Is therapy and “self-help” the best or only paradigm for psychedelic culture to flourish? Alnoor Ladha and Martin Kirk offer a critical assessment of humanity and suggest how psychedelic communities can become hubs of social change.
“The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.” – Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble.
We stand naked at the crossroads of history, watching modernity implode on itself with such violence that it risks irreparable harm to the very fabric of Life. Globalization, for all the ills of its imposed monoculture, has also created the potential for an unlikely alliance—psychedelic communities and the global justice movement.
This article is written primarily for psychedelic communities, both as a plea and a provocation. As the spread of sacraments like ayahuasca and their accompanying shamanic practices reach every corner of the planet, the once disconnected, largely Western, affluent psychedelic communities have the opportunity to expand their caravan of influence, their sphere of care.
Political activism is rarely discussed in psychedelic communities. When it is, it’s usually in the guise of stopping the destruction of Indigenous lands (i.e., the source cultures for most plant medicines) or for cognitive liberties (i.e., legal access to psychotropics). Although both are worthy causes, we would like to argue that a more outward-looking approach, grounded in a deep awareness of structural power and injustice, is required to better serve the needs of psychedelic communities, traditional healing cultures, social justice, and, indeed, Life itself.
Our case is built around four interlocking premises. The first three premises give an overview of ideology and capitalism in the contemporary era. The final one brings the issue of psychedelic communities directly into the discussion. Each premise informs the others, and together they lead to implications and recommendations that may help us (re)discover new and ancient pathways and collective purpose. We offer our ideas in the spirit of the Australian Aboriginal activist and academic Lilla Watson’s well-known qualification for collaboration:
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.“
Premise 1: Ideology is always a background condition
“You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” – Howard Zinn
Those in power have a habit of warning those without power to beware of ideology. This is very often not, as they would claim, a neutral demand to overcome divisions and pull together in peace and harmony, but rather a strategy for domination.
Ideology is simply a name given to the set of ideas and ideals we need to operate in the world. It is a synonym for a belief system, the substrate of our understanding of how things work that gives our world meaning and, sometimes, purpose. By creating an intellectual climate where most people are suspicious of ideology in a broad sense, the establishment culture effectively claims an exclusive right to define reality through theirs.
For example, the fact that the US government now spends close to $700 billion annually on the military is a very deep statement of ideology, as is the subsidization of very large, very rich corporations like Exxon Mobil or GE with taxpayers’ money. These are active strategies, grounded in ideas and ideals, and so are, by definition, ideological. Simply saying your ideals float above ideology doesn’t make it so.
To understand how effective this strategy has been, though, look no further than all the pundits claiming Donald Trump is somehow not ideological. Even Obama got in on the act, saying he believes Trump will govern with pragmatism rather than ideology. In truth, Donald Trump is almost purely ideological. It’s just that his understanding of how the world does and should work—his ideology—is so simple, so devoid of nuance, complexity, and originality, and so in-line with the most basic laws of capitalist ideology, that it can look to eyes fully immersed in the dominant logic almost like a blank slate. It is not.
Trump believes profoundly in moral hierarchies and that he, personally, exemplifies the ideal. Namely, he is American, white, male, rich (i.e., justly successful), powerful (i.e., effectively strong), and, crucially, a businessman, which the dominant ideology reads as meaning pragmatic and straightforward. In other words, Trump’s ideology is so deeply consistent with the dominant logic that it creates the idea that, as Margaret Thatcher infamously said, there is no alternative.
Trump’s ascent to power is a perfectly logical event within a system designed to do what Trump himself does well—or at least gives a convincing appearance of doing well—i.e., making money. As the philosopher John Ralston Saul says, “We assume that people of merit rise to the top of the system. But in fact, the system finds the people that are best constructed to further its own existence and draws them to the top.” In other words, if the system values individualism and financial wealth above all else, then rich narcissists will of course be rewarded with what the system has to offer.
