What We're Told About Addiction Is Wrong
People use drugs for all kinds of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with addiction. When it comes to addictions, drugs and alcohol are important of course, but the historical perspective focuses on the full range of potentially destructive addictions, including sex, gambling, power, love, eating, shopping, hoarding, gaming, and on and on.
The official, mainstream view of addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disease caused by exposure of genetically predisposed people to addictive drugs has originated in the 19th century, and was elaborated and expanded by the medical neuroscience of the late 20th century.
The use of (hallucinogenic) drugs is as old as mankind and some thinkers even believe that it has made an essential contribution to the development of humanity. At the same time, addictions were recognized as deadly pitfalls for the human soul throughout pre-modern times.
The historical view of addiction starts with the fact that societies everywhere have become severely fragmented in the last five centuries. Large scale colonization and the agricultural and industrial revolutions overran and crushed stable peasant villages and common societies. The social fragmentation of society that began in the early modern era continues and increases in the 21st century.
To describe the devastating psychological consequences of unrelenting societal fragmentation on individuals the word 'dislocation' can be used, though 'alienation' or 'disconnection' are equally good terms for this. Mass dislocation has real benefits for economic growth and geopolitical power. The free market system needs individuals to perform competitively and efficiently, unimpeded by sentimental ties to families, friends, traditional values, love of the earth, or religious commandments.
Dislocation has genuine psychological advantages for individuals in modern times too, leading to highly valued opportunities for personal initiative, individual creativity, and self-actualization. Everyone probably enjoys a taste of unrestricted individualism from time to time.
No such thing as a free lunch though and prolonged, severe dislocation has a high price, because it eventually undermines the normal societal bases of belonging, identity, meaning, and purpose, leaving an unbearably empty and powerless experience of the world. It precipitates anguish, suicide, depression, disorientation, and domestic violence.
Dislocation is more than just loneliness though. It is possible to have a busy, or even frantic, social life and still experience a lack of identity, meaning, purpose, and belonging if a person is bereft of meaningful cultural traditions, and/or a sense of place in the physical world or a connection with the world of the spirit.
Dislocation is also more than just poverty or inequality. Many wealthy people feel the full anguish of dislocation. No amount of money can restore their well-being. No matter how rich you are, you cannot buy your way out of dislocation although you may be able to create the appearance that you have.
Just as high levels of dislocation follow high levels of social fragmentation, a flood of addiction inevitably tracks high levels of dislocation. This is shown by historical and anthropological as well as clinical and biographical evidence: Addiction can provide dislocated people with some much-needed relief and compensation for their bleak existence, at least for the short term.
To say that addiction serves a vital adaptive function is not to say that it is harmless, or to make light of it. Rather, it is to point out that it serves a vital function for people who cannot find a better way to respond to desperate and dangerous levels of dislocation under the circumstances of their lives. That is why it is so common in a fragmented global society.
Of course addiction is not the kind of adaptation that people generally want for themselves, or that their societies want for them, but it at least provides them with some meager sense of belonging, identity, meaning, and purpose (although often accompanied by guilt and remorse). Without their addictions, many people would have terrifyingly little reason to live and might fall into depression or suicide.
Thus, the modern flood of addiction is best understood as a way for many individuals to adapt to the social fragmentation of modernity, which is the root cause of much of today's dislocation. Because addiction is essential to dislocated people’s ability to function in the world, people cling to their addictions with the iron grip that they would attach to a piece of floating junk in a stormy sea. Overcoming the flood of addiction will ultimately require nothing less than reshaping world society.