Addiction is a slow form of suicide.

It has often been noted that addiction is a slow form of suicide. Suicide by roll of the dice if you will. Might as well have a bit of pleasure on our way out, or so the idea goes. And this idea has legs, because to use a bit of medical terminology — suicide and addiction have the same aetiology. They have the same cause.

Both addiction and suicide are a result of what the 19th century French sociologist Emile Durkheim called social anomie. Anomie, as Durkheim conceived it, was a state of normlessness or derangement that occurred in a large amount of individuals whenever the society they belonged to was undergoing a period of rapid social change. Properly speaking anomie did not refer to the absence of values, but to the failure of traditional value systems to keep up with a fast changing environment. I believe that this is exactly what we are seeing now with addiction. And so, as I outline Durkheim’s theory of anomie, and its effect on the suicide rate in 19th century France — I want you to imagine instead that I am using the word ‘addiction’, as it exists in 21st America, or any other western nation. See if it fits.

Religion Is (Or Was) a Protective Factor Against Suicide

Part of Durkheim’s work as a pioneering sociologist, was to use statistics. This was a relatively new development in academic study at the time (in 1897). By analysing death records, he observed suicide rates in different parts of France, and developed theories as to how different demographics fared. One of the first things he noticed, was that there was a link between religion and suicide prevention. In other words, widespread religious observance appeared to be a protective factor against suicide in any given community. The obvious conclusion to come to, was that religious people consider suicide to be immoral. Therefore, the more fervently they believed this, the less they tended to kill themselves. But Durkheim did not believe that this moral code itself was preventative. He believed that the sense of ‘society’ created by religious affiliation was the protective factor. What Carl Jung called “the wall of human community”. The word ‘society’ as Durkheim used it in this context means ‘tradition’ or ‘togetherness’. In fact, Durkheim found a dose-response relationship between religious observance and suicide prevention. The stronger the bind of religious tradition in any given locality, the lower the rate of suicide.

Durkheim also found suicide to be relatively rare in less ‘developed’ societies, and to increase as society became larger and more complex. Ironically, as society ‘developed’, it was at the same time ‘disintegrating’. Even more counter-intuitively, Durkheim found that during all-out wars, the suicide rate declined. The reason, according to Durkheim, was that such events tended to rally people’s sense of identity and meaning around a unifying cause. The journalist Sebastian Junger has noted the same thing in more recent wars. In his book Tribe, he describes how, during the second world war, London’s asylums tipped out their patients. Miraculously cured of their psychotic delusions they began driving ambulances and engaging in other helpful and heroic acts!

Finally, and even more confusingly, Durkheim found that suicide was not due to poverty and deprivation. In fact, he noted a sharp increase in suicide rates during times of rapid overall financial gain. It seems ridiculous to suggest that a net increase in material well-being (which industrialization undoubtedly brings) could contribute to our decline. But according to Durkheim, this is exactly what happened. The deification of goals which are purely individualistic, and which have no solid footing in a groups social history, leave individual members of that group unconstrained. For humans to be happy (or at least sane) Durkheim argued, they must in some sense be limited.

“Irrespective of any external regulatory force, our capacity for feeling is in itself an insatiable and bottomless abyss.”

In pre-industrial societies this regulatory function was performed by religion (regardless of whether it was animistic, polytheistic, theistic, or non-theistic). Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why sudden booms in material well-being can increase the suicide rate, while cultures still living in material poverty can remain relatively immune from both suicide and addiction when their traditional belief systems are intact.

Psychosocial Dislocation

It has been suggested by recent writers, most notably by the psychologist Bruce Alexander (who invented the famous Rat Park experiment) that addiction is driven by dislocation. In his book — The Globalization of Addiction: A Study in the Poverty of the Spirit — Alexander points out that it is not geographic dislocation that is the problem, but psychosocial dislocation. Psychosocial dislocation occurs when long-standing communities, traditions, and ways of life are rapidly deconstructed.

Alexander argues that this began in earnest with the age of exploration, when western nations uprooted the former ways of life of indigenous peoples across the Americas. Financial exploitation also occurred at home of course, with the highland clearances in Scotland and other domestic calamities. Interestingly, Alexander notes that this buccaneering exerted a rebound effect on the perpetrators themselves. Former Scottish clansmen, who had migrated to North America to make money from fur-trapping or any number of other enterprises, returned to their native lands financially enriched but alcoholic due to their long years spent in psychosocial isolation. Irreconcilably divorced from their own culture, they failed to reintegrate on their return, and in turn destabilized their own communities with their new-found wealth (and new found addictions).

I disagree with Alexander that it was capitalism per se that created psychosocial dislocation. I tend to agree with Durkheim who viewed it the other way around. As formerly restrictive modes of social organization (pious Christian societies) began to disintegrate under the weight of scientific enquiry, enterprises comprising capitalism proper (rather than mere mercantilism) began to gather pace. In sum, a lack of belief caused capitalism, not the other way round. To paraphrase Nietzsche, we found ‘new gods’. When this new religion of materialism met with indigenous people — they were wholly unprepared for it. The shock was simply too much.

But let us also reflect on how this state of anomie has boomeranged back on ourselves. The psychologist Carl Jung made this point in his final book, Man and His Symbols (1969).

Anthropologists have often described what happens to a primitive society when its spiritual values are exposed to the impact of modern civilization. Its people lose the meaning of their lives, their social organization disintegrates, and they themselves morally decay. We are now in the same condition.”

Notwithstanding his somewhat outmoded terminology, we can take his point.