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Capitalism’s fake war on drugs.

19 Jul

I apologise for what you might think is a trivial topic written by somebody who enjoys being stoned once in a while. The truth is that at the moment I don’t know what to write about – thank God, I don’t have to have access to the benefits system at the moment and the precarity of agency work etc is something that is so scary that I prefer not to think about it. So I decided to write about an issue within capitalism that is frequently overlooked.

I have been reading a fair bit of ICC literature recently and one of the concepts they talk about, which I think I have mentioned here before, is the decomposition of capitalism in its “decadent phase” as it gets closer and closer to its collapse (hopefully, or this may be wishful thinking!) – which is characterised by among other things, the increasing intrusion of illegal activity and criminal/mafia type groups into the state and the loss of differentiation between the “official” bourgeoisie who make their living through “legal” methods, and those who make a living by “illegal” methods. They would say a clear example of the sort of things they are talking about would be found in Mexico where the state is pretty much “just another gang” but also elsewhere in South America, parts of the US and the black ghettos where the CIA have been involved in drug smuggling, and of course the former Soviet Union.

Their argument is that while recreational drugs like weed, which has been in use longer than the bible, opium and even alcohol have been in use for a very long time, and the “official” capitalist structures have always been involved to some extent in the manufacture and sale of drugs – whether they are legal or illegal – since the end of the 1970s and the collapse of the Berlin Wall this phenomenon has massively increased – whereas before the bourgeoisie who took part in this sort of thing were able to control it, to contain it to certain “peripheral” areas – and in those areas were able to maintain strict control and a virtual monopoly, today they are no longer able to do so. To the extent that the drug trade and criminal activity now threatens their very authority. It is estimated that Mexican drug traffickers employ 25% more people than McDonalds does worldwide. In Mexico in 2007, the drug trade was the fifth largest employer in the country. The value of the illegal drugs trade in Guinea-Bissau is almost twice the country’s legal GDP and in Puerto Rico, which is essentially a colony of the US, the drugs trade makes up 20% of GDP.

Choosing the drugs trade as a career means that, for a worker or small time seller, it can offer you the chance of higher wages because of the risks involved. Further, your income will – obviously – not be taxed and it can mean that you appear to have increased freedom under this system. Black market trade is real free market trade it offers you a very real chance, if you are lucky, of getting rich very quickly. For many Mexicans who enter the drugs trade, a lack of start-up capital prevents them from starting a business legally. One article on this subject praises the “business talent” in high security prisons and laments the fact that it is used in this industry and not for more acceptable entrepreneurial ends. And like any capitalist enterprise the exploitation of workers is the order of the day, with workers – many of them children – in illegal employment on cannabis farms with no rights and no access – for obvious reasons – to unions or the legal system.

If you think this could not happen here you need to think again. With the decline in social provisions in developed countries including this one a growing number of people are supplanting their income whether that is in work or on benefits within the drugs trade. In many areas the police turn a blind eye to dealing. Where my boyfriend lives in Corby there is high unemployment and large numbers of people are involved in selling drugs, mostly weed but harder stuff as well. It has become completely normalised and it frequently seems that nobody gives a shit about it.

To some extent the official institutions of capitalism has always been involved in activities they deem illegal or to be “social ills” – look for example at the booze industry in the 19th century in London or the people in law enforcement who were involved in prohibition in the states. The name “heroin” was originally a brand name for diamorphine by a German company and opium mixed with treacle was marketed as a children’s medicine and sold to working class parents – which probably contributed to high levels of child mortality – under the name “Godfrey’s Cordial”. There are numerous prescription medicines today which are all perfectly legal but easy to develop an addiction to or to take unnecessarily.

The argument seems to be that these days they are less and less able to control it, that it intrudes further and further into the structure of the state at the highest level. Thus you get US soldiers guarding pallets of opium while their officers try desperately to justify the policy, you get large quantities of opium flown out of Afghanistan on military aircraft, and so on. Flights and “torture taxis” used to extraordinarily rendite people also being used to transport huge quantities of drugs.

And when a drugs bust takes place in this country – even when people are charged for possession of cannabis – the amount they are charged with possessing is frequently much less than the amount which was actually seized, as the police take it for themselves and either sell it back or use it for “personal use”.

It’s a shockingly clear indictment of how the actual harms created by drugs are not necessarily to do with the drugs themselves. But more to do with the way they are prohibited, thus ensuring a buoyant black market which is worth trillions of dollars worldwide every single year. A truly massive industry dwarfing the likes of Microsoft and Google in terms of net annual worth. But unlike these two technology giants, the drug industry isn’t run using computers. It’s run by people who use guns and knives.”

