1980s >> 1983 >> no-948-august-1983

Lot of bottle

Every day in Britain, hundreds of thousands of drug addicts are free to buy and consume the substance to which they are addicted although it is known to damage them physically and socially, and may even kill them. It is not something they push into a vein or suck up their nose or sniff from a bag. Its sale is urged on with persistent advertising whose message is that taking the drug is sociable, amusing, intellect-sharpening, sexy  . . . For anyone who hasn’t yet got the point, the addicts we are discussing are known as alcoholics.

Well over 90 per cent of the adult population of Britain take alcohol to a greater or lesser extent and very enjoyable it can be. A quarter of all men and two per cent of all women are thought to drink “heavily” and six per cent of men and one per cent of women consistently drink beyond the limits prescribed as medically safe. Above — or perhaps it should be below — that are the alcoholics, an estimated 740,000 of them in the UK, whose dependence on a large, regular intake is such it seriously affects the fulfilment of their role as disciplined, conforming, productive units of the working class.

The other class in society, whose interests lie in keeping an efficiently exploited workforce under control, are in something of a dilemma over alcoholism. On the one hand they must against any threats to the requirements of the productive process, that workers be on time, in line and industrious. On the other [hand] they must take account of the fact that alcohol has an historically established place in the recreation of working energy, fortified by the influence of the mighty brewing industry (which is also a hefty contributor to Conservative Party funds). This divergence of interests causes quite a few anomalies, one of which can be witnessed in magistrates courts every day as people appear in the sock because, while it is perfectly legal to drink in public it is against the law to suffer from the effects—to be drunk—in public. On a good day it is even possible to see people charged with being drunk in a public house.

Much of alcohol’s attraction lies in its ability to relax the inhibitions clamped upon us by the repressions of property society. After a few drinks the normally shy and inarticulate mat feel that they are the world’s most riveting entertainer. Wheezing weaklings suddenly want to take on every man in the bar. As alcohol stiffens a usually flaccid personality, reality recedes into tomorrow’s hangover; an unhappy home, a grindingly tedious job, a fearsome poverty, can temporarily be deprived of much of their menace. This is skilfully worked on by the advertising firms; as one ad puts its, alcohol (or rather a particular brand of it) is essential for those who want to “Get It Right”. More perceptive, and more useful, are the memories of the childhood Glasgow of Jimmy Boyle, who was no stranger to the effects of alcohol and its uses:

Every time he was drunk he would stagger up the street shouting at the top of his voice “D. N. Dan, my name’s Dan, Dan Noble”. Sometimes he would throw in that he didn’t give a fuck from anybody, and Dan would start this cry from the minute he left the pub till he fell into bed  . . . The best laugh was that when he was sober Dan was a quiet wee man who didn’t bother a soul. The way people looked at it was that Dan, who was a widower, worked like hell all week to keep his family and this was his way of letting loose . . .

(A Sense of Freedom.)

There is however a price to be paid by anyone whose inhibitions are relaxed with alcohol (a price not. incidentally, exacted in the case of the illegal drug cannabis). Alcohol impairs many bodily functions so that drunk people often injure themselves by falling and in road crashes. About one third of drivers and nearly one quarter of all adult pedestrians killed in road “accidents” are found to have alcohol levels in their blood stream above the legal limit. Heavy drinking (like going to war, working down a mine and just being a member of the working class) is not a health-giving activity. It affects the appetite and can cause gastric complaints; alcoholics are often both over-weight and malnourished because drink supplies no dietary needs other than calories and lacks essential proteins and vitamins. It can permanently damage the heart, liver and brain and heavy drinkers have been known to ignore a serious, but curable disease like tuberculosis which will then go on to kill them.

Drug addiction of any kind is usually a costly business to indulge in, outside the pockets of the majority of people depending on a wage or state benefit. So alcoholism may be accompanied by — and blamed for — a deeper than usual poverty which in about five per cent of cases means a descent into vagrancy. Every urban concentration has its population of homeless alcoholics, drifting through the cold streets, sheltering in derelict buildings, swigging their day away on wasteland. Drink is also blamed for crime; one estimate is that about 60 per cent of the offences of “habitual” criminals were due to drink and in 1980 the Parole Board expressed their concern at the high numbers of prisoners jailed for 18 months or more whose offences were put down to drink. In France about 60 per cent of violent crime is attributed to alcohol.

In fact it is a dangerous simplification to say that drink causes crime; there is a lot more to the matter than that. Where alcohol plays a part it can be through the addict stealing because they can’t afford to buy the stuff or because it gives them the bottle for a burglary or because it encourages a release of frustrations into what are seen as anti-social acts — assaults on property rights. Released frustrations can also break out as simple, unprovoked violence and there can be nasty results from this. Relaxed inhibitions, at least for the first few pints, can bring a pleasant relief but for capitalist society it is often an expensive business in terms of medical and social services and in the effort devoted to social control through the police, courts and prisons.

