Points Interview: John O’Brien

Editor’s Note: Today we present an interview with John O’Brien, a lecturer in sociology at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Waterford, Ireland, and author of the new book States of Intoxication: The Place of Alcohol in Civilization (Routledge, 2019). Enjoy!

Screenshot 2019-04-09 at 8.11.51 AMDescribe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The ‘publican’ who runs the ‘local’ is part of an ancient tradition of masters of ceremony who oversee drinking rituals. The public house is open to all, but a space of limits, where a ‘bar’ separates those in charge from the participants and a threshold is crossed to enter in a different space, with different rules from ordinary society based on controlled decontrolling. Pubs, bars, cafés, saloons have long been a source of anxiety as threats to the moral and political order. However, in the age of vertical drinking in superpubs, bar staff on short-term and insecure contracts who are unlikely to feel deep ownership over the space, concentrated ownership in pubcos with shareholders who may not even live in the country, preloading with cheap supermarket bought alcohol, they may begin to be seen as havens of informal social control, in contrast to anonymous, unstructured and individualised drinking. The book is interested in the role of ritual in structuring drinking occasions, and the threats to this. These always have masters of ceremony, rules and expectations, traditions and norms around reciprocity and excess that are obligatory to follow, and to make a generalisation, they hold problems in check. Government policy has an ambivalent effect on such rituals, tending to disturb and destroy them to various degrees, despite state’s supposed goal of minimising problems.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I am a historical sociologist, and my interest is not so much in a precise and detailed account of a particular era, but rather to try to get under the surface of events to identify the processes that shape them. The book is looking at the process of state formation and the role that alcohol has played in this. What sets states apart from other types of organisations is that it holds a dual monopoly of violence and taxation, as it establishes itself as the only agency that can legitimately use force and raise revenue. Alcohol and other psychoactive substances have played a very important role in this mechanism, funding the growth of states to a very significant degree, particularly before the mid-20th Century. But this created a contradiction, as states have been dependent on alcohol to fund themselves, thus promoting the alcohol industry, while at the same time fearing drinking establishments and their role in subversion, undermining the moral order, and health of the populace. The result is simultaneous promotion and repression, which produces ambivalence, contradiction and disturbances in how we relate to alcohol. As a contrast, many anthropologists have noted the relatively unproblematic relationship with alcohol that the small-scale societies they have researched have. These non-state societies universally use some psychoactive substance, but because their use is ritually structured rather than governed through policy, problems seem to be much less.

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John O’Brien

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

What I found surprising in the course of researching the book was the extent to which alcohol and psychoactive substances have been critical sources of revenue for states. That the figure could be over 60% of revenue raised in certain periods of certain states is astonishing. Modern states literally were built on alcohol.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I would love to write something on how spiritual and philosophical movements relate to alcohol. The book is very much focused on the institution of the state and its logic. Doing a proper study of the Abrahamic tradition, Greek philosophy and Asian philosophies and their contrasting perspectives on alcohol would be fascinating. There is such a dramatic contrast in attitudes towards and outcomes from drinking alcohol between the different civilizational areas, and this seems to be clearly based on the contrasting moral foundations that the worldviews based on their differing philosophies give. It is an intimidatingly huge and difficult topic though. But I will do it someday!

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

I’ll go for Cillian Murphy, but in the Birmingham accent he uses in Peaky Blinders. I’m sure he wouldn’t charge too much.