Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Bruce K. Alexander on addiction and the imagination.

Bruce Alexander has spent his whole career as a psychologist working on the topic of addiction, and wrote the seminal ‘The Globalisation of Addiction: a study in the poverty of the spirit’, one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read.  He lives in Pender Island, British Columbia, in Canada.  I wanted to explore with him any overlaps between his work and the imagination.  It was quite a long discussion, but I print it here in full, because I thought it was all fascinating.

I wonder if you could give us a synthesised version of the argument that underpins the book The Globalization of Addiction?

Sure.  It’s partly a negative argument because it starts from the fact that we have a way of understanding addiction which has been promoted quite a bit, and it’s a way that we think of addiction as a kind of a drug or alcohol problem which is probably caused by the exposure of the human brain to drugs and alcohol which does some kind of a transformation to the brain and makes people unable to do anything other than drink more, to partake more of the drug.  That turns out to be quite a destructive idea.

What I try to show in The Globalization of Addiction is that we must understand addiction in a more global sense.  Not only in the sense that it goes everywhere in the world, but also in the sense that it goes everywhere in the psychological world.  In other words, addiction is not a problem of drugs and alcohol.  It’s a much, much broader problem than that.  We have all these other things that we get hooked to, and that many of these things that we get addicted to are at least as equally destructive as drug or alcohol addiction.  For example, gambling addiction means people lose their houses, or sex and love addiction where people become murderous and kill each other or commit suicide because of the depths of these kinds of addictive attachments.  We really have a big problem.

It’s a social problem and we have failed to recognise because we narrowed it way down to talk about drug and alcohol addiction.  But if we expand it right back, we understand that this is a very big problem and we’re losing a lot of people.  For example we’re losing a lot of children to internet addictions of various sorts.  We’re losing a lot of grown ups to money and sex and eating and the list goes on and on, there’s hundreds of addictions.  If you add them all together and people are doing this now, quantitatively, if you add them all together, you find out that we’re really facing a huge problem of addiction and we have to ask where does it come from?

We can answer that question if we start looking at global history.  For example one of the facts that we see here in Western Canada is that the people who used to live here, the native people, the Indians, didn’t have addiction problems.  They had all kinds of other problems.  They had war and slavery and torture.  They were not noble savages, but they didn’t have addiction problems until they were confined on their little ‘reserves’ as we call them.  Then all of a sudden they had 100% addiction problems.

And why is that?  They provide us with a really big clue as to why addiction comes about.  Because if you take people who are living in an active community – it doesn’t have to be a perfect community – but an active and vibrant community where all kinds of stuff happens and people have roles and expectations and identities and all that, you take them out of that and put them into essentially a prison camp, a refugee camp, which is a reserve, well then they’ve really got no lives that are worth having, and people with no lives can fill in that gap by addictions.

For example, in the case of the natives here, alcohol addiction of course was a biggie.  And what does that mean?  It means that if you’ve got nothing, you can at least go to the bar and you can sit with the guys and drink a lot of beer and tell a lot of stories, most of which are true, and no one’s going to worry that they’re untrue because you told them last night anyway, and they heard them before anyway, but you’ve created a substitute for a life.

If we look at addiction that way, in that larger social way, and if we say well it’s isn’t just native people on the west coast of Canada who have those problems, it’s people everywhere who are reporting the same thing.  That really they don’t have much of a life that’s worth living, and they get into these things, and they get possessed as it were by alcohol or eating or sex or food, or all of the above, or the internet, or internet pornography or gambling, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.  If you look at it that way, then suddenly addiction becomes a problem that has to be solved on a whole different level.

It means that people like myself, psychologists and social workers, are not going to solve it by having people to our office and giving them a good talking to.  We’re not going to do it that way.  Rather we’re going to have to try to find a world in which people’s lives have genuine meaning and purpose, and we can’t do that by going back to the past.  We’re not going back to the Middle Ages and we’re not going back to the tribal life of the people here on the west coast of Canada who can’t have their land anymore because it’s already dammed up and full of water.  We can’t go back, but we have to try and build a new world.