Globally, the dominant ideological framework that gave birth to and supports Trump is neoliberal capitalism. It is a highly concentrated form of the basic capitalist logic that places the generation of capital as the supreme value. Its source code is anthropocentric exceptionalism: seeing the non-human world largely as fodder to turn into capital.
It is born of and comfortable with the logic of white supremacy, as white people historically benefited from an “early adopter advantage,” as capitalism calls it, and then grew that advantage through colonialism, imperialism, and slavery. This is not strictly exclusive—anyone who is good at generating capital is acceptable—but in gross and historical terms, whiteness and capitalism have been handmaidens to each other so share a special self-reinforcing affinity.
Neoliberal capitalism relies on a form of fundamentalist scientific and economic rationalism and relegates the truly transcendent and ineffable to sideline curiosities, when it’s not treating them as active threats. It fetishizes private ownership over collective. As the economic historian Marjorie Kelly puts it, “ownership is the original system condition.”
Whether we acknowledge it or not, this ideology has conditioned the entire planet. The closer one’s proximity and length of exposure, the stronger its likely effects. By understanding this as a first condition of our times, we can better recognize how deeply affected—programmed, you could say—we all must be, simply by virtue of having been born and raised in this economic environment. And that helps us recognize the grave risks of replicating the cultural aspects of neoliberal ideology in the psychedelic space.
Premise 2: Our modern crises are the logical outcome of our complex, adaptive economic system
“It is a dangerous time to be loud, and an even more dangerous time to be silent. Either way, the past and the future are with us.” – Nora Bateson.
The global economy is a complex-adaptive system the size of the planet. At this level of scale and complexity, it is effectively a form of artificial intelligence. This intelligence has been programmed with a set of generative rules: e.g., capital generation is the prime directive, the rule to rule all rules. Money serves this directive by being created as interest-bearing debt by private banks, thereby requiring and guaranteeing constant growth in the money supply (money being one form of capital). Those with capital receive compound interest that entrenches their advantage so they can keep serving the prime directive. The costs of a good or service are simply the material cost to the producer plus the profit margin, rather than the environmental cost to the collective or other critical factors.
These rules have become more powerful than any human institution or enterprise. Capitalism, like Frankenstein’s monster, has long since taken on a wild and dangerous life of its own, guiding and controlling, far more than being guided or controlled, by human affairs. This is not a dark room conspiracy; from the survival of the most basic cell all the way up to the infinite complexity of the internet, this is how complex adaptive systems behave. The logic of capital is merely the logic of this particular complex adaptive system.
There is a suicidal flaw in this logic. It has been programmed to behave as if it is sovereign to itself, the ultimate authority. But it is not. It is merely a system within a larger system that feeds and sustains it: the biosphere. Anything that happens to the biosphere is also happening, ultimately, to the economy. There may be a time lag between damage to the biosphere and damage to the economy, but that is all it is, a delay. It is wholly delusional to believe that we can damage the core functions of the biosphere and not simultaneously sow the seeds of economic malfunction and breakdown. Like an undiagnosed cancer, the truth will bring us to our knees eventually. Nature always bats last.
This is the essential truth that identifies the logic of capitalism as the primary driver of climate and ecological breakdown. Blindness to this truth is nowhere more apparent than in our language. To mainstream economists, climate change and ecological collapse are quite literally called “externalities”; things that are outside the boundaries of “the economy”. But as we’ve seen, this is a profound misperception. Until this error is corrected, we can only be on the path to eventual ruin.
Geologists recently declared our current epoch the Anthropocene, as humans are now the single most powerful force affecting the planet. Andreas Malm, Donna Haraway, Raj Patel, and others have argued that a more apt term would the Capitalocene. Given the overwhelming power of capitalism’s internal logic, we think the latter is more accurate and descriptive of what needs to change.
In accepting premise one, we are agreeing to accept the deeply ideological background conditions of our time—to recognize the nature of the oxygen we are breathing. In accepting premise two, we begin to understand the mechanics of how the Capitalocene works. If we are not addressing the root functions of this system, we are merely bystanders as the world burns around us.
