All in the Mind

Addict Nation

There has always been a thin dividing line between legal and illegal or between therapeutic and recreational drugs. We tend to call bad psychostimulants "drugs" and good officially sanctioned mind-altering pills "medication". While the former are distributed by underworld dealers, praying on our psychological weaknesses and the cool factor, and the latter are aggressively pushed by pharmaceutical multinationals.

Much has been made of the health benefits of recent anti-smoking measures introduced across Europe and North America. Back in the 1960s many smokers wouldn't think twice about lighting up on buses, in cinemas or in the office. A visit to Russia may give you glimpses of our recent past. But back then, pubs closed at 10:30 in much of the UK, teenage binge drinking involved just the occasional student escapade, only 5 to 10% of adults were on prescription medication and despite the buzz around the swinging 60s addiction to hard drugs remained a largely marginal phenomenon. Fast forward 40 years and over 30% of adults and 15% of children are on prescription medication in the UK, including 4 million SSRI addicts, binge drinking regularly blights our streets, offices and homes, over 1 million adults consume crack and millions of aspiring slimmers fill their trolleys with jumbo-packs of Diet Coke, a concoction of addictive caffeine and aspartame. And addiction is not just limited to chemicals. Millions of us are addicted to TV, the Internet, video games, shopping and, more disastrously from a financial view, to gambling. Rather than combat any of these prevalent addictions, except occasional lip service paid to the bogus war on drugs or rhetoric about taking the right medication or partaking only in responsible gambling, the government and its friends in big business urge us to indulge more. Mood-altering drugs are now subsidised by our beloved National Health Service and handed out like sweeties. And unless you've been secluded in a remote Hebridean crofthouse for the last 12 years, you cannot have failed to notice the burgeoning entertainment business with 24/7 pubs, dance halls and casinos appearing even in minor provincial towns and frequented by the nation's vibrant youth the length and breadth of the country. All made easier by laws introduced by our wonderfully progressive government. That's right, the same government that has banished smokers outdoors and spent millions urging us to get nicotine patches from our local GP, is quite happy for our youngsters to drink themselves insane and get high on ecstasy in one of the friendly dancing establishments run by pioneering entrepreneurs in cahoots with the government. The boom spanning from the mid 1990s to 2008 saw the expansion of four related sectors:

  • financial
  • retail
  • bio-medical and pharmaceutical
  • media and entertainment (often indistinguishable)

In the same period domestic manufacturing of essential items continued to migrate elsewhere. Even call centres, once a saviour for unemployment blackspots, were either outsourced or downscaled as technical support migrated to the Web. Where once school leavers would follow in their father's footsteps or learn a new trade they would pursue for much of their working lives, they now flock to colleges and universities with high aspirations of professional success in the tertiary sector, especially in media, entertainment and finance, only to find themselves changing careers every few years leading to immense insecurity. If you aspire to be a good plumber and work hard without unfair competition, you can succeed and become an essential pillar of your local community. By contrast if you aspire to fame and fortune, you will more likely than not be let down, possibly accepting a few low-paid roles in the advertising industry before discovering you lack certain physical attributes. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary and all the bogus awareness-raising campaigns, those of not endowed with attractive bodies with a natural gift for smarm and well versed in the art of neurolinguistic programming are at a serious disadvantage. Suddenly being uncool has become a significant handicap warranting a mental health diagnosis. Unable to join in a culture of rampant hedonism? All-night ecstasy-fuelled parties not your scene? Not finely attuned to the latest celebrity gossip? Unable to bear piped techno sound? Then you probably suffer from chronic cultural discordance syndrome and need help. So basically if you're not a recreational addict, we'll help you cope with the stress of alienation from a society hell-bent on fun at all costs by getting you hooked on prescription medication. Ever wondered why people start taking tranquilisers to cope with anxiety, develop obsessive phobias or succumb to eating disorders? More often than not, it's because they feel estranged from an increasingly competitive society. We compete not just in terms of material possessions, physical prowess and performance in culturally valuable skills, but also socially. How many hearts and minds can we win to support our social career. Recently the media have highlighted a number of teenage suicides resulting from cybernetic and real-world bullying, exam stress and a sense of worthlessness. In each case school mates expressed their sorrow through diverse media and emphasised how popular the deceased was. “We don't understand why X took her life. She was such a popular girl. We didn't realise she suffered from depressionâ€. Indeed the next line is implied “Why didn't she seek the (pharmaceutical) help she neededâ€. Not once have I read “X freaked us out. She just didn't fit in. Only the cool deserve a place on this planet†or “We picked on this easy target because she such a loser. Don't blame us for driving her to suicide. We are only reacting to media pressureâ€.

