Virtuous Drinking and States of Intoxication

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from John O’Brien, a Lecturer in Sociology at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Waterford, Ireland. His research has focused on alcohol policy, political leadership and social memory. In 2018 his book States of Intoxication, a historical sociology of alcohol and its place in state and society, was published. His recent work has focused on urban policy, examining the ‘creative city’ thinking, the growth of cultural quarters, and the expansion of the night-time economy. His current research projects focus on the secularization of addiction treatment services, alcohol-related public order offences in the night-time economy, and commemoration.

Screenshot 2019-04-09 at 8.11.51 AMThe history of psychoactive substances is the history of taxation and the revenue base of states. That governments have always had this preoccupation can be seen in how the Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest records of any state, has more to say about alcohol than any other subject. The alcohol industry has long been promoted by states as a means of guaranteeing a crucial revenue stream. Nearer to our times alcohol contributed 40% of total revenue over the 19th Century in the UK (Harrison, 1971), with this falling continuously however, as economies become more complex, to 35% in 1900, to 12% in 1940, to 7% in 1967, to 3% in 1987, with the figure standing at 0.5-3% for EU states today (Anderson & Baumberg 2006: 54). While the falling dependence on alcohol has opened the door to public health policies, it remains an old-reliable that few governments are willing to forego, and liberalisation of other psychoactive substances is largely justified through arguments concerning revenue and the costs of foregoing it.

Bernard Mandeville, in the context of the 18th Century gin epidemic (inspired by a revenue hungry British government) wrote: “Bare virtue can’t make nations live, In Splendour; they, that would revive, A Golden Age, must be as free, For acorns, as for Honesty”. In other words, private vices can be public virtues, and an emphasis on virtue can be a recipe for poverty. Vice – a going to the extremes, a failure to act in a proportionate manner, a disregard for tradition – can be beneficial, as it will generate economic vibrancy and fill the coffers. We could perhaps trace the genesis of Anglo-Saxon attitudes to alcohol and psychoactive substances involving the propensity to binges to this sharp utilitarian perspective. It is a dramatic contrast to the virtue ethics that had largely governed use previously, stemming from Platonic thought, which emphasised what was in due measure, embodied in the figure of Socrates who could not become drunk. The true philosopher could not become drunk because they were the embodiment of the measure, of ‘the good’.

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