“What is wrong in my life, that I must get drunk every night?”
Fine Young Cannibals – Johnny Come Home
When I was 15, I went to a house party for the first time. I quickly finished the 2 bottles of beer my parents had given me and swiftly moved onto sharing the vodka my friend had stolen from the cabinet. Shortly after that, I spluttered through my first cigarette and shared a kiss with the help of spin the bottle. In the space of one heady night I felt I had finally reached what I had been taught (and I uncritically thought) was the zenith of cool and youthful freedom. As I squinted and stared through the alcohol swimming across my vision and into the bathroom mirror I remember thinking ‘I’ve finally done it, I’m finally a real person’.
And thus began what would eventually become a 7 year bender. From that decisive moment until the end of 2019, I spent basically every weekend and many many nights in a constant state of hedonistic reverie, at parties and in pubs, in fields and parks, at festivals and gigs, hiding in club toilets and fading into hazy, smoke-filled flats. Every moment I spent sober was a moment spent daydreaming of the next smoke, drink, dance or sniff of exhilarating release from the monotony of a repressive life that more and more felt on the edge of disaster and collapse. What is strange about these years of plenty and excess is that, with the exception of those first thrilling capers of rebellion and release and last years of the crushing hangover of compulsive hedonia and exhaustion, I remember almost none of it. What I do remember however, with relative clarity, are the long… drunk… walks home.
This is not to say that those years would have been better spent at home as a judging puritan. In many ways the exhilarating escape of the party is an indispensable tool in resisting the misery and alienation that modern life has a way of instilling in us all. It’s an often indispensable way to release the tension of the daily grind, something to look forward to on dreary days of monotonous toil and trouble and at its best a way of connecting to one another in collective joy that is perhaps unrivalled by any other. The world we live in today can be crushing. Everyday we are confronted with scenes of unrelenting misery on TV screens and newspaper headlines, we are assaulted on all sides by the pressures of work, rent, bills, isolation, sexism, racism, homophobia, classism and persistent prejudice and oppression. The politicians let us down again and again, we’re told that the system we slave under is the only one and the prospect of meaningful change only seems to drift further away. In our world, partying can be more than just a mere indulgence, it can be a means of vital self care but also a means of coming together behind and forming communities around otherwise politically excluded identities and issues. It can be a means of rallying the troops, of inspiring a camaraderie between strangers and motivation to change the world for the better. Often, as with queer pride, parties are an expression of defiance and coming together, a way of saying “I am proud of who I am, and I’m gonna celebrate it”, forming a vital space free from the oppression the rest of the world enforces.
While there is an indisputable link between partying and politics, with many examples to back this up, this does not mean they are one and the same. Unfortunately, it is not enough to write the best, most inspiring music, to have the most mind-opening psychedelic experience or to share in the joy of the dancefloor alone to liberate us from this daily toil. If we are not careful, hedonism can act as a means to avoid taking the action to address these problems and can actually frustrate the struggle for a better world. At its worst, hedonism can lead to its own world of misery and helplessness, so how should we approach it in a world that increasingly encourages us to escape?
“Turn out the lights, the party’s over
They say that all good things must end
Call it a night, the party’s over
And tomorrow starts the same old thing again”
Willie Nelson – The Party’s Over
The unfortunate truth, however, is that you can’t simply party away all of these modern maladies; eventually money, responsibilities and our own body chemistry will come to stop us from escaping into the world of dionysian bliss. The longer and harder you indulge as a means of escaping the stresses of modern life, the less effective this escape gets, the more crushing the comedown and the more entrapped you become. Partying also does very little to address the matters that have chased you into escapism’s arms, whether they be as personal as a breakup, or as worldly as global warming. If your only solution to the suffering of the modern world is to leave it behind in a blur of lights and music then it will always eventually catch up. The returns will diminish and the consequences of inaction will build up. By escaping from the world we also necessarily exclude it (try applying for a job on a sweaty dance floor) and therefore do very little to address what we are running from. The inevitable outcome of reflexive-compulsive hedonism is the exhaustion of both its cathartic effect and the energy to address those problems that may chase us to the dance-floor.
