By Les Hern (also at the Workers Liberty website and the current issue of Solidarity newspaper)
“Against stupidity, the gods themselves struggle in vain”, Goethe.
Towards the end of January, “mostly supine” MPs passed a bill after a “clueless debate”.
The Psychoactive Substances Act which is intended to ban “legal highs” (novel psychoactive substances — NPSs) is “one of the stupidest, most dangerous and unscientific pieces of drugs legislation ever conceived.”
“Watching MPs debate…it was clear most didn’t have a clue. They misunderstood medical evidence, mispronounced drug names, and generally floundered. It would have been funny except lives and liberty were on the line.”
Not my words but those of an editorial in New Scientist (30 January 2016) and a report by Clare Wilson. The act came into force on 26 May, meaning that previously legal “head shops” must cease selling NPSs. The banned drugs will only be available from illegal drug dealers.
The story starts with the panic about “legal highs”, chemicals with similar effects on mood to banned drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine or speed, hence the term “psychoactive”. Legal highs were not covered by drug laws that banned named compounds but not new ones with similar effects.
If history tells us anything, it is that humans take drugs. Sometimes, these drugs cause harm to those who take them or to society in general. Banning specific drugs makes their use more dangerous.
A logical approach would be to reduce the harm by controlling purity, taxing their sale, and educating users instead of criminalising them.
Drug users would prefer not to break the law, providing a considerable incentive to synthesise new drugs that mimic banned drugs but aren’t on the banned list. But these new drugs will have unknown side effects and there is no control on dose and purity. In contrast, the effects of many “traditional” drugs are known.
The rationale for banning NPSs was that they were dangerous. Legal highs were mentioned in coroners’ reports for only 76 deaths from 2004 to 2013 (Office for National Statistics). Despite the government’s banning of NPSs as fast as it could, the number of mentions was increasing (23 in 2013). Reliable data are extremely difficult to obtain and mere mention of a drug in a coroner’s report is not evidence that the drug caused the death.
As each NPS was banned, more were synthesised. There were 24 NPSs in 2009 and 81 in 2013, making the government’s actions futile, so some bright spark came up with the idea of banning the production and supply of all substances which produce “a psychoactive effect in a person… by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system [thus affecting] the person’s mental functioning or emotional state.” A bill was proposed by the new Conservative government and specified that anyone producing or supplying (but not merely possessing for personal use) the previously legal NPSs could be sent to prison for up to seven years.
The proposal soon ran into problems.
Firstly, what is meant by stimulating or depressing the central nervous system?
Secondly, what constitutes an effect on a person’s mental function or emotional state?
Thirdly, how could it be proved that any suspected substance was psychoactive? After all, placebos can be psychoactive.
Fourthly, what about alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, many medicines, and foodstuffs such as nutmeg and betel nut (or, in my case, cake)?
Finally, would bona fide scientific research on psychoactive substances be outlawed?
Criticism poured in from scientists. Respected medical researchers said the bill was “poorly drafted, unethical in principle, unenforceable in practice, and likely to constitute a real danger to the freedom and well-being of the nation” (letter to The Times).
The Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Wellcome Trust, and others wrote to Home Secretary Theresa May that “Many types of important research could potentially be affected by the Bill, particularly in the field of neuroscience, where substances with psychoactive properties are important tools in helping scientists to understand a variety of phenomena, including consciousness, memory, addiction and mental illness.”
Even the government’s Advisory Council of the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), more in line with politicians’ wishes since the shameful “firing” of Professor David Nutt (see below), produced a list of objections. The government’s omission of the word “novel” made the bill apply to a vast number of other substances in addition to legal highs. It would be impossible to list all exemptions so benign substances, such as some herbal remedies, might be inadvertently included. Also, proving that a substance was psychoactive would require unethical human testing, since laboratory tests might not stand up in court.
The government changed the bill to exempt scientific research but otherwise remained obdurate. An example of the inevitable confusion concerns alkyl nitrites (poppers). Known since 1844 and used to treat heart problems, they have a short-acting psychoactive effect and are generally safe.