Medicalising Uncoolness

A preoccupation with soft skills implies anyone with a relatively low popularity ranking somehow deserves all their misfortunes and the only way forward is to modify one's behaviour to please the popular cool dudes in one's peer group. Thus if one genuinely can't stand rap music and all the cool dudes in one's peer group like this genre, one has to morph one's tastes or rather desensitise one's aural discernment. We could call this cultural adaptation. One needs to mimic the behaviours and hone the skills that are valued within a given social group, often to the detriment of valuable skills and perfectly functional behaviours that other group members disfavour. Not surprisingly many of us either require some form of medical or therapeutic intervention to keep up with the cooler trendsetting dudes in our neighbourhood and circle of acquaintances. Uncoolness has now become a disease.

Computing Power Dynamics

Surprise: The Big Business Party won

I predicted a hung parliament that would ditch any manifesto promises at the behest of corporate lobbyists. A weak government is arguably more malleable than a strong one, unless the strong government does exactly what its true masters want. I suspect the new Conservative administration will disappoint many traditional small-c conservatives as it pursues a rigorously corporatist agenda while undermining the very United Kingdom it claims to champion.

I seriously expected Labour to do just a bit better and for the SNP wipeout not to be quite as complete (with only three Scottish seats not won by the SNP). How could the English electorate differ so markedly from the Scottish?

Let's take a closer look at what really happened. In percentage terms the polls were not entirely off the mark, Labour gained 2-3% less than expected, while the Conservatives attracted 3% more and SNP 4-5% more. The Liberal Democrats did worse than expected, while UKIP's popular vote was only marginally lower than most opinion polls suggested. We saw three divergent dynamics at play.

  • In Scotland many Labour and Liberal Democrat voters switched to the SNP. In working class provincial England many Labour voters switched to UKIP.
  • In middle class provincial England and much of Wales, Liberal Democrat voters switched to Conservatives, while most affluent Tory voters stayed loyal. In short UKIP took more votes from Labour than from the hated Tories especially in key marginals, where most disaffection went to the one party that had serious proposals to address unbalanced mass migration.
  • In urban areas with large immigrant populations, especially Muslims, Labour did modestly well even gaining a few seats, but mainly from the LibDems, except in posh areas of London with affluent immigrants where the Tories posed as the party of international business.

UKIP gained 3.9 million votes, but just one MP, Douglas Carsewell, whose love of free trade and Gladstonian Liberalism sets him apart from most UKIP voters, who would support not only tougher immigration controls but also import controls to bring back manufacturing to Britain. The offspring of Great British working class are now represented by three parties who look down on them. Labour and the SNP support greater EU integration, free labour movement, greater surveillance and generally more state interference in private lives. UKIP would increase military spending and expand hydraulic fracturing, while promoting free trade and doing little to address fundamental problems of outsourcing and reliance on volatile financial markets. They won support primarily on two issues: immigration and exit from the European Union. Yet millions of workers across the Europe distrust remote transnational entities not because they want an even more deregulated labour market, but because they want to regain the power to regulate their local labour markets to meet the long-term needs of the local population. It clearly makes little sense for millions of young Europeans to move to other countries because free trade deals have caused relatively inefficient local industries to close as production moves to the Pacific Rim or elsewhere. By and large ordinary workers support greater protection, while privileged professional and business classes benefit from a more dynamic globalised economy able to tap into an almost unlimited pool of talent. It's clearly duplicitous to advocate free trade, but not to allow free movement of labour. However, in an unequal world such globalist policies benefit the privileged and well-educated to the detriment of the unskilled poor. To make such a system vaguely fair we would need to extend Western European welfare provision and workers' rights to the whole world and impose a global living wage. This is precisely the kind of fantasy that the Green Party entertains. That would also mean raising everyone to Western European levels of consumption. Alternatively, we'd have to lower consumption in Western Europe to some sort of global average, but this would inevitably prove not only very unpopular but would lead to cutbacks much more severe than current austerity measures, which are by comparative international standards very modest reductions in a welfare system that has grown considerably over the last 40 years.

Labour should stand up for the long-term interests of ordinary working people in its country. Instead it defends the short-term interests of client groups. If you're a low-paid worker, a single mum with a part-time job or a recent immigrant, Labour's policies may seem slightly more appealing than the Conservative alternatives of cutbacks in welfare provision or tougher restrictions on access to welfare for newcomers. But these are only short-term fixes that address the symptoms of unbalanced unsustainable development rather the root causes. More disturbingly, welfarism combined with global free trade promotes dependence on state institutions beholden ultimately to the same multinational corporations that cause so much inequality and misappropriation of resources in the first place. As Noam Chomsky pointed out, neoliberal corporatism means the privatisation of profit and the nationalisation of losses and social deprivation.

