Narco-capitalism, on pills and politics

French-language essayist Laurent de Sutter, born in Antwerp, already has about twenty books to his name, most of which have been translated all over the world. Now that a Dutch translation of his was published for the first time, it was an immediate hit, because his ‘Narco-Capitalism’ is already in its second printing. Lieven De Cauter read it and wrote this ‘signalement’ about it.

In addition to being a frequent writer, De Sutter is also a media figure, editor and professor of legal theory at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. A number of his books are therefore about law. Its basic premise boils down to this: the law, with its covenants and contracts, is much richer in possibilities than the law, which only seems restrictive and prohibitive.

But the majority of his terse little books are decidedly frivolous, to the point of subversiveness. In an infectious interview with Apache, he calls himself a Baudelaire, a supporter of artifice (he could also have said ‘Baudrillard’), and an anarchist in the literal sense of the word: opposed to principles and foundations, then in favor of embracing groundlessness. .

De Sutter understands the art in an elegant style, in short chapters, real vignettes, not only to share learned knowledge, to develop an original, stubborn way of thinking, and sometimes also to be funny, but also to tell an exciting story .

This narrative element especially takes the reader along: his essays read like theoretical short stories. In fact, De Sutter masterfully practices a rather rare subgenre, the narrative philosophical essay.

Narco-capitalismoriginally published in French as The age of anesthesia, is actually above all a short history of anaesthesia. The patenting of ether anesthesia and the invention of the word itself is a springboard to talk about Kraepelin’s theory.

It was Emil Kraepelin, one of the founders of psychiatry, who in 1899 first identified manic depression as a single syndrome, considering melancholy and mania as two sides of the same coin. He assumed that the manic phase is the most dangerous in manic depressives.

Therefore, manic patients had to be calmed down with ‘sedation’, drugged, kept in a kind of mild depression with drugs that make them docile. De Sutter divides the manic-depressive Irresein into: being (signal) the wandering (irre).

The patient’s excitement is thus for Kraepelin a kind of ontological lack, an irresolvable lack that also passes on from generation to generation. This pessimistic view is typical of our time. Mental illness can only be controlled chemically, not cured.

Chloral hydrate offers a solution in the mid-nineteenth century, especially for the environment of the manic-depressive patient, because the overexcitation of mania is very irritating – after all, physical turmoil makes people unmanageable.

De Sutter draws a line from the discovery of chloral hydrate to today’s antidepressants, and then in the second chapter discusses cocaine—from Freud to Coca-Cola and cola’s prized mental excitement. In this book, De Sutter walks through the history of our addiction to psychotropic drugs while making provocative statements.

For him, cocaine embodies the manic side of capitalism: Capitalism and cocaine work in the same way – nothing can stop them – and the banks also work closely together like the cocaine mafia.

After a meandering chapter on nightlife and an enlightening chapter on birth control pills, Narco-capitalism in a small genealogy of the fear of the masses and the psychopolitics of taming it. The individual’s being outside himself in mania is reflected in the dangerous loss of himself in the crowd.

This excitement must be reduced to being depressed. Politics from below is excited, political control from above is the shutdown, the calming of that tension: ‘tension’. Now that’s what the ‘Prozac culture’ does to us: keep us in a gentle stupor. Hence: narco-capitalism.

Prozac (2006). Photo: Tom Varco/CC BY-SA 3:0

In his own words, De Sutter does not want to write a critique of narco-capitalism, but to make us think. And he does. The question that De Sutter asks the reader at the beginning of the book lingers long after you have closed it: ‘What is this life if we need antidepressants to keep us upright, sleeping pills to fall asleep at night ?, excitants to wake up? again and party drugs to party?’

However, he does not want to moralize so much as to open up possibilities. For him, the unsuspected, the potentiality, the forgotten possibilities must take precedence over negativity, moralism and the search for a scapegoat. Using an almost Benjaminian collage technique to assemble mosaics, puzzle pieces of a missing whole, his books focus explicitly on intensity and fascination. That’s what makes them so infectious, even exciting.

His rebelliousness also rubs off: in the beautiful afterword to the Dutch edition, De Sutter even states that he wants to abolish philosophy because it collaborates with psychopolitics, which wants to return any form of being outside oneself to a stable, docile, manageable condition … In this way, according to him, we can ‘finally realize […] regain the limitlessness that should drive every thought’.

This subversion of philosophy in favor of essayistic thinking, thinking as trying, is indeed the effort of his work. In a French interview, he puts it this way: ‘J’imagine l’essai comme une machine à exciter le cerveau à travers une narration treating les idées comme des events de nature presque erotic.’ (“I see the essay as a machine tuned to stimulate the brain through a story that treats ideas as events of an almost erotic nature.”).

Admit it, this is gourmet cooking in words: at once voluptuous and analytical, at the same time manneristic and of breathtaking precision.

It is not surprising that this cross-thinking dandy is also a member of DiEM25, the radical left-wing European movement of Yanis Varoufakis, because there is a connection between his subversive-frivolous aesthetic and his anarchist legal philosophy.

Narco-capitalism is at the intersection of the two. Perhaps we should invent an oxymoron for it: radical frivolity. Be that as it may, friend and foe alike will agree that De Sutter is a philosopher agent provocateur is top shelf. Gauche caviar, grand cru classé.

This essay is taken from De Reactor, where it appeared on September 19, 2022.

Laurent DeSutter. Narco-capitalism. EPO, Berchem, 2022, 142 pp. ISBN 978 9462 6731 68 – translation Peter Cockelbergh and Bas Matthyssens.

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