Capitalism and addiction

The current psychiatric and psychological concept of addiction is being unable to stop engaging in a behavior that is harmful to your health or relationships, regardless of this harm. What counts as “harm” depends on what you regard as health or healthy relationships. Those valuations are social and historical, as are the needs that serve the ends of health and healthy relationships, but there are some basic needs that appear to be relatively stable across human civilizations and societies. Among those basic needs are the very, very basics of food, water, shelter, etc.; the basic needs of safety, security, and love; belonging, community; and acceptance.

There is a lot to say about the way capitalism contributes to addiction, from the reduction of all human needs to consumption, to the shift from a production economy to a consumption economy driving the ever-increasing consumption of everything as the main social goal, to the ideal of social and economic behavior being wage-labor for the sake of ever-increasing personal consumption. As many have pointed out, consumer capitalism is itself a model of addictive behavior, as well as a prime motivator for it. That is to say, people who live in capitalist societies are trained from birth to live addictively, and to consume one thing after another, after another, for the sake of meeting needs that the consumption will never meet. This kind of behavior is the proper role of consumers. Until, of course, it interferes with our other task in capitalist society, which is to labor in capitalist industry in order to generate surplus value that the capitalist can reap as “profit.”

If you’re addicted to TV, TVs, McDonald’s fries, cigarettes, whiskey, pornography, new cars, Amazon Prime, and all the cheap trinkets money can buy, but continue to get to work for your allotted time, all’s fine and you’re doing a helluva job. Use the wrong substances, or do too many of any of these, and you’re labeled an addict, and considered mentally ill or a substandard person, or worse.

Something more fundamental is lurking here. Capitalist societies produce addiction because they reduce human need to labor and consumption. Labor and consumption are not human needs. Yet they are all that we are encouraged to do, all we are supposed to do, and all we are able to do in capitalist societies. We are obligated by capitalism to act as inhuman beings, as labor and consuming beings. We are not free persons able to meet our needs, because we are required to consume, with virtually no time to do anything else, and no options for the vast majority of us.

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