Monday, December 10, 2012

When the drug policies work

This is a placeholder, an observation that might segue into a more sustained analysis.  I just want to draw your attention to this news item on the Prime Minister's refusal to entertain a drugs commission.  

One could read this in a number of ways.  Certainly, there is a realpolitik.  Cameron might even think that a commission would be a rational step, but he is a leader of the Conservative Party who is presently trying to win a battle with the rednecks over gay marriage.  (This isn't because he is a progressive; it is because he knows which way the demographic wind is blowing.  There just isn't the electoral basis for a hard right project any more.  Indeed, once Cameron's salesman charm has been completely expended and he has been ousted, I would predict that the only person who could possibly cobble together a Tory election victory under any plausible circumstance would be Boris Johnson - someone who is capable of presenting a centre-left face when occasion demands it.)  Such a fight is, for the Tories, bad enough when they already have to see off UKIP.  The last thing Cameron is going to do, whether he agrees with it or not, is adopt a rational policy on drugs.  

But the other way to read it is that Cameron does indeed mean what he says when he claims "We have a policy which actually is working in Britain."  I think may be one point on which Cameron may be both completely honest and completely accurate.  The policies are working.  They are doing what they are supposed to do.  

It is a truism of the history of drugs wars that the British empire was a late convert to the cause.  The real proselytiser was the American empire, which had decided from its experience in occupying the Philippines that operating a strict prohibition policy was an essential component of any good biopolitics (if the anachronism be forgiven).  Partly this was driven by Christian temperance politics, but it was also seen as the cutting edge of social and political science - in the US, the emergence of these disciplines was unmistakeably 'bound up' with empire.  The ends sought included the regulation and disciplining of bodies, the reproduction of labour power, the maintenance of social order, and so on.  I would guess there was probably a concern with fertility as well.  The idea was genuinely, then, to reduce the intake of drugs and thus avoid a set of undesirable side-effects for the system.  

But it can't be assumed that the drugs wars as they continue today carry out the same functions as they were believed to in 1912.  The drugs wars have acquired another set of functions.  With respect to imperialism, it helps organise and distribute illicit funding and arms flows.  With respect to policing and criminality, it provides a 'frame' through which the state can surveille, serialise, detain and incarcerate the 'dangerous classes'.  Politically, it has worked alongside other thematics such as race to help organise viable reactionary-popular blocs - drugs providing both a pseudo-explanation for social breakdown and its necessarily harsh policing, and a rationale for continuing the policies of social breakdown.  It is no good bemoaning the irrationality and brutality of the system, which is not borne by its authors. The drugs policies work.  The objective of abolitionists has to be to attack the forms of political control which the drugs wars are aimed at supporting.

Anyway, I'll come back to this at another time.