Finding the roots of addiction in the instability of ‘free markets’

Addiction is big business and obscuring its roots is its ideological handmaiden. Despite the incessant chanting that everything that happens to you is solely your fault, social ills do have social roots.

We need not lay this “personal responsibility” mantra solely at the feet of neoliberal ideologues, for such beliefs pervade capitalist society, even among those who are critical of capitalism’s excesses. New age philosophy, for example, routinely blames the individual for all manner of personal misfortunes and overemphasizes personalities at the expense of collective effort.

An episode of Oprah that featured Nelson Mandela saw Oprah Winfrey repeatedly tell the former president that he had accomplished so much by himself; she was oblivious to his protestations that he could not have brought an end to apartheid except as part of the collective movement of which he was a part. On the personal level, a friend still angrily recounts an incident many years ago when she was mugged, went into a nearby New Age establishment to seek some help and instead was asked, “What did you do to draw in that negative energy?”

Reducing everything to personal activity obliterates that movements animated by organized groups accomplish social change (not the solo efforts of charismatic leaders), and by conveniently laying all fault for social ills at the feet of the marginal such reductions obscure larger social conditions.

AlcoholThe common responses to alcohol and drug addiction very much fall within this pattern. It is true that different personalities have differing susceptibilities to addictive behavior; nonetheless, this can’t be and isn’t anything close to a full picture. Solutions to addiction based on correcting individual behavior are hopeless without analyzing the role of dislocation in capitalist society, argues Bruce K. Alexander in his paper The Roots of Addiction in a Free Market Society. Published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the paper demonstrates that free markets, and the massive dislocation that results from them, are the ultimate causes of addictive behaviors.

Failure to focus on root causes will lead to failure

Writing in the context of a new policy put forth by the city of Vancouver a decade ago that sought to treat addiction through a focus on “four pillars” — treatment, prevention, law enforcement and harm reduction — Dr. Alexander argues that, although an improvement on traditional initiatives that focus on policing, such a focus is woefully short of tackling the root causes. He writes:

“[D]islocation is the necessary precursor of addiction. … [F]ree markets inevitably produce widespread dislocation among the poor and the rich. As free market globalization speeds up, so does the spread of dislocation and addiction.

In order for ‘free markets’ to be ‘free,’ the exchange of labour, land, currency, and consumer goods must not be encumbered by elements of psychosocial integration such as clan loyalties, village responsibilities, guild or union rights, charity, family obligations, social roles, or religious values. Cultural traditions ‘distort’ the free play of the laws of supply and demand, and thus must be suppressed. In free market economies, for example, people are expected to move to where jobs can be found, and to adjust their work lives and cultural tastes to the demands of a global market.” [page 1]

Ignoring these larger forces, argues Dr. Alexander, who has more than four decades of experience researching addiction, is responsible for the ineffectiveness of efforts to contain addiction.

“Attempts to treat or prevent addiction that ignore the connection between free markets, dislocation, and addiction have proven to be little better than band-aids. Addressing the problem of addiction will require fundamental political and economic changes. … [S]ociety, as well as individuals, must change. It requires moves towards good government and away from policies that undermine our ability to care for one another and build sustainable, healthy communities.” [page 2]

Dr. Alexander defines addiction more expansively than is ordinary, arguing that a compulsion for money, power, work, food or material goods are as dangerous and resistant to treatment as is addiction to illegal drugs. These addictions are a “desperate substitute” in the wake of dislocation from intimate ties between people and groups. This pattern is repeated in disparate societies around the world; no corner has been spared penetration by global capitalism during the past two centuries. Continual reinforcement is needed to maintain the consumption that is the engine of free markets.

“[E]stablished ‘free’ market societies require the continuing presence of powerful control systems. Carefully engineered management, advertising, taxation, and mass media techniques keep people buying, selling, working, borrowing, lending, and consuming at optimal rates, deliberately undermining the countervailing influences of new social structures that spontaneously arise in modern families, offices, factories, etc. Thus, opportunities to re-establish new forms of psychosocial integration are suppressed.” [page 9]

A pattern found across societies and times

The high rates of poverty, economic disparity, divorce, children diagnosed with “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” and many other indicators of dislocation within U.S. society are well known, but Dr. Alexander draws on the disparate examples of the Indigenous peoples of Pacific Canada, Scottish peasants and British subjects who lived in the Canadian North in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company to illustrate his thesis.

