The rapid spread of psychedelics throughout society is prompting fascinating discussions around the political aspects of these substances and their study. Questions about their capacity to shift people’s ideologies towards liberalism and the suspicion elicited by the actors financing psychedelic trials have contributed to this heated political debate. Are liberal or progressive ideas inherent to psychedelic use? How does psychedelic mainstreaming play out in societies characterized by individualism and identity politics? What are the power dynamics that determine the prominence of neuroscientific approaches in the psychedelic research community? Nicolas Langlitz, associate professor of Anthropology at the New School for Social Research, joined one of our early career researcher affiliates Mateo Sánchez (M.Sc.) in conversation to discuss the sociopolitical aspects of the Psychedelic Renaissance.
Interview by Mateo Sánchez. Commentary by Alberto Cantizani López
Will Psychedelics Turn me Into a Liberal?
The idea of changing the world one individual at a time has featured in psychedelic culture since the 60s. More recently, a controversial study by the Imperial College suggesting a relation between psychedelic use and liberal views opened up the question of the political effects of these substances. While welcoming more research on the social consequences of psychedelic use, Langlitz points at the potential sampling bias of this study and wonders about what would be the effects of psychedelics for people on the other side of the political spectrum: “Would they come out of this the same way, meaning moving more towards the progressive side? Or would you see an amplification of value judgments and sociopolitical orientations that they already brought to the table?” (03:50). He remains skeptical of the former given the wide variety of groups of different ideologies and worldviews that engage in psychedelic use, from radical libertarians to more collectivist indigenous communities. To him, the diversity within the Psychedelic Renaissance is even paradoxical. On the one hand, much of the scientific research has stressed the importance of the unitive experience of ego-dissolution which, in his opinion, entails the normative claim that “dissolving your ego is a good thing”. On the other, the psychedelic community has become host to various “emancipatory projects that promote a certain identity [and which] are at odds with [the normativity of ego-dissolution]” (44:23). His intuition is that “psychedelics can be used to catalyze certain things that are around in people or in collectives anyway. But they don’t have a specific political effect” (6:10).
Strategies of Mainstreaming
Langlitz then suggests a shift in focus “from drugs to drug cultures” in order to fully grasp the social and political consequences of psychedelic use. The legitimation of substances like MDMA that comes as a result of medicalization is sparking the interest of new groups venturing into the field of psychedelics. Although it is hard to determine which drug cultures are on the rise, it is clear that “the success of these mainstreaming strategies brings in very different constituencies” (35:00) from Veteran organizations to the conservative media network Breitbart and the Republican millionaire Rebekah Mercer. In regard to these strategies of legitimation, Langlitz emphasizes the work of Rick Doblin and MAPS: “For a while he considered [investing in research with terminal cancer patients] and his reasoning was that we all die. We are all afraid of it and it is something that people across the political spectrum share so you can get a lot of people on board. It turned out that PTSD worked out better and obviously, there are again political reasons to build a broad coalition that now brings in people from the right as well.” (39:55).
Towards an Extra-Pharmacological Gaze
Although hard to dismiss, the ideological views of actors involved in psychedelic research are not the only way in which we can analyze the political ramifications of psychedelia. We wondered about how power relations and issues of social legitimacy pervade and motivate the very methodological choices and frameworks of psychedelic researchers. In this sense, we can talk about an “epistemological individualism” underlying biomedical thinking. Langlitz adds: “That is the very long-standing social scientific critique of the neurosciences: that they are biologizing and thereby individualizing social problems”. Although studies about the extrapharmacological factors shaping drug effects have proved the importance of context, there are methodological barriers to fully realize the shift towards a so-called “eco-pharmacology”. In the case of addiction and the war on drugs, Langlitz also notes that “there is a political motivation to blame the drugs alone rather than paying attention to the environment” (22:23). Obviously, tackling the social drivers of drug abuse through more holistic interventions would require more funding and human resources. This drug-centered approach is also profitable for the pharmaceutical industry: “they are not selling a drug that works under particular settings with people who arrive with a particular kind of mindset […] They want to make the case that: here is a drug, you take it, you will be better” (29:00). The reductionist logic at the core of the randomized-controlled methodologies has also been the usual target of anthropologists’ criticism: “They have been mobilizing a lot of things, including music or psychotherapy, all of which presumably play a very significant role in the effects, but the research design itself is entirely focused on the drugs” (30:00).
The Psychedelic Stigma
While considering the advantages of psychopharmacology leaving the laboratory and becoming a field science, Langlitz also reminds us of the burden that psychedelic researchers carry ever since the 60s and thus, of their need to remain within the normative frames of conventional biomedicine: “They have to prove that they are not crazies like Timothy Leary, who will basically go down the deep end yet again. They are the ones who have to play by the book even more than people in other parts of the neurosciences and in psychopharmacology. So I think they have good reasons to be very conservative about what they do” (26:40).
These questions around the political aspects of psychedelia remain up for debate. Join the discussion next weekend at ICPR2020. Nicolas Langlitz will elaborate on the paradoxes of the psychedelic humanities; Mateo Sánchez will be presenting his poster about the intersection between psychedelics, phenomenology, psychiatry and posthumanism; and a number of panel discussions will feature interesting topics, from the mainstreaming and medicalization of psychedelics to the globalization of ayahuasca. Check out the full program here.