The Rise of Narcissism and the Loss of Meaning III

“Addiction cannot be understood simply as an affliction of certain individuals with genetic or acquired predispositions to addiction in otherwise well-functioning societies. The most powerful risk factors for addiction are social and cultural rather than individual”

Prof. Bruce K. Alexander


Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung saw “Every form of addiction [is] bad, no matter whether the narcotic be it alcohol, morphine or idealism.”

The word “addiction” for most people instantly conjures up the addled alcoholic or heroine user, perhaps the late night gambler or street-child glue-sniffer. There is certainly a case to be made that substance abuse is a major problem in the modern world. When worldwide sales of cocaine earn more than Microsoft, McDonald’s and Kellogg’s combined, then we know we have a major problem in our culture. [1] However, there is a flipside to a more covert form of addiction. A culture that sees only its own reflection will not only stagnate but will seek more and more sensation and distraction to claw back any sense of self. When you have a society bereft of meaning – any old substitute will do, however fake and illusory. If it serves the power brokers strategies for corporate or political compliance, then all the better. The philosopher John Ruskin once said that: “a man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel,” and the smaller the parcel the more difficult it is to unwrap.

Narcissism is closely aligned to addiction in all its forms. Both are self-absorbed and consider their own needs before anyone else. Both exhibit a failure of self-regulation [2] the substance abuser visiting greater and greater destructiveness upon his health and relationships and the narcissist, through his addiction to the admiration of others where unimpeachable façade actually repels healthy relationships and increases the intensity of craving.  Yet each will exercise self-regulation only insofar as it achieves their self-centred goals. Just as the drug addict feeds his need with crack, so too the narcissist uses people as props to feed his own façade, which unless pathological, phases in an out of intensity. Ultimately, flattery, admiration and attention are never enough and so they seek more and more, just like the substance abuser. If narcissism is a form of addiction and addiction is a form of narcissism, they are surely two sides of the same coin. This means that the definition of addiction is misplaced and encompasses a great deal more than we may realise.

Narcissism and addiction are such close bedfellows because we live in social systems which generally elevate a fake emotional currency as the only means of exchange thus our reality becomes increasingly defined by examples of addictive behaviour en masse. But as we shall discover as we go on, the nature of addiction is compartmentalised towards the obvious like class-A drugs, smoking, alcohol and gambling. What about other less socially acceptable forms?  We can be addicted to video-games, i-phones, anti-depressants, sex, pornography, a toxic relationship, exercise, shopping and many more which can slip under the radar of our conceptual models but nevertheless be found under the umbrella of serious addiction. Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) is now officially listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). A recent Newsweek article on web addiction underscores just how immersed we truly our in the addiction mentality, with particular attention to China, Taiwan and Korea who see IAD “as a grave national crisis.”

Journalist Tony Dokoupil, whom we cited in the last post, explains further:

In those countries, where tens of millions of people (and as much as 30 percent of teens) are considered Internet-addicted, mostly to gaming, virtual reality, and social media, the story is sensational front-page news. One young couple neglected its infant to death while nourishing a virtual baby online. A young man fatally bludgeoned his mother for suggesting he log off (and then used her credit card to rack up more hours). At least 10 ultra-Web users, serviced by one-click noodle delivery, have died of blood clots from sitting too long.

What about addiction to belief, ideology, power and control? Indeed, anything that restricts potential and creates negative effects but delivers the “hit” can surely be classed as an addiction. The “hit” may serve to self-calm against the harsh realities of life, to give meaning and security, even if those qualities are based on lies and falsehoods. They may offer significance to our sense of self where subconsciously we know that without such external props we are weak and ineffectual. We can be addicted to intellectual pursuits if they serve to bolster our ego whilst neglecting to heal our emotional self. Whenever our mind is locked in one direction, wholly identified with the object of our attention that we cannot see any other reality then a large proportion of what makes us human will begin to atrophy. Without intervention of some kind, all addiction creates a dynamic of diminishing returns and a spiral of extremes to complete the final descent. We begin to love our addictions as part of who we are until it takes over our very essence, using the external world and all its “toys” to supplant the hope of truth and meaning in our lives. Hence, narcissism and addiction become a one-way ticket to a spiritual death in the profoundest sense.

