Monday, July 12th, 2010
“Addiction in the modern world can be best understood as a compulsive lifestyle that people adopt as a desperate substitute when they are dislocated from the myriad intimate ties between people and groups – from the family to the spiritual community – that are essential for every person in every type of society.”
Bruce K. Alexander, The Globalisation of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit
In the previous post I discussed how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) to a large extent play an important role in the development of addictions. Given that over 80 percent of those who develop addictions begin adaptive behaviors to cope with ACEs prior to the age of 15, we as a society need to place a greater emphasis on identifying at-risk kids and intervening as early as possible. But there is another insidious root to addiction that I believe goes beyond individual ACEs and plays an even greater role in the development of addiction – free market society.
Bruce K. Alexander spent decades as a distinguished addiction researcher in Canada before becoming so frustrated by a lack of progress in helping those who struggle, that he completly changed careers and decided to focus on teaching history instead. Despite doing everything he could to avoid topics around drugs and addiction, the more he studied history, the more he discovered insights that began to change his entire perspective on the nature of addiction.
In general, when we think about addiction, we think about it as an individual problem. Individuals are exposed to a host of risk factors, including ACEs, peer group influences, and the availability of objects of addiction in communities. The more risk factors an individual is exposed to, the more likely the chances are that he or she will develop an addiction. Conventional wisdom also suggests that the antidote to addiction is intervention and treatment. But when Dr. Alexander began studying history, he discovered cultures and societies where common objects of addiction were present (drugs, alcohol, sex, food), yet addictive behavior was minimal or nonexistent. ”Addiction can be rare in a society for many centuries, but can become nearly universal when circumstances change – for example, when a cohesive tribal culture is crushed or an advanced civilisation collapses (Alexander, 2008).” Throughout history, the primary factor responsible for the societal change leading to pervasive addiction is the introduction of free market society. Why?
When a society introduces free markets, exchange of goods and services optimally are not encumbered by family ties, cultural traditions, religious values, or anything else that may impede free play of the laws of supply and demand. In other words, free markets create an “every man (or woman) for yourself” dynamic that puts me in competition with everyone else for jobs, insurance, a house, goods, services and Lady Ga Ga tickets. One consequence of this system is that people become dislocated, or disconnected from one another because of the time and energy necessary to keep up with the Jones. Free markets are incredibly profficient at knowing how to keep people focused on stuff over experiences. Flashy ads, mass media, and the latest gizmo from Steve Jobs keeps us always wanting more. In the pursuit of the American dream, what many get instead is isolation, fear, and dislocation, which ultimately leads to compulsive lifestyles where people develop addictive relationships to stuff and get further and further disconnected from nurturing human relationships.
Dr. Alexander’s Dislocation Theory of Addiction is well documented in a paper titled The Roots of Addiction in Free Market Society (highly recommended reading) and a more extensive read: The Globalisation of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit. His work is extremely important in helping us all understand many of our current societal ills beyond addiction, including: divorce, single parenthood, children in poverty, obesity, unemployment, and excessive time in front of the TV. Until we as a society place relationships and experiences over materialism, consumption and stuff, Thoreau’s observation that ”the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” will ring ever more true.
What is the solution to mass dislocation? I believe part of the answer lies in making some tough societal changes including ending the senseless war on drugs (a big topic for another time). But for the individual struggling right now with addiction, the answer is much more about restructuring life in a way that emphasizes relationships over stuff. To do this, one must have the developmental capacities necessary to know how to initiate, develop, and maintain healthy human relationships.