On psychedelics and capitalism (via hip hop videos)

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A few months ago, I wrote a post about the increase in use of psychedelics in the UK, suggesting a possible correlation between the harsh political and economic circumstances facing young people, and the desire for altered states of consciousness, alternate realities and simple escape from low-wage work, unemployment and debt.

This trend of higher rates of use can in part be attributed to the dark web, which (despite its obvious ethical grey areas), offers online marketplaces for buying substances at purity levels generally much higher than drugs sold on the street, supported by online networks of psychonauts and others distributing information on their safe use.

It also coincides with an emerging counter-paradigm to the defunct War on Drugs, (the only beneficiaries of which seem to be what Angela Davis referred to as the Prison-Industrial Complex; the fear-mongering of the tabloid media; and powerful cartels, such as those in Mexico, cashing in on a lucrative market while leaving thousands of corpses in their wake). This new paradigm promotes legalisation alongside education, harm reduction and research into the possible psychological benefits of responsible use of psychedelics. Currently, several organisations, including the Multi-Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies are conducting research into the use of MDMA in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as into LSD/psilocybin as possible treatments for depression. 

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Alongside these developments, there appears to be a wider cultural acceptance of psychedelics, on a par with the adoption of psychedelic tropes in cinema of the 1960s and 70s, reflecting an interest in the hippie counter-culture LSD use was associated with.

I’ve noticed this in several hip hop videos recently. While there has always been a leftfield strain of hip hop, dating back to groups like The Pharcyde, De La Soul and Quasimoto, it’s the New York Beast Coast scene, and the Brooklyn-based Underachievers in particular, who have made no secret of their predilection for psychedelics. Professing  an ‘elevated’ viewpoint born out of psychedelic exploration and esoteric cosmology, the two young MCs, with their Flatbush Zombies counterparts, have made a psychedelic aesthetic central to their music and videos.

One of their recent video references both the acid freakouts of Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers – both of which explore the consequences of using acid in a culture steeped in violence and paranoia. It’s an interesting video, not so much because of the lyrical content, but because of the choice of Las Vegas as a kind of proto-psychedelic landscape: an artificial city in the desert designed to heighten and overwhelm the senses, while simultaneously embodying the capitalist delusion of Winning Big.

Somehow, the video got me thinking, if and when psychedelics do become legal, to what extent will they be compatible with neoliberal capitalism? It’s especially interesting to think about this in the wake of the legalisation of cannabis in four US states, the results of which have been a boom in the number of start-ups producing weed-related products, as well as a huge amount of investment from big business, seeking to get a foothold in what is estimated to be one of the most valuable cash crops in the United States.

Most modern psychedelic thinkers have posited that psychedelics are illegal largely because they threaten the assumptions of Western political and economic thinking, with their bases in hierarchical forms of knowledge and control as well as an anthropocentric view of the world in which (male) humans have the right to dominate and destroy the ecosystem. The use of psychedelics, it is argued, with their origins in the shamanic cultures of indigenous America, offer a radically different version of reality: one in which the visible material realm is merely one aspect of the universe.

So what would happen if restrictions on the use of psychedelics were to loosen? Would this lead to a deeper dialogue about our relationships to our own minds, with our natural environment and which each other? Or would it be the case that legal psychedelics would become just another commodity – temporary escape valves from an increasingly digitised and mediated reality, peddled by corporations, otherwise very much wedded to the gears of consumerism grinding steadily on?

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