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The case for smashing Big Alcohol and reclaiming working class joy

An excerpt from James Wilt’s new book, ‘Drinking Up the Revolution’

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The monopolized nature of the global alcohol industry is a public health nightmare, writes James Wilt in his new book about the links between the booze industry and capitalism. Photo by Sérgio Alves Santos/Unsplash.

The following is an excerpt from James Wilt’s new book, Drinking Up the Revolution: How to Smash Big Alcohol and Reclaim Working-Class Joy, published in July 2022 by Repeater Books.

The War on Drugs is a global genocide. Far from reducing drug-related harms, criminalization instead makes every aspect of the trade exponentially more dangerous, with toxic and unregulated supply leading to ever-growing rates of fatal poisonings, state and extrajudicial killings, underground violence, and mass incarceration. This US-led worldwide prohibition underpins brutal regimes of police, military, and border violence against racialized peoples in the global periphery, spanning from the poppy fields of Afghanistan, to the coca farms of Colombia, to the streets of Brazil, the Philippines, and Mexico. Of course, this escalating bloodshed has had no impact on the production, distribution, and consumption of psychoactive drugs: it’s only driven it further out of sight, with substances becoming more potent and contaminated while the people who use them are demonized and deprived of necessary supports.

As people who use criminalized drugs have been demanding for many years, the only way out of this global nightmare is the legalization and regulation of all drugs. This radical shift would ensure a far safer supply⁠—an urgent necessity given the complete contamination of most drugs with adulterants like fentanyl and benzodiazepines⁠—and eliminate the erratic potencies and prices, violence, high-risk use, state repression, and devastating stigma that necessarily accompanies prohibition. Deeply courageous life-saving responses like overdose prevention sites, naloxone distribution, needle exchanges, and safe consumption sites are only as necessary as they are in the context of ongoing prohibition. In order to dramatically reduce drug-related harms, the legal frameworks governing their production, distribution, and consumption have to be radically overhauled to promote health and wellness rather than incarceration and death. Police, prisons, and courts should be comprehensively excised from any involvement with drugs; all criminalization of substance use must be ended and replaced with public provision of health care, housing, and supports.

But to ensure this vital transformation unfolds in a way that maximizes long-term safety, it’s essential that we acknowledge and seriously reckon with the extreme harms caused by one of the most popular legal and regulated drugs on the planet: alcohol. This is, of course, not to suggest that alcohol or any drug should be illegal. Clearly not. However, the way that alcohol has become legal and regulated throughout much of the world has been catastrophically damaging, and it’s critically important that we come to terms with what’s happening in order to reverse it and ensure the same doesn’t happen with the legalization of other drugs. Despite the ubiquity of a legal and safer supply of alcohol⁠—with most drinkers not having to fear that their drink is contaminated with toxic and potentially lethal substances like methanol or heavy metals⁠—beverage alcohol contributes to the deaths of some three million people around the world every single year via traumatic injuries, chronic diseases, self-harm, cancers, and alcohol use disorders, including alcohol dependency. Countless more people live with alcohol-related diseases, chronic pains, mental health issues, and various disabilities. As over a dozen substance use experts wrote in a 2010 book about alcohol: “It has the potential to affect adversely nearly every organ and system of the body. No other commodity sold for ingestion, not even tobacco, has such wide-ranging adverse physical effects.” Such alcohol-related harms are rapidly increasing throughout much of the world, particularly in industrializing countries of the Global South, where rising incomes enable more spending on commodities like alcohol. The regulated substance itself—not a contaminated varietal⁠—is the public health crisis at hand.

Alcohol certainly has unique properties that contribute to this enormous toll of death, injury, disability, and disease; for instance, as a depressant, alcohol can slow a person’s breathing to potentially fatal levels, particularly when combined with opioids, and prenatal alcohol exposure can lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in newborns (FASDs). Similarly, the particular way that the human body metabolizes alcohol creates a carcinogenic by-product called acetaldehyde that can cause various cancers. These are concrete material aspects of alcohol use that differentiate its use from other legal drugs like caffeine. However, risks of such alcohol-related harms tend to remain fairly marginal if the substance is used in low volumes. The global public health crisis of alcohol is thus caused less by the substance itself—although its specific attributes certainly matter a great deal⁠—and far more by the dominance of the alcohol industry by capital. It is insatiable profit-seeking that is driving skyrocketing consumption throughout the world, causing enormous harm in combination with the unequal poverty, immiseration, and trauma of capitalism more generally.

While the small handful of immensely powerful multinational oligopolies we will call Big Alcohol⁠—Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev), Heineken, Diageo⁠—run the show, this compulsion to out-compete rivals and generate higher profits through alcohol sales extends to every aspect of the industry regardless of size, with hundreds or thousands of retailers in every city pushing alcohol as a central accumulation strategy (whether the owners are gigantic finance capital or petty small business tyrants). On the whole, the alcohol industry represents enormous profitability for producers, distributors, and retailers. Restaurant blogs, for instance, are chock-full of advice on boosting alcohol sales⁠—“an engine that drives profits” due to its low labour costs and high markups⁠—with tactics like wine-by-the-glass as the “price for a single glass pour can sometimes equal the wholesale cost of a bottle.” Similarly, supermarkets and convenience store chains see alcohol as a main component of their accumulation.

