Wealthy Society, Poor Health


“The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things.”

Thus Marx summarized the phenomenon he dubbed Alienation, that is, the state of social, mental and productive disharmony that exists when the basic social expression of humans, as well as the only concrete link humans have to their reality, their labor, is utilized with instruments which the worker does not own, produced to a design which he did not formulate, and given up to a proprietor whose exchange—the wage—does not satisfy, and indeed whose proportional value to that of the worker’s labor, from-which he is estranged, is but a fraction.

Marx begins, unlike so many, from the supposition that man lived, for the vast majority of his history, in a form of primitive communism – that is, hunter-gatherer society where-in no conception of private property, or control over the means by which individuals reproduce themselves (eat, clothe, etc.), by any individual exists.

Sociologist Richard Lee explains.

Before the rise of the state and the entrenchment of social inequality people lived for millennia in small-scale kin-based social groups, in which the core institutions of economic life included collective or common ownership of land and resources, generalised reciprocity in the distribution of food, and relatively egalitarian political relations.

The basic nature of humans, our sense of community and solidarity, which characterized early human history, is expressed, according to Marx, by our productive power, and when this productive power is used, not to fulfill our sincerest wish of producing for the good of ourselves and those we care about, but to make the cheapest good for the lowest wage possible, and worse, to fetishize commodities—which we no longer recognize as our labor, but as things separate from us with their own social power and symbolism (i.e. clothing, cars, jewelry, to name a few obvious examples) (Perlman, 1969), thus justifying the religious term fetishism[1]– we are not only alienated from our natural social state, but reproduce and perpetuate, unknowingly, the process of exploitation[2], alienation, and fetishism of commoditized labor by existing in a state—that of a producer who must also consume, to reproduce oneself, in a stratified, capitalist society—which makes us not only blind to the greater mechanism at work, but perverts our relationships with others, and directly damages, as I will show, our very physical and mental health.

Since the discovery of the peptic ulcer, medical science has been acutely aware of the causal link between stress and negative health. It is universally accepted that chronic stress can be responsible for such disparate conditions as irritable bowel syndrome and heart attacks, to chronic headaches, weight-gain, depression and much more. (Common Signs and Symptoms of Stress) So powerful is this biological response to perceived stimuli, that in 1967 the U.K. government commissioned a report, led by Dr. Michael Marmot, to investigate the social determinants of health. The two Whitehall cohort studies collected data on some 28,000 British civil servants and studied the effects of the regimented and highly stratified nature of the service on the health of its bureaucrats. The findings were interesting, to say the least.

According to the study’s lead researcher, Michael Marmot, the first study, begun in 1967, “…showed a steep inverse association between social class, as assessed by grade of employment, and mortality from a wide range of diseases.” Picking up where Whitehall I left off twenty years previous, in the time since, Whitehall II found that “…there has been no diminution in social class difference in morbidity: we found an inverse association between employment grade and prevalence of angina, electrocardiogram evidence of ischemia, and symptoms of chronic bronchitis. Self-perceived health status and symptoms were worse in subjects in lower status jobs.” The findings go even deeper. Not only were those in the descending ranks of the service more likely to drink and smoke (obvious methods for dealing with stress), but those in the lower ranks also had slightly elevated body-mass indexes, higher cholesterol, a greater likelihood of reporting symptoms of depression, and no less than, in Whitehall II’s assessment, three times the mortality rate of the highest ranked administrators. Those in the lower ranks also had elevated levels of the problematic stress hormone cortisol.

One of the blunter points made in the Whitehall II report is that “…jobs characterised by low control, low opportunity to learn and develop skills, and high psychological work load are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease.” The Whitehall team is not the first to make this claim. Whitehall’s identification of ‘low control’ work environments as detrimental to health is echoed by a different study which appeared in the International Journal of Health Services, 1980, which concluded that “…alienated labor (lack of control over the work process, loss of the product through appropriation, and competitive and fragmented work relations) and the subjective dimensions of alienation (sense of powerlessness, dissatisfaction, and frustration)… may be reduced as workers gain increased control over the process and product of their labor.” This phenomenon of estranged labor creating in the laborer an adverse state of health is observed by Marx when he says:

First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home… Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague. External labor, labor in which man alienates himself, is a labor of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Lastly, the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and the human heart, operates on the individual independently of him… it is the loss of his self. (Estranged Labor)

The effects of capitalism, and subsequently estranged labor, are as present in the home as they are in the workplace. Many in the west, though their numbers are declining somewhat, believe excessive contact and attention will ‘spoil’ a child, make them less independent. These attempts to make our children ‘individualistic’ and independent are not only misguided, but ensure that the cycle of alienation not only affects those whose work-lives are miserable and stressful, but that their children are subjected to comparable mechanisms of dysfunction. It cannot be otherwise, as in a society whose values are that of independence and whose effect is alienation, we make our children clones of ourselves—alienated and distant. Dr. Gabor Maté explains.

