Plan to Thrive is publishing a series of blog posts on alcohol use in activist spaces, and we welcome your input! This first post was originally published in ‘Another Sober Zine’ and is a personal refection of experiencing drinking cultures, particularly within the radical activist community.
I’ve spent a lot of time now in radical political circles, and a lot of time in radical political drinking circles. I’ve had a lot of people saying things like “that’s really good, I wish I could do that” while they take another swig. And a lot of people offer me drinks, to which my answer is always “no thanks.”
And that’s cool. Each to their own, I guess. But one thing that I am finding increasingly infrequent is people asking me the reasons why I don’t drink. Or asking the reasons why so many of us do.
Now I won’t usually bring this up because I don’t want to come across as a holier-than-thou straight edger. And I really am cool with people making their own choices about their own lives. But I just wish that a bit more often we would ask questions about the relationship between alcohol and capitalism.
Everyone can quote Karl Marx’s line about religion being “the opiate of the masses”. But that metaphor would mean nothing if it weren’t for actual opiates which do the same thing. Keeping us all under control, giving the illusion of freedom every weekend while we are slaves during the week.
I’ll never begrudge anyone wanting to get drunk. People have valid reasons after all. You need to let your hair down to deal with the stress of working 40 hours a week or trying to make change in our messed up world. You need to drink to gain the confidence to talk to strangers/people you are attracted to. Or you are self-medicating to deal with trauma or depression. These are all reasons I’ve heard numerous times over the years, and they are all fair enough.
Except for this. All those reasons listed are problems whose roots are nothing to do with alcohol. It’s our system that overworks and overstresses us all, turning us all into producers and consumers. It’s our society that keeps us isolated from each other, seeing communication with others as something to be feared. And it’s that same isolation that means we struggle to work through the effects on us of our sick society.
And every time we drink to patch up these problems, it stops us from actually doing anything to deal with them or try to change them. Is it any wonder our activist communities so often perpetuate the same issues as the society around us?
Once I was talking with someone who was sharing my frustration that our activist gatherings weren’t much more than piss-ups. They said “I know a lot of people in our community have a lot of social anxieties that they need to drink for, but…”
The truth is that everyone carries these same anxieties. That’s part of being human, especially being human in our 21st century capitalist world. If we drink to medicate these anxieties, of course we’ll need to keep drinking to deal with them. It could be a metaphor for so many issues in our broader world, but here we are falling into the same cycle.
That’s not even mentioning all the time and resources we put into drinking – all the hangovers; the nights we can’t recall; all the money that goes to big corporations, funding monocrop farming, sexist billboards and the never-ending production of glass bottles and aluminium cans.
There’s the way we respect people (or races of people) who have had issues with alcohol in their past. I’m disappointed when the default space for social gatherings in our scene is the pub. I’m ashamed when people supposedly there to support at indigenous protest camps declared as dry camps sneak off to drink in their tent.
Or the simple reality of what alcohol and drugs do to our communities. Issues of sexual consent, violence and just how we look after each other all have a very sticky connection to intoxication. There are so many examples of these that have turned into big issues that divide our scenes and take a lot of time and effort if they ever are resolved. But who knows how many times these things come up but are never noticed?
I was once at a punk show and saw a friend sitting on the ground, not looking at their peak. I walked over and sat next to them. They were having a panic attack. Now I hardly knew this person, and they were at a show surrounded by all their closest friends. None of them noticed what was happening. We chatted for a while, they calmed down and thanked me. It was all good.
But as I left that night, I couldn’t help but wonder how we could claim that our scene was a community any better than the world around us. The way I see it, the punk scene is battling two narratives that compete rather than complement each other – the hard drinking, drug taking, self-annihilating wasters, or the supportive community that stands against the destructive values of this world.
It’s very rare that I actually say all this. In a scene where we supposedly value honesty, it’s hard to criticize something that is so widespread. But it was a surprise and actually a relief to discover the other day that all of us contributing to this zine were sober activists. It was like we could finally be ourselves and be real about how we feel.
I wish that we as an activist community could critique ourselves on this issue the same way we can dissect the flaws of the system we live in. Maybe if we do we might find that system isn’t quite as indestructible as we thought.
Another Sober Zine is a series of 6 vignettes and essays published by anonymous Australian writers in April, 2014. To get in touch contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are your experiences of alcohol use in activist spaces?