yet another class struggle .....
The history of capitalism has running through it a history of alcohol.
Alcohol appeared at the beginnings of class society, with beer jugs found in the late Stone Age. Wine and beer existed in class society in Egypt, beer being brewed in the home. While most gods were local, Osiris, the god of wine, was worshiped across the country.
The nature of the relationship between alcohol and production and consumers changed with the advent of capitalism. Localised production became commodified and over time production become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands as a consequence of competition.
Beer became the drug of choice of the working class. Taverns and pubs became meeting places for working class men to escape the rigours of work and attempt to address the alienation inherent in capitalism. In contrast to work such gatherings gave those attending convivial community.
In fact the trend of alcohol consumption appears to have been one of decline since the beginnings of capitalism. Thus David Hanson in the History of Alcohol and Drinking around the World says:
In the sixteenth century, alcohol beverage consumption reached 100 liters per person per year in Valladolid, Spain, and Polish peasants consumed up to three liters of beer per day (Braudel, 1974, pp. 236-238). In Coventry, the average amount of beer and ale consumed was about 17 pints per person per week, compared to about three pints today (Monckton, 1966, p. 95); nationwide, consumption was about one pint per day per capita. Swedish beer consumption may have been 40 times higher than in modem Sweden. English sailors received a ration of a gallon of beer per day, while soldiers received two-thirds of a gallon. In Denmark, the usual consumption of beer appears to have been a gallon per day for adult labourers and sailors (Austin, 1985, pp. 170, 186, 192).
The reason for the decline may be that workers worked very long hours and capital requires sober workers to extract the most surplus value out of them.
The invasion of Australia by English capitalism bought with it alcohol and this was used not only as the equivalent of money at one time but as a form of social relief for prisoners and free men and women far from home and in inhospitable conditions for white people struggling in poverty and against the indigenous inhabitants.
The dispossession and genocide of those indigenous peoples drove and drives the dispossessed to poverty, crime, suicide and alcohol. Henry Reynolds estimates that, between 1788 and 1920, 20,000 Aboriginal people fell defending their land in an ongoing war against the invaders. The Indigenous population dropped from 300,000 at the time of the invasion to 70,000 130 years later.
For capital, alcohol not only provides an outlet for the working class to let off steam. It is a commodity that makes profits, big profits, for certain corporations. Big national and multinational companies today control much of the production and trade in alcohol.
The contradiction for the system is that the more profit alcohol companies make through workers drinking more the less fit the working class may be to produce profits for the rest of capital. So capitalism encourages and discourages that consumption.
There are not only constant private enterprise advertisements to consume alcohol. There are constant state warnings about the dangers of overdoing it. And there is constant advice about drinking in moderation.
The immediate costs of the effects of alcohol are borne by the state (regulation, hospitals, treatment etc) but other capital also bears the cost through sick leave, less productive workers and in some cases taxes to cover the adverse impacts of abuse of alcohol.
The contradiction between the private profits of alcohol companies and the lost profits of other capital being regulated by the state is being played out right now in Australia. There is a lot of reporting about recent drunken king hits (now evidently to be called coward punches) killing and maiming innocent people.
Alcohol fuelled violence is the headline writers’ stock in trade at the moment.
In fact the evidence indicates Australians are drinking less now than in previous generations. Further, violent assault figures have been dropping.
What may be changing is that traditional community watering holes in a person’s locality are being replaced for young people especially by concentrations of drinking, eating and entertainment establishments in central city locations. These will often have very long opening hours (till say 3 am or 5 am).
That trend of long hours too has spread to some licensed clubs in the suburbs, those that can take advantage of poker machine players wasting their money till 3 am for example.
Alcohol releases inhibitions and in rage filled young men can unleash indiscriminate violence against strangers.
In New South Wales the latest king hit has prompted a flurry of suggestions as to how to deal with violence and alcohol. One suggestion is to cut back on opening times so that venues close a few hours earlier, perhaps midnight or 1 am. This would cut the profits of the venue owners and the alcohol producers, two groups who along with clubs contribute large funds to the two major political parties.
So it is that New South Wales’ Liberal premier Barry O’Farrell has argued against curtailing licensing hours, saying that people king hit at 9 pm won’t be saved by closing bars at 1 am. (Both recent king hit incidents have been around that time).
That is true. But what O’Farrell fails to address is why it is that people, especially young people, feel the need to go out and get pissed all weekend or why so many young men are so angry. There are I think a couple of answers or maybe things worthy of further investigation.
Capitalism is a system of alienation. As the glossary of terms at the Marxism website puts it:
Marx went on to show that the specific form of labour characteristic of bourgeois society, wage labour, corresponds to the most profound form of alienation. Since wage workers sell their labour power to earn a living, and the capitalist owns the labour process, the product of the workers’ labour is in a very real sense alien to the worker. It is not her product but the product of the capitalist. The worker makes a rod for her own back.
Alcohol or another drug becomes one way to both escape this alienated world and perhaps to reclaim the ownership of self and our products. Since alcohol is the main legal lubricant and profitable for a section of the ruling class it is the one whose use – in moderation, always in moderation we are told – capitalist society condones.
That partly explains the policing and crack down on competitor drugs like marijuana, although Colorado’s recent decision to legalise marijuana shows the power of widespread and untaxed commodity production and use can force legal changes to follow.
Indeed since marijuana may impede the productivity of workers as a class much less than alcohol a logical system might shift drug production and consumption from booze to dope. Of course the entrenched alcohol industry will resist that ferociously.
What O’Farrell and co. don’t do is look for the underlying causes, let alone the underlying causes under capitalism, for getting pissed. They also don’t ask why so many young men are so angry. Maybe the answer to that latter question can be found in part by looking at the specific alienation young people feel under capitalism, either as new employees, unemployed people with little future or students.
Weekend binge drinking may be one expression of that specific alienation of those new to the workforce of capitalist exploitation or denied access to it. Students, on the path to becoming workers, have a freedom workers don’t have and so can use or abuse alcohol more easily but have less wherewithal generally to do so.
Calls for more police and more police powers are often conflated with concerns about violence and alcohol. More police to control drunk working class people has been a staple of capitalist society from its beginnings. It is a method of social control over workers, using alcohol as the excuse.
Anger too is part and parcel of an alienated society. Throw in false definitions of manhood associated with toughness and aggression, and male group or gang violence becomes another outlet.
Those who call for tighter regulation of alcohol, for reduced opening hours, for more policing of hot spots miss the point that we live in a fundamentally alienated world where getting pissed or stoned is part of the escape from capitalism. It is an individual substitute for a communal response, class struggle.
The more workers who go on strike against the boss, the more class struggle generalises itself across society, the less isolated do workers, including young workers, feel. The struggle can become their drug.
Of course, to overcome the alienation that class society imposes upon workers and the violence, alcoholism and drug dependency that goes with it, we would have to overcome the society that produces it. That is what socialist revolution is about – liberating humanity from its alienation and restoring us to our own humanness.