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Narco-Capitalism: A conversation

Posted by C3W Admin on May 2 2022

Blog post by Sebastian Fonseca for Connecting 3 Worlds


A few weeks ago, Dr Maziyar Ghiabi at the University of Exeter published the article ‘Critique of everyday narco-capitalism’ – an excellent analysis intersecting the drug culture, dynamics of capitalism and daily experiences on the ground from Afghanistan, Myanmar and Colombia (image 1 – Ghiabi 2022). Taking advantage of our closeness to Dr Ghiabi, as friends, colleagues at the same institution, and collaborator for the Connecting 3 Worlds project, I sat down with him to discuss the details of the article. Be aware reader – some spoilers ahead…


Image 1. Overview of the article published in the journal Third World Quarterly in April, 2022.


For context, Dr Ghiabi is the Centre of Persian and Iranian Studies director at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (University of Exeter). Currently, he is developing a Wellcome Trust-funded project titled ‘Living Addiction in States of Disruption,’ analysing narratives of drug addiction, consumption, and recovery in the Middle East from the viewpoint of drug users and people recovering. Before this, Dr Ghiabi completed the research ‘Drugs and (dis)order: building sustainable peacetime economies in the aftermath of war’ at the University of SOAS (London, UK), exploring how illicit drugs economies in conflict areas foster peacebuilding and livelihoods for communities affected by the context. The article discussed is an intersection between both endeavours, the analysis of evidence from Colombia, Myanmar and Afghanistan gathered in the Drugs project – but analysed through the theoretical framework of ‘everyday lifeforms’ utilised and expanded in the Living ‘Addiction’ in States of Disruption project. I was also very excited to hear that the article is a ‘reference’ paper, an introduction to a Special Issue that Dr Ghiabi edited for the journal Third World Quarterly and which will be released later this year.


My interest in the article stems from my work at ‘Connecting 3 Worlds’ looking at health models in territories dominated by Guerrilla groups in Latin America, including the FARC-EP at the Putumayo region in Colombia – coincidentally the exact location explored in Ghiabi’s research. Since the 1980s, most of the leftist armed movements in the region invested in the illicit drug economy to finance their political agenda, belligerent action, and everyday life. The working assumption is that these territories were not exclusively about terrorism, death, and demise (life would be unsustainable otherwise). Rather, life in Guerrilla-dominated territories, including population health and medicine, continued – only operating under different epistemological coordinates. That is, different to the liberal, capitalist, and Americanised reality of countries like Colombia. Ghiabi’s publication confirms the assumption. To my delight, the most significant takeaway I received from the conversation was precisely that, contrasting mainstream policy and media, life within the imaginary boundaries of illicit phenomena isn’t merely war and chaos. Rather, it wields other ways of thinking and being in the world that are otherwise normal and quotidian. Health models, healing practices, and medicine fall within the umbrella of ‘lifeforms’ developed in Ghiabi’s article.


Indeed, Dr Ghiabi explained that the article tackles the idea that the drug itself is made to be the source of the problem within the politics of drugs. Nothing could be more distorted from reality. “Drugs are merely a commodity” was the phrase repeated in our conversation. Drugs as a commodity acquire a life of their own while embedded in the current economic system that organises society today: global market capitalism. The term ‘narco-capitalism’ that Ghiabi utilises for the article is precisely an attempt to capture the intertwining relationship between the entities, not because there is such thing as narco-capitalism, but rather capitalism itself creates all sorts of alternative ways of living – and the illicit drug economy ‘heightens’ these features. As Ghiabi argued, there is no better commodity for the growth and consolidation of capitalism than illicit drugs, mainly, addictive substances that modify individual behaviour towards repetitive and chronic consumption. The marriage between drugs and the market so vilified in the history of foreign and national policy yields wholly different and sometimes opposite perspectives of life and wellbeing once experiences from people living the minutiae of such economies are explored. These situated standpoints, the voices on the ground, make evident that capitalism is the very engine that drives the circulation of illicit drugs – rather than being an economic model that needs protection from it.


