Monday, September 19, 2016

Running Commentary: People of the opiate (1984)

The Running Commentary column from the June 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

People of the opiate
Something akin to panic is present over the apparent rise in the number of heroin users, particularly among young people. This drug, once so useful to the medical profession and so comforting to some members of the upper class, is now regarded with horror and loathing, as the road to ruin following inexorably from the first tentative puff of cannabis. (For some reason, neither tobacco nor alcohol is supposed to lead to heroin addiction, although plenty of addicts use all three drugs.)

The method of taking heroin which is now becoming popular—inhaling the fumes from heating the substance on a piece of tin foil—eliminates many of the dangers associated with injecting it. But that does nothing to ease the panic for there does now seem to be an awful lot of heroin coming into the country (although as it must always have been smuggled in there can be no accurate assessment of this) so that, in proper accord with Tory marketing principles, the price of a fix has dropped dramatically. One thing which is clear is that the official figures of addicts, which number them in thousands, are a wild underestimate.

Since so many of the heroin addicts are young and unemployed there is a handy explanation for their problem, popular with anyone who thinks the dole queues are the result of a deliberate Thatcher policy. But the first great surge in drug abuse came at a time when there was negligible unemployment, when youngsters left school wondering which job to choose rather than how they were to survive on the dole. In those days the cynicism and depression among young workers was ascribed to events like the war in Vietnam and the threat of nuclear devastation.

The truth is that such problems are a continuous, typical feature of capitalism; under this social system the future is always bleak and threatening and the present so painful that for some people survival depends on blotting it out.

There has always been a ready supply of drugs to help workers do this. The most common are alcohol and tobacco; both legal, of course, but both medically harmful and. in the case of alcohol, liable to stimulate disruptive and violent behaviour. People under strain try to calm their nerves with a cigarette; those with persistent, grinding worries may forget them for a few hours in the pub. Unemployed kids on council estates can try for the same effect by chasing the dragon.

The common, explanatory thread in all this is that we live under a social system which constantly subjects us to experiences which can only be faced with a large measure of fortitude. The tougher of us, for a while at any rate, can manage this; the less durable take refuge in tranquilisers, booze, heroin . . . anything rather than face the reality of capitalism. But the tragedy is that a realistic facing of the problems must bring us to the realistic remedy. Opiates are not enough.

Beyond Ken
The question is, would the Labour Party be so keen to save the GLC and its elections if that body was still led by foolish, unreal Horace Cutler instead of by foolish, unreal Ken Livingston?

Nobody should be deceived by the propaganda from either side in this dispute. for neither have a consistent record on the issue. Just after the war it was Conservative policy that local affairs were— well, local—and were not a fit matter for party politics, which would make them too susceptible to influence from the bureaucrats of Whitehall. In those days, Tory candidates at local elections carried labels like Independent or Ratepayer and their manifestoes dealt with stirring issues like allotments and broken paving stones.

At the same time, when the Labour Party were in government they argued that local councils were an appropriate party political issue because those under Labour control would be in harmony with—in other words, be dictated to by—central government. So Labour candidates had no qualms about standing under their party label and their election addresses were about the need for local authorities to work in with the new National Health Service, the move towards state control of industry and so on.

The argument now is not about democracy. nor the efficient running of society, nor human welfare. The Tories want to hog-tie the local authorities because many of them are resisting the cut backs being ordered from Westminster. In particular the government are aiming at councils which are big and powerful, which means those which administer the great urban concentrations, which means those which grapple with some of capitalism’s most severe problems and desperate deficiencies. And, as we all know, at the top of that particular hit list is Livingston’s GLC.

So this is just another sham battle between Tory and Labour over some detail in the running of capitalism. Workers have no interests in these matters; all our attention should focus on taking over the powers of government, national and local—in other words, taking over society so that it can be run in the interests of the majority.

Until that happens, revolutionary socialists do not stand aside from elections where political power is at stake. We don’t have to vote for capitalism under the Tories or Labour or SDP. We can, and we do, assert our socialist independence and awareness by writing across our ballot papers the word SOCIALISM.

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