Marshall McLuhan, fat, the revolution and us


There was that bag of chips I’d stashed away from the kids, just in front of the macrobiotic cookbook (oops). I reached up and grabbed a handful—and had that familiar flash image about getting fat.

Why did I go for the chips? Simple. It’s comfort food: carbs and fat are jammed into an instant food fix. Neurobiologists tell us that it’s like doing drugs. When we’re bored or anxious or depressed, we eat. It’s cheaper and safer than shooting up.

New Brunswick is the third most obese province in Canada. Almost 30 percent of the people in our province are obese, and almost 65 percent of us are overweight.

Coincidentally, those big facts loom large in the book I’m reading; it's The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. They’re two British scientists who’ve statistically connected income inequality to all kinds of social ills, including obesity. The wider the gap between the rich and the poor in any given region, they’ve found, the more unhealthy the society.

The authors point to key social factors linked to income inequality:

• levels of trust
• mental illness and addiction
• life expectancy and infant mortality
• obesity
• children's educational performance
• teen births
• homicides
• imprisonment rates, and
• social mobility.

The U.S. is, in general terms, the wealthiest nation on earth. But the income gap between the rich and the poor is dramatic and widening. There are more billionaires living in the States than anywhere else, and the U.S. spends by far the most amount per capita on health care, yet the average American dies 4 years sooner than the average Japanese. Why? According to the authors’ research, Japan’s average wealthy CEO is only four times richer than the average worker. In the America the gap is more than 300 times greater. And at the other end of the scale, the United States has a greater number of its citizens—the vast majority of whom are poor—in prison per capita than any other country, developed or not.

On the opportunity and equality scale, New Brunswick isn’t doing so well, either. It has an unemployment rate running over 10 percent, and a seasonal unemployment rate in some regions can push well over 30 percent. Over the past year New Brunswick lost 6500 jobs. At the same time over 13 percent of the total workforce works for the provincial government and the province is currently looking to cut costs—and jobs. These unemployed people are bored, eat more junk food, do more drugs, get sicker and become more worried and depressed than their working cousins.

And on the other private ownership side, two (2) families in the province have a combined net worth of around $13 billion. By comparison, the average New Brunswicker’s net worth is a little over $100,000. McCain Foods alone accounts for $6 billion in revenues annually, which is approaching the size of the provincial government. These two companies and a handful of others have an extraordinary influence, not only on the provincial economy, but on its social dynamics.

Working in a tough economy controlled by a few key players, New Brunswickers have fewer available opportunities. So they’re loyal. They stay in the same jobs longer than any other Canadians and work cheaper. At the same time, like all of us, they compare their own circumstances to the affluence of the corporate owners. And the comparison makes them unhappy. If the theory holds true, Saint Johners, with their close proximity to the wealthy and powerful Irving family, would be less happy than their urban neighbours in Moncton two hours away, who have no dominant billionaire clan and experience a narrower gap between the haves and the have-nots. The socio-economic structure affects personal self-image.

Self-image, it turns out is extremely important. Humans, as Wilkinson and Pickett point out, are highly social—and comparative—creatures. In their discussion about equality they talk about “social evaluation,” that is, individuals and groups comparing themselves to others.

We’re taught by advertising and the corporate media to feed this comparison. We’re sold on luxury goods and exclusivity. And if we can’t afford these things we feel shame, as if we are personally responsible, though most often we’re not. Much of the great wealth we see around us is an accident of birth. Driven by our hunger to consume and bombarded by over-choice, we begin to care less about the people around us.

Wilkinson and Pickett observe that this materialist pathology leads to a fixation on image over substance (brand value over actual worth) that in turn leads to widespread narcissism, anxiety, depression, poor health and even suicide. Status becomes more important than health.

Ostracizing the poor (by stripping them of status and pride) in this kind of society becomes a powerful tool of control. Those who don’t maintain the proper image are subtly shunned. We become anxious to avoid it. So social-commercial conformity, under the guise of individualism and individual choice, becomes the norm. We learn to recognize the best stuff, and buy it, transferring its brand characteristics to ourselves. We don’t hire the fat secretaries, no matter how much better they may be at doing the work. We overtly teach our kids the game of “tops and bottoms” and quietly turn them into dominant tops. Then, ironically, we try to advertise bullying away. And we become skilled at judging by first impressions. One look is often enough tell us whether a person has any power or not.

When it comes to image Canadian professor Marshall McLuhan famously posed “the medium is the message,” in other words, the form shapes the content. So the image of power translates into actual power.

All governments are in power to protect citizens. Military forces are built and maintained and complex systems of administration are constructed to administer the law. However, the operative word—the hidden medium—in all of this process is “no.” The form of all government is therefore based on the power of “no,” the power to restrict action.

Corporations, on the other hand, are all about getting customers to “yes.” But what happens when these two forms merge? What happens when a corporate–government alliance takes place, as is happening in the U.S. and elsewhere, in which corporate influence directly shapes government policy, as we saw with the bailout of the American financial system a few years ago?

In the evolution of this kind of hybrid system, corporations get to short-circuit the “no” and get an instant-on “yes” to their plans, while the rest of us are controlled by the same old “no” structure. But in fact it’s worse than that, because now corporations can begin to impose their own controlling “no” on the public to protect their corporate interests. And that marriage of capitalism and government is simply called fascism. The medium now becomes the message: the message being the rise of repression and growing inequality.

That’s exactly what ordinary people the world over have figured out in the continuing aftermath of the global financial meltdown and the “war on terror.” They see their rights eroding, their jobs evaporating, government leaders in bed with the corporations and they’re taking to the streets. The revolution is beginning. We saw it with the G20 protests in Toronto and the over-zealous policing. We’re seeing it in New York with the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protest.

But we’re unlikely to see it here in New Brunswick. We’ve been trained to our situation for almost a century now. And we’ve proven that if we don’t like it we just leave. But as former New York Times reporter Christopher Hedges recently wrote, it’s time to choose between rebellion and slavery.

Sure it sounds a bit melodramatic. But the times are a’ changin’ again, and fast.

The answer, as Wilkinson and Pickett point out, is getting our governments to focus on creating equality rather than creating top-controlled wealth or bottom-end jobs.

And hell, if they could pull that off, who'd need a revolution?


  1. If you study history, especially social movements, like the protests of the early 30's, the anti-war movement, and the civil rights movement you will notice that each and everyone of them took time to form and develop, and eventually the reality of risk/reward was overwhelmed by the reality that they had nothing to lose.

    The Occupy Wall Street and We Are The 99% movement represent the beginning of true social change in this country (USA). It also must be noted that linkage is starting to develop between the US based protesters and those in England, Spain, and Greece. It also must be noted that even citizens of 3rd world countries are joining in.....

    You cannot have the type of event that the financial meltdown represents without having a society changing movement develop; It just takes time. After the 1929 stock market crash people had the belief that it would be shortlived, that life would go on as it always had, but it didn't and it takes years to for the realization that ones life has been permenantly changed.

    It should be no surprise that in 2011 we are starting to see an uprising...both in the Middle East, Europe, and now the United States. What will be interesting is to see how this develops into our first "world wide movement."

  2. I think a lot of people are curious about how this will develop, some with justifiable apprehension, most of us with hope.

    If it does take root, the next question becomes "what to we do?" with the system, finance, equalizing incomes and so on, which is what makes W&P's book so interesting. They conclude, as I mention, that it doesn't matter which method you use to create equality, it just matters that it works...and the rest seems to take care of itself.

    (And the concept of equality conveniently excludes the notion of an obscenely wealthy ruling elite.)


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