In this sense, the problem of addiction is simply part of the whole crisis of modernity.  We’re facing a totally unprecedented world challenge.  A world of billions of people with a single civilisation all in contact with each other.  We have to build a civilisation that works and the people who are I think leading the way are people who are experimenting with creating life forms that are wholesome, which can sustain people in a healthy way.  I think those kinds of experiments are going on everywhere and are tremendously important.  But there’s more to it as well.

I happen to be a big fan of Pope Francis, although I am not a Catholic, nor am I even a Christian, nor anything.  But this Pope Francis… the Pope is cool!  The Pope is talking about how can we really create an overarching spirituality…  It doesn’t have to be a Christian spirituality, he says (although he would prefer that it was).  It doesn’t have to be Christian but it has to be an overarching sense of a transcendent reality which will enable us to rebuild a world in the ruins of the old.  I don’t mean the ruins in the sense that we have destroyed the old one physically, yet.  But we’ve destroyed it psychologically.

It’s psychologically in ruins and we have to recreate a psychological and social environment which is wholesome and in which addiction would cease to be so much of a problem, as would all the other aspects of the malaise in modernity, like environmental problems and political inequalities and all these things.  These all have to be addressed at the same time, and in that sense I want to be very, very global in talking about addiction.  That’s why the book is called The Globalization of Addiction.

Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, said, “I shall argue that our contemporary western and progressively more market orientated and capitalist milieu, especially, but not only as it exists in the US, has tended to discourage the development of curiosity and imagination.”  You powerfully argue in the book that capitalism and dislocation are at the root of the addiction crisis.  I wonder what impacts you think those things have had on our collective imagination?

Well, I hadn’t thought very much about imagination until today, until you raised the issue, and now I am thinking about it.  What I know is, from working with addicted people, which I do as a psychologist of course, and have been for many decades, when you ask them to complain, say, “What’s really wrong?” and you give them a list… This is a psychological test.  You give them a list of possible things which they can identify as being wrong.  ‘Boring’ is on the top of the list.  They are bored.

And why are they bored?  Well imagination is of course the antithesis of boredom.  They really don’t have much going for them, and so they cling for something as pathetic as heroin or gambling or whatever it happens to be.  Something as pathetic as that becomes the centre of their life.  Well they’re bored.  They’re totally out of imagination.  And if they weren’t out of imagination of course they would have much more of a life.

Now I’m kind of making this up because you’ve kind of caught me by surprise with this question, but when I look at my grandchildren, I think I can see imagination coming into existence.  And I think it comes into existence in a child who is safe, and cared for, and loved and knows who he belongs to, knows who his parents are, and who his grandpa is and everything else.  We give children the nest in which imagination hatches and the problem of the modern world is that that nest has been undermined or wrecked.  And that we have to give that nest to people.

I’m hoping, and I pray, that my grandchildren will grow up with lots of imagination and won’t even be mildly tempted by all the things which they might become addicted to, because they have wonderful parents, and they have other helpers, including grandparents who are giving them this nest.  But all children are not that fortunate.  I think of the children of refugees, and I think how horrible that must be for the parents, when the child wants, “Oh let’s just sit down and look at the bugs and the anthill” or whatever.  The child wants something like that, and the parents have to say, “Come on, right now, we’ve got to get on the bus or we’re going to be left behind.”  What torture that must be for the parents, because as parents we kind of know instinctively how to provide the nest in which imagination might hatch.

But you can’t if you’re refugees, and I think there’s a way in which we’re all sort of in that situation of not having the time and the resources or the helpers to give the children that nest for imagination.

You mentioned before that imagination was being “wrecked”.  You used the word wrecked.  I wonder what you see as being the things that are doing the wrecking?  What are the factors in modern life that have that kind of effect?

Sure.  Well it depends whose modern life you’re talking about.  If you’re talking about refugees, it’s pretty clear, right?  And there are millions of them.  Let me talk about comfortable middle class people in Canada, because I can talk about that with a little bit of direct knowledge.  What happens is that we all want to give children what they need, and yet we can’t because number one, we see our economic situation imperilled.

