Addiction: Imprisoned Emancipation

Wycliff Matanda


Addiction can be described as a biopsychosocial condition, unveiling itself as a by-product of personal and social adversities rooted in and nourished by Western capitalism and consumerism. This paper reveals addiction as an oxymoron -a compound of emancipation, yet, at the same time an ostensibly endless imprisonment. Addiction is a means of liberation from a fragmented personal and social identity intertwined with a deep-rooted sociocultural malaise. Simultaneously, addiction becomes a prison cell as the fleeting moments of liberation are a guise and soon make way for an unpleasant, and inescapable milieu of emotional pain and enduring emptiness. This paper combines a micro-level and macro-level orientation in its approach to addressing the intersection of capitalism and addiction in Western society.

Keywords: addiction, capitalism, emancipation, imprisonment, hyper-consumption, abstractions

Conceptualizing addiction

Addiction is a complex issue that is highly debated in academics, industry, and public discourse. Canadian psychologist and addiction researcher, Bruce Alexander (1988), reveals that historically, the term addiction encompassed behaviours outside of the current, modern delineation of drug consumption. It is evident that traditional conceptualizations of addiction converge upon notions of servitude and vassalage. Alexander (1988) points out that for several centuries addiction referred to behaviours that did not solely relate to drugs. For example, he notes that the Romans first used the word addictus in reference to a slave used as a surety bond. Then, the word addico (Latin) denoted dedication and devotion to a person or a cause. Finally, the word addiction in its mid-twentieth century, orthodox, English usage, indicated an enduring devotion and a submission to a particular person or endeavour. However, according to Alexander (1988), a streamlined definition of addiction surfaced in the 19th century; it was an approach that emphasized the negative consequences and harm stemming specifically from drug usage. Other scholars such as Reith (2004) also argues that the 19th century conceptualization of addiction was linked with the ingestion of substances (i.e. drugs) and their effects on the corporeal realm.

In the 21st century, the conceptualization of addiction became increasingly politicized. The notion of addiction is at best equivocal, with a cacophony of competing paradigms. Meanwhile, the disease model of addiction defines addiction as a long-term brain disease in the conventional addiction paradigm (American Society of Addiction Medicine [ASAM], 2011; Lewis, 2017). The disease model posits that addiction affects the “brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry” (ASAM, 2011, p. 1) and leads to damage in the brain’s frontal lobe, resulting in difficulties with impulse regulation, planning, and judgment. The prevalence of the disease model, on the other hand, within the realms of psychiatry, psychology, medicine, neuroscience, academia, business, government, and public discourse has attracted detractors (Alexander, 1988; Lewis, 2017; Satel & Lilienfeld, 2013). This group collectively argues that the disease perspective does not propose a comprehensive and entirely accurate picture of addiction. Other current models of addiction highlight phenomena such as childhood trauma and human learning. For instance, addiction expert, Dr. Gabor Maté (2012), through his comprehensive research, traces the genealogy of addiction to childhood trauma. Maté unwaveringly asserts addiction as a means of coping with trauma and pain from early (childhood) adversities, resulting in significant changes within the brain’s neural circuitry. Although Maté’s conceptualization of addiction is cemented in childhood traumas, his intricate analysis reveals a biopsychosocial phenomenon, where addiction is a consequence of adverse social experiences/settings and psychological and/or emotional pain which create changes in the brain’s structure and neural wiring. In yet another reinvigorated perspective, blending ideas such as neuroplasticity and delay discounting, neuroscientist Marc Lewis (2017) points out that those same changes in the brain’s structure and neural wiring are synonymous to the brain changes occurring during continuous learning and motivation. He argues that addiction escalates and perpetuates via a recipe of high motivation and repetition. The effect is expedited and profound learning. Even with the clamor and dissonance amongst paradigms in the addiction literature, there are indeed points of convergence in what constitutes addiction. Addiction research (ASAM, 2011; Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2019; Matanda, 2016; Sussman & Sussman, 2011; University of Lethbridge Health Centre, 2018) indicates that addiction involves the following features:

With the growth, complexity, and endurance of a global capitalist system, I propose that the conceptualization of addiction can be expanded. Charles Wright Mill’s term, the sociological imagination, can be aptly called upon here, as it refers to personal issues placed in societal context, which in Western society, is largely defined by capitalist ideology. The myriad of substances from alcohol, narcotics, food, licit and illicit drugs to pursuits such as pornography, sex, gambling, and shopping are manifestations of addiction that people turn to as an escape from their reality. Despite the varying conceptualizations of addiction, this paper follows the trajectory that addiction is a response mechanism to the stresses and challenges of the external world, which are internalized and thus, overburden the psyche. Addiction festers in a psychological orgy of lawlessness, chaos, liberation, and entrapment—driven to overtake and hijack the ego, the rational part of the psyche forming our self-identity, in a zero-sum scenario.

