“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
~ Jiddu Krishnamurti
“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”
~ Johann Harri
On Staying Sane in a Suicidal Culture
by Dahr Jamail
Our situation so often feels hopeless. So much has spun out of control, and pathology surrounds us. At least one in five Americans are taking psychiatric medications, and the number of children taking adult psychiatric drugs is soaring.
From the perspective of Macy’s teachings, it seems hard to argue that this isn’t, at least in part, active denial of what is happening to the world and how challenging it is for both adults and children to deal with it emotionally, spiritually and psychologically.
These disturbing trends, which are increasing, are something she is very mindful of. As she wrote in World as Lover, World as Self, “The loss of certainty that there will be a future is, I believe, the pivotal psychological reality of our time.”
Admittedly, severely depressed people can connect only tenuously with reality, but repeated studies have shown that mild to moderate depressives have a more realistic take on life than most “normal” people, a phenomenon known as “depressive realism”. As Neel Burton, author of The Meaning of Madness, put it, this is “the healthy suspicion that modern life has no meaning and that modern society is absurd and alienating”. In a goal-driven, work-oriented culture, this is deeply threatening.
This viewpoint can have a paralysing grip on depressives, sometimes to a psychotic extent – but perhaps it haunts everyone. And therefore the bulk of the unafflicted population may never really understand depression. Not only because they (understandably) lack the imagination, and (unforgivably) fail to trust in the experience of the sufferer – but because, when push comes to shove, they don’t want to understand. It’s just too … well, depressing.
The Mental Disease of Late-Stage Capitalism
by Joe Brewer
A great irony of this deeply corrupt system of wealth hoarding is that the “weapon of choice” is how we feel about ourselves as we interact with our friends. The elites don’t have to silence us. We do that ourselves by refusing to talk about what is happening to us. Fake it until you make it. That’s the advice we are given by the already successful who have pigeon-holed themselves into the tiny number of real opportunities society had to offer. Hold yourself accountable for the crushing political system that was designed to divide us against ourselves.
This great lie that we whisper to ourselves is how they control us. Our fear that other impoverished people (which is most of us now) will look down on us for being impoverished too. This is how we give them the power to keep humiliating us.
I say no more of this emotional racket. If I am going to be responsible for my fate in life, let it be because I chose to stand up and fight — that I helped dismantle the global architecture of wealth extraction that created this systemic corruption of our economic and political systems.
Now more than ever, we need spiritual healing. As this capitalist system destroys itself, we can step aside and find healing by living honestly and without fear. They don’t get to tell us how to live. We can share our pain with family and friends. We can post it on social media. Shout it from the rooftops if we feel like it. The pain we feel is capitalism dying. It hurts us because we are still in it.
Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems
by George Monbiot
So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.
Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.
Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.
We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.
Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.
Among the results, as Paul Verhaeghe documents in his book What About Me? are epidemics of self-harm, eating disorders, depression, loneliness, performance anxiety and social phobia. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Britain, in which neoliberal ideology has been most rigorously applied, is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are all neoliberals now.
Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us
by Paul Verhaeghe
We tend to perceive our identities as stable and largely separate from outside forces. But over decades of research and therapeutic practice, I have become convinced that economic change is having a profound effect not only on our values but also on our personalities. Thirty years of neoliberalism, free-market forces and privatisation have taken their toll, as relentless pressure to achieve has become normative. If you’re reading this sceptically, I put this simple statement to you: meritocratic neoliberalism favours certain personality traits and penalises others.
There are certain ideal characteristics needed to make a career today. The first is articulateness, the aim being to win over as many people as possible. Contact can be superficial, but since this applies to most human interaction nowadays, this won’t really be noticed.
It’s important to be able to talk up your own capacities as much as you can – you know a lot of people, you’ve got plenty of experience under your belt and you recently completed a major project. Later, people will find out that this was mostly hot air, but the fact that they were initially fooled is down to another personality trait: you can lie convincingly and feel little guilt. That’s why you never take responsibility for your own behaviour.
