Alcohol [see Martin Thomas’s article in Solidarity 494, and Stephen Wood’s letter in 495] is the most harmful psychoactive substance we know in terms of overall mental and physical damage, addiction, crime and costs to the economy and communities.
It ranks just below heroin and cocaine for the physical and mental damage it does to the individual user. According to the WHO alcohol is a component cause of over 200 diseases. In 2012 3.3 million (5.9%) of deaths were related to alcohol use. Alcohol is responsible for 5.1% of the global burden of disease and injury.
Alcohol is a depressant that dulls the intellect and shuts down the more sophisticated parts of the brain.
Humans have been using psychoactive substances for a very long time. But it was the Roman empire and then the spread of Christianity that secured alcohol’s position as civilisation’s drug of choice.
The dominance of alcohol was legally enforced by global prohibition on most other popular psychoactive drugs in the early 1970s.
Our choice to drink alcohol is influenced by a host of cultural, legal and ideological influences. To paraphrase Marx, people take mind-altering substances but not in circumstances of their own choosing.
A big part of the ideology of alcohol is how normal it is to take this addictive, toxic, socially corrosive depressant. Such narratives about alcohol pervade our society. Some have deep historical roots (see for example the Bible, Proverbs 31:6-7) and are passed on from generation to generation.
Most people are given their first drink in their teens by their parents, even if their parents are very conservative. Few are given their first bong or their first dose of MDMA by their parents although these substances are far less harmful and addictive.
We are bombarded from a young age with how normal it is to drink: to socialise, to relieve stress, to aid sleep, to alleviate fatigue, to make us more confident, to relax, to refresh us on a summer’s day, to warm us on a winter’s night... Those who drink find day-to-day life full of prompts to reach for another glass.
An estimated 22% of people who drink will develop alcohol dependence at some point in their life (the same figure for cocaine is 21%).
So Stephen’s too-sharp distinction between “normal drinkers” and “problem drinkers” is problematic. Walling off alcoholism as entirely apart from “normal drinking” is a key narrative that sustains high levels of alcohol consumption.
What is “normal” in a culture saturated with alcohol is still very harmful. And just a run of bad luck can turn many “normal drinkers” into alcoholics.
We live in very anxious times and alcohol gives an illusion of confidence. Ironically a recent study of young people found that many people “pre-load” before going to the pub because they find being in the pub too anxiety-provoking if sober. Alcohol can provide short-term relief from low mood, anxiety, and painful emotions. Long term it exacerbates these problems, leaving the user feeling that certain situations are intolerable without it.
In consumer capitalism, on the one hand we are commanded to “enjoy!”; and on the other we are bombarded with public health information about how we should resist temptation. Consumer capitalism’s portrait of humanity is of fundamentally weak-willed pleasure-seekers struggling against various addictions big and small.
I think that Dry January is a part of this depressogenic narrative. Deny yourself this pleasure for one month through an extraordinary act of will power, and then release the flood gates in February: “Enjoy!”
Addiction in its broadest sense is at the extreme end of consumer capitalism which is built on an unspoken narrative that life’s problems can be solved by consumption – eat, drink, smoke, gamble, watch TV, play video games, shop til you drop.
Revolutionary socialists are not immune to the pressures of capitalist society but we do have an alternative to that soft narcosis. We believe that our short lives can be made meaningful through struggling to change the course of history and for human liberation. We believe in critical enquiry as a means to encounter the manifest wonder of the world.
Taking mind-altering substances is an innate part of being human. But compulsive pleasure-seeking habits are extremely harmful to ourselves and those around us.
We should seek to liberate ourselves of destructive habits and help those around us to do likewise.