On Alienation and Addiction.
Previous beginners guides focused upon the economic structure and the ecological effects of capitalist societies. However, there are effects classed as emotional and psychological problems, which are actually bio-chemical body reactions to various stresses caused by the current socio-economic system. It has previously been pointed out that under capitalism the mass of workers have been separated from control of the main means of economic production and from the content and value they produce at work. This forced separation (or alienation) from a fundamental self-affirming form of human activity is a source of emotional upset and frustrations.
In general, species put as much physical and mental effort into securing their means of survival (food and shelter) as are necessary. The stop and start of this ‘necessary’ work was originally under direct individual or community control. Production stopped when enough had been produced. The documentary TV series ‘Tribe‘ fronted by Bruce Parry, illustrated that this pattern still existed in numerous pre-capitalist modes of production during the late 20th century. However, under systems of exploitation, such as capitalism, collective control of production was transferred to a separate class of owners/managers who determine what is enough. Furthermore, the general type and intensity of work for capitalist production, has become unnatural, repulsive and alienating.
Working for capital invariably involves long hours, stress, exhaustion, repetition, boredom, and often bodily harm. Working for capitalists has often become something to be individually endured rather than collectively enjoyed. Furthermore, even learning under capitalism is frequently stressful, depressing and isolating. It produces anxiety. Finding careers, jobs and a home for working people involves stressful competition. Conversely, lack of work under capitalism is also stressful, boring, demeaning and unhealthy. Capitalist domination of socio-economic activities has introduced multiple forms of ill-health, estrangement and alienation.
These numerous forms of alienation/competition/stress, create, resentment, anger, violence, intolerance, depression, illness and even suicides. Such symptoms effect all classes of capitalist societies, although the capitalist and pro-capitalists are compensated for what they endure. The symptoms noted above have spawned a whole range of professional workers (psychologists, psychiatrists, councillors, doctors) trained to treat the various symptoms as individual shortcomings, requiring 12 (or more) steps. Yet stress, emotional problems and illnesses are clearly more than individual phenomena in capitalist societies.
Nevertheless, when addictions are considered, the fundamental alienating contradictions and stresses at the heart of the capitalist mode of production are usually ignored. Many are classed as forms of individual physical or mental ‘weakness’. Gambling, mobile phones, computer games and shopping all have their share of allegedly ‘weak’ willed addicts. Even hobbies, sports training and religious sect membership can be addictive for some people. Is it not becoming obvious that some addictions are the body or brains method of coping with undesirable aspects of capitalist reality?
If we include addictions to political power, celebrity status and wealth accumulation, the list of addictions gets even longer. I suggest that addictions across such a wide range, presents itself as a social symptom not an accumulation of individual weaknesses. Furthermore, when drug addicts are asked what these addictions provide, an important connection to alienation emerges. Before addiction becomes habitual, escape from pain, stress, emotional hurt, abuse and boredom are given as reasons.
Overwhelmingly, hard-line addicts are coping with some extreme symptoms of alienation noted above. But, is addictive shopping not also a coping mechanism for some missing positive in people’s lives? Advertisements; ‘Because we are worth it’, tap into self-rewarding ourselves for feelings of worthlessness. Is habitual alcohol consumption not a means of coping with stress or a diversion from some ongoing unpleasant part of reality? Are the thousands of young people really addicted to computer games because they have individual weaknesses? Or are they perhaps entering a virtual world as an escape from harsh or empty realities of the real one?
In considering alienation, addiction and even some illnesses, is it not more accurate to conclude that it is the capitalist system, which is deranged and irrational, not those who seek regular solace from it? If we think about it, addictions and illnesses within capitalist societies could be rational or functional solutions to one form of alienating stress or another. Whatever, the side effects – addiction and illness in one of their forms – clearly works as a coping mechanism for millions of people. Perhaps, millions of ‘lone’ pensioners addicted to keeping the TV on 24/7 as a surrogate for the human ‘company’ they now sorely miss, are statistical reminders of the debilitating alienation at the core of capitalism.
Does this social level of understanding of the pressures within capitalism not explain why those who clearly know that their addiction is seriously injuring or killing them, find it impossible to stop? Is it not obvious that since, addicts cannot turn off the general or specific alienating impact of the capitalist system upon them, many will not turn off their addictive distraction – even if this means a shortened journey to death. Presumably, the less dangerous addictions also persist for essentially the same reason; that the alienating circumstances driving them also persist.
Interestingly, many early studies of pre-colonialist hunter-gatherer societies revealed a lack of economic and social alienation along with no widespread addictions. It was only when indigenous modes of production were destroyed by Colonialism and Imperialism and native populations were forced into the productive orbit of capitalism that debilitating addictions took hold. The alcoholic fate of numerous North American Indians and Australian Aborigines are the most widely known examples of such transitions from non-addiction to addiction.
Yet these, and other native populations effected, were not psychologically ill or emotionally unstable, before colonial invasions, nor after it. Like the rest of us – only more so – they were struggling with one or more of the forms of alienation spawned by the capitalist mode of production. Addictive behaviour initially offers a way to temporarily escape from capitalisms negative effects – as it still does for millions .
Roy Ratcliffe (October 2019)
For the long term health effects of stress and adversity see; ‘The Deepest Well’ by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris.
For addictions as symptoms of distress, see; ‘In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts’. By Gabor Mate`, pub. Vermilion.