Karl Marx's celebrated dictum, "religion is the opium of the people", had a quiet genesis. He wrote it in 1843 as a passing remark in the introduction to a book of philosophical criticism he never finished. When he did publish it the following year, it was in an obscure radical journal with a print run of 1,000. It was not until the 1930s, when all things Marxist were in vogue, that the maxim entered the popular lexicon.
Yet it still resonates. In many parts of the world organised religion remains the most powerful force in society: more than 4.5 billion people identify with one of the world's four biggest religions, and that figure is rising. In Europe, though, religious faith and expression have collapsed in the past 170 years. It's hard to think of anything that has taken their place—except perhaps, for a while, Marxism itself.
Marx was not exactly against religion. For him, faith was something that "the people" conjured for themselves, a source of phoney happiness to which they turned to help numb the pain of reality. It was "the sigh of the oppressed creature". Organised religion with its churches, doctrines and priests followed on from that, a useful tool by which the ruling classes kept the masses supine.
Now it may seem elitist, even sneering, to ask what the opium of the people is, what keeps us—or, worse, "them"—down when we could be up, soporific when we should be fighting for a better world. Are we really dim animals, willing ourselves into submission?
The question is uncomfortable. Yet there is something in it that speaks to a niggling sense in most of us that were it not for time and energy wasted in some direction—be it a penchant for pints, an obsession with runs, goals or tries, even too long spent at work—then we too might have changed the world, staged a revolution, or even just written that novel.
So what do we drug ourselves with today? Society is more diverse than it was in Marx’s time. Our writers reflect that here in their intriguing selection of obsessions that distract us from reality’s dark truths.
The list could have been far longer. Though traditional opium smoking has largely died out, its modern form, heroin, remains a minority but far more dangerous and deadening sport. Other drugs now fight for popularity: 180m people worldwide have smoked weed in the past year; Prozac, an anti-depressant that takes the edge off in a rather different way, has had more than 35m users in the past 25 years. The merriment and oblivion of alcohol have been a comfort for millennia—and in Britain and parts of northern Europe people binge more often now than they used to. One billion people still smoke, butts that help to dim the ifs of life for a precious five minutes or so.
Myriad alternative religions flourish. Football fans flock to stadiums in rain or snow and spend thousands on season tickets. Celebrity-gossip magazines thrive while other forms of print struggle to survive.
Money must be another contender—so many lives are filled with dreams of it, pursuit of it, spending it. It's a faith with many faces: credit cards that let us buy more than we can afford; houses for which we borrow and borrow; lottery tickets that we know make little sense. Perhaps this is Marx's ultimate defeat: is capitalism now the opium of the people?
There is also the ever-expanding realm of mass distraction. In 1957 Edward R. Murrow, an American journalist who helped to fell McCarthy, labelled television the opiate of the people, in despair at its passive audience and poor programmes. Americans still watch more than four hours a day, despite being equally addicted to other screens. More than a billion people use Facebook, and mass communication by phone, text and e-mail means we are never alone, always "in touch"—or perhaps, as Marx might see it, forever out of touch with our true selves.
One day, Marx argued, man would wake up "as his own true sun". If the world were reordered—through revolution, of course—we would have no need for religion. In fact, our consolations have multiplied in glorious technicolour. If Marx were writing today, that snappy soundbite might be rather more cumbersome.
If a Roman senator’s opium was his public life, a Viking’s was battle. Our ancestors have been addicted to honour, craved virtue and wealth, been hooked on conquest, on adventure, and on God. But ours is the first civilisation to find its deepest fulfilment in its descendants. Our opium is our children.
We’re all familiar with the results. There is the greater dismay we seem to feel at youth unemployment than at the poverty of pensioners, although some of the most disturbing scenes I’ve witnessed have been in the homes of the elderly. There is the way that older people are expected to give far more to voluntary organisations. We assume that the over-65s will take on almost the entire burden of supporting political parties, for which the young occasionally vote, and of maintaining the churches in which the young like to marry. We accept too easily that the young should not be called upon to carry the burden of sustaining communities because "their lives are too busy".
People who might once have been public figures, deeply invested in their work, are instead busy serving their children. Ours is a culture not of ancestor worship but of descendant worship. Children must sense that nothing an adult does is more important than their own desires. All political questions seem to come down to the interests of "the next generation".
I am reminded of the philosopher who was informed by a lady that the world rested on a turtle. When asked what the turtle rested on, she replied it was "turtles all the way down". Our purpose is our children, whose purpose is their children. And so on. Each generation more important than the one before. Generation after generation, all the way down.