However, the government referred to several non-specific risks and claimed that poppers had been “mentioned” in 20 death certificates since 1993 (far fewer than for lightning). After a Conservative MP appealed for poppers, which he used, not to be included, the government said they would consider the arguments later.
Another example concerns nitrous oxide (laughing gas), included in the ban despite its long history of use in medicine and recreationally. Discovered in 1772, laughing gas was greatly enjoyed by Sir Humphry Davy and friends, including the poet Shelley. It has an impressive safety record and has been used in dental and childbirth anaesthesia and sedation since 1844.* Nevertheless, the government referred to “the harms” of recreational laughing gas and included it in the bill. In fact, the deaths “caused” by nitrous oxide result from incorrect methods of inhalation which could be eliminated by education.
The Act was finally implemented on 26 May. Independent expert David Nutt described the government’s policy as “pathologically negative and thoughtless.” He predicts that deaths from drugs will increase as people turn to illegal drug dealers in the absence of legal “head shops.”
Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. This just about sums up successive governments’ policies towards drugs.**
**But not all drugs. Nicotine and alcohol are legal, despite their addiction potential, toxicity, and role in causing accidents. See, for example, Smoking and accidents
Labour’s problems with scientific evidence
Tories don’t have a monopoly on cluelessness.
Expert neuroscientist Professor David Nutt was “sacked” from his position as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs by the right-wing press’s favourite Labour politician, former Home Secretary Alan Johnson. This was after Nutt showed that cannabis, then being upgraded to Category B (the same as codeine, ketamine, mephedrone or speed) was less harmful than alcohol or tobacco.
This wasn’t an ordinary sacking since Prof Nutt gave his time and expertise freely, believing that it was important to present the evidence to improve the quality of the debate. Three members of the ACMD resigned in protest.
Nutt stated in a lecture to fellow academics that the evidence showed that cannabis was less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. Johnson called this “campaigning against government policy” and “starting a debate in the national media without prior notification to my department.”
Johnson was then accused of misleading MPs since Prof Nutt had given prior notice of the content of his lecture and no journalists were invited. Further, as an unpaid advisor, Nutt was not subject to the same rules as civil servants. Other ACMD members who resigned said that they “did not have trust” in the way the government would use the ACMD’s advice and that Johnson’s decision was “unduly based on media and political pressure.”
Shamefully, PM Gordon Brown backed Nutt’s removal, saying that the government could not afford to send “mixed messages” on drugs. Both Brown and Johnson (some people’s favourite to replace Jeremy Corbyn) were quite happy to send the wrong message.
Supported by other scientists, Nutt was awarded the John Maddox Prize for standing up for science by the pro-evidence charity Sense About Science.
The government subsequently accepted a new ministerial code allowing for academic freedom and independence for advisers, with proper consideration of their advice. Under this, Nutt would not have been dismissed.
• Nutt now works with Drugs Science
I’m not sure whether or not it’s entirely seemly to bring this up just at the moment; but I really do think that as well as honouring a heroic, courageous human being, we also need to ponder what boxing did to Mohammed Ali in the end, and has done to thousands of other fighters over the years.
I wrote this nearly ten years ago, on the occasion of Ali’s 65th birthday:
Above: a bloodied Henry Cooper battles Cassius Clay (as he then was) in 1963 (Getty images)
Muhammad Ali is 65 today and suffering from Parkinson’s disease – a cruel fate for a man once renowned for his physical and mental speed and agility. Perhaps surprisingly, the most fulsome tribute to Ali I’ve seen today is from the Daily Telegraph, which devotes five pages of its sports section to a splendidly illustrated tribute, plus part of the main paper’s leader column:
“…Who can rival him as a sporting hero? His achievement in a sport of which some disapprove was not just to knock men out. He was an artist, not a psychopath; knocked down by Henry Cooper in 1963, 40 years later he telephoned him to reminisce. Psychic presence and witty self-promotion brought him double success in the ring and as a civil rights champion.
“Ali showed moral as well as physical courage. He refused to serve in Vietnam out of religious principle, he explained, but added ‘No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger’. His career seemed at an end, yet he made an amazing comeback in 1974 in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. More recently, when asked why he thought he would have beaten Mike Tyson, Ali simply tapped his temple: he was always the cleverer fighter.
