Nicolas Hausdorf discusses the capitalism of narcosis and the role of anaesthesia in the world of politics.

Laurent de Sutter, Narcocapitalism: Life in the Age of Anaesthesia (Polity, 2017), 140pp.

I had been looking forward to this book for some time. Not only did I think the fluorescent and psychoactive book cover (cudos to designer David Pearson and Polity Press on this) worked particularly well in combination with the cryptic and ascetic promise of the title, I also found that the subject matter of the work alone is perhaps ultimately pertinent: After all, what could be a more intriguing project than re-connecting the architecture of economic production and consumption to the substances that dominate individual nervous systems? A gigantic, yet rewarding task, almost Paracelsian in scale, and something that has only been seriously attempted by the underexplored 20th century genius Henri Laborit.

What is Narcocapitalism then? De Sutter defines it as:

“the capitalism of narcosis, that enforced sleep into which anaesthetists plunge their patients so as to unburden them from everything that prevents them from being efficient in the current arrangement- which means work, work, and more work”

Powerful? Yes and no. Yes, because substances are indeed used to anaesthesize unpleasant symptoms arising from the domain of the social as a result of collateral effects of the socio-economic system[1]. No,  because it is increasingly unclear whether today this exists in any more than nominal relationship with the efficiency of the worker[2].

61eC1bV+fcL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe metaphor of capital as the surgeon and subject as patient will meanwhile accompany the reader throughout the book as a sort of Leitmotiv.  De Sutter uses it to introduce readers to a series of paragraph stories that double as fragments of a cultural history of psychiatry and the development and societal mass deployment of certain drugs classes. In the process, we are quite elegantly introduced to the history of emerging pharmaceutical conglomerate Merck successfully synthesising, and industrialising the production of alkaloids like Cocaine. We’re also in for a brief history of anesthesia, city illumination, a particularly interesting chapter on the development of birth control (“to functionalise by dysfunction”), and the history of crowd control.

The various chapters anecdotally suggest the co-emergence and -dependence of economic structures, chemical substances, and political, ideological, and social practices. They draw a genealogy of an emerging instrumentalist mindset organising bodies into a logic of mass production and managing the collateral damage of this process while suppressing the forces of a seemingly incontrolable mania in the newly mass-urbanised crowd and individual.

In the process, De Sutter reviews works for his case from a variety of directions and does so entertainingly and tastefully. De Sutter concludes that ours is an age of

“(…) anexcitation – the age of an ablation of individual’s animation principle, transforming them into simple bodies, subject to examination and manipulation.”

This conclusion draws attention to an important point: that the unprecedented effectiveness of certain technologies generates a devaluation of the body by turning it into a predictable variable. Narcocapitalism can be read as a technological catalogue of narcissistic shocks without which the contemporary subject as the passive and receiving end of an infinitely sophisticating cybernetic apparatus cannot be conceived. The value of the book lies precisely in highlighting the continuum between pharmaceutical interventions and developing technologies of social control both innervated by the same daemon. Narcocapitalism‘s favourite mantra, De Sutter writes, is that

“The Idea of Politics would be a rational affair, with which subjects freed from the movements of excitation could be compatible“.

This is followed by a rather tentative eulogy of madness as being the essential qi of the political. I couldn’t help but thinking that De Sutter remains too trapped in the legacy of antipsychiatry here. It does not seem evident to me how rationality is to blame for present politics: the mere existence of a current form of perverse, reduced, and partial rationality that blindly follows the violence of previously imposed and established practice, does not invalidate rationality per se[3]. Furthermore, in an age of astroturfed identity politics, engineered “colour” revolutions and moral panics, it rather seems that it is mania and excitement in particular that are amplified, directed, and exploited for political means. The work would have certainly profited by integrating this essential aspect of contemporary geopolitics and the particularity and colourfulness of its sociologies[4].


 “First  Fragments for a Theory of Parasympathetic Politics”

An investigation that is more focused on the nature and specificity of what is contemporary “capitalism” could probably have brought interesting things to light about how the inertia, interconnection, and value-hierarchy of certain atavistic 20th century organisations integrate with the various shades of drug culture to hijack the nervous system and fuel present day social pathology.  While “Narcocapitalism” clearly pertains to contemporary reality and although De Sutter briefly writes about the cocaine economy, dematerialisation, and hormonal hacking, these aspects remain comparatively in the background. Perhaps this is also due to the fact that it does not fit quite so well with the thesis of an age of anexcitation or with De Sutter’s final thesis that narcocapitalism promotes “an anthropology from which excitement could be stripped”. Instead,  the notion of “capitalism”, as is popular, remains something monolithic, implicit and ultimately vague[5]. However, this is not De Sutter’s focus and only highlights the expansive potential of his concept.

In all, Narcocapitalism is a frivolous and entertaining book, which raises serious questions and enchants the reader with stimulating and extensive formulations and ideas. Readers will find a multitude of relevant literature, trajectories and thoughts to follow up on. They get to know some of the milestones in the constitution of the modern subject as manipulable and biochemically disruptable mass. De Sutter’s doesn’t seek to be the conclusive be all and end all in the politics of biochemistry but it is a first rapid and heavy punch in an important discussion introducing a powerful concept with disruptive potential that even reaches beyond the scope of this stimulating book.


[1] In a way, introducing the concept of Narcocapitalism in this way follows the critique of modern “allopathic” medicine by alternative strands. While the latter concede to modern medicine an unprecedented effectiveness in alleviating symptoms, they at the same time critique what they perceive as its vulgarity: in opposition, to almost all other traditions, modern Western medicine lacks a sophisticated notion of terrain.

[2] It is worth considering whether a system that strives for perpetual growth instead does not rather rely on bubbles and certain amounts of inefficacy (As for example Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs). Efficiency would in tendency rather decrease working hours and thus ultimately become a challenge to social control and the maintenance of hierarchy. The mixture of efficiency and decentralisation furthermore constitutes a particular virulent challenge to existing order, which is why there is always a parallel movement to contain them with quasi-feudal structures, excess complexity, and technological oligopolies.

[3] If anything, one could point out how the current socio-pharmaceutical system’s irrationality, inefficiency, and misguidance in relation to public health is systemic and with increasing submission to isolated economic growth imperatives even depends on this inefficiency.

[4] Immediately, one thinks of the contemporary figures of the Captagon-Hashish zombie jihadist (outsourcing cheap warfare using surplus populations),  the LSD-microdosing creative (perpetual expansion of the sign economy),  Chrystal Meth night-shifters (cheap 24/7 logistics),  burn-out opioid epidemic automatons (social peace), and transnational narcotics gangs (parapolitical black budgets)

[5] Today, the term is frequently used as an emotionally charged catch-all reference to an implicit liturgy that more often than not simply designates a left-wing sympathy and general disenchantment with just about everything that is. In the meantime, “capitalism” allows to gratefully evade the unpleasant details of analysis tainted by the vulgarity of hard research and the nuances of organisational cultures that remain impenetrable to the mind of the academic.

Nicolas Hausdorf is an editor, analyst, and essayist. His essay “Superstructural Berlin”, an experimental sociology of Germany’s capital (with illustrations by Alexander Goller) has been published by Zero Books.

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