We had been looking for a book on drugs for some time, even if we were not sure what it was exactly that we were looking for. I was introduced to Ben Fong through a former colleague, Chris Crawford. When Ben told me he was working on a book about drugs I think I was expecting a sort of Deaths of Despair for the left. What I got was a work of history and critical theory that was much broader and infinitely more fun. Of course, drugs are a serious subject, but people also take them to feel good and have fun. It may not always work, but people seem to be taking more and more of them.
And by more, I mean to say more on a scale that is difficult to wrap your head around. As Ben puts it, “American drug use today is truly world historical. At 4% of the earth’s population, Americans consume 80% of its opioids, including 99% of its hydrocodone, and 83% of its amphetamines and amphetamine-like drugs (Ritalin, for instance). 1 in 3 Americans suffer from anxiety, depression, or both (globally, that number is about 1 in 20), and 1 in 6 is on a psychiatric medication. The $500 billion per year we spend on pharmaceuticals is complemented by another $150 billion per year on illegal drugs. By any measure, we are a uniquely drugged society. When the sun sets on the land of the free, the owl of Minerva will simply fall off its branch in an intoxicated haze.”
Fong is an absolutely brilliant writer, and he brings a light touch to his exploration of how drugs are a reflection of the shifting imperatives, perversions, and desires of a changing society. This book tells that story through 9 thematic chapters–the book opens with the “serene delight” of coffee houses as the engine of our American work ethic, and closes with the odyssey of marijuana’s legalization which reminds us that profit always does win in the end. In between there are chapters on opioids and their braided history with imperialism in China, and their massive renaissance in America following our east Asian hot wars against small peasant hamlets in Vietnam and Korea. There’s a chapter on psychedelics framed around the dialectics of control—the strange fact that these drugs were simultaneously heralded as mind control tools by calculating minds at the CIA and FBI and as a means of a great mental unshackling from the dictates of authoritarianism and the work week by countercultures of the late 1960s. A chapter on cigarettes asks if its straightforwardly destructive element is why we reach for our Marlboros. Perhaps it is, consciously or not, a big middle finger to the ethics of self-care and self-improvement.
I could not be more pleased with the work Fong has produced. It is truly a rare sort of book that manages to be both intellectually rigorous and exceptionally enjoyable to read. And, importantly, this is a real Verso book. Beneath the bright descriptions, interesting contradictions and energetic prose, lurks an impressive materialist account of drugs and American capitalism.
Asher Dupuy-Spencer, Editor
New York, June 2023
Quick Fixes by Benjamin Y. Fong is one of our July Verso Book Club reading selections! See more about the Verso Book Club here.