Addicted: William Burroughs and a world in heat

Tom Burgis
3 November 2006

In 1966 the justices of the Massachusetts supreme court were asked to deliver a judgment in the United States's last great censorship trial. A year earlier, a Boston court had ruled that an experimental novel which described episodes of paedophilic murder, necrophilic lust, and rape, peopled with monstrous characters wantonly indulging in every conceivable sexual proclivity, should be banned as "obscene". Its author, William S Burroughs, was a drug-addled bisexual who had drunkenly executed his wife playing a game of William Tell in a Mexican bar.

The Boston judgment, against Burroughs' publisher Grove Press, had ruled that Naked Lunch fulfilled the three criteria of obscenity: taken as a whole, it was prurient; it was patently offensive by community standards; and it was utterly without redeeming social value.

After hearing impassioned testimony from Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg and other stars of counter-culture American literature, the judges lifted the ban on 7 July 1966. They ruled that Naked Lunch "was not without social value, and therefore not obscene."

According to his own account, Burroughs himself was so trashed on a cocktail of heroin and psychedelic chemicals that he did not remember writing a word of the manuscript. But Naked Lunch, especially read today, is much more than merely "not without social value" - it is about social value. It is an intelligent satire of the rampant consumerism and looming climatic catastrophe that marks the start of the 21st century.

The dependency pyramid

Naked Lunch satirises society organised through addiction. Addiction and the desperation it engenders in junkies become an allegory of consumption and of the savagery that ensues when people fall prey to what Burroughs calls "the algebra of need."

The basic point, as Burroughs explained once he was straight enough to write an introduction, is that opiate addicts exist in a pyramid: "The pyramid of junk, one level eating the level below (it is no accident that junk higher-ups are always fat and the addict in the street is always thin) right up to the top or tops as there are many junk pyramids feeding on peoples of the world and all built on the basic principles of monopoly."

In the novel's dystopian locale, Interzone, these principles of monopoly underpin the dominance of The Pushers, who keep "a million screaming junkies" in thrall by "inventing needs." In Interzone, power is the only cherished thing. As an inhabitant explains, "control can never be a means to any practical end ... It can never be a means to anything but more control ... Like junk ..."

Tom Burgis is a freelance journalist and openDemocracy columnist. Catch up with the Bad Democracy awards here.

We might conclude, as the US postal service did in 1961, that this is little more than salacious filth, fart jokes dressed up as social critique. We might, though, reread Naked Lunch and be left with the troubling thought that, in Burroughs' world, we're all junkies now. For a start, much of Burroughs' analysis of modern capitalism is shared by some pretty canny thinkers.

A year after he won the 1998 Nobel prize for economics, Amartya Sen would argue in Development as Freedom that the alleviation of poverty should focus not simply on increasing basic material income but on alleviating "unfreedom" i.e. the denial to the poor of capabilities both to fulfil their economic needs and to define those needs through political rights. And here is Burroughs: "A dope fiend is a man in total need of dope ... You would lie, cheat, inform on your friends, do anything to satisfy total need."

This in turn chimes with Clive Hamilton in his 2003 book Growth Fetish. Observing that fifty years of rising gross domestic product in most of the world has swallowed vast amounts of natural and human resources without improving the collective sense of well-being, Hamilton argues that we have submitted ourselves to "a cycle without end - hope followed by disappointment followed by hope - unless some event or sudden realisation breaks it."

To Burroughs, who died in 1997, that would have sounded like the very picture of a junkie's helpless predicament. Here we have another parallel between Naked Lunch's cautionary tale and the state we're in today. How to kick the habit? An addict who stops taking his drug does so for one of three reasons.

The first is sheer will; the second is through force, when someone other than the addict compulsorily prevents him taking the drug - or weans him off it - until the dependency is broken. The third is catastrophe: ruination, disease, death. The fear of catastrophe may be what precipitates either of the first two escapes from addiction. Or the catastrophe may happen: dead people do not take drugs.

At the core of all this is the internal struggle between the fear of impending disaster and the all-consuming need for a fix, what Burroughs calls the "hideous dry hunger" of the junkie. And this is where, though he may be surprised to hear it, Colin Challen, British member of parliament for Morley and Rothwell and chair of the all-party parliamentary climate-change group, has much in common with the beat generation's most enduring novelist.

Kicking the habit

Charing a recent public meeting at the House of Commons - titled "Growing, Growing, Gone? Do we need shrinking economies to save a habitable planet?" - Challen wondered how ruinous and how imminent a climatic catastrophe would have to be before concerted action to reduce carbon emissions was taken.

Hurricanes Rita and Katrina have shattered the Mexican Gulf; Tuvalu is practically submerged; thousands die in summer heat waves. About 150,000 people are already killed annually by the augmented hunger and disease wrought by changes in their climate.

Yet, as Challen and fellow campaigners have found, challenging the idea that all growth is good growth provokes shrieks of outrage on doorsteps and in policy forums. He fears that it may be that only a climate feedback - a terminal alteration in the climate's behaviour - will be enough to convince government and the populace at large to take a combination of the first two cures, by which time a feeble effort to mitigate the third may be the only option. The problem, he says, "is a lack of understanding and a lack of will. What we really care about, when push comes to shove, is consumption."

