micro-agentic participants in thinking, mood and judgment.  A conversation between Mayer and Alfred North Whitehead could be very illuminating in this respect, since the latter construes such processes to be micro-agents.

Mayer, after probing new research into microbiome, brain and health relations, celebrates a Mediterranean diet high in plant foods, chicken and fish, olive oil, nuts, whole grains, tomatoes, and a daily dose of red wine. This brain and microbiome diet is equipped to help reduce stress and maybe even curtail temptations to listen to manipulative politicians who seek to exacerbate and exploit class and race based stresses. Mayer also emphasizes how several other dietary traditions can contribute to similar effects. It is fast food--highly processed, high salt and sugar content, red meat, soaked with antibiotics, swallowed with diet drinks, and starched with carcinogens--that forms the backbone of what I call Dietetic Capitalism. Diet drinks spawn a bacterial regime that promotes weight gain.

There is much more in this book of particular interest to those who pursue gut-brain health as they think, teach and write about the contemporary condition, including some further refinements of what a few critics call "affect theory".  But here we focus on an upshot not pursued in the book itself:  how the health, mood, stress, and inflammatory benefits and liabilities pondered in this little book are stratified by Dietetic Capitalism.  Working class people, if and when they have slipped away from ethnic culinary traditions, are pressed toward unhealthy diets by their income levels, stress levels, available stores and restaurants, engrained gut demands, and feelings of depression about the future looming before them. Upper middle class people can go to organic stores and enjoy excellent restaurants. Our immune systems are less apt to be compromised if we do so; our brain processes somewhat less apt to fall into Parkinson’s or Dementia; our stresses less often apt to drive us inexorably to comfort foods with spiral effects on health and attitudes; our sicknesses less often to pull us into the stress of medical bankruptcy. Fast food agribusiness, stores, and restaurants treat people and livestock ruthlessly as mere objects of profit, when they can get away with it, pumping as much surplus value out of them as possible.

Not everyone in privileged settings eats a healthy diet, of course.  Intelligence, judgment and forbearance are needed to pursue that course, even when the opportunity is there. Donald Trump, the billionaire, eats horrible food; it shows in everything he does, says and thinks. His diet was once an insistent, impulsive  choice, and it has now become an addiction. Perhaps a fecal transplant could help start a dietary transition. It would only be a first step, of course. My stool sample is available, if needed. But I am not willing to travel to Russia for the operation.

Do not talk about capitalism writ large without including Dietetic Capitalism as an insidious mode of class/race exploitation. Michelle Obama realized this. Drives to reduce class inequality must include demands to increase healthy microbiome opportunities for pregnant women, babies, children, adults and old people in every walk of life. Key words here are “opportunity” and “detailed knowledge”. Information about precisely how such tangled processes work on and in our bodies is critical. Such accounts show us when and where to expect an upsurge of gut pressure and how best to counter it. Generic information in this domain only convinces until it is time to eat.  This is precisely the juncture at which Mayer becomes most pertinent to the war against Dietetic Capitalism.

To work, such detailed knowledges also require intensive support of local and organic produce. The urban gardens springing up everywhere are promising signs. It will additionally, however, require intensive regulation of food additives, food information labels, livestock conditions, the use of feedstock antibiotics, carcinogens, and corporate TV food advertisements designed to exploit the gut. All these must be joined to real reductions in income inequality and tough working conditions to reshape the stress, gut, comfort food, inflammation, and health compromising dynamic now in play.

Dietetic Capitalism reveals a lot about the insidious character of other capitalist modes of exploitation. It slides into the gut, circulates through the blood stream, seeks vulnerable objects to exploit, spawns addictive practices, and encourages denialism.