Review: Dislocation of the Spirit by David Lorimer

Dislocation of the Spirit

David Lorimer


Bruce Alexander

Review published in Network Review, Summer 2010


This immensely important and original book will completely reframe your understanding of the wider social, historical, economic and cultural context of addiction. We normally treat addiction as an individual or possibly a social issue, but Bruce Alexander from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver argues that this is much too narrow a framework of reference.  Addressing addiction as an individual problem with palliative medical measures or psychological interventions will not tackle the root of the problem, which Alexander analyses as social dislocation, now occurring on a worldwide scale. He pertinently asks why so many people are dangerously addicted in the globalising world of the 21st century where addiction ‘extends far beyond  drugs and alcohol to gambling, shopping, romantic love, video games, religious zealotry, television viewing, Internet surfing and even an emaciated body shape.’ The historical  perspective views addiction as a societal problem and the propensity to become addicted as a latent human potential appearing under certain circumstances in especially vulnerable individuals and communities. 

Alexander’s main target is the fallout of global free market hypercapitalism, which is producing dislocation on a vast scale, especially in places like China.  Free market society ‘subjects people to unrelenting pressures towards individualism, competition, and rapid change, dislocating them from social life.’  In these circumstances, addiction can be seen as a form of adaptation and an attempt to compensate for what the author calls a poverty of spirit arising from vain attempts to fill the void of dislocation with consumer products or exotic experiences. Ironically, the bloated world economy requires a continuation of wasteful expenditure in order to maintain economic growth, a topic addressed in my extensive review  of new economic spokes in the last issue.

The book falls into two parts: the roots of addiction in a free market society and the interaction of addiction and society. Alexander begins with Vancouver  as a prototype exhibiting all the symptoms he analyses, arguing that alcoholism and other addictions continue to plague the city because they are unavoidable  by-products of modernity. The next chapter introduces a  key set of definitions distinguishing what he calls addiction1,  addiction2,  addiction3 and addiction4:  these are defined respectively as 1)  overwhelming involvement with drugs or alcohol with harmful effects, 2)  encompasses addiction1  and non-overwhelming involvement with drugs or alcohol that are problematic individually and/or socially 3) overwhelming involvement with any pursuit  (not limited to drugs and alcohol) that is harmful individually and/or socially  and 4)  overwhelming involvement with any pursuit whatever that is not harmful  individually or socially.  These definitions immediately widen and refine the topic and highlight the importance of  addiction3 in the 21st century. One study found that alcohol or drug addiction is comprised just under 20% of the most severe instances. In addition, depression and addiction have been found to be closely intertwined problems.  A further refinement introduced at this stage is the distinction between dependency and addiction. Much of the rest of the book is devoted to an analysis of addiction3.

The next chapter explains in more detail the dislocation theory of addiction, explaining that psychosocial integration is a human necessity and arguing that it is undermined by global free market society in which every aspect of human existence is embedded in and shaped by regulated competitive markets. Addiction3 is then explained as a way of adapting to such sustained dislocation. A corollary of this view is that free market society can no more be addiction-free than it can be free of intense competition; addiction goes with the territory. Having said this, Alexander highlights the limits of dislocation theory in that it cannot explain why individuals do or do not become addicted. However, he does later propose a series of predictions about degrees of individual susceptibility.  As a way of clearing the decks, Alxander analyses four false dichotomies: medical problem or criminal problem,  out of control or acting out of free will,  psychological or physical addiction,  and drug prohibition or legalisation. The next three chapters fill out the main argument in more detail, providing a series of historical cases (for example, the Highland clearances) and clinical research reports. It is part of the human condition to balance the needs for autonomy and belonging, and it is interesting to see in the rise of social networking a compensation for  the loss of immediate community involvement and an overemphasis on individualism, a point picked up in the work of Richard Layard and others on happiness.