Premise 3: Neither blind optimism nor avoidance can save us
“There is the world we create and there is the world that created us. These two worlds must come together.” – Dieter Duhm.
Hard realities are hard to face, and we humans have a multitude of mental tools available to us to avoid hard realities. This has always been true, but it is especially true in the early 21st century. Today, our identities are manufactured by the products and services we consume—we even make consumer brands of ourselves, pruning our social media profiles and even our relationships to create an identity we can successfully trade in the marketplace of clicks and likes.
We thus create our own stories and alibis that allow us to feel as comfortable as we can with our role in the system. Let’s look at just one powerful example of how this works in practice. Bill Gates tells us incessantly that the world is getting better, that neoliberal progress is “lifting all boats,” and that the best way to deal with climate and ecological breakdown is through the dual instruments of the market and philanthropy. Which is a way of saying the fundamentals of capitalism are fine, it just needs some relatively mild recalibration.
As seductive as this sort of optimism may feel, and as much as it may soothe fears triggered by ideas of whole-system change, the facts speak of a very different and more far-reaching imperative: the need to evolve the fundamental rules of the operating system such that it ceases to be what it is now and becomes something altogether new. Capitalism itself, in other words, must be replaced with something contextually relevant for the times we live in.
Let’s just look at what capitalism has done: inequality is sky-rocketing, with over 60% of humanity barely seeing an increase in their income over the past 36 years. Wealth has concentrated to such an extent that just eight billionaires (all men of course) have the same wealth as over 50% of the world’s population. The pattern is entrenched to the point of self-replication: the vast bulk of wealth generated since the inception of neoliberalism in the 1980s has flowed efficiently, and deliberately, into the hands of the already rich. In other words, every dollar of wealth created actively creates more inequality.
We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction on this planet, with 150 to 200 species disappearing every day. That’s between 1,000 and 10,000 times the historical rate of extinction. This rate of extinction portends true global catastrophe if left unchecked.
We’re not talking about making life for some humans harder, we’re talking about degrading the very foundations of Life itself. We are chipping away at the base of the food web; in the last 50 years we have lost 40% of phytoplankton in the oceans. If that all goes, practically no ocean life can exist. Similarly, we are destroying insect populations on land, to the tune of up to 75% in some places already. Without insects, there is no terrestrial life. In tandem with this species destruction, we are headed towards somewhere between a 3 and 5 degree centigrade rise in global temperature within the next 80 years. Three degrees will make parts of the globe uninhabitable to humans and the very effort of globally organized human civilization impossible to sustain. Five degrees is close to game over for humanity.
In this disastrous context, people like Mr. Gates, with the backing of institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, tell us that global GDP has to grow at about three percent a year to avoid deflation and system breakdown. This effectively means a doubling of the global economy every 20 years. Twice as many cars, twice as many hamburgers, twice as many trans-continental flights, twice as many iPads, etc. The effects on the planet are barely conceivable.
Some believe that denying this reality will save us. We’ve been witness to many people in psychedelic communities saying, “politics is not for me” or, “by talking about politics we are creating dualism.” But politics is far bigger than just electoral politics. Politics is the art of handling power. And power will affect you whether you like it or not. The fear of dualism creates more dualism.
Some believe that plant medicines such as ayahuasca will play an important role in overthrowing the existing paradigm. This may be true. However, if psychedelic communities don’t first understand how the global operating system works, then we cannot begin to imagine or even refine our actions and prayers in ways that are commensurate to the scale of our crises.
The first task for psychedelic communities, then, is to recognize the whole-system reality. If our spiritual or psychedelic practices detach us from this; if they are not addressing root causes; if they are not defending Life in the face of neoliberal slaughter, they are serving nothing but our own atomized, egoic selves. And what could be less honoring of the truths of unity and oneness that are often revealed through deep psychedelic practice?
Currently, we are relegating the power of psychedelics and the communities around them to the margins of social change. Psychedelics have, for many, become just another tool for self-development rather than a spiritual practice rooted in revolutionary thought and social justice, centered around deep communities of kinship that have the power to uproot the psychosis of modernity and the structures that keep it in place.