In short, the article forces the reader to reckon with the elephant in the room: our relationship with advanced capitalism and the fact that current scholarship in the sociology of drugs seems to disengage with this topic today. Capitalism makes the drug a source of wealth accumulation by developing complex sociopolitical infrastructures, establishing new and thriving industries, and settling dynamic livelihoods around production and distribution. For Ghiabi, though the field of study recognises that the current anti-drug strategies and programs do not work, the typical propositions err by persisting that the way forward is the regulation of drug economies and liberalisation of the market. Though we cannot deny the value of proposed approaches, the regulations do not suffice as (again) it still renders the drug the object of analysis and the focus of action. Actions done at the expense of broader processes and consequences that often remain unexplored, are neglected, or are made silent.


Let’s take, for instance, the so-called Plan Colombia in the Latin American’ war’ against drugs (Lindsay-Poland, 2018; Bartilow, 2019; Crandall, 2020). The Plan Colombia was a bilateral agreement between the US and Colombian government in the late 1990s, at the height of the fatidic drug cartels era in the country, aiming at the provision of foreign and military aid for anti-narcotics programs. Celebrated as the ‘Marshal Plan for Colombia,’ a fundamental component of the agreement was the total eradication of coca leaves cultivation via the dispersion of the weedkilling chemical Glyphosate. Airfleets and massive infrastructure were mobilised for the efforts, while the political elites that enabled the endeavour remained in the urban areas (away from the land affected). The decimation of the fields became a quantifiable measure of success across reports and news outlets, as the Plan received federal funding for well over ten years of its original estimated time. A White House report in 2012 calculated over 70% total reduction of cocaine production since the start of the program, glorifying the success of foreign counternarcotics policy in Latin America. Data contradicted by UN reports of the same year, which revealed that the production had remained ‘stable’ (BBC, 2012, 2016).


Despite the presumptive gains, a different reality emerges when voices from the ground are encountered. During my PhD fieldwork in Bolivia in 2018, I met social medicine researchers working on the lived conditions of illnesses in rural areas with limited healthcare coverage in Colombia. Aligned with ethnographic literature addressing pesticides and agriculture (Hetherington, 2013; Lapegna, 2016; Lyons, 2018; Nading, 2017, 2020), the colleagues pointed out that fumigation isn’t merely the instrument of anti-narcotic hope, a promise of progress for historically marginalised societies. Instead, local farmers highlight the devastating effects on other crops, the poisoning of water supplies, and mounting levels of debt; as well as bodily injuries, chronic diseases, and suicide – harms that have been extensively documented in a broad range of disciplines (Samsel and Seneff, 2013; Mesnage and Antoniou, 2017; Gunatilake et al., 2019; Rhodes et al., 2021; Seneff, 2021). This is precisely the argument Ghiabi advances when addressing the ‘drivers of human existence,’ what he calls mystification, predation, and alienation that capitalism produces. He states:


“Mystification is the process by which drug wars are fought for peace and order, for development, while their reality is that of dismembering communities and fomenting the profits of capital, in the form of drug business (narco-capital) or its laundered investment in legitimate enterprises…By integrating the individual, subjective experiences of people living in drug wars, it is possible to undermine the mythologies and mystification of everyday capitalism” (p. 6-7).


Ghiabi’s point is that an integral part of capitalism around the illicit drug economies is the creation of myths around reality, the distortion of the events on the ground, for the purposes of completing political objectives. The idea of a ‘drug war’ illustrates how cooperation programs may be presented to advance peace and development but actually shifts the context into a different type of violence and destruction. For instance, as shown in the article, the Colombian drug war included not merely the aspersion of chemicals against cultivations but also the disbandment of Guerrilla groups managing the production. Rather than ending a regimen of terror, locals commented that many ‘rearmed’ to take over the socioeconomic and institutional void – only now fully recognising themselves as mafias or paramilitarism. Depoliticising the problem by framing it as a ‘drug war,’ with its political implications, transformed the production operating under leadership, with leftists’ ideological objectives (belligerent and contradictory as they were), into flat out terrorist organisations. Though the change may shift the conflict into future favourable resolutions, the bottom line is that the ‘peace and development’ promised did not come to pass. As Ghiabi concludes, “(…) former members of militant ideological groups who preached a people-oriented politics – a politics of the everyday – reconfigured their strategies in the wake of peace with the state, adopting the logic of predation.” Other countries like Afghanistan and Myanmar also experienced increased drug production, and addiction problems in programs declared to do the opposite. These are examples that ultimately led to limitless profit and accumulation.


