Psychedelics and Politics
Psychedelics are political. Their use in the 1960s had a political impact that is still being felt today, and their widespread banning was driven by political motives. But how can a class of chemicals consistently impact our opinions of how we organize and relate to each other? Psychedelics can affect the brains of individuals in ways that produce consistent insights. These insights have direct relevance for our individual and collective wellbeing, and can point the way towards political change that would benefit us all.
The LSD-fuelled hippie movement was instrumental in the origins of the modern ecological awareness in politics that is so widespread today. It helped birth modern anti-war peace movements and the practice of living in sustainable, eco-friendly communes. What is it about the time we live in and the effects of psychedelic substances that result in their producing this kind of change in political thinking? To understand this, we have to not only consider how psychedelics act in the brain, but we also have to understand both the unusual situation humans have found themselves in since the advent of civilization and the psychology that gave rise to it.
The Human Animal
We live in an unusual time. For approximately 97% of human existence our species lived close to nature in small social groups. Like other animals, evolution programmed us with a survival instinct and fear of death. This fear incentivized us to control the world around us in order to make us feel safe. Unlike other animals, however, we succeeded in dominating nature. Thanks to our capacity for language and our dexterous hands that were freed up by our walking upright, it became possible for us to create culture and technology. The preservation of knowledge from generation to generation that comes with language allowed for greater and greater control of the world around us. Eventually we found ourselves in complex civilizations, a very long way from home.
The Price of Progress
This way of being that led to the relentless growth of civilizations is characterized by a particular kind of psychology, one that is governed by fear. Sacrificing one’s happiness today in order to prepare for tomorrow can often make sense, but being consistently emotionally hijacked by fear without realising it can lead to a lot of unnecessary suffering. This is true for individuals suffering with trauma and it’s true for our species as a whole. In such a situation, there is the loss of the ability to find peace and wellbeing in the present. We desperately look towards the future in the hope that if we just keep pushing forwards we will find a way out of our situation, not realizing that this way of being in itself is the problem. The result is that, while we may no longer be routinely at risk of being eaten by predators, we are suffering from an epidemic of disorders of alienation, such as addiction, anxiety and depression.
The Fear Trap
Why do we continue to do this? One reason is that we are naturally fearful creatures. It makes sense that we would have evolved to sacrifice our wellbeing today in order to ensure our survival tomorrow. Evolution is about staying alive, it’s not about being happy. Another reason is that evolution has endowed us with incredible coping mechanisms. We can be living in agony but, if we see now no other option, our capacity for language allows us to tell ourselves a story about why our situation is actually fine. It is by taking these stories to be more real than our felt conscious experiences that we manage to repress our anguish.
Civilization and Control
Beyond the individual, there are other dynamics that keep us trapped in the game of “progress” at the expense of our wellbeing. Once agriculture had been invented it became possible to generate surplus food, paving the way for a minority of individuals to hoard resources. This made it possible for wealthy individuals to coerce the majority into doing their bidding as they had something that they needed for their very survival. The ability of humans to live in stories has also been crucial in perpetuating this control. Our ability to rationalize and normalize our experiences made it possible for each generation to grow up believing that this situation was correct or right in some way, instead of seeing how they are being exploited.
It wasn’t always this way. Prior to the hierarchical arrangements of control that define civilization, humans throughout the world routinely explored their being part of the natural world through religious and spiritual practices. Psychedelic plant medicines were widely used in order to explore our interconnectedness with the natural world. The Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss coined the term “deep ecology” to refer to the non-hierarchical principles of interdependence and interconnectedness that are deeper than a superficial concern for the environment. Ecology in this sense can apply equally to the natural world, to social arrangements or even to the contents of your own mind.
Ecology vs. Hierarchy
While the systems of control that define “civilized” states typically separate and atomize people so they can be used to generate wealth for others, human communities centred around ecological and spiritual principles are based on collaboration and the valuing of individual and collective wellbeing. Psychedelics promote these ecological and spiritual perspectives, making them a threat to dominating systems of control.
