A review of The Globalization of Addiction, A Study in Poverty of the Spirit, Bruce K. Alexander, OUP, 2009, ISBN 978-0-19-923012-9, 978-0-19-958871-8.
by R. Eric Swanepoel
Note: a shorter version of this review has been published in the Scottish Left Review.
Canadian academic, psychologist Bruce K. Alexander has, in my opinion, written the definitive description of our present era, its problems, their cause, and, most significantly, their solution. The introduction sets the scene and whets the appetite, but I was truly gripped from the opening pages of Part 1 (“Roots of Addiction in Free-market Society”), a chapter anatomising a modern city (in this case, Vancouver), with all its tensions, “communities” (a key word) and problems, not least drug addiction. His description of the local particulars of colonisation, business interests, wealth, poverty and the impact of various developments, projects and schemes will resonate with any unblinkered city-dweller. It will most definitely ring loud bells with city planners, drugs workers, social workers, community arts workers, health workers and law enforcers. Convinced by his description and analysis, you are likely to read on…
While much of what Alexander says will be familiar to those who have heard of Major General Smedley Butler, and readers of Viviane Forrester, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, John Pilger, Joseph Stiglitz and, in particular, Richard Layard, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Alexander joins more current and historical dots than anyone else I am aware of, and does so to produce a picture of such simplicity and elegance that I felt like shouting “Eureka!” (I use that word advisedly, as Alexander goes as far back as ancient Greece to build his thesis, in particular extensively quoting and analysing Socrates’ wisdom, as relayed by Plato.) Indeed, his theory has the beauty that mathematicians and scientists seek in their explanations of the universe, instinctively associating it with truth.
The various forms of addiction
Fundamental to the book is Alexander’s definition of addiction. He identifies four varieties: addiction(1) is overwhelming involvement with alcohol or drugs that is harmful to the individual, to society or both; addiction(2) encompasses addiction(1) and includes non-overwhelming involvement with drugs or alcohol that are harmful to the individual, to society or both; addiction(3) is overwhelming involvement with any pursuit whatsoever (including, but not limited to, drugs or alcohol) that is harmful to the addicted person, society or both; addiction(4) is overwhelming involvement with any pursuit whatsoever that is not harmful to the addicted person or to society.
Hypercapitalism causes psychosocial dislocation
Alexander deals mainly with the third form of addiction, and he makes the point that, to a large extent, addictions are interchangeable. Indeed, his central thesis is that there is no such thing as an inherently addictive drug or behaviour, but that addiction is due to a phenomenon he calls “psychosocial dislocation” and that this, in turn, is largely attributable to the devastating effects of what he calls “hypercapitalism” on communities and thereby on individuals. Every element of this argument is backed up by an impressive body of evidence, summarised in the highly readable text and expanded on in the copious endnotes. This includes detailed analyses of ancient works, the thoughts of scientific luminaries such as Charles Darwin, historical events (his analysis of China is particularly fascinating), scientific experiments, contemporary first-hand accounts of those suffering from psychosocial dislocation and Alexander’s own observations.
The demon drug myth demolished
I am ashamed to admit that I had believed that heroin was an inherently addictive drug. Well, Alexander certainly demolished the “demon drug myth” planted in my head by the mass media (a major target of his, which he effectively condemns as a tool of hypercapitalism – see what I mean about Chomsky?) Not only did non-psychosocially dislocated researchers fail to get themselves addicted, despite weeks of taking the drug, but addicts persisted in their addictive patterns even at a time when heroin supplies were disrupted to the extent that the cut substance they were using effectively had no active ingredient. Equally in Alexander’s sights is “the black sheep” myth – the idea that addicts are inherently to blame for their own addictions. That his book comes as a massive relief to those vilified and scapegoated (yes, I am aware of the mixed ovine/caprine metaphor!) by the popular press is evidenced by testimony from readers on his website.
Addictive complex: Christian moralism, Market God and American Power
Part 2, “The Interaction of Addiction and Society”, includes the brilliant chapter, “The Role of Addiction in the Civilised Madness of the 21st Century”. In this, Alexander expatiates on “fanatical addiction to socially destructive ideas”, analysing the case of Adolf Eichmann; he discusses the mindset of an “academic bureaucrat”, a professor at an American university (compulsory reading for all teachers and lecturers feeling themselves morally compromised in our increasingly narrow and money-minded “educational” institutions); he asks “how is environmental madness possible?”, dissecting the causes and effects of excess consumption (“shopaholism”, “compulsive shopping”, “credit card addiction”…), and he explains religious zealotry, especially Christian and Muslim varieties. My favourite part of this chapter, however, is the section titled “Political and economic fanaticism”. In what is a contender for the most cogent and powerful section of the book, Alexander goes on to discuss communism, the “Market God”, fanatical nationalism (addiction to “American Power”) and, in particular, the “addictive complex” of “Christian moralism”, “Market God” and “American Power”, stating of this appalling triad, “the demands of the three doctrines, Christian, Market and American, are so internally inconsistent that they defy all rational analysis [and this] requires United States policy makers to invoke holy mysteries such as the necessity of torture to prevent terror, the need to support dictatorships in order to spread democracy, the precise geographical localisation of ‘evil’ in the nations that resist United States geopolitical ambitions, the American prerogative of disregarding binding international agreements that other nations must follow, and Christian leaders who advocate assassinating uncooperative foreign officials and who apparently ignore the suffering of the poor”. All this is, of course, scrupulously referenced.
