Liberalism’s Opiate Subjectivity: Dependency, Edinburgh and Enlightenment

New Formations - ISSN 0950-2378
Volume 2021 Number 103

Liberalism’s Opiate Subjectivity: Dependency, Edinburgh and Enlightenment
Michael Gardiner pages 78-93
DOI: 10.3898/NEWF:103.05.2021


This essay suggests that British liberalism itself has an addictive core. It describes opiates as a particular carrier of this addiction, and follows them from the Edinburgh-based opium trade of the early nineteenth century to their rebound in the Edinburgh of the 1980s. Opiates are such a telling carrier of British liberal authority because they take on a dual historiographical and physical role, affirming both the rise of individual ownership and the understanding of that individual through an addictive self-interest. An accompaniment to and analogue for British globalisation, opiates show how entrepreneurship and dependency have been bound together. This essay describes how a hardening of Scottish Enlightenment ideas in the early nineteenth-century expansion of opium was echoed in the late twentieth century, as liberalism reformed for the post-industrial economy and Edinburgh reabsorbed the combined ‘dependency-entrepreneurship’. Both the 1830s opium that extended the reach of British liberal values and the 1980s heroin that accompanied post-industrial decline have their own heroic smuggling, virtuous entrepreneurialism and ‘property progressivism’. Both demand the reform of personal time in economic terms, first in a kind of Smithian productivity, second in a relentless search for opportunity against a background of mass unemployment. An opiate neoliberalism, moreover, becomes paradigmatic for the financialisation of personal relationships we experience in the twenty-first century, and the normalness of progressive pseudo-communities joined in individual self-interest. A number of dramas of the 1980s’ Edinburgh epidemic realise this, exposing the debilitation underside in virtuous progressive self-interest, and returning to the foundations of Scottish Enlightenment and British liberalism as a whole. Of these dramas, this essay returns to Shoot for the Sun (1986), Trainspotting (1993) and Looking After Jojo (1998), and asks what opiate entrepreneurialism says about our own ongoing ‘historiographical addiction’.

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To cite this article
Michael Gardiner (2021) Liberalism’s Opiate Subjectivity: Dependency, Edinburgh and Enlightenment, New Formations, 2021(103), 78-93.

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