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Phil Mellows is a freelance
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         The politics of drinking

January 6th, 2020



10 million years of drinking
Alcohol and humans

Beyond the dry month
Interview with Richard Piper, the new head of Alcool Concern

The Carlisle Experiment
100 years since they nationalised

The science of temperance
The story of the Institute of Alcohol Studies

More grey areas than a late Rothko
Off licence bans on superstrength beers

A figure that doesn't add up
The story behind the £21bn
cost of alcohol harm

The Beer Orders
... not just history

Learning from a dry society
Interview with Redemption Bar's Catherine Salway

Bye-Bye Booze Britain?
Young people seem to have gone off the drink...

Strength in Numbers 
Voluntary off-licence bans on strong beers and ciders

More Published Work

The ‘new sobriety’ and its antinomies

There was a time when people used to sensibly cut down on their drinking this time of year to save a few bob without attracting too much attention. Now their efforts are amplified into the Dry January campaign, coordinated by Alcohol Change UK (formerly Alcohol Concern).

And feeding into it this time around is the gathering movement dubbed the ‘new sobriety’, perhaps best exemplified here by Club Soda, an organisation promoting ‘mindful drinking’.

All this generates much chatter on social media and some serious discussion of the phenomenon, not all of it positive.

For instance, landing in my inbox with a sickening thud has come a post for Points, the Alcohol & Drugs History Society blog, that lambasts ‘the sober curious movement’ under the heading ‘Self-Help Isn’t The Solution; It’s The Problem’.

Perhaps I shouldn’t complain about it too much as it’s given me a rare opportunity to use the word ‘lambast’, but the polemic, by a PhD student from Illinois called Brooks Hudson (it’s happening both sides of the Atlantic) is a peculiarly wild lambast, caricaturing mindful drinkers as “media-types who share similar well-to-do backgrounds and sensibilities” who are seeking solutions for problems they don’t have.

Yet as Hudson seems to concede in his final paragraphs, when he’s calmed down a bit, the sober curious are not uniformly awful people.

Take Dr Emily Nicholls, like me a member of the Drinking Studies Network (DSN), who are all perfectly lovely people, of course. She’s recently written about how ‘positive sobriety’ has helped her personally change her relationship with alcohol by breaking the stigma attached to not-drinking and the consequent implication you’ve got a problem.

Oddly, though, the fascinating academic research Nicholls is carrying out among women pursuing a sober lifestyle gives her an academic objectivity that seems more critical.

I’ve heard her speak on the subject a couple of times, including last month at DSN’s excellent mini-conference on Excess, Moderation and Sobriety where she located the new sobriety within a specifically neoliberal construction of identity.

The women interviewed by Nicholls look back on their old ‘drinking selves’ when they were ‘out of control’ and ‘not themselves’, contrasting this state with their authentic ‘enterprising self’, fit to succeed in a society where the emphasis is on the individual as a conscious, rational actor.

Hudson’s position is that this individualised approach might be helpful to some, but it distracts from the underlying systemic problems, suchinadequate healthcare and substance misuse services.

He’s right to be angry about this. In Britain over recent decades serious damage has been done to the health service by cuts and privatisation as neoliberalism has prised open the welfare state in the relentless hunt for private profit.

Underlying that is an ideology that shifts responsibility for their well-being onto individuals and their lifestyle decisions. Mindfulness is an aspect of that ideology.

Yet it is, arguably, a relatively benign aspect that, as Nicholls suggests, opens up a space to think about drinking without polarising the question into ‘alcoholic or not’, and is presenting an interesting challenge to the bankrupt paradigm by which most people understand drink problems.

So it’s contradictory, and contradictions we should always embrace since there is no progress without them.





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