Socialist Worker

Capitalism can’t make you well

‘Wellness’ may seem like a harmless trend. But, argues Sarah Bates, it rests on making money from alienation and the way that capitalism damages our minds and bodies

Issue No. 2686

Mindful Marx

Mindful Marx


New Year, New You. Or at least that’s what bosses ­hawking their juice cleanses, spa retreats, yoga packages and gym memberships want you to believe.

January is prime time for people to take stock of their lives and decide that they maybe do want to be that bit thinner, exfoliated, flexible, or brimming with vitamin C.

For a lot of people, their journey to prime health in mind, body and soul, could be part of their battle for “wellness”.

So people increasingly pour cash into buying holistic therapies, “clean eating” diet books, Pilates classes or ­personal trainer sessions.

And it’s huge money—it’s estimated that the health and wellness industries is expected to grow to £632 ­billion by 2021.

But the overarching ­problem isn’t that people get ripped off. It’s that they live under capitalism which creates alienated relationships among working class people.

This wellness industry rests of the idea that it’s not simply good enough to look beautiful, you have to feel it too.

Look any deeper, and the wellness industry exposes itself as just another business model based on grinding you down, and building you back up again—at a price

On one hand it’s a good thing that people are trying to make themselves feel better in an often cruel and inhospitable world.

But look any deeper, and the wellness industry exposes itself as just another business model based on grinding you down, and building you back up again—at a price.

The charge towards wellness has seen a raft of media personality, Instagram influencers and social media stars use their platform to promote different products.

Some, such as “clean eating” personality Deliciously Ella, bring out a range of cookbooks promoting a vegan, gluten-free and sugar-free diet. But behind Ella’s promise to “help you live better and make vegetables cool” lies a murky world where celebrity and wellness meet.

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Others, such as reality TV megastar Kim Kardashian use social media to pose in bikinis or gym clothes and promote laxatives and ­appetite?suppressant sweets.

Some cloak these products in the language of wellness. Others, like Kardashian, simply hawk their “literally unreal” appetite-suppressant “flat tummy” lollipops.

Even more well-established brands have landed on the language of wellness to market their products. The Marriot hotel chain promises that its guests are “given a choice not just to get up, but to rise.”

Images of serene ­bikini-clad women floating in ­swimming pools flash up alongside pictures of gyms stocked with huge weights.

“Here you can eat, sleep, move, feel, work and play well, transcending the rigours of travel while you’re on the road,” it boasts.

Other firms are rapidly ­transforming themselves in the face of a new focus on emotional and spiritual wellbeing, alongside a physically polished appearance.

Dieting industry behemoth Weight Watchers is a good example. It changed its name in September 2018 to “WW”—claiming it didn’t stand for Weight Watchers, or for its motto, “Wellness that Works”.

It was re-packaged as a ­holistic lifestyle change, rather than a weight-loss programme. But its commitment to this new concept seems to be limited to how users can earn “wellness wins” for logging their weight and calorific intake.

Bosses care about the so-called wellness of workers, but only when it affects their bottom line

And now wellness is even a concept that is harnessed by bosses as a weapon to make workers more efficient.

Forbes magazine advises managers to “prevent ­burnout by employees by allowing them to relax and recharge” It ­prescribed a mixture of ­“mid-day breaks, building better sleep habits, flexible schedules or utilising paid time off.”

So instead of being an essential part of living a balanced life, bosses are encouraged to see a lunchbreak, or flexi-time as part of a “wellness package”.

The same magazine told bosses to invest in “financial wellness programmes” to deal with “financial planning, debt and retirement”.

It explained that, “Financial worries not only keep ­employees up at night, but the emotional impact spills over into the workplace, too. Employees distracted by financial problems also create significant costs for ­employers in productivity and work errors.”

So there it is—bosses care about the so-called wellness of workers, but only when it affects their bottom line.

Capitalism sells us the things to make us ill

Capitalism sells us the things to make us ill (Pic: Richard Rutter/Flickr creative commons)


With the bosses appropriating the language of wellness, why is it that people pour their hard-earned cash into such an industry?

After all, there’s no doubt that exercising, hydrating, relaxing and taking care of yourself does make people feel better.

It’s welcome that people are encouraged to think about the needs of their whole self. But the wellness industry is based on a distorted form of health we are encouraged to aspire to.

Wellness isn’t just a harmless fad. It occurs within the context of huge pressure on people to conform to a highly idealised version of themselves.

It’s actively harmful that celebrities release books ­proscribing an ultra-restrictive range of food, or promote diet methods.

They do nothing to address the very real problems that ­contribute to eating disorders or mental distress.

People deserve real support and resources to address these issues—not some half-hearted advice from someone ­promoting sponsored content, or ­looking towards the next book deal.

Wellness, self-care and ­mindfulness turns a collective, social problem into one borne completely by an individual.

Ultimately, the wellness industry is produced by a ­society that actually causes ill health on a vast scale

It does nothing to challenge a world that produces anxiety, eating disorders, insomnia or the myriad of other conditions that blight people’s lives.

Instead it encourages each individual to think that all they need to do is equip themselves with enough resources—­material or otherwise—to cope.

And ultimately, the wellness industry is produced by a ­society that actually causes ill health on a vast scale.

Because alongside those extolling the virtues of “clean eating”, people are also bombarded with adverts for junk food and alcohol.

It seems like these different industries—wellness, and the ones that want to fill people’s lives with E numbers—pull in different ways. In reality they work in tandem within the same system.

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It’s a good thing for Weight Watchers if people spend the month of December eating chocolates and mince pies. And it’s great for gym firms if people feel bad enough about the way they look to sign up for a monthly membership.

The wellness industry, and the lifestyles it claims to reject, aren’t counter-posed to each other. They’re two sides of the same coin.

All these pressures are felt by ordinary people because of the system of society we live in.

Capitalism is a society where working class people are forced to sell their labour power to ­survive, which produces ­alienated human beings.

Karl Marx said that workers are separated from the product of their labour, and deprived of the things that are needed to live our lives.

And repetitive, tedious work that people perform under capitalism creates distorted relationships between each other, and critically within ourselves.

Marx said the products of people’s labour are estranged to such a degree that they appear “alien, hostile, powerful, and independent” of workers.

Faced with little control over their lives, people seek it where they can find it—whether that’s on a treadmill, in a juice cleanse or at the chip shop.

These huge social ­society?wide pressures are felt by everyone under capitalism. Human behaviour is shaped by, and a reaction to, alienation under capitalism.

Marx said it was possible to create “a new manifestation of the forces of human nature and a new enrichment of human nature”

For revolutionaries such as Marx, changing the economic basis of society was critical to changing human relationships.

They saw communism as the ultimate transformation of the human condition. The people ­themselves would make all the key decisions and would be engaged in building a new society.

Marx said it was possible to create “a new manifestation of the forces of human nature and a new enrichment of human nature”.

It would be a world where the levers of ­economic, political and social control are swung into the hands of working class people.

A wellness industry wouldn’t exist because under socialism because every human needs would be catered for.

People would live fulfilling working lives, where their creative labour power wasn’t wasted on making profit for the bosses, but in transforming society.

It would be the opposite of a capitalist society that either ignores our human needs or constructs industries to sell them back to us.


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