Photo of Vancouver by Andrew Raun

Photo of Vancouver by Andrew Raun

Force was frequently applied to dislocate Indigenous populations. The founding of Vancouver as a port and railroad terminal required the uprooting of almost 100 First Nations villages and systematic destruction of Indigenous culture. Dr. Alexander writes:

“The natives’ lands, which had for centuries been sites for food gathering, communal houses, huge wood carvings, ancestral burial grounds, and invisible spirits became the basis of a free market in real estate almost overnight. Many of their complex cultural practices were outlawed or mocked out of existence. Their famous ‘potlatches,’ elaborate ceremonies in which rich natives gave enormous amounts of food and goods to others according to complex traditional, clan, and personal obligations were the antitheses of free markets. They were prohibited by law from 1884 until 1951.” [page 6]

Even in cases where there was relatively little direct violence or enslavement, military force and other sources of violence were waiting in the wings.

“Of course British authorities always had the lash, the gallows, and the artillery of the royal navy close at hand, and these were called into service at the slightest indication of organized resistance.” [page 25, note 50]

This was true for resistance on the British Islands as well. England’s establishment of a free market society by the early 19th century was achieved through mass displacement and, in the case of Scotland, destruction of cultural institutions that, although far from ideal, did provide social safety nets for the poorest and helped keep starvation at bay during periods of crop failures. Independent peasants were forced off the land so that elites could convert farming from supplying local consumption to producing products for export. This required

“a massive, forced eviction of the rural poor from their farms, commons, and villages and the absorption of some of them into urban slums and a brutal, export-oriented manufacturing system. Those who resisted these new realities too strenuously were further dislocated from their families and communities, by forced apprenticeship of their children, destruction of their unions and other associations of working people, elimination of local charity to the ‘undeserving poor,’ and by confinement in ‘houses of correction’ where they were encouraged to accept their new responsibilities with whips and branding irons.” [pages 9-10]

Those who refused to pull down their houses and leave had their homes burned down by the local sheriff after clan chiefs, induced to join English society, or English landlords bought their formerly inalienable land in the “free market.”

Racial ‘explanations’ for addiction are nonsense

Although it can not be said that there were no social problems among Canadian First Nations peoples before European contact, Dr. Alexander reports in his paper that he has found no mention by anthropologists of any behavior that could be termed addictive, which he attributes to the high level of “psychosocial integration” in societies that had high levels of communality and shared resources. He writes that the popular explanation for widespread alcoholism among Canadian natives (this would also apply to native peoples in the United States) — a racial “inability” to control themselves — is refuted by the lack of addiction before the European drive to wipe out their cultures and languages.

“It was only during assimilation that alcoholism emerged as a pervasive, crippling problem for native people, along with suicide, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and so forth. … ‘Civilization,’ as it came to [eastern Canadian] natives, was administered by militant Jesuits in a century of fanatical religious zeal. This meant destruction of the robust Huron religion and, hence, Huron culture itself, with dislocation as the consequence. Eventually every tribal culture in Canada was engulfed by the overpowering European culture, and every tribe succumbed to the ravages of dislocation, including epidemic alcoholism. Massive dislocation produced massive addiction.” [page 15]

The same pattern was found among dislocated Europeans. Dr. Alexander cites the example of Hudson’s Bay Company employees from Scotland’s Orkney Islands, valued by the company because they were used to far Northern conditions and life at sea, and known for their sobriety. They nonetheless succumbed to widespread alcoholism in the Canadian north, a problem the company could not stamp out no matter how many prohibitions it issued.

Prohibition has not worked in modern times, either — the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s served as fodder to intensify the “war on drugs.” Pervasive propaganda at the time that crack is “instantaneously” addictive is a “fabrication,” Dr. Alexander writes, noting this was falsely claimed for alcohol, heroin and marijuana at various times in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He argues that dislocation, not crack itself, is the cause of crack addiction and that, similar to other substances, most use it without falling into addiction.