SNP Wipeout

Why would Rupert Murdoch's News International support the Conservatives in England and the SNP in Scotland? They appear both rhetorically and ideologically at loggerheads. The English Conservatives have a public image as the party of business, economic stability and fiscal responsibility. Conversely the SNP present themselves as staunchly anti-austerity and to the left of Labour on most issues, e.g. they oppose Trident and have opposed most recent military interventions. Yet such deceptively radical stances are common in the global business community, who see nation states as a thing of the past and much prefer a porous mosaic of interdependent regions subservient to remote transnational organisations like the European Union or NAFTA. As British imperialism is very much a dead duck, international big business does not really care about peripheral British disputes such as Northern Ireland or the jurisdiction of the Falkland Islands. They merely want privileged access to any resources in these territories and to wider global markets. Any concerns about cultural diversity or self-determination are pure political posturing designed to appeal to local sensitivities.

The SNP leadership could promise increased public spending because it knew it could blame either Red or Blue Tories down south. It could always blame Westminster for any economic woes. If Labour had won, it would demand unsustainable increases in government expenditure way beyond the meagre 2-3 billion saved by scrapping Trident. SNP strategists advocate the kind of radical debt-driven Keynsianism that Labour pursued for two-short years under Gordon Brown in the wake of the 2008 banking collapse. While such quantitative easing boosted the retail and property markets, it failed dismally in stimulating productive growth. The ConDem coalition merely reduced welfare spending to its 2008 levels, while still pumping more money into the economy and deregulating the labour market through zero-hour contracts. For all the emotive talk of slash and burn austerity cuts, total welfare spending continued to rise until 2013 and has only fallen slightly since due to lower unemployment, a by-product of zero-hour contracts and the growth in temporary work contracts. Far from shrink, the beloved UK economy has continued to grow, as has net migration. Yet millions of British residents find it hard to make ends meet. This is largely because the real cost of living, not the fiction portrayed by official retail inflation statistics, has risen astronomically. Property prices in London and much of Southern England exclude a growing section of the workforce. If you do not qualify for housing benefit and are subject to market rates, you could not hope to buy a modest semi-detached house for less than 10 times the average salary or rent a decent two bedroom flat for less than ½ the average the average salary. Moreover, our post-modern way of life requires us both to travel further for work and pleasure and to allocate more of our meagre earnings to communication gadgets and services. Living without an Internet-enabled smartphone, laptop and/or pay-TV package seems increasingly unthinkable. A typical family of four needs not one, but 4 mobile phone contracts at £25-40 each a month plus a broadband/Pay-TV package.

Ultra-conformist SNP activists

While it's easy to dismiss UKIP as a Dad's Army of climate-change-denying xenophobic little Englanders and latter-day Thatcherites, for some inexplicable reason the Scottish National Party has convinced a large cross section of pundits and electors of its radical leftwing credentials. I guess it all depends what you call leftwing. Does it mean empowering the working classes and favouring policies in the long-term interests of ordinary working people or does it mean pursuing a corporate agenda of far-reaching social change whose implications ordinary voters cannot fully comprehend? The latter variant is often known as progressivism, ongoing change towards to a new better tomorrow. Indeed it's surprising just how many politicians on both sides of Atlantic love to talk vacuously of the need for change, without dwelling too long on its definition or on its impact on our everyday lives.

The SNP has a simple rallying cry, Independence from Westminster, a convenient slogan that masks the deep-seated historic animosity and distrust that many Scots feel towards their English neighbours. On two issues I agree wholeheartedly with the SNP: Scrapping the Trident Nuclear missile system a colossal waste of money and devolving power from the UK. I would stop short of full independence because Scotland shares not only an Island with England and Wales with much of its transport infrastructure, but has very close social and family bonds with other regions of the British Isles. In an ideal world I'd probably have a British Isles Federation including the Republic of Ireland. Such a Federation would mark a clear break with the UK's imperial past and would grant its member nations considerable autonomy. It would merely recognise the fact that these Islands have long lived as an extended community and need to work together on many practical logistical issues, from transport to energy, fishing to telecommunications.

Yet for all its talk of independence, the SNP seems very happy to transfer power to a much larger multinational entity, the European Union, which they portray as a progressive force for social justice and environmental protection. This is certainly the outward image that the European Commission would like to convey to younger Europeans. In reality the EU promotes an essentially corporatist vision, in which large transnational companies collude with multitiered state institutions to set rules and regulations in their hegemonic interests. Big businesses find it much easier to comply with new regulations than smaller local enterprises, but if need be they can always outsource nasty low-paid jobs to third parties. Back in the 1990s many on the left saw the EU as a kind of fortress Europe protecting workers against greedy multinationals. 20 years later, an expanded EU looks much more like a microcosm of a new emerging borderless global corporate empire, in which local democratic institutions merely implement policies decided by corporate consultancies. Indeed even today, the UK government has very limited power over a whole range of key issues that affect our daily lives.

