Appropriately, Thompson's book is about addictions and how they are fed by a consumer culture that gets us hooked on tawdry sensual delights. At the core of the book is the controversial claim that addiction is situational. Thompson points out that US soldiers in Vietnam became addicted to heroin because it was dirt cheap. When they returned home the market evaporated, and “the near impossibility of scoring high-grade heroin in Middle America meant that the vast majority of GI heroin users became almost instantly un-addicted. Their environment had changed too drastically to sustain their habit.” From this, Thompson concludes that supply-driven behavior “hijacks reward circuits common to all human beings and most animals.” The cure is to cut off supply.
Alas, modern society makes that very difficult to do. Within the private economy there’s the problem of oversupply of everything – nasty porn on the internet, cheap booze in the supermarket, drugs being sold in the street. Within the public sphere, the bureaucratic approach of the welfare state has turned addiction from a personal failing into a medical challenge. Sufferers are treated as victims rather than moral agents. For example, Thompson decries in his blog the labeling of student binge drinkers as addicts rather than idiots: “Slapping the ‘alcoholic’ label on young people is counterproductive if it encourages them to buy into the ‘disease model’ of addiction. As Time points out, ‘most addiction treatment programs encourage them to see themselves as having a chronic, relapsing disease that requires a lifetime of attendance at 12-step meetings to keep in check.’”
There’s a bit of Right and a pinch Left in Thompson’s analysis. Tories will take delight in the Fings Ain’t Wot They Used To Be complaint about the profligacy of 21st century society. But there’s also something in there that William Burroughs and the anarchists could agree with – the idea that private and public entities trap people in a net of addiction and cure that reduces us to the status of doped slaves. The chaos of narcotics, drink, or sex is an illusion: the pushers and the doctors are our puppet masters. The goal of the medical establishment isn’t to liberate but to supply and control. Thompson's thesis is a mix of the radical and common sense, both of which are in short supply on the subject of mental health.
I’ve done my best to stay away from doctors and social workers throughout my life, but I can testify to Thompson’s point about addiction being circumstantial. My relationship with alcohol is purely about my relationship to other people. Left alone on a desert island, I could survive on fresh water and bananas. Give me five minutes in the company of other human beings and it’s banana daiquiris all the way.
The social pressure to drink is insidious. When I was about 19, an older boy told me that if I didn’t drink in large quantities no one would feel comfortable in my presence and I’d never become Prime Minister. He took me to a restaurant and I drank so much that I had to retire to the bathroom to lie on the floor and giggle. A week later, I over indulged at a Labour Party garden party and left a trail of vomit all the way home. For the first time ever, I said, “Never again.” It wasn’t the last time, alas.
If things were tough at school, they got worse at university. There, drinking is epic. Being no continents left to explore, or causes to die for, reckless youths of my generation have had to drink their body weight in red wine instead. There were moments of glory (a swim in the fountain, throwing a flower pot at a college porter) but the downside of being permanently Brahms and Liszt is that I can’t remember my own highlights. Only recently was I informed of a brilliant bon mot I delivered ten years before. Apparently, I crashed a Conservative Association dinner party in a tuxedo, wearing a CND badge. Some tick asked me how I could be a conservative and be opposed to nuclear weapons. My answer: “When I’ve fired all the nukes at China, we won’t need them anymore.” You can tell that I had long since abandoned my ambition of becoming Prime Minister.
Although far from Wildean, that nuclear gag was unusually witty. On most drunken occasions while I thought I was sounding like Gore Vidal I was probably displaying all the wit of a meths addict arguing with a lamp post. The grape certainly doesn’t increase my sensitivity. A long lost friend from university once walked into a bar in Luxembourg to discover me locked in a drunken fist fight with a fellow who turned out to be his new brother-in-law. Evidently, nothing about Tim Stanley had changed since college. He’d just gone global.
I am not an addict. In fact, in the long spaces between bouts of drinking I live like a monk. No alcohol, lots of exercise, plenty of fresh fruit etc. I’m also borderline vegetarian – another good habit that I give up in company (because no chap with any sense of self-worth is going to eat a salad in front of another man). Nor does the booze disturb my work. I never write, Tweet, email, or call under the influence. The world will only ever know of my drunken exploits what it reads in the Italian press.
But like many Anglo-Saxons, given a flagon of ale and the company of heroes and I become a Beserker. I suppose that in days of old, that might have been put to some use – pillaging monasteries or laying waste whole villages. Today it just means petty vandalism and being barred from French nightclubs. Not only is the "addiction" situational (and "addiction" is quite the wrong word - "rampant idiocy" is better), but so is the manner in which is realized. Were I around in the 18th century I might have been regarded as a Romantic poet; sitting around in gin houses all day, spinning yarns before an audience of adoring dandies. In the grim universe of the 21st century, I’m just a pub bore.