On top of all this, you are flexible and impulsive, always on the lookout for new stimuli and challenges. In practice, this leads to risky behaviour, but never mind, it won’t be you who has to pick up the pieces. The source of inspiration for this list? The psychopathy checklist by Robert Hare, the best-known specialist on psychopathy today.
What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society
by Paul Verhaeghe
Kindle Locations 2357-2428
Hypotheses such as these, however plausible, are not scientific. If we want to demonstrate the link between a neo-liberal society and, say, mental disorders, we need two things. First, we need a yardstick that indicates the extent to which a society is neo-liberal. Second, we need to develop criteria to measure the increase or decrease of psychosocial wellbeing in society. Combine these two, and you would indeed be able to see whether such a connection existed. And by that I don’t mean a causal connection, but a striking pattern; a rise in one being reflected in the other, or vice versa.
This was exactly the approach used by Richard Wilkinson, a British social epidemiologist, in two pioneering studies (the second carried out with Kate Pickett). The gauge they used was eminently quantifiable: the extent of income inequality within individual countries. This is indeed a good yardstick, as neo-liberal policy is known to cause a spectacular rise in such inequality. Their findings were unequivocal: an increase of this kind has far-reaching consequences for nearly all health criteria. Its impact on mental health (and consequently also mental disorders) is by no means an isolated phenomenon. This finding is just as significant as the discovery that mental disorders are increasing.
As social epidemiologists, Wilkinson and Pickett studied the connection between society and health in the broad sense of the word. Stress proves to be a key factor here. Research has revealed its impact, both on our immune systems and our cardiovascular systems. Tracing the causes of stress is difficult, though, especially given that we live in the prosperous and peaceful West. If we take a somewhat broader view, most academics agree on the five factors that determine our health: early childhood; the fears and cares we experience; the quality of our social relationships; the extent to which we have control over our lives; and, finally, our social status. The worse you score in these areas, the worse your health and the shorter your life expectancy are likely to be.
In his first book, The Impact of Inequality: how to make sick societies healthier, Wilkinson scrutinises the various factors involved, rapidly coming to what would be the central theme of his second book — that is, income inequality. A very striking conclusion is that in a country, or even a city, with high income inequality, the quality of social relationships is noticeably diminished: there is more aggression, less trust, more fear, and less participation in the life of the community. As a psychoanalyst, I was particularly interested in his quest for the factors that play a role at individual level. Low social status proves to have a determining effect on health. Lack of control over one’s work is a prominent stress factor. A low sense of control is associated with poor relationships with colleagues and greater anger and hostility — a phenomenon that Richard Sennett had already described (the infantilisation of adult workers). Wilkinson discovered that this all has a clear impact on health, and even on life expectancy. Which in turn ties in with a classic finding of clinical psychology: powerlessness and helplessness are among the most toxic emotions.
Too much inequality is bad for your health
A number of conclusions are forced upon us. In a prosperous part of the world like Western Europe, it isn’t the quality of health care (the number of doctors and hospitals) that determines the health of the population, but the nature of social and economic life. The better social relationships are, the better the level of health. Excessive inequality is more injurious to health than any other factor, though this is not simply a question of differences between social classes. If anything, it seems to be more of a problem within groups that are presumed to be equal (for example, civil servants and academics). This finding conflicts with the general assumption that income inequality only hurts the underclass — the losers — while those higher up the social ladder invariably benefit. That’s not the case: its negative effects are statistically visible in all sectors of the population, hence the subtitle of Wilkinson’s second work: why more equal societies almost always do better.
In that book, Wilkinson and Pickett adopt a fairly simple approach. Using official statistics, they analyse the connection between income inequality and a host of other criteria. The conclusions are astounding, almost leaping off the page in table after table: the greater the level of inequality in a country or even region, the more mental disorders, teenage pregnancies, child mortality, domestic and street violence, crime, drug abuse, and medication. And the greater the inequality is, the worse physical health and educational performance are, the more social mobility declines, along with feelings of security, and the unhappier people are.
Both books, especially the latter, provoked quite a response in the Anglo-Saxon world. Many saw in them proof of what they already suspected. Many others were more negative, questioning everything from the collation of data to the statistical methods used to reach conclusions. Both authors refuted the bulk of the criticism — which, given the quality of their work, was not a very difficult task. Much of it targeted what was not in the books: the authors were not urging a return to some kind of ‘all animals are equal’ Eastern-bloc state. What critics tended to forget was that their analysis was of relative differences in income, with negative effects becoming most manifest in the case of extreme inequality. Moreover, it is not income inequality itself that produces these effects, but the stress factors associated with it.
Roughly the same inferences can be drawn from Sennett’s study, though it is more theoretical and less underpinned with figures. His conclusion is fairly simple, and can be summed up in the title of what I regard as his best book: Respect in a World of Inequality. Too much inequality leads to a loss of respect, including self-respect — and, in psychosocial terms, this is about the worst thing that can happen to anyone.
This emerges very powerfully from a single study of the social determinants of health, which is still in progress. Nineteen eighty-six saw the start of the second ‘Whitehall Study’ that systematically monitored over 10,000 British civil servants, to establish whether there was a link between their health and their work situations. At first sight, this would seem to be a relatively homogenous group, and one that definitely did not fall in the lowest social class. The study’s most striking finding is that the lower the rank and status of someone within that group, the lower their life expectancy, even when taking account of such factors as smoking, diet, and physical exercise. The most obvious explanation is that the lowest-ranked people experienced the most stress. Medical studies confirm this: individuals in this category have higher cortisol levels (increased stress) and more coagulation-factor deficiencies (and thus are at greater risk of heart attacks).
My initial question was, ‘Is there a demonstrable connection between today’s society and the huge rise in mental disorders?’ As all these studies show, the answer is yes. Even more important is the finding that this link goes beyond mental health. The same studies show highly negative effects on other health parameters. As so often is the case, a parallel can be found in fiction — in this instance, in Alan Lightman’s novel The Diagnosis. During an interview, the author posed the following rhetorical question: ‘Who, experiencing for years the daily toll of intense corporate pressure, could truly escape severe anxiety?’* (I think it may justifiably be called rhetorical, when you think how many have had to find out its answer for themselves.)
A study by a research group at Heidelberg University very recently came to similar conclusions, finding that people’s brains respond differently to stress according to whether they have had an urban or rural upbringing. 3 What’s more, people in the former category prove more susceptible to phobias and even schizophrenia. So our brains are differently shaped by the environment in which we grow up, making us potentially more susceptible to mental disorders. Another interesting finding emerged from the way the researchers elicited stress. While the subjects of the experiment were wrestling with the complex calculations they had been asked to solve, some of them were told (falsely) that their scores were lagging behind those of the others, and asked to hurry up because the experiments were expensive. All the neo-liberal factors were in place: emphasis on productivity, evaluation, competition, and cost reduction.
Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?
by Mark Fisher
Mental health, in fact, is a paradigm case of how capitalist realism operates. Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect). In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS. In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James has convincingly posited a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, the USA and Australia. In line with James’s claims, I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high. […]
By contrast with their forebears in the 1960s and 1970s, British students today appear to be politically disengaged. While French students can still be found on the streets protesting against neoliberalism, British students, whose situation is incomparably worse, seem resigned to their fate. But this, I want to argue, is a matter not of apathy, nor of cynicism, but of reflexive impotence. They know things are bad, but more than that, they know they can’t do anything about it. But that ‘knowledge’, that reflexivity, is not a passive observation of an already existing state of affairs. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Reflexive impotence amounts to an unstated worldview amongst the British young, and it has its correlate in widespread pathologies. Many of the teenagers I worked with had mental health problems or learning difficulties. Depression is endemic. It is the condition most dealt with by the National Health Service, and is afflicting people at increasingly younger ages. The number of students who have some variant of dyslexia is astonishing. It is not an exaggeration to say that being a teenager in late capitalist Britain is now close to being reclassified as a sickness. This pathologization already forecloses any possibility of politicization. By privatizing these problems – treating them as if they were caused only by chemical imbalances in the individual’s neurology and/ or by their family background – any question of social systemic causation is ruled out.
Many of the teenage students I encountered seemed to be in a state of what I would call depressive hedonia. Depression is usually characterized as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as it by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. There is a sense that ‘something is missing’ – but no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle. In large part this is a consequence of students’ ambiguous structural position, stranded between their old role as subjects of disciplinary institutions and their new status as consumers of services. In his crucial essay ‘Postscript on Societies of Control’, Deleuze distinguishes between the disciplinary societies described by Foucault, which were organized around the enclosed spaces of the factory, the school and the prison, and the new control societies, in which all institutions are embedded in a dispersed corporation.
The ethos espoused by McCauley is the one which Richard Sennett examines in The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, a landmark study of the affective changes that the post-Fordist reorganization of work has brought about. The slogan which sums up the new conditions is ‘no long term’. Where formerly workers could acquire a single set of skills and expect to progress upwards through a rigid organizational hierarchy, now they are required to periodically re-skill as they move from institution to institution, from role to role. As the organization of work is decentralized, with lateral networks replacing pyramidal hierarchies, a premium is put on ‘flexibility’. Echoing McCauley’s mockery of Hanna in Heat (‘ How do you expect to keep a marriage?’), Sennett emphasizes the intolerable stresses that these conditions of permanent instability put on family life. The values that family life depends upon – obligation, trustworthiness, commitment – are precisely those which are held to be obsolete in the new capitalism. Yet, with the public sphere under attack and the safety nets that a ‘Nanny State’ used to provide being dismantled, the family becomes an increasingly important place of respite from the pressures of a world in which instability is a constant. The situation of the family in post-Fordist capitalism is contradictory, in precisely the way that traditional Marxism expected: capitalism requires the family (as an essential means of reproducing and caring for labor power; as a salve for the psychic wounds inflicted by anarchic social-economic conditions), even as it undermines it (denying parents time with children, putting intolerable stress on couples as they become the exclusive source of affective consolation for each other). […]
The psychological conflict raging within individuals cannot but have casualties. Marazzi is researching the link between the increase in bi-polar disorder and post-Fordism and, if, as Deleuze and Guattari argue, schizophrenia is the condition that marks the outer edges of capitalism, then bi-polar disorder is the mental illness proper to the ‘interior’ of capitalism. With its ceaseless boom and bust cycles, capitalism is itself fundamentally and irreducibly bi-polar, periodically lurching between hyped-up mania (the irrational exuberance of ‘bubble thinking’) and depressive come-down. (The term ‘economic depression’ is no accident, of course). To a degree unprecedented in any other social system, capitalism both feeds on and reproduces the moods of populations. Without delirium and confidence, capital could not function.
It seems that with post-Fordism, the ‘invisible plague’ of psychiatric and affective disorders that has spread, silently and stealthily, since around 1750 (i.e. the very onset of industrial capitalism) has reached a new level of acuteness. Here, Oliver James’s work is important. In The Selfish Capitalist, James points to significant rises in the rates of ‘mental distress’ over the last 25 years. ‘By most criteria’, James reports,
rates of distress almost doubled between people born in 1946 (aged thirty-six in 1982) and 1970 (aged thirty in 2000). For example, 16 per cent of thirty-six-year-old women in 1982 reported having ‘trouble with nerves, feeling low, depressed or sad’, whereas 29 per cent of thirty year-olds reported this in 2000 (for men it was 8 per cent in 1982, 13 per cent in 2000).
Another British study James cites compared levels of psychiatric morbidity (which includes neurotic symptoms, phobias and depression) in samples of people in 1977 and 1985. ‘Whereas 22 per cent of the 1977 sample reported psychiatric morbidity, this had risen to almost a third of the population (31 per cent) by 1986’. Since these rates are much higher in countries that have implemented what James calls ‘selfish’ capitalism than in other capitalist nations, James hypothesizes that it is selfish (i.e. neoliberalized) capitalist policies and culture that are to blame. […]
James’s conjectures about aspirations, expectations and fantasy fit with my own observations of what I have called ‘hedonic depression’ in British youth.
It is telling, in this context of rising rates of mental illness, that New Labour committed itself, early in its third term in government, to removing people from Incapacity Benefit, implying that many, if not most, claimants are malingerers. In contrast with this assumption, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to infer that most of the people claiming Incapacity Benefit – and there are well in excess of two million of them – are casualties of Capital. A significant proportion of claimants, for instance, are people psychologically damaged as a consequence of the capitalist realist insistence that industries such as mining are no longer economically viable. (Even considered in brute economic terms, though, the arguments about ‘viability’ seem rather less than convincing, especially once you factor in the cost to taxpayers of incapacity and other benefits.) Many have simply buckled under the terrifyingly unstable conditions of post-Fordism.
The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low levels of serotonin. This requires a social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism.
It does not seem fanciful to see parallels between the rising incidence of mental distress and new patterns of assessing workers’ performance. We will now take a closer look at this ‘new bureaucracy’.
The Opposite of Addiction is Connection
by Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S
Not for Alexander. He was bothered by the fact that the cages in which the rats were isolated were small, with no potential for stimulation beyond the heroin. Alexander thought: Of course they all got high. What else were they supposed to do? In response to this perceived shortcoming, Alexander created what we now call “the rat park,” a cage approximately 200 times larger than the typical isolation cage, with Hamster wheels and multi-colored balls to play with, plenty of tasty food to eat, and spaces for mating and raising litters.[ii] And he put not one rat, but 20 rats (of both genders) into the cage. Then, and only then, did he mirror the old experiments, offering one bottle of pure water and one bottle of heroin water. And guess what? The rats ignored the heroin. They were much more interested in typical communal rat activities such as playing, fighting, eating, and mating. Essentially, with a little bit of social stimulation and connection, addiction disappeared. Heck, even rats who’d previously been isolated and sucking on the heroin water left it alone once they were introduced to the rat park.
The Human Rat Park
One of the reasons that rats are routinely used in psychological experiments is that they are social creatures in many of the same ways that humans are social creatures. They need stimulation, company, play, drama, sex, and interaction to stay happy. Humans, however, add an extra layer to this equation. We need to be able to trust and to emotionally attach.
This human need for trust and attachment was initially studied and developed as a psychological construct in the 1950s, when John Bowlby tracked the reactions of small children when they were separated from their parents.[iii] In a nutshell, he found that infants, toddlers, and young children have an extensive need for safe and reliable caregivers. If children have that, they tend to be happy in childhood and well-adjusted (emotionally healthy) later in life. If children don’t have that, it’s a very different story. In other words, it is clear from Bowlby’s work and the work of later researchers that the level and caliber of trust and connection experienced in early childhood carries forth into adulthood. Those who experience secure attachment as infants, toddlers, and small children nearly always carry that with them into adulthood, and they are naturally able to trust and connect in healthy ways. Meanwhile, those who don’t experience secure early-life attachment tend to struggle with trust and connection later in life. In other words, securely attached individuals tend to feel comfortable in and to enjoy the human rat park, while insecurely attached people typically struggle to fit in and connect.
The Opposite Of Addiction is Connection
By Jonathan Davis
If connection is the opposite of addiction, then an examination of the neuroscience of human connection is in order. Published in 2000, A General Theory Of Love is a collaboration between three professors of psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco. A General Theory Of Love reveals that humans require social connection for optimal brain development, and that babies cared for in a loving environment are psychological and neurologically ‘immunised’ by love. When things get difficult in adult life, the neural wiring developed from a love-filled childhood leads to increased emotional resilience in adult life. Conversely, those who grow up in an environment where loving care is unstable or absent are less likely to be resilient in the face of emotional distress.
