Drugs and the Empire of Desire

Writing of his drug addiction in 1821, the English essayist Thomas De Quincy — author of the classic Confessions of an English Opium Eater — noted that he had fallen into the vice during a wet Sunday afternoon in London ‘and there is no prospect more bleak than a wet Sunday afternoon in London’.

De Quincey’s volume was one of the first in what has become a long line of addiction memoirs — although the honour could equally be awarded to the oeuvre of Coleridge, whose dreamy opium-filled work of the Kubla Khan variety alternated with more prosaic letters describing the ravishments of the condition, from cravings to agonising constipation.

At a time when the use of illicit drugs is rising across the world, despite the massive armouries of the ‘war on drugs’; when the supply of both opiates and cocaine mounts remorselessly year on year; when whole countries — Colombia and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan — have become, with varying degrees of willingness, drug factories; when large areas of the global South are turning from opium use to heroin use, and when whole popular cultures — such as the youth culture of the UK — come to exist at the service of chemical consumption, it may be necessary to more deeply consider the central cultural role of such substances in contemporary life.

Such an inquiry becomes more urgent given the Howard Government’s recent launch of a national drugs campaign, and the increasing indications that a Beazley Government will be in a social conservative model substantially indistinguishable from that which now exists. The current campaign was inaugurated largely in response to the flood of cheap heroin that engulfed Australian cities — particularly Melbourne — in the late 1990s, and the large numbers of deaths that resulted from overdoses, as addicts became exposed to less diluted product. Few of these lives would have been lost with a medicalised supply of opiates in controlled dosages — the old British model of allowing registered addicts a safe supply — yet there was never any possibility that such a policy would be adopted.

Instead, the government’s strategy focusses on the conservative notion that stable family life is the best protection against dangerous behaviours, and adds to it the more liberal notion that communication between parents and child (rather than the imposition of parental authority) is the key to avoiding illicit drug use. The communication is overwhelmingly strategic — there is provided a catechism-style document with questions and answers to prepare the unwary parent for any curly ones (such as ‘well you took drugs’, the approved answer to which is that we all make mistakes) and a helpful table outlining the effects of various substances is provided. All effects are detailed, save for one — that drug-use is frequently pleasurable. The substances that the young are being warned against seem to produce only headaches, lethargy, paranoia, psychosis, cancer and developmental disorders, which would surely make any half-bright teenager wonder why they were being cautioned against them in the first place. There is only the slightest nod towards the possibility that opiates may have a more addictive capacity than other substances. This contingent category of illegal substances — drugs — bounded by the legal regions of caffeine, tobacco, alcohol and legal stimulants such as pseudoephedrine, moves in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform.

Despite the explanation of their chemical properties and physical effects, the overwhelming impression is that they gain their power from pure illegality, from their embodiment of risk. Their anarchic possibilities serve as the occasion for a more than equal and opposite over-reaction — the imposition of systems of control. In the twentieth century this was confined to the police and criminal justice system on the one hand, and the therapeutic, medical and educational institutions on the other. The current campaign is an extension of the ‘reefer madness’ school of anti-drug propaganda, but it is also a departure, in which the entire repertoire of social responses becomes scripted — a feature clearly visible in the TV ads, in which families are shown watching an earlier series of TV ads and talking about them in a variety of approved ways. It is the manner by which the mutual interdependence of ‘drugs’ and empire is confirmed and extended in a globalised context.

Drugs and empire

Indeed empire and ‘drugs’ — in this case meaning consciousness-altering substances used in the absence of any ritual or medical practice — are two sides of the same coin. By now many people have some knowledge of the degree to which the British Empire was involved in the sale of opiates from India to China — fewer realise that it was on this trade that the nineteenth century expansion of the empire was funded and, of equal importance, that the modern form of drug addiction was created.

By the 1760s the East India Company had been running various quantities of opium poppy from India to China in steadily increasing volumes for several decades, but it was not until Warren Hastings, the Governor-General, ascribed the resistance of the Moguls to the increase in poppy cultivation, and reorganised the trade using the resources of the British army and navy that it began to generate significant revenues. The Company — which eventually became the government — had justified its trade on the basis that its monopoly allowed a control of the supply of opium, whose dangers were already beginning to be recognised. It needn’t have worried overmuch, since the combination of power and supply of dangerous substances had an illustrious recent history in Britain — William III and Mary only agreed to accede to the throne if they could have a license for the import of ‘geneva’ liquor — or ‘gin’ — that was, to that time, little known in England. The subsequent flooding with heavy hooch of a market accustomed to ale gave us Hogarth and the temperance movement among other things, and was an early example of pushing/loss leader marketing – sold by the glass to undercut local beer.