The tragically cool
You may well find yourself described in another fascinating chapter, “Getting by”, which considers the ways most of us cope in the psychosocially disruptive world that hypercapitalism has produced. Alexander classes these into seven categories: “resolute conventionality”, “resolute unconventionality”, “participating in a concocted community”, “political activism”, the “tragically cool”, the “spiritually sufficient” and the “ex-addict”. He analyses the pros and cons of each, concluding convincingly that “the lives that are described can hardly be described as joyful” and asks, “if such descriptions fit many or most people who are getting by in free-market society, where will society turn to find the kind of inspired, fully functioning leaders and workers who will be necessary to pull the world out of its current crises?”
Eclectic spirituality not enough
A thoughtful chapter is devoted to “Spiritual Treatment for Addiction”. While Alexander is by no means scathing, he convinced me that this falls far short of panacea. The section titled “Why eclectic spirituality cannot control addiction in free-market society” was particularly interesting to me.
Practicable, effective and spiritually uplifting
As I approached the end of the book, I found myself champing ever more frantically at the bit to know what Alexander sees as “the solution”. In “From Blindness and Paralysis to Action”, he professes faith that “human beings, reasoning together in a rigorous way, are capable of reaching understandings that are not merely intelligent, but also practicable, effective, and spiritually uplifting”. He summarises the stultifying effect of free-market society’s obscuring of “the connections between free markets mass dislocation, and addictive misery because seeing them would undermine its foundational belief in the magnanimity of free markets”. The “misbegotten War on Drugs”, you will not be surprised to learn, gets short shrift, being dismissed as a “bizarre spectacle of sightless, murderous flailing”, providing “justification for American political and military incursions in Latin America”. “Even failure on an enormous scale,” writes Alexander, “did not open most people’s eyes to the futility of a war that so perfectly shielded free-market society from painful self-examination”.
Impoverishment of middle class relative to executives
Then Alexander really lets rip, in a section in which most readers will recognise at least something that has affected them. He talks of “eye-opening disasters”: what happened in Russia after the collapse of the USSR, the East Asian currency collapse of 1997, the bursting of the stock market bubble in 2002, the exposure of “devastating corruption in superstar transnational corporations” and the “ruthless behaviour of the worldwide pharmaceutical industry”, the “impoverishment of the middle- and working-class people in the richest countries relative to their compatriots in the boardrooms and executive offices”, “famine and epidemics in […] countries that have accepted the free-market reforms of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank” and “the increasingly apparent slaughter of Third-World people by corporate as well as national armies spreading free-market society”. The ongoing turmoil in Iraq, the fiasco of the New Orleans flood and the credit crisis that began in 2007 are also cited as events that have begun to impinge as “dark stains […] on the whitewashed daily news”.
Blindness, then, is less of a problem than it used to be, so what explains our paralysis? Alexander writes, “most people live in a haze most of the time, apparently still hoping to find satisfaction in the glittering baubles that free-market society showers down upon the affluent world, and still dreaming that the future will somehow take care of itself”.
Moving to personal action requires, says Alexander, the “recognition of addictive dynamics that are not connected to drugs and alcohol [such as] love, food, work, fantasy, narcissistic self-absorption, shopping, gambling, ideology, television, video games…”. He acknowledges that “awareness of addiction in oneself or in one’s family is acutely painful” but says that “it does not need to provoke incapacitating despair. It can provoke action instead.” Alexander recommends “finding a secure place in a real community” and notes, “most people eventually put their personal recoveries behind them and find they can use their hard-won experiences to help others”.
With regard to professional action, Alexander argues that “treatment will become more effective when it is oriented towards achieving […] psychosocial integration” and writes that “professionals can contribute at least as much in the role of educators as in the role of therapists”. He suggests that they “let the public know that the power of the treatment that they themselves do is often seriously exaggerated by governments and media as a way of distracting attention from the more costly interventions that are needed to overcome dislocation”. A detailed discussion of the application of his theory to prevention (e.g. scare tactics don’t work!), law enforcement (he endorses, for example, police speaking out “against the futility and harmfulness of the drug war”) and harm reduction (many examples given) follows.
Flimsy reassurances of free-market ideology
Writing of social action, Alexander opines that personal and professional action alone are inadequate. He urges societal change – the domestication of capitalism in diverse ways. An essential element, he believes, is that we “face the degree to which we have been seduced by the flimsy reassurances of free-market ideology, and the ways that we have personally contributed to various kinds of dislocation in occupational roles (‘just doing my job’), political inaction (‘It’s just too depressing’), and so on”. He mounts a trenchant defence of the charge of naiveté and introduces the powerful concept of “we” and “they”, saying that the “conflict is not between simple absolutes like good people and bad people […]. Rather it is between two overarching world views, both of which abide, at some level of consciousness, within most people in the globalising world.” He identifies ten “intellectual land mines that could cripple us”, the first of which is “the dream that free-market society can be saved by more of the same: more growth, more production, more cheap energy, more free markets […]”. He states “the intellect of a single human being never amounts to much, but truth-seeking groups can become very powerful indeed”.
