Wednesday 14 January 2015

Condemning the carnivalesque

This post, like a few before it, is about an academic article I’ve had published recently.  A version of this may or may not end up on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog, but in any case this version has a few things included that I couldn’t fit in with the word count – one of which is a few more words on the paradoxical semantic/pedantic point that when academics talk about a ‘new culture of intoxication’, this only makes sense because we’re talking about intoxication as drunkenness, rather than something pharmacological.  That’s the only point worth noting, really – otherwise I’d point you to the article itself, which is free to access and probably more clearly written (if in a more academic style).

Alcohol – and public policy in relation to it – seems to be a fascination in Britain not only for governments, but the media and academics.

A common academic view has been that British night-time high streets, and our drinking behaviour on them, have been shaped by a form of neoliberalism, exemplified by the perceived loosening of licensing laws – for example through the 2003 Licensing Act that supposedly ushered in 24-hour drinking.  This has taken place, it is suggested, as part of a broader trend for consumption such as drinking to replace productive work in importance to the UK economy and young people’s identities.

But this apparent liberalisation hasn’t meant that government has been indifferent to people’s drinking choices.  The neoliberal approach is characterised by its response to those drinking practices it considers undesirable: where governments with a different ‘mentality of government’ reshaped the drinking environment – for example through precisely those licensing laws that more recent UK governments dissolved – neoliberal governments have focused on the drinkers themselves, trying to change behaviour through education and social marketing such as the ‘Would You?’ and ‘Change for Life’ campaigns.

This means that governments don’t think each person’s way of laying out their own life is the best by definition, as some classical liberals might; neoliberal governments actually have strong ideas of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ drinking.  This distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, though, isn’t inherent in the neoliberal approach to government.  A neoliberal approach could focus on health issues, or disorder, or indeed celebrate drinking as a valuable contribution to the economy; the difference would be in the programmes designed to educate consumers.

Both in the media and academic work it’s common to see discussions of how ‘good’ and ‘bad’ drinking are defined.  Often it’s suggested that the government has criminalised intoxication, or certain forms of pleasure.  In a recently published article I’ve argued that the concept of the carnivalesque is actually more helpful in understanding alcohol policy in England.

But what does the carnivalesque mean, if it’s to be of any use?  Carnival is a time when rituals turn the world ‘inside out’ – for example, when a peasant is made ‘carnival king’ for a day.  Much academic work on the carnivalesque has drawn on Mikhail Bakhtin.  His idea of the carnivalesque includes free and familiar contact between people, profane speech and grotesque realism, with an emphasis on the body, and attention drawn to its natural features and functions, such as sex and excretion.

One of most evocative descriptions of carnival is given by Mike Featherstone: ‘The popular tradition of carnivals, fairs and festivals provided symbolic inversions and transgressions of the official ‘civilized’ culture and favoured excitement, uncontrolled emotions and the direct and vulgar grotesque bodily pleasures of fattening food, intoxicating drink and sexual promiscuity.’  Parallels with the alcohol, excitement, (apparent) transgression, kebabs and sexual promiscuity of the night-time economy and its ‘binge’ drinking are immediately apparent.

Bakhtin in particular, though, has been criticised for taking a rose-tinted view of carnival – both in general and with specific reference to drinking.  However, he describes the way in which festivals and carnivalesque impulses were co-opted by institutions such as state and church and his analysis of Rabelais is centred on the ambivalence of profanity and carnival laughter, through which shame and triumph, death and life, are felt simultaneously.  Moreover, carnival has always been an event that has been commercialised and sanctioned by the state in some sense.  As Terry Eagleton put it, using Shakespeare’s words, ‘there is no slander in an allowed fool’.

But what’s the use of this concept in thinking about government alcohol policy specifically, as opposed to describing the night-time high street?  (And I wouldn’t be the first to do that.)  I’d argue that the strength of the concept of the carnivalesque is in this ambivalence: government’s toleration of but discomfort with certain practices.  And the carnivalesque takes us beyond ideas of pleasure and intoxication, which don’t quite capture what does actually make government uneasy.

There’s a strong case that in drug policy at least, what the government is condemning is indeed pleasure and/or intoxication.  The Observer recently published a ‘Drugs Uncovered’ special, and one article claimed that “the biggest taboo surrounding drugs today isn't taking drugs, but saying that they're fun”, while Adam Winstock has suggested that harm reduction policies would be much more effective if they acknowledged people’s pleasure in drug taking.

In a recent academic article in Addiction, Alison Ritter asked ‘Where is the pleasure?’ when thinking about drug regulation.  Fiona Measham – particularly in her work with Karenza Moore – has suggested that governments in Britain have made certain pleasures ‘impermissible’ and even ‘criminalised’ intoxication.

