What can’t go on forever, won’t

Drinking and the Left

Ben Courtice shares his personal story about activism, drinking, and stopping drinking – and his observations of the cultures that contribute to unhealthy relationships with alcohol. This is the third article in our series on alcohol in activist communities. 

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A number of the most hard working activists I know are also some of the most hard drinking.

Being an activist of the left is stressful. The other side have all the money, bureaucracy, most of the media, the cultural inertia of the status quo. They have whole skyscrapers full of people working on their agenda. Of course being up against that means we get stressed, we take on more work than is good for our health, we usually find that our best efforts just aren’t enough to win the things we feel are so important, over and over again. Lasting victories are few and far between.

Whether your cause is the rights of refugees, saving the environment, ending precarious employment, stopping violence against women – if it was easy, it would have been won already. It is a hard road to travel. How about one (or ten) for the road, to soften the way?

I have been a pretty full-time activist for many years, usually working full time, while doing activism to support workers rights and stop climate change in my spare time outside work. It was probably the equivalent of working almost two jobs at some points.

Naturally, I drank a hell of a lot. A whole sixpack in an evening was a pretty routine occurrence. Every night. (I chug them down fast, which also doesn’t help.) I can’t control my drinking. Not in a spectacular, fisticuffs followed by puking through broken teeth into the gutter kind of way like you might see in a TV drama. Just in the rather mundane way that the first drink trips some kind of switch in my brain which says “I’ll have ten more, thanks!”.

As I said, some of the hardest working activists I know are also some of the hardest drinking. I respect them. It’s a personal choice. You gotta get through those endless days and weeks of struggle somehow. I’m not trying to put them down or name and shame. I’d be a hypocrite given that I’ve drunk as much as at least half of them, and almost as much as most of the rest.

But you might have heard a environmental campaign slogan, “what can’t go on forever, won’t”. That applies to our personal lives, too. I finally decided to act to reach that end point in a way where I was still in control of the outcome. I had to quit drinking more or less completely. I didn’t go to AA (I have friends who found them helpful, but they sound a bit weird to me). I just stopped.

When you forget what it’s like to wake up not under the influence, when your neurons are struggling to piece thoughts together every day, when you nearly have serious accidents in the 5 ton truck you drive for work, you’ve got to stop and think whether it’s actually helping you anymore.

Even if none of those problems trouble some hard drinkers, bear in mind that alcohol, like cigarettes, is a serious carcinogen. It causes or contributes to cancer of the mouth, throat, stomach, liver, breast, and more. It is a cause or contributing factor in diabetes and heart disease and so on.

It’s not that us on the left are to blame. Australian culture is heavy drinking. A lot of us learn that socialising=alcohol from our teens; I did. After a while it becomes awkward to try and socialise without a drink in the hand, for many of us. After a while, it can become hardwired in your brain that fun=alcohol and it’s hard to even feel the first without having the second.

So when the activist scene is full of young people who want to change the world, yet who are a product of that culture, plus maybe with a dose of subversive hedonism for good measure, and all the anguish of capitalist society to try and forget, we shouldn’t be surprised that we collectively drink a lot.

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In an earlier attempt to quit, I found that at least one of my then comrades took a rather transparent offence to my deserting the ranks of the drinkers, and encouraged me to “just have one” and so on. Not helpful.

When you’re the only non-drinker it gets a bit depressing. I have to say to those who are still heavy drinkers, that you really aren’t that funny or interesting to sober people, when you’re pissed. Hanging out with a bunch of people who are sozzled, even if they are people you love, wears out its charm pretty quick. I’ve been a culprit too many times, but it has to be said.

When I gave up (finally), I realised that there’s not many of our events where people aren’t drinking. Some groups even hold their meetings in pubs, or with drinks during the meeting.

I don’t have a moral problem with people drinking if they want. I’m all for people choosing what poisons they want or need to take. I’m not a wowser. But we need to provide a culture on the left where people don’t have to drink, and where it’s not pushed in your face if you have a drinking problem.

That means for a start, reconsidering meetings in pubs if anyone still does that. It means fundraisers should be, if not booze-free, then at least not centred around being “a piss-up”. Getting a licence and using the booze as the principal fundraiser is certainly easy, but it has other overheads.

I don’t know exactly (yet) how to have fun of an evening with comrades from the struggle, minus the alcohol. I’m still getting there. But I think it’s important for the groups as well as individuals not to put barriers in the way. We ought to find the way to ensure these events are also enjoyable for those who don’t drink, or don’t drink much. A lot of events are, but a lot still aren’t.

