Neoliberalism is Partly to Blame for Competitive Psychedelic Use

Sam Woolfe
15 min readJan 30, 2024

Competitiveness amongst psychonauts exists and can take many forms. James Nolan, in a piece for Vice, reported that competitive psychedelic users are chasing the experience of ‘ego death’ — the dissolution of one’s sense of personal identity — because this is seen as the apex of tripping. Indeed, certain hierarchies of tripping may be constructed, in both a person’s mind and at the level of psychedelic subculture, that view certain experiences as endowing ‘higher status’ than others. Nolan recounts one statement from a user of Reddit’s r/Psychonaut: “I think [it’s] a fair statement that if you’ve experienced ego death that you’re a superior psychonaut.”

In addition to prized psychedelic effects, hierarchies of tripping can be based on other factors, such as drug type, dosage, and setting. Taking the highest doses, using the most potent compounds (e.g. 5-MeO-DMT), and having experiences in the most socially approved or optimised settings (e.g. ‘authentic’ ceremonies) can also confer a feeling of status. There can be a sense in which there is a ‘proper psychonaut’, with some experiences and types of use viewed as worthier than others.

I have written before about the problem of the psychedelicised ego (whereby psychedelic use inflates one’s sense of self-importance) and psychedelic materialism (accruing psychedelic experiences as if they’re material possessions). These concepts can be considered as offshoots or aspects of the idea of the spiritualised ego (feeling spiritually superior to others) and spiritual materialism (a term coined by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, which refers to the ego grasping after spiritual experiences, identities, accomplishments, and practices in order to feel safe and secure). These related phenomena are pitfalls on the spiritual path; they are a form of spiritual bypassing, which involves using spiritual ideas and the sense that one is highly spiritual to bypass the hard work of addressing psychological pain and personal flaws.

The Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein uses the term ‘comparing mind’ to describe our tendency to compare ourselves to others. As he writes in Insight Meditation: A Psychology of Freedom (1993):

In Buddhist psychology “conceit” has a special meaning: that activity of the mind that compares itself with others. When we think about ourselves as better than, equal to, or worse than someone else, we are giving expression to conceit. This comparing mind is called conceit because all forms of it — whether it is “I’m better than” or “I’m worse than,” or “I’m just the same as” — come from the hallucination that there is a self; they all refer back to a feeling of self, of “I am.”

This comparing mind can co-opt anything for its uses, including psychedelic experiences. But I believe culture plays a role in this. While ego inflation and the comparing mind are general potential pitfalls of psychedelic use, this does not mean these pitfalls occur equally in all cultures. We should keep in mind that cultural factors influence not only the quality of psychedelic experiences but also how we integrate those experiences. Whether someone uses a psychedelic trip to boost their ego, and the extent or manner in which they do so, can be influenced by the kind of society and culture they are situated in.

Regarding this point, I would like to suggest that psychonauts in neoliberal and individualistic cultures will be more susceptible to competitive psychedelic use. It is commonly assumed that psychedelic experiences promote an enduring sense of unity and community, translating into related political attitudes and beliefs. Yet while this does occur for many individuals, or to a certain extent, it is also true that psychedelics act as non-specific amplifiers (so they can amplify one’s pre-existing beliefs). They can be seen as politically pluripotent, which means — as Eric Lonergan points out — “they can strengthen all sorts of political movements depending on the political set and setting. Here, the “political set” is the political orientation of the subject, and the “political setting” is the political orientation of the environment.”

Thus, if psychonauts are using psychedelics in the context of a society committed to neoliberal ideology and individualism, then such ideologies may affect one’s approach and attitudes towards altered states of consciousness.

Neoliberalism Seeps Into All Areas of Our Lives

First, we should define ‘neoliberalism’. Renowned Marxist scholar David Harvey stated that, according to neoliberal thought, “all forms of social solidarity were to be dissolved in favour of individualism, private property, personal responsibility and family values.” Individualism (which emphasises individual responsibility and choice, and favours individual interests over collective ones) is the foundation of free-market capitalism and, later on, neoliberalism. The latter ideology led to policies put in place by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, which has since dominated the political-economic structure of Western nations.

The neo in neoliberalism refers to the fact that this ideology involves a re-emergence of individualist and capitalist ideologies — an emphasis on self-reliance, independence, and productivity, and a disdain for weakness or dependence — which saw the introduction of policies that reflected this ideology. The weakening or shrinking of the welfare state and unions by Thatcher and Reagan would be exemplary of this.