Psychedelics and the Wisdom of Ecology
How do psychedelics promote ecological thinking? In the brain of the individual, psychedelics can temporarily topple the hierarchical, control-based modes of thought that usually dominate our minds. As is well attested to in Buddhist philosophy, it is these modes of thought that are responsible for the majority of our suffering. With these structures of control dissolved, what’s revealed is a sense of interconnection and a more harmonious way of being. This experience can produce insight into the wisdom of ecological principles such as openness, collaboration and naturalness as opposed to the controlling, atomizing and artificial arrangements that currently dominate society. As our well-being as social primates depends on the community as a whole, it only follows that their relevance of these insights would extend beyond the individual to those who have an impact on us in society.
Hippies, Peace, Communes and the Environment
LSD use in the 60s pushed the brains of a generation in the direction of ecological thinking. Many young people who might otherwise have unquestioningly fought in the Vietnam war suddenly saw their situation afresh, the propaganda of their home country replaced with a vision of a world of collective collaboration rather than one of conflict and domination. The suicidal logic of ecological destruction was also laid bare, the narrative of progress through the domination of nature seemingly nothing more than an excuse for the powerful to line their pockets, a project that would soon take the earth and all of us with it. A critical mass of young people came to similar conclusions and the hippie movement was born.
Science and Psychedelic Personality Change
Modern science is now mapping how psychedelics change people’s political opinions. A study published in 2017 found that the number of times people use a psychedelic and the strength of their most powerful ego-dissolving experience correlate with increased nature relatedness, openness and reduced authoritarian thinking . These aspects of the personality all reflect this movement towards greater ecological thinking.
The Psychology of Control
Without the benefit of psychedelics to help us travel in the direction of ecological thinking and greater wellbeing, many get trapped in coping mechanisms of control. The traumatic nature of existence pushes some to move in the opposite direction, disowning their capacity for empathy and connection and reaffirming their sense of separation. This process can result in disorders of the ego such as narcissism, sociopathy and psychopathy, all characterized by a lack of empathy and a delusionally high opinion of oneself. We currently live in a system crafted to suit such personality types. The coping mechanisms emerge in response to severe trauma early in life, when the child is learning how to connect with the world around them. Investment in the ego and lack of concern for others is a pathology that can help such people cope with this powerful trauma. It also represents the psychological dynamic that keeps society sick and blocks collective healing through the widespread adoption of the ecological perspective.
The Key Roadblock to Change
Society only consists of individuals interacting. As a result, our political crises largely originate in the internal crises of individuals. The collective trauma carried by the human race is passed on generation after generation. A critical amount of narcissistic behaviour results in a society based around the separation and atomization of individuals, as well as around domination and control, of the environment and each other. The extent to which our fellow humans are unconsciously trapped in narcissistic coping mechanisms is the extent to which our species will be trapped in its current mode of domination, control and suffering.
Psychedelic Medicine and the Healing of Collective Trauma
Psychedelic medicine holds the promise of moving culture in the direction of trauma healing and deep ecological thinking that is necessary to save our species and the planet from ecological destruction. The main challenge will be how we engage with those at the other end of the spectrum, the narcissists and psychopaths so affected by trauma that they will defend their protective systems of domination at all costs. Psychedelic medicine may be able to reach some but perhaps the single greatest impact of psychedelics in years to come will be moving the public conversation toward a greater awareness of how the dynamics of trauma have deranged our world. The creation of a global ecological culture that centers around trauma healing, emotional wellbeing and an awareness of the psychology of narcissism is the only hope our species and planet has for survival, and psychedelics are perhaps the most powerful tool we have in making this culture a reality.
Nour MM, Evans L, Carhart-Harris RL. Psychedelics, Personality and Political Perspectives. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2017;49(3):182-191. doi:10.1080/02791072.2017.1312643