The addiction-capitalism-abstraction nexus

In capitalist society, life is organized around economic activities involving the accumulation of commodities and pecuniary wealth, as well as transactions between social actors. Capitalism (free-market type) is identified by West (2018) as an economic system based on the private ownership of goods, capital, and means of production, with the goal of generating wealth, profit, and money. As Taylor and Segal (2015) note, the significance and value of consumer culture pervades our lives, advertising and implanting counterfeit needs and artificial values, through vessels of consumer goods, and positioning mass consumption en route to emotional and psychological salvation. This hegemonic, socioeconomic order requires productive members of society who spend their entire lives mass producing and mass consuming, while accumulating financial and economic wealth, as well as status. Our identity is tied in with commodities such as money and consumer products, which are means to personal and social ideals such as power, belonging, and acceptance.

It is difficult to conceptualize addiction as a mutually exclusive phenomenon from capitalism. In fact, capitalism provides the fuel for addiction to persist, thrive, and intensify. In capitalism, the individual subject becomes the locus—the site of continuous psychological and emotional transformation as a result of continuous advertising and consumerism. It is a metamorphosis that propels the subject into a complex interrelationship of commodities, abstractions, and other social actors. The individual’s senses are bombarded with an infinite barrage of yearned abstractions (i.e. contentment, happiness, acknowledgement, freedom) typically sought after in social relations. But within the realm of capitalism, these abstractions are inseminated into varieties of chocolate, ice cream, cigarette, and alcohol brands. Acceptance and social recognition come to fruition via designer clothing, jewellery, and money. Capitalism produces an individual that is dependent on cravings and compulsions—in a cycle of hyper-consumption and hyper-production—to fulfill needs and wants. Ultimately, capitalism begets a synthesis of the consumer and producer roles—thus, locking the subject into a self-perpetuating cycle where the consumer-producer boundaries are blurred. Subsequently, addiction becomes a major apparatus for attaining needs and desires.

The correlation between capitalism, addiction, and social, as well as personal, alienation is a point of study amongst social scientists. Alexander (2001), echoing Hungarian social scientist and philosopher Karl Polanyi, argues that psychosocial integration is essential to our well-being and flourishing. Throughout our lives we form relationships and intricate webs of interdependence that define our roles and expectations and ground our personal identities while continuously moulding our social identities. Yet, in Western, capitalist societies, Alexander (2001) astutely notes that people suffer from enduring dislocation, which Alexander specifically defines as “insufficient psychosocial integration” (p. 4). The free market economy operates based on the principles of supply and demand and is fueled by a never-ending cycle of production and consumption that perpetuates dislocation and distorts cultural traditions and social relationships. The free market economy does not immerse itself in the identity politics and sociocultural interactions which are antithetical to the most extreme version of itself: pure self-interest, competition, profit, private-property—exploiting people and prioritizing money and profit over social relationships. In addition, Alexander (2001) argues that:

Western society is now based on free market principles that mass-produce dislocation, and because dislocation is the precursor of addiction...Western free market society also provides the model for globalization, which means that mass addiction is being globalized along with the English language, the Internet, and Mickey Mouse (p. 2).

Although this paper focuses on capitalism and addiction through a Western lens, the pair have infiltrated the entire world. Alexander (2001) points out that dislocation is a global phenomenon with even politically distant countries such as China and Russia embracing the ideals of free market economies and international organizations such as the World Trade Organization imploring the increased intersection of free markets and other critical realms such as medicine and education.

Bruce Alexander’s sentiments are reiterated by Pérez and Esposito (2010) who assert that capitalism perpetuates hyper-consumerism, and progressively a state of addiction, by alienating the individual. How does capitalism alienate? The authors contend that capitalism fabricates alienation through reliance on the material goods and products to fulfill voids. Subjects are void of power, freedom, and happiness, becoming complacent as consumers. Pérez and Esposito (2010) further contend that “much like a drug addict intensifies and perpetuates their addiction when they chronically consume a substance to ‘feel better,’ the consumer junkie finds temporary satisfaction in materialist indulgences” (p. 89). Therefore, the individual feels disconnected from themselves and other social actors as their primary focus is to continuously achieve emancipation from discontentment through consumption. Psychoanalyst, Luigi Zoja (cited in Pérez & Esposito, 2010) has dubbed capitalism’s preoccupation with consumption as the most important ritual in contemporary society.