Neoliberalism would also come to affect how other institutions in society are run, such as education and healthcare. Rather than providing support for public services, neoliberal governments imposed an economic market of industry on public institutions, based on the belief that they will run more effectively and efficiently if they are characterised by free-market competition and a culture of meeting targets. (I highly recommend James Davies’ book Sedated, which describes how neoliberalism negatively impacted mental health care in the UK and, in turn, the mental health outcomes of people.)

But the ideological rhetoric and foundation of neoliberalism — the tenets of individualism — do not only seep into various public institutions. This ideology affects how we feel, and how we view ourselves and others. And this is the goal that Thatcher had in mind. As she said during an interview for The Sunday Times in 1981: “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.” We internalise and normalise neoliberal ideology so that we not only act as consumers but feel ourselves to be essentially consumers. Neoliberalism makes us feel atomised, as lone individuals competing against others for status and success. Beyond public institutions, neoliberalism can affect how we approach our emotions, relationships, and pursuit of knowledge. Spirituality in neoliberal countries (such as the US and UK) may also be more prone to the pitfalls of the spiritualised ego and spiritual materialism due to the all-pervasive influence of neoliberal ideology.

The writer and cultural theorist Mark Fisher made the case for the all-pervasiveness of neoliberal ideology in his book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009). Capitalism realism is a concept he created, referring to “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” In his book, he states, “Over the past thirty years, capitalist realism has successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business.” He argues that work, popular culture, and general thought has also been affected by this “pervasive atmosphere”. He says that capitalist realism acts “as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.”

Fisher clarifies that capitalist realism and neoliberalism are distinct but that they do reinforce each other. For instance, capitalist realism imposes the notion that no matter what the flaws of neoliberalism may be, capitalism is the only possible political and economic system we can live under. This perspective is anti-utopian, whereas neoliberalism is utopian, in that it glorifies capitalism by portraying it as the necessary means for achieving near-perfect socioeconomic conditions. Capitalist realism dampens opposition to neoliberalism’s idealistic worldview while neoliberalism counteracts the hopelessness of capitalist realism with its utopian claims.

Doesn’t Psychedelic Use Combat Neoliberal Ideology?

Fisher died before he got to complete his book Acid Communism, the title of which was his name for a future political project: a marriage of the psychedelia of the 1960s with Marxist thinking. In a Medium post, Stuart Mills interprets Fisher’s ideas on this concept, arguing that:

Acid communism is about ways of imagining a world after capitalist realism, and for Fisher, one of the ways to escape this reality is psychoactive drugs. The programme of acid communism is not to condone psychoactive drug use, but as an example this activity captures the philosophy of acid communism excellently.

To imagine new futures, we have to find ways to break out of our present myopia. Fisher’s acid communism is unique primarily for placing this goal above all others. For example, Marx’s call for class consciousness is a very acid communist idea, but the means of achieving class consciousness (the critiques and contradictions of capital) dominated much of Marx’s contribution. If Fisher had had more time, perhaps this would have been the fate of acid communism too, attempting to imagine new ways of achieving acidic or post-capitalist realist thought.

Instead, acid communism leaves us with a simple message. The future has been cancelled because we are unable to imagine anything other than the present. To invent the future, to escape our myopia, we have to go beyond the present bounds of our imagination. This is acid communism.

In an article for Krisis, Matt Colquhoun (best known for writing about Fisher) claims that acid communism “is not only a project for the recuperation of the counterculture’s lost potentials but also the expression of a desire for an experimental (rather than prescriptively utopian) leftist politics.” Fisher offers a broad and ambiguous description of what acid communism is in the introduction to his never-published book, in preliminary form:

The concept of acid communism is a provocation and a promise. It is a joke of sorts, but one with very serious purpose. It points to something that, at one point, seemed inevitable, but which now appears impossible: the convergence of class consciousness, socialist-feminist consciousness-raising and psychedelic consciousness, the fusion of new social movements with a communist project, an unprecedented aestheticisation of every day life.

He saw acid communism as a call for “a new humanity, a new seeing, a new thinking, a new loving.” Consistent with Fisher’s idea of acid communism, there has long been a belief among psychonauts that psychedelic consciousness will herald a revolution — helping us transform an individualistic, consumerist society into a cooperative, post-consumerist one. In psychedelic circles, there is often a wish for a ‘consciousness revolution’, which will lead to collective liberation, freeing us from the prison of social atomisation. Psychedelics may have this potential, of course, since they can amplify pre-existing attitudes and beliefs that are anti-neoliberal and anti-individualistic. One has to wonder, then, how effective (if at all) psychedelics can be in combating both capitalist realism and neoliberal ideology if the use of these compounds occurs in the ‘political set and setting’ that these ideologies have created.