Premise 4: The merger of the social justice movement with psychedelic communities can serve as pillars for a global community of kinship
“O you who will walk this Earth
When we are gone,
Stir us awake…
O you who come after,
Help us remember:
We are your ancestors.
Fill us with gladness for the work that must be done.“
– “Prayer to Future Beings,” Joanna Macy.
We are running out of time as a civilization. Given the existing climate and ecological realities, we probably have 10 to 20 years left of the Western way of living. We can live in denial of this, or we can recognize that it provides a profound opportunity to unite people across historical schisms. Through relationships with Indigenous and traditional communities, psychedelic communities can access powerful plant medicines, deep spiritual resources, and shamanic traditions that were not accessible to the majority of humanity just a few decades ago.
By embracing a more structural understanding of power; by explicitly talking in systemic terms, connecting the dots between issues and struggles; by understanding what it means to live deep within a complex adaptive system; and by being in solidarity with Life, psychedelic communities have the potential to attract a far broader base of people.
Those who are the most marginalized by modern capitalism will more likely be attracted to psychedelic communities if they feel this sense of allyship that comes with a shared worldview. We may find more diverse people interested in sitting in medicine circles or joining festivals/gatherings that have historically been occupied by a small class of psychedelic elites.
This will further politicize psychedelic communities as they will now be in kinship with a broader movement. This broader movement will be more directly affected and interconnected to the plight of the world’s majority.
One can imagine the shift in psychedelic culture when we have more people of color, more people from LGBTQI communities, more people from the global South, more members of social movements called to join spaces where psychedelics are shared. One can imagine the potential benefits to the broader movement when more of its members have experienced ego-death, the dissolution of subject-object duality and other aspects of the psychedelic experience.
As activists who work in social justice spaces and as students of plant medicines, we have seen the first rays of light from these shifts. We have seen how the trauma of fighting the capitalist system can be integrated into deep embodied lessons of resilience, resurgence, and regeneration. We have seen how those who experience a “deathless death” become more cooperative, generous, and committed to collective evolution.
Of course, this will not happen immediately or easily. The union of disparate communities, like all deepening of entanglements, is a fraught, haptic, messy proposition. The politics of space and identity will need to re-litigated. The economics of access to medicines will need to be re-thought.
Psychedelic communities will internalize the deep shifts in their own way. We may find that we spend less time trying to legitimize psychedelics to the scientific/pharmaceutical complex, knowing this will hasten the commodification and privatization of sacred medicines. We may find ourselves less interested in taking Silicon Valley CEOs on excursions to the Amazon in favor of more social justice leaders. We may find an innate satisfaction in remaining outsiders to a system that does not serve Life. We may find ourselves reinvigorated by sitting in a medicine circle as an illegal, revolutionary act. We may find new purpose in collective prayer and communal shamanism, eschewing the old hero-based, patriarchal model of the single shaman.
We may find that there will be access to deeper purpose than self-help. The binary idea that change starts within will give way to a more non-dualistic, discursive mode of simultaneous inner and outer change that will feed upon itself. We may find that the abolitionist’s truism that “none of us are free until all of us are free” may hold an antidote for the spiritual ennui of Western culture.
We may also find that the existing power structure will not be able to so readily co-opt or consume an intersectional community, held together by numinous experiences, the sharing of sacraments and ancient knowledge, and deep spiritual-political practices. We may find access to spiritual capabilities we had forgotten we possessed. We may find that the union of spirituality and politics, of mysticism and anarchism, may provide us with a pathway to begin the necessary work of reconciliation, recuperation, redemption, and rewilding. We may find that there is no remaining distinction between an activist and a shaman. We may find that our ancestors, the elements, the plants, and other emissaries for a living universe conspire to speak to us in new and timely ways.
We may find ways to be the ancestors we hoped we would become.
Artwork by Rosanna Dean : rosannadean.com