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The “Psychedelic Renaissance” Is a Product of Late-Stage Capitalism

We spoke to journalist, activist, and political strategist Alnoor Ladha about what it means to decolonize psychedelics and why the future of this space depends on it.

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In 2022, Alnoor Ladha and his colleague Rene Suša penned the article “Why the Psychedelic Renaissance Is Just Colonialism By Another Name,” reminding readers that the psychedelic boom of the 1960s was a novelty only for the Global North. From time immemorial, Global South communities have worked with animal, plant, and fungi medicines to honor transitions, heal, and commune with the Divine. 

In order to decolonize our relationship to psychedelics, Ladha explains, we must interrogate power, privilege, and what he describes as “the single story of progress” in which “modern Western societies are presented as the pinnacle of human evolution and set as the example that all other societies should emulate.” Challenging this can open up portals to “other ways of being, knowing, sensing, and relating to the world,” and serve as potent tools of empowerment for people who hold diverse social locations in relation to power and liberation.   

READ: This Saudi Woman is Creating Psychedelic Community in the Arab World

We caught up with Ladha to discuss the current narrative of the “psychedelic renaissance” and what it means when psychedelic and spiritual communities push for people to  become their “best selves.” We also explored why the burgeoning psychedelic industry is bound to repeat the same colonial harms of the past 500—possibly 5,000—years, unless we commit to decolonizing our minds, hearts, bodies, and psyches, and lean into community and true interconnectedness with each other and the non-human world.

**This interview has been edited for length and clarity and is the first in an ongoing series of interviews from Preeti Simran Sethi on decolonizing psychedelics. 

DoubleBlind: How do you identify yourself and your relationship with psychedelics? 

Alnoor Ladha: In my particular lineage we’re called the Fatimads, the Ismailis, the Assassin Order. My ancestors worked with psychedelics, specifically Syrian Rue and hashish. The word “assassin” comes from Hashasin, which means “purveyors of hashish.” Our lineage got institutionalized and joined the ranks of capitalist modernity in the 1700s and 1800s, and so [that medicine] was closed off to me as a spiritual practice. 

In my twenties, I started working with mushrooms and then, in my thirties, I started working with ayahuasca in the Shipibo Amazonian tradition and lineage. I found my spiritual home there. Over the last 15 years, I have seen in that world the deep consequence of commodification and what the thought, form, and energetic complex of money does to both sides: Those who serve medicine and those who receive the benefits of medicine. I often push for a more structural historical analysis of how we got to this moment. All of these practices are embedded in the current context, layer upon layer. Excavating those layers is part of my spiritual-political practice. 

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How did you come to this work involving the critical analysis of colonization, and how do you define it?

I started my career as a political strategist and then moved to doing more organizing work with social movements, mostly in the Global South: peasant movements, farmer movements, and Indigenous movements. When I think of colonization or colonialism, I don’t think of it as a relic of history, I think of ongoing coloniality [in the form of] colonial capitalism. Every single person in the world who is entangled with globalization and that currency-based system is engaging with ongoing colonial capitalism.

It is not simply market exchange. Capitalism is about the growth of capital above all else. We had an Indigenous Iñupiaq elder [at Brave Earth] a few months back, and she shared that she has to go work some bullshit job in order to spend $2,500 a year to have the rights to fish on her ancestral waterways. That is colonial capitalism. We have imposed a single way of acquiring goods and services that are tied to a global death machine: the self-terminating logic of a growth-based system. 

What the dominant culture wants to tell us is that these various resistances and social movements are kind of one-off reactions to a particular context but from my work what I realized is these are expressions of the same reaction whether that is a peasant farmer movement like La Via Campesina, landless people’s movements like MST in Brazil, Occupy Wall Street, or the anti-globalization movement. They are all expressions of the same [belief] that the totalitarian globalized system of capitalist modernity is not working for the vast majority of human beings or the more-than-human world. 

The reminder is that we all have to do this work and that coloniality is ongoing. 

Right. And the definition of colonization I really like comes from Chief Niniwa of the Huni Kuin people of Acre, Brazil. He says, “Colonization is a cognitive, spiritual, neurological impairment that makes us believe we’re separate from the rest of the living world.” When we enact the kind of modern self-help-industry-becoming-our-best-selves model of healing, what we are doing is importing the logic of colonial separatism into our practice. We see it replicating over and over in the psychedelic space, as the role [of medicine] helps us with individual healing so that we can be better-adjusted citizen-subjects of the dominant culture. 

Even the language of the Psychedelic Renaissance belies the idea that the ‘60s were this amazing period of psychedelic growth and now we’re in this second phase—a renaissance of that high period. It is the Bill Gates/Steven Pinker worldview: Everyone has a microwave, GDP is increasing, therefore things must be all right and we should just continue on our current trajectory. That neoliberal logic is embedded within the discourse of the Psychedelic Renaissance.

