Avoiding the Power Trip
Psychedelics, like everything else, are political

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 25 April 2022

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I was a member of the psychedelic counterculture in the 1980s when pretty much every mind-expanding substance was illegal. For us, that illegality was just an obstacle. Taking a psychedelic or growing a marijuana plant was not considered a stand against a draconian legal system and repressive government but simply a way of getting what we wanted in spite of a draconian legal system and repressive government.

Many of us who witnessed the very end of the Sixties and the eventual sell-out of the yuppies, gave up on politics and revolution. The hippies became Bill Clinton, who seemed to us just another version of Ronald Reagan. No, the object of the game for us was to be like the people in Richard Linklater’s movie Slacker. Earn enough money to pay for food and rent so you can spend your time reading philosophy, hanging out with friends, and doing trippy things. I remember Timothy Leary once telling us not to invite a particularly ardent leftist to a party at his house because “Marxists don’t know how to have fun.” He didn’t want his acid trip overly inflected by the oppression of the proletariat, because he believed that Marxism was inherently “anti-psychedelic.”

By the early Nineties, when LSD and its epic journey through the intellectual crucible was replaced by Ecstasy and its more delightfully open-ended love vibe, it became even easier to ignore the political implications of what we were doing. Unbeknownst to most of the revelers and promoters, rave parties were a reclamation of public space. These were mostly free, illegal parties, and an alternative to the expensive nightclub scene, professional entertainment, and status-centric culture.

Yet we didn’t really articulate that. No, most of the leaders of the scene were actively trying to make psychedelics apolitical. This was the period immediately after punk, and the ‘counter’ culture had become disenchanted with opposition. It seemed that everything the counterculture did was a reaction to whatever the overculture did. They were either creating culture to oppose Reagan, the Queen, consumerism, and corporations, or creating culture that could somehow avoid being co-opted by MTV and the mall. It seemed so hopelessly binary, polarizing, and oppositional.

Those of us in the rave community pretty explicitly rejected that approach. We were just gonna dance over here, connect with each other and maybe make contact with the aliens. It felt as if politics was a trap. A movement would sacrifice the moment. Somehow, it felt like what we were doing was “bigger” than left/right politics. We thought we could make one big party and promote “the agenda of no agenda.” To “rise from the chrysalis of matter as pure consciousness,” as Terence McKenna suggested, wouldn’t involve voting booths or street protests.

This dovetailed all-too-well with John Barlow telling the psychedelic internet that his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace was in our best interests. It declared us free of nation states and other political bodies. We thought it was an expression of anarchy because we didn’t know enough about economics to recognize it as libertarian. (Getting rid of nations and governments just gives free rein to corporations.) We all thought the Grateful Dead lyricist was just helping us make the net psychedelic and fun and human-driven.

But we were wrong.

As psychedelics make a new comeback — this time with the support of the psychotherapeutic and investment community alike — we must be more conscious of the politics, economics, and power at stake. That’s why I’ve been so intrigued, even inspired, by the work coming from a “psychedelic watchdog” organization called Psymposia, and their terrific if terrifying podcast, Power Trip. Rather than blindly celebrating the integration of psychedelics into business and medicine, they’re looking at who is administering these chemicals, what are their agendas, how are their results being measured, and which entities are maneuvering to monopolize the space through patents.

Maybe most important of all, they’re looking at what Timothy Leary would have called the “set and setting” in which today’s psychedelic renaissance is occurring. Is it one of love, mutual aid, and collective development? Or is it about control, profit, and further domination? This matters.

All we need do is look at the history of the Internet for what happens when we cheer adoption of a new technology with too little regard for who is seizing power, or how it is actually affecting people.

Let’s do it right this time.