HeadhuntersAre Psychedelics Capitalism's New Productivity Hack?

Illustration by Cynthia Zhou

This article was published in Plastic Issue #91 | Summer 2021

THE PREMIERE OF the HBO/BBC series Industry introduces us to a group of very young financial traders at an established London bank. Carefree, rich, and libidinous, these traders suggest that viewers can expect a Grey’s Anatomy–esque dramedy about the hopes and heartbreaks of high-achieving youth. However, these shiny young strivers quickly begin experiencing the physical and spiritual drain of working in the competitive world of finance. The bank’s staff is diverse, but women and minorities are the targets of sexism and racism; the employees “play hard” but suffer the business consequences. What’s worse, intemperance drives them to act out their self-destructive existentialism in front of their colleagues and superiors. By the end of the first, Lena Dunham–directed episode, one of the new kids—Hari (Nabhaan Rizwan), an anxious intern who fears being fired during the annual RIF, or “reduction in force”—dies of heart failure caused by the abuse of aperformance-enhancing drug. Presenting drugs and alcohol as ubiquitous in fast-paced, dog-eat-dog workplaces is hardly new. Many of us took note of the fully stocked bar carts in Mad Men’s offices, and it’s commonly accepted that cocaine fueled a great deal of Reagan-era growth in finance, publishing, and more. 

But Industry suggests a turn against both the impossible demands of modern white-collar employment and the substances that workers use to meet those demands. In recent decades, the most prominent of these substances has been Adderall: In 2016, the New York Times Magazine published the feature “Generation Adderall,” whose author, Casey Schwartz, detailed her yearslong struggle to kick the habit that defined her college years—and navigate its destabilizing side effects. Two years later, Psychology Today asked “Will Adderall Be the New Opioid Crisis?” and called for institutional intervention. These days, Adderall use is on a steady decline among school-aged children (in 2019, 12th graders were using the drug at about half the 2015 rate), and though the abuse of “smart” drugs is still widespread among college students in particular, it’s no longer the only game in town—especially now that less commonly used drugs are being marketed within a framework of aspirational wellness. What underlies the use and abuse of performance-enhancing drugs is an American obsession with self-improvement that will always find new targets and tools. And most recently, “plasticity”—another term for cognitive flexibility or the brain’s ability to adapt and change—has become a signifier of success in a time when constant productivity is an expectation. 

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We seek out greater plasticity in meditation, download “brain-training” apps like Lumosity, and prioritize foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. More controversially, we might try the latest performance enhancer: the ingestion of tiny doses of LSD or other psychedelics, known as microdosing. The trend was brought to the fore by popular health journalist Michael Pollan in his 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Pollan preaches the gospel of microdosing as a 21st-century miracle therapy capable of treating much of what ails us. He refers to the study of psychedelics in university labs like those at New York University or Stanford as “white-coat shamanism,” recasting outdated hippie drugs as an advanced, scientifically driven technology that finally makes modern sense of ancient wisdom. Of course, this type of branding proved impossible for Silicon Valley to resist. In 2020, Forbes called microdosing “a siren’s song luring fast-track professionals to boost their creativity and greatly enhance their work performance.” Scott Adams, Steve Jobs, and Joe Rogan are among the cultural exemplars who have praised microdosing’s ability to enhance creativity and overall success. In 2015, Rolling Stone spoke to a 25-year-old tech-startup employee who, along with many of his colleagues, microdosed regularly. “Crazy awesome,” was how he described it. The same article quoted James Fadiman, author of 2011’s Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, who called microdosing “[A]n extremely healthy alternative to Adderall.” Google searches of the term “microdosing” tripled in the years between 2016 and 2019. On TikTok, videos tagged #microdosing have a combined 31.9 million views. A scroll through the tag reveals joyful young influencers claiming to have used psychedelics to wean themselves off pharmaceuticals or other self-medicating substances. 