Alcoholism is a big health problem. It’s very profitable for a few big capitalist corporations that make and sell and advertise the stuff. It’s the drug we don’t talk about, even while we all understand it’s not OK to smoke inside and all the rest. Dealing with our collective alcoholic culture is just about being more inclusive.

On a final note, those of us who’ve struggled with alcoholism and had to give it up, or who have successfully cut down, could probably speak up a bit more, too. For any activist who thinks they may be on the road to being an alcoholic, it’s pretty difficult to stop, in the alcoholic culture we live in. I’m happy to share any of my insights in how to give up, and why you might want to, if anyone asks.

 

Ben CourticeAbout the author

Ben Courtice is a lifelong greenie and socialist. He is a qualified fitter & turner and spent many years as a union activist on the job. He has been a long time writer at Green Left Weekly and more recently, has worked in campaigning, communications and event management for environmental groups and campaigns, including Friends of the Earth and Beyond Zero Emissions. Currently he is studying full-time for a BSc.

 

How has alcohol impacted on your activism? How has activism impacted on your use of alcohol? What have you noticed about how activist spaces include or exclude non-drinkers?

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6 Responses to “What can’t go on forever, won’t”

  1. Thanks Ben, it is so great to read your perspective, including a frank assessment of how alcohol-soaked our activist cultures are!

    As a non-drinker myself I bump up against this all the time. ‘Go on, just have one with us’. Alcohol isn’t a ‘problem’ for me (besides the fact that I don’t like it) but this attitude from people really shows how little consciousness there is of drinking problems. So inappropriate to coax/hassle people to drink!

    I think one of the issues is a sense of shame or discomfort people have about their own drinking. This button gets pushed when coming across someone who has made a different choice and the reaction is something like ‘stop making me feel bad about myself! quick, have a drink!’ Maybe I should counter by offering to shout rounds of lemonade or something.

  2. Thanks for this honest account. I completely get this. The feelings can get so overwhelming that you want to numb it all. Now 5 months booze free I am a more productive person and activist and life is a lot clearer and happier. Never looking back 🙂

  3. Great stuff Ben, good on you for speaking out on this important issue.

  4. Good stuff Ben, drug-free is liberation, and the drinking/smoking/drug-taking alternative/rebel image is a delusion created of corporate ad agencies.

  5. I have been waiting to read something like this for over 30 years, well done. I joined the socialist movement as a teenage migrant and my culture was certainly not about drinking. I find the drinking culture a non-inclusive imposition. In our culture, people use food rather than drink as a social mixer. People loosen up when they eat and allow the natural display of emotion. We don’t have the stiff upper lip, so if we don’t have the problem we don’t need the cure. Unfortunately I hear young activists gleefully trumpeting their drinking and it feels like a social pressure to do something which I find unnatural and odd. From time to time there have been some socially conscious people I know, who I couldn’t bring to meet other socialists at events, because this inward looking drinking culture would turn them off. I still don’t feel comfortable entering pubs because of my background but I occasionally go. If I switch to juice after having one alcoholic drink at a pub I have to cope with people pulling faces and atone for my choices. This is plain wrong.
    Socialists need to support a campaign to ban alcohol advertising – these capitalists are endangering our health and community as much as tobacco companies. Alcohol advertising depicts the product as sociable, fun, racy, a sign of manhood, womanhood, youth, passion etc etc and it is a pack of silly lies. I have been talking about alcohol on the Left being non-inclusive for years, and been seen as divisive, a secret conservative wowser, whinger etc. But now that a real hard drinking Anglo male is telling other real hard drinking Anglo males to ditch this coercive unhealthy habit some people might start to take notice.

  6. Thanks for all the comments. I do agree with Helen that there have been problems on the left. I don’t think many groups still meet in pubs, for example, which is a definite step forward.

    It’s not just about being inclusive of different cultures. One of the functions of being inclusive is including people you don’t always agree with. Having passionate disagreements is cool with me, but it’s better if not done when half pissed. In a left union caucus booze was banned at meetings because tempers got too hot.

    I have to say I don’t agree that “drug-free is liberation” in general, though. I am quite sure that for some people it is that simple. On the other hand there are many other recreational drugs, legal and illegal, that are quite harmless and seem quite positive for many people. The strongest one that I take is coffee mind you!

    But it’s important to emphasise I’m not against people drinking per se, I’m against it becoming a barrier to inclusion, or being encouraged to the extent that health problems ensue.

    It’s true the alcohol companies are capitalist and push their stuff with all manner of odd advertising. But so also are the companies that make shoes, bread, cars, print books, and so on. I am not sure about banning alcohol advertising. Maybe, maybe not.

    More importantly, I think a positive campaign to explain the signs of alcoholism and how to recover, and how to support friends through it, is missing.