estudios críticos de la cultura estéticas y políticas de la representación

Deconstructing (nationalist) moral walls: We need a humanist political economy

Emily B. Campbell

11 de septiembre, 2017

On August 10, 2017 current American President Donald Trump declared the current issue of opioid overdose death a national emergency. The implications of this declaration are yet to be seen, but we can be confident drug overdose in America will continue to be an issue of political and social importance.


In May, Bloomburg Business published an article titled, “The Heroin Business is Booming in America”. In it, they explain, “The bottom line: As states and doctors make it tougher to get prescription opioids, drug cartels are making big profits selling heroin to addicts.” Articles like this are common place in recent years, as the record number of deaths by opioids and heroin in the US are met with public health outcry. They often make the supply-demand connection and are quick to explain American death as an illicit Mexican business opportunity. They write, “Mexican cartels and big-city gangs have capitalized on the shift, extending networks of dealers across the U.S. and flooding the market with cheap heroin, according to law enforcement.”


It isn’t just mainstream American media that is saying it either, it’s academic literature on the subject as well. Recent publications on the growing prevalence of heroin use and overdose also call out Mexican heroin explicitly. In a policy brief profiling the high rates of opioid abuse and overdose in New England, the author writes, “if they cut these patients off from these highly addictive narcotics, some are likely to turn to heroin, which thanks to increased distribution from Mexico, has become easily accessible and incredibly cheap” (1). The ubiquity of the Mexican-sourced heroin narrative was part of Trump’s campaign as well. In the third debate of the campaign, Trump spoke of New Hampshire saying, “The single-biggest problem is heroin that pours across our southern borders, just pouring, and destroying their youth and is poisoning the blood of their youth and plenty of other people”.


The concern about growing overdose deaths in the US is not misguided. It is now the leading cause of death, ahead of car accidents. However, the most common drug culprit is prescription pain killers. Case and Deaton (2) have statistically shown the reversals in life expectancy for middle aged whites to be unlike trends for any other group in Europe and North America, and not seen since the American AIDS epidemic. This disproportionately white, middle class phenomenon started in the doctor’s office or sifting through a friend or family member’s medicine cabinet. Three out of four heroin users, who started in the last decade, became addicted to pain pills first. These deadly drugs were downplayed in terms of their abuse potential, especially brand-name OxyContin, who’s creator Purdue Pharma settled for $600 million in 2007 admitting they misled doctors. The narrative follows that drug dealers have stepped in to fill the void in the market- bringing Mexican sourced heroin to main street America.


The current American emphasis on Mexican-sourced heroin moves past the culpability of the American pharmaceutical industry and ignored the grim reality that Mexican society has paid a huge and disproportionate human cost for the region’s punitive and prohibitionist drug policy. The Drug War, partially funded with the 2.7 billion American dollars allocated by the Merida Initiative has created a humanitarian crisis of persons internally displaced by the conflict- a number that at conservative estimates is placed at 280,000 (3). Since 2007, over 100,000 people have been killed and the Mexican state acknowledges 27,000 disappeared persons. Democracy in peril would be an understatement as well- with Mexico ranking as one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism.


Stories like the murder of journalist Espinoza and Vera make American headlines, and Ayotzinapa caused international outrage. And yet, the American 100 billion-dollar a year habit for illicit drugs, the world’s biggest market, seems to fall to the wayside in mainstream explanations of why so many people, so many civilians, have died in Mexico. How could that much illicit money do anything but ensure widespread corruption and undermine the rule of law? The American public health crisis fueled by drug consumption is a Mexican humanitarian and human rights crisis- the habit of mourning only our own dead has blinded us of this fact.


It is curious that in spite of the obvious flow and connection of people and things across borders, what is colloquially termed globalization, the network society, or global racial capitalism; a psychosocial and political accounting of the suffering these chains enable is not more deeply explored. A call for a humanist political economy is a call for a radical politics of mourning in the accounting of shared social problems and human suffering, beyond national borders.