Intoxication Culture

"There is no more profound way of understanding the course of history than in terms of this effort to escape from one's own 'sweating self' and to experience even temporary states of euphoria or relief of discomfort regardless of the cost."

- Nathan S. Kline1

From its earliest inceptions, sedentary life brought with it a drudging misery for its inhabitants, and with such misery quickly arose the need to placate the unruly and desensitize the weary. As social beings, the disassociated conventions of civilized life have never come naturally, and these impositions into and upon our lives have induced massive, collective trauma. The infrastructure of civilization surrounds, envelops, and teaches us to embody its qualities. It's modern totality is the magnum opus of the domestication set out upon less than a dozen millennia ago, and we are it’s equally insane offspring, each generation's pathology more dysfunctional than the last. What began over ten thousand years ago when we began domesticating plants and animals to meet food demands, and from there led to the deforestation of the lands of Mesopotamia and beyond in order to meet the needs of agriculture, what meant the forcing of other peoples off the land wanted, has continued into the present today. We bind ourselves to its unreasonable and unsustainable demands, suffering a commitment to a lifestyle that demands constant production and expansion through ever-increasing and deepening levels of exploitation and an unwavering devotion to this culture as not only beneficial and enlightening, but the only way in which our species can survive. As demands increase and complicate, so do our techniques and our technologies. Exploitation is no longer enough, for we are no longer just consuming. We need hyper-exploitation for hyper-consumption. Our concept of Progress only serves to reinforce what Derrick Jensen simplified as the process of converting the living to the dead.2

Our every relationship is framed by through coercion. In the absence of wildness, our desire for direct experience is left unfulfilled. In its place, the hollowness of modernity: a psychically and ecologically barren monoculture of hyper-consumption makes a pathetic attempt, if any, to replace the engagement our species demands. Lacking the balance of a sustainable and natural experience, civilization deals with extremes, such as the bounce between over and under-stimulation, neither one satisfying or healthy for us in any way. In place of the forager's quest, we stand slack-jawed in the aisles of supermarkets (how many times have you heard someone say in those aisles, “there's just too much to choose from, I wish this were easier?”), a place where even the "original" hits of pop radio are replaced with tamed, detail-less muzak®, as is the warmth and light of the sun with the eerie glow of fluorescents. The conversation around the campfire is relegated to rare and novelty occurrences, if ever, as we take to replacing emotion with "emoticons," and even the voices of our friends and families over telephone lines are becoming more and more often replaced with the beeping and buzzing of text message notifications. It was once written that "our generation will go to its grave shouting its last words into a cell phone,"3 but this dying world may not hear our screams. It has become frighteningly more realistic that we will go to our deaths silently, pressing keys and holding the "send" button.

We are truly surrounded/alone. Our social networking profiles boas legions of online friends, but the reality is we are isolated as we click our way through pseudo-relationships - it's not just quantity over quality, it is, like all of domestication, the abolition of quality itself. We surround ourselves with techno-comforts whilst prisoners within our increasingly standardized and dehumanized, our experiences overwhelmingly clustered yet simultaneously crushingly separated by walls physical and emotional. Fredy Perlman passed away before the permeation of the internet, cell phones, and so much of what shapes the technological ghost limb of many in this culture today, but the writing had been on the wall long before these "advances," and his words ring truer today than ever before when he wrote that "civilization is a humanly meaningless web of unnatural constraints."4 It is in our ever widening disconnect from reality and its pervasiveness of boredom and teeter-totter of over and under-stimulation that the misery of this culture expands into every facet of our existence.

Whether bombarded or deprived, the terror has started to blend into a painful dullness, and we search desperately for comfort, for euphoria, for anything that tells us we are actually alive. At every turn, our quest for connection finds itself funneled into ever-isolating and unfulfilling activities - escapes that replace outlets for the type of ecstatic energy life should create, diverting our desires and replacing them with false engagement, framing our relationship to such experiences originally through the habitual use of intoxicants and now through nearly every mediated aspect of civilization.

This undercurrent developed with the rise of domestication, deepening and strengthening with the onset of the enveloping hopelessness of the first cities. As David T. Courtwright so keenly observed in Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World:

“Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers in itinerant bands. After the Neolithic Revolution, most of them lived as peasants in crowded, oppressive, and disease-ridden societies. The misery and grinding poverty that were the lot of 90 percent of humanity in the early modern would go far toward explaining why tobacco and other novel drugs became objects of mass consumption. They were unexpected weapons against the human condition, newfound tools of escape from the mean prison of everyday existence."5

The once-free were no longer so. Trapped inside, the now-broken were under a constant barrage of fear – the fierce coercion of the Big Man, the uncertainty of early agricultural food production, even the water that was once trusted to sustain was poisoned, diseased. It was no mere accident that the use of intoxicants grew rapidly into regular inoculations. In fact, inoculation is often what one intoxicant provided, as Bert L. Vallee discussed in Alcohol in the Western World: A History, his June 1998 Scientific American article:

“In the context of contaminated water supply, ethyl alcohol may indeed have been mother’s milk to a nascent Western civilization. Beer and wine were free of pathogens. And the antiseptic power of alcohol, as well as the natural acidity of wine and beer, killed many pathogens when the alcoholic drinks were diluted with the sullied water supply.”

