Nicholas Powers | Society of Addiction

Nicholas PowersI waited three months to eat a Krispy Kreme. I mean I waited. Every week or so, I take the train to Penn Station, quickly zigzagging through crowds. And every time I have the same internal monologue — Don’t stop at the Krispy Kreme. Don’t give yourself diabetes. Seriously, you might as well inject Elmer’s glue straight into your heart. But then I saw the store, bright and beautiful and smelling good. It’s very hard to walk past Krispy Kreme. It’s like those dreams where my legs move but I don’t go forward.

And then I begin the junkie’s debate — C’mon it’s been three months! Besides, one can’t hurt. And didn’t I help that homeless lady get her shit to the shelter last night? That was an Oprah thing to do. And doesn’t Oprah eat donuts? I was drooling before I even turned. Everyone on line had the same wild look. I feared for the servers. If they didn’t get us the donuts quickly we might have smashed the glass. When I got mine and bit into it, sugar and preservatives and trans-fat flooded my body and I lit up like a Christmas tree. It felt like Jesus descended from Heaven and kissed my brain.

Afterwards I felt dirty, guilty. At home, I googled Krispy Kreme and found a YouTube clip of comedian Chris Rock prowling the stage. “Krispy Kreme donuts are so good,” he said, “if I told you it had crack in it you’d go, ‘I knew something was up … got me knocking on the donut window at two in the morning. C’mon man open up, give me one more donut, I’ll do anything.’”

Rock chuckled maniacally as the audience roared. I paused the clip and let it sink in. I get itchy if I don’t send or get a text. How many people do I see on the street, heads down, typing away, swerving around the traffic as if by radar?

In New York, we bounce like billiard balls between ads showing actors posing with a titanium watch and rappers with liquor bottles and sand-caked, teen bodies next to perfume vials. All the time, I see people waddling out of stores with bulging shopping bags, faces bright with the joy of a new purchase. Flush faces are the tell-tale sign of a dopamine rush. We get high from buying commodities that enhance our status. In this light, we can look at corporate stores and see them as consumer crack houses. If it’s true that billions of people around the world are being addicted to our evolutionary Achille’s heel of salt, sugar, fat and status, then it’s time to ask the question. Are we capitalism junkies?

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The Commodity

A commodity in classical political economy is any object that can be bought or sold in the marketplace. The market is any institution or place where we can engage in trade, be it Wall Street or the farmer’s stall at Union Square. From the market’s beginning 12,000 years ago with the Neolithic Revolution, when we first cultivated land, grew crops, and created surplus and trade to the post-industrial digital stock exchange, it has grown to dominate human life.

Today everything around us — clothing, apartments, food and technology — is a commodity. We wear commodities. We live inside commodities. We use and eat commodities. All that we need to live is filtered through the market. And if the store shelves are packed with bright colorful things, we feel safe because we have the freedom to choose.

The commodity has for centuries been the site of critique. In political economy it was an article of trade that satisfies a human need. Later it was reinterpreted by Karl Marx in Das Kapital as a fetish object concealing the exploitative relations of production. More than a century later, post-structuralist Jean Baudrillard redefined it as a sign in a larger social code.

Today, a view emerging from neuroscience understands capitalism as an immersive form of market totalitarianism. We see that advertising and commodities are designed to get us to a “bliss point,” to stoke a chemical blaze in our brains that incrementally robs us of the ability to choose. And this is the paradox; American culture is based on the ideal of freedom — freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom to choose — but its economy is increasingly based on targeting the unconscious and addicting our bodies. Corporations use science to ensnare deep evolutionary impulses. We are left with a tragic contradiction; the very act of consumption that we are taught is our freedom is also what most enslaves us.

Behold the iPhone

My cell phone was old. No touch screen. No internet. My friends would whip out smartphones and get precise, Googlemapped directions to the next bar. I took mine out, pretended to type an address and confidently offered random bullshit names like The Thirsty Wolf or Chug.

“Wait why can’t I see those?” one friend asked me. I quickly put my phone away, “Oh damn, battery just ran out. Sorry. So what did you find?” But I was content with my Flintstone-era cell phone until one day it broke. After one hour without a text or the ability to send one, I began to shake and sweat. I sprinted to the Virgin Mobile store, where the staff calmed me down, gave me water, patted my back.

In seconds, I was holding my future phone. But I saw it four different ways. The first was a symbol of the American Dream, a set of ideals that put prosperity and upward mobility at the center of our lives. Smartphone commercials make it into a tool of consumer empowerment. No one and nothing is out of reach.

(Continued…)

 

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