As the drugs trade makes up, at a conservative estimate at least, 1% of world GDP while higher estimates place it at between 5 and 6%, it makes little sense for the bourgeoisie to try and stamp it out completely. There is too much money involved and it is far too much of a social weapon which can be and is used to destroy solidarity and community – the CIA used it to break or to prevent the growth of the Black Panthers and other working class movements in largely black areas and the US state especially have used it to discipline and to criminalise vast swathes of the population. Drugs were also used as a weapon in Northern Ireland both by the British state and paramilitaries – today the lines between paramilitaries, especially loyalist ones, in Northern Ireland and drug gangs are very blurred.

Locking up people and using them for cheap labour well below market rates, with no labour rights coz if they resist they’ll be put in isolation – 2 million people are locked up in the US, 25% of the world’s prison population – also helps deliver profits for that section of the bourgeoisie involved in the prison industry, both state and private. It also – along with alcohol – saps people’s motivation and ability to resist and to organise collectively. In Vietnam, a version of heroin was given to the troops in order to “placate demoralisation“.

Drugs have played a terrible and sordid role in warfare in the last couple of centuries, whether it is waging war in order to literally guard these crops or give soldiers drugs in order to make them perform better. The CIA’s notorious MK-Ultra mind control experiments were an attempt to try and control people’s behaviour by giving them LSD among other “research chemicals”. At Porton Down, servicemen were given LSD and other substances without their consent in an attempt to test “combat drugs”. Treating them as equipment and mere lab rats rather than as men. Today the facility is involved in testing strains of cannabis for medical use and much of its work remains a secret, while the criminalisation of ordinary drug users continues. While three of the servicemen involved in these experiments won compensation in 2006, no criminal charges have ever been pursued.

For a lot of people drugs, both legal and “illegal” are a temporary escape from the brutality of capitalism. In a society where we are so alienated from each other it is inevitable that the drug trade will grow because of the companionship it can sometimes provide for drug users and the enjoyment that they are able to get back. However they are frequently not even that, they are a trap for their users who end up being used both as a source of profit for drug dealers and by the state. This article by What Next Journal (while it’s a bit “trotty” in parts) describes some of the pitfalls in developing an approach to this problem, such as Militant’s attempt at an anti-drug front group in the 1980s, and some of the measures that were taken by working class movements in the past, including the Irish socialist Jim Larkin and his involvement in the temperance movement.

Larkin is well known today for his political activities, but rather less known is the tireless campaigns he made during his life against drunkenness, the scourge of ports in Britain and Ireland. It was the practice of Larkin when he was a foreman never to pay the workers under him in the local pubs, as was the custom at the time, and where it gave the men ample opportunity to drink away their wages before they thought about their wives and children. Larkin undoubtedly made an error when he lined up organisationally with the various religious bigots in the temperance movement, but his basic attitude was progressive for the contemporary situation he faced.


We should place no trust in the police, or forces of “law and order” to stop drug dealing or drug misuse: these bodies, the police and courts, are, as part of the capitalist state and as representatives of the oppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie, part of the problem, and never part of the solution.

In the 19th Century, Marx quoted Montgomery Martin in reference to the “Opium Wars” in China at that time, and noted:

“Why, the ‘slave trade’ was merciful compared to the ‘opium trade’. We did not destroy the bodies of the Africans, for it was in our immediate interest to keep them alive; we did not debase their natures, corrupt their minds, nor destroy their souls (Well, just a little, B). But the opium seller slays the body after he has corrupted, degraded and annihilated the moral being of unhappy sinners, while, every hour is bringing new victims to a Moloch which knows no satiety, and where the English murderer and Chinese suicide vie with each other in offerings at his shrine”.

Huge sectors of the legal economy depend to a huge extent on the continued existence of this shadow economy, including law enforcement and the prison industry – and of course the healthcare industry and the companies which produce drugs used to treat addicts. A UN advisor even said that money from drugs and crime had prevented banks from failing during the onset of the crisis!

Keeping drugs illegal helps to keep prices inflated, thus helping the bulk of the profits to stay in the hands of drug dealers – or the state and its allies. Plainly a huge part of the state apparatus depends on the continued existence of the “drugs problem” – the same problem which is used to justify state terror and repression – and war. If a state is becoming a hub for drug-smuggling it is a “failed state” or at risk of becoming one – which may mean that some sort of “intervention” is justified. The well-documented drug-running activities of the KLA in the Kosovo war, overlooked by NATO, were used to justify war and racism by the Serbian state and still serve as a useful propaganda weapon for defenders of that campaign today – as they do for NATO countries in Afghanistan.

