The Democratic Quality Vector and
the New Social Agreement
Drugs, Knowledge, and Culture
Ten years ago, while killing time between flights in a duty‑free shop, I found myself wondering why drugs surrounded me. Marlboro cartons loomed to my left, Drambuie bottles to my right, Belgian chocolates behind me, Kenyan coffee straight ahead – everywhere I looked, I saw imported psychoactive products. How did these things get here?”
DAVID T. COURTWRIGHT
It can be argued that our ability to store and pass human knowledge down from one generation to the next is the single most distinguishing feature of human societies. However, what is ultimately passed down does not always travel a straightforward linear path. Science historian James Burke showed, in his famous 1978 book and BBC series Connections, the surprising nonlinear path that scientific knowledge and invention has taken from the past to the present. Burke’s central thesis was that it was not possible to trace the development of any one piece of the modern world in isolation because everything is interconnected in a web of inter-relationships, like a gigantic human gestalt. For example, collective behaviour emerges from individual actors who each have no awareness of the final destination. So, the development of scientific knowledge can come from many unusual or overlooked sources.
One of those largely ignored areas that has had a definitive but unquantified impact on human experience is drug culture. As we shall see, entire civilizations have at one time or another deemed it socially acceptable to ingest large and regular doses of psychoactive substances. A psychoactive drug is a chemical substance that changes brain function and results in changes in perception, mood, consciousness, cognition, or behaviour. This includes not only things like illegal narcotics, but also common everyday items for sale in a shop near you like alcohol, sugar, chocolate, coffee, and cigarettes. Many of these have now been found to be harmful and are classified as illicit today, and unfortunately many are still legally sold.
In ancient cultures, drug use began as a means for practitioners to form a deeper spiritual connection, as an aphrodisiac, or as a folk remedy to heal mental, emotional or physical ailments. More recently, in the 17th century, they began as ways to treat pain or as a panacea. As drug use spread, however, the dark side of addiction and psychological impairment became apparent.
The mass consumption of psychoactive substances raises an intriguing question: what effect does a mind-altered state have on the way a culture experiences the world. That experience ultimately informs the culture’s worldview, and subsequently of the knowledge it produces. If entire cultures indulged in mind-altering substances, it is reasonable to expect detectable changes in worldviews, narratives, mental models and decision-making behaviour? Human beings under the influence of psychoactive substances experience reality in a different way. Drugs can offer a way to stripe away our deep conditioning to reveal the raw, naked world that exists before mental framing of it. This space is the sphere of the intuitive mind, not the rationalist. It is perhaps this view that offers a potentially tantalizing naked experience of reality, free of relative, learned frames of reference. If it is absolute truth we are after, rather than relative, safe psychoactive compounds may offer a way to experience it.
Given that mind-altering drugs have permeated our culture over the past three centuries, it must have played a not-insignificant role in the convoluted course history has taken to arrive at our current world. As democracy began to take on more traction, what part did the outsized impact of a collective drug-induced haze have on it? Did the non-linear spurts of out-the-box, creative thinking suggest ideas that may not have otherwise emerged? Did a drug-induced state affect the policies that developed? Did it change who voted, and who didn’t, and therefore the evolution of policy?
One argument is that our modern world can be argued to be the outcome of the Enlightenment. Therefore, The application of reason to every facet of society is the prima facie of our modern age. Yet, as we shall see in our survey of this period of history, opiates entered benignly into the lives of many citizens while they were promoted as a universal panacea. This was at a time when medical knowledge was limited, and diseases took many lives causing much misery. Dropsy, consumption, rheumatism, and ague were all familiar parts of everyday life. Even as late as the 19th century, there was still no known cures for cholera and dysentery. These two terminal diseases often caused death by excruciating diarrhea. In a short period, opiates became entangled in the lives of a large percentage of Europeans across the continent. By the time their addictive qualities became known, it was too late. Historians have a good idea of the scale of drug abuse during this time. However, it is difficult to know the full impact about the effects of psychoactive compounds on culture, epistemology, and politics of the 17th to the 20th century as it was so prevalent.
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