How Capitalism’s “Evil Twin” Fuels Addictive Behavior

By Victoria Kim 10/23/19

Historian David T. Courtwright described how "limbic capitalism" has evolved to exploit consumers' desire to feel pleasure.

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a visual representation of the highs and lows of capitalism
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A fascinating interview with historian David T. Courtwright explores how capitalism has fueled addictive behaviors—the result of industries exploiting humans’ dopamine response, the desire to feel pleasure, for profit.

Exploitation Is Rewarded With Easy Money

Courtwright, an expert on drug history, discussed his book, The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business, with Vox in a recent interview.

“I’m not anti-capitalism, but I am calling attention to a certain species of capitalism that cultivates addictive behavior for profit,” said Courtwright.

Courtwright calls it “limbic capitalism,” a version of capitalism in which exploitation—rather than a desire to drive progress—is rewarded with easy money. As Courtwright says, it is “capitalism’s evil twin, a really cancerous outgrowth of productive capitalism.”

He says, “Limbic capitalism is just my shorthand for global industries that basically encourage excessive consumption and even addiction.”

Hijacking The System

The term is in reference to the limbic region of the brain, where pleasure, motivation, memory and more are regulated. Corporate interests have been able to “hijack” the limbic system by promoting products—such as cigarettes and junk food—that work “against your long-term survival prospects,” Courtwright says.

This type of predatory capitalism has existed for some time, but as new technology has become more accessible, the problems that come with it have also evolved.

“People have always peddled products that are potentially addictive,” Courtwright acknowledged. “But what’s happened in the last 100 years or so is that more of these commercial strategies come from highly organized corporations that do very sophisticated research and find more ways to market these addictive goods and services.”

A prime example is smartphones, social media and mobile apps. “You’re not just responding to these devices, you’re anticipating them,” said Courtwright.

These represent the modern age of limbic capitalism. Previously, it had been alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Now, there’s a greater spectrum of products and services designed to entice.

“So now we don’t just speak about addiction to drugs, we speak about addiction to pornography, to computer games, to social media, to food, to all kinds of things,” said Courtwright.

Preying On Your Desires

There’s at least one reason to be optimistic, though. History has shown us that even Big Tobacco couldn’t overcome public health activists when cigarettes were once a fixture of hospitals, classrooms, and even airplanes. Last year, the CDC reported that smoking rates reached an all-time low in the U.S. (Though now vaping is a problem.)

But as Courtwright says, resisting the temptation to succumb to destructive habits advertised to us on a day-to-day basis is still “an uphill battle.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr