‘Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics’

Drug Wars The Political Economy of Narcotics
Curtis Márez
University of Minnesota Press
May 2004

Two recent films, 25th Hour and Maria Full of Grace, are near-perfect cinematic embodiments of what University of Southern California Cultural Studies professor Curtis Marez might refer to as “oppositional cultural production” in current media representations of the “war on drugs.” These two films contribute to the largely ignored history of how “insurrectionist” cultural products have reinforced and/or re-shaped popular drug-war discourse. 25th Hour is especially noteworthy for its pessimistic vision of Post 9-11 America, and calls attention to the new Rockefeller drug laws — which promote more aggressive police tactics and longer prison sentences for drug dealers — while forecasting higher drug prices, greater profits from drug sales, and more overall criminal activity. This is exactly the sort of potentially dangerous expansion of state power, spurred by the “war on drugs,” that Marez critiques throughout his obsessively researched dissertation.

Marez contends that the history of drug wars is also a history of imperialist exploitation and subjugation of “subalterns” in the name of labor management– aided and abetted by the (mis)representational assistance of the popular media. Although the idea of Western governments using drug-trafficking and drug law enforcement to control “unruly” segments of the underclass isn’t exactly a novel thesis, Marez finds originality through far-reaching feats of cross-cultural extrapolation, fashioning a head-spinningly diverse interdisciplinary study.

The lengthy introduction serves as a broad overview of the current “drug war” as filtered through popular TV and film since the early ’80s. Marez makes the salient point that certain props used in recent drug-war movies (automatic weapons, helicopters, infra-red technology) serve as visual references to indict increasing government and military presence in these domestic conflicts. He further explores how subaltern communities, through popular forms of cultural production, expose the US government’s contradictory hand in the violence and corruption connected with the modern drug trade: i.e., the music of the anti-imperialist Mexican Narcorridos, and films likeEl Mariachi.

The 19th Century British-Chinese opium wars, as filtered through popular English periodicals, “opium den” narratives, and the pro-imperial works of popular Victorian literature, painted the Chinese laborer as a sexually deviant and naturally subservient being. The Chinese countered these caricatures with their own barrage of insurgent protest through traditional print methods and more extreme symbolic statements — -like the practice of “ship-burning.” Marez also puts forth the recurring idea of imperialist “disavowal,” found in the attitudes and writings of Dickens, Kipling and Wilde, in which “Chinese become the source of opium addiction and white people its victims.” Disavowal is defined here as a state of mind that both “recognizes and denies” Western responsibility for imperial policies. This idea re-surfaces in Marez’s assessment of the US and South American drug conflicts.

Marez argues that the drug war against the Mexican immigrant population is partly in response to the Mexican Revolution, and directed at controlling suspected anarchists and subsequent Mexican labor-related uprisings. The criminalizing of marijuana, Marez argues, meant most immigrants would end up as prison laborers or underpaid migrant workers. The rise of the tourist industry in pre-New Deal New Mexico, largely built on the labor of incarcerated drug “criminals,” was made attractive to potential tourists through a well-policed immigrant workforce and the smokescreen of what Marez calls “art-colony imagery.”

Drug Wars is probably most convincing when analyzing the conflict between popular imagery and symbols of subaltern reality and the biased interpretive measures used by establishment media. This class war over representations of cultural production and popular semiotics is best exemplified by the shifting representations of the Mexican folk song “La Cucaracha,” and the once-ubiquitous image of the Mexican burro. The burro was commonly used in drug smuggling, but depicted by tourist guides and popular advertising as a harmless wood-carrying mule. The pro-revolution, pro-marijuana “La Cucaracha,” was often bowdlerized and presented in Hollywood films as an innocuous folk song touting conservative values. Just as the Chinese were depicted as “fantasy servants” in popular advertisements, New Mexican tourist industry advertising perpetuated the image of the Mexican worker as indolent and submissive, thus “disappearing” (or yes, “disavowing”) the everyday realities of immigrant labor uprisings.

Marez also convincingly re-constructs an anti-immigrant conspiratorial atmosphere in 1930s Hollywood, where studios worked in loose collusion with the Los Angeles Times and the police department to criminalize (and hyper-sexualize) Mexicans, concluding that, “a dialectical relationship emerged whereby Hollywood mimicked police depictions of Mexicans at the same time as the police mimicked Hollywood.” Hollywood, much like British Asia, was built upon cheap subaltern labor. Hollywood’s expansion, however, soon rid itself of the need for these Mexican laborers, and physically separated itself from what they saw as a potentially dangerous, disposable sub-culture by becoming an “indoor industry.” In imagistic terms, this separation occurs, Marez explains, through a cinematic form of disavowal termed the “diegetic illusion,” in which on-screen Mexican criminal behavior is depicted as a primal psychological attribute–detached from any political or economic influences.

Often, though, Marez’s arguments are as provocative as they are abstract. He advances the notion that the South American Indian’s only effective means of rebellion is often cocaine itself, and the damaging physical effects the drug has on ruling-class recreational users. Freud’s cocaine writings serve as a stand-in for the power elite in the dissemination of deceptive pro-imperialist propaganda. Marez again revisits the concept of disavowal in Freud’s work, in that he accuses Freud of “substituting a psychic map for a geopolitical one.” Marez accuses Freud of setting a dangerous precedent for the modern Reagan-era drug wars, wherein drug addiction becomes simply a pathological issue.

The final chapter, “Drug Wars Are Indian Wars,” highlights the harsh policing tactics against the American Indian Movement’s insurgent activities — tactics that presaged the militaristic interdiction of the Reagan-era drug war. Marez examines the Indian retaliatory mindset through testimony and writing from Indian activists Leonard Peltier, Russell Means, and the pro-insurrectionist novelist Leslie Marmon Silko. Marez examines government-sponsored population-control tactics through the criminalization of peyote, and the abundance of depressant drugs circulating around Indian reservations. And he suggests that, with the “threat” of more Mexican and Central American Indians migrating northward, these wars are (and may continue to be) an extension of 19th Century “settler-colonial warfare.”

But you don’t always have to agree with Marez’s rigid Neo-Marxist critical methods to appreciate the value of this detailed historic-cultural study of the blatantly racist, imperialist roots of today’s “war on drugs.” As Marez suggests, the “drug war” has always been principally a federal and state-sponsored war against immigrants and ethnic “subaltern” populations. These are economics-driven domestic wars publicized through the propagandistic aid of mainstream media–wars that end up being forcefully managed rather than actually fought to win.