Stable communities as the solution to addiction

The solution to reversing addiction, Dr. Alexander writes, is to reverse dislocation and stabilize communities. Doing so, however, requires considerable pushback against pervasive messages that spotlight individuals rather than social causes.

“Changing the terms of this debate is a huge task, since the current manner of speaking of addiction as an individual drug-using disease is maintained by an media army that has been launching this message for decades. People endure this barrage of disinformation partly because it complements a deeply-rooted North American ‘temperance mentality,’ which makes it seem natural to blame social problems on drugs and alcohol and partly because it profits many institutions and professions that treat, police, prevent, and ‘harm reduce’ the putative disease. Those who launch the public information barrage prosper because the ‘War on Drugs,’ which has drawn its justification from it, serves vital commercial and geopolitical purposes for vested interests with very deep pockets.” [pages 19-20]

The “war on drugs” is, for example, a useful tool for the U.S. government to justify continual interference in Latin America, punishing governments that do not fully yield to U.S. dictates, and it also suppresses competition to legal drugs peddled by the highly profitable pharmaceutical industry.

People need to belong to their society, “not just trade in its markets,” Dr. Alexander argues. Imposing fair labor standards and preventing multi-national corporations from pressuring local governments to rescind labor, health, safety and environmental standards would be a better solution than mass migration, as would rebuilding a proper social safety net. He concludes:

“On a global level, substantially reducing the addiction problem requires nothing less than exercising sensible, humane controls over markets, corporations, environments, public institutions, and international agencies to reduce dislocation. This cannot be achieved without conflict, because it will inevitably impede the pursuit of ever-increasing wealth and ever-freer markets. Of course it would be naive to hope for a return to any real or imagined golden age. However, it is at least as naive to suppose that society can continue to hurtle forward, ideologically blinded to the crushing problems that free markets create.” [page 22]

In a rational society designed to meet human need rather than private profit at any cost, this conclusion would be obvious. That it seems a fantastic goal is a morbid manifestation of the cancer that is our economic system.

37 comments on “Finding the roots of addiction in the instability of ‘free markets’

  1. xraymike79 says:

    Great essay. The cancer runs deep.

    “The profit motive destroys everything it touches as it becomes an end in itself, the end of us in the war of business & business of war!”- people vs profit

  2. xraymike79 says:

    Reblogged this on Collapse of Industrial Civilization and commented:
    An excellent essay which pinpoints the underlying causes of societal disintegration and the breakdown of traditional social support systems. Capitalism destroys local community and sustainability in order to bring all resources (human and otherwise) into the global “free market”. People, cultures and ecosystems are then fed into the conveyor belt of profit extraction as they become commodities in the labor market, consumerist culture, and natural resource market. The onslaught has been global and its destruction is seen everywhere, especially in the rise of mental illness in America:

    http://www.madinamerica.com/2013/07/why-the-dramatic-rise-of-mental-illness-diseasing-normal-behaviors-drug-adverse-effects-and-a-peculiar-rebellion/

    “…We are today disengaged from our jobs and our schooling. Young people are pressured to accrue increasingly large student-loan debt so as to acquire the credentials to get a job, often one which they will have little enthusiasm about. And increasing numbers of us are completely socially isolated, having nobody who cares about us….”

    “The rising popularity of the consumerist life-model has been imported from the West or rather imposed by the globalization of Western standards… conspicuous consumption had been cut off from the task to satisfy survival needs and put in the service of positional rivalry and cut-throat competition for social standing, renown and prestige.”
    ~ Prof. Zygmunt Bauman

  3. Very insightful article which successfully identifies addiction in relation to movements of populations from natural to unnatural ways of living. From living in harmony with nature to societies divorced from the ways of nature, people lost freedom when they lost their land, with substance abuse becoming one of the sole means of escape from a societal prison.
    Thanks,
    Jerry

  4. Don’t forget that the promotion of alcohol addiction is extremely profitable for the alcohol industry. In a small country like New Zealand, the deadly link between cheap booze and alcohol advertising (especially at sporting events) is much easier to track. NZ researchers have found a direct link between a steep drop in alcohol prices and the rise of NZ’s binge drinking culture.

