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'Comfortably Numb': A Marxist Insight on America’s Opioid Addiction.

   In The Accumulation of Capital, originally published in 1913, German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg expands upon many, mostly Marxian, theories on Imperial expansion. Building on the works of scholars like J.A. Hobson, Luxemburg polemically argues that the Capitalist mode of production is ultimately self-destructive and will eventually annihilate itself. What stays this self-annihilation is its constant expansion and summary absorption of many non-capitalist, or backward as she puts it, economies. The subsequent fate of the backward economy is its overall transition into one predicted on exchange. (Luxemburg, Rosa, The Accumulation of Capital, Trans. Agnes Schwarzschild, London: Routledge, 1952)
To provide some brief context, Luxemburg’s analysis of Imperialism postulates that with the advent of joint-stock industries and the rapid productive drive of a domestic capitalist economy, there emerged a misdistribution of wealth. This misdistribution was characterised by more money falling into the hands of a small Bourgeois oligarchy. The immediate consequence of this results in a massive decline in consumerism and a subsequent glut of un-investable capital. (Luxemburg, Capital, 1952)
   If capitalism were left to fester in this condition in the long term, it would surely perish – like a fire built on too much coal, it would stifle itself to death. However, the politically active Bourgeoisie found a resolution to this existential threat, the brave new worlds of Africa and India. By investing in overseas expansion, the stifled and struggling economies of Western Europe found a place where that glut of capital could find investment. (Hobson, J.A., Imperialism: A study, New York: James Pott & Co., 1902) Capital, therefore, is a piece of scholarship which seeks to understand the characteristics of this expansion, and how it can transform one means of production into another. A primary means of undertaking this operation to acquire the means of production of a non-capitalist state is the introduction of a commodity or commodities to the economy. This effectively fetters the backward economy to a proto form of capitalist exchange. In Chapter 27 of Capital, Luxemburg posits that the introduction of Opioids to the Chinese population by the British East India Company is characteristic of this endeavour. (Luxemburg, Capital, 1952) Opium poppies had been cultivated by the British in Bengal throughout the seventeenth century, and by the nineteenth century, they were being traded with Chinese merchants. (Hevia, James L. “Opium, Empire, and Modern History.” China Review International, vol. 10, no. 2, 2003, pp. 307–26
) Efficiently disseminated by the Canton Branch of the East India Company, Opium became a common luxury in China by the early nineteenth century. By 1821, 4,628 chests of Opium had been introduced with an average price of £265; by 1825, the price dropped by half, and five years after that, over 26,000 chests of Opium were being introduced. (Hevia, “Opium, Empire, and Modern History”) Known as a luxury of the people, it may come as no surprise that the unchecked importation of Opium wreaked havoc on the Chinese population, creating a nationwide dependency on British imports of the addictive substance. The British, who were raking in unprecedented profit from this unequal exchange, were predictably outraged when the Qing Dynasty attempted to check the habit and raise an embargo on British Opium, and in 1839, they brought down war and wrath upon China. (Bayly, C.A., The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914, Oxford: Blackwell, 2004)
   With all this in mind, we finally arrive at the subject of this article, America’s addiction to Opium. America’s Opiate addiction began, roughly, in the late nineteen-nineties, when Purdue Pharma introduced a new painkilling wonder drug, OxyContin.  Purdue Pharma, the Sackler Family, and even the FDA have been cited as the cause of America’s drug habit, in which an estimated two million are victims. (Anon, “The Truth Behind Opiate Addiction Statistics”, Recovery Centres of America: https://recoverycentersofamerica.com/blogs/the-truth-behind-opiate-addiction-statistics/#:~:text=The%20World%20Health%20Organization%20estimates,addicted%20to%20opiate%20prescription%20drugs). The Sackler Family, who own Purdue Pharma, with the acquiescence of the Food and Drug Administration were instrumental in disseminating highly addictive substances to a majority of the United States’ population. They managed this by propagating misinformation about the efficacy of OxyContin, such as how the drug slowly takes effect over the course of twelve hours; or that it is more effective than its competitors, whilst downplaying the risks of addiction. Likewise, with apathy from the FDA, Purdue Pharma was able to manipulate drug trials and alter conclusions to fit its advertising scheme. (Chow, Ronald, ‘Purdue Pharma and OxyContin: A Commercial Success, but Public Health Disaster’, HPHR, Vol. 25. 2019) All while this was happening Purdue was pursuing an aggressive marketing campaign, targeting physicians and laymen alike. Pouring over $200 million into expanding their sales team, one such strategy they employed was to target individual doctors most likely to prescribe opiates for non-cancerous chronic pain. Purdue even went so far as to merchandise their product, selling fishing hats and plush pill toys. (Chow, ‘Purdue Pharma’)
   At this point, aside from the association with Opiates, the reader is perhaps asking for the connection between Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital, and the United States’ drug problem. Here is where this argument comes to fruition. Like China in the nineteenth century, the mass addiction to Opium was not stemmed from Laissez-Faire commercialism gone wild but was instead a symptom of a deeper socio-economic phenomenon. I would argue that both calamities have stemmed from similar roots. The only difference is that the United States is attempting to find new avenues of investment at home, and not overseas, for they have already, neo-imperialistically, dominated overseas trade and a substantial amount of US capital flows abroad. America’s overseas expansion never stayed the problem with underconsumption and lack of demand but moved it elsewhere. As the United States outsourced their industrial heart to the Global South and imported temporary cheap labour en masse, the subsequent upsetting of the distribution of capital created disequilibrium in the circulation of wealth. Like before, wealth fell into fewer hands, particularly in the late nineteen eighties, and the resolution was to introduce another commodity; a commodity which was universal to all, for everyone can experience pain. A product, morphine, was repackaged, rebranded, and merchandised in order to retard the innate flaws of the Capitalist means of production. In essence, the Sackler Family, with the acquiesce of a politically active Bourgeoisie, commodified human health and wellbeing with the goal of finding an avenue of capital investment. (Brewer, Anthony, Marxist Theories of Imperialism, second edition, London: Routledge, 1990)
   With this in mind, those who are privileged enough to have been born under a nationalised health system should look towards the United States as an example of all that could go wrong, and it should, perhaps, be a reminder to the reader to never take for granted such a system. Likewise, if health can be commodified, then so can life. And that is a prospect to look on and shudder. 


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