The primary goal social actors seek via hyper-consumption is some form of salvation or escape from discontentment in a free-market society. This typically results in occurrences such as debt and increased alienation as a lot of energy is invested in consuming and also producing. There is a cycle of emancipation followed by imprisonment. Subjects in a state of addiction follow the same pattern. Yet, this presents a dilemma: addiction is inherently an oxymoron. It is a concept replete with contradictions and infused with polar opposites. Addiction is simultaneously the emancipation and incarceration of the subject via sustained subject-object/subject-experience relationships. It is imprisoned emancipation.

Addiction as a form of emancipation

Amidst its profit-centred mantra, capitalism also boasts its marquee theme: freedom. Compared to other economic systems such as socialism and communism, capitalism is about a greater degree of freedom to make choices. Consumers can normally choose where, when, what, and how to purchase. Capitalism—through a vessel of commodities and transactions—undertakes a voyage to personify and epitomize abstractions. Therefore, commodities become recognition, power, comfort, security, acceptance, and status incarnate. This freedom to make an infinite number of choices is the underlying nexus between capitalism and addiction. Addiction involves the freedom to indulge and override our physical and psychological satiation switches in pursuit of freedom from the manacles of life’s adversities. Mortal existence is a smorgasbord of happiness, sadness, joy, depression, love, guilt, desire, anxiety, faith, resentment, hope, suffering, and pain among many other emotions. People deal with adverse life circumstances differently. Some turn to narcotics. Some turn to alcohol. Others find consolation in food or the fantasy worlds of video games. Regardless of the agent or pursuit, addiction is a pathway to ameliorate and relieve emotional and psychological pain. Subjects seek emancipation and liberation from that pain, emptiness, and void, which derive from the struggles and challenges of life. As Maté (2012) argues, addiction becomes a tool used to deal with life’s adversities.

Next, capitalism creates socioeconomic inequalities. In many cases, the socioeconomic inequalities create masses of people who live in poverty. For those in the throes of poverty, addiction can be a tool to deal with the physical and emotional difficulties of poverty. Thus, addiction becomes about freely building a subjective or social order amidst a social landscape that may be uncomfortable or unbearable. The repetitive consumption of drugs or engagement in particular activities may ease or numb the agony of a painful existence on the fringes of society. Grounded theory research conducted by Hamilton-Wright et al. (2016) analyzed men in Canada with a gambling addiction, and living in poverty. In particular, the authors capture the story of a man named Fahad who turned to gambling and drinking alcohol as a teenager, after a childhood filled with abuse and a lack of housing. The man describes how his gambling addiction helped him cope with his adversities:

He enjoyed the process of bribing others and saw this as a skill. For Fahad, like other men in the study, gambling provided hope. For him, this meant the chance that gambling could provide him with a better lifestyle (Hamilton-Wright, 2016, p. 9) and thus, an opportunity for security. The lack of financial, emotional, and physical security as a child could be redeemed through gambling. Gambling provided him with hope for an elevation in socioeconomic status. The man developed a sense of power over others through persuasion. He had felt powerless in his childhood; yet, as an adult, he had the power to influence people and have a greater degree of control over the direction of his life. Gambling provided him with an avenue to achieve these ideals.

Although those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder may turn to drugs or other addictions to ameliorate and palliate the difficulties of their situation, addiction also transcends socioeconomic barriers. Capitalism creates an arena of needs and wants—whether real or perceived—all striving to be met to different degrees. Capitalism involves a cyclical, never-ending journey to an unreachable summit. Subjects may feel a false sense of completion where they think they have reached the pinnacle; yet, capitalism is an incessant, famishing beast. Cycles of mass production and consumption require increasing cycles of mass production and consumption to achieve increased thresholds of not only pecuniary gain, but also psychological tranquility. The stresses of involuntarily being participants in capitalism means we strive to accumulate commodities and money as substitutes for the abstractions we really yearn. Addiction becomes the symptom and the solution to salvation. For instance, John Doe (2012) highlights an addiction to Percocet, a branded opioid derived from combining acetaminophen and oxycodone, as an emergency room nurse in Philadelphia. After undergoing medical procedures to treat a bout of meningitis, Doe was prescribed Percocet to relieve pain. Doe continued to take opioids, even after the cessation of the medial condition and treatments. As a nurse, Doe had access to a plethora of medication, including Percocet. Thus, Doe began diverting opioids for personal consumption and progressively increased the dosages to experience the same initial, euphoric feeling. Doe had progressively built up a tolerance to the opioids. Doe (2012) describes the effects of opioids: “all was right with the world… I could function at a higher level… I had more energy and motivation. Stressful situations seemed easily manageable, and I felt more focused on whatever I happened to be doing” (p. 372). Entangled in a busy life providing a service for people, the nurse had to cope with her stress and less-than-optimal functioning. The nurse was seeking motivation, consolation, serenity, and increased awareness. Thus, drugs became the main vessel in her quest for internal stability.

