Economy of Speed: The New Narco-Capitalism
“I thought I was getting more life,” writes a recovering methamphetamine addict on a blog dedicated to the drug.
Ice, Glass, Tina, Crystal, Crank, Hillbilly Heroin, Poor Man’s Crack, Black Beauties, Tweak, P, and the Diligence Drug — these are all names for speed. It is a relatively cheap yet cherished substance that, with the utmost efficiency, floods the brain with dopamine: one hit and for up to twelve hours you are overwhelmed with unprecedented euphoria and energy, alertness and alacrity, and sexual stamina. You get more life.
Speed can be traced back to ma huang, an herb used in China for millennia, from which ephedrine was first extracted in the 1880s. By the 1930s, it was used medically, particularly by the British, German, and American armies to keep soldiers vigilant, even vicious.1 In the postwar period, it was methedrine, a Mother’s Little Helper of sorts, keeping her head on straight, her housework done, and her figure fine. In the 1960s and 1970s, biker gangs were producing and distributing a knock-off of methedrine in the rural Midwest. In the early 1990s, speed was back on the streets and faster than ever, now in its far more potent and addicting form, methamphetamine. Originally produced in do-it-yourself labs in California, it took only a few years for labs to sprout up throughout the Northwest, Midwest, Southwest, and South. Most recently, with the aid of Mexican cartels, methamphetamine has sped toward the East Coast. It is now a multi-billion-dollar industry with hundreds of thousands of diehard addicts.
To understand something about this speeding epidemic economy, it is useful to start on the East Coast, in New York, on Wall Street. In December 2005, Details magazine ran an article on a change in trends among stockbrokers in their twenties and thirties.2 Instead of using cocaine to stay alert and keep an aggressive edge over their colleagues, many of these Wall Streeters now crush and snort Adderall, a designer amphetamine used to treat attention deficit disorder, or ADD. These outperforming pills are available through express mail online pharmacies without a prescription should the unlikelihood arise that your doctor does not buy your rehearsed script of symptoms — I’m unable to concentrate and bring tasks to their completion; I’m chronically forgetful and prone to distraction.
The rehearsals have become embodied recitations; the number of people now playing the part of the inefficient, unproductive producer is high and rising. Baseball players use it. High school and college students take it in order to study, to stay awake in class, or to drink longer after class; they even have “pharming” parties. Even future academics and professionals who would never think of touching a drug confess that they feel they are not really competing if they don’t also pop or snort Adderall before taking the GREs and the LSAT. This is the professionalization of speed in the making of professionals. Wall Streeters snort Adderall to vigorously trade the shares of their multinational dealers at Shire Pharmaceuticals; these dealers, in turn, profit from their brokers’ self-profiting addiction to the speed of success. And the high-speed loop of consumption-productionconsumption continues to approach a maximum velocity where the only thing that remains will be speed.
If that’s the case, then speed will colonize the body and render it nothing more than its vector. This version of pure speed, or speed’s limit, first combusted with the concept of labor power that Anson Rabinbach traced back to the nineteenthcentury metaphor of the human motor. Based on the laws of thermodynamics, labor power, in his words, was a paradigm that emphasized “the expenditure and deployment of energy as opposed to human will, moral purpose, or even technical skill.”3 And just as it did in the age of industrial modernity, the notion of labor power, I would argue, continues to “subordinate all social activities to production, raising the human project of labor to a universal attribute of nature.”4 That is because today, like the nineteenth century, is marked by a concerted effort to come up with a vaccine for that great obstacle to boundless productivity: fatigue.
End of Excerpt | access full version
Sincere thanks to the participants of this research who opened their homes to me between the months of December 2005 and May 2006 to share their experiences. Many thanks also to Kelly Carter, Alex Carter, and Elizabeth Zerr for their expert research assistance.
An earlier version of this essay was presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Anthropology of North America spring meetings, Baruch College, New York City, 2006. Interview material comes from meth users and narcotics agents in Jefferson County (south of St. Louis), the Missouri county that held the nationwide record for the highest number of lab seizures in 2003, 2004, and 2005.
- Lester Grinspoon and Peter Hedblom, Speed Culture: Amphetamine Use and Abuse in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975); Amphetamines: Fourth Report by the Select Committee on Crime, U.S. House of Representatives Report no. 91-1807 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, January 2, 1971).
- Ian Daly, “White Collar America’s New Wonder Drug,” Details, December 2005.
- Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (New York: Basic Books, 1990), 4.
- Rabinbach, Human Motor, 4.