As civilization expanded and complicated, so too did its connection to intoxicants and our dependency upon them. The coming of the industrial age only served to increase demands of precision and timeliness that weighed down those laborers chained (sometimes literally) to the engines of production. Concerning the constantly rising levels of alcoholism amongst workers in the early 19th century, Zerzan notes that this addiction “[wa]s an obvious register of strain and alienation, of the inability to cope with the burden of daily life.”6 Be it social control or survival, the relationship was there. Domestication and intoxication became inseparable, one augmenting the other - a vicious cycle that so suitably illustrates the functions of both.

“Alcohol has been around since the beginning of civilization. In fact, people loved alcohol so much that they forgot their nomadic ways and decided to settle down, just so they could grow the grains necessary to make beer. Just think: if it weren’t for alcohol, we’d still be wandering around pitching tents every night.”

-, a website whose “aim is to empower consumers through providing information that may help in the development of informed decisions.”

Intoxication Culture is defined as a “set of institutions, behaviors, and mindsets around consumption of drugs and alcohol” by the author of Towards a Less Fucked Up World: Sobriety and Anarchist Struggle.7 To be clear, Intoxication Culture is not the same as intoxication itself. As mentioned earlier, many prehistoric (or is it pre-hysteric?) foraging people have, and their modern descendants continue to carry, knowledge of intoxicating plants and substances. The difference between an individual experience and our habitude is just that: what for the primal person is an individualized, conditional moment is for the civilized a compulsion. I have chosen to use the term Addiction Culture to expand and extend this concept to include other psychoactive substances, the pharmaceuticals that are pushed by mental and other conventional health industries, the aforementioned dependence upon technological mediation, and in fact the whole of domesticated existence.

In My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery From Western Civilization, Chellis Glendinning writes, “As an outgrowth of trauma, addiction is an attempt to confront the pain that lies at the heart of the traumatic experience.”8 Elsewhere, she cites Morris Berman when he delved even deeper into the core of the matter:

"Addiction, in one form or another, characterizes every aspect of industrial society… Dependence on alcohol (food, drugs, tobacco…) is not formally different from dependence on prestige, career achievement, world influence, wealth, the need to build more ingenious bombs, or the need to exercise control over everything."9

Glendinning was one of the first to recognize not only the trauma of civilization and its relationship to literal addiction, but the similarities between how addictive behavior and civilization are rationalized. She identified the major characteristics of addiction as “an out-of-control, often aimless, compulsion to fill the lost sense of belonging, integrity, and communion”10 which is “shielded from awareness by denial: pretending everything is normal, not admitting pain or vulnerability,”11 followed by “an attraction to repeated trauma.”12 Let us explore theses concepts now.

An out-of control, often aimless, compulsion:

The entire natural world shudders beneath the load that our culture has created. Our entire lifeway - from our food acquisition to our social structures - has asked more from the natural world than it has ever been able to provide. At every rejection of our demands, we have thus forced our will upon the planet. We have desertified once-beautiful wild lands for our food staples: wheat, rice, soy, corn, and so on. We have thrust our drills deep within the earth to extract its black blood, and we have nearly bled her dry so that our daily activities continue. We have dredged the oceans, nearly wiping out all large sea mammals. We have blown the tops off mountains. We kill billions upon billions of land animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses. We've dammed (or is it damned? the answer is most likely both) the mightiest rivers for even more power. More food, more power… we constantly extract at insanely exploitative levels so that our culture, one of what we perceive as convenience, might survive. In turn, we have spread famine, poverty, disease, and every facet of destruction thinkable – and some unthinkable. We've even created weapons that in moments can undo billions of years of planetary development, leaving a scorched wasteland as our only legacy: a vicious cycle of rapacious consumption and incomprehensible desecration.


“We cannot go back.”

“It was here way before us.”

“We can’t take something this big down.”

“It’s too late. There is nothing we can do about it now.”
“We can change the bad things about this and keep the good things.”

“Were would we even begin if we did want to stop?”

“We’ll find a new way to make things work without it falling apart”

“You are being pessimistic.”

“You are the one who lives in a fantasy world.”

“It’s not my problem. It’s not OUR problem.”

“I don’t even want to think about this.”

… Is there any doubt about the depths of our refusal to accept the reality of our situation?

Attraction to repeated trauma:

Easter Island. Mesopotamia. Maya. Rome. Anasazi.

Waterloo Creek. Wounded Knee. The Great Purge. The Holocaust. My Lai. Darfur.

