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We need to question our addiction to cultural and political economy of alcohol

PB Mehta writes: There is very little worry about the forms of dependence on alcohol that, in crucial moments, take away our ability to exercise or recognise consent, exercise good choice or act like an agent. The liberal case for encouraging moderation is actually stronger than the conservative case.

People queuing outside an alcohol store in Pune before it opens. (Express photo by Pavan Khengre)

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, launched an ill-fated anti-alcohol campaign in the then Soviet Union. According to Gorbachev’s biographer, William Taubman, the campaign followed on a high-powered Politburo report that worried about the deleterious consequences of excessive drinking in the Soviet Union: Annually, 12 million drunks arrested, 13,000 rapes attributed to alcohol, along with 29,000 robberies. The anti-alcohol campaign had some beneficial public health consequences: Crime fell and life expectancy rose. But the campaign was a political and economic disaster.

Gorbachev forgot that the addiction of the state to alcohol revenue was even more incurable than the addiction of some citizens to alcohol itself. The budgetary losses created an economic crisis. Historians suspect that more than the loss of the Soviet Empire, it was this campaign that delegitimised Gorbachev. An old Soviet joke went like this: A disaffected and angry citizen, fed up of standing in lines for vodka, decided to go assassinate Gorbachev. He soon came back and ruefully reported that the lines to assassinate Gorbachev were even longer than the lines for vodka.

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As the lockdown eased in India, and social distancing went for a toss at alcohol outlets, we were reminded of how difficult an issue alcohol is to rationally discuss in India. The stampede was caused by the ineptness with which the opening was handled in most cities. If you open up after 40 days, and are uncertain about future closings, you will create a stampede. But the subject has been a political hot potato we shy away from. Like in Russia, it is difficult to wean many states away from the political economy of alcohol. It lubricates not just the state coffers but whole political machines. There is also the fear that simply discussing this topic puts you on the slippery slope to prohibition; acknowledging the problem will legitimise state repression. Alcohol has also migrated from being a question of personal freedom and choice to an issue in broader cultural wars, an odd site on which we measure progressivism in India. It is also a window on how liberalism has been misunderstood.

Liberals should, rightly, be suspicious of prohibition on moral and practical grounds. Government grossly exceeds its legitimate power when it interferes with the rights of individuals to lead their lives as they please, and fashion their selves after their own ideals, interests and preferences. And certainly, moralism or puritanism on alcohol cannot be the basis of state policy. That moralism has no basis, and it violates the dignity and freedom of individuals.

But one of the paradoxes of liberalism is this. In order for liberal freedoms to flourish, society requires more self-restraint and judgment, not less. The state should not interfere with any freedom of expression. But freedom of expression will not survive, or be rendered relatively meaningless, if social norms that flourish under this freedom simply use freedom as a cover for hate or subordinating others. The state should not interfere in matters of sexuality or intimacy. But norms of freedom will impose serious costs and will not survive if the expressions of sexuality are consistently degrading or violent, as we have seen in the locker room scandals. The state should not interfere with people’s right to drink; but there will be a backlash if drinking takes forms that inflict great social harms. As every real liberal has always understood, defining the limits of state power is the intellectually easy part for liberalism. The harder part is to ask how we fashion subjects who understand both freedom and moderation. Both depend on each other.

There is a bizarre reluctance in India’s elites to think that all the following propositions cannot be true simultaneously. There is no justification for the state to prohibit people from drinking. That choice should be preserved. But there is a serious social problem in the form that drinking takes. According to the WHO, 5.3 per cent deaths worldwide are linked to alcohol, and in the age group 20 to 39, this figure rises to 13 per cent. The evidence on the relationship between alcohol and sexual and intimate partner violence globally is overwhelming. You just have to peruse the papers from any research centre on the issue, from La Trobe University’s Centre for Alcohol Policy Research, to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, to gauge the scope of the problem. Just to take random examples: Ingrid Wilson and Angela Taft of La Trobe University estimated that in Australia alcohol is involved in 50 per cent cases of sexual assault and 73 per cent intimate partner assault. This figure is quite representative for most countries. Many studies suggest that alcohol accounts for at least 50 per cent of campus assaults. The women in Bihar who support prohibition have a better sense of the underlying social science, even if we might disagree with their solution.

Alcohol in many elite contexts is not about exercising individual choice. Alcohol has almost become an ideology, with a messianism of its own kind. Most of my non-drinking friends who have returned from abroad agree that it was far easier to navigate sociability in the United States, than it is in a city like Delhi, where drinking has more or less become a marker of progressivism, or non-drinking of reaction. Amongst young people it is often presented not as a choice, but a compulsion of membership. And finally, there is something odd about converting alcohol into an ideology.

Some conservatives do that by moralising about alcohol. But progressive elites are even guiltier of bad faith in this respect. On the one hand, we rightly valorise consent, choice and agency. On the other hand, there is very little worry about the forms of dependence on alcohol that, in crucial moments, take away our ability to exercise or recognise consent, exercise good choice or act like an agent. The liberal case for encouraging moderation is actually stronger than the conservative case.

None of this is an argument for prohibition. Quite the contrary. But we should, as Yogendra Yadav pointed out, think more soberly (no pun intended), about policy measures that reduce the harm and ideological valorisation of alcohol: Education on intelligent drinking, community intervention, regulating outlet density of alcohol shops, greater control over surrogate advertising, franker social conversation that there is actually a problem. Good liberals need to defend freedom of choice. But if we really care for freedom, we also need to question our own addiction to the cultural and political economy of alcohol, and find intelligent pathways around a complex problem.

This article first appeared in the print edition dated May 7 under the title “Drink for thought”. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.

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