Measham, though, would be the first to point out how government policy has fostered ‘the new culture of intoxication’ in relation to alcohol.  Alcohol is something of a special case when it comes to drug policy – it’s one of the few recreational psychoactive substances actively endorsed by government.

Government does not accept that there is a fundamental problem inherent in alcohol, and it’s perfectly happy with people taking pleasure in its consumption.  Just think of David Cameron describing his family as having ‘a reasonable drinking habit’, or opposition from politicians from all parties to minimum unit pricing (MUP) on the basis that it would penalise people’s legitimate pleasure in drinking.

But then the standard academic position – for alcohol, at least, as opposed to other drugs – isn’t so much that no form of pleasure is permitted; it’s that certain forms of pleasure are ‘impermissible’.  And it can seem that it’s precisely an impermissible pleasure of intoxication that’s being condemned when successive alcohol strategies have defined ‘binge’ drinkers as those who ‘drink to get drunk’.

But although it might seem like a game of semantics, a genuine distinction can be made between intoxication and drunkenness.  The former implies something like a physiological change, and might be judged in the same way that impairment for driving is: by blood alcohol content.

Government concern is something more than this.  The 2004 Strategy worried about ‘the culture of drinking to get drunk’, where ‘there is little social control’.  It stated quite clearly ‘there is no direct relationship between the amounts or patterns of consumption and types or levels of harm caused or experienced’.  Counterintuitively, it’s actually this culture that is being condemned when academics have referred to ‘the new culture of intoxication’.

But it could still be argued that if it isn’t exactly pharmacological intoxication that government is condemning, perhaps it’s still a certain form of ‘impermissible’ pleasure.  However, there are two key problems with this.

First, drinkers aren’t necessarily experiencing ‘pleasure’ in the night-time economy.  As Barton and Husk have recently noted, preloading is often chosen over going straight out onto the night-time high street not simply because it’s cheaper, but because people find it more comfortable and pleasurable to drink at home in a more controlled environment and be able to have proper conversations.  But, crucially, those drinkers do still end up going out into that slightly uncomfortable world of altered social norms., attracted not by pleasure exactly but the ritual, communal, ‘controlled loss of control’ that I’d say is captured well by the idea of the carnivalesque.

But more importantly in this context, it’s not just that drinkers don’t necessarily experience this as pleasure; the government doesn’t think it’s pleasurable either.

This is best illustrated by looking at one government initiative specifically (admittedly from a few years ago).  We can see this clearly in the ‘Would You?’ social marketing campaign that ran in 2008.  Without going into great detail, the actions shown and the way in which they are portrayed are characteristic of the carnivalesque.  The world is quite clearly turned ‘inside out’, as a boy and a girl are depicted getting ready to start the night as they might end it, with plenty of illustrations of what Bakhtin would refer to as the ‘grotesque’ body complete with the flow of bodily fluids – urine, blood, vomit.

The appeal to the viewer is that ‘you wouldn’t start a night like this’, assuming not only that in everyday, sober life certain norms are shared between viewer and government, but also that such norms could and should apply to the NTE.  The adverts aren’t suggesting that drinkers should deny themselves the pleasure of this behaviour in favour of higher or deferred pleasures, or because the actions are selfish and impinge on others (the whole scene takes place within a private place where each actor is alone).  Instead, the aim is to highlight that these actions and consequences are specifically not pleasurable, and so behaving in a different way would be more pleasurable as well as sensible.

I’d like to think that, just like the distinction between intoxication and drunkenness, this idea of the carnivalesque isn’t simply a game of semantics, but has genuine implications for policy.  If we see this as the motive behind government policy, it opens out the question of whether this is an appropriate aim: should we be concerned about the carnivalesque culture, or actually should policy focus more directly on crimes and health harms?  Certainly there’s evidence that there’s a different approach developing in Scotland, and it might be worth thinking about how well that works.

Alternatively, if the problem really is the carnivalesque, we’d probably make better policy if the debate was clear and open about this being its aim.  It might also be a useful concept to use to think about illicit drug policy – or does the government only need to make this sort of distinction between responsible and irresponsible consumption when the substance is legal?

And given that my analysis is all of public documents and statements, it might be worth thinking about whether this is how government officials really think about alcohol policy: the concerns of policymakers and the reality of the process might be quite different from these statements designed for public consumption.  But all the same, I’d still say it’s useful to think about things in these terms.