We see that we’re not going to be as rich as our parents were because we’ve run out of resources.  And we see that we don’t have the kinds of neighbourhood that maybe our parents had when they grew up because we’re constantly on the move from place to place to place.  Just keeping up with the economic necessities.  And we see that our governments, which give us some kind of political transcendence over our everyday community life, our governments are going crazy.  We have a President of the United States yesterday who withdrew from the Paris Accord on Climate Change.  I mean, this is insane, it’s monstrous.

What does this do to our children, who we want to grow up with a sense of identity and purpose and imagination and all that?  Well of course it has an impact on them.  And what about our communities, which let’s say in our parents’ and in our grandparents’ times were more communities with an economic basis and a security and consistency and a continuity to them?  Well they don’t have it anymore because everybody is torn by jobs which disappear and loyalties to international multinational corporations who we better be pretty careful about being loyal to if we want to keep our job, and all that stuff.  This is something which is impossible to talk about in a short way because there’s so much to it.

There are books and books and books.  And movies and movies and movies.  And everything  written all about this, all about the multiple forces which tear apart the traditional kind of life which we have evolved in.  And what we do about that is all important, because it leaves us in a position for example where addiction is a huge problem.  But it leaves us with other huge problems as well.  Addiction is simply one manifestation of this larger problem, I believe.

One of the things that was really interesting for me in the book was when you’re looking at how we are a very traumatized culture, and then that trauma gets very internalised.  I wonder if you could just talk a bit about what are the sources but particularly what are the impacts that trauma has on people, when we swallow trauma down.

I don’t use the word trauma much because it’s really a medical term and I don’t like to medicalise.  But if I am to use it now I will use it because you invited me to put it I those terms.  Yeah, we’re traumatised in all kinds of ways from all kinds of directions.  And we cope with it.  Hardly anybody lives what we would think of as an ideal life or anything even close to an ideal life.  And so we have to deal with it.

Let me tell you why I resist using the word trauma.  Even though lots of other people do.  It’s because if you say trauma, in these days, in the current context, it invites people to think back about how they were raped as a child, or how they were beaten mercilessly for something or other, to particular moments of catastrophic impact.  In my experience, for most people, the particular moments of catastrophic impact are not as important as the ongoing deprivation.  The ongoing wreckage of community and home life that goes on consistently.  The word trauma tends to pinpoint it in a way that I don’t find it so useful to pinpoint.

I’ll give you a personal example, which is, I was raped as a child by a group of older boys.  Well, but my life was reasonably okay and around that, and, you know, I never told anybody and I don’t think that these pinpoint traumas in most cases are really an adequate answer.  I think if we’re searching for why am I so screwed up, well we might turn it back to a pinpoint trauma, but much more likely it’s the day after day drip, drip, drip of dislocation, of fragmentation of society of these kinds of things.  Least that’s the way I conceptualise it.

I wondered if you were elected to be the president of Canada and you had run on a platform of ‘Make Canada Imaginative Again’, what might be some of the things that you might do in your first 100 days in office?

Well, what a good question.  Somebody asked me a question like that 30 years ago and I remember it clearly because in those days I felt I knew the answer.  And I said, “Well my first answer is to take your television set over to the dump and then just put a big rock through its big eye.”  But you can’t do that these days because we have screens everywhere.  On every part of your body there are little screens staring at you.

You can’t get rid of the input of the homogenising, globalising, stupidising system that we live in.  We can’t do that.  What I do and what I do with my children and my own grandchildren is to try to make them feel safe and comfortable and protected and loved, all of that, and then just to give them opportunities to let their little minds go.  And they go!  They dazzle me.  I have a two and a half year old grandson now who absolutely dazzles me.  We go on long walks, and his game is to take his little ball, his little tiny red ball – it’s actually a marble, it’s a glass ball – and he flings it into the woods as far as he can.  Well of course he’s only two and a half, he can only throw about three metres.  That’s his range.  And then we go find it.  And we hunt and hunt and hunt until we find it.  Then he flings it again and we hunt it.