Ferberization seems simple: “After about one week, your infant will learn that crying earns nothing more than a brief check from you, and isn’t worth the effort. She’ll learn to fall asleep on her own, without your help,” reads Dr. Ferber’s advice. The question is, what else does a baby learn when treated this way and what is the impact of such learning?

People cannot consciously recall what they “learned” in the first year of life, because the brain structures that store narrative memory are not yet developed. But neuropsychological research has established that human beings have a far more powerful memory system imprinted in their nervous systems called intrinsic memory. […] These emotional memories may last a lifetime. Without any recall of the events that originally encoded them, they serve as a template for how we perceive the world and how we react to later occurrences.

Is the world a friendly and nurturing place, or an indifferent or even hostile one? Can we trust other human beings to recognize, understand and honour our needs, or do we have to shut down emotionally to protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable? These are fundamental questions that we resolve largely with our implicit memory system rather than with our conscious minds. […]

When the infant falls asleep after a period of wailing and frustrated cries for help, it is not that she has learned the “skill” of falling asleep. What has happened is that her brain, to escape the overwhelming pain of abandonment, shuts down. It’s an automatic neurological mechanism. In effect, the baby gives up. The short-term goal of the exhausted parents has been achieved, but at the price of harming the child’s long-term emotional vulnerability. Encoded in her cortex is an implicit sense of a non-caring universe.

In later life, the child will contend with the ‘non-caring universe’ unwittingly perpetuated by his or her ‘exhausted parents’. Television will most likely become his or her babysitter, long-distance communications will make up the bulk of interpersonal exchanges, and the perfect amalgamations of stratification, commodity fetishism and alienation—middle and high school—will provoke rebellion and the tumultuousness characteristic of modern adolescence.

How do the children of an ‘un-alienated’ society turn out? What does this society even look like? Well it just so happens that such societies do in fact exist. Hunter-gatherer societies, although poor and prone to disaster and famine, are not alienated in the Marxian sense. Labor done in these societies is done collectively, and its product is enjoyed by all, thereby giving the worker the satisfaction of not only enjoying the fruits of their labor, but seeing others enjoy it as well.

What is the effect on, say, child-rearing when alienation is removed? Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at UCLA, observed that “Most hunter/gatherer and small-farming societies do not smack their children,” and, for example, “If one Aka pygmy parent hits an infant, the other parent views that as grounds for divorce.” But, once we move to societies with primitive concepts of property, such as nomadic and primitive agricultural societies, we find that “At the opposite extreme, small herding societies tend to beat their children severely, because a negligent child who leaves a pasture gate open may let valuable livestock escape.” Note that the difference between these societies is not their race or culture, but their productive organization: those societies that have no conception of private property (hunter-gatherer), and those that do (nomadic herder and agricultural).

In the same article, Diamond goes on to list certain ways in-which other child-rearing practices amongst hunter-gatherers differ from our own.  Not only are these societies more permissive with their children, says Diamond, but are carried forward-facing to see where they are going, as opposed to carried over-the-shoulder or backwards in a harness as in western society. Mothers also breast-feed for longer periods, and do not allow children to cry for any period of time without attention, as opposed to our modern society that employs differing attitudes toward crying children, and largely sees public breastfeeding as a semi-sexual abomination. Indeed, young children are constantly being held, whether by a parent or by another child or sibling. In his recent book, The World Until Yesterday, Diamond, in his chapter on child-rearing, calls this discrepancy between primitive, high-contact child-rearing, and our modern, low-contact child-rearing, the “ape and antelope” system. That is, like apes, primitive children literally cling to their mothers and are constantly held and attended to, while in the modern world, like deer or antelope, the child is left to its own devices for a while, and attended to only briefly. “…probably no infant in human history,” muses Diamond, “was ever left to cry itself to sleep in its own crib or bedroom before 10,000 years ago[3].”

Diamond goes on to state that these children develop into gregarious and precocious youth, by our standards, whose teenage years “…are not tormented by adolescent revolts and identity crises.”

We have investigated our own society and its unhealthy stratification, and have touched upon an “un-alienated” society, but is it possible to transition from one to the other? As we know, ideas of property and the production resulting therefrom led to modern society from primitive communism, but can a stratified society, regimented by economic and social class, transition to a state without exploitation or alienation? A horizontal society, if you will? The research of Dr. Robert Sapolsky, and Dr. Lisa Share-Sapolsky may shed some light on this question.