That the global pushers were aware of the hazardous nature of the substance was indicated by the draconian legislation used to keep it out of the British population in India, much less at home. Poppy had been known as an analgesic in Europe since the time of the Crusades, but it was rare, and merely one part of the herbal pharmacopeia.

By the early 1800s, several events served to set the pattern of modern addiction in place. Romanticism had blossomed in European culture, with the Faust myth — the individual damned by his own ambition — becoming central to self-understanding of artistic producers. ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’ Blake wrote, and while his journey was largely on foot, others were getting a help along the way — principally through laudanum, a mixture of alcohol and opium, favoured not only by the poets, but also by anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, inventor Sir Humphrey Davy and many others. Morphine, an alkaloid opiate derivative, was synthesised in 1803, one of the first drugs to have an effect many times more powerful than its natural form, but the high cost of production slowed its introduction to everyday use.

In 1830, the opium trade was worth 2 million pounds per year — 50 per cent of the cost of running the government of the British Empire. The Chinese emperor had twice attempted to resist the trade, and twice been beaten down by imperial firepower. Tories opposed the trade, while free-market liberals vociferously supported it, arguing that it was clear that Chinese labourers needed the drug as it stimulated their efforts and gave them respite from the back-breaking work they had to perform.

This was curious to many — that Chinese opium users would be stimulated by the drug — since it was frequently observed that Indian users were relaxed, even narcotised by it, while Europeans seemed to be subject to both. Initial suspicions that the effect depended upon whether the poppy was smoked or eaten proved incorrect and the debate raged. In the same period as De Quincey’s classic work emerged — not to mention Tennyson’s The Lotus Eaters — Henri Murger’s Contes de la Vie de Boheme was published in Paris. This collection of short stories centred around the artistic margins of urban life set the template for modern bohemia, a text which for generations was subsequently reproduced in their lives. While opium was not yet a part of their lifestyle — the price was still sufficiently high that a contemporary commentator could call religion its equivalent ‘for the masses’ — excess was central to it. Not the excess of abandon or the pure carnivale, but an excess taken as the mark of a free spirit, a pure soul.

Yet it was not until the 1860s that the shape of modern drug-use began to emerge. The first mechanised war — the US Civil War — brought morphine into mainstream usage. It also began a cycle whereby large numbers of addicts were released into the community at the end of each conflict — to such a degree that morphine became known as the ‘soldiers’ disease’. The hunt for a cure in the latter part of the century led many to a derivative of the South American coca plant. Cocaine was the prozac of the 1880s, the wonder drug that promoted energy, alertness and cheerfulness with no apparent side effects, its most famous champion being the young and ambitious Dr Sigmund Freud.

Coca-leaf chewing had been a part of Inca culture for millennia, and the Spanish occupiers of South America had been engaged in an endless tussle over its use, with the clergy — who objected to its ritual and pagan usage — wanting it banned, while merchants — who admired its ability to extend the stamina of local labour far beyond the capacities of Europeans — presciently arguing for a respect of local cultural differences. Even then it was noted that leaf chewers would pace themselves, rarely choosing the largest or most robust leaves of the plant — an early version of smoking ultramilds. What was an integrated social practice in its traditional setting became something else entirely when both the practice and the active ingredient were extracted and placed in a setting of cosmopolitan modernity.

Both refined drugs — morphine and cocaine — showed themselves to have a power of movement above and beyond the herbal drugs of previous eras. Both connected to human physiology to a degree hitherto unknown in culture and beyond the powers of nature. At the same time as explicitly manufactured demand was starting up — with the rise of the modern advertising industry and the brand — the numbers who found themselves at the mercy of the ‘soldiers’ disease’ and addiction to the cocaine that had been presented as its cure was rising remorselessly. The answer was another drug, introduced in 1898, and guaranteed by its manufacturers to be non-addictive. An analgesic substitute for morphine, it was also seen as a way for the ‘heroes’ who had succumbed to ‘soldiers disease’, so it seemed like a good idea to give it the trade name Heroin.