More on the politics of climate change on openDemocracy:

Tom Burke, "Climate change: time to get real"

Simon Zadek, "Accountability: the other climate change"

Andrew Simms, "The climate-change choice"

John Elkington, "After Stern: let's get technical"

Whirring into action at the prospect of global meltdown, Challen reports with exasperation, is the department for the environment, farming and rural affairs (Defra), which thought it appropriate to embark on a £12 million public-relations push to increase awareness of climate change - though explicitly not to alter behaviour.

At the same time, the motor industry will spend £2.4 billion on advertising, especially on bigger vehicles, which have the largest profit margins. As President George W Bush pledges to curb the American addiction to cheap gas - by reducing the economy's "oil intensity" - General Motors is offering petrol subsidies to purchasers of its Hummers.

Driven to distraction, Challen has introduced a private member's bill which goes far beyond the climate-change policies currently entertained in London and Washington. He drafted the Contraction and Convergence Bill with Aubrey Meyer, of the Global Commons Institute, who has thrust himself to the heart of international climate negotiations. Meyer's framework - "contraction and convergence", or C&C - is blissfully simple. It is, to push the analogy, political methadone for the consumer society.

In a world addicted to consuming polluting resources, we can calculate roughly how much more carbon we can pump into the planetary veins before climate feedback begins. We are down, as it were, to the end of our stash.

How is it to be divvied up? Through what Meyer calls "equity for survival". Everyone gets the same carbon ration, to use as they wish. But some addictions are more chronic than others. A baby born in the United States will be responsible for the emission of the same amount of carbon in the first week of its life as a child born in Tanzania during its entire existence.

Carbon Baby Boston would thus need to buy a lot of Carbon Baby Dar-es-Salaam's ration to feed its habit. However, the stash is dwindling, so even as the carbon money flows from the industrialised west to the developing world, the voracious consumers will be forced to wean themselves off the pollutant.

As emissions contract, the carbon ration begins to converge at a low level at which the worst of climate change might be averted. For all the protestations that Meyer's scheme is some sort of eco-communism, it would create a global free market in carbon rations. The motives to go gold turkey would be financial.

The big objection to all this is that it would stymie the efforts of the poor to break their dependency on aid by industrialising. Continued and accelerating global economic growth, with its attendant consumption of natural resources, is the only way to make poverty history, the argument goes. David Woodward of the New Economic Foundation in London, author of Growth Isn't Working, would tell you that that is a suicidal fallacy.

Since 1994, for every $100 of global economic growth, the amount reaching those living on less than a dollar a day has been 60 cents. The amount reaching those living on less than two dollars a day - half the world's population - has been $2.30. Every dollar of poverty eradication thus requires $166 in increased production and consumption globally. As in Burroughs' algebra of need, the addict always needs exponentially more of his drug.

"This would be bad enough even if the proceeds of growth were evenly distributed," says Woodward. "But for the poorest people below the dollar-a-day line, their share in growth is only half their share in income. To raise the people currently living on a dollar a day or less to a daily income of two dollars, we would have to quadruple consumption in the global economy." At that stage, a carbon target would start to read like a sick joke.

The beat goes on

At the moment, though, all is not lost. The European parliament and the African Union have adopted C&C as policy, and Meyer says he is hearing keen noises on his trips to Washington, where the wonks are tempted by a scheme that would encompass everyone, replacing the Kyoto pantomime and the European Union's flabby carbon-trading system. Crunch time is approaching, and Meyer counsels that we would do well to stop sitting in Burroughs-esque torpor, staring at out shoes.

Challen's bill, though it stands "a cat in hell's chance" of reaching the statute, has been backed in resolutions passed by a growing number of local councils. Its central tenets, such as Tradable Energy Quotas and the principle of carbon rationing, have entered the parlance of politicians are starting to sneak into official policy. And on 6 November, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change twelfth Conference of Parties will convene in Nairobi. The Kenyan hosts have made it clear that they intend to make C&C the basis of the negotiations.

"My advice," says Meyer, "is to turn this year into a campaign totally riveted on making the north-south connection live in the politics. Equity is a necessity, not a moral persuasion. Don't go with the decoys." The beauty of C&C, according to Meyer, is that it upends ideas of value, forcing upon us a recognition both of our dependency and the damage it does. "Contraction and convergence holds up a mirror," he says. "All the assumptions are inverted. In the South, they say to us: 'Your lifestyle, your consumption is at our cost. It's killing us.'"

This is the damage the addict does. Those on the lowest level of the dependency pyramid are both its most cruelly treated victims and its foundation. We are just beginning to realise the true nature of what economists call "externalities": the far-reaching costs not included in the monetary price of the goods we consume.

It was only when Burroughs emerged from his heroin addiction ("The Sickness", as he called it) that the significance of the title he had given to his satire dawned on him. "I have no precise memory of writing the notes which have now been published under the title Naked Lunch," he wrote.

"The title was suggested by Jack Kerouac. I did not understand what the title meant until my recent recovery. The title means exactly what the words say: Naked Lunch - a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of the fork."

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