The arms trade is the cousin of the drugs trade. Drug smuggling helps to fund the activities of terrorist groups as well as states, despite the religious or for that matter “revolutionary” rhetoric of many of them. While part of the justification for the invasion of Afghanistan was to “smash” the heroin trade – despite the fact that production has risen by 61% – some Islamists justified the drug trade as a weapon against the West. Islamist propaganda identifies secularism and gay rights – and by implication non-religious working class movements in Muslim countries and elsewhere with Western imperialism, “limitless freedoms”, a loss of “moral values”, drug-taking and alcohol abuse  – and promotes “tough laws to protect morality and health” in much the same way that campaigns against drugs in the US and UK frequently have reactionary overtones and support the very law enforcement industry that fuels and depends upon this trade, presenting the problem as a moral failing of individuals rather than a capitalist or economic one.

As long as capitalism continues people will be driven into drug addiction because of the misery the system produces and the desire to find an escape, as well as the erosion of community social support structures, however imperfect, and the complete lack in many areas of any sort of social provision. Drug addiction may be associated with those people who have “fallen through the cracks” for whatever reason but it is often just a way to cope with the extreme stress of working life, which means that middle-class moralising campaigns like the ones that try to get people to eat healthier when healthy food is unavailable or unaffordable are both patronising and do not work – and are frequently used to deny people benefits and healthcare “for their own good” and despite the rhetoric are only really beneficial to “the market”, the state and the pharmaceutical and other companies like A4E and ATOS who will make money out of them – and ultimately the drug barons themselves as they feed off people’s misery.

It is sickening to consider the hypocrisy of those in charge of the British state who claim to react with horror at the drug and alcohol habits of the victims of their system and their policies while snorting bloodstained coke and knocking back 40 pound wines from the cellar underneath the House of Commons which contains booze worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, while trying to introduce measures such as minimum pricing for alcohol, which will create business opportunities for for aspiring entrepreneurs to provide cheaper alternatives. Can’t have all that “talent” going to waste when so much use could be made of it.

Even if drugs were legalised, dealers would still continue to make huge profits – if the government legalised and taxed, for example, a version of weed, people could simply go elsewhere as many currently do with booze and fags on the black market. It is not inconceivable that this could happen at some point in the near future, especially with weed. Legalisation on a capitalist basis – or even a state-capitalist basis, as some trot groups have called for with absurd demands for the illegal drugs trade to have “price committees” and be taken under the control of “workers and peasants” – could not provide any answers. It would simply mean that rather than dealers taking all of the profits, the state and private companies would take a far larger share than they do currently. I would not trust the state or a large company to sell me weed any more than I would trust a drug dealer in the street. In fact, maybe I would trust the drug dealer more, because in many cases they have grown it themselves.

Are companies such as “Carnage” who deliberately encourage people to do themselves serious damage at their drinking events, and whose organisers have used violence in the face of threats to their livelihood, really any “better” than people who sell illegal drugs? What about the universities, nightclubs, students unions and other companies who encourage people into dangerous levels of binge drinking and glorify the worst effects of alcohol abuse?

What about the huge pharmaceutical companies who make money out of selling people drugs which are addictive and which they frequently don’t really need? Are “legal highs” and “research chemicals” really better than half of the stuff you can buy on the street? Would you want companies like Pfizer or British American Tobacco selling you smack? While well-intentioned drug legalisation campaigners often fall into the trap of thinking that “legal” would necessarily mean “safer” and “more regulated” when the behaviour of the vast industry devoted to both covertly selling illegal drugs and maintaining capitalism’s fake “war” against them, and companies selling alcohol or even prescription drugs demonstrates otherwise. Campaigning for the legalisation of drugs is by no means inherently reactionary, despite the stances taken by some rather socially conservative far-left groups, but it is not inherently progressive either, as can be seen by US Republicans and libertarians calling for the legalisation of weed to become a “conservative issue” based on individual rights.

Absurd situations like the council who were forced to apologise after claiming cannabis was worse than heroin are an example of the hypocrisy, arrogance and ignorance of those parts of the state tasked with “tackling” and managing the drugs problem. Meanwhile the misery caused by drugs, both legal and illegal, and the military-industrial complex which declares “war” on them or talks about “harm reduction” or “zero tolerance” never ends – and that’s the way that capital wants it, whether this or that drug is made legal or illegal.

But like any business even the trade in a relatively harmless crop such as weed is not free from iniquity, whether it is trafficking in people to work in their factories, the adulteration of cannabis resin or the contamination of weed with sand and other foul shit to increase the weight, and the complete disregard for human life shown by this part of the bourgeoisie as shown by stories of contaminated heroin and contaminated pills. When writing about the war on drugs honestly, there is always a risk of being seen as or unwittingly becoming an apologist for the trade. I hope I have not done that here.