The privatized and monopolized nature of the global alcohol industry is a public health nightmare. It’s the worst imaginable iteration of a legalized and regulated drug: the mirror image of privatized and unregulated underground production of criminalized drugs, with alcohol also made solely for profit but at an enormously larger, coordinated, and state-supported scale. Since profit is the singular aim of production, alcohol consumption and harms can only ever increase, with the tremendous economic and political power of capital wielded via marketing, lobbying, and deregulation to maximize usage and returns. It’s the very antithesis of what any kind of genuine harm reduction approach looks like. While alcohol is far from the only example of this nature—the hyper-commodified cesspits of Purdue Pharma, Juul, and even iterations of legalized weed all come to mind — it’s by far the least scrutinized of the bunch. Almost any concern articulated about the various impacts of alcohol on individuals or society tends to be slandered as quaint, moralistic, and likely prohibitionist. Even more often, alcohol is simply ignored as an urgent issue requiring systematic political action; individual commitments concerning drinking do exist, like straightedge, but they’re primarily about personal self discipline rather than anything confronting the domination of alcohol by capital.

This silence is especially stark on the radical left, given its commitment to anti-capitalism and promoting the health and welfare of the working class. Alcohol policy never makes it onto the platforms of leftist political parties or serves as the subject of heated debates in radical publications, besides representing how people are coping with the traumas and anxieties of capitalist totality. Even harm reductionists invoke the example of alcohol’s legality and ubiquity as a case for legalization and safer supply of other drugs while remaining bafflingly ambivalent about the many specific harms of alcohol. For example, in his recent book, comparing the impacts of heroin and alcohol, renowned psychologist Carl Hart notes that alcohol causes fatal respiratory depression, withdrawal, and liver damage⁠—culminating in almost 100,000 deaths every year in the US⁠—but that he was “not making an argument for restricting the availability of alcohol”.

Similarly, bars and liquor stores are frequently described as “safe consumption sites” or “safe supply”: while understandable as a rhetorical device to destigmatize the use of other drugs, calling attention to the fact drinkers don’t have to worry if their drug of choice is adulterated or lethally potent, the drug’s extreme pervasiveness is taken as a given, with nothing that can be done about its harms that result directly from its extreme ubiquity. The capital that owns, controls, and propels its production is completely invisibilized, as if we still live in the Middle Ages when every household brewed their own ale for personal consumption.

There are plenty of fair reasons for this silence. Alcohol is extremely popular and used by more than two billion people in the world; its central role in socializing, celebrating, and relaxing functions to normalize its prominence and obscure its politics. Further, the racial and anti-poor atrocities of alcohol prohibition in many countries—most infamously in the US between 1920 and 1933, which included the state intentionally poisoning industrial alcohol to prevent diversion, killing thousands of people—often leads to an understandable kneejerk reaction that views any restriction on alcohol as necessarily punitive and reactionary. The ongoing criminalization of certain aspects of alcohol use in jurisdictions where it’s otherwise legal, such as public drinking or intoxication, continues to serve as blatant rationale for police to incarcerate, harass, and displace drinkers who are poor and racialized. Plus, people are already busy organizing on many other fronts, such as abolition of policing and prisons, fighting evictions and rent increases, rebuffing neoliberal assaults, and simply surviving a devastating global pandemic. It’s no wonder that alcohol policy isn’t exactly high on the list of things to think about.

But ignoring alcohol as a political issue is a catastrophic oversight and mistake. Millions of people are seriously harmed by the high-risk use of the substance every year. These harms are the necessary by-product of alcohol’s production for capitalist profit, just like climate change is the intrinsic by-product of fossil fuel extraction or lung cancer of cigarette sales. While global revolution is highly necessary, it’s fully possible within present conditions to start theorizing and fighting for an alternative to the capitalist domination of alcohol production that refuses the fictional binary between prohibition and legalization for capitalist profits: a binary carefully constructed by industry to exploit people’s legitimate concerns about prohibition and criminalization.

In contrast to the alcohol industry’s cynical co-optation of harm reduction discourse to individualize alcohol use⁠—which scholars describe as a practice that “actually entails harm promotion, however well-constructed the smokescreen of self-serving ideas”⁠—the radical left must struggle for genuine harm reduction of alcohol use, which means analyzing and confronting capital’s ownership and control of the substance on a global scale. It requires understanding alcohol itself as a toxic drug that remains unsafe despite its legality because of capitalist production, especially by giant oligopolies. This task is not only essential for the core reason of reducing the horrors of near-countless alcohol-related harms⁠—disproportionately devastating immiserated and pauperized peoples in global peripheries⁠—but for ensuring that the same expansion of harms doesn’t occur through the highly necessary legalization and regulation of currently criminalized drugs. To be sure, the latter is certainly not what people fighting for legalization are demanding, with current proposals anchored in peer-led and public distribution. But the ongoing catastrophe of capitalist alcohol production is a quintessential example of how badly legalization can be implemented if controlled by the ruling class. This is why we must carefully and specifically theorize alcohol and its domination by capital.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books) and Drinking Up the Revolution (Repeater Books). You can follow him on Twitter @james_m_wilt.


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