    What I find particularly disgusting is the way our supermarkets use cheap wine and beer as loss leaders to draw customers in to do their other shopping.

    The problem has been studied to death, yet the NZ government steadfastly refuses to enact the recommendations of their own commission. Namely to ban all alcohol advertising and to raise the price (if necessary by taxing it).

    • Alcuin says:

      Well, I reckon that tells you all you need to know about what piper the NZ government is listening to, doesn’t it? Now, if the Left would ever get its head out its collective ass and stop thinking that capitalist governments will ever do anything for the good of the masses, we might get somewhere. But denial is a powerful force. Not only that, but a whole lot of “Leftists” are capitalists, too. Hence, the circular firing squad that the Left never gets out of.

    • Any social movement to regulate alcohol sales and advertising might need to get to work now. If the Trans-Pacific Partnership is enacted, such regulations might be declared illegal in the same manner as tobacco regulations if the tobacco companies get their full wish list in it. It does not stretch the imagination to believe that alcohol makers are watching closely.

  5. Alcuin says:

    Excellent article, as always, Systemic. Bruce Alexander’s ideas slash through the capitalist fog and get right down to the truth.

  6. Jeff Nguyen says:

    “The “war on drugs” is, for example, a useful tool for the U.S. government to justify continual interference in Latin America, punishing governments that do not fully yield to U.S. dictates, and it also suppresses competition to legal drugs peddled by the highly profitable pharmaceutical industry.”…not to mention that it engendered the exact dislocation you reference so thoroughly in your article. We all know which communities in both the U.S. and Latin America were hit the hardest when a certain agency flooded the zone with cheap, highly addictive street drugs.

    Further, societies built on competition rather than cooperation become breeding grounds for anxiety, alienation and marginalization. A win-win for the capitalist class. Best to you in the new year, SD.

    • Best to you, Jeff. Thank you for your many brilliant observations. Indeed, the “war on drugs” has its uses, which is why so much money, police and military is poured into a “war” that is an abysmal failure in stopping the use of drugs.

  7. This is a BreakThrough essay. I wish every person enduring the self-esteem, LifeWorld crushing burden of this wicked, evil, iniquitous” personal responsibility” lie could read this.

    I have posted it, with annotations, on my blog DemocracyWeb.Com.

    I have had glimmers and perceptions of part of what is said in this essay but never was quite able to pull it together like this.

    Moreover, I find it odd that this “personal responsibility” mantra doesn’t seem to apply to Wall Street Bank Gangsters, corporate tycoons, generals and admirals, ex-popes, politicians and the basic power elite at the international,national, state and local levels.

    • Ah, but what point would there be to becoming a Master of the Universe if you had to actually be responsible? It’d take all the fun out of it. It’s up to us working folks to be “responsible” by uncomplainingly doing the work that creates the profits for financiers, tycoons and the public officeholders who love them.

  8. Alcuin says:

    I don’t make a habit of reading The Washington Post, mouthpiece for global capitalism that it is, but this article about a huge crystal methamphetamine bust in China sure fits Alexander’s thesis perfectly.

  9. Alcuin says:

    I just read an article about Adult Children of Alcoholics that claimed that 25% of all children in this country live in families with at least one active alcoholic. 25%! I’ll have to go back and read more of what Bruce Alexander has to say about the link between capitalism and addiction.

  10. tubularsock says:

    What a great post SD. Excellent in content and thought. Thanks for being on top of your game!

  11. Danielle Ha says:

    I feel stupid and childlike when I heard people repeatedly use the term “masters of the universe”. Where are the journalists who should have asked them, which UNIVERSE is that? They are “one-trick ponies” who got Lucky (for sure?) since everyone else is so short-sighted and greedy chasing the dollar. You should tell people that the way to self-esteem is to grow UP and NOT run away to addictions (short term gain, lifelong loss?). New Year Resolution: test yourself!