READ: How the Psychedelic Movement Can Support Black Lives Matter

That leads me to your piece, “Why the Psychedelic Renaissance Is Just Colonialism By Another Name” that you co-authored with Rene Suša. You write: “Almost all of us who have been born into and embedded within capitalist modernity have been raised with the subject/object split fully intact—our engagement with pretty much anything (things, plants, people, relations, you name it) is through consumption and commodification of the ‘other,’ guided by perceived self-interest … we want to extract something from the plants (and their traditional guardians and knowledge keepers—the Indigenous peoples) that will benefit ourselves.” How do we start to untangle this? 

The starting place for decolonization is to, first, understand the width, depth, and consequence of ongoing colonial capitalism, not just at a structural level but also at a communal, individual, and somatic level. If capitalism is the oxygen that we are breathing and the water we are swimming in, everything we do has to actively dismantle these systems of oppression.

Once we start saying that we are in the practice of decolonization, what is required is a commitment to ongoing learning: to become good students of our culture, understand the impoverishment of the Western way of living and its consequences in the world, and then actively decide to become conscientious objectors to that culture. Then, in order to be good conscientious objectors, we have to prune, and occasionally sever, ties to the incentive landscape. If we still want what the dominant culture is selling on tap—the Wikipedia page, the director title, the house on Fifth Avenue, what have you—we are going to be highly susceptible to the needs and the demands of late-stage capitalism. 

Those who have a 500-year head start on capital—Western Europeans and their descendants—have this huge, exponential, disproportionate advantage, and the sort of [antidote] for their privilege becomes [attempts at] diversity, equity, and inclusion. What is decolonization to say? “No. We do not actually want a seat at that table. We want to deconstruct the table, the boardroom, the house of capitalist modernity itself, and co-create a prefigurative politics that has embedded within it ecological symbiosis, equity, consciousness, and solidarity with all life.” 

Psychedelics help create boundary-dissolving experiences where we can transcend the subject/object split and come back to the culture with the intention of challenging its norms and creating new, ancient, emerging pathways.

I can also see how what you have shared might be used by those who have most benefited from capitalism and colonization to bypass responsibility. We see people emerging from psychedelic experiences with an attitude of, “Namaste, we are all one. I can take everything your culture has to offer and claim it as my own because we are all one.” 

Psychedelics are often called “non-specific amplifiers.” They can also amplify the delusions that already exist. And when you are embedded within capitalist modernity, the chance of delusions being replicated is very high. What we do not want is every Westerner who sits in an ayahuasca ceremony now declaring themselves a steward of the plants and becoming a shaman. That requires active deconstruction and an honoring of the differences that now exist. We have chosen to incarnate in Brown bodies, Black bodies, white bodies, or Indigenous bodies, trans bodies, or heteronormative bodies. That comes with a responsibility to understand the desires, shadows, conflicts, and consequences of our ancestors and their actions—and to actively engage in the redemption work of our lineages. We all have different marching orders and different cultural endowments. 

Doing this work will ideally, and I would suggest inherently, lead to such deep conflict and confrontation that you cannot just rely on the tropes of “oneness.”

Beautifully put. Pulling out another thread of your article, you write, “A responsible and accountable engagement with sacred plants and medicines is not about self-realization, self-aggrandization, self-creation, self-expression, self-validation, or anything else that may be the devotional goal of Western well-being.” 

Committing oneself to the work of decolonization comes with certain responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is the active dismantling of systems of oppression. It is a very uncomfortable space to be in, because if one is to say, “I am not going to contribute to this culture,” then a whole set of forks appear in the road. We are going to have to start having very strong communal ties, and re-enter into ritual and ceremony. We are going to have to, potentially, grow our own food and have bioregional sovereignty. Once you pull one piece of the string, the entire tapestry unravels.

That reminds me of the work of scholar Sunil Bhatia who wrote Decolonizing Psychology. He explains that, in the Indian context, the self is always conceived of as embedded within the family and community. What I hear you saying is that one of the primary steps to decolonization in psychedelics is a recognition that we are all in relation and interdependent. 

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Totally. Our work is to understand how a culture works, how it’s living in our body, and what it’s doing to us. And then to actively deconstruct that culture—to be an agent of disruption in that culture. To not be identified with it, to not say, “I am Canadian or American” or perpetuate tropes of nationalism and patriotism or even corporatism because people who work at Google, Facebook, or whatever are also often very identified with their work and the whole culture of capitalist modernity. Because what that does is reify the small “s” self everywhere you go: your passport, your license, your ID; [it is a] reification of your name, your identity, your career, your financial status. 

