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The Globalisation of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit
by Bruce K. Alexander
Oxford University Press 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Bruce Sewick, 11/25/2009

Bruce K. Alexander first achieved notoriety in the late 1970s with his “Rat Park” study debunking the prevailing addiction research, which focused on character flaws and “demon drugs” as the cause of addiction. His research showed that it was the rats’ living conditions that prompted addictive behavior; stimulated rats in an enriched environment did not choose morphine the way that rats in an impoverished environment did.

“Poverty of the spirit” and its role in addiction is the theme of Alexander’s latest thought-provoking work. He theorizes that it is dislocation from society that destroys psychosocial integration and sets the stage for addiction. Current approaches to treating addiction do not take into account that the addiction is adaptive for the individual. The predominant philosophy driving treatment holds addicted individuals responsible for being addicted (indirectly justifying the war on drugs), which exacerbates the dislocation that is built into modern society, thus increasing the prevalence of addiction.

Alexander does not deny the influence of individual genetic and personality factors on people’s vulnerability to addiction. However, he moves individual factors from the foreground to the background of attention by showing, with numerous historical examples, that social dislocation is a much more powerful causal factor.

He also clarifies today’s confusion surrounding the word “addiction” by organizing contemporary definitions into four types:

  1. overwhelming involvement with drugs or alcohol that is harmful to the individual user and/or society,
  2. any use of drugs or alcohol that is problematic to the individual user and/or society,
  3. overwhelming involvement with any pursuit whatsoever that is harmful to the individual and/or society,
  4. overwhelming involvement with any pursuit whatsoever that is NOT harmful to the individual or society.

He then confines his attention to the third definition, showing that it is broad enough to include addiction to a large number of habits and pursuits, but stringent enough to rule out simple preferences and fleeting passions.

The solution to the globalization of addiction is not “moralistic punitiveness”, but a change away from the global promotion of a free market economy. Alexander hypothesizes that a free market economy subjects people to “unrelenting pressures toward individualism [and] competition, and [dislocates] them from social life”.

He posits that the dislocation in his theory of addiction can only be overcome by promoting psychosocial integration. This could entail rebuilding communities that have been destroyed by economic collapse or exploitation, supporting families in periods of extreme stress, organizing co-ops and collectives where people’s work can be more community-directed and meaningful, and so forth. The heavy reliance on faith-based treatment in the United States could lead to replacing a drug addiction with a religious addiction. Of course, not all religious faith qualifies as addiction—but some of that espoused in faith-based treatment centers clearly does. Not only can religious zealotry become an addiction in extreme cases, so can economic zealotry. Put addictive religion and addictive zeal for free-market economics together and you have an “ideological goofball”, according to Alexander. The solution to addiction must be addressed through a transformation of society from one whose legal (and illegal) addictions are fueled by a free market philosophy to a society that recognizes the importance of meaningful psychosocial integration. He outlines how this can be done politically, academically, and religiously.

Bruce Alexander’s dislocation theory of addiction is timely, given the worldwide monetary meltdown happening right now. The free market economy has caused a financial crisis, and it will be interesting to see how this impacts addictive behavior. It can also be a time for society to examine the direction it is now heading toward and begin to foster a psychosocial connection that is based on identification with a mindless mass-purchase mentality. This is a “how-to” book that should be required reading by politicians, religious leaders, and addiction counselors.

More on The Globalisation of Addiction and its author:
Superlative blurbs on the book’s cover were written by some of the leaders in the addiction research field: Jim Orford, Stanton Peele, Craig Reinarman, and Gabor Maté. Excellent reviews in addiction journals have been published by Harry S. Levine, John B. Davies, and others. There have been no negative reviews yet, but there may be some when the mainstream members of this field realize that this book comprises a significant challenge to their conventional wisdom.
The Globalisation of Addiction received a “high commendation” from the British Medical Association in September 2009.

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