“We need heroes, and Ali really is the greatest”.
Once over the shock of the voice of the retired colonels of Tory middle England praising a black, Muslim, civil rights activist and opponent of the Vietnam war, I have to say that I don’t dissent from any of that. Ali most certainly was (and is) a brave, generous and thoroughly admirable human being.
But the “sport” at which he excelled (and that may also be responsible for his Parkinson’s) is a foul business. I don’t think it should be called a “sport” at all: the object of boxing, unlike any other sport (including dangerous sports), is to render the opponent unconscious by repeated blows to the head and body. Since 1945 there have been 361 deaths in the ring, and the number of boxers reduced to shambling, punch-drunk wrecks by brain damage is uncounted. That’s not to mention permanent eye damage (up to and including blindness), ruptured eardrums, broken noses and jaws, smashed teeth, the famous ‘cauliflower ear’ and renal damage.
It has long amazed me that so few liberals and lefties seem at all concerned about boxing, and some even support it. The main reason for this is, I suspect, because boxing is traditionally a proletarian “sport” and a way for poor young men (often black or from other ethnic minorities) to achieve something in life. But that’s exactly the reason that socialists should oppose boxing: we want a society where that sort of barbarism simply isn’t required as a way to escape poverty, prejudice and lack of opportunity.
One of the few socialists to write extensively opposing boxing was the American Trotskyist James P. Cannon. Commenting on the death of 20-year-old Georgie Flores in the ring at Madison Square Garden, he wrote:
“It is a commentary on the times and the social environment out of which the boxing business rises like a poisonous flower from the dunghill, that nobody came forward with the simple demand to outlaw prize fighting, as it was outlawed in most states of this country up till the turn of the century. Cock-fighting is illegal; it is considered inhumane to put a couple of roosters in a pit and incite them to spur each other until one of them keels over. It is also against the law to put bulldogs into the pit to fight for a side bet. But our civilisation – which is on the march to be sure – has not yet advanced to the point where law and public opinion forbid men, who have nothing against each other, to fight for money and the amusement of paying spectators. Such spectacles are part of our highly touted way of life”.
Dave K writes:
Readers may have seen interviews with Katy Morgan-Davies who escaped from the Brixton Maoist cult of “Comrade Bala”. Her story is horrifying and she is also very impressive in her own right. However though there isn’t much on this in the interview she obviously sees the links between the violence and abuse in the cult and its political worship of Stalinist leaders. It’s also heartening to learn that rather then rejecting politics (which would be entirely understandable) she has joined the Labour Party.
Jack Purvis, 11 Dec 1906 – 30 Mar 1962 (?)
Purvis must surely be the strangest, most picaresque and mysterious figure in the entire history of recorded jazz. As well as being a phenomenal trumpeter (one of the first – if not the first – of the white players who were obviously influenced by Armstrong), he was also a compulsive liar, con-man, gun-runner and drug smuggler. Naturally, he was also a jail-bird: but one who once, having been released, broke back in, so that he could continue to direct the prison orchestra for their radio debut.
He made no records after 1935 and seems to have committed suicide in 1962 (but even that is in some doubt: there was, according to Richard M. Sudhalter, at least one reliably attested encounter with a man claiming to be “Jack Purvis … I used to play trumpet” after that date). He had a wife and daughter, both of whom were reduced to broken-hearted despair by his antics and absences.
Many jazz musicians could be called “eccentric”, but Purvis’s lifestyle and behaviour went well beyond that: he was almost certainly mentally ill, which makes the title of this 1929 record especially appropriate: ‘Mental Strain At Dawn’:
By Eric Lee
There can be little doubt that the murderous ideology of Islamic State is a form of fascism. In discussing how the Left should react to it, it is therefore necessary to return to our sources, to learn how earlier generations of socialists understood – and fought – fascism.
In that fight, Trotsky was of course an inspiring and authoritative figure. As opposed to the Stalinists, who saw no difference between the Nazis and the Social Democrats (and indeed sometimes preferred the Nazis), Trotsky understood fascism to be a mortal danger to the working class.
