Is the Psychedelia Enlightenment Train Just Another Corporate Control Mechanism?

Psychedelics will be mass reproduced. What does it mean for class consciousness? Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The global economy mirrors an acid trip.

With the ongoing labor shortage, the persistence of meme stocks, and simultaneous emerging markets (including one for psychedelics), a collective euphoria is underway in what has been dubbed by media outlets as the new “roaring 20s.” After four years of Trump, American culture has shifted away from divisive politics to spiritual recalibration, or at least an aesthetic resembling the appearances of spiritual recalibration with recurring language and themes from social justice movements.

In a globalized monopoly system, however, timelines repeat themselves, producing the same simulated crises and outcomes, from the immigration “debate” to different incarnations of political ideologies.

Before his death in 2017, Mark Fisher began his final series of lectures at the University of London on the topic of “Acid Communism,” in which the cultural theorist drew parallels between psychedelic drug experiences like acid and the kind of class consciousness envisioned by Karl Marx. While much of Fisher’s previous work criticized drugs as smokescreens concealing capitalism’s true intentions, keeping workers in numbed out stupors as they were subjected to exploitation, his last lecture series explored the benefits of psychedelics on mass media culture and labor movements throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Activists, according to Fisher, used psychedelics to bring about class consciousness with significant gains for workers (he cites the United Kingdom’s “successful” Miners Strike of 1972 and similar labor victories across Paris in 1969 and Italy in 1979), before the movements died out and underwent market exploitation via neoliberalism.

Grateful Dead t-shirts are now sold at Walmart, while Pink Floyd plays throughout corporate spaces like McDonald’s.

“The crucial defining feature of the psychedelic is the question of consciousness, and its relationship to what is experienced as reality,” said Fisher. “Of course, we now know that the revolution did not happen. But the material conditions for such a revolution are more in place in the twenty-first century than they were in 1977… We must regain the optimism of that Seventies moment, just as we must carefully analyze all the machineries that capital deployed to convert confidence into dejection.”

The United States today mirrors “the Seventies moment” outlined by Fisher before his untimely death in 2017. In the aftermath of the pandemic, workers across the United States are quitting their jobs in droves, protesting demeaning conditions, and demanding concessions from corporations. Amazon recently announced it would grant frontline employees tuition-free college, following similar efforts this year by Walmart and Target. These ongoing labor victories come in the wake of a massive social justice movement, as the 1970s labor victories followed the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam protests.

Just as there are similarities between labor’s wins today, and the concessions it extracted from capital in the 1970s, there are also indicators totality will reinforce itself. Capital has agency, and capital evolves. The Beatles sang “Come Together” as a call to action in 1969, the lyrics written to promote LSD advocate Timothy Leary during his California gubernatorial bid against Ronald Reagan. Posters for Abbey Road are now mass produced globally, hanging in undergraduate dorm rooms of universities functioning like tax-free hedge funds, the song background music for production and reproduction processes.

Although the social justice movements of the past five years interrogated the foundations of American capitalism (distributed via mass media like clickbait news articles dumbing down concepts like intersectionality, and more rigorous approaches like the New York Times’ Pulitzer winning 1619 project), the system subverts activism and notions of “class consciousness” into its reproduction process.

Raytheon over the summer launched its “Stronger Together” campaign in which the defense contractor encouraged employees to “develop intersectional allyship.” The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) meanwhile has changed its entire public facing language to accept the premises of progressive ideology. In one recent recruiting ad, a female agent reflects on being “a cisgender millennial” who is “intersectional” and refuses to “internalize patriarchal ideas of what a woman can and should be.” Corporations selling BLM-inspired products reduce social justice to aesthetic marketing, integrating activism within a capitalist realist framework of totality.

Psychedelics in the literal sense have gone from underground pockets of consciousness expansion to emerging markets, as venture capital firms pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the nascent industry. Young, affluent Westerners dabble with Ketamine micro-dose therapy, Ayahuasca trips to Peru, and Psilocybin as medicine, playing in cottage industries of experimental therapy, drug tourism, and health and wellness. When psychedelics are mass produced with the primary goal of entering new markets, tapping into new customer bases, and extracting profit, any understanding gleaned from their experience is integrated firmly with the logic and ideology of capital.

Just as information highways architected by social media corporations like Facebook and Twitter filters information through the ends and means of capital, psychedelics driven by corporations are posed to do the same, but with an individual’s neurological pathways. With nearly all physical frontiers on earth captured and exploited into digital simulacra, capital’s expansion and the reproduction process aim inward, via new digital terrains like the Metaverse and simulations of spiritual enlightenment.

There are significant differences between today’s moment and Fisher’s “Seventies moment,” especially with how identity politics (the culture cemented as the dominant aesthetic via mass media) silos individuals rather than connecting them via a universal class consciousness. But with the labor shortage, the explosion of multiple emerging markets, and the push for decentralized frameworks, the “material conditions for such a revolution” are glaring. It is no coincidence the most viewed series globally last month was Netflix’s ‘Squid Game,’ which depicts indebted South Korean laborers fighting one another in life-or-death contests for financial liberation.

The “collective consciousness” faces a collective choice at this particular moment, not unlike the “Seventies moment.” It can again opt for cultural trappings and simulated experiences, accepting capital’s minor concessions triggered by the pandemic (remote work, improved wages offset by inflation, reversible benefits), giving way to orgasmic asset bubbles and their impending crash. Or it can use the labor shortage to further the economic changes brought about by the pandemic, creating a hybrid system using existing capitalist infrastructure for new ideological ends.

For the latter purpose, psychedelics could play a significant role in breaking from previous intellectual pitfalls (like how Bradley Cooper’s character in Limitless uses a drug which heightens his intelligence to find a solution to his dependence on said drug), so long as they are deployed with the imperative of building new frameworks rather than temporarily remedying capital’s side-effects.