From the February 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard
Attention has been focussed recently on the “problem drinkers”. Somebody has been counting their cost. In the December issue of Business, the Management Journal, it is claimed that the annual cost of alcoholism to British industry is £61 millions in absenteeism alone. It is claimed that of the total working population, two to three per cent are “problem drinkers”. The same percentage is given also for America.
It is a typical piece of commercial cynicism to measure and describe a problem in money terms. Officially, the most disturbing aspect of widespread alcoholism is not the tragedy of people who require opiates to fortify their existence, but the loss of £61 million. Indeed, it is this loss that qualifies alcoholism as a problem.
Of course, employers will never rest in their attempts to find the ideal labour force. Workers are besieged by exhortations to be conscientious, sober, hard working, honest and thrifty. In short, workers are asked to practice all the so- called virtues of moral and political conformity which assure their maximum exploitation as wage slaves. The curse of capitalism—for the capitalists—has always been that the units of labour power comprising the working class are also human beings. Regrettably they are not merely machines with brains; they are emotionally volatile, physically vulnerable; they give under pressure.
Addiction to alcohol is found at all levels of industry and commerce. The executive, the manager, the clerk, the shop floor operative. The kind of drink varies with the income bracket, from wines and spirits, beer, cheap wines, down to the cheapest of all, methylated spirits. The meths drinker has reached the stage of total degeneracy, a derelict hulk, rather than a vital human being.
The meths drinkers are the most pathetic of all, lost in a twilight world of doped unreality. With personalities destroyed and contact with fellow human beings broken down, they are interrogated in decrepit cellars by naive social workers. Why were they sleeping rough? Had they no accommodation at all? Had they any money? Had they jobs? In their cases, the National Assistance Board is interested, again counting the cost of subsidising the unemployable.
It is typical that blame for alcoholism should be put on the individual. The very phrase “problem drinker” emphasises not the plight of the sufferer but his nuisance value. For the heavy drinker, alcohol becomes the buffer between his sober self and an intolerable reality. Alcohol in fact becomes a substitute for living. For the man who needs alcohol to see the day through, his drinks are the terms on which he is prepared to adjust himself to an existence that he despises. Though he may not be aware of it, alcohol is the repudiation of a life to which he sees no alternative. Unfortunately the disease easily generates its own momentum, sometimes ending in a complete personal capitulation to the meths bottle.
Nevertheless to the conventional moralist, the individual is completely in the wrong. In those who are worried about the money cost of alcoholism, there is no criticism of society. It is the individual who must conform; if he does not or cannot, then at best he is lazy or weak, lacking in the necessary will to make the adjustment.
Alcohol is only one of the substitutes that men grasp in their flight from reality. There are others. Suicide and mental illness are equally results of the emotional stress that capitalist society imposes on humanity. The existence of all these problems is part of man’s unconscious protest against a society that not only denies his needs but actively destroys him.
The term “social workers” is an exquisite euphemism for individuals who are attempting to minimise the cost of capitalism’s worst effects. Even so, their work is useful in documenting the incidence of such problems as alcoholism. To put these facts in perspective it is necessary to clear away such concepts as "problem drinkers”, “social misfits”, etc. This phraseology by itself places the onus of responsibility on the individual. It fails to relate the incidence of alcoholism to the social pressures bearing on the individual. It implicitly encourages the view of the individual as a failure rather than a possible victim. In fact, by endorsing the status quo, this view of the problem guarantees its continuance. The use of phrases like “social failures” partly contributes to the problem. Surely it is this background of successes and failures, the empty competitive values of propertied society from which people seek a refuge in drink.
In the short term, the incidence of alcoholism will probably increase. Capitalism cannot avoid a continuing ferment of discontent, albeit generally expressed in negative ways, through hate, violence, cynicism and even despair. Paradoxically, this may form a background for building up useful knowledge about where man’s true interests lie.