In another case, Gee et al. (2017) record the story of a 59 year old nurse, named Deanna, who has had a tumultuous time with alcohol and dealt with a cycle of relapse and remission. The researchers capture the study participant’s words:

Once there was a child who felt she didn’t belong… a young woman who became adept at hiding her feelings— feelings of shame—guilt—disconnectedness—hopelessness—worthlessness... who, in desperation, retreated into a fantasy world of addiction, lies, and treachery to assuage the pain of feeling alone and disconnected. She discovered a magical elixir that helped her cope with her feelings and gave her the illusion that she could control everything. It gave her a feeling of power—a sense that she was in charge of her life and that she was the center of her world. She built a wall around herself and shunned others (p. 173-174).

Gee et al. (2017) note that Deanna was caught in a whirlwind of alcohol addiction. Deanna mentions that she drank 24 hours a day 7 days a week and drank until she was in a coma. The catalyst to her drinking was related to post-partum depression.

Last, in a news article, Brody (2007) describes her tumultuous encounter with food, as a binge-eater, whose life was in chaos and whose work was dissatisfying. Thus, decadent, sugary, and salty foods became her form of comfort. Her life became about seeking out, purchasing, and hyper-consuming decadent foods for comfort and happiness.

Again, the theme of hyper-consumption is highlighted in the stories and reinforces the idea that capitalism perpetuates addiction through a craving to suppress feelings of alienation and disconnectedness. Addiction works to emancipate subjects from a malaise and from overwhelming discontentment. However, what is the price of a precarious reliance on consumption as a means of restoration and emancipation?

Addiction as imprisonment

Addiction is Janus-faced. Within the confines of addiction, emancipation is fleeting. Capitalism fosters socially, psychologically, and physically captive subjects caught in the throes of addiction. Under capitalism, satiety is not a goal or end result. Instead, satiety is a foreign concept—one that is supplanted by hyper-consumerism, focused on the idea that consumption is based on the necessity of fulfilling internal voids. Exponential mass production and consumption obsolesces any faint notions of satiety. In addiction, subjects build a tolerance to a drug or pursuit. Thus, they need increasing dosages to maintain an inner equilibrium. Cessation or reduction of the drug or pursuit does not bring immediate tranquility either, as it results in physical and psychological withdrawals.

Addiction provides evanescent relief in that "there is a short-lived, inner peace and calmness...a place of equilibrium, serenity, and tranquility—where the individual attempts to escape her/his inner turmoil" (Matanda, 2016, p. 8). Chasing emancipation in the form of consumption leads to eventual psychological imprisonment. The price for temporary emancipation from the constraints and stresses of everyday life is exponential self-imprisonment, in the form of cravings and compulsions. Locked in a deadly cat-and-mouse game, the taste of freedom and liberation from addiction’s chains fuels the cravings and compulsions associated with addiction. With each new cycle of false liberation from emptiness and pain, the cravings and compulsions increase. The value of temporary freedom is not reciprocated in an inverse relationship. Instead, liberation comes at the cost of heightened, adverse, personal and social consequences. In the previous case of Doe (2012), addiction helped avoid the realities and stresses of life and a career. The author also points out that addiction’s euphoria was temporary and the negative consequences resulted in significant damage to their life, career, and reputation:

I began drinking around the clock, essentially never being sober. The specific altering substance no longer mattered, as long as it helped me avoid reality. I felt I was spinning out of control, with no chance of returning to any sense of normalcy. The guilt and shame were so severe… I continued to lie to everyone close to me. I would not answer my phone or and check the mail, as I knew the nursing board was attempting to contact me, and if I avoided them, maybe everything would just go away. Of course I knew better. After 3 months of unemployment… I was well into debt, with creditors calling daily (Doe, 2012, p. 328).

On a personal level, individuals' self-identities become warped through addiction. The pathological, dependent relationship with the particular agent or pursuit becomes the basis of a modified identity. For example, in the study by Gee et al. (2017), the participant’s story poignantly acknowledges addiction as a world of tranquility where security and comfort reside. However, the participant also acknowledges that the fantasy arena becomes dark and desolate. Alcohol had constructed a temporary world of comfort for this participant—a world that imploded. It was a world that hastened her desire to die so she could stop the pain.

