The resurgence of scientific research in the use of psychedelic substances to treat a variety of medical conditions has attracted great media interest in what is being dubbed the psychedelic renaissance. More recently, the popular response to the recent spate of articles related to Acid Corbynism suggests that a repoliticisation of the counterculture is in order. But similar to the way medical research has erased or diminished the political ramifications of psychedelic culture in their own research, so recent writings by cultural theorists delving into the ideas spawned from psychedelic counterculture and inspired by the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher‘s fledgling idea of Acid Communism, seem to be either missing the depth of knowledge and importance of that culture over 50 years and as it exists today, or studiously avoiding directly talking about it. Mainstream media also tends to cover only research which falls under the banner of materialist science when it comes to discussions on psychedelics.
This mutual erasure of different components of the research on psychedelics may have serious ramifications in the medical and scientific communities, as well as the political arena, because, as so often happens, those who do not control the narrative have the narrative set for them and a great opportunity will be lost. It is perhaps understandable why these groups have done this; it may well be for political expediency, not to draw unwanted attention from the relevant policymakers and moral cynics and to remain apart from the illegal psychonaut underground culture. Or it may well be a gap in knowledge between specialists in the sciences and the humanities, which converge in some way when discussing the possibilities emerging from the psychedelic counterculture.
Prohibition has a lot to answer for, in helping to create a distorted reality, where the harshest, cheapest, most convenient (to the lawbreaker) versions of drugs are marketed, and where frank and open discussion cannot be brought into the public sphere for fear of association with criminal behaviour (even though the results of such behaviour are now part of western mainstream club culture and society at large and pervades advertising, marketing and social media). A consistent case has been made that ending drug prohibition has to become a central political aim for any resurgent progressive movement, so that both scientific and cultural research can proceed unhindered by the limitations of conservative ideology and religious moralism, to create a politics that enhances society. Are there any radical left theorists arguing for this central aim? The case has never been stronger that ending prohibition would be of huge social benefit.
The present neuroscientific research on the effects of psychedelics on the human brain, being conducted in the UK at Imperial College and Bristol University, has followed on from over two decades of careful research conducted in the United States by a group of scientists and policymakers, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Their research is now on the threshold of government approved licensing of MDMA to treat trauma.
At Bristol University, MDMA research to treat alcohol addiction has also received government approval. This carries on from years of scientific research that makes a strong case for at the very least the licensing well-known, patent-free, psychoactive compounds to alleviate, and in some cases cure, a variety of medical conditions, from glaucoma, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, anxiety, trauma, and other psychological conditions. Parliament will find it difficult to ignore the issue as the scientific evidence continues to mount.
The counterculture of the 1960s seemed very much a left libertarian one, pro-civil rights, anti-war, pro-feminist, but it was rejected as too “far out”, associated with LSD and new age woo, and a challenge to traditional family values and was eventually consigned to faded and quaint images from the past. MAPS gained credibility among lawmakers and donors with sober suits, sober research and no mention of revolution, political or spiritual. In its place, a pure scientific materialist, methodological perspective was thought necessary in order to seek favour with lawmakers and licensers. And it has been a qualified success.
In the UK, Breaking Convention, a multidisciplinary biennial gathering of scientists, academics and anthropological researchers, which includes many perspectives from materialist, idealist to indigenous, new age and occult, has gained popularity and, in focusing primarily on the scientific and medical findings, has caught the attention of the mainstream press. But until recently there has been little political analysis, as this has been considered too provocative. But the political mood has shifted, and there is a change even here, with diversity panels, looking at ethnic demographics within the culture and issues around racism, gender and sexuality. A deeper political perspective is needed, but where are the cultural theorists of the radical left to analyse this?
Critics are cautious that the scientific research on these substances might accelerate society towards a medicalised, corporatised model, which continues to see mental health as an individual condition, the treatment of which must be subservient to the needs of the market and a set of values where individuals are treated so that they can function better in what is assumed to be a healthy society. Such a view is also runs in conflict with indigenous cultures who use psychoactive plants, which they consider sacred, and which they wish to preserve within their own context of sacramental use and religious belief, which often runs counter to the view of a western materialist, reductionist perspective. These are often contradictory viewpoints which organisations such as MAPS and Beckley struggle to balance in their methodological outlook, aware as they are of their existence.
Travellers from the US and Europe who travel to Central and South America, West Africa and elsewhere to visit indigenous communities to experience sacred rituals with plant medicines are on the increase, which hints that this fills a need missing from the disenchanted modern secular society referred to by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who were prominent members of the Marxist Frankfurt School. A sense of shared values within a community of such qualities as love, compassion and mutual respect, nurtured by the openness to the new encouraged by multicultural societies, sees individual free expression as part of a wider social consciousness, as an antidote to stifling bureaucracy and sterile technocracy of the modern world.
But the idea that notions of peace and love as universal ethical truths, often associated with explorations into psychedelics, also have their shadow, and there has always been a resistance to such ideas. The prevalence of psychedelics and other psychoactive substances in a hypercapitalist culture and refusal to engage in an honest debate about the effects of inequality and privilege on society, has given a space to a narrow understanding of amoral philosophies which have pervaded the both psychedelic and new age communities. These viewpoints challenge long-held assumptions that psychedelics inevitably lead users into a more liberal, open-minded world view. Some of these philosophical outlooks tend towards anti-ideological, anti-moral viewpoints, which superficially can seem to support an acceptance of the social order with no pressure for change, and can even give space for far right ideologies to flourish. It is important that a thorough investigation of these ideas are explored so that psychologically and socially damaging elements do not prevail.
