Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Freud, drugs and urban regeneration

I visited the Freud Museum in Hampstead over the Easter weekend (the wife's idea of fun). Part of the display includes a film about Freud's working practices: he did his consultations in the house surrounded by books and antiquities, particularly Ancient Egyptian votive offerings. The commentary noted that Freud read more books on archaeology than psychology. This prompts momentary surprise, until you realise that before old Ziggy got to work there probably weren't that many books on the latter, so he may also have read more on cookery and dog-grooming.

This is an example of parallax - how our relative position can display an object against a different background. The paradox arises because we view Freud's reading habits against the modern corpus of psychology, which is extensive.

As my part of the deal, we took the number 28 bus all the way from Wandsworth to Kensal Rise and then walked from there to Finchley Road. We returned by Overground to Clapham Junction, which meant we were joined by shoppers from Westfield at Shepherd's Bush. This reminded me of Bradford's "Westfield hole", which featured in the recent by-election as an example of stunted urban regeneration and was offered as one of many reasons for George Galloway's victory, though unless he plans to fill it with his ego I can't see what difference he will make. Iain Sinclair has recently criticised the egomania that underpins "grand projects", and in particular the London Olympics with its Westfield legacy. The Bradford hole appears to be an emblematic absence, as if raw Westfield had been dug out of it and transported to East London to create a Westfield mountain.

Grand projects have been around since the dawn of civilisation, and shopping has often been a feature of them. Urban regeneration in Ancient Rome usually meant a bigger and better forum, new markets and public baths, rather than grander temples. Urban regeneration can be dismissed as an Ozymandias-like conceit, but it is a key motor of general growth and not just property speculation. It also represents "new territory" for capital investment and thus helps soak up excess accumulation. But property looks like a weak market over the near term. The big bubbles in the USA, Japan and the peripheral EU countries won't reinflate for a long time. London looks like it will maintain value and offer growth, but even that is likely to be modest.

Capital needs new markets to invest in because existing markets aren't providing enough opportunities. This is in large part why health and education privatisation is being pursued in the UK, and why we're investing heavily abroad, particularly where state franchises and infrastructure are being privatised. These are examples of previously non-capitalist markets being opened up to help with the over-accumulation of capital. What other opportunities might there be?

One that has been building up a head of steam for a while now is the decriminalisation of drugs. There is a broad consensus that the "war on drugs" has failed. Narcotics are being repositioned as a public health issue, rather than a moral failing that spawns crime, which means that ensuring quality control is more pressing than limiting supply. The president of Guatemala has started to talk of drugs as a "market" that needs to be "regulated". We're changing the background against which the drugs business is presented for discussion. In other words, it's the parallax effect again.

It looks like a government monopoly, or at least a highly regulated cartel, will appear in "drug-producing" countries. Meanwhile, the "free market" will probably apply to distribution (where the big bucks are) in the "drug-using" countries, but with heavy regulation, similar to booze and fags.

This dichotomy assumes that the existing economic model between drug exporters and importers will continue, but in future we may see "natural" drugs like cocaine and opiates replaced by synthetic drugs manufactured by Big Pharma. At the very least, the threat of this will be used by importers to keep the exporters' price low.

The drug gangs will be bought off or may be happy to go legit as government licenced producers and traders. The real world is not a morality play where you always pay for your sins (unlike The Godfather), so the conversion of drug barons to captains of industry will be smooth. We'll simply change the background: they were entrepreneurs all along.

Funnily enough, we've been this way before. The opium trade was once acceptable, as well as highly lucrative, and the 1880s saw the marketing of cocaine as a wonder drug. Sigmund Freud used it, both on patients and himself, for over a decade. It's entirely conceivable that within a couple of decades a branded form of cocaine will be more socially acceptable than tobacco.

Urban regeneration is often sold to the local community not just on the basis of what it adds, such as facilities and lifestyle, but on the basis of what it will sweep away, such as drugs and vandalism. The irony is that urban regeneration may be about to cede its position to drugs as the growth market for capital.

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