Some TikToks track a user’s “microdosing journey;” others simply summarize the findings of Fadiman or Pollan. Microdosers often report feelings of euphoria and enhanced creativity as well as that all-important improvement in cognitive flexibility. And the growing popularity of therapeutic psychedelics is reflected in psilocybin’s recent legalization (in Oregon) and decriminalization (in Colorado and parts of California). Given that psychotherapy is much more common than it was a generation or two ago and the number of people taking antidepressants has skyrocketed since the advent of Prozac, it may seem surprising that effective treatments for depression, anxiety, and addiction still feel so out of reach. The promising outcomes of microdosing benefit from their cultural novelty amid a growing body of popular affirmation: Author Ayelet Waldman’s 2017 book A Really Good Day, for instance, credits microdosing LSD with treating her bipolar disorder, noting its advantages over clinical drugs and their many side effects. But there is more than one narrative. A 2019 study on microdosing from Macquarie University actually shows little improvement in long-term mood stabilization, connectedness, or creativity; in fact, “only focus and productivity showed slight, sustained increases on the drug-free days that followed microdosing.”  

Illustration by Cynthia Zhou

Here is where the public dialogue surrounding microdosing reaches a contradiction. Psychedelics are billed as a way to break down barriers between the individual and their surrounding world, including other people. In the best-case scenario, the one imagined by psychedelic pioneers like Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary, psychedelics bring about spiritual enlightenment and produce an “ego death” that catalyzes personal change or insight. But the narrative of modern microdosing enthusiasts seems, so far, to be less about reaching the freedom of ego death than it is about gaining a better, nimbler brain that can be more effectively channeled into real-world productivity and results. This is a reality that microdosing-focused social-media accounts reflect, as their users often rejoice in their newfound ability to stay focused and feel satisfaction at work or in their current situation generally. In other words, microdosing is starting to feel like another once-transformative phenomenon co-opted by Big Tech: Burning Man. The nine-day-long arts festival, founded in 1986 and held since 1991 in the Nevada desert, was built on guiding principles that include decommodification, radical self-reliance, and communalism. Psychedelics have long been part of many people’s experience at Burning Man—as an escape from the gnawing existential dread of individualist, capitalist culture. However, as Burning Man grew, its ethos was increasingly challenged by conspicuous consumption. In a 2013 piece titled “Burning Man is the New Capitalism,” sociologist PJ Patella-Rey notes that the immense expenditure and consumption required simply to get to the festival shuts many people out of attending. Author and communications scholar Fred Turner has outlined the event’s appeal as a networking and community-building excursion for the Silicon Valley set, explaining that Burning Man “provides a ritual space in which the same sorts of engineering projects that organize participants’ work lives in the everyday, secular world induce feelings of effervescent, even sacred, community”—in other words, yet one more space where productivity can be harnessed. 

Workplace wellness initiatives, while generally less exciting, also exist as benefits that keep workers on a neverending grind; many corporations now offer meditation breaks, on-site masseuses, rock-climbing walls, and more. These perks allow large employers to acknowledge the physical and mental health needs of their staff without changing their expectations of 60- to 80-hour work weeks. Workers easily see through the ploy. “I’m so beyond over workplace ‘wellness’ initiatives,” tweeted digital archivist Emily Higgs in January 2021. “Give me better health insurance, more pto and more inclusive pto policies, and real accommodations for chronic illness and disabilities. I really don’t need a corporate consultant to teach me about ‘mindfulness’ thanks.” As of this writing, the tweet has been liked nearly 90,000 times. Office meditation retreats, Burning Man, and microdosing trends all promise to give workers a break from endless productivity so that they might return as better workers: refreshed, clearheaded, and ready to fulfill capitalism’s endless needs. An illusion of change that yields little in the way of long-term solutions fits well into a work culture that pushes for endless innovation and “disruption” but does little to address the age-old business practices and dynamics—among them inequity, discrimination, and overwork—that they replicate. As Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello explain in their 2005 book The New Spirit of Capitalism, ideals like innovation, improvement, and individuality are key to cloaking the “why” of capitalist ideology: As long as you’re continually improving, you’re always getting somewhere. The result is a drive toward perfectionism that’s focused primarily, if not solely, on the individual who, in turn, sees any negative outcomes as personal failings. 

