I had known John for 40 years on and off; just over a year ago he died. He was 62 and homeless, an alcoholic who over the course of four years or so had drunk himself to death. He died alone in a tiny basement room of a dreary hostel in London, where the local authority had placed him. A cocktail of alcohol and anti-depressants took him through the gates of death. It was a tragic, ugly end to a life that had once held such promise.
Along with millions of others around the world, John drank to escape the pain of his life; the emotional agony of living was unbearable and, desperate for relief, he turned to alcohol. Habit quickly became addiction, and addicts, as those who have known one will testify, are desperately difficult to help. Behavior changes, moral boundaries dissolve, self-respect and honesty are eroded, relationships destroyed.
Like recreational drugs, alcohol fuels a range of social ills, including crime, depression, anxiety and suicide. It can cause long-term health conditions, many of which are fatal, and in 2016 (latest figures) “led to 2·8 million deaths and was the leading risk factor for premature death and disability among people aged 15–49 years,” according to a new report published in the Lancet magazine. This is consistent with figures collated by the World Health Organization (WHO), which show that in 2012 alcohol was responsible “for 5.9% [around 3 million] of all deaths and 5.1% of the global burden of disease and injury.” This is far more than the percentage of deaths from HIV/Aids (2.8%), tuberculosis (1.7%) or violence (0.9%).
In addition to the individual drinker, alcohol consumption leads to a range of harmful consequences for “the drinker’s immediate environment and society as a whole.” The drinker’s family, partner or friends are often the first to be affected. Relationships sometimes breakdown, and abuse, leading in some cases to domestic violence, which is often inflicted by an alcoholic partner, can erupt.
Violent crimes of all kinds are closely linked to alcohol consumption. In America half of all homicides and 40% of all other violent crimes (including rape, assault, child and spousal abuse), are committed when the offender, victim, or both have been drinking. The National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependency reports that, “according to the Department of Justice, 37% of almost 2 million convicted offenders currently in jail, state that they were drinking at the time of their arrest.”
These are startling statistics, and are more or less representative of levels of alcohol-related crime throughout industrialized countries. In Britain, where overall consumption has fallen by around 18% in the last 14 years, the Office of National Statistics relates that in 2013/14 “70% of violent incidents which took place in a public space were alcohol-related” and that, “70% of violent incidents occurring at the weekend, and 70% of violent incidents occurring in the evening or night, were alcohol-related.” A 2012 government paper stated that, “alcohol is one of the three biggest lifestyle risk factors for disease and death in the United Kingdom after smoking and obesity. It has become acceptable to use alcohol for stress relief, putting many people at real risk of chronic diseases. Society is paying the costs – alcohol-related harm is now estimated to cost society £21 billion annually.”
The richer a society is the more people drink, the greater the quantity consumed and the smaller the “number of abstainers.” And whilst, as the UK shows, there are exceptions, the worldwide tendency is towards increased levels of consumption, with China and India, where the economy has been growing in recent years, energetically joining the party. A trend that WHO believes to be “linked to active marketing by the alcohol industry and increased income in these countries.”
There are of course varying levels of alcohol consumption and many types of drinker, but why do people drink at all and why do governments allow alcohol to be commercially sold and energetically promoted?
Like many problems of contemporary life the reasons are complex, interconnected and woven into the worldwide mode of living, the values it promotes and the conditioned social behavior produced. Individual success, competition and conformity to a certain lifestyle are some of the prominent ideological characteristics of the time; all are divisive in varying degrees and contribute to an atmosphere of anxiety. Like John, large numbers of people cannot cope with the stress and drink to escape, they find life overwhelming, and suffocating under the weight of expectation and self-doubt, loneliness and despair, use alcohol to soften the agony. Widely available and inexpensive, it offers immediate relief, but whilst a drink or two may initially quieten the nervous system the effects soon wear off, appetite grows, dependency develops, and, alcohol being both addictive and a depressant adds to the suffering and quickly becomes part of the problem.
Young people (under 25), who in many parts of the developed world drink less than their predecessors, may drink out of curiosity, because it’s available and (in supermarkets) comparatively cheap, and to belong to the group, to conform to the image of what it means to be a strong young man, or an open, exciting woman. A few drinks may loosen inhibitions, facilitating a fun night out. In some countries, France Italy, Spain e.g., alcohol is part of the culture, usually taken with food; in others, like India, it is a new phenomenon, and, consistent with a range of unhealthy western imports, is regarded as an unwelcome development by many Indians. With national economic growth (such as has occurred in India) as well as personal success, typically come increased levels of alcohol consumption as well as other types of indulgence.
Happiness, not Pleasure
Like all types of consumerism, at the heart of alcohol use sits desire, the desire to escape unhappiness and to be happy, the desire for comfort and freedom from distress. This desire is promoted by a distorted understanding of life that identifies the self with the body and the constructs of thought, and proclaims the principle purpose of life to be maximizing pleasure and avoiding (psychological) pain. This notion is rooted in a materialistic approach to life that focuses on the form, the body, instead of investigating into the nature of ones being. Within such a reductive paradigm, happiness has been replaced by pleasure, love exchanged for desire, and freedom for choice. The result is fragmentation and conflict, individually and collectively.
The emphasis on pleasure maintains the desire for stimulation and consumption of all kinds. Pleasurable experiences flowing through the senses may well provide distraction and a momentary sense of happiness, or fleeting relief from unhappiness, however, far from filling the inner void it reinforces it, leaving the person wanting more. Pleasure is external, hollow and transient; what we might call ‘true’ happiness is permanent, it is part of who and what we are. As the great Indian sage Ramana Maharshi said, “Happiness is your nature. It is not wrong to desire it. What is wrong is seeking it outside when it is inside.”
The pattern of desire, indulgence and discontent, followed by desire and further indulgence is perpetuated by the apparatus of the Neo-liberal economic system, which is dependent on such habitually destructive behavior. And, because Corporate State Governments are so heavily focused on the economy and the requirements of business, government policy is designed in line with the demands of the market, and not the needs of the people. Responsible governments would reject the poisonous values of the Neo-liberal project, and work ceaselessly to inculcate values of goodness thereby changing the atmosphere in which people live. Sadly the world is saddled with inadequate politicians without vision, who, far from facilitating the badly needed changes, consistently add to the chaos.
Alcohol consumption is one damaging effect among many that flow from this dominant socio-economic system. Consistent with other polluting patterns of behavior, it will continue until a kinder, more just paradigm is inculcated, values change and a shift in attitudes takes place. To some degree this reorientation is underway, people everywhere recognize the destructive nature of the current order and long for a different, simpler way of living. When the constant movement outward into the sensory world begins to be arrested and the mind is allowed to be quiet, desire for external stimulation and the focus on pleasure will begin to fall away, allowing happiness to naturally and spontaneously flower.