July 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
“Problems”, together with the belief (carefully fostered by the hucksters, humbugs and dupes of the mass media and politics) that they exist in isolation, are hallmarks of capitalist society. Such is the case with the so-called drugs problem. Unrelated to anything except itself, it has apparently sprung from nowhere in particular. It is a social aberration; a product of “the times”; a passing fad, perhaps; or merely one of the more risky forms of self-indulgence.
What is never explained to us—least of all by such agencies as the BBC, with its “phone-ins” and its “audience-participation” jamborees—is that the “drugs problem”, along with all the other “problems” afflicting mankind, can be directly attributed to a universal condition: the existence of world-wide capitalism. In fact, drugs and drug trafficking can be no more dissociated from the capitalist system than leprous sores can be dissociated from leprosy. For, first and foremost, drugs are commodities; produced for sale with a view to profit-just like food and clothing; weapons of war; houses and hospitals; schools, newspapers and furniture. As with these latter, vast fortunes are realised from the drugs trade.
Capitalists are parasites and, true to form they have battened on the more vulnerable sections of the working class the young and curious among whom there has existed in recent years, a measurable increase in collective spending power, however temporary. (In this exploitative exercise the drug manufacturers and traffickers are joined by the sharks of the rag-trade and the pop-music “scene”; motor cycle salesmen; glossy-magazine publishers', tobacco and drinks manufacturers; and rubbishy gew-gaw sellers of all descriptions.) Junkies and pot-smokers are not alone as victims of capitalist exploitation: the harassed and overwrought suburban housewife has to find cash to pay for her chemicals, likewise.
It would be misleading, however, to ascribe the increase in the incidence of drug-taking medically prescribed or otherwise—solely to an increase in, and subsequent exploitation of, social spending power. To do so would be to ignore the role alcohol and tobacco (both of which are drugs) have played and are playing in our society. For centuries these commodities have been resorted to by millions of people who, by any standards, were poor. And they were, and are, resorted to for much the same reason that makes other drugs of one sort and another so popular among some sections of the working class today; the pressures of day-to-day living in impoverished and intellectually bankrupt circumstances. Competition at school or work; low wages; unemployment; domestic strain resulting from inadequate or non-existent housing; the sheer philistinism of the urban and suburban environment which millions of us are obliged to call “home”: all these factors and many more can lead to the doctor’s waiting room; the night chemist; the psychiatric hospital; or the street corner pusher.
And what about the doctors? Can they be blamed for their resort to the prescription of sedatives or stimulants when confronted with supplicants—and the word is used advisedly—who may be beside themselves with worry and frustration? (The irony here is that the incidence of nervous tension and breakdown among doctors is higher than among many other groups of workers.) The doctors might argue (and who would quarrel with them?) that at least their ministrations afford some control of a situation which, if left untended, could easily see their patients thrown to the wolves.
One can only conclude, then, that many doctors who use drugs as bolt-holes when grappling with the mental anguish of capitalism's casualties do so because they recognise their own inadequacy when confronted with the conditions which lead to the need for them. Unfortunately, not all doctors can be trusted to behave themselves — however ineffectually — as is evidenced by that proportion of their number who succumb to the corrupt blandishments of the drug-salesmen in return for material rewards of one kind or another.
Not that “business ethics” is anything other than a transparently dishonest euphemism for what is, in reality, merely the grease which lubricates the machinery of institutionalised theft. Sometimes our masters mislay the grease-gun: the following is taken from an article entitled “The Third World’s Deadly Pharmaceutical Trade”, printed in New Statesman (31.8.79):
“In Bangladesh a British doctor overheard a salesman from a US multinational recommending to a local practitioner that he prescribe the diuretic drug frusemide to reduce swellings in a child which had been caused by kwashiorkor, a deficiency disease. When the doctor intervened to protest that the drug would be more likely to kill than cure, the good merchant replied that the child would die anyway”.
If many people take to chemical palliatives in order to alleviate worry and despair others do so in a spirit of rebellious non-conformity, or to bring some colour into their otherwise drab and mediocre lives. With the aid of a “joint”, and to the accompaniment of the latest instantly forgettable outpourings of this or that unremarkable pop-group, these workers seek the world of S. T. Coleridge’s Kubla Khan or some other equally unattainable nirvana. The trouble with ersatz “heavens”, however, is that one is obliged to re-enter the real world sooner or later, and to re-discover the unpalatable truths from which one has tried to escape. We discover that nothing has changed: the “gardens bright with sinuous rills”, in which sits and warbles the “damsel with a dulcimer”, have rudely translated themselves into some litter-bestrewn vacant lot, the only home of vagrants and drug addicts.
But, more importantly, drugs share responsibility for a form of exploitation which not only provides capitalists and would-be capitalists, along with other crooks and pushers, with enormous and increasing profits. They deprive workers even of that little independence of thought and action which may remain after the education system; press, radio and television; politicians; trade union leaders, and the like have finished with them. Workers who, in whatever free time they are permitted, are languishing in a chemically-induced torpor, are in no condition to stand up to their oppressors and fight back. If there is one human quality which gains nothing from association with drugs it is the ability to think clearly and accurately.
So the capitalists have it both ways: the system of which they are the sole beneficiaries, and which plunges the working class into a lifetime of work and worry produces, at enormous profit, the means by which those same workers may be seduced into impotent anaesthesia.
As for the state—capitalism’s National Executive Committee—they are in business to assist capitalists in their exploitative pursuits, not to hinder them. Drugs law is calculated to regulate profiteering from the drugs trade in the interests of “respectable” capitalism, not to “safeguard the Nation’s health”. If the cultivation and marketing of, say, hemp is ever legalised, it will come about because the colossal profits to be made out of these practices are at present finding their way into the “wrong” pockets; something all “good” capitalists abhor. (And it must be remembered that the capitalists—characteristically—are showing precious little concern at the mayhem caused by cigarette smoking and alcoholism.)
Drug “abuse”, then, is symptomatic of a universal malaise: capitalism. When socialists speak of abuse we are thinking not so much of illicit drug peddling; nor are we primarily concerned with the self-administration of drugs. Our target is the true obscenity the profit system itself, with its inbuilt drive to accumulate capital no matter what human misery and distress is engendered on the way. We as workers owe it to ourselves and our descendants to resist the blandishments of our capitalist masters. We must learn to fling their rotten wares back into their faces and, with clear heads and firm convictions, begin the task of working ourselves out of our present fix.