My first book ‘Culture Wars and Moral Panic’ covered the rise of the temperance movement in the UK and in the United States, where it reached its apotheosis with the introduction of alcohol prohibition in 1920. ‘Culture Wars’ also covered the development of temperance sentiment post-WWII and examined the moral panic that followed the introduction of the Licensing Act 2003 in the UK.
What was apparent to me from the reading and research I did for ‘Culture Wars’ is how the ‘alcohol issue’ touched the body-politic at some of its most tender spots. It seems to have provided a vehicle, whereby much deeper concerns about race, class and cultural identity could be acted out almost unconsciously by those involved in fighting the anti-alcohol cause. How else to explain the extraordinary passion with which the war on alcohol has been prosecuted, both historically and currently?
To be sure, there are many who oppose alcohol use because of the medical and social problems associated with its misuse, and who have given up on the idea that moderate drinking – the original meaning of the word ‘temperance’ – provides a way forward. For them, only a world free of beverage alcohol will suffice, however they may try to disguise their true intentions.
What is quite extraordinary is how the politics of alcohol has, at different times and in different countries, mediated the concerns of people at opposite ends of the traditional left-right political spectrum, and served causes seemingly at odds with one another.
Puritans and neo-puritans
The history of opposition to beverage alcohol originated with people whose Methodist or Calvinist-inspired religious beliefs made it difficult for them to accept pleasure-seeking of any kind. So, neo-puritans are simply the latter-day inheritors of that original puritanical sentiment, even though most of them don’t know it. And in the UK, there are plenty of them both inside and outside the UK Parliament and the other, devolved assemblies.
The humourist H.L. Mencken defined puritanism thus: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
My forthcoming book seeks to explain how the alcohol issue has served different causes and to explain how this fits into a much longer process of moral regulation in western society. Below are a few examples:
Temperance and prohibition as a gangster-capitalist project
Prohibiting the manufacture, sale, transportation or importation of alcoholic beverages throughout a vast country is one thing. Enforcing it, quite another. American Prohibition from 1920 to 1933 was the most ambitious attempt to suppress the mass market for beverage alcohol across an entire population that had been tried up to that point. To write prohibition into the very founding document of the nation – the American Constitution – suggests that the symbolic, cultural importance of Prohibition for nativist Americans can hardly be overstated. But the attempts to enforce, and to thwart that enforcement, set in train a crime wave, the rise of gangsters like Al Capone, and a host of other unintended consequences, the likes of which America had not seen before, and which served to finance the move of Cosa Nostra – the American Mafia – into illegal narcotics trafficking subsequent to the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.
Temperance as a nativist and racist project
The alliance of gospel temperance in America with the fascists and racists of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), during America’s era of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, exemplifies temperance and prohibition as a nativist, racist project. Indeed, the revival of the “new Ku Klux Klan” in the 1920s was largely a result of its support for Prohibition and its illegal and violent enforcement of prohibition law. The Klan also supported votes for women, and shared the opposition of groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) to votes for black people. The KKK and the WCTU co-financed; had leaders in common (in the Women’s KKK); and shared a nativist, anti-immigrant ideology.
Temperance as a paternalistic, pro-capitalist project
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, temperance in the UK was a pro-capitalist project – keep the workers off the booze and their noses pressed to the grindstone to maintain the discipline of the factory system and support the Protestant work ethic. It was also supported by the Chartists, who believed that moderate use of alcohol or abstaining from its use, would convince the authorities to grant full suffrage for men.
Temperance as an authoritarian, anti-capitalist project
And yet in more recent times – from the 1970s onwards – temperance in the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, has become an anti-capitalist project that has demonised alcohol as the ultimate consumer capitalist product. ‘Big Alcohol’ is seen, from this warped perspective, as part of a conspiracy of global capitalist production to deliberately addict people to alcohol, nicotine and sugar. For today’s alcophobes, capitalism is little more than a driver of global ill-health.
The collapse of communism that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the submergence of anti-capitalism into ‘movement politics’ which followed, paved the way for a new ideology: ‘healthism’ – the ideology of the health of the nation – in which ‘public health’ trumps every other concern. The ultimate expression of this ideology can be seen in the grotesque appointment of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as a “goodwill ambassador” for the World Health Organisation, which has been thoroughly intellectually colonised by the constructs of alcophobic obsession.
I believe that those who dedicate their lives and careers to obsessing about alcohol and inflating its dangers are possessed of a particular psychology: one that impels them to be cause-oriented as a means of filling up their lives; and one which has historically seen them lie down with some strange bedfellows and condone some dark causes.
I use the term ‘alcophobia’ to indicate an antipathy to beverage alcohol that is fuelled by puritanical sentiment and exacerbated by deeply held fears and views related variously to race, class, cultural identity and, latterly, to anti-capitalism; fears which serve to inflate their opposition to alcohol use beyond anything that people with fewer hang-ups would consider rational. So, for me ‘alcophobia’ is a social pathology that mutates over time rather like a virus, and this explains its extraordinary resilience.
My forthcoming book ‘Alcophobia’ is an exploration of this social pathology in all its dimensions, and of how the politics of alcohol has empowered those currently engaged in political virtue-signalling to articulate an inchoate opposition to a modern world they find perplexing and threatening.
Paul Chase is director of CPL Training and a leading commentator on alcohol and health policy