Big business does not really need a UK nuclear deterrent, but merely local institutions that collaborate with its favoured multinational military forces, whose main purpose is to ensure access to strategic resources and to open up markets. Even some UK military chiefs oppose Trident. The rationale for its existence belong to a bygone era of superpower rivalry. Besides even if Russia, India and China overtake the EU as economic and military powers, they would be exceedingly unlikely to invade Western Europe militarily. They could simply expand their large property portfolios and buy up more leading enterprises. The SNP leadership focus on Trident because they know its an easy win in any future negotiations over the status of post-UK Scotland.

However, the SNP preaches a mix of extreme Keynsianism and regional advantage. They claim to oppose the UK government's austerity and campaigned in increased spending throughout the UK. Yet if the new Conservative government granted Scotland Full Fiscal Autonomy, they would have to find an additional £8 billion just to keep public spending at its current levels. The price of crude oil would have to rise way above its 2014 level of USD $100 a barrel to make up the difference. Of course, it can be argued that Scotland with many deprived communities and sparsely populated outlying regions needs more per capita funding, but the same would be true of many other regions in the UK from Cornwall to Northeast of England. The SNP hope the EU may be more generous than Westminster, but with vast areas of Eastern and Southern Europe. If the SNP tried to borrow more than the rest of the UK, it would inevitably lower Scotland's credit rating especially as the country has a very high dependency ratio and a large proportion of young people lack practical skills.

Would Rupert Murdoch let the Scottish Sun support the SNP in Scotland while backing the Tories in England, if he seriously thought the SNP would challenge his business interests? I very much doubt it. If you dig deeper, you find that on most important issues that SNP harbour very little debate, other than ranting and raving about Westminster-imposed cutbacks and Trident. They have no power to change the former, while the later will probably be dropped anyway. Indeed they agree with the much maligned BBC and Guardian establishment on virtually everything else.

In the coming EU referendum, the SNP will join forces not just with Labour, Liberal Democrats and mainstream Tories to support continued EU membership, but will be firmly on the side of big business and against those of Scottish fisherman unable to compete with large fishing fleets from other EU regions. Their love of corporate power is reflected in other policies too. For instance the first majority SNP administration of 2011 opted to allocate extra money to fund free prescription charges. As they did not increase taxes or were unable to borrow, this meant diverting funds from other public spending priorities. It can be reasonably argued that some low-paid people who require medication to stay alive should not pay for being sick. Such people are usually entitled to other benefits anyway and the Scottish government could have simply restricted free prescriptions to genuinely worthy cases. However, Scotland suffers from another more prevalent problem: over-medication, especially for subjective conditions such as depression or other mental health conditions. With one of the highest antidepressant prescription rates in Europe, the SNP administration just made it easier for GPs and patients to choose the biochemical route. Inevitably, this policy affected poorer working class Scots more than others. If you're an affluent professional, a mere £6 a month is not going to influence your decision to keep taking antidepressants. But if you're on the breadline and cannot manage your money very well, the availability of free antidepressants will sway the balance in favour of biochemical intervention instead of addressing a hundred and one other potential issues, such as booze, recreational drugs, lifestyle, exercise, employability, relationships etc. Prescription charges served not so much to pay for healthcare as they were subsidised anyway, but to promote wise use of prescription drugs. Do you really need antibiotics for a viral infection which a healthy immune system should defeat in a couple of days anyway? More often than not, patients will demand quick fixes such as antibiotics for minor ailments such as sore throats against the better judgement of independent medical professionals, but writing a quick prescription is often for GPs to easiest way to placate a patient demanding instant remedies rather than advice on lifestyle choices. Naturally, medical professionals have differing opinions on the suitability of prescription drugs, but most would agree while in many cases they are life-savers or life-enablers, in many others they offer only modest short-term alleviation or may actually counter-productive, i.e. have more adverse side-effects than benefits. Worse still, once you start taking many medicines it's hard to wean yourself off them. Current SNP policy clearly benefits the pharmaceutical industry, who now have a captive state-subsidised market, while the underlying social and environmental causes of so many ailments remain. My attempts at reasoned debates with SNP activists prove futile. One may not challenge the need for antidepressants for fear of offending the 1/7 Scots on SSRIs. If one persists in citing the many whistleblowers within psychiatry such as David Healy or Robert Whitaker, one is quickly dismissed as a conspiracy theorist siding with outliers who fail to get their writings peer-reviewed. The same paternalistic attitude is applied to the venerable EU. SNP activists will cite official reports by EU-funded institutions uncritically, while dismissing critiques as the mischievous work of rightwing think tanks. If the Scots may not debate healthcare or the hegemony of transnational organisations over every aspect of our lives without submitting oneself to official experts, one wonders what else we may debate in a post-UK Scotland, controlled by the SNP's corporate backers.