How does this relate to addiction? Gabor Maté observes an extremely high rate of childhood trauma in the addicts he works with and trauma is the extreme opposite of growing up in a consistently safe and loving environment. He asserts that it is extremely common for people with addictions to have a reduced capacity for dealing with emotional distress, hence an increased risk of drug-dependence.
How Our Ability To Connect Is Impaired By Trauma
Trauma is well-known to cause interruption to healthy neural wiring, in both the developing and mature brain. A deeper issue here is that people who have suffered trauma, particularly children, can be left with an underlying sense that the world is no longer safe, or that people can no longer be trusted. This erosion (or complete destruction) of a sense of trust, that our family, community and society will keep us safe, results in isolation – leading to the very lack of connection Johann Harri suggests is the opposite of addiction. People who use drugs compulsively do so to avoid the pain of past trauma and to replace the absence of connection in their life.
Social Solutions To Addiction
The solution to the problem of addiction on a societal level is both simple and fairly easy to implement. If a person is born into a life that is lacking in love and support on a family level, or if due to some other trauma they have become isolated and suffer from addiction, there must be a cultural response to make sure that person knows that they are valued by their society (even if they don’t feel valued by their family). Portugal has demonstrated this with a 50% drop in addiction thanks to programs that are specifically designed to re-create connection between the addict and their community.
This has huge implications for the one hundred year old war on drugs. This massive war – which, as I saw, kills people from the malls of Mexico to the streets of Liverpool – is based on the claim that we need to physically eradicate a whole array of chemicals because they hijack people’s brains and cause addiction. But if drugs aren’t the driver of addiction – if, in fact, it is disconnection that drives addiction – then this makes no sense.
Ironically, the war on drugs actually increases all those larger drivers of addiction: for example, I went to a prison in Arizona – ‘Tent City’ – where inmates are detained in tiny stone isolation cages (“The Hole”) for weeks and weeks on end, to punish them for drug use. It is as close to a human recreation of the cages that guaranteed deadly addiction in rats as I can imagine. And when those prisoners get out, they will be unemployable because of their criminal record – guaranteeing they with be cut off ever more. I watched this playing out in the human stories I met across the world.
There is an alternative. You can build a system that is designed to help drug addicts to reconnect with the world – and so leave behind their addictions.
This isn’t theoretical. It is happening. I have seen it. Nearly fifteen years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with 1 percent of the population addicted to heroin. They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse. So they decided to do something radically different. They resolved to decriminalize all drugs, and transfer all the money they used to spend on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them – to their own feelings, and to the wider society. The most crucial step is to get them secure housing, and subsidized jobs – so they have a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. I watched as they are helped, in warm and welcoming clinics, to learn how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma and stunning them into silence with drugs.
One example I learned about was a group of addicts who were given a loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other, and to the society, and responsible for each other’s care.
The results of all this are now in. An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. I’ll repeat that: injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Decriminalization has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system. The main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira – the country’s top drug cop. He offered all the dire warnings that we would expect from the Daily Mail or Fox News. But when we sat together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he predicted had not come to pass – and he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal’s example.
This isn’t only relevant to addicts. It is relevant to all of us, because it forces us to think differently about ourselves. Human beings are bonding animals. We need to connect and love. The wisest sentence of the twentieth century was E.M. Forster’s: “only connect.” But we have created an environment and a culture that cut us off from connection, or offer only the parody of it offered by the Internet. The rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live–constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object we should buy, rather than the human beings all around us.
The writer George Monbiot has called this “the age of loneliness.” We have created human societies where it is easier for people to become cut off from all human connections than ever before. Bruce Alexander, the creator of Rat Park, told me that for too long, we have talked exclusively about individual recovery from addiction. We need now to talk about social recovery—how we all recover, together, from the sickness of isolation that is sinking on us like a thick fog.
But this new evidence isn’t just a challenge to us politically. It doesn’t just force us to change our minds. It forces us to change our hearts.
* * *