On the one hand, psychedelic consciousness may transcend the limited view imposed on us by the pervasive atmosphere of individualism. In altered states of consciousness, psychonauts may feel convinced of the evils of capitalism and the need for an alternative political system that protects the interests of the people, not the interests of the market. On the other hand, if psychedelics are non-specific amplifiers and politically pluripotent chemicals, then how can we ensure that psychedelic consciousness doesn’t become muddied by neoliberal ideology?

According to researchers, there is little evidence that psychedelics’ enduring effects on personality lead to political belief change. So even if psychedelic use became widespread in the culture, this might not lead to the upheaval of capitalism. Nevertheless, if psychedelic use occurs in the appropriate cultural and political set and setting, then perhaps such a change could occur.

Some might challenge the notion that psychedelics are strictly non-specific amplifiers, conversely, based on their tendency to change attitudes towards the environment or metaphysical views in particular ways (although as already stated, it is not clear that psychedelic use can actually cause profound shifts in political beliefs). In a 2021 paper published in Frontiers in Psychology, Brian Pace and Neşe Devenot contend that:

anecdotal accounts of psychedelics precipitating radical shifts in political or religious beliefs are common but are the result of factors relating to the set, setting, and environment and have no particular directional basis on the axes of conservatism-liberalism or authoritarianism-egalitarianism. Instead, we argue that any experience which undermines a person’s fundamental worldview — which we assert includes the psychedelic experience — can precipitate shifts in any direction of political beliefs post-psychedelic session.

Hence, for psychedelic use to combat neoliberal ideology, it may be necessary for non-drug factors (the set, setting, and environment) to have a specific character. Psychedelic use does not occur in a cultural and political vacuum; moreover, it does not make one immune to the effects of neoliberal ideology. This last point is what I will now expand on.

The Effects of Neoliberalism on Psychedelic Use

At the beginning of this essay, I noted some examples of how psychonauts can compete with each other in experiential and material terms (in terms of the kinds of experiences had and the physical aspects of drug use, such as drug type, amount, setting, etc.). Some kinds of experiences and settings (e.g. ceremonial ones) may be deemed as being better, more authentic, or spiritually superior to other forms of psychedelic use.

Neoliberal ideology can affect all aspects of the psychedelic experience: competitive feelings can be present during preparation, the session itself, and integration. It should be stressed that existing within a culture of individualism may play a role in such feelings, but this does not mean it is solely to blame. Competitive feelings are natural and exist independently of political ideology. However, neoliberalism often acts to amplify, normalise, or justify these feelings. This ideology, which glorifies competition, can make the sense of being alone in your efforts to achieve happiness the default mode of being — it becomes completely normal to feel envy and jealousy when learning about the success of others, rather than sympathetic joy.

Under a system of neoliberalism, there can be a tendency to view others either as obstacles or helpers in terms of achieving one’s own success. This is a form of dehumanisation. Social media undoubtedly fuels this kind of ‘main character syndrome’ (when you present or imagine yourself as the protagonist in a movie version of your life, with everyone else existing as supporting actors). Social media no doubt contributes to this phenomenon because of the way it encourages attention-seeking, narcissism, and self-promotion. However, neoliberal ideology fuels such feelings as well. These two forces in society cohere with each other and may reinforce each other. But perhaps the feeling of being a protagonist in your own story is not inherently problematic, so long as it is coupled with the realisation and appreciation that others are also living lives as vivid and complex as your own, with their own ambitions and worries (the writer Jonathan Koenig refers to this realisation as sonder).

Psychedelic use — even if it leads to self-transcendent, transformative experiences — does not necessarily make one’s mind impenetrable to the influence of the dominant political ideology in society. One may carry the conviction that one has been successfully ‘deprogrammed’ by psychedelics, but this may sometimes amount to spiritual bypassing: an unwillingness to confront negative traits, such as ego inflation and competitive feelings towards other psychedelic users. Again, neoliberal ideology may amplify, normalise, or justify such mental states and feelings.

One may be solely or mainly concerned with one’s own ‘psychedelic success’ (the best possible trips and self-improvement journey), whereas the positive experiences of others can become sources of envy and jealousy, instead of sympathetic joy. Here we can apply Fisher’s concept of ‘business ontology’ to psychedelic experiences and identities: this involves people ‘selling’ or ‘marketing’ themselves as successful, self-reliant, and productive psychonauts based on the way they package and communicate their experiences.

