In 1919 the United States of America passed the Volstead Act as a constitutional amendment prohibiting the sale or consumption of alcohol. The following era was known as ‘Prohibition’ and far from being seen or depicted as a time that a repressive doctrine was enforced on the public, movies and novels set in the era display it as a time of an updated of Cowboys and Indians. Dastardly crooks and mobsters against the hardworking, salt-of-the-Earth heroes in blue. Very little mention of booze in these stories. It was the time of untold violence by both outlaws and the government, deep corruption and economic catastrophe, and you couldn’t even get pissed to lift your spirits. Today this all seems laughably stupid and it made me wonder why the hell this act was passed in the first place.
The Temperance Movement as it was known, was a group of idiots who believed a prohibitive lifestyle was the best one. Indulging in the wanton pleasures of the flesh was sinful to these zealots and they demanded everyone feel the same. This movement formed its own lobbyist group known as the Anti Saloon League, or ASL for short. The ASL would back candidates for office that agreed to their anti-alcohol demands and bury those that didn’t. You know, just like the NRA does today. As hysterical and moronic as this all sounds they had a lot of support in high places, largely because of their ties to the church. Some things never change. Long story short, the ASL got their wish and their leader Wayne Wheeler wrote the Volstead Act that was then passed into Law. 14 years of unnecessary violence, a growth in organised crime and the general public basically ignoring the law along with a lot of Law Enforcement followed, until it was fully repealed in December 1933. A bizarre and dumb chapter in American history that drew to a close just as a newer, more devastating chapter began in the shape of The Great Depression.
Why am I bringing up a hundred-year-old constitutional amendment? Well I’m more interested in the culture that fostered it. The Temperance Movement was large but not the majority. Equally everyone loved booze. Not everyone liked the results of booze, but it definitely wasn’t something most people wanted to give up. Yet a special interest group that wanted to restrict personal freedoms somehow managed to exert control on government and crowbar a prohibitive lifestyle into law. A law that the majority hated and immediately backfired yet it limped on for nearly 15 years. Like a lot of things from this era that we are looking back on at the moment it seems barely imaginable how this all happened. How did the fools in office let this happen? Why did VOTERS let this happen? Surely they were all mad?
The Tea Party movement began in the USA in 2009 and forced a division in the Republican Party due to its support from major investors, its more defiantly Right-Wing ideals and its members comprising a large proportion of the GOP’s base voters. In the UK, the hard-Right party UKIP that had gained little support for nearly 20 years managed a surge in the polls and won key local elections and European elections in 2013 & 2014 on a Eurosceptic and anti-immigration platform. We are, again, seeing a rise in the same kind of Right-Wing, morally fluid social movements that pushed through Prohibition. And, yet again, they do not represent a majority but sustain enough clout with both power and business that they get their wishes enshrined in law. The Tea Party was the key to the GOP abandoning their attempts at moderate conservative policies and candidates and how we ended up with Autocrat-in-Chief, Donald Trump. UKIP’s sole policy was withdrawal from Europe which they achieved by a whisker in the 2016 Brexit vote. Special interest groups and lobbyists have been manufacturing ‘Moral Outrages’ (and make no mistake, moral outrages are exclusively Right-Wing affairs) to push agendas for centuries and it’s still happening. Across Europe, in even the most supposedly Left-leaning and democratic countries we are seeing the increasing presence in government of hard or Far-Right parties.
This is as much a part of the fact wealth and business being inseparable from State craft in capitalist society and how global economics since the crash have in no way dealt with the underlying issues that created it, opting instead for laying the blame on Immigration and the Poor, as it is the shame society continues to place on enjoyment and relaxation. Every popular movement or lobby group is based around some form of Prohibitive lifestyle. Be it the restriction of on object, item or thing, or the restriction of personal liberties, these movements insist that life would be better without something: alcohol, immigrants, poor people, etc. Which is obviously why it’s called being ‘Conservative’ but this really isn’t just the Right. New age, hippy, lefty ‘Millenials’ (a pointless, shitty term Centrists and Right-wing people use for anyone they don’t like) are just as strong advocates for prohibitive lifestyles too. How many articles are there about cutting X out of your diet? Or cutting this person from your life? Or cutting out social media/the internet? So many blogs/vlogs demanding that the only rich and fulfilled life is one sponsored by different companies to use their products and visit their hotels. Where’s their desperate land-grab for sweeping reform or knee-jerk legislation that prohibits eating unhealthily? Or better still, Guns? I’m not sure what I’m getting at here but I do find this odd trend for judgement of others and dictation of desire to be hard to swallow, wherever it comes from. The demand for individualism has always, to my mind, been a model of the Right, so it strikes me as odd that a similar model under a Temperance Movement-esque guise of ‘Where You’re Going Wrong in Your Life’ is the overriding theme of what is considered more Left-leaning, or at worst NeoLiberal, literature/social media/advice columns/etc.
While I understand most of this is well meaning and generally on the side of good, society is becoming more interested in what it restricts than what it offers or opens up. It seems to me a result of the last 40 years or so of NeoLiberal doctrine and the Centrist mentality that favours the individual so much while attempting to quietly appease advocates for progressive reform. Which is a prime example of why ‘The Centre’ is such a bad method of appeasement. While on a broader political scale we are seeing a split toward full-Right or full-Left parties and policies, socially we still want the ‘good old days’ back. I talked in a previous post about how even in blockbuster movies the heroes accomplish no change as they lack any ability to see beyond the contemporary catastrophe and desire a return to what was. This feeds the culture of Prohibition and it is everywhere. It feels to me like this helps the Right far more than it helps the Left. Now I’m not saying a Pro-Biotic diet is the same as funding the GOP, but the language and culture of self-imposed restriction is the language and culture of the Right. Equally I’m not saying ‘Everything is Permitted’ because we know where that leads, but this sole focus on the Self is inherently conservative and I’m against that as a rule.
The leaps and bounds the Left have made in the same space of time the Right has risen to a scary level of influence is encouraging (ish) but ultimately the moderation and appeasement the Left has shown is what has led to the Right’s ascendency. More needs to be done to levy the not-insignificant support the Left has in the same way the Tea Party and UKIP has to such astonishing success. I’m not asking for a reverse Temperance Movement but the near all-encompassing culture of ‘You Must Self Police, While I May Indulge’ is pernicious to say the least. It’s become an extreme form of the Social Contract that replaces the State with You and it just feels… wrong to me. I wish I had a solution but I feel like this is just as big a cultural problem as the others we face right now, that needs to be addressed or at least discussed yet is never even questioned.
As an addendum I will point out I do not smoke, drink or take drugs, but have never asked others to stop (except asking my Mum to stop smoking for obvious reasons) or criticised anyone for their choice in vices. It is possible to do both. I think my point is, screw your life up how you want and allow other people to do the same but maybe help people when they do? I dunno. I’d just like to see less movements based on Prohibitive Lifestyles. Make of that what you will.