Reviews 64

The Globalization of Addiction, A Study in Poverty of the Spirit
Bruce K. Alexander, OUP, 2009, ISBN 978-0-19-923012-9, £19.95

Canadian psychologist Bruce K. Alexander has written a compelling account of our era’s problems.  Addictions are interchangeable, he says, and there is no such thing as an inherently addictive drug or behaviour (even heroin fails to enslave non-dislocated individuals), addiction being due to “psychosocial dislocation”, in turn caused by “hypercapitalism”.  He  backs his arguments with copious evidence (from as far back as ancient Greece), summarised in the highly readable text and expanded on in endnotes.

The title of the first chapter hints at the main message (“Roots of Addiction in Free-market Society”) and the chapter illustrates it by examining Vancouver. The local particulars of colonisation, business interests, wealth, poverty and the impact of various projects and schemes will resonate with most city-dwellers –  particularly with city planners, drugs workers, social workers, community arts workers, health workers and law enforcers.

In the chapter titled “The Role of Addiction in the Civilised Madness of the 21st Century”, Alexander examines “fanatical addiction to socially destructive ideas”, discussing Adolf Eichmann and an “academic bureaucrat” (a professor at an American university – compulsory reading for all teachers and lecturers feeling compromised in our increasingly money-minded “educational” institutions).  He asks “how is environmental madness possible?”, discussing excess consumption (including “shopaholism”), and explains religious zealotry. In a section titled “Political and economic fanaticism” Alexander examines the “addictive complex” of “Christian moralism”, “Market God” and “American Power”, stating, “the demands of the three doctrines […] are so internally inconsistent that they defy […] analysis [and this] requires United States policymakers to invoke holy mysteries such as the necessity of torture to prevent terror, the need to support dictatorships in order to spread democracy [and] the precise geographical localisation of ‘evil’ in the nations that resist United States geopolitical ambitions […]”.

The chapter “Getting by” considers how most of us cope: “resolute conventionality”, “resolute unconventionality”, “participating in a concocted community”, “political activism”, the “tragically cool”, the “spiritually sufficient” and the “ex-addict”. Alexander maintains that these lives lack joy and asks, “where will society turn to find […] inspired, fully functioning leaders and workers [needed] to pull the world out of its current crises?”

He describes 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”

In “Spiritual Treatment for Addiction”, Alexander states that spirituality is no panacea but, in “From Blindness and Paralysis to Action”, professes faith that “human beings, reasoning together in a rigorous way, are capable of reaching understandings that are […] practicable, effective, and spiritually uplifting”. He describes 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” is 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”.

However, the failings of free-market capitalism are increasingly obvious.  Alexander talks of “eye-opening disasters” – amongst others the bursting of the stock market bubble in 2002, the exposure of “devastating corruption in superstar transnational corporations”, 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 IMF and World Bank” and “the […] slaughter of Third-World people by corporate as well as national armies spreading free-market society”. The turmoil in Iraq, the New Orleans flood fiasco and the credit crisis are described as “dark stains […] on the whitewashed daily news”.

Blindness increasingly less of a problem then, what explains our paralysis? Alexander writes:  “most people live in a haze […], hoping to find satisfaction in the glittering baubles that free-market society showers down upon the affluent world”. Moving to personal action requires 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 […] is acutely painful” but says that “it does not need to provoke incapacitating despair” and can provoke action. Alexander recommends “finding a secure place in a real community” and notes, “most people […] 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” but suggests that professionals “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”.

Alexander urges societal change – the domestication of capitalism in diverse ways – advising 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 defends himself against the charge of naiveté and introduces the concept of “we” and “they”, saying that the “conflict is not between […] good people and bad people […]. [It] is between two overarching world views, both of which abide […] within most people.” Amongst other “intellectual land mines that could cripple us” 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 final chapter describes what we can do to “domesticate capitalism”. He writes of the role of alternative media (hooray, SLR!), the reclaiming of real estate, community art, 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 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, citizen boycotts and other areas.

Alexander’s conclusion (“The missing, magical piece of the puzzle”) anticipates a “galvanising alternative philosophy […] together with images, ceremonies, music and metaphysics that can give it life in human hearts and minds”. He states that this lies beyond the “prosaic imagination of rationalistic academics” and writes, “the talented people who can produce [this] will materialise, as others have in previous eras of despair”. “In the meantime,” he urges “determined social action”.

Then as now I cannot answer the troubling questions about the moral justification for saturation bombing of civilian targets in wartime

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. Alexander the Great, motivated by personal ambition, briefly united numerous nations to form a vast empire. Alexander, author and philosopher, motivated by concern for the wellbeing of his fellows, will, I hope, prove to have been a significant force in uniting the best in all of us, leading to a lasting coalition against the divisive forces of hypercapitalism.

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.  This is a must-read, alongside Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level.

(Scottish notes: Those seeking a Scottish perspective on the topics Alexander raises could do worse than read Kevin Williamson’s little gem, Drugs and the Party Line, and Katherine Trebeck’s report, “Whose Economy? Winners and losers in the new Scottish economy”.)

R. Eric Swanepoel (author of Saving the World and Being Happy, previously reviewed in SLR)


River of Fire: The Clydebank Blitz
John Macleod, Birlinn 2010, ISBN 1843410494, £16.99

Born in the West of Scotland just after the Second World War I grew up with knowledge of the London Blitz but with very little awareness of the events in Clydebank in March 1941. My parents were living in Dumbarton when Clydebank was bombed and my mother was so horrified that she fled the West of Scotland and returned to her native Cowdenbeath.

One of the themes of Macleod’s book on the Clydebank Blitz is how the destruction of a Scottish town in a period of two nights has been forgotten by the wider public in Scotland and beyond. Returning to a personal note, I remember Jimmie Cowie, a drouthy neebor of my father’s in Fife in the 1960s. He was a survivor of the Blitz but on the only occasion when I tried to quiz him about the events of March 13 and 14, 1941, he simply said he did not want to talk about it and returned to his game of dominoes.

Now, more than 70 years on, most of the survivors have left us and it may be easier to talk and write about those days and their place in the History of Modern Scotland. Macleod does not confine himself to a cold narration of the horrors of the bombing but uses every opportunity to make clear his opinions on everything from the place of Incapacity Benefit in the Welfare Benefits System to his opinions on the Rt Hon Henry MacLeish. (He likes him.)

For me the book raises questions that have troubled me for many years. In my youth I went on a visit to the city of Dresden. This was in 1964 when the horrors of the destruction of Dresden in February 1945 were still visible and very much in people’s memories. And yet I was only vaguely aware of the events of Clydebank. I knew of Coventry, but not of a town much nearer to me. Then as now I cannot answer the troubling questions about the moral justification for saturation bombing of civilian targets in wartime. Macleod has the simplistic answer that bombing Clydebank was a war crime but the strategic bombing of German city under the guidance of Bomber Harris was part of a “Just War” and therefore excusable.

Whatever our moral position on the role of the Luftwaffe and of Bomber Command, we owe thanks to Macleod for bringing this dark episode in Contemporary History to our attention. I for one shall visit Clydebank over the summer months and spend some time thinking on the innocent victims of those two nights of bombing 70 years ago.

Hamish Kirk