The consequence is that it actively diminishes the bigger, [capital] “S” Self. If we are holding on to our identities, we will reify that identity in the face of all truth. We will rationalize genocides. We will side with authoritarian regimes and dictators, bypassing the responsibilities of the big “S” Self, that are interconnectedness, reciprocity, generosity, mutualism, and solidarity, and reifying all of our small “s” self needs, desires, and wants. In Sufism, we would say what is needed is fana: the annihilation of the small “s” self.

It is an active relationship between the singular and the plural, and we are always both. 

… and both ask of us certain responsibilities. Once we understand what the culture is doing to us, we have to inverse the priorities and exalt the big “S” Self with all the responsibilities that come with being in service to collective collaboration and the responsibilities of what it is to temporarily be a single “s” self/body.  Because the idea that my body ends at my dermal layer is part of the Cartesian split of mind and body, self and other. 

Even the notion of me as individual Alnoor is fiction. I don’t have a name for myself. I have a name so other people can call me a name. My gut biome is 90 percent so-called alien bacteria, non-human. My neural pathways are changing in every dialogue, every interaction, not just with humans but also with the more-than-human world. The ecology reflects back to us who we are through water, air, and the foods we eat. And so these distinctions blur. Sometimes it is important and necessary to activate the ego identity, but it is never sufficient.

As you mentioned earlier, we are incarnated into these bodies and cultures, and into this moment in time. It is a dance to simultaneously recognize the self and transcend the self.

[Not only] in the non-dual practice of blurring the distinctions between self and other, but also between inner work and outer work—it is all part of the decolonial practice. 

A big aspect of colonization [was division]: the subject/object split, the mind/body split, anthropocentric exceptionalism where human beings are on top of this evolutionary ladder, with the white Christian male on top of the sub-hierarchy of the anthropocentric hierarchy and everything [else] the so-called “other”: the female other, the Indigenous other, the Black other, and now the trans other, the non-binary other. Whatever we can “other” is separated from ourselves. So the non-dualistic practice is to do the opposite of bypassing: to actively engage with the responsibility of what it means to incarnate in our lineage, with the privileges that we all have, and to then dismantle those systems of privilege. That is part of the spiritual-political practice. 

This distinction between inner work and outer work that we often hear—not just in the psychedelic space but also in spiritual communities—is deeply problematic. The idea that all we can do is work on ourselves, and by working on ourselves that’s going to create this ripple effect … the fallacy of the logic is so apparent. I was recently at a gathering with a breathwork teacher who had just come back from Israel and was training IDF soldiers on breathwork and cold plunges so they could be better-adjusted soldiers of destruction and carry on the genocide of Palestinians. When he was confronted with this, he said, “Well, I just go to where the medicine is, you know. Everyone has to do their inner work.” But it doesn’t work like that. Structural historical discernment is required. Unless we actually have this historical worldview, and we are willing to commit to the decolonization of heart, mind, body, soul, and psyche, and be in solidarity with not just humans, but the more-than-human world—with life and life force—we are going to replicate the atrocities of the last 500 years and, arguably, the last 5,000 years.

If we do not, people will use psychedelics to strengthen their existing tribal biases. This is what is at stake. And when you add the complexity of capital into the mix and who’s making money, where and to whom those allegiances are … it is very messy. If someone is motivated by the expansion of capital at all costs, they will say whatever is required in order to protect their personal fortune. With that comes spiritual consequences that most people are unaware of, and it pollutes the field of the medicines that we are working with. 

Everything is at stake. 

There’s this old Buddhist line: “Enlightenment does not happen in the cave. It happens in the mouth of the lion.” You have to confront capitalist modernity and all its messiness and contradictions, and put your life on the line in solidarity with the living world and other beings in order to catalyze these deep spiritual processes. 

When we go into the spiritual practice, into the psychedelic spaces, the cosmos knows our prayer. And if the universe is alive, which I believe it is, then we can be in this more active dialogue and discursive refinement that creates new superpositions of possibility. When we declare who we are, the cosmos can meet us and open up pathways for contributing to the world.

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Preeti Simran Sethi is a writer, educator, mental health coach, and psychedelic facilitator who advocates for culturally attuned care in psychedelics. Find more on her work here. This interview is made possible with editing support from Andrea Lomanto and the Ferriss-UC Berkeley Psychedelic Journalism Fellowship. 

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DoubleBlind is a trusted resource for news, evidence-based education, and reporting on psychedelics. We work with leading medical professionals, scientific researchers, journalists, mycologists, indigenous stewards, and cultural pioneers. Read about our editorial policy and fact-checking process here.

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