    • Alcuin says:

      I don’t know much about the subject of addiction (I need to educate myself), but I’d venture to say that the term, “Masters of the Universe” is a form of short hand used to define those more powerful than one’s self, like our parents were when we were children. I haven’t re-read Systemic’s post, but I believe he wrote that addiction is one of many human behaviors and one that is severely aggravated by capitalism. In societies that have not been destroyed by capitalism, addiction is not as prevalent as it is in those which have been destroyed. When the Masters of the Universe create an economic system that results in increased addiction, that is something that needs to be discussed. It is very easy to say “that the way to self-esteem is to grow UP and NOT run away to addictions” but that is the very argument that Systemic is addressing: the lie of personal responsibility. Writing what you did slams the door on discussing the problem because you are saying that addiction is a matter of personal responsibility and that there is no other cause for it. I agree with Systemic and Bruce Alexander: there is more to the problem of addiction than personal responsibility. Yes, addiction is a human failing. No, it does not have to be aggravated by having one’s society (support system) destroyed by an evil economic system. Addiction, in whatever form it takes (sex, drugs and alcohol are examples) is tremendously damaging to both those addicted and to those they are involved with – think spouses, children and grand-children. It has multi-generational consequences that are still being discovered.

      Instead of writing a flippant response to Systemic, why don’t you take the time to go to Bruce Alexander’s website and read his ideas?

      • Danielle Ha says:

        I know what Master… is, I just think that we are too trained to just go with the flow for too long. Of course, I understand that the addiction problems are fairly complex in our society… I just want to remind people that people must be aware that growing up is a hard but a necessary model when you want to fight the system. Systemic always does a good job bringing up these issues as well. We can all learn from each other.

    • I believe “masters of the universe” is a term financiers coined for themselves (and if someone knows better, please correct me), but it’s ordinary usage is sarcastic since it does describe how these one-dimensional parasites view themselves.

      Please don’t feel “childlike,” Danielle, not only because your comments are very much of an engaged adult but also because wielding the term sarcastically is meant to pierce the inane armor they wrap about ourselves. People whose only interest is in accumulating money without regard to how acquired have nothing positive to offer a rational society.

      But the universe in which these characters unfortunately run riot is one that repeatedly deals severe blows to many people’s self-esteem and addiction is one way for some of them to cope in the absence of a strong community. And Dr. Alexander, in his paper, notes that all-out pursuit of money is also a form of addiction.

      • Danielle Ha says:

        Thanks for the support SD. I Myself actually don’t feel stupid, childlike. I said it as a Reminder to people how ‘using’ terms like “masters of the universe” is a Double-Edged sword.

        The self-promoters (with their hired marketers – who know a thing or too about mass propaganda) are cleverly hitching/stealing another thing from poor innocent kids! Even the way I type it out (un-capitalized)… I believe ‘that’ is still bad for everyone’s moral. Also, sarcasms will only get you so far – before you drop back into a hole of LIES.

        I think “One Trick Ponies” is a better term :)

        BTW, which universe are you talking about? Financial SECTOR is not a universe, and I think it’s about time people should make that distinction.

        The ponies can spend all their time adding all the zero’s they want but they can’t solve pollution/ suburbia sprawls, grow organic farms, provide clean water… They cannot even PRINT all the dollars they have ‘claimed’ because there is not enough ink nor trees nor electricity.

  12. the Heretick says:

    in simple terms modern industrial society has produced such a surplus that we are able to satisfy our needs and move on to what we want, a surfeit if you will.
    methods of mass advertising constantly barrage us with messages convincing us that we should want this or that, and we buy into it, i do.
    like little babies we must have our pacifier, something to make us feel good, so we spend money on sweets, meat, cigarettes, booze, at least i do.
    a constant stream of something, anything, to soothe our savaged souls.

    as i light another cigarette and take a drink of coffee.

    the masses of modern society also suffer from a sort of stockholm syndrome on a wide scale, so beat down by everyday life that they look to their oppressors for protection, a truly sick sate of affairs.
    it’s not battered spouse, or battered children, it’s a battered population;
    any analysis of modern industrial society must necessarily start from this premise.

    your analogy is spot on.

