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Substance Abuse: A Consequence of Modern Alienation

I'm a writer based in Corvallis and a proponent of community policing

McDowell County, West Virginia saw a threefold increase in fatal overdose deaths between the years of 2018 and 2019. Using this region as an example, we can apply the correlation of conditions of labor and substance abuse to other regions as well. It happens to belong to a collection of Southern West Virginia counties that once powered the United States throughout an industrial revolution and two World Wars. With only the skeleton of the mining system remaining today, the region deals with a continuously endangered economic and social environment. Green energy movements have grown more insistent in recent years, citing scientific evidence of pollution as a reason to nudge institutions toward the switch. The problem is that miners aren’t the only group attached to the failure or success of coal; businesses and residents who live in the region but work outside of the occupation are heavily influenced by coal as well (Kuykendall). The frequency in which labor opportunities disappear within McDowell County correlates with the frequency in which substance abuse increases in the same timeframe (FRED) (McDowell County). Using a secondary analysis, this Social Problem and Policy Essay aims to explore how Marx’s theory of alienation provides the blueprint for understanding substance abuse as a product of alienated labor.

First, productive labor is the primary tool in the fulfillment of the human being. All living things attempt to survive and evolve, not in contrast with humans. What sets the human species apart is the ability to reason based on memory and ponderance; what we consider to be conscious activity. The human species-being is conscious activity, free will, or a variation of those interpretations. Alienation occurs when the catalyst of our species being, labor, is in contradiction with the only species that can wield it to its fullest potential. The human is so intimately linked with its conscious labor that the absence of it can obscure its reality. Upon examining the characteristics of alienation, substance abuse will be identified as a consequence of alienation.

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Alienation occurs in four distinct manners; alienation from the product, alienation from the process, alienation from fellow workers, and alienation from the self. These labels highlight the capitalist process that gradually undermines the worker until they appear to themselves and to their bourgeoisie masters as less than human. The upper-class capitalist enslaves the soul of the worker by repeating this in order to squeeze the maximum amount of profit from the worker at the least expense to the capitalist. This conflict is the primary source of suffering for the worker. The capitalist sustains this division by outpricing the product of the worker to an unaffordable rate for the worker; the worker is making a product they cannot readily afford. Additionally, the capitalist structure alienates the worker from the process of their labor; jobs are deskilled to a point of meaninglessness so as to avoid training or allocating other expenses toward the worker. The worker is but a variable in a capitalist equation with no pulse or consciousness, only the linear function to produce. Conditions become worse as the capitalist continues the theft of surplus value and workers begin to attempt to rationalize their unjust reality. In this way, the capitalist alienates fellow workers from one another through conflict and deceit. The worker is powerless over the boss but through a combination of nationalism and industrialism can be convinced that they are superior to another worker. The rate of foreign labor is increased, the worker is alienated from their labor, and therefore, the worker associates their misfortune with the increase in foreign labor. In reality, the conflict began when the capitalist looked to increase profits at the expense of all workers. In the end, the capitalist alienates the worker from themselves. The worker has no purpose or chance at fulfillment in a state of self-alienation. Given this conclusion, one rational course of action would include understanding how the worker copes with alienation from the species-being.

Now that the concept of alienation is outlined it would be logical to apply that understanding to the social problem of substance abuse. What is the purpose of substance abuse? The absence of past natural fulfillment through productive labor requires a modern replacement. In a capitalist society, the worker is constantly bombarded by the conditions that have been appointed upon them by the system. These conditions are embroiled with conflict for the worker as an increase in capital supersedes the state of the species-being in the eyes of the capitalist. The worker must fill the void left by the snatching of the purpose of human life by the capitalist; otherwise, the psychological demise of the worker is certain. It is clear that substance abuse acts as a distraction to the reality of alienation. Alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, cocaine, and other similar substances’ primary purpose is to alter the perception or physical state of the user in order to “improve” their psychological state of being.

We can inquire again about the purpose of substance abuse relative to the ongoing conflict regarding the labor market. Why does the worker seek to improve their psychological condition? The pursuit of the fulfillment of the species-being develops a natural feeling that we know as our purpose. Evidence points to the fact that the state of species-being is unattainable for the average worker as the reason for alternative outlets sought by the worker. For instance, According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, when including tobacco and alcohol along with illicit substances, 60.2% of Americans age 12 or older were currently abusing drugs during a 2021 survey (NCDAS). Therefore we can assert that the majority of Americans abuse drugs contemporarily. It is no coincidence that the United States is also a beacon for wealthy capitalists who wish to exploit the labor of the worker. The War on Drugs has burned through hundreds of billions, even a trillion dollars with little to no success, solidifying the fact that substance abuse is happening voluntarily and willingly due to internal conflict rather than simply being available (CNBC).

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Secondary analysis has provided an overview of the collected evidence between labor and alienation. More importantly, problems require a solution. Realistically, there is little that can be done to reform the modern capitalist system; it is in need of total deconstruction and replacement so that the workers will own the means of production and make collective decisions rather than surviving under the self-titled “elite” capitalist. It is the case that the capitalist notion of economic intelligence and efficiency is merely theft from the worker. The modern capitalist has only thrown a blanket over the feudal system and called it something different!

Due to the fact that capitalist society has been built upon the theft of the worker’s labor and surplus value, capitalism could no longer maintain viability if the worker receives what they are owed. Efficiency to the capitalist is defined by how much they can steal from the already-oppressed worker. Therefore, it can only be surmised that the abolition of the wage system must take place. The capitalist system can not stand on its own notion of economic freedom as the structure will begin to crumble if the rights of the worker are not subdued into the far corners of perception. The restoration of the human species-being appears to contain a potentially-critical effect on the lowering of substance abuse among the working class.

Works Cited

“America has spent over a trillion dollars fighting the war on drugs. 50 years later, drug use in the U.S. is climbing again.” CNBC, 17 June 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/06/17/the-us-has-spent-over-a-trillion-dollars-fighting-war-on-drugs.html. Accessed 1 June 2022.

“Civilian Labor Force in McDowell County, WV (WVMCDO5LFN) | FRED | St. Louis Fed.” FRED, https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/WVMCDO5LFN. Accessed 2 June 2022.

Kuykendall, Taylor. “Decline of US coal pressures banks at the core of community economies.” S&P Global, 25 January 2022, https://www.spglobal.com/marketintelligence/en/news-insights/latest-news-headlines/decline-of-us-coal-pressures-banks-at-the-core-of-community-economies-68282541. Accessed 2 June 2022.

“McDowell County.” Help and Hope WV, 2019, https://helpandhopewv.org/docs/PFS_County_Reports/McDowell_PfS%20County%20Reports_Final.pdf. Accessed 31 May 2022.

“NCDAS.” NCDAS: Substance Abuse and Addiction Statistics [2022], https://drugabusestatistics.org/. Accessed 1 June 2022.


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