Psychiatrist David Brin agrees that the word “addiction” limits our perception of a wider realm or a “…general behavioural reinforcement within the human brain.” He observes that if neurochemical processes reinforce “good” habits such as loyalty, love, and joy in music, then addiction should be studied in a larger context. Mental addictions might cause as many problems in our societies as standard categories. He explains: “Self-righteousness and indignation may sometimes be as much about chemical need as valid concerns about unfair actions. Among other outcomes, this becomes more ‘pathologically altruistic’ behaviour.” [3]

In much the same way that pathology has become the “official culture” Bruce K. Alexander, Professor Emeritus, at the Simon Fraser University in Canada sees “a poverty of the spirit” that now characterises interpretations of addiction in general. He sees the word “addiction” as having undergone a: “kidnap[ing] in the 19th century by medical and moralistic interest groups, who gave it a new meaning. Their medical and moralistic approaches to defining and eliminating the problem of addiction failed abysmally. Despite obvious failure, their approaches have coalesced in recent decades as a doctrine which is, I submit, properly called the ‘Official View of Addiction.’” Alexander contends further that the: “…stultifying presence of the Official View stands in the way of a rigorous, scholarly examination of addiction. It therefore leaves the world subjected to a truly menacing addiction problem that has been rendered incomprehensible. I submit that, in cases like this, murder is a lesser evil than the continued existence of a pernicious Official View.” [4]

image001Courtesy of www.brucekalexander.com/

The professor holds that the use of the word “addiction” was: “… gradually medicalized, moralized, and oriented towards drugs, relative to its traditional usage” by academics and the religious moral rectitude that pervaded the educated classes of the time. It became associated with “… inebriation related to the excesses of the working classes.”  As we shall see “official culture” strengthened and sustained by psychopathic and narcissist worldviews incorporates a legion of “official” views.

According to Alexander’s studies six foundational elements comprise the official view pertaining to addiction, its sources and treatment, all of which have been thoroughly institutionalized as correct and authoritative:

1. Addiction is fundamentally a problem of drug or alcohol consumption.

2. “Addictive drugs” have the power to transform some or all of the people who use them into addicts, overcoming their normal will power.

3. A major portion of people’s vulnerability to addiction comes from inherited genetic predispositions

4. People who become addicted suffer from a chronic, relapsing brain disease, which is essential incurable.

5. Although people with the disease of addiction cannot be cured, they can be successfully managed through professional treatment or membership in self-help groups.

6. Addiction is an illness of deviant individuals within otherwise well-functioning societies. Scientific Faith: Commitment to objective science guarantees that the foundational elements of the Official View are correct and certain. Medical Promise:  Medical research will soon find an effective treatment for addiction, which will probably be pharmacological. [5]

Professor Alexander summarises his views in a recent paper derived from his 2008 book The Globalization of Addiction: A study in poverty of the Spirit where he disputes the above proving that there are six foundational elements and four postulates based on persistent assumptions and beliefs.

He states:

1. Addiction is not primarily a problem of alcohol and drugs. In fact, alcohol and drug addiction is only a corner of the vast, doleful tapestry of addiction. This contradicts the 1st foundational element. […]

2. The large majority of people who use “addictive drugs” do not lose their will power to resist these drugs, and do not become addicted. This contradicts the strong form of the 2nd foundational element. […]

3. There is no substantial evidence that the minority of drug users who do become addicted lose their will power, and strong reasons to think that they do not. This contradicts the weak form of the 2nd foundational element of the Official View. […]

4. Genetic research provides no substantial evidence of a genetic predisposition to addiction. This contradicts the 3rd foundational element of the Official View. […]

5. Natural recovery is the most likely outcome of addiction. This contradicts part of the 4th foundational element of the Official View. […]

6. Despite countless interventions carried out under the rubric of the Official View, the prevalence of addiction has continued to rise throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. This shows the futility of the 5th foundational element and of the Official View as a whole. […]

7. Addiction cannot be understood simply as an affliction of certain individuals with genetic or acquired predispositions to addiction in otherwise well-functioning societies. The most powerful risk factors for addiction are social and cultural rather than individual. This contradicts the 6th foundational element of the Official View. […]

8. The Official View has drawn its principles more from moralistic social movements than from scientific discoveries. This contradicts the claim that the Official View is based on dispassionate science and seriously undermines part of the 4th foundational element. […]

9. Contrary to the child abuse version of the Official View, childhood abuse is not a primary cause of the flood of addiction, although it is very important in some individual cases.

10. Contrary to the claims of its advocates, the most up-to-date form of the Official View is intrinsically moralistic and punitive, most obviously by providing justification for some of the violent excesses of the “War on Drugs”. [6]

These ten points shatter the illusions surrounding addiction offering proof that it is a far more complex, widespread and misunderstood phenomena than we have been led to believe. It seems convenient for the mass population to continue in such misapprehension, as it clearly serves to keep the machinery of finance and social care ticking over despite the massive financial cost to us all.