And while Trotsky’s deconstruction of the Stalinist argument was brilliant, like most socialists of his time, he understood fascism as a form of bourgeois society, one in which one section of the ruling class crushed all others. The classical Marxist understanding of fascism, however, could not explain, and sometimes did not even try to explain, the tremendous appeal of fascism to the working class itself.
Which brings us to the brilliant Austrian Jewish psychologist Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957). Reich was one of Freud’s outstanding disciples, but in the 1920s he moved increasingly to the left, eventually joining the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). There he engaged in theoretical work in an attempt to bridge the gap between Marxism and Freudianism. By 1929, he was able to get the official KPD journal, Under the Banner of Marxism, to publish his essay “Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis.”
Reich also moved beyond theory with field work in working class communities, setting up clinics, carrying out sex education, and on, in the course of which he created a mass movement of young people engaged in a new politics of sexual liberation.
Reich grasped that fascism had its basis not only in the economic contradictions of a decaying, over-ripe capitalism, but also in the psychology of the masses.
His 1933 book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, was an attempt to find out what made millions of workers who should have been a bulwark against fascism into its most fanatical supporters. Reich’s book was so outrageously controversial that it led to his expulsion from the KPD. A year later, he was kicked out of the International Psychoanalytical Association as well. It goes without saying that the Nazis too banned the book.
So what explained the appeal of fascism to people who would be its victims? Reich looked for what could make a child “apprehensive, shy, obedient, afraid of authority, good and adjusted in the authoritarian sense” and he found it in the family.
In particular, Reich linked the development of this kind of personality to the “suppression of the natural sexuality in the child”. He explained the lack of rebelliousness in such children – and later in adult life – by this. Sexual repression, he believed, “paralyses the rebellious forces because any rebellion is laden with anxiety; it produces, by inhibiting sexual curiosity and sexual thinking in the child, a general inhibition of thinking and of critical faculties.”
“In brief,” he wrote, “the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation.”
This was the basis for authoritarian society. “At first the child has to submit to the structure of the authoritarian miniature state, the family,” he wrote, and “this makes it capable of later subordination to the general authoritarian system. The formation of the authoritarian structure takes place through the anchoring of sexual inhibition and anxiety.”
Reich’s expulsion from both the Communist and Psychoanalytical movements left him isolated, and over the remaining two decades of his life he drifted far away from both the Marxism and Freudianism which he had worked so hard to bridge.
But his work over the course of a decade made a real and enduring contribution to a socialist understanding of fascism and how to fight it. That contribution can teach us much about the sources of Islamo-fascism today and how to defeat it.
Vulgar Marxists (and Trotsky was not one of those) are quick to point to simplistic class analyses to explain the rise of groups like Islamic State. Imperialism and colonialism left a legacy of poverty and inequality, and it was from a sense of powerlessness and despair that Islamism arose. This argument has been somewhat undermined by the fact that so many of the more prominent terrorists (such as the 9/11 murderers) were educated, middle class Muslims who lived in the West. Even today, there is no evidence linking young Muslims who run off to Syria to join IS with a personal experience of poverty or even oppression.
Wilhelm Reich’s description of the patriarchal, authoritarian family as the incubator of fascism was correct in Germany in 1933 and it is correct today. There can be little doubt that the suppression of “sexual curiosity and sexual thinking in the child” is part of the reactionary character of most Muslim societies.
Muslim societies are obviously not the only sexually repressive societies in the world, which is why fascism can find roots in other places as well. But Islamism is today a particularly aggressive and expansionist variant of fascism, one which threatens the entire world.
If Reich’s analysis is correct, what can socialists do to defeat fascism? Obviously, it is not enough to simply propose “class against class” as the answer. This was the view of the German Communists and it failed miserably as millions of ordinary Germans either supported the Nazis or accepted their rule with barely a murmur of protest.
Instead, the Left should directly confront the sexually repressive character of Islamo-fascism and prioritise the fight on that level. That means that it should no longer be possible to say that our first task is building support for, say, workers organisations in Iran and that support for gay rights in that country is secondary.