Writing of his heroin addiction in the 1950s, William Burroughs noted the singular feature of the drug — with heroin the product was not sold to the consumer, the consumer was sold to the product. That heroin became the acme of twentieth century addiction was partly accidental — morphine had been the drug that doctors prescribed to addicts in ‘maintenance doses’. Following the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act (USA) in 1914 — the drugs war beginning the same year as the world war — and further crackdowns in the 1920s, maintenance dose prescription became heavily punishable, and morphine disappeared from the emerging circuit of drugs and criminality. Morphine and heroin are virtually identical, but the latter has acquired the Faustian cachet of doomed glory, while the former has largely retained its medical image. Consequently sober citizens recovering from operations can take doses of morphine that, in the cultural context of ‘pleasurable’ usage, would speed one on the road to physiological addiction.

Burroughs’ insight into the power of opiates reveals their double character. On the one hand they are the ‘omega’ drug — the external substance that more or less replicates the internal substance that does a lot of the work in controlling the physical aspects of pleasure, jouissance, release from anxiety. It was more than 150 years after the synthesis of morphine that these chemicals were identified and their name — endorphines, or endogenous morphine — establishes the cart/horse character of the relationship. It is not inevitable that such a drug will begin to move autonomously through a culture — addicting a user and then passing itself on via the user becoming a supplier — but its power is substantial. In the last decade, opium consumption in areas such as rural Burma and Afghanistan has been supplanted by the use of heroin, as poppy farmers moved to the ‘value added’ end of the market and started doing their own refining, and the surrounding communities were flooded with refined product. Blame for this lies substantially with the United States, which encouraged anti-North Vietnamese Indochinese warlords and the anti-USSR Taliban to develop heroin production as a separate funding source.

Nevertheless, heroin works best when its cultural meaning serves as an agent of addiction equal to its physiological impact. Burroughs’ was the most cogent exploration of the meaning of such addiction and the medical-punitive state apparatus which grew up around it from the 1930s onwards — but he was also an agent of its carriage, his writings presenting themselves as overtures to the transcendent revelations of the drug itself. No matter how much he, or those who followed in his wake, from Lou Reed to Irvine Welsh, dissembled about the scourge of the drug, the more talked about it became, the greater became its power. By the 1970s the bohemian values of unique self-fashioning had become mainstream values, especially of youth, and heroin’s purview became general. By 1973, $4b of it was being imported into the United States, making it the single largest consumer import commodity, and one of the economy’s most efficient multipliers, a fulcrum for the law and order, insurance, entertainment and medical industries.

In a commodity culture it is the pure commodity — demand goes off the graph because the addicted will pay anything to have it. Initially it presents itself as the anti-commodity — the nepenthe that will take one beyond desire. Subsequently all it offers is a release from the pain of its absence. Clearly all commodities do this to a degree — heroin is an illustration of the degree to which addiction is a social product. It is a fusion of our technical means to intersect with hitherto inaccessible levels of human physiology, together with the cultural promise of transcendence in a handy and easily obtainable form, whether it be, as Humphrey McQueen has shown, an opiate, a fizzy drink or just about anything else.

That it is a cultural process can be seen from the fact that it does not need a physiological substratum. Gambling, love, shopping — all start to shift towards the addictive end of the scale. Of course talk of ‘x addiction’ is partly cant and partly a medicalisation of what would hitherto have been called passion or obsession, but it may also be the mapping of a real social process — the point at which the pursuit of desire begins to lose its particular character, and become a process emptied of content.

As Philip Mendes’ following contribution makes clear, the burden of such addictions does not fall equally across society. The war on drugs is a war on the poor who are punished for living as consumers of desire in a desiring, consumer society. The federal government’s tough-on-drugs approach serves to take this a stage further. Its ideal subjects are what one might call ‘global Singaporeans’ — continent, hardworking people, imbued with a Protestant work ethic, bound by family affiliations, and aware that any step outside heavily policed social and psychological boundaries will have serious consequences for every aspect of their life. It is as much a vision shared by new Labor apparatchiks such as Mark Latham as it is a part of John Howard’s conservative fantasies. Because increasing numbers cannot be a part of that accumulating vision, they must be excluded — as an example to the others, and as raw material for a burgeoning prison industrial complex.

What global drug trade founder Warren Hastings called the ‘pernicious commodity’ — opium — is now both a mirror and means of production, distribution and exchange. A rational drugs policy will start from a recogntion of how intimately it is involved in the nature of our culture and vice versa.

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