This seems a self-defeating, infinite regression. I’d prefer our opium to be the struggle to create a living civilisation, which might daunt even our descendants. We should seek to emulate previous generations. Our obligation cannot be uniquely to the young, and those yet to be born. It is also to the living, and to the dead.
For the British and American underclasses, food is a useful distraction from the fact that their income is flat or falling while the cost of that Mac and fries continues to rise. Eating conveniently occupies leisure time that might otherwise be devoted to the overthrow of an unjust economic schema. Caloric satiation induces a convenient stupor. All appetites being ultimately circular, gorging feeds the appetite itself, reinforcing the illusion that what is missing in one’s life is not meaning, purpose and communal regard, but a fudge brownie. Because the source of dissatisfaction has been misidentified and stomachs quickly empty, those on low incomes can be neatly side-tracked onto a treadmill of wanting and getting and wanting again, until death—by cardiac arrest or late-stage diabetes—does the diner and dinner part.
For the affluent, the food-as-opiate equation is more complex. Contemporary social status is fiercely associated with the biological occupation of slight physical space. Primitive self-denial—skipping lunch—now passes for righteousness, obviating previous and potentially troublesome practices of noblesse oblige that might have required giving said lunch to someone else. Unproductive exertions that may incrementally reduce one’s bodily circumference—the ten-mile jog that merely returns the runner to the point at which he started—imbue upper-income citizens with a sense of saintliness that in earlier eras might have required the sacrifice of real goods and services. The social order is preserved.
Food also provides the prosperous with a core identity. While the underclasses maximise quantity, well-compensated consumers often define themselves by what they don’t eat: meat, non-organic produce, food coloured white. The majority of food "allergies" are imaginary. Yet in addition to attracting self-reinforcing attention at dinner parties, mythical gluten or lactose intolerance inflames the "sufferer" with a personal “cause” that in times past might have entailed meddlesome religious or political affiliation. Rabble-rousing inclinations are routed safely into food issues: genetically engineered seed, locally sourced ingredients, animal welfare, sustainable fishing. Absorbed by ancillary matters to do with eating, these ersatz activists turn a blind eye to their government’s self-dealing monetary expansion, which so systematically degrades their currency that the huddled masses and middle-classes will soon be equally impoverished.
Another plus: food provides a medium of social exchange. Rather than get irate over inadequate banking regulations, the educated today will happily while away whole hours in earnest debate over whether to add anchovies to a marinade for skirt steak.
Almost three centuries have passed since doctors in powdered wigs first promoted the benefits of sea air. Other cure-alls, such as drinking sea water, have fallen away; but when the sun comes out Britons, at least, head for the coast to inhale. We could find the sunshine inland. But what we need, we suppose, is ozone.
The tang of sea air is in fact compounded of many things: of seaweed and seagull-droppings, fish-and-chip oil, tar, rope, suntan cream and diesel. Ozone comes nowhere near it, and would be harmful if it did in any quantity. Rotting seaweed is chief, with a reassuring low-fat and de-oxidising sushi smell. After it comes something like the coal-tar that used to be put into yellow soap favoured by hard-scrubbing great-aunts. Frying gives a hint of carbs, which piques the appetite. All these are swirled round in a brisk cardigan-penetrating wind that swoops up the skirts and tangles the newspaper, but must be good for you, as a dip in the greyish, heaving sea is good for you also.
Very few go to the shore to swim. They sit for a while and promenade for a while, eat an ice-cream, listen to the muffled blown-away band, and breathe. Merely to sit, without exercise, in sea air, in a blue-and-white striped deckchair that is murder to get out of, is believed to be beneficial. After a time, with or without direct sun, slow cooking under a layer of airborne salt turns the skin a fair shade of puce. The young revel in this, showing off their glaring strap-marks and the pale tide-line where the belly meets the drooping jeans. The old rub and fret and tell themselves, as they lick the surprising salt from their chins, that this is just what you need to replace your sweat in hot weather.
Meanwhile the air—the air!—plays out on the horizon, flashes like slanting rain on the sea, hones every object it touches, tumbles among the gulls. It beckons towards immense distances, washing the immeasurable and limitless through half-drowsing lungs and minds. That is the unacknowledged reason why the crowds have come here, and will come again, like Seamus Heaney in "Seeing Things":
At any rate, when light breaks over me
The way it did on the road beyond Coleraine
Where wind got saltier, the sky more hurried
And silver lamé shivered on the Bann
Out in mid-channel between the painted poles
That day I'll be in step with what escaped me.