The author and psychedelic historian Alan Piper has investigated in great depth the connection between psychedelia and right-wing and neo-Nazi groups in his paper and talk which he delivered at Breaking Convention entitled, Psychedelics, Fascism, and the Politics of Profane Illumination. Set and setting, in other words one’s prevailing mindset and the environment in which one takes these mind enhancers, is as important as the substance itself to the results of the psychedelic experience. Such psychological and social analysis lends itself to discussion on propaganda and how culture is used to sway the public. This also has roots in a very pragmatic, materialist view of history and the work of Antonio Gramsci and later on the Frankfurt School, which is instructive in giving us a solid base from which to view these developments in psychedelic culture.
The politics of the Italian Marxist theorist and politician, Antonio Gramsci are synonymous with the term cultural hegemony, which can be used to investigate further the effects of propaganda and a consumer, corporate culture on the minds of malleable, internet-obsessed, drug-taking teens susceptible to influence. More recently, a term which was used by the Frankfurt School to describe the use of culture to impose capitalist ideas into the public consciousness, Cultural Marxism, has become the go-to put-down by conservatives, who use it to describe those political philosophers and thinkers of the left who are seeking a way to combat ruling class hegemonic forces, with their own ability to deconstruct ideas and to recognise how so much of what we take as given is mediated and often created by social forces. The idea that gender is a social construct seems particularly provocative to men of a certain outlook.
This has seeped into public consciousness on social media, with the prominent Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, who has gained notoriety and a huge following for refusing to use impersonal pronouns to describe transgender students. He has used this notoriety as a springboard to launch vicious attacks on a common enemy of the right, promoted by various conservative writers, that a cabal of Marxist-Postmodernist academics (an easy, but mistaken conflation to make to those unfamiliar with the nuances and differences) is infiltrating social institutions in the west to undermine the “traditional” nuclear family and traditional Judeo-Christian values. Peterson has recently joined forces with the controversial academic and critic of modern feminism, Camille Paglia, and the effect that the two will have on this debate bears much closer examination. Where is the cultural analysis from the radical left here? This is urgently needed.
Angela Nagle covers this forensically in her book, Kill All Normies, going into great detail on how Reddit and 4Chan alt-groups became breeding grounds for this kind of populist anti-left narrative, where racism, homophobia and misogyny were common attitudes marked down as “anti-PC free speech”, and used to shut down intelligent debates on white supremacist patriarchy, and issues around sexuality and gender as a social construct. Anyone offering a radical left, or even progressive liberal, perspective was immediately cast off as an SJW (social justice warrior), part of the “regressive left”, men who supported feminism referred to as “cucks” and the very notion of positive social change seen as a Stalinist plot.
Nagle identified a repurposing by the right of a culture of transgression which was a central part of the 60s counterculture, often defined as permissiveness or hedonism, which was once seen as a threat to traditional Christian values. This transgressiveness was used by young, white males as a form to attack institutions which became associated with limits to personal libertarianism, with neoliberalism becoming synonymous with left liberal perspectives, rather than as a continuation of the financial corporate capitalist model. This anti-state, anti-government, anti-liberal attitude became the de facto anarcho-capitalist worldview of the alt-right and grew in popularity.
In the 1960s, the authority of the church was successfully challenged. The decriminalisation of homosexuality and the legalisation of abortion, were hard-fought battles, with only qualified victories, which did not end the war and which recent events show need to be fought again. In the 1980s and 90s, there was an initial male response to increasing women’s rights and gay rights, which in the UK became known as the Loaded generation. A generation of young could once again objectify women, this time “ironically“, simultaneously embracing the consumerist, commodified culture in traditional masculine ways. It was a way for men who objected to the changing nature of male and female roles to claw back some cultural ground, which they felt was being lost, and once again it suited the dominant capitalist mindset. That can be seen as the dry run to a far-less ironic, much more aggressive, push back from so-called men’s rights activists, gamers and openly neo-nazi ideas that have multiplied under this banner more recently.
Mark Fisher wrote in detail about the mental health crisis, from personal experience but also from his own understanding of class politics. He had read some of the work of RD Laing and the anti-psychiatrist movement and David Smail the noted clinical psychologist who argued that modern psychiatry was obsessed with individual responsibility for one’s mental health condition, rather than situating such mental distress within a social context and seeking to address the root of the problems. It is necessary to challenge the old-fashioned belief that mental health is situated solely with the individual, or indeed that the use of psychedelics will destroy the fabric of society. The opposite is the case, and this is backed by solid science.
The present crisis in the NHS is down to a combination of bad management, exploitative deals with private companies, but also a model of health which is still fixed on a materialist perspective and groups exists already which challenge this model. This is the juncture where it is vital that radical left theorists claim cultural ground and make the case both to policymakers and scientists, that psychedelic culture and the psychedelics themselves, are an opportunity to look much deeper into the social and economic conditions which give rise to the growing epidemic of stress and anxiety, as well as treating these conditions effectively with simple, patent-free substances with fewer side-effects and less dependency, and challenging fixed definitions of mental health.
Psychedelic culture has already paved the way in so many areas of human experience, and scientists and neuroscientists are now beginning to provide a basis for the understanding of the medical and social benefit these substances can provide. It is time also that cultural theorists do the same. While the UK has Brexit to contend with and while the US struggles to cope with the increasingly autocratic behaviour of its president, it is time for those who are interested in integrating societies, science and health, to look to psychedelics, and to the theories and pragmatic evidence of collectivised models of behaviour, to create spaces for a multitude of innovative psychedelic-inspired ideas to flourish. Engaging the public honestly and courageously, to promote and enact the creation of a better world is possible and achievable, and must now be a priority.