American Bison. Northern Spotted Owl. Bali Tiger. Mexican Grizzly Bear. Passenger Pigeon.

Time after time. Failure after failure. Over and over again. Forever and ever into oblivion.

Civilization is the culture of unrelenting trauma, its inhabitants helpless addicts seeking refuge from excruciating distress.

Not that our search for reprieve, however artificial, is condemnable, as the temperance and prohibition ideologies would have us believe (their intoxication being moral absolutism). Rather, such a search is only expected of a creature deprived and cut off. Erich Fromm wrote in Escape From Freedom that, “to feel completely alone and isolated leads to mental disintegration just as physical starvation leads to death.”13 All animals need engagement and without it the need for tranquilization quickly follow in hopes of survival. Courtwright again points to the confinement of domesticated life when he writes, “species seek and consume intoxicants in the wild, but they do so more often and more compulsively under conditions of captivity.”14 One can reflect upon the terrifying experiences of those confined in cages, from vivisection labs to psych wards to schools to Super Max prisons. Many of the more literal hostages of this culture die, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally, before their captors can administer all the appropriate tests/diagnosis/degrees/sentences - often from their implacable misery. Put simply, life is impossible without stimuli. Biologically, humans (and again, many other beings) just don't survive under such denied circumstances – in other words, even within its own scientific reasoning, we are at odds with civilization.

Our participation within this culture is driving us absolutely insane. We see the pathology playing out all around us – the news stories of people “snapping” have gone from freakish occurrences to freakishly often occurrences. Rates of autism and schizophrenia, among other mental illnesses, rise at what should be alarming rates – people turning within themselves, people tearing themselves into pieces, people unable to cope with the barrage of daily life. Perhaps these persons aren’t so much ill as more rooted in reality than the rest of us; perhaps it is the rest of us who have somehow managed to disassociate ourselves. Perhaps the real sickness is not automatically reacting with confusion or panic or dejectedness when faced with civilization.

Addiction Culture provides the context necessary for placation and pacification, to further disempower us, to more easily break us. Under its enchantment, we perpetuate a cycle of docility and destruction. That is why it is called addiction.

And that is why we must resist Addiction Culture’s promises of a lull in the torrent of civilized misery. Some may argue, as Courtwright has, that “the use of drugs to cope with fatigue and obliterate misery is in many ways a byproduct of civilization itself,”15 but it increasingly seems more feasible that Addiction Culture is not an unintended consequence, but rather an integral and vital part of the domesticating process. Without civilization addiction culture would not exist, but just as importantly without addiction culture, civilization could not exist. Relief from domestication through civilization has always been the mythology handed to those who would otherwise resist. The fix, whatever it may be, has always been just around the corner, requiring just another act of subservience from us.

“To be addicted is to be a slave. To be a slave is to be addicted. The heroin ceases to serve the addict, and the addict begins to serve the heroin. We can say the same for civilization: it does not serve us, but rather we serve it.

There's something desperately wrong with that."

- Derrick Jensen16

Just as the environmental movement will never save any ecosystem, just as the worker’s movement will never abolish work, a culture of false and/or detached pleasure will never bring about a participatory experience. There never was and never will be balm in Gilead, to borrow from the western mythical tradition. Sadly, the stranglehold of addiction was in place long before our struggle to undo it, and it is to no surprise that anarchist communities suffer as much as any other from the pitfalls of Addiction Culture, amongst the many other undesirable aspects of civilization. What is surprising, however, has been the absence (and in some cases removal) of dialogue around the subject, particularly within the context of resistance to civilization and the unlearning of domestication. As Glendinning showed, denial is a central part of the addict pathology. Until we acknowledge the major deficiency of praxis our resistance suffers from by perpetuating Addiction Culture, our opposition will continue to falter, stumbling drunkenly towards abject failure, towards the realization of domestication and civilization: extinction.

As with so many of the problems facing those hoping to overcome and outlive civilization, this undertaking will not be easy, and I make no claim to have all or even any answers to this problem. I can only say that the damage wrought by this culture is deep and manifests itself widely, and the rewilding of our planet and our selves must go as deep as civilization’s despoliation. Our hopes for a life engaged and enmeshed within actual experiences lay within an attack on the totality of civilization and nothing less. The only way we will achieve total liberation from this culture is by tearing out every last vestige of the malicious roots of domestication from within our communities and ourselves. Anarchists purport to be fighting against the world that creates such wretchedness while seeking, building, and sustaining communities free of the stifling woe that is necessary for civilization to continue and that Addiction Culture numbs us to. To end oppression of all kinds, we must confront it by any means necessary and must also be willing to look critically at, speak openly about, and fight vigorously against such an omnipresent component of oppression, simultaneously seeking to heal, working to support on another in our recovery.

An anarchist world is a world of liberatory reality, of daily engagement and constant stimulation, with rewarding experiences and real relations – a world without domestication or civilization, without this web of boredom, depression, docility and misery.

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