Now that’s his game, but us as grandparents have the time to do this.  Parents don’t have the time to do that, usually, but grandparents do.  And so what can we do for these children?  Make them feel comfortable and secure, and then let rip.  Let their little minds go because we don’t need to give them any stimulation.  They’ve got it all in there and their imaginations are just bursting to come out.  That’s how I understand it.

In terms of society more widely, do you think something like the idea of a Universal Basic Income, which is an idea that’s being increasingly proposed around the world, would be something that would take away a lot of those factors that you’re talking about in terms of uncertainty and stress and exhaustion that currently seem to be one of the factors eroding imagination?  Do you think something like universal basic income would help to overcome the things you’re talking about?

Sure, it would help but it’s nothing like adequate.  For example I remember the 1950s, the 1960s, in which in Canada, we had universal income, in the sense that anybody who didn’t have any money could just go down to the welfare office and they’ve be given what they need.  I mean, not enough, but enough to get by.  But it’s not enough.  It’s a very good thing, and the obscene income inequality that we live with is absolutely destructive.  It’s horrible.  So of course we need something of the nature of this universal income, but that’s not all people need.

They don’t just need to be able to buy a hamburger and a coke and then they’re fine again.  They need a lot more than that.  You have described some things to me that the Transition group is doing, and those things seem to be another level up.  It’s not like a UBI, it’s like an attempt to find community among the people who are right around here, and to build that into a functioning economic system.  That is one level up from a UBI but I don’t think that’s enough either.

People need more than that.  They not only need a hamburger and a coke, and a community that’s around them that they can work with and provide for their needs, they need a kind of transcendence.  They need a sense of what’s real and true and valuable, and what can I respect, and love, and admire, that religion used to provide and isn’t providing it very well now.  There are new kinds of transcendent ideas, for example the idea of Gaia, or the idea of the green movement.  The idea of the Earth itself as a precious resource that we can love and protect as if it were, because it is, you know, our Mom.  People needed all that.  And then I think imagination takes care of itself.

I don’t think imagination is something that we have to instil or anything.  It just comes out, and it comes out at the level where we need it to come out.  People who really have a decent life, and it’s all put together and they have the hamburger and a coke, and they have a good community, and they have some kind of transcendent reality, I think those people’s imagination expresses itself creatively with their children, with the people they deal with.  When those people face extraordinary situations, then their imagination gets creative in a whole sort of different way, and they start inventing things that will save them from the flood, or save them from the epidemic, or whatever.

Imagination comes where it’s needed.  The way I would see the world is that the primary problem is creating a basis for well-being and that we were to think of imagination as something which is… It’s all there.  It’s going to come, it doesn’t require any special intervention.

So it’s not so much about creating the ideal, or nurturing imagination, it’s more about getting rid of the factors that block it? 

Well yeah.  And are we going to get rid of the internet?  No, too bad.  Are we going to get rid of the television?  No, too bad.  We’re not going to get rid of these standardising, stupidising kinds of screens that are all around us.  I don’t think we can do that.  But we can certainly exercise control over them.

For example I’ve been reading about the kinds of control which are exercised over children’s commercials in some countries.  And thinking, yeah, we could do that.  It’s laborious and it’s a major undertaking, but it’s well worth doing.  We needn’t subject our children to such godawful shit that they see on their screens.  That doesn’t have to be there.  We can get rid of the worst of it.  But we do have to face the fact that we are networked and I don’t think that there’s any alternative to being networked.  I think we have to learn to use it better.

So the social media, well we can exercise some kinds of control over it, but I don’t think we can make it go away.  I think we have to bring out what’s good in it and so forth.

At the end of the book and you talk about social action, and two of the things you were citing as ways of tackling dislocation and addiction were two of the directions I’m moving in as well around imagination, around reviving community art, and cultural fusion. That really resonates with Transition…

Although I now live on Pender Island, I used to live in an electoral riding which is the most economically diverse in the whole country of Canada.  It has people from absolutely everywhere.  The way these things would work together, the way people could meld elements from this culture and that culture together is just fantastic.

One of the examples which sticks in my mind is a karate group for Native Indians.  So here’s Native Indians, who of course have their own cultural background, and here they’re being taught to shout and sing slogans out in Korean, as they learn to do karate.  And they love it.  It just works brilliantly.  Perhaps one of the great disadvantages of globalisation is that local cultures break down, but one of the advantages is that in all the pieces of all the local cultures are the building blocks for something new.

