Class, Drugs and The City, People and Dancefloors

People and Dancefloors Review: Class, Drugs and The City, by Dr Anthony Killick.

I live in a working class area of Liverpool. There are four corner shops that are within five minutes walking distance of my house. Each of these stocks a drink called “White Ace”, an extra strong cider (7.5%) that retails at 59p per can. Notably, White Ace sells in ones instead of the usual four-pack, and is much harder to find in more affluent parts of the city.

What puzzles me about this drink is the fact that it is even legal when it so obviously perpetuates social and individual problems that are equal to, if not worse than, those caused by many illegal drugs.

This situation points to an insidious (and by no means natural) relation between commodities and class. In areas where drug and alcohol abuse are likely to be more acute, what lines the shelves is nothing less than a legal way for some people to make money out of these problems.

Austerity widens the market, as does the increasing hostility of the city towards the “economically inactive”. The fact that city space in much of the UK is arranged to encourage and facilitate certain behaviours while minimalizing others is evident in the mass closure of pubs (particularly smaller, more locally oriented pubs) and music venues. Replacing these are luxury flats and shelves filled with White Ace.

The geographer, David Harvey, writes that cities are “templates of personality socialisation”. What he means is that the places in which we live have a significant bearing on the types of people we become. Rave spaces are an important part of this, though they are largely derided and criminalised within the media.

Throughout “the debate” you will find people who have been forced to explain their existence in such spaces, as well as their use of any recreational drug that isn’t alcohol. Whereas going to pubs simply to get pissed is socially and legally acceptable, dancing and taking MDMA (a far less dangerous drug than alcohol) must be backed up by some form of higher reasoning.

This is the discursive corner from which People and Dancefloors attempts to influence our thinking on drug use. The 24 minute film was recently screened at Liverpool John Moores University. While many in the audience were familiar with this territory, some were encountering the debate for the first time. For one MA student, the film

Gave me an entirely new perspective on the concept of recreational drug use and the policies surrounding it. Getting to hear first-hand accounts and experiences directly from the participants themselves provided a unique insight into this topic. We don’t often talk about drugs as a society in any way other than associating it with criminal offenses or those in poverty. The film really challenges expectations of what someone who uses drugs is like, as well as their lifestyle.

That this entirely new perspective could only be gained through attendance at a university screening indicates the dominance of a singular perspective in the media of drug users as criminals. The film aims to provide some correction to this one-dimensional discourse. As Amanda Atkinson, Senior Researcher within the Public Health Institute at LJMU, comments

The film is a must watch for anyone interested in an alternative account of drug use to that of the mainstream media which is dominated by a narrative of crime, deviance and otherness. It is rare that the voices of people who use drugs feature in media discourse, and the film begins to address this gap, providing alternative narratives which highlight the role of pleasure and experiences of stigma.

Perhaps aware of the potential to romanticise raves and illegal drug use, People and Dancefloors, relies almost solely on the words of those who participate in these activities. The partial dissolving of social constraints and the facilitation of new experiences are common features of conversations about drugs and social spaces.

Yet the film grounds these alongside other, perhaps less dramatic concerns with ageing and drug use. Here “growing up” (that paralysing notion that you can no longer be who you are because of a number, against which your contribution in reproducing capitalist forms of wealth and social relations is measured) is revealed as a way in which people may gradually fold themselves into normalised lifestyles.

As one interviewee comments,

“I’d be much more likely to have a drink these days because that’s the socially sanctioned drug. That’s the drug that we’re all allowed to have even though it’s incredibly dangerous”.

Perhaps most importantly, People and Dancefloors uses testimony to enable us to think about class, drugs, alcohol and raves in a way that is, at a minimum, slightly less insane. Underneath this, however, it encourages us to construct a type of knowledge about drug use and rave spaces that draws on the knowledge and experiences of those who create these valuable cultures.

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