As stated previously, a vast panoply of addiction exists falling outside the current largely drug-based definitions incorporating all kinds of addictive practices such as shopping and sex. Voluminous data on the myths that addiction is terminal, is restricted to the working class and that prolonged use of class A drugs causes permanent addiction have also been published. Large-scale studies have also shown a high rate of natural recovery with more than half recovering before they are 30. [7] Alexander reinforces the reason for these well documented cases of natural recovery are not as mysterious as they may seem. When a natural recovery takes place stronger relations with the community occur and / or a new reason or meaning is found to continue life a different way.  He states: “Addicted people who do not recover on their own fill the treatment agencies and social service centres. A large number are refractory to treatment, creating the illusion of a chronic disease, which has been incorporated into the Official View to explain the marginal success of treatment regimens built on its doctrine.” [8]

Despite widespread intervention based on these official views, the levels of addiction have continued to rise based on the idea that all addiction is a chronic disease of the kind that cannot be permanently overcome. Is it no surprise that the multibillion pharmaceutical industry happily agrees with the above official view that there is: “… no way left to substantially reduce the prevalence of addiction, apart from the long-promised, but still-undelivered pharmacological cure.” But looking for that elusive cure is profitable nonetheless, while other forms of addiction fall by the wayside due to the dismissal of the proof that our societies are predicated on mass addiction of every kind, with acausal factors and non-traditional outcomes.

Even more interesting is the presentation of Alexander’s and others’ data that claims child abuse is not a primary factor in the onset of addiction:

Quantitative research reveals a strong relationship between childhood abuse and later addiction to alcohol and drugs, especially for women.… However, the relationship becomes very much smaller when abused children are compared with children from families that are equally distressed but did not abuse their children. In general, sustained family and community dysfunction are far more powerful predictors of addiction than traumatic child abuse alone.

Even the fact that an addicted person was physically or sexually abused as a child does not necessarily mean that the abuse was the cause of their addiction. Families of abused children typically have other severe problems in addition to child abuse. Several of these other problems, for example drug abuse by parents or spousal abuse, appear to predict later addictive problems as well, or better, than sexual or physical abuse of the child. ….

At the other end of the social spectrum, “From Grief to Action” is a group organized by well-off parents of drug addicts who were not abusive to their children and are horrified to discover that many people automatically assume that they must have been, in the context of dramatic presentations of the child abuse version of the Official View. … As an addiction specialist at a large university, I have worked with severely addicted youths who were children of non-abusive faculty families that were not dysfunctional in any ordinary sense of the term. [9]

The fact that child abuse does not necessarily mean addiction while a dysfunctional family becomes more probable in the manifestation of addiction in children and later adults confirms both the prevalence of a rising narcissism and the symbiosis between the two. It also explains the absence of class distinction in relation to this pathology.

Genetic factors do not explain addiction in itself, the evidence for social and cultural influences determining addiction rates is much stronger. This led to Alexander accounting for the failure of the official view and the true reasons for the presence of an endemic addiction in our Western societies via his “Dislocation Theory.” Built on the traditional definition of “addiction” rather than the medical/moral/drug definition, the theory: “… draws attention to social causes of addiction that can only be remedied through deep changes in the status quo.” [10] Which is precisely why and how these “official views “and “official culture” itself is maintained, because it keeps the status quo fixed in place, no matter what.

If logical, sensible and innovative alternatives seek a hearing they are hard pressed to penetrate the pathological constructs that now define societies. It is then that we must collectively begin to question, where does this narcissism, addiction and dislocation really come from?

Before we gradually answer that question let’s a have a look at the official culture in which we find ourselves and paint a picture of some of the commercial and institutional pathologies which are now taken as the normal part of our modern day existence in the West. Once we do this we will be in a better position to go deeper as this exploration progresses.

 


See also: The Demoralized Mind By John F. Schumaker, The New Internationalist

Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong


Notes

[1] ‘Narcissism as an addiction to Self-Esteem’ by Roy F. Baumeister and Kathleen D. Vohs, Dept. of Psychology, Case Western Reserve University.
[2] Pathological Altruism edited by Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhaven and David Sloane Wilson. Published by Oxford University Press, 2012. (Introduction).
[3] ‘Rise and Fall of the Official View of Addiction’ by Bruce K. Alexander, Professor Emeritus, Simon Fraser University Revised 23 December 2010.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Addiction: A Disorder of Choice by G.M. Heyman, published by Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009, chap. 4. Quoted in ‘Rise and Fall of the Official View of Addiction’ (Alexander).
[7]  Ibid.
[8]  Ibid.
[9]  Ibid.
[10] Ibid.

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