Before my son was born I was asked what I most wanted for him. "I want him to know who he is and where he belongs," I said.
Maybe that sounds more strict- father wannabe than liberal columnist. But I've come to believe that what sociologists call dislocation---essentially the loss of a sense of belonging---is the worst of the 21st-century plagues. It is making millions of people very sick and making us all very dangerous to all life on Earth.
Almost a decade ago, a Simon Fraser psych prof named Bruce Alexander published a brilliant paper on the subject called The Roots of Addiction in a Free Market Society (recently expanded into The Globalization of Addiction: A study in the poverty of the spirit). Alexander argued that all addictions---to drugs, violence, gambling, junk food, work, consumer products---are predicated on dislocation.
People who lose connection to family, clan, community, nation and custom often create a "substitute lifestyle," whether it be that of a workaholic banker or back-alley junkie. In each of these examples there is a community of sorts, a shared culture of self-destructive behaviour.
Populations that have suffered mass dislocation---aboriginals and African- Americans, for example---tend to have high rates of addiction as a result. Addictive substances were commonly used on this land long before the Europeans arrived, yet there is no evidence of addiction before they took the land and systematically attacked First Nations' cultures.
Alexander's most provocative argument is that "as free market globalizations speeds up, so does the spread of dislocation and addiction. That's because, by definition, free markets force us out of our most identity-forming connections---those of family, clan, custom, community and even nation. Free market economics requires us to sacrifice these things in pursuit of jobs, money, power, goods and services. That is the 'free hand.'"
Free-market economics tend to develop individualistic, rather than collectivist, cultures. In other words, rather than live and work together in extended communities, we organize ourselves in increasingly smaller family units, with limited connectivity, more likely to compete for survival than co- operate for mutual gain.
We make small talk with our neighbours rather than build barns and hold dances together. Via social networking we have more "friends" than ever before and shallower connections to them. We don't sweat with them, we bitch; we don't laugh with them, we lol. And so, any fracture in the nuclear family unit can send its members flying out of control with nothing and no one to hang onto, desperate to replace lost connections.
Some will work through it. Very few will become crackheads. In fact, many more will become, as Alexander puts it, "money and power addicts in the financial district, workaholics in the offices, cybersex and video game addicts at the monitors...television addicts on the couches, food addicts at the convenience stores, celebrity addicts in the theatres...religious fanatics spreading the Word." Goddamn.
Most, if not all, of these addictions have colossal environmental impacts. They are products moving freely in a free-market system, using energy, emitting greenhouse gasses, making increasingly chaotic weather, dislocating more refugees and creating more addicts.
It's a system in crisis and traditional responses of jailing junkies and dealers (themselves dislocated and seeking connectedness via crime) only compounds the problem by creating more dislocation, more isolation. Even the more progressive solutions of harm reduction and rehab treatment don't address the root causes of addiction or look at the majority of addicts who don't even use hard drugs---the consumer-product junkies and the work junkies.
As Alexander put it, "Addiction to a wide variety of pursuits is not the pathological state of a few, but to a greater or lesser degree, the general condition in western society." And now, "mass addiction is being globalized along with the English language, the internet and Mickey Mouse."
There's only one escape from our collective downward spiral---only one way we can kick our habits. We need to acknowledge its root cause and re-create genuine connections via family, community, clan and culture. So that our children know who they are and where they belong.
Chris Benjamin is the author of Drive-by Saviours, a novel.