Thursday 8 January 2015

Alcohol and larger hopes

I don’t usually write particularly personal blogs, and I’m occasionally mocked for my slightly po-faced attitude to Twitter – it’s for my professional life and interests, while I use Facebook for the personal.  Striking this balance is, I think, more important for politicians, who feel the need to present a ‘human’ face through public (social) media, than for academics and civil servants (like me) who can more easily divide their personal and professional lives.

But today I do want to write something a bit more personal (or perhaps self-reflective would be more accurate) but with clear implications for policy – and I think it’s important because of the original purpose of this blog to contribute to informed and open debates around policy.

The prompt for this post is the slightly odd conjunction of reading and old blog post by Will Davies on Boyhood by chance today, and then an IAS newsletter noting Labour’s commitment to introducing public health as a fifth licensing objective.  These two together got me thinking (yet again) about why policymakers get interested in alcohol and other people’s drinking.

Fundamentally, this is the point Jon Foster made to me recently in an exchange with me on Twitter.  I was wondering whether it was right to say someone should necessarily reduce their alcohol consumption simply if they’re drinking more than healthy guidelines, if they’re not dependent.  For me, the health consideration and a doctor’s advice are only a part of what a utilitarian might think of in terms of a cost/benefit analysis: do the positives of taste, intoxication and (possibly) social interaction outweigh the health risks?  One factor perhaps shouldn’t trump the others.  Jon, though, was unequivocal that, yes, that individual should drink less.

We can argue whether this is best labelled a ‘moral’ injunction (as I think Henry Yeomans would, given his recently published book), but it’s certainly something normative that hints at some Aristotelian idea of the good life, even if that’s perhaps unconscious or not fully formed.  It’s the old dilemma for liberalism of higher and lower pleasures.

And here’s where Will Davies’ stuff comes in.  He sees in Boyhood and My Struggle something of an acceptance of ‘conservative communism’ through the family – in the words of Billy Joel (which Davies certainly doesn’t use), we’ve ‘found that just surviving was a noble fight’.  Davies finishes his commentary, though, with a message of sadness: “What is moving and saddening in both Boyhood and My Struggle is the beauty and failures of such ‘communism’, but this is also partly about the lack of any larger hopes beyond the struggling through.”

Well how is this blog personal, as I promised (or threatened)?  Jon Foster is arguing that people should drink less on the basis that there are (not in his words) ‘larger hopes’ to life beyond the pleasures of (relatively heavy) drinking.  And the same thing occasionally occurs to me: I try to judge my actions (particularly professionally and politically) by the somewhat na├»ve adolescent question: ‘am I making the world a better place?’  At some level my political views are based on the idea of improving the ‘lot’ of a wider public than I think contemporary politics manages, and my professional work – whether for the council or as an academic – could be seen as aiming to improve the situations in which people find themselves making decisions about their lives.

But in fact I don’t have any of the certainty of Jon Foster or those brandishing new year’s resolutions or personal achievements on Facebook.  I’d like to think there’s ‘larger hopes’ than sex and drugs and rock and roll (and fame and fortune for their own sake), but I’m not quite sure what those are for me, beyond opening up possibilities for other people to achieve their larger hopes.

And this does have some kind of relevance to policy, because it explains my slightly strange, ambivalent attitude to alcohol policy and public health of both supporting public health aims and dismissing them, almost simultaneously.  I defend my own right to drink ‘excessively’*, and there’s no doubt I find it pleasurable, but that’s partly a result of my past experiences and the society I’ve grown up in.  At the same time, I do hope that there are some larger hopes, and that people can find these for themselves rather than automatically resorting to alcohol as a source of pleasure, as those in my particular cohort seem to have done.**

So as Dry January continues, I can only drink to other people’s health and hope for a more healthy debate on alcohol policy, where we can admit that our underlying values and principles shape the policy positions we take.

And maybe my confused position is in fact an alcohol policy fit for our time, if Will Davies is to be believed:

“The Culture Wars are not over, and have not been won by either side.  But we are exhausted by them.  We are now at the stage of muddling through, hoping still for justice, but perhaps making do with the form of conservative communism that the family can still offer.”

Perhaps the pub is another institution of this conservative communism, with its communal space and practices, the rounds where we don’t calculate or ‘settle up’, and the drinking without explicitly aiming for intoxication – a place where we’re just muddling (or fuddling) through.  And that's not such a sad thought to start the year with.

*In different forms and to different extents depending on the occasion, but generally in breach of the recommended guidelines.

**Although I’d have to do some more careful analysis to prove it, we represent something of a bulge in the figures for drinking, which has declined since we hit our mid-20s, as the 18-24 year-olds since haven’t drunk as much, and have continued not to drink as much as they’ve got older.