I love to think of my own city of Vancouver where I used to live, I love to think of that city as being a cultural fusion.  If we look say 500 years from now, not only will the races have fused and we’ll all be kind of honey coloured, but also the cultures will have fused and we’ll have this funny kind of language which will have all kinds of words in it.  We already have this amazing cuisine which has all kinds of flavours in it, and we’ll have this incredible literature which is again coming together already.

Literature which incorporates exotic traditions.  Traditions which are exotic to each other and together.  We have that potential.  The new world of course will not be like the old world.  It will be worse than the old world in some ways, but it will be better than the old world in some ways in terms of creativity and imagination because we have all that.  All that diversity to take advantage of.  In a way that is an answer to the imagination question because it’s something new.

Is a retreat into addiction the result of weak imagination, or a seeking of more imagination?

I’d say both, if we’re talking specifically about drugs. I lived through the 1960s in Canada and certainly had the experience of imaginative people using drugs to become more imaginative and getting into trouble because they got a little too reckless in their imagination and other people wouldn’t stand for it.  Yeah, I’ve seen that.

On the other hand, I’ve done a lot of work with heroin addicts.  If I can make a composite, the typical story there is a child who’s pretty bright and their parents think they’re pretty bright, and then they get to school and other people don’t like them very much, and maybe they’re not quite as bright as their parents thought they were, and then they find the group that will accept them which is the junior junkies and the junior junkies take drugs like heroin, which don’t increase the imagination at all.  Which just make you soporific and lethargic and they’re really more escape drugs than they are imagination drugs.

I’ve seen both sides of that and the heroin addicted side of it, which is what I’ve seen more professionally – the other I’ve seen more in my own life – but the heroin addicted people, it seems to me, are for the most part not super-imaginative people but really people who need to escape away from it.  I’m not trying to paint everyone with the same brush, I’m just saying this is mostly what I’ve seen.  But then I’ve seen people getting into LSD and these kinds of drugs, where imagination is just part of a game, and then they sometimes get into trouble with those drugs.

We keep having panics.  Our current panic here – I don’t know what it is where you are, or if you even have one where you are – but our current panic here is Fentanyl.  Which is an opioid and we claim it’s imported from China, but it’s basically a heroin type drug.  But prior to that our panic was meth amphetamine. We’ve gone through a series of panics.  But the recurring panic is the opioids.  That’s the one which keeps coming back and back and back to us.  And that’s the one which I have framed my thinking around, for better or for worse, and maybe I’ve overdone it, because that is a drug which is really a downer.  That’s all it does.

It takes you down, and I suppose there are ways to take it so that you hallucinate a bit.  But most people don’t take them that way, they just take it right in the vein and they’re kind of gone, you know.  They’re not fully there.  We have to understand heavy drug use, which is a recurrent problem here, our city and currently excitement level problem here.  We have to understand that as a drug which really doesn’t enhance the imagination but rather dulls the pain.  Not to say that there aren’t other kinds of ways of involving oneself with other drugs.

I’m interested that imagination is the central topic of what you’re doing.  I want to say well of course imagination is depressed, but I want to say it’s not just imagination.  It’s also loneliness.  It’s also humiliation and it’s also confusion and bewilderment.  So I wouldn’t myself focus so directly on imagination even though you’ve really made me think of it in a way that I haven’t before, and I’m sure that you’re absolutely right that it’s got to be a central part of the problem.  I just wouldn’t put my entire focus on it myself.


  1. Annette
    May 12, 2018

    Rob, this is excellent! Thanks so much for this interview – recommended on an online community for recovering alcoholics:

    There is recovery and new life, which takes determination, imagination and the creation of a new purpose. Purpose, in my view, is the crucial factor. Here in the UK, addiction is far worse in towns with few employment prospects. So how can people – and governments – be imaginative in creating new jobs, and sometimes demand for those new jobs?

    Anyway, thanks for this wonderful share – appreciated!

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