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.
The 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
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.