In October 2017, Donald Trump declared a public health emergency in response to what he called a ‘national shame and human tragedy’: the US’s escalating opioid epidemic, the ‘worst drug crisis in American history’ caused by the mass prescription of opioid painkillers:
The United States is by far the largest consumer of these drugs, using more opioid pills per person than any other country by far. No part of our society – not young or old, rich or poor, urban or rural – has been spared this plague of drug addiction.
Although Trump is as far as one can imagine from being a Marxist, his proclamation cannot but evoke Marx’s well-known characterisation of religion as the ‘opium of the people’ (from his ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’) – a characterisation worth quoting here:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
One can immediately notice that Trump (who wants to begin his war on opioids by prohibiting the most dangerous drugs) is a very vulgar Marxist, similar to those hard-line Communists (like Enver Hoxha or Khmer Rouge) who tried to undermine religion by simply outlawing it. Marx’s approach is more subtle: instead of directly fighting religion, the goal of the Communists is to change the social situation (of exploitation and domination) which gives birth to the need for religion. Marx nonetheless remains all too naïve, not only with regard to his idea of religion but with regard to different versions of the opium of the people. It is true that radical Islam is an exemplary case of religion as the opium of the people: a false confrontation with capitalist modernity which allows the Muslims to dwell in their ideological dream while their countries are ravaged by the effects of global capitalism – and exactly the same holds for Christian fundamentalism. However, there are today, in our Western world, two other versions of the opium of the people: the opium and the people.
As the rise of populism demonstrates, the opium of the people is also the people itself, the fuzzy populist dream destined to obfuscate our own antagonisms. And, last but not least, for many among us the opium of the people is opium itself, escape into drugs – precisely the phenomenon Trump is talking about.
So, to paraphrase Marx, where does this need to escape into opium come from? To paraphrase Freud, we have to take a look at the psychopathology of global-capitalist everyday life. Yet another form of today’s opium of the people is our escape into the pseudo-social digital universe of Facebook, twitter, etc. In a speech to Harvard graduates in May 2017, Mark Zuckerberg told his public: ‘Our job is to create a sense of purpose!’ – and this from a man who, with Facebook, has created the world’s most expanded instrument of purposeless loss of time!
As Laurent de Sutter demonstrated, chemistry (in its scientific version) is becoming part of us: large aspects of our lives are characterised by the management of our emotions by drugs, from everyday use of sleeping pills and anti-depressants to hard narcotics. We are not just controlled by impenetrable social powers, our very emotions are ‘outsourced’ to chemical stimulation. The stakes of this chemical intervention are double and contradictory: we use drugs to keep external excitement (shocks, anxieties, etc.) under control, i.e., to de-sensitize us to them, and to generate artificial excitement if we are depressed and lack desire. Drugs thus react to the two opposed threats to our daily lives, over-excitement and depression, and it is crucial to notice how these two uses of drugs relate to the couple of private and public: in the developed Western countries, our public lives more and more lack collective excitement (exemplarily provided by a genuine political engagement), while drugs supplant this lack with private (or, rather, intimate) forms of excitement – drugs perform the euthanasia of public life and the artificial excitation of private life. The country whose daily life is most impregnated by this tension is South Korea, and here is Franco Berardi’s report on his recent journey to Seoul:
Korea is the ground zero of the world, a blueprint for the future of the planet. /…/ After colonisation and wars, after dictatorship and starvation, the South Korean mind, liberated by the burden of the natural body, smoothly entered the digital sphere with a lower degree of cultural resistance that virtually any other populations in the world. In the emptied cultural space, the Korean experience is marked by an extreme degree of individualisation and simultaneously it is headed towards the ultimate cabling of the collective mind. These lonely monad walks in the urban space in tender continuous interaction with the pictures, tweets, games coming out of their small screens, perfectly insulated and perfectly wired into the smooth interface of the flow. /…/ South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world. Suicide is the most common cause of death for those under 40 in South Korea. Interestingly, the toll of suicides in South Korea has doubled during the last decade. /…/ in the space of two generation their condition has certainly improved by the point of view of revenue, nutrition, freedom and possibility of travelling abroad. But the price of this improvement has been the desertification of daily life, the hyper-acceleration of rhythms, the extreme individualisation of biographies, and work precariousness which also means unbridled competition. /…/ The intensification of the rhythm of work, the desertification of the landscape and the virtualisation of the emotional life are converging to create a level of loneliness and despair that is difficult to consciously refuse and oppose.
What Berardi’s impressions of Seoul provide is the image of a place deprived of its history, a worldless place. Alain Badiou has reflected that we live in a social space which is progressively experienced as worldless. Even the Nazi anti-Semitism, however ghastly it was, opened up a world: it described its critical situation by positing an enemy which was a Jewish conspiracy; it named a goal and the means of achieving it. Nazism disclosed reality in a way which allowed its subjects to acquire a global cognitive mapping, which included a space for their meaningful engagement. Perhaps it is here that one should locate one of the main dangers of capitalism: although it is global and encompasses the whole world, it sustains a stricto sensu worldless ideological constellation, depriving the large majority of people of any meaningful cognitive mapping.
Capitalism is the first socio-economic order which de-totalizes meaning: it is not global at the level of meaning. There is, after all, no global capitalist world view, no capitalist civilisation proper: the fundamental lesson of globalisation is precisely that capitalism can accommodate itself to all civilisations, from Christian to Hindu or Buddhist, from West to East. Capitalism’s global dimension can only be formulated at the level of truth-without-meaning, as the Real of the global market mechanism.
This, then, is what makes millions seek out refugee in our opiums: not just new poverty and lack of prospects but the unbearable superego pressure in its two aspects: the pressure to succeed professionally and the pressure to enjoy life fully in all its intensity. Perhaps, this second aspect is even more unsettling: what remains of our life when our retreat into private pleasure itself becomes the stuff of brutal injunction? In short, is Trump himself – the way he acts, emitting endless tweets, etc. – not the cause of the disease he is trying to cure?