This might, at face value, sound like an extremely cynical way to interpret psychedelic culture, so I should emphasise that I do not mean all psychedelic use and interactions between psychonauts are affected by neoliberal ideology. I also do not believe that negative feelings like competitiveness cannot exist alongside more (and often more dominant) positive feelings inspired by psychedelics. However, the power and pervasiveness of neoliberal ideology mean that practices that are intended to promote positive feelings and prosocial behaviour can, nonetheless, end up fitting in with this ideology to some degree. (Ron Purser, for instance, has argued this has happened with mindfulness meditation.)

As evidence of the effects of neoliberal ideology on psychedelic use, we might cite the rise in people tripping alone. On the one hand, solo tripping is a valid preference that many psychonauts have, and it may have nothing to do with problems in society like social disconnection. On the other hand, we should be open to the possibility that if solo tripping is much more prevalent in neoliberal societies, this could indicate the influence of individualism and social disconnection on psychedelic use.

Individualism could encourage psychonauts to view psychedelic exploration and healing as something they should take into their own hands, and that such self-reliance and independence make them better psychonauts. Meanwhile, the social disconnection that follows from living in an individualistic culture — as well as competitive feelings — could make it difficult to find, form, and maintain positive relationships and communities that are ideal for group psychedelic sessions. After all, these sorts of social connections are characterised by empathy and trust, emotions that are stifled by neoliberal ideology.

Competitive Psychedelic Use Gets You Nowhere

Competitive feelings surrounding psychedelic use often occur unconsciously and can become so familiar to one’s way of thinking that they can appear correct and productive. Who wouldn’t want to sit on the top of the hierarchy of tripping? However, this pattern of thinking gettings you nowhere. It feeds, rather than quells, egoic feelings like self-importance and insecurity. If one genuinely intends to find a greater connection to oneself and others from psychedelic use, then a competitive approach will not work towards that end. Instead, it will lead to a connection towards a ‘false’ or ‘small’ self and only serve to disconnect you from the appreciation of others as complex beings with interests equally important as your own.

Furthermore, this approach to psychedelic use is likely counterproductive to improving your mental health. In a 2021 paper published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, researchers “found that exposure to neoliberal ideology increased loneliness and decreased well-being by reducing people’s sense of connection to others and by increasing perceptions of being in competition with others.”

Using psychedelics in a competitive way can also land you in some difficult waters. Chasing experiences like ego death as the ultimate goal — without preparation, harm reduction, or integration strategies in place — can lead to serious post-trip distress. Sean, 22, from Oregon, told Nolan in his Vice article that after his ego death, “I honestly thought I was developing psychosis. I couldn’t believe what I saw, what the world was. Nothing made sense, nothing had a point. I became very anti-social and it didn’t take much to send me into a panic.” Michael, a 20-year-old from Florida, explained how spiritual awakenings can turn ugly:

The truth can leave you miserable. You lose interest in things, people drift away, you question your career. It’s been years since [my ego death] happened — I still think about it daily. I wasn’t ready for the experience. I was left in a state of manic insanity — I kept thinking the trip wasn’t over.

Nolan writes:

It’s difficult to tell how many psychedelics users are actually pushing their trips to this extent — whether it’s reality or merely internet bravado. But there have been enough ego death posts on message-boards like Reddit’s r/Psychonaut lately to suggest that many psychonauts are being driven towards potentially dark turning points — in some part, it would seem, for internet credibility.

But given what has been said about the strong influence of neoliberal ideology on our minds, how do we move beyond competitive psychedelic use towards a more cooperative, supportive, and community-based approach that benefits all involved? Do we really have to replace the dominant political and economic ideology of society before psychedelics can realise their potential as community-building agents? I don’t think so, as this would be like saying that genuine friendships cannot exist under capitalism because they are all sullied by competitiveness. While relationships can be negatively affected by neoliberalism, issues like this are not so black-and-white and hopeless.

Trying to become aware of how ideology affects us, taking a conscious and active stance against narratives of individualism and competitiveness, and using psychedelics in an intentional way (working with egoic tendencies that arise and striving to address them) can all help combat the influence of neoliberal ideology. Working to create a fairer and more community-based society — in whatever way possible — can also act as a ‘set and setting’ that will positively influence psychedelic experiences.

I am unsure where I sit in terms of the pessimism of capitalist realism and the optimism of acid communism, but real improvements still nonetheless seem possible, namely, being able to achieve a much healthier approach to psychedelic use in individualistic societies. Seeking out other people and communities who share this aim — while also raising awareness about the interactions between ideology and psychedelic experiences — can help promote a different and more positive culture surrounding psychedelic use.

Originally published at https://www.samwoolfe.com on January 30, 2024.

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Sam Woolfe

I'm a freelance writer, journalist, and author with interests in philosophy, ethics, psychology, and mental health. Website: www.samwoolfe.com