Although not a new phenomenon, an area of intense interest in the 21st century is shopping addiction. According to a New York Post article by Schuster (2016), which interviewed several compulsive online shoppers, the internet—home to retail giants such as Amazon—has become a matrix for a whole new category and calibre of shoppers. The article recounts shoppers who continue the cycle of impulsive buying and accumulating goods because of the instant gratification. An article from an American Cable News Network (CNN) interviews psychologist April Lane Benson in regards to the causes of shopping addiction. The article indicates that shopping addiction may stem from one’s emotional needs not being met and a lack of financial resources in childhood. The article further reveals that overbuying may be a way to deal with the unavoidable and inescapable conception of our own pending death (Landau, 2012).

The articles about compulsive shopping converge on this idea of filling an inner void and dearth of some abstract ideal. As Pérez and Esposito (2010) remark, capitalist society is full of disenchantment. The elements of surprise, mysticism, and mystery are overshadowed by science. Capitalism grows alongside its ally: science. Science provides rational, logical explanations, leaving less room for enchantment. Rationalization leads to predictability and repeatability—catalyzing a mundane, overly-regulated way of experiencing and knowing the world. Few phenomena, such as death and extraterrestrial life, are still somewhat enshrouded in a mysticism that science cannot penetrate. It is this mysticism and wonder which invokes awe and surprise. According to psychologist Jill Suttie, “surprise works on the dopamine system in our brains, helping us to focus our attention and inspiring us to look at our situation in new ways” (Suttie, 2015, para. 4). Surprise injects life with a new exuberance, vibrancy, and energy. Thus, compulsive buying provides a new, exciting path of enchantment, where problems of deprivation can be solved.

In the previously mentioned New York Times article by Jane Brody (2007), she admits that the compulsive drive to binge eat, although comforting and fulfilling an internal happiness dearth, drove her to the precipice of suicide. Her continuous eating resulted in significant weight gain, converting the short-lived comfort and happiness of food into an enduring state of despair. She was a prisoner of her eating patterns that had taken the form of a malevolent monster, consuming her in the process.

Although addiction becomes a means to an end, an instrument to help gain the personal and social values we yearn, it simultaneously presents a malevolence that leads people to personal and social destruction. The overarching theme of capitalism is to sustain itself as a system. Addiction becomes the method in which capitalism perpetuates a tireless cycle of consumption and production. Addiction in itself, becomes a response to real the emptiness and discontentment manufactured by capitalism.


Historically, the Western concept of addiction has generally referred to notions of servitude and devotion. Yet, the 19th century conceptions of addiction focused on drug use, which eventually ushered in new ways of conceptualizing addiction in the 21st century discourse, as detractors of the brain disease model of addiction presented alternative paradigms. As I suggest throughout the paper, the idea of addiction can be expanded to include a plethora of substances and pursuits. The expanding gamut of addiction parallels the expansion of addiction globally, which in turn, echoes the expansion of capitalism.

As illustrated in this paper, capitalism perpetuates addiction. There is an implied correlation: if capitalism grows and intensifies, addiction follows in a mutually inclusive relationship. The relationship between capitalism and addiction can be predicated on the idea of freedom. There is a freedom to engage in hyper-consumption, which provides an avenue to reconcile and reconstruct a fractured inner self. It is the inner self that strives to emancipate itself from a world devoid of enchantment, through the pursuit of personal and social ideals such as happiness, acceptance, power, comfort, and security amongst many others. Yet, emancipation is impermanent when it is rooted in possessions and consumption. Therefore, addiction can be a prison sentence, facilitated through hyper-consumption.

Although this paper’s scope is capitalism and addiction in Western society, future studies could investigate the intersection of capitalism, addiction, and culture. Further, the term Western loosely refers to countries in the Americas and Europe that generally share customs, beliefs, and practices. Thus, future studies could also analyze patterns of addictions within individual countries and subcultures. This paper analyzes capitalism as a homogeneous system. Future research could look at dissecting capitalism and relating its specific forms (e.g. social market economy, state capitalism, mixed economy, etc.) to addiction.

To conclude, focus on the intersection of addiction and economic practices in a society lifts addiction out of its most common positioning—namely, as a micro-level examination of the individual within the corporeal spheres. This allows the examination of this idea of the compulsive individual who lacks self-control. Applied to addiction, placing personal issues in a societal context, as called for in Mill’s sociological imagination, means examining addiction from an open-minded and more expansive orientation as opposed to simply the conventional notions of a brain disease.


Wycliff Matanda holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology and psychology from the University of Alberta. Wycliff graduated from Athabasca University’s MAIS program in 2016. He has published several peer-reviewed articles for Psych Central in the area of addiction. Wycliff’s research and writing interests lay in the field of health psychology with a focus on addiction, death, and dying.