Thursday, August 4, 2011

Libertarianism Is Not Paleo

What does supporting wars against people in far off
countries have to do with being paleo?
A couple of years ago I had put on about 20 pounds and was generally feeling pretty crappy. I remembered some pros at the tennis club where I once worked talking about a low carb diet and decided to give it a try because I couldn't bear the thought of developing one of those big guts that guys get as we hit middle age - which my grandfather and my uncles had. I cut out starches, grains, and most fruits. It took over a month for anything to happen and then I started dropping weight like crazy, sometimes three pounds in a week. I was sweating like crazy whenever I'd go to yoga - something about the fact that eating carbs causes you to retain water. After a few months I was back to just above the weight I'd been for ten years. As a bonus side effect, all of the many digestive issues that I've had since I was a kid almost completely disappeared. Believe me, it was a miracle.

Then, at the beginning of this year, a family friend suggested we read the Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf. An awesome book overall, it was a bit like completing the circle. My wife and I went on a Paleo Challenge - basically a thirty day cleanse with no booze, sugar, fruit, dairy, grains, starches, etc. The purpose is to break your addiction to common food items in our diet that make you sick - like wheat (my wife has a dairy allergy). The last of my digestive issues faded away with my elimination of dairy, along with another 10 pounds, bringing me back to what I weighed in my 20s. My wife had been allergic to almonds and some other nuts - there are a lot of serious food allergies in her family - but after the cleanse she can now eat almonds. The red splotches I would get on my neck and that my daughter was getting on her face: gone.

I'm rehearsing all this to say that I'm a convert to Paleo. But what the hell is with the right wing libertarian freaky shit amongst so many of Paleo's leading advocates? Rob Wolff, Dr. Michael Eades, Art DeVany, all these guys - whose writings on diet I reference and whose work in this regard is important - are all about the free market/no big government scene. It's like some kind of LSD logic trip where they've concluded that since there was no big government in Paleo times, prior to agriculture, we shouldn't have any government now. During the battles in Wisconsin this spring - when the Tea Party governor moved to effectively outlaw the democratic right to union organization and collective bargaining, Dr. Eades tweeted his support, as though driving down the standard of living of working people doesn't contribute to the kind of high carb, low quality diet that he opposes.

I'm no fan of the capitalist state and "big government" per se. But that's not the same as opposing social programs like socialized healthcare or regulatory agencies, won as concessions from particular sectors of the economy like the pharmaceutical industry, to stop snake oil salesmen from poisoning us (well, the agencies are corrupt and ineffective but better than "industry regulation"). But being a libertarian, from the point of view of being critical of the dominant dietary patterns of North Americans, is an incoherent response that leads to a form of conspiracy theory - people eat badly because the government has tricked them into doing so. It fails to explain why the diet has changed in a convincing manner and often ends up blaming the victim.

First off, newsflash, it's true that there was no "government" during the paleolithic era. There was also no capitalist economy, no money, little trade and what trade there was would have been barter between tribal groupings who happened to encounter one another on their nomadic journeyings. A capitalist economy - that is to say, production for the purpose of exchange with the goal of accumulating profit - is a very recent phenomenon, much more recent than the agricultural revolution of fifteen thousand or so years ago. And if wheat and grains were an unhealthy addition to the human diet capitalism was even worse for humans.

Now, I believe in being nuanced about these things and Marx is my great mentor in this. Agriculture and its side effects did untold damage to the human diet and, ultimately, to the environment. But without the development of agriculture human society could not have advanced technologically, politically, or culturally beyond the level of small-scale primitive hunger-gatherer communities. Now, don't get me wrong, there are certain features of hunter-gatherer communities that recommend them: there was no private property and all things were shared within the community; while there was a gender division of labour women tended to be full participants in the life - and decision-making - of the community; there were strong communal ties that gave everyone a sense of purpose and belonging that is utterly foreign to us. On the other hand, life was hard and it was short. Break an arm or cut yourself and you had a good chance of getting an infection and dying. Get a bit slow in your old age and you had a good chance of ending up as lunch for another predator. I'm glad that our ancestors discovered farming, even if it wasn't the healthiest way to eat - it was a necessary compromise for the advancement of civilization.

Capitalism is a bit like that. Check out this quote from Marx in the Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind....

