One of the most disturbing books I have read in the past two years is undoubtedly Laurent de Sutter’s Narcocapitalism: Life in the Age of Anaesthesia (Polity Press, 2018). De Sutter disabuses readers of the idea that narcotics — or drugs — are indulged in only by addiction-inclined folks who are constantly courting disaster. Instead, he uncovers the seldom-acknowledged state of affairs throughout the world: that our societies are pervaded by (the use of) narcotics of all stripes — from the hard stuff like cocaine and heroin, to the “lighter” kinds, and from there to legal drugs, like tranquillisers and antidepressants.

De Sutter  suggests we live, increasingly, in an “anaesthetised” society — the consequences of which are hard to overestimate. For one thing, our very human subjectivity is drastically affected — to such an extent that he claims the very meaning of the word (human) “subject” has changed. How is this possible?

De Sutter sketches the growth of the pharmaceutical industry since the 19th century, when companies such as Merck started cashing in on the profitability of drugs such as cocaine. Unlike today, this powerful alkaloid was freely available in various forms in the late 19th century, and was hailed as a wonder drug because of its role as anaesthetic in eye surgery. Some people may be shocked to learn that cocaine was one of the two main components of Coca-Cola when it was first marketed in the 1880s. 

Since that time, the situation has developed to the point at which economics and the global narcotics trade are inseparable and, in this context, De Sutter focuses specifically on the link between cocaine and capitalism: “At the beginning of the development of industrial capitalism, cocaine played a role similar to the one it was meant to play for its consumers: the role of the most powerful stimulant. It was thanks to it (and certain related products) that the modern pharmaceutical industry managed to get off the ground.”

But this connection is not confined to the past. De Sutter’s uncovering of the intertwinement of international crime and the capitalist global economy is truly shocking (and nowadays very little can shock one, unless you live with your head in the proverbial sand). He continues: “Today, the world economy only sustains itself on the money that circulates in it from the extraction, transformation and trade in the alkaloid. At the time of the subprime crisis in 2007, it was the profits from cocaine trafficking that enabled the banks, whose gambling had put them in a difficult position, to survive, while they waited for the state to put its hand in its pocket and get them out of a fix. For a few months, when traditional investors were withdrawing their cash from the banks, only drug dealers carried on pumping liquidity into the system — which they needed to give their cash a legal appearance.”

This may seem far-fetched to people who tend to believe, innocently, that the corporate elites live lives that are squeaky clean in moral terms. Anyone who recalls the Enron scandal from 2001 — when the energy company was exposed as having committed corporate and accounting fraud (amounting to billions of dollars, leading to huge losses for employees and shareholders) — would know differently. In fact, a friend sent me a video recently where someone who used to be part of this world spills the beans, as it were, and even if he exaggerates somewhat at times (which is possible), the picture that emerges of corruption among the powerful (including royal) elites of the world is still a nauseating one. It is particularly the second half of this video that is relevant in this respect. 

De Sutter does not focus exclusively on the illegal narcotics industry, although it comprises a huge part of international crime. In a way, the more mundane revelations in his book are more far-reaching for ordinary people, and bear on what I mentioned at the outset: that we live in a largely anaesthetised society. This is because a broad range of pharmaceuticals, under the generic names of tranquillisers and antidepressants (including Adofen, Prozac and Sarafem), keep a significant percentage of people (mainly in developed countries) sedated for a significant portion of their daily lives. 

This explains De Sutter’s claim that the term “narcocapitalism” encapsulates the defining characteristic of contemporary society. Furthermore, today it is regarded as the norm to harness these legally available pharmaceuticals for maintaining what is seen as people’s “health”. This is deeply ironic in light of their depersonalising side-effects, and the fact that the law largely turns a blind eye to it. 

As De Sutter writes: “Antidepressants enjoy a remarkable degree of tolerance from the authorities, even though they can have very harmful consequences. The range is very broad, and includes muscular spasms, a slowing of cognitive activity, a paradoxical risk of dependency, Parkinson-type symptoms, bouts of akathisia [an extreme form of dismay and restlessness], and even a fatal disruption to the nervous system. But most revealing, in terms of the way in which neuroleptic [nerve function-suppressing] antidepressants like chlorpromazine work, is the fact that most users end up suffering from anhedonia [the inability to experience pleasure] and sexual impotence.”

If this does not set off alarm bells, you don’t seem to value the ability to experience pleasure, and, ultimately, a meaningful life. But this is still not all. Returning to my earlier remark on the consequences of the situation depicted by De Sutter for the meaning of the concept of the “human subject”, it is outlined when he (2018: 109) observes: “Anaesthesia had transformed individuals into subjects, through the intervention of a chemical technique that led to the bracketing of everything that, in them, belonged to the world of ‘excitation’ … Rather than as the opening of the age of anaesthesia, perhaps it would be better to speak of the opening of the age of anexcitation — the age of the ablation of individuals’ animation principle, transforming them into simple bodies, subject to examination and manipulation. Thanks to anaesthesia, surgeons had peace: an anaesthetised body is a body that causes no bother … To become the subject of an operation is to become, therefore, more or less organised matter, a material mass of organs and flesh available for fixing, repair, amputation, observation and so on.”

It is telling that, compared to earlier civilisations — such as those of ancient Greece and Rome, Persia, India, and pre-Victorian Europe — our own seems to have willingly sacrificed an essential ingredient of human life. These civilisations attached great value to enjoyment in all its diversity. In contrast, in light of De Sutter’s revelations, our own civilisation reflects a lack of appreciation for vital pleasures, a state of affairs that he links with the extraordinary influence and power of medical and pharmaceutical professions and with the financial profit motive, which plays a crucial role in the practices of many psychiatric specialists and of pharmaceutical companies.”

“That an individual might no longer feel or desire anything seemingly poses no problem for doctors or public authorities (or pharmaceutical companies); it is even accepted that this is the ultimate meaning of the phrase ‘getting better’. ‘Getting better’ is not getting anywhere at all — it is existing only in the negative mode of a being whose stability badly conceals the emptiness, as well as the suffering of not suffering, or of feeling that you do not feel your suffering, in an inescapable downward spiral … in truth, no one would have it any other way — they would not want finally to cure it…”

In sum, our societies are witness to people being systematically deprived of their inalienably human capacity to experience, or even desire something pleasurable. This, to say the least, raises serious doubts regarding contemporary medical-pharmaceutical practices. After all, the ability to experience pleasure is central to living. When the medical use of antidepressants and the like causes such a deadening of one’s sensory awareness that you can no longer experience pleasure in the broad sense of the word — including the enjoyment of sex, of friends’ company, and of literature, art and music — it is doubtful whether it still makes sense to talk about a life worth living.

Some readers may recall a powerful cinematic evocation of human addiction to various substances, from tranquillisers to the worst of all narcotics, namely heroin — Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), which leaves one filled with horror afterwards, despite it being open-ended. This is apparent from the depiction of all four of the main characters lying curled-up in foetal position, in the final (fourth) part of the film, titled “Winter”. In other words, there may be a spring, or rebirth, but that would depend on the characters themselves, whose lives have moved from Spring through Summer and Fall to Winter. Judging by De Sutter’s indictment of our society, we are in a deep Winter, too — and it is up to us to reclaim Spring.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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