The reclamation of Christianity and the importance of community art
I found the final chapter, which describes many concrete actions that people can and are taking to “domesticate capitalism”, both inspiring and uplifting. This includes the important role of alternative media, the reclaiming of real estate (illustrated at fascinating length), and the importance of community art (both moving and convincing), the rewriting of drug laws (devolve to the local level), the reclamation of Christianity, and the “outflanking” of the university (the subjugation of higher education to the needs of hypercapitalism is illustrated with appalling clarity from the author’s personal experiences). This is followed by a section on social action at the global level, in which Alexander welcomes the loss of US influence in Latin America as a result of popular movements, and the establishment of the “new Bank of the South to replace the ideologically governed IMF and the World Bank”. He also discusses the Tobin Tax, the power of citizen boycotts and other fertile areas.
The missing, magical piece
Alexander’s short and intriguingly titled concluding section (“The missing, magical piece of the puzzle”) anticipates the advent of a “galvanising alternative philosophy […] together with images, ceremonies, music and metaphysics that can give it life in human hearts and minds”. He modestly states that this lies beyond the “prosaic imagination of rationalistic academics like myself” and writes, “the talented people who can produce them intuitively will materialise, as others have in previous eras of despair and confusion”. “In the meantime,” he urges “determined social action”.
Alexander the Great vs Alexander the author
Alexander the Great, arguably motivated by little more than naked personal ambition, temporarily united numerous disparate nations to form a vast empire, which soon crumbled. Alexander the author and philosopher, motivated, it seems evident, by concern for the wellbeing of his fellows and the planet, will, I hope, prove to have been a significant force in uniting the best in all of us, leading to a durable coalition against the divisive and destructive forces of hypercapitalism. (Inspired by him, I have my own ideas as to how this might be done, which I shall expand on in due course. Please come back here later to find a link.)
It is fitting that a citizen of what is possibly the most environmentally destructive country on the planet (search “Alberta tar sands”) should have written this urgently needed book. The Globalization of Addiction, A Study in Poverty of the Spirit is not so much a call to arms, as a resounding call to link arms. Please read it. Please tell others about it.
Personal, Scottish and UK and perspectives on The Globalization of Addiction
Alexander’s wonderful book resonated deeply with me. I hope it will not appear immodest for me to say that Alexander’s work echoes some of my own over the last fifteen or so years. My political romantic comedy, Saving the World and Being Happy, researched in the late 1990s and published in 2004, contains a similar analysis of the power of the mass media, the ruthlessness of “Big Pharma” and the role of citizen boycotts. In the last few years, working for Member of the Scottish Parliament, Bill Wilson, I have campaigned on the horrors of the military-industrial complex (such as the hideous use of depleted uranium and the desirability of Scotland adopting the ICC’s definition of the “crime of aggression” into its legislature).
Drugs and the Party Line
As far as Scottish books on drugs go, I highly recommend Kevin Williamson’s little gem, Drugs and the Party Line, which has much in common with Alexander’s work.
Wilkinson, Pickett and Alexander – great minds thinking alike?
I had the honour of meeting Richard Wilkinson (co-author, with Kate Pickett, of The Spirit Level and co-founder of The Equality Trust) not long after I became aware of The Globalization of Addiction. I was astounded to learn that he was unaware of Alexander’s book, and later confirmed by email exchange with Bruce K. Alexander that he was equally ignorant of Wilkinson and Pickett’s work. Now I note that a former drug addict is quoted on Alexander’s website as mentioning the importance of both books. Indeed, the authors appear to have been working in parallel and to have arrived at strikingly similar conclusions, reminiscent of Wallace and Darwin (the theory of evolution) and Newton and Leibniz (calculus). I do hope they will get together when Alexander visits the UK in March.
Growth, as measured by GDP, condemned
With regard to the fundamentally flawed nature of hypercapitalism and its fixation on growth, Bill Wilson and I recently published the results of a survey of the attitudes of NGOs and public bodies to GDP as a measure of progress. It was, of course, completely ignored by the mainstream media (as much of our work is) and as Alexander would have forecast. In summary, all respondents expressed the view that economic growth, as measured by GDP, is undesirable and unsustainable in developed countries. In the course of compiling our report we discussed the issue with Oxfam Scotland’s Katherine Trebeck. Her report, “Whose Economy? Winners and losers in the new Scottish economy.” makes a brilliant Scottish companion piece to Alexander’s book, illustrating the relevance of his analysis here. I established that she too had been unaware of Alexander’s work.
There are, of course, many citizens’ movements in Scotland. It is probably invidious for me to single some of them out, but local movements are illustrated by Aberdeen’s “Tripping-Up Trump”, the campaign to save Union Terrace Gardens and the Aberdeen Voice. As far as alternative UK and Scottish media go, I like Medialens and the Scottish Left Review.