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

Capitalism, like agriculture, drove forward the advancement of technology and of human society, connecting us to each other and making us interdependent in a way that was unfathomable prior to its existence. But the cost was enormous - the vast destruction of the environment, the deaths of hundreds of millions in sweatshops, in wars of imperial conquest between competing great powers. As with our view of the introduction of agriculture we need to sustain this two-sided view. And, like the sins of agriculture, the sins of capitalism are not only no longer necessary for the advancement of humanity, they are an obstacle to the continued development of humanity. Oh, of course there continue to be technological advancements in both food and the broader technology, but the use of profit to mediate development - as the measure of success - acts as a barrier to development and distorts the development that exists. To give but a simple example, consider the humble QWERTY keyboard. It is ubiquitous, particularly with the rise of PCs, smartphones and tablets. But the QWERTY keyboard is not the most efficient way to organize a keyboard. In fact at the time that QWERTY was developed there were competitors that were more efficient but the inventors of QWERTY had the investors behind them that allowed them to promote their version so that it became dominant. And then the need for standardization did the rest. In other words, not through any conspiracy but merely through the working out of the logic of capitalist competition - based upon power and money, not upon quality or effectiveness as some people still believe, even after the financial meltdown - the least effective version of a technology has become dominant.

The net result of unregulated capitalism: massive public debt

That's just a small example: extend that over an entire economy. The US is one of the few - perhaps the only - advanced industrial country that doesn't have a system of government run universal healthcare. It has the most expensive healthcare system in the world - with layers and layers of parasitic middlemen and bureaucrats (yep, "free enterprise" produces bureaucrats) - and up to a fifth of the population has no health insurance at all. Think about the road building program promoted by Eisenhower at the end of World War Two as a way to absorb the slack in the economy that arose as a result of the end of the war boom. They built something like 46,000 miles of roads at a cost of $426 billion. Was that the only choice? They could have built railways and other forms of mass transit. But the auto industry was a dominant component of the American economy - "what's good for General Motors is good for America" as they used to say - and so creating the infrastructure to promote the advancement of the most wasteful form of human transport became the priority. From there the logic took us to the development of subdivisions, instead of higher density urban developments. Subdivisions created more dependence upon cars, it made people more sedentary because they had to drive everywhere, it made us dependent upon fossil fuels that are contributing to climate change, it was the most inefficient way to build housing and it isolated us from each other behind high backyard fences, creating all the symptoms of alienation and isolation with which we are familiar.

A libertarian might say "ah-ha, but there's the rub: the American government facilitated and paid for the building of the road system that led to these terrible things." That's true but if the US government hadn't put those returning GIs to work and hadn't stimulated the economy, the period following World War Two - like that following the previous war - would have led to widespread revolutions. As it was there were labour upsurges bigger than during the Depression. In Europe the Communists were massively popular in Italy, France and had taken power in Greece (until the British crushed the Communist partisans who'd fought the Nazis and put a dictatorship into power). In America the Communist Party had close to 100,000 members. American capitalism needed the American government to save it from the American people - and the people of Europe and the world (remember there were anti-colonial revolts and revolutions in India, China, and Africa in the wake of the war).

What's more, it's not just the people who need to be policed - capitalism itself needs to be policed so that one section of the system doesn't behave in ways that put the whole system at risk. This should be obvious to everyone at this point after the debacle of the financial crisis in 2008. Under the direction of Alan Greenspan at the head of the Federal Reserve Bank and reinforced by such "economists" as Lawrence Summers and Tim Geithner, the financial system was de-regulated and stimulated with low interest rates. With wholesale wild west libertarianism, what did the banking sector do? It created "collateralized debt obligations" and pooled mortgages and other forms of opaque "financial products" that were, in fact, total junk. It rewarded itself for being so clever, providing massive bonuses even as the flames were licking at the door, and then refused all responsibility when the whole thing went up in flames. The American government, having allowed this to happen then stepped in to save the global financial system from collapse - to the tune of trillions of dollars - doubling the US national debt almost overnight. The banks got bailed out, the working class got the bill. How do you like your libertarianism so far?

These are just a few examples: I've looked previously at how the aging and decline of the North American economy has led to an attack on worker's living standards - including their diet. The present obesity epidemic has to be seen as the natural outgrowth of this decline as food corporations seek to boost profits by using fillers like cellulose (yes, wood) in our foods and workers - with less time and money - turn to cheaper, more convenient processed foods that provide energy in the form of low quality carbs that contribute to obesity and diabetes. This isn't a government conspiracy friends - this is capitalism doing what it was meant to do: increasing profits by whatever means necessary, including smashing unions, cutting wages, and diluting product quality. The simple truth is that if advocates of a Paleo lifestyle want the advantages of eating a primal diet to be available to the majority of the population and not simply the rich then you have to oppose the market - and the government - which together have created the present health crisis through a combination of elements - economic crisis, policy, profit motive, etc. Libertarianism is no Paleo Solution - it's a thoroughly modern, in the worst sense of the word, prescription to make things worse.

Fueling the Fire - Keeping Our Troops Strong
Post a Comment
DreamHost Promotional Codes