Gay rights, women’s liberation, and sexual freedom are not by-products of the revolution that is coming to that part of the world – they are the revolution.
Because of Reich’s later decline, a result in part of his expulsion from the both the Left and the psychoanalytical movement, his works have been largely forgotten and ignored, certainly by socialists. This is unfortunate, because a book like The Mass Psychology of Fascism can contribute so much to our understanding of Islamism and how it will be defeated in the end.
Photograph: Adam Scourfield/BBC/AP Photo/AP
The neurologist and author Oliver Sachs died yesterday aged 82. I read his most famous book, The Man Who Mistook his Wife For A Hat, a few years ago, but beyond that know little about him. According to the obit in today’s Guardian, he was criticised for writing “fairy-tales” in that his case histories lack the meticulous detail that contemporary science expects of practitioners. He was also accused of breaching patient confidentiality, although as far as I am aware, he took care to protect patients’ identities and certainly never used their real names in his writing.
What I do know about him is the sheer humanity he demonstrated in everything I’ve read by him, not least the very moving essay he wrote in the New York Times on learning of his terminal illness in February of this year:
It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”
I urge you to read the whole thing, here.
By Alan Theasby
When he took the boring “centre right” LibDems by the scruff of the neck and carved out a position as an independent “radical” party to the left of New Labour (at least to appearances), the result was a massive electoral swing in 2005, and LibDems were still seen by many as “left of Labour” in 2010 (how many thousands left in disgust at their role in the Coalition?)
When the LibDems presented radical, left politics – against the Iraq War, for EMA, against tuition fees, even anti-cuts to some extent – they got lots of support.
In Scotland the SNP is posing “left” and taking advantage of Scottish Labour’s abysmal policies: cuts, attacks on Unite union, and in bed with the Tories in “Better Together” etc. No wonder they swept the board, it’s a total indictment of Blairism and the likes of Jim Murphy!
In England the Greens are taking up the mantle that the LibDems had until 2010; this has not yet translated into votes but that’s a serious posibility if Labour contimues on its current “middle of the road/neither owt nor nowt” course or moves even further rightwards.
Lots of activists & “lefties” I know have massive illusions in the SNP & Greens, and write off the Labour Party as dead. I disagree on both counts: the SNP & Greens can pose as “left” under the Tories and with a Labour Party looking to “middle England”/ the “middle classes” (etc), but I have no illusions in them; and (although I like the word “Pasokification” – and now “Pascotification”) this is not Greece and Labour has deep roots unlike PASOK, and thewre is no sign in Britain of anytrhing like Syriza (which did not spring from nowhere but was created through splits & fusions in the existing strong Greek Communist Party, left union activists and other left groups).
So what do others think? Given that there is not even a vaguely left candidate for Leader, will Labour become a pathetic rump – or can it recover? Meanwhile, it’s come to something, hasn’t it, when the record of a former SDP’er and leader of the Lib Dems, is much braver and more left-wing than any candidate for leader of the Labour Party?
JD adds: and, at a human level, a thought from Gaby Hinsliff in today’s Graun:
All those people getting cheap laughs on social media out of Kennedy’s last erratic performance on the BBC’s Question Time, or rejoicing in his defeat on election night, were just a visible example of a culture which not only stigmatises people with mental health problems but treats public figures – politicians or otherwise – as if they were somehow less than human. If Charles Kennedy’s death leads one or two to pause before unleashing mob scorn or fury, if it prompts an ounce more compassion for people whose lives might well be more complicated than they look – well, a fine liberal legacy that would be.
The Left Unity conference on Saturday is debating Kurdistan. There is a motion which describes ISIS as having “progressive potential” because it breaks down the imperialist-drawn boundaries of Middle Eastern states and literally – literally – calls for support for a caliphate in the region, describing this as representing “internationalism”, “protection of diversity and autonomy”, “accountability and representation” and “effective control of executive authority”. I honestly don’t think I’ve misrepresented it. Luckily there are a number of other decent motions supporting the Kurds and working-class and socialist forces, including one which highlights the nature of Western imperialism but argues for the Kurds’ right to get weapons and air support in their battle against ISIS (not proposed by Workers’ Liberty funnily enough).
