30 July 2015

Fat, austerity, class and benefit sanctions

I've been looking for an excuse to write about Elaine Graham-Leigh's book, A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and this week's headlines about the government's plans to force fat people claiming benefits to "get treatment" have done the trick. The book is very good, by the way, you should get a copy. Full disclosure: I'm in it a bit.

Plans to create various sanctions against fat people and our activities, presumed or real, have emerged as a product of the obe$ity epidemicTM aka fat panic and appear to be a convergence with other moral panics including those relating to the future of the NHS, the planet and what a body is supposed to be or do. The remedy is generally couched in pseudo-friendly coercion: taxing certain kinds of food; making fat people pay more for things such as plane seats; gatekeeping services like fertility treatment, for example.

Now Professor Dame Carol Black is writing a report for the Department of Health about the viability of threatening to take away people's benefits if they don't comply with some kind of unspecified treatment which is likely to involve weight loss. She is unhelpfully conflating fat with addiction as an anti-social and treatable condition. It's offered in friendlier language than that, of course. In newspaper reports, Prime Minister David Cameron talks about people being "unwilling to accept help". As for being "unwilling," well that assumes that the "help" will actually help but quite what the help looks like is anyone's guess. Perhaps this will be another opportunity to syphon public money into private weight loss corporations. You know, those places where they don't reveal their long-term success rates and sign you up for a lifetime's membership of yo-yo-ing and self-hatred. Maybe some of the team making these benefits sanction proposals are shareholders or on the payroll.

These proposals are a load of rubbish, they are nothing to do with encouraging well-being and everything to do with using Austerity to bully and scapegoat vulnerable people whilst the Tories continue to destroy the welfare state and transform health into a subcategory of productivity, efficiency and flexible/disposable/powerless workers just as it is with those pernicious workplace weight loss drives too. It masks the fact that fat people, especially those of us who are working class, face a lot of discrimination in trying to find work (and it helps the agents of Austerity that fat people will generally blame themselves for this instead of trying to change the system).

This brings me to A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, in which Graham-Leigh shows how working class people, especially fat people, are being blamed for climate change within a politics of Austerity. She argues that by focussing on classist and fatphobic stereotypes of working class people, consumption and a rhetoric of personal responsibility, attention is drawn away from the real causes of climate change, which are to do with policy, politics, capitalism and neoliberalism and which can only be resolved through system change. You could easily substitute climate change with "killing the NHS" or "destroying the economy" and you would end up with the same explanation for Prime Minister David Cameron's latest pile of crap.

The left has gone along with this, it has failed to challenge its own fatphobia and classism, and seems to treat fat and health as something removed from politics. The Guardian, the country's biggest left-leaning media group, is at the heart of this failure. Where it should be interrogating the political use of fat people needing benefits as scapegoats, it reproduces our abjection as a motherlode of headless fatties, shoddy reporting on fat, and a mass of concern-trolling whenever a fat journalist dares to offer an opinion about the most benign of things.

I have relied on benefits at various times in my life and would not have survived without them. In my twenties I was unemployed for a long period and would qualify today as one of the people Cameron is referring to in this proposed policy. The support that helped me to find my way in life (low cost and relatively accessible higher education, housing benefit for students and young people, high quality training) is no longer available. If I was in that same situation now I would be in real trouble. My heart goes out to those who have been or will be caught up in this new nightmare. It has taken me a day to be able to write about these proposals because I find them so appalling, so wrong.

Elaine Graham-Leigh (2015) A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, London: Zero Books.