    • Excellent points, Heretick. Facing the fact that we are all caught in the gears of capitalism must be a component of our struggle to imagine and create a better world. We work more so we can buy more stuff we don’t need, although of late we work more so can eat and pay the rent. And then we hope one of our bosses’ candidates for political office will solve it for us. Our rescuers will be ourselves.

  13. Danielle Ha says:

    If you are serious about your future, you must get rid of the TV, or at least limit TV TIME to, say 2hrs a week. Took me months but a timer did help. Now, a little piece of dark chocolate can satisfy me for weeks. Have fun.

    • Alcuin says:

      Excellent!! I haven’t watched TV for over 15 years and I haven’t owned a TV for more than 10. TV is horribly addictive.

  14. Steve Prior says:

    Many if not most of our systems are based on the concept of free will. It’s about the individual who is supposed to compete with other individuals in a so called free market economy.

    Social mobility is based on a false dichotomy where an individual is in theory able to create the life they want and move to where the best jobs are and to get the top job.

    I do think any and every human has huge capacities to learn and better themselves but… therein lies a problem.

    We can’t all be surgeons, astronauts, prime ministers, pop singers, premier league footballers, CEO’s, Doctors etc.

    Competition for the top jobs is such that only one out of 100 or so is ever likely to succeed. So what of the 99% who have the capability to do the top jobs, what do these individuals do inside a system that’s buggered.

    The answer is of course to chose jobs they don’t like or want and earn just about enough to live on.

    Maybe it would matter less, if there was some honesty or if people got paid better for being part of a broken system. A brain surgeon, a prime minster a top CEO all need the support of other humans or they wouldn’t be able to function in their (chosen) jobs.

    Whether free will is a truth or not is open to a very large debate.

    I believe we are all products of a system, a system which drives our behaviour and that free will is a myth.

    Humans have somehow constructed systems which are incredibly hard to escape.

    The money system is set up and optimised in such a way that it’s natural for the wealthy to get wealthier. It drives corporations to buy up competitors and or to form cartels.

    The political system is optimised in such a way that drives out real debate, it drives out innovation, it drives out visionaries. A politician may start out with new ideas but quickly realises they must be part of a party/tribe or they will fail.

    The mandated education factory system is optimised to churn out the same people widgets who’s main learning is to adhere to authority and not to think too hard.

    There is no real choice.

    The structure of the system provides a phantom choice and only the lucky 1% will get any where near their true potential. The rest must put up with being sub optimised humans and who must buy more crap, more gadgets or more alcohol to help numb their mind.

  15. Alcuin says:

    I just read an interesting article, Gaze Even Here, originally published in Orion Magazine, that touches on this discussion in an interesting way. The article was re-published by Daily Good – it is not available on the Orion website. I’ve long held that we are trapped in a system and that pointing fingers at “evil perpetrators” obscures our own role in our entrapment. Perhaps we should begin to gaze and not avert our eyes from the horror. I liked Glenn Albrecht’s term, solastalgia. He documents how climate change in Australia is positively correlated with rising rates of suicide and depression there, something that Bruce Alexander addresses, albeit from a different perspective. The root cause, in both cases, though, is capitalism. Trebbe Johnson, the author of the Orion article, states that what we need to do is to “deliberately turn to that broken, wasted place and gaze at it.” That doesn’t mean to subscribe to the hundreds, even thousands, of websites that trot out what I like to call the daily atrocity. Instead, it means to gaze at the wreckage left behind by capitalism and to look, hard, at capitalism and understand it. Understand the connection between what we see and the economic system that is the cause of the horror. Push through the horror, however painful that process is – and understand.

    • We are all, unescapably, complicit because capitalism is a totalizing system, extending its reach to every facet of life and reducing everything of human creation to a commodity. Observing with the goal of understanding is something we can’t do enough of.

  16. Alcuin says:

    The link to the article discussed in this post, The Roots of Addiction in Free Market Society, has changed since this essay was published. It can now be found here.

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