Narcocapitalism is a short book about modern psychoactive pharmaceuticals, but also a theory of how to gain control over the social body.
Henning Næss
Henning Næss is a literature critic, Modern Times Review
Published date: March 5, 2018

Narcocapitalism: Life in the Age of Anaesthesia

Laurent de Sutter

Polity Press

USA, 2017

Laurent de Sutter is a philosopher and professor of law theory at the Vrije University in Brussels. “How has one generally been trying to get manic-depressive people under control?” is the main question in his small book Narcocapitalism: Life in the Age of Anaesthesia. The author gives a short, but good answer: “By eliminating the exaggerated happiness.” “The only decent manic depressive is the depressive,” the author writes. But, of course, it´s not the “author” himself who believes that, he just reproduces what he perceives to be the norm in psychiatry. His own solution to the problem is highly unclear.

Comfortably Numb

The book provides useful information regarding the relationship between drug use and the modern capitalist society. Is it at all possible to feel happiness without using any kind of medication? Or is the relationship the opposite, that the best we can hope for is to “not feel anything”; that happiness is, like in the song by Pink Floyd, to be “comfortably numb”; that medication can make us happy through making strong feelings more subtle?
Laurent de Sutter is a brief overview of the relationship between psychology and pharmacology. It is also a study of modern medication´s “hacking” of the female body and of the ontological dimension of depression. We encounter Sigmund Freud and his “positive” and “active” cocaine use (Freud used cocaine in controlled amounts), and we get an insight into what the contraceptive pill does to a woman´s physiology.

Get Rid of Your Feelings

A longer sequence in the book highlights the serious side effects of the contraceptive pill. Even though most modern women see the pill as the “liberation pill”, the side effects are many and undeniable. Unlike antidepressants, used by patients suffering from depression, the pill transforms the hormonal balance of healthy women.

«The book is a study of modern medication´s “hacking” of the female body.»

It´s probably not the author´s aim to moralize. He points to the close connection between the use of narcotics on a legal basis (the book is less concerned about illegal drugs), and demonstrates the close connection between capitalism and legal drug use, from cocaine to hormone inhibitors, as well as the extensive use of sleep derivatives in modern society. Is natural sleep also to be taken away from us? Sleep, as seen in a capitalist perspective, is a very unproductive state. Presented to us is a study of how our sleep is invaded by chemical agents and an interesting look into the relationship between Coca-Cola and Cocaine.
The author expresses some rather bold statements including that modern people have forgotten what natural happiness is because our spontaneous feeling of happiness has been weakened. We are not healed from our depression and our apathetic way of life, despite the frequent and massive use of medication, and we do not understand why the medication makes us feel worse.

Laurent de Sutter

The author makes it a bit easy for himself. He does not adequately discuss his main argument, namely that the capitalist social system is to blame for the massive use of medication in happiness society. The book becomes a kind of anti-capitalist crocodile that takes on too much, which eventually dislocates its jaws.

Destructive Pleasure

The history part of the book is the most interesting section. This part takes the year 1846 as a starting point, when Charles Thompson Jackson and William Green Morton, both from Boston, submitted a patent application at the United States Patent Office, which referred to “improvement of surgery inside the body.” This involved a new technique based on the inhalation of diethyl ether while the patient was being operated on. Thus a new era in medicine had begun: the age of anaesthesia.

«The only decent manic-depressive is the depressive.»

Later on, the author takes on the treatment of manic-depressive psychosis. He tells the story of Emil Kraepelin, a 30-year-old professor of psychiatry who specialized in manic depression. In 1899 he published the sixth edition of Textbook in Psychiatry, and like his teacher Wilhelm Wundt, he wanted to provide a complete overview of all psychiatric disorders based on prior knowledge. Kraepelin wanted to name the disorders and, if possible, determine which chemical agents could be used to treat the various conditions. He studied several generations of mentally ill patients and was convinced that these kinds of diseases were passed on through generations, which was not a valid theory during his time. He believed that the manic-depressive person was much more likely than others to climb on-board the “ontological rollercoaster”, which moves in ways that are impossible to predict. For him, the exaggerated perseverance and extreme joy of the manic-depressive represented a fundamental disorder in the balance system of order in the world.

Apathetic and “Healthy”

“The only decent manic-depressive is the depressive,” Kraepelin said. Here, the author draws a parallel to today´s medical use: does this view still apply–that a “good patient” no longer feels happiness, that being down and calm is the closest one gets to being healthy? De Sutter fundamentally criticizes the capitalist society, “We don´t have any natural relationship to happiness anymore. To be hyper happy is like asking to end up in front of a court convicted of chemical castration of some sort or another.”
In its totality, Narcocapitalism is interesting and well written, but also somewhat incoherent and slightly one-sided in its discussions. For those interested in medicine (and its history) the book can still be recommended. Welcome to the perfect community, where nobody is properly happy. Welcome to Prozacland!


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