Archive for December, 2009

Addiction and poverty of the spirit

In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy. ~ Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (1973)

I am addicted to the twentieth century. ~ Martin Amis, Money (1984)

Two years ago the Conservative Canadian government launched a multi-million dollar National Anti-Drug Strategy, with its predictably punitive crackdown on illicit drugs, mandatory minimum sentences, hectoring propaganda, abstinence-based “treatment,” and police-heavy approach – in short, a classic drug-prohibition stance.

No one questions that drug addiction is a problem, but the Harper government’s dogmatic handling of this complex issue betrays its inability to get at the true roots of substance use and abuse. The resurgent puritanism in Ottawa angers Bruce Alexander, who has recently published a new book, The Globalisation of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit (Oxford University Press).

Alexander, a psychologist and Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University, believes that addiction is not about sinners in need of salvation, but about the society they live in. “The conventional wisdom depicts addiction most fundamentally as an individual problem,” he writes. “Some individuals become addicted and others do not. An individual who becomes addicted must somehow be restored to normalcy.”

The government’s dogmatic thinking fails to recognize that a problem as terrifying as addiction has its roots in the kind of fragmentation that is inevitably produced by free-market economics. The solemn press conferences and media images of frowning officials in dark suits or uniforms simply repackage and reinforce the old idea that the reason we have people who aren’t behaving properly is drugs – that drugs have a magical quality of taking over human beings who would otherwise be normal smiling happy people shopping at Wal-Mart.

The Globalisation of Addiction presents a radical reappraisal of the nature of addiction, which science and sermons have failed to manage. There are no reliable methods to cure it, prevent it, or take the pain out of it. There is no durable consensus on what addiction is, what causes it, or what should be done about it. Meanwhile, it continues to increase around the world.

Addicts are people struggling to adapt to and deal with difficult psychological and social circumstances. Viewing addictions of all kinds as adaptive responses to dislocation seems odd at first, for we have been taught to view addiction superstitiously as some kind of malevolent entity taking over the soul. But understanding addiction not as “possession” but as an adaptation makes the phenomenon both more comprehensible and more familiar, and is ultimately a deeply sympathetic and humane perspective. It is also a hopeful one, offering a variety of options that can help addicted individuals find social integration and therefore happier lives.

Alexander argues that the failure to control addiction can be traced back to the conventional wisdom of the 19th and 20th centuries which focused too single-mindedly on the afflicted addict. Although addiction obviously manifests itself in individual cases, its prevalence differs dramatically among societies. For example, it can be quite rare in a society for centuries, and then become common when a traditional culture is destroyed or a highly developed civilization collapses. When addiction becomes commonplace in a society, people become enslaved not only to alcohol and drugs, but to a thousand other destructive pursuits: money, power, dysfunctional relationships, gambling, or computer games.

A social perspective on addiction does not deny individual differences in vulnerability to addiction, but it removes them from the foreground of attention, because social determinants are the more influential factor. This book shows that the social circumstances that spread addiction in a conquered people or a declining civilization are also built into today’s globalizing free-market society. Capitalism is magnificently productive, but it subjects people to irresistible pressures towards individualism and competition, tearing rich and poor alike from the close social and spiritual ties that normally constitute human life. Alexander calls this a “worldwide rendering of the social fabric.” People adapt to their alienation or dislocation by finding the best substitutes for a sustaining social and spiritual life that they can, and addiction serves this function all too well.

The most effective response to a growing addiction problem is a social and political one, rather than an individual one. Because addiction is an individual and social response to “dislocation” – especially severe social, economic, and cultural dislocation – the solution is “psychosocial integration.”

“People can endure dislocation for a time. However, severe, prolonged dislocation eventually leads to unbearable despair, shame, emotional anguish, boredom and bewilderment. It regularly precipitates suicide and less direct forms of self-destruction. This is why forced dislocation, in the form of ostracism, excommunication, exile, and solitary confinement, has been a dreaded punishment from ancient times until the present.”
“Material poverty frequently accompanies dislocation, but they are definitely not the same thing. Although material poverty can crush the spirit of isolated individuals and families, it can be borne with dignity by people who face it together as an integrated society. On the other hand, people who have lost their psychosocial integration are demoralized and degraded even if they are not materially poor. Neither food, nor shelter, nor the attainment of wealth can restore them to well-being. Only psychosocial integration itself can do that. In contrast to material poverty, dislocation could be called ‘poverty of the spirit’.”

Overcoming poverty of the spirit through such integration would not put physicians, psychologists, social workers, policemen, and priests out of work, but it would incorporate their practices in a larger social project to reshape society with enough force and imagination to enable people to find social connectedness and meaning in everyday life. Then great numbers of them would not need to fill their inner void with addictions.

So far, governments have chosen to ignore Alexander’s analysis, which was first introduced in his much-read 2001 paper The roots of addiction in free market society. Not surprising in a nation that is rapidly moving to the right and busy squandering its treasury on unwise stimulus spending and war-making.

References

Alexander BK. The globalisation of addiction: a study in poverty of the spirit. Oxford University Press; 2008. ISBN 978-0-19-923012-9.

Alexander BK. The roots of addiction in free market society. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives; 2001. Available from: http://www.cfdp.ca/roots.pdf

Levine HG. Review of “The globalisation of addiction: a study in the poverty of the spirit” by Bruce K. Alexander. Harm Reduct J. 2009; 6: 12. Published online 2009 June 23. doi: 10.1186/1477-7517-6-12. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2717062/


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