So there is a natural concern among the employing class about the effects of alcohol; they need to protect their profits by ensuring an undisturbed exploitation of their workforce. Accidents at work are expensively disturbing and drunk workers can lose their inhibitions to the extent of forgetting the dangers of machinery on the factory floor. A booze-liberated tongue is not conducive to industrial discipline as it may complain about working conditions or let the manager or foreman know what the tongue-owner thinks of them.

When this has become an issue sensitive enough for the ruling class to feel that their overall interests were being damaged, there has usually been a reaction. Licensing laws were first introduced in this country under the Defence of the Realm Act during the 1914/18 war. At the time the generals were complaining that British workers at the front were being prevented from slaughtering enough German workers in the other trenches because they didn’t have the shells to fire at them. This, in turn, was said to be due to the munitions workers spending time in the pubs which could have been spent making shells. In Carlisle, where there was a concentration of munition production, it went as far as the nationalisation of the brewery and the pubs — one effect of which was that the brewery won the reputation of turning out the strongest beer in the land.

There is nothing exceptional about diverging interests among the ruling class, but in the case of their dilemma over alcoholism it is historically established. By the end of the eighteenth century alcoholism was a feature of life in Britain, marked by gin replacing ale as a popular drink, encouraged in parliament by the landed interests whose corn went into the distillation process. It was the age of cheap gin, searingly recorded by the likes of William Hogarth, when straw houses abounded where it cost only a few pence to get dead drunk and the genial landlord made no charge for the straw onto which the customer collapsed. In 1750 every fourth house in London’s notorious St. Giles’ Circus sold gin. Whatever happened in parliament, the fact was that the urban expansion following from the enclosures and the Industrial Revolution made for living conditions which gave every encouragement to seek the opiate effects of drunkenness:

In some parts of the town the cellars are so damp that they are unfit for habitation . . . I have known many laborious families who, after a short stay in damp  cellars, were lost to the community . . . The poor mostly suffer from the insufficiency of the windows in cellars. Fever is the usual effect, and I have known very often cases of consumption which can be traced to such causes. (Paper presented by Dr. Ferriar, Manchester 1790.)

During the first decades of the eighteenth century the death rate rose sharply, at one point actually exceeding the birth rate; in London between 1740 and 1744 there were twice as many burials recorded as baptisms. This was attributed not to the appalling living conditions but to the people’s response to those conditions. There was a move to restrict the sale of gin; in 1751 taxes were introduced to curb its free availability and retailers were prevented from selling the stuff. Workers continued to suffer in the cellars and the slums but they could now die from more acceptable causes like consumption and starvation. This was satisfactory to the burgeoning temperance movement and to the importers of tea, which from then increasingly rivalled gin as a cheap consolatory potion among the horrors of the cities.

The temperance movement gathered strength during the nineteenth century. Standing for exactly what was demanded of the new dispossessed class in society — a docile acquiescence in their own exploitation as wage slaves — the movement was associated with the Nonconformist church and the Liberal Party, both of them champions of the modern style of class dominance. Drunks were regarded as people in need of salvation, although from what was not made clear. Missionaries infested the London courts, pressing religious admonitions on the already troubled minds of the hapless, bewildered flotsam in the dock. As might be imagined, the missionaries were themselves not free of problems of personality:

. . . well intentioned but narrow minded, zealous but inclined to preach and apt to derive a sense of self-importance from the condescending friendship of magistrates and the deference of the humbler people with whom he has to deal. (H.R.P. Gamon. The London Police Court Today And Tomorrow, 1907.)

On the other side were the landlords, on whose acres the raw materials for alcohol were produced and the brewers, both of them powerful in the Tory Party. Many a bitter argument was played out between these sides, in terms of freedom of choice and of protecting the physical and moral well-being of the people. Hypocrisy flowed as freely as gin in the straw houses, for what was really at issue was the material dominance of one set of parasites over another. The straw houses are no longer and the temperance movement only twitches with traces of life; there are no longer excruciatingly boring slide shows at the local Band of Hope and it is very rare to find one of those brown painted, cabbage scented temperance hotels which once stood in every town. But proper understanding is as elusive as ever.

A flood of alcohol is downed every day in Britain and it is held to be responsible for a number of medical and social ailments, from damaged foetuses to road accidents. But people who must get their living in the grey monotony of an office or supplying the relentless demands of a production line need an escape from the experience of being exploited and expendable. One of the easiest, most accessible ways out is through drugs, whether hard or soft or liquid and legal. But part of being a member of the working class is an expectation of moderate behaviour; we may go to the pub but we must get home in good time so that we can be up to get to work in the morning. If we exceed the bounds of moderation the blame is often laid on some personal failings rather than on our class position and what capitalism does to us.

There is only one way to escape from wage slavery and that cannot be bought in a pub. Standing at the bar, we are not escaping but only on parole — and at that only until they call time.

Ivan