There’s often an understandably knee-jerk reaction to critical writing about alcohol. After all, experiments with prohibition have largely been a racist and anti-poor disaster, while sobriety — as advocated for in countless sappy memoirs about quitting drinking — isn’t remotely desirable or feasible for many people given alcohol’s countless use-values. If anything, alcohol is widely viewed as an example of how many other criminalized drugs such as heroin or cocaine should be treated, with legal and regulated supply ensuring that users are guaranteed a substance free of toxic contaminants, erratic potencies, dangerous underground trade, and brutal state violence. As a result, much of the contemporary radical left has tended to neglect the subject of alcohol.
My upcoming book, Drinking Up the Revolution, argues that this abdication is a major mistake. Despite its legality, alcohol still causes immense harm, contributing to the deaths of an estimated three million people globally every year and inflicting widespread injury, disability, and disease, increasingly in the Global South. A common response to this dire reality is to appeal to demand-side drivers of high-risk drinking, ranging from human evolution, to cultural development, to the imbricated traumas of capitalism, white supremacy, worsening mental health, and looming climate chaos. While all of these factors are essential to understanding the particularities of alcohol use, my book makes the case that only focusing on these demand-side drivers can obscure the main reason for global proliferation of alcohol-related harms: extreme domination of production by monopoly capital, which actively exploits stressors, crises (including COVID-19), and lack of alternatives to entrench the sector’s long-term profitability.
Unlike many of the world’s most rapacious capitalist corporations — Amazon, Walmart, Apple, ExxonMobil — alcohol companies tend to be completely ignored in the radical left’s analysis. But global titans like AB InBev, Heineken, Diageo, and Molson Coors use all the same strategies as other major industries: ever-increasing monopolization, labour exploitation and union-busting, undercutting criticism (including from science), individualizing and racializing negative outcomes, and securing markets through marketing, lobbying, and destroying smaller competition. Given the significant health impacts of the substance — leading some public health experts term it an “industrial epidemic” due to its source — my book works to build a global political economy of alcohol that focuses attention on monopoly capital, rather than individual drinkers. This doesn’t seek to downplay or erase people’s agency in electing to drink but instead frames such choices as occurring within an extremely limited field of capitalist competition. From this viewpoint, rising alcohol-related harms are the inevitable consequence of capitalist profiteering, like just climate change is the necessary byproduct of fossil fuel production.
Following the latest scientific studies, my book approaches alcohol with an understanding of the possibility for lower-risk drinking (which is importantly not no-risk) by bringing regular intake at or below a certain quantity and intensity, with potential for enormous improvements in health outcomes by cutting back even slightly from high-risk levels. But instead of downloading this responsibility onto the individual drinker through largely ineffective education campaigns as favoured by industry, my book contends that any meaningful confrontation of escalating alcohol-related harms must be structural in nature. This means not only curtailing the ability for monopoly capital to profit from high-risk drinking patterns but building up many decommodified alternatives to alcohol use (like legalization of other psychoactive drugs and building up public spaces that aren’t exclusively alcocentric). It also positions this within many broader struggles such as police and prison abolition, strengthening public healthcare, building worker power, and paying enormous reparations to the Global South.
This approach goes well beyond conventional public health prescriptions, which generally fail to confront capitalism, racism, and exploitation at a systemic level; further, it works to transcend public health’s tendency to downplay or pathologize the genuinely appealing aspects of alcohol use — most notably, intoxication — and emphasizes that a desire for relaxation, sociability, and altered consciousness is not wrong but rather being exploited by incredibly powerful companies for profit. At the same time, my book resists the tendency in much of the popular discourse to overly romanticize alcohol and frame any possible attempt to reduce consumption and harms as puritanical moralizing. The reality is that alcohol is a risky substance to use — a product of its innately toxic, carcinogenic, and dependency-causing characteristics, along with its sheer ubiquity due to capitalist domination — and that a collective politics of liberation is required to smash Big Alcohol and build real alternatives to its hegemony. My book also argues that in order for the crucial push for legalization and regulation of other drugs to be successful, the failures of alcohol policy resulting from capitalist domination must be confronted head-on, not ignored or downplayed; monopoly capital control of alcohol production is the worst imaginable approach to the issue and adjacent struggles can learn from this, anchoring demands for legalization in decommodification and genuine community control.
There will inevitably be disagreement and critical debate about this book. Alcohol is an extremely and justifiably heated subject, and everyone will bring their own lived experiences and considered perspectives to the text. Although the book ends with a “manifesto” of sorts — would it really be a leftist book without one? — it’s truly not aiming to be the final or definitive word on the subject. Instead, it’s intended as a thoughtful provocation to inspire conversation about an urgent public health crisis that deserves as much attention as any other major threat to human lives and well-being caused primarily by capitalist exploitation. Alcohol has been a constant focus of revolutionary leftist struggles throughout time, with many of history’s most renown figures — Engels, Lenin, Mao, Allende — taking remarkably distinct approaches to the issue. My book is thus not trying to invent a new political focus but rather revive a long-existing leftist politics of alcohol for the contemporary era, in which multinational alcohol companies are more powerful and organized than ever before.
Drinking Up the Revolution: How to Smash Big Alcohol and Reclaim Working-Class Joy by James Wilt publishes on 12th July.