The material matrix and the illicit biosocial economy

The end of European empires contributed to the rise of methodological nationalism. That is the set of infrastructures and habits of mind that treats each nation-state a single coherent container of a population. Global datasets like that held by the United Nations are typically aggregates of national ones so preserve this principle that the nation is a singular research unit. That has problems: it assumes internal homogeneity and coherence over external influence and cross-national dynamics. There is a danger of seeking like a state in analysis rather than seeing in terms of material relations that can span borders and might have more in common with each other than the ‘home’ state. This approach will challenge us in many ways. In sociology the standard model is pretty much one of exploitation, the powerful centre imposing homogenisation on the periphery. The standard model is out of date and misses how the periphery is itself productive, or is not even especially peripheral. I am using the concept of the matrix to capture the different arrays of forces that work to distribute commodities, people and cultures across borders.

There is a hidden history of drug trades that contributed to or were part of the rise of globalisation and the pre-eminence of Western Europe. “Psychoactive commerce” provided intoxicants in huge quantities. Drugs became commodified.  Their production ceased being for local use and became for sale, usually to another part of the globe.  Began from the colonial age onwards, when European countries began colonising other parts of the globe. This went for wine, spirits, tea, coffee, tobacco, opium and later cocaine and cannabis. Were these developments specific to narcotic globalisation or just globalisation that happened and caused narcotic trade to be globalised with it?  Historian David Courtwright’s argument is that one of the forces driving globalisation was the developing demand in modern European countries for stimulants and narcotics.  In vaguely historical order: tea, tobacco, coffee, opium, cocaine.  Narcotics were of decreasing historical importance though.  The last in this list, cocaine, relied on globalisation to come into being as a mass drug, but the demand for it in no way drove globalisation, unlike the others mentioned.

Objects have the power of embodying all kinds of relationships and dispositions, of pleasure, pathology and recovery. They can delimit, though not dictate, the terms of their use. Intoxicants mediate such issues as social class (wine), gender (sugar) and savoir-faire (absinthe). In the rhetoric of intoxication, each quality is constructed in relationship to others such that the sweetness of sugar only exists in relation to the bitterness, acidity, saltiness, sourness and umami of other substances. Material culture reproduces and affirms these social relationships which become, in part, relationships between objects. The complex back-and-forth between the drug, its cultural signification and material matrix of production and consumption constantly regenerates the materiality of intoxication within an algorithmic culture.

We now see Opium closely bound up with geopolitics. However there are many myths to the opium wars. One is that the population was addicted. However opium was commonly used in England, India and China at the time and ill effects were limited – other than some people smoking away in languor (Dikotter, Zhou and Laamann, 2006). Opium use was mostly moderate. A more subtle picture emerges than the drug being forced on China. China had a well developed intoxication culture. The 1895 Royal Commission on Opium in India also viewed opium as beneficial, a cash crop, medicine and recreational intoxicant. The standard Opium War narrative treats the world outside the West as passive and victimised.

Let us take an intoxicant focused view. In this the capacity for intoxication was enhanced by capitalism. Capitalist trade is a route for intoxication. Continuing this theme of the global transition of methamphetamine. Meth is cheaper to produce and is produced in greater volumes than ever. The market has shifted from Mexico/Northern America and the Golden Triangle to Europe, South Asian and Africa. The Asia-Pacific market estimates at $61billion. In many African countries it has displaced cannabis. As in  North America, meth occupies left-behind communities, takes the space of those marginalised by economic development.  The meth market in Africa is highly centralised and controlled, with strong cross region integration and stable pricing. The South African meth market is well established, with production moving to cheaper spots such as Nigeria/West Africa. Meth is also being smuggle from Afghanistan via Pakistan, displacing the old heroin route.

Years ago we would never have thought that buying MDMA would involve a distributed accounting ledger which is now one of the world’s major consumer of electricity and microchips. Bitcoin and the darknet cryptomarkets is one part of the emergence of a global integrated system of addicting, treating, and intoxicating selves. It goes well beyond that to agricultural innovation in the Rif, laboratory production in Afghanistan, rapid testing of new psychoactive substances in China, and the world empire of pharmaceuticals. We used to call Colombia and Afghanistan narco states: nations where the illicit economy had taken over swathes of government and policing such as to replace formal governance with shadow government by cartels. Now the narco state is a global material matrix of licit and illicit, pharma and tech companies, organised crime and criminal entrepreneurs. The material culture of intoxication is created within global flows, technoscapes and the residue of past efforts. There is no natural, herbal high here, untroubled by cultural norms, political economies and human meddling. 

Dikotter, Frank, X. Zhou, and L. Laamann. 2006. ‘’China, British Imperialism, and the Myth of the’Opium Plague”’. in Drugs and empires.

Eligh, Jason. 2021. A Synthetic Age The Evolution of Methamphetamine Markets in Eastern and Southern Africa. Geneva: Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email angus.bancroft@ed.ac.uk Tweet @angusbancroft

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.