The Big Question: the novelist Lionel Shriver argues that food induces stupor in the affluent and the impoverished

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2013

For the British and American underclasses, food is a useful distraction from the fact that their income is flat or falling while the cost of that Mac and fries continues to rise. Eating conveniently occupies leisure time that might otherwise be devoted to the overthrow of an unjust economic schema. Caloric satiation induces a convenient stupor. All appetites being ultimately circular, gorging feeds the appetite itself, reinforcing the illusion that what is missing in one’s life is not meaning, purpose and communal regard, but a fudge brownie. Because the source of dissatisfaction has been misidentified and stomachs quickly empty, those on low incomes can be neatly side-tracked onto a treadmill of wanting and getting and wanting again, until deathby cardiac arrest or late-stage diabetesdoes the diner and dinner part.

For the affluent, the food-as-opiate equation is more complex. Contemporary social status is fiercely associated with the biological occupation of slight physical space. Primitive self-denialskipping lunchnow passes for righteousness, obviating previous and potentially troublesome practices of noblesse oblige that might have required giving said lunch to someone else. Unproductive exertions that may incrementally reduce one’s bodily circumferencethe ten-mile jog that merely returns the runner to the point at which he startedimbue upper-income citizens with a sense of saintliness that in earlier eras might have required the sacrifice of real goods and services. The social order is preserved.

Food also provides the prosperous with a core identity. While the underclasses maximise quantity, well-compensated consumers often define themselves by what they don’t eat: meat, non-organic produce, food coloured white. The majority of food "allergies" are imaginary. Yet in addition to attracting self-reinforcing attention at dinner parties, mythical gluten or lactose intolerance inflames the "sufferer" with a personal “cause” that in times past might have entailed meddlesome religious or political affiliation. Rabble-rousing inclinations are routed safely into food issues: genetically engineered seed, locally sourced ingredients, animal welfare, sustainable fishing. Absorbed by ancillary matters to do with eating, these ersatz activists turn a blind eye to their government’s self-dealing monetary expansion, which so systematically degrades their currency that the huddled masses and middle-classes will soon be equally impoverished.

Another plus: food provides a medium of social exchange. Rather than get irate over inadequate banking regulations, the educated today will happily while away whole hours in earnest debate over whether to add anchovies to a marinade for skirt steak.

Lionel Shriver was called Margaret Ann till she was 15. She is the author of "We Need to Talk About Kevin"

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