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Would psychedelics really lead to democratic transformation?

History offers many reasons to look askance at technical shortcuts to the reformation of human character: a response to Vikram Zutshi.

Credit: Flickr/Torbakhopper. CC BY-ND 2.0.

In his recent article for Transformation Vikram Zutshi argues that if psychedelic drugs can radically reform our relationship to nature and each other, then “those of us committed to social transformation must start to take the use of psychedelics much more seriously.” He suggests that in the face of environmental collapse and intensifying hatreds, “perhaps real change begins with rewiring our perceptual framework.”

It seems clear that psychedelics can rewire our perceptions, and since our perceptions drive our politics these drugs certainly do have political significance. But it’s not clear that that a psychedelic politics would also be a democratic politics, nor that the social transformations Zutshi envisions would be positive if what we want is a more open and inclusive democracy.

Of course everything depends on what we mean by terms. Maybe Zutshi has a different notion of what politics is, and what it means for politics to be democratic. I think politics is democratic when we meet each other as equals in debates about public matters. So, for example, there can be no democratic politics between children and adults. Of course in reality the line between childhood and adulthood is messy. Some children are more than the equal of adults and some adults are less mature than some children.

But the point is this: democracy is never just about inclusion in the abstract. It’s always about being included into some real community of people who treat each other as equals—not in every capacity but in terms of the capacities required to participate in common decision-making. We can debate precisely what these capacities are, but if so that means that one of the good democrat’s capacities is precisely the willingness to debate, and that includes a basic level of respect for facts and logic, as well as for the feelings and sensibilities of others.

Of course there’s always a risk that the requirements for inclusion in this process will be confused with excuses to exclude people who ought to be treated as equals—groups that traditionally have been marginalized and oppressed such as women, minorities and the poor. But if there are no such requirements then we are no longer talking substantively about democracy, because a democracy isn’t just a particular set of rules for governing the use of power. It’s also a particular attitude, a desire and determination to share power.

This attitude must be cultivated and can also be lost, but it’s very clear that not everyone shares it.  So the democratic project is never just about making political institutions more democratic. It’s always also about making human beings into democrats. It’s about making ourselves and others into certain kinds of people, people who are capable of acting as democratic citizens.

Would a more psychedelic politics really be a more democratic one?

I think Zutshi’s prescription for his brave new world makes the common mistake of thinking instrumentally about what are ultimately ethical questions. For him, psychedelics are a means to an end: we should use these drugs to make a certain sort of person in order to make a certain sort of politics so that we can make everyone happy. But thinking about democratic politics in this way is misguided.

Democracy isn’t an end-state to be achieved; if it was, an end-run to its achievement might be justified. When we think democratically we do have goals in mind—to do justice, diminish suffering and so forth. But in terms of democracy it is better to think of the goals themselves as means to these ends, and to think of the ends not as whatever we might accomplish but as how we try to accomplish it.

We can see what is dangerous about instrumental thinking when we think about the terrible things that have been done to people in the name of ‘the people’—the  gulags and pogroms and cultural revolutions, the ‘eggs broken for all the omelets.’ History offers many reasons to look askance at technical shortcuts to the reformation of human character, including more recent neoliberal attempts to reduce people completely to cogs in the capitalist machine.

What is it about psychedelics that might make them the wrong way to go about reaching the right place? Just this, in my view: what we respect in ourselves and in our fellow citizens—that special capacity that justifies political inclusion—is not our capacity to see the world ‘clearly.’ If it were, and if psychedelics really did give us that capacity all in one go, then some of my suspicion would be soothed.

But that can’t be right, since it would make ideological clarity the litmus test for inclusion. And if that’s the test we use to distinguish ‘more democratic’ from ‘less democratic’ then there’s little room for a politics in which citizens know, not only how to cooperate but also how to engage respectfully in conflict with each other; a politics in which people know how to fight on the ground with and against their political friends, not just how to ascend to the spiritual heights where all differences dissolve in some psychedelic state of bliss.

In Zutshi’s vision there isn’t much room for a democratic politics like this, because in a democratic politics we don’t just make people into democrats by implementing one person’s idea of what a democrat is. Instead we are all made into democrats by experience as we contest one another’s ideas and positions. So it’s in conversation that we come to see more clearly. If everyone already had the clarity that drugs may or may not provide, there would be no need for conversation at all. There would be no need for anything like ‘democracy.’

We can pursue democratic goals democratically, but we can also pursue them in an un-democratic spirit, in which case we must hope that we fail. Psychedelics might open up the spirit of politics but I’m not sure it would be the spirit that we want.

About the author

Adam Smith is Assistant Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Dubuque, in Dubuque, Iowa, in the United States.


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