Image 2. Dr Maziyar Ghiabi. Source: Ghiabi’s private collection.


The point above brings me to a distinctive feature of Ghiabi’s article also discussed: the ‘everyday lifeforms’ approach to the study. Connected to postcolonial arguments of Portuguese scholar Boaventura de Souza Santos (2014), the approach is phenomenological in that it takes personal and grounded narratives seriously as a source of reliable empirical data. For Ghiabi, the approach proposed by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre legitimises what people experience in the ‘drug’ capitalist production, rendering their experiences visible in a context that historically has neglected them. This is certainly a purpose I identify with as I think over the multiple ways in which evidence comes about in the medical humanities. In looking at the discursive and material aspects of everyday life, research on narco-capitalism uncovers the intersection between how the system operates on the ground and how the operationalisation constitutes ways of thinking and being in the world. Moreover, the approach cuts across the different scales of determination, from the local level (farming) to the global level (drug market). Ghiabi relies on the work of historian Alf Lüdtke to highlight how the everyday approach has important historiographic implications that he carries forward in his new research project. The endeavour is important as the work of historians does not traditionally inform or impact ‘theoretically’ the work of social scientists, he added.


In approaching evidence through everyday lifeforms, Ghiabi efficiently creates a clear connection between health and society under the rubric of ‘alienation’. Derived from Marxist theory, alienation refers to the capitalist process of abstracting the workforce from the goods produced (and their real value) to extract profit for those owning the means of production. In the case of narco-capitalism, though farmers and locals work the land, monetisation of drugs only occurs through middle-actors that move the commodities to purchase markets. “The crop is often purchased before harvest,” Ghiabi continued, “it ‘belongs’ to those capable of trading it…(drugs) become things that have power on their own: a fetish” (p 13). In this way, peasants are alienated from agricultural production’s economic life, and the sociopolitical order meant to protect communities from ‘predatory forces.’ Alienation connects to health in that, following Ghiabi, the chronic use of drugs is often understood abstracted from the social, political and cultural context determining consumption by medicalising the problem. Put differently, contemporary advanced capitalism uses the medical approach to ‘addiction’ for the purposes of reducing the phenomena to a biological and individual condition at the expense of the “intimate, biographical conditions of the individual and their community with their historical and political lifeworld” (idem).  


For instance, according to Ghiabi, Afghanistan’s foreign policies and internal conflict decimated other forms of agricultural subsistence such that local communities cannot provide for their families without their involvement in poppy farming. Having created limited alternatives, militant groups and illicit organisations like the Taliban efficiently established infrastructure and networks to make illegal drug production a means of survival for the population, extracting taxes from the process to fund their insurgency. Today, the Taliban are law. Indeed, the industry grew and produced capital, employing thousands of people while making drugs readily available to the population as an everyday reality. Yet, addiction measures across the Global South remain an issue of personal failure, public shaming, and treatment of ‘junkies’. As the article elaborated, individuals with addiction are often “isolated, dispossessed and exploited more than other non-using workers” (p 15), accepting a lower value of addicted individuals, a form of depersonalisation due to their ‘complexity’ as addicts. If health is seen as biology alone, Ghiabi explained, we risk ignoring how organised society impacts health – that is to say, health must inevitably deal with the political economy of the local context.


The conclusion of the article, and indeed our conversation, was open-ended. It wasn’t a conclusion in the traditional sense but rather the configuration of future discussions, specifically around the question so, what do we do? “Emancipation,” Ghiabi clarified. That is to say, rather than resistance or survival, alternatives to anti-narcotics top-down policies emerge from the very experiences explored and how these redefine reality within the thickness of the chaos. “Only organisation in dialectical opposition to capitalist forms of life can give way to world-building alternatives for those caught in the crossfire of state- and narco-capital repression,” Ghiabi concluded (p. 15). In so far as we reckon with the real problem, capitalism, situated experiences grant agency and responsibility in ways that state programs and international cooperation have not done. Perhaps examples like the Bolivian socialist movement, which enabled the first indigenous Aymara president in the history of the region, legalised coca leaves production as a means of the agricultural economy (rather than illicit drugs) and recognised the diversity of pueblos originarios into a ‘plurinational’ nation-state via a new constitution; may be a starting point for future cooperativism and solidarity economy. But, again, let’s leave the question open-ended.




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