NB: the motion, in pdf form, is p.41, amendement Ba2
Service users and supporters rallied in Cambridge on 5 April
By Matt Wells (via Workers Liberty)
Lifeworks is a Complex Cases Service drop in centre which currently supports over 70 people with complex mental health problems in the Cambridge district and has supported many, many more over several years.
Following a deeply flawed decision to close the Lifeworks centre, taken behind the backs of those using it, a group of service users decided to occupy it. That was six weeks ago and the occupation is still holding out. This short video interview from inside the occupation with one of the participants gives a flavour of the resolve being shown by those fighting to save the service.
Please visit their Facebook page and sign their petition: see here.
They are seeking donations to sustain their campaign. Cheques to Cambridge & District Trade Union Council, marked Lifeworks. Send to Ian Beeby, Treasurer, CDTUC, 55, Station Road, Whittlesford, Cambridge, CB22 4NL.
A surprisingly fair and sympathetic piece by Spectator editor Fraser Nelson, who appeared on Channel 5’s The Big Benefits Row last night. The standard health warning about re-blogs here at Shiraz (ie don’t assume we agree with all of it) applies:
Katie Hopkins, Matthew Wright and Spectator reader White Dee
My night with White Dee — and Channel 5’s Big Benefits Row
What do you get if you mix the Jeremy Kyle show with Question Time? Channel 5 tried to find out this evening in a one-off debate about benefits and I was one of the 25 – yes, 25 – guests they asked along. Matthew Wright tried to keep the order, and the debate ranged (or, rather, raged) from the morality of benefits for immigrants to high MTR rates for welfare. It was more of a verbal explosion than a debate – you’d have working single mums screaming (“give me a job, innit!”) at benefit-dependent single mum. Edwina Currie baiting the lefties, with visible enjoyment. Even a mini protest (“every mum’s a working mum”) and Katie Hopkins who, with her ‘you’re all evil scroungers’ act, wound up the audience perfectly. And Jack Monroe, of the austerity recipe fame, who was admonished for using the f-word. It was kind of political panto.
Even Peter Stringfellow was present- in his capacity as a pensioner on benefits. He was very keen to touch the hem of Rachel Johnson, there as she’d recently spent a week living on £1 a day and has (as she put it) “friends with benefits”. The ex-Guardian journalist, Sarfraz Manzoor, was there to heckle Katie Hopkins and just when you though the evening couldn’t get more bizarre, up pops Terry Christian (ex-The Word) to stick the knife into Ms Hopkins as well. Margot James, a Tory MP and member of the 10 Downing St policy group, was watching all this, open-mouthed, from the front row.
But the star of the evening, for my money, was White Dee. She was then, as she is in Benefits Street, calm, articulate and funny – and making more sense than the rest of the guests put together. When the show closed, everyone came to to her asking for autographs and taking selfies. She kindly said that she was a Spectator reader (all the best people are) and that she liked our coverage of the Benefits Street debate.
I’m not sure what was learned this evening, given the variety of angles the topic was approached from – and the brave attempt to mix the Jerry Springer-style fights with the likes of myself jabbering on about marginal tax withdrawal rates (see below). But one thing’s for sure: after years of being an incredibly dull policy area, welfare reform is now one of the hottest topics in Britain. It is capable of breaking out of the normal confines of Westminster debate, and into a wider realm where wilder beasts roam and many more millions pay attention. And where poll after poll (including one taken for the show) makes clear that the public still backs reforms – still, that is, on the side of the government.
PS Here’s the point I was trying to make. White Dee doesn’t work because if she found part-time work and wanted to increase her hours, she’d find herself trapped in a system that would, in effect, tax her at 100 per cent for the work that she does. There is so much poverty in Britain because we have destroyed the economic function of work for the low-paid. Below is the Marginal Deduction Rate (i.e., benefits withdrawn, as a percentage of money earned) for someone in White Dee’s situation (i.e., a lone mother with two children).