We mustn’t romanticise intellectual life before the internet. Procrastination did not begin with YouTube. Novels have always been abandoned. There is no evidence that the Victorians who spent their evenings pinning dead insects into mahogany cases were better nourished mentally than their descendants, live-tweeting "Strictly Come Dancing".
There are even those, like Clive Thompson, the author of "Smarter Than You Think", who claim that the internet is improving our minds. But that’s not how it feels to me. This is a medium that has shredded our ability to concentrate, discourages reflection and panders to our base instincts for trivia, and a lot of people are in thrall to it.
"Who is Kim Kardashian and why am I reading about her trousers?" asked a writer friend when first he ventured onto Mail Online. He was, however, powerless to resist and now, several years on, he is as familiar with the goings-on of the Kardashians as he is with those of his own family. I used to spend hours on Facebook every day, hoovering up minor details of distant acquaintances’ lives like krill. The Facebook account had to go. But now I’m hooked on Rightmove, the site that enables you to gaze at houses you will never be able to afford.
There must be some who use the internet for its best purposes—broadening horizons, disseminating vital information, forging life-enhancing connections. But, day to day, most of us tend to stick to e-mail and a small circuit of websites, like animals let loose on a plain who choose to scratch around in a few square yards. We may occasionally learn something, and it’s exciting when our gags are re-tweeted by a C-list celebrity, but like opium the internet essentially functions as an unedifying way to kill time. Humans may have always sought ways to dodge work and avoid thinking too hard, but never before has the solution been so accessible, or so addictive.
If Karl Marx were alive today, he would have lived long enough to see the people cook up a pure new opiate. Who needs religion when you have the cult of celebrity? And with that hair, that beard, that name! He could have been bigger than Bieber.
Of course his idea of celebrity might have differed from ours. He might have hoped it would help alleviate the dismal life of the oppressed while we would be looking for something a bit more, well, entertaining.
In his day, celebrity was earned the hard way—by endeavour, brilliance, self-sacrifice, exceptional courage or skill—and it might endure. Our version is synthetic and short-lived, relies on personality and appearance, and lasts just as long as it takes us to find another garish bloom. And there is no moral dimension to it. Celebrities can do what they like. Behaving badly is good (although we draw the line at paedophilia).
Karl would have seen the attraction of our kind of celebrity. He might not have been prepared to swing semi-naked on a wrecking ball, like Miley Cyrus, but 175m hits on YouTube would certainly have impressed him. That’s reaching the masses all right.
And if it is hard to see him shining on "The Apprentice", say—never mind "Big Brother", "I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here", "American Idol", "The X Factor", "The Voice", "Survivor", or even, alas, "Strictly Come Dancing"—he would surely have recognised the power of real life, or a version of it, becoming popular entertainment.
Marx was not above writing for the popular press of his day, but our media would be unrecognisable to him. Fact and fiction have become indistinguishable: the lives of soap stars are conflated with the roles they play. Footballers’ wives or girlfriends become celebrities for being just that, wives or girlfriends.
Does all this divert us from the travails of our own real lives? You bet. Our highs come from the foolishness and vanity of our fellow men and women. Even our food comes from celebrity chefs. No wonder our children, asked what they want to be when they grow up, now tend to answer with an adjective: famous.
More and more of us now spend our weekends in shopping malls, ogling designer goods. There's no doubt that they are an opium of sorts for a lot of people. But I got the true measure of their power standing in the men's department at Gucci in Bond Street with a former armed robber.
Swagger had offered to take me to the best place for spotting London’s most successful criminals—or where they go the morning after they have "banged out". Around us about half a dozen men, some of them Swagger's friends, gazed at the latest designs. Violent on the streets, here they were subdued and respectful, as if in church. Tough individuals asked anxiously if a particular pair of trainers was part of a limited edition. Normally calculating to the point of paranoia, these men now displayed childlike trust. They accepted the shop assistant's evasions, almost with gratitude, as they pulled out their cash. This was a fairy tale in which they were desperate to believe.
Afterwards Swagger told me that in his youth he had robbed security vans to buy clothes from Prada. "I felt bad inside," he said, "and wearing the clothes made me feel good."
He had left school unable to read. This is not uncommon: a third of boys on free school meals leave primary school without achieving basic literacy, and half Britain’s prisoners have a reading age of 11 or younger. Designer goods take on an all-consuming importance for young men who have no other way to excel. As Swagger put it, "School shatters your dreams before you get anywhere." Even if it doesn’t lead to jail, illiteracy is a life sentence on the edge of society.
And so it will continue while the dazzle of luxury deflects them from demanding a better deal—better schools, vocational training and jobs. Until that visit to Gucci, I'd have laughed at the idea that designer goods could be anything but an indulgence. Now I rage.