The first chapter of the second part explores complex interrelationships of addiction and dislocated society is using five addicted people in three different societies. Interestingly, one of these is St. Augustine, who also crops up later in the context of conversion psychology. The multiple addictions of the Scottish writer James Barrie are analysed, along with three other ex-addicts, whose testimony makes fascinating reading. The following chapter looks at some social patterns including bureaucratic madness and collective environmental insanity before moving on to various forms of religious fanaticism, both Christian and Muslim.  Alexander argues that millions of people are also addicted to free-market orthodoxy, and that America exhibits a heady amalgam of Christian moralism, the Market God and American power.  We have seen only too clearly how this amalgam has been exported through war and foreign policy.

Various means of coping with a dislocated society are chronicled in the next chapter, including degrees of conventionality and unconventionality, and political activism.  This paves the way for an extensive discussion of spiritual treatment for addiction which, while laudable, is not seen to be capable of bringing addiction under control in free-market society. However, by reframing addiction as a spiritual story with a deeper meaning, many people are immeasurably helped and often channel their addictive tendencies into more constructive outlets as represented by addiction4.  Again, Augustine forms an interesting case in point.  Alcoholics Anonymous is featured as a modernisation of Christianity, and the author also refers to the role of eclectic spirituality such as vipassana meditation.  He might also have mentioned new religious movements in general, which offer their own kind of frequently countercultural psychosocial integration; at another level, their emergence might be seen as a consequence of the decline of Christianity  leading to a sense of spiritual dislocation.

Before coming to his own proposals about how we can best tackle the addictions created by dislocation, Alexander returns to ancient Greece and the Socratic dialogues of Plato, with their discussion of various forms of imperfect society, including tyranny and anarchic democracy. He admires Socrates’  ‘powerful combination of rationality, naturalism, compassion and psychological insight.’  The author sees three main avenues of practical action: personal, professional and social, commenting that the third level is the most difficult. First we need to overcome what he calls civilised blindness and civilised paralysis that prevent us from understanding and acting on the root causes of addiction. The best thing is to find a secure place in a real community.  Ultimately, however, we need political action from an aroused citizenry such as was the case with the antislavery and women’s emancipation movement.  Alexander sets out his vision for a form of global society where market autonomy is subordinated to the needs for psychological integration, social justice,  planetary ecology  and peace.  He argues that we have a stark choice between structural change and global cataclysm and that our collective survival requires a radical rebalancing of social institutions. Equally, he recognises that the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is blurred, since we are often implicated in perpetuating problems as well as implementing solutions. (Robert Reich’s book Supercapitalism highlights the tensions between our roles as consumers, investors and citizens). The final chapter gives examples of what has been done and what can be done, including questioning free-market indoctrination through the media, regaining native land, reviving community art, and reclaiming Christianity from the right wing in the US. Last but not least, the community of scholars and the spirit of learning needs to be protected from the encroachment of market philosophy and accounting mentality in universities. Finally, on the last page, Alexander contends that we need to go beyond the first steps of social action and require a global transformation in worldview.  This, of course, has been one of the core agendas of the Network. However, the alternative philosophy is not yet sufficiently galvanising; it is and will be resisted by those with vested interests in the current system.

Alexander has made a seminal contribution by writing this remarkable book as a way of awakening people to a root cause behind our current addictive patterns of behaviour. I say ‘a’ root cause, because he might also have mentioned the mechanistic worldview and the corresponding influence of architecture on social dislocation, a view explored in great detail in the work of Christopher Alexander.  The tone of the book is polemical and the thesis is vigorously explained and defended. It is also immensely well referenced both in terms of notes and bibliography. Interestingly, David Cameron’s idea of the Big Society is aimed at creating the kind of community involvement and psychosocial integration suggested as remedies by this book. However, it is undeniable that the reach of global hypercapitalism is now so great that other forms of action will also be necessary, although they are unlikely to occur until we have experienced a much greater shake-up of the system, such is the power of inertia  allied to the sheer pace of modern life. Only other hand, the power of the Internet creates unprecedented opportunities for collective social action.

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