Illustration by Cynthia Zhou

In a 2018 New Yorker article titled “Improving Ourselves to Death,” Will Storr, author of the 2017 book Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us, ultimately lands at the crux of the problem: The environment must change, not us. That the piece’s author calls this “a daunting prospect” reflects a belief that wide-ranging, institutional change—of our despised healthcare system, for instance, or our reliance on fossil fuels—is a Herculean task that would be useless to take on. The late academic Mark Fisher offered a different prescription that he called “acid communism.” Fisher died in 2017 before finishing his manuscript of the same name; despite calling the title a “provocation,” he emphasized the values at its center: “the convergence of class consciousness, socialist-feminist consciousness-raising and psychedelic consciousness, the fusion of new social movements with a communist project, an unprecedented aestheticization of everyday life.” Acid communism proposes that tools for accessing the spiritual—chemical or otherwise—can facilitate a collective understanding that could free us from an alienating obsession with the individual. Fisher rightly identifies acid communism as the lost future of ’60s counterculture but departs from the conventional wisdom that the counterculture inevitably birthed the far-right backlash of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Instead, he theorizes that technocracy and an obsession with progress co-opted its ideals, arguing that the creativity expressed in that counterculture is now considered “incompatible with a world of overwork,” and “have been condemned as so many idle doodles, which in the contradictory logic of reaction, are simultaneously dangerous and impotent.” His view of small sources of joy like music, dance, or friendship as axes for big change is currently reflected in work like adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (2019), which draws inspiration from Black feminists and Afrofuturists like Audre Lorde and Ingrid LaFleur to center the goal of “learning to make justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences we can have on this planet.” 

Acid communism proposes that tools for accessing the spiritual—chemical or otherwise—can facilitate a collective understanding that could free us from an alienating obsession with the individual.

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Both acid communism and pleasure activism bring up their own questions. We’ve already seen the ideas behind acid communism swiftly strong-armed right back into an individualist belief system, so what’s to keep it from happening again? Communalism, spirituality, and mindfulness do not in themselves provide a direct path to a less individualistic, more empathetic community. Even less literal interpretations underscore that authentic interest in the collective can be quickly co-opted by and for capital. The demise of the “subtly radical” women’s coworking space The Wing is one recent cautionary tale; elite, exclusive networking apps like Clubhouse—billed as a tool to “connect with other humans”—are visible from the start as “built for a pre-established ecosystem echo chamber that isn’t necessarily aware of itself,” as one tech-world observer put it. In an inversion of the adage “you are what you eat,” who we are and what we believe shape both the substances we consume and how we make use of them. For all its talk of innovation, Silicon Valley has been consistently guilty of not dreaming big enough. Social-media apps connect millions of people across the planet, but their CEOs choose to focus on profiting off disinformation; search engines and algorithms are doors to knowledge, but their creators use them primarily to establish and grow individual wealth. 

Microdosing isn’t immune to this fatal lack of imagination: Like other startup-industry trends such as dopamine fasting, its reported use seems to be “hacking” your body to better fit into a culture that has little investment in building healthy environments for the mind. Like Industry’s interns, users learn to sync their drug habits to their busy schedules and their anxieties into a commuter’s lifestyle (one TikToker, for example, raves that microdosing helps her handle traffic with more grace). Despite the contemporary focus on progress, the realities of people’s lives remain yoked to wage labor and marked by isolation and an endless search for meaning. But to end the story there would be to miss the point. The growing popularity of microdosing is a symptom of widespread dissatisfaction with everything from our working lives and daily commutes to our entire political system. Structural issues—debt, limited access to healthcare, ever-longer workdays, institutional racism, and dwindling social connection—impact mental health as much as personal, individual problems do. It’s time for us to recognize that the best solution isn’t to improve ourselves according to the dictates of those structures but to change them entirely. 

 

Nora Salem, a writer of color, wearing a yellow shirt and light-blue jeans
by Nora Salem
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Nora Salem is a writer and teacher. A graduate of Virginia Tech’s MFA program, she completed a Fulbright research program in Kuala Lumpur and an Open City Fellowship at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two cats.