The couple has spent the better part of three decades studying baboon clans, or troops, in Kenya. Their study, “A Pacific Culture Among Wild Baboons”, began after a troop, nicknamed Garbage Dump Troop for their propensity for foraging almost exclusively from the refuse of a tourist lodge, was devastated by an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis at the site, which killed 46% of all baboons in the troop between 1983-86. The interesting factor in this event is that since only the stronger, dominant males guarded and enjoyed the fruits of the dump, they were precisely the ones wiped out by the plague. Pre-outbreak, this troop’s society, like all baboon troops, was highly stratified, dominated by a cabal of strong males who constantly hounded smaller males, and often acted violently toward the females of the troop, leading the study’s author, Robert Sapolsky, in an interview with National Geographic, to describe baboon society itself as being made up of “…scheming, back-stabbing Machiavellian bastards.” Naturally, the stressful and violent states provoked in the subservient baboon led to a conditioning of the young, and a culture of such violence. As in our modern capitalist society, the dominant males represented a class that reinforced a stressful system, and absconded with the majority of resources.

Like the Whitehall participants, lower-order males from surrounding troops had dangerously high levels of stress and a direct correlation between rank and mortality. In an eerily human fashion, frustrations incurred by lower males were taken out on males still lower in the hierarchy, and the vast majority of copulations consisted of what might be termed rape by us higher primates. But, after ‘86 and the death of this baboon ‘ruling class’, everything changed. Although strata still existed in this troop post-plague, aggression by the new males was extremely low compared to other troops, much of it directed at males in the same rung of the hierarchy, and little directed at lower males. Violence toward females was no longer observed.

Subjects were seen to sit closer together, groom more, share food more often and to generally affiliate more frequently. Subsequent tests show significantly decreased levels of stress hormones in all members of the troop. But that isn’t all. From the death of the ruling males in ’86 to the publication of the research in 2004, several generations of baboons had drifted into the troop, and pacified males out—as goes the transient nature of baboon troops. But, after periods of a few months, new males—remarkably—socialized to this new, cooperative society. Hair-pulling had been replaced by grooming, rape by consensual mating—a revolution had occurred in this society. Today not one original subject remains in the troop, yet the pacific nature passed on by the post-plague generation survives.

So, if our current arrangement of society is objectively unhealthy, poisons our personal lives and even our posterity, and could be, experts claim, rectified by greater control over the means of production along a horizontal organization, perhaps it is not outside our powers to follow the examples of our ancient brothers, as well as our primate cousins, and organize ourselves cooperatively, humanely, and in so doing dare to be revolutionary.

[1] In the study of religion, fetishism is the imparting of perceived power into an inanimate object. About the phenomena of imparting our essence, as it were, into commodities, Marx says, “The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates […] the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself.” (Marx, p. 22)

[2] Exploitation, in the Marxian sense, describes the process by which a worker must sell his ability to do labor in exchange for a wage, when the products of his labor are worth more than the wage received. He must endure the majority of his labor being usurped from him as profit by the capitalist, who uses it as a private fund for further capital accumulation. This phenomenon is made possible by the propertylessness of the working class. (Mandel, pp. 7-8)

[3] The Agricultural Revolution, from which all modern ideas of stratified society – i.e. priests, chieftains, kings – date, occurred for much of humanity around this time. (Kagan, Ozment, & Turner, p. 5)

Works Cited

Apicella, C. L., Marlowe, W. F., Fowler, H. J., & Christakis, A. N. (2012). Social networks and cooperation in hunter-gatherers. Nature, 497–501.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Stress. (n.d.). (American Institute of Stress) Retrieved 2 10, 2013, from http://www.stress.org: http://www.stress.org/stress-effects/

Diamond, Jared. (2012). The World Until Yesterday. New York: Penguin.

Garfield, J. (1980). Alienated labor, stress, and coronary disease. International Journal of Health Services, 10(4), 551-61.

Lee, R. (2007). Reflections on Primitive Communism. In C. Harman, T. Ingold, D. Riches, & J. Woodburn (Eds.), A People’s History of The World (Vol. 1, p. 3). London: Verso.

Mandel, E. (1983). Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory. New York: Pathfinder Press.

Marmot MG, S. G. (1991, June 8). Health inequalities among British civil servants: the Whitehall II study. Lancet, 337(8754), 1387-93.

Marx, K. (1844). Estranged Labor. In K. Marx, Economic And Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (p. 22).

Marx, K. (1998). The German Ideology. Amherst: Prometheus Books.

Maté, G. (2006, February 4). Why I no longer believe babies should cry themselves to sleep. The Globe And Mail.

Perlman, F. (1969). Retrieved 2 6, 2013, from http://www.spunk.org: http://www.spunk.org/texts/writers/perlman/sp001702/repro.html

Sapolsky, R. M., & Share, L. J. (2004). A Pacific Culture among Wild Baboons: Its Emergence and Transmission. PLOS Biology.


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