There is some credibility to the argument that partying IS resistance to the alienation of modernity. It is also true that the hedonistic lifestyle is one that does not conform to what is expected of us as citizens in 21st century neoliberalism, that we should seek to maximise our productivity above all else. We can see an expression in this attitude which has been dominant since the rise of free-market ideologues such as Reagan and Thatcher. The spread of so called ‘Grindset’ ideology, shared in “inspirational” memes which encourage us to dedicate our free time to entrepreneurial endeavours and maximising our personal economic success is proof of this. By seeking the good times, and rejecting the ‘money is all’ attitude, we can express that in fact, we as human beings do not simply exist to maximise economic output, but have the right and perhaps duty to enjoy our time on earth. It stands in opposition to authority figures who warn us of the dangers of the hedonistic lifestyle and extol the virtue of hard work and discipline above all else. This feeling of maverick freedom is only boosted by the illicit nature of drugs and inebriated disorderliness, which also give us the thrill of riding above the law. However, what partying takes from the late-capitalist order with one hand it can give back to this same establishment with the other. This give and take takes the form of consumption. While we must be productive citizens to uphold the economic order, we must also be consumers, and hedonism is in many ways the form of consumption par-excellence. The amount of capital generated by partymongers, both legal and illicit, is highly substantial and each year billions are generated in the sectors of hospitality, entertainment and retail. For proof of this we only need look back to the desperate pleading of entertainment sector bosses in the pandemic for cash strapped consumers to go out and party, eat and drink, backed up by the disastrous UK government ‘eat out to help out’ initiative which contributed massively to the spike in covid-19 cases in the latter half of that year. Far from their humble beginnings in block parties and underground raves, the dance music industry is now one of the most commercialised of all entertainment industries, tangled with vast profits from ticket sales, overpriced drinks and the sale of party drugs like MDMA, Ketamine and Cocaine. The illegal drug trade can hardly be described as a liberated space either, dependent on gang violence, corruption and ruthless exploitation to produce, traffic and distribute its goods to a willing populace. Anyone who has ever had the displeasure of sweating through a comedown or hangover will also be acutely aware of how very tiring and sometimes downright awful the after effects of partying can be. When this is combined with the work needed to support the hedonistic lifestyle this leaves very little energy for anything else, particularly the work of resisting widespread injustice. This can lead to a feeling of hopelessness and entrapment as you become stuck in a cycle of chasing the next excitement, unable to otherwise deal with reality sober, but also unable to spend the energy required to deal with the very problems you are running from. Hedonism taken alone is therefore an inadequate means of addressing the pressures of the 21st century both on a personal and political level. We must find a way to channel a part of the collective energies of the party into another lane – that of progressive organisation and action.
“I sit on the curb cause it’s the prettiest night
With no one else in sight”
Mitski – Drunk Walk Home
Perhaps the reason I have so few memories of my years of hedonism is not because the nights were lacking in memorable moments, but because they were all memorable in the same way. It is somewhat cliche to state that variety is the spice of life, but this can also be used to understand why I have clear memories of the walks home where I do not have memories of the night itself. Escaping the routines of daily life in partying can become a routine in itself and that was certainly the case in my experience. Once you find the best spots, the best nights and your community, it is easy to gravitate back to those tried and tested combinations, where the music is good, the drinks are cheap and the people are cool. The walks home however were a different story. While still buzzing from the energy of the night, but freed from the usual restrictions of the daytime stroll, the long walk home is a unique activity in several ways, often with much more scope for new and interesting experiences and perspectives. The most obvious difference is the quiet emptiness of usually busy streets. Once you get away from the clubs and taxis you will find a world transformed and the psychogeography of streets and parks shifted in their shadowed isolation. Absent of the crowds and traffic, within these spaces, particularly the usually thrumming urban centres, there is a potential to re-examine the real purpose of them and our relations to them. One example of this would be the feeling of great artificiality and uncanniness that emanates from empty high streets and shopping malls, which becomes even clearer when these spaces are not filled with willing consumers (see also, liminal spaces).
The walk home, whether alone or with companions, can also be a very freeform activity, and though the ultimate goal may be reaching a warm bed, the actual journey often weaves and winds in unexpected ways. The spirit of curiosity (and perhaps spirits themselves) can take hold at any moment and may take you in a variety of novel and unexpected directions. If you see something interesting, there is usually little to stop you from examining it, such as the prying eyes of crowds or our usual daily obligations. You can easily hop a fence into otherwise restricted spaces, explore rooftops and express freedom with less restrictions (I for one am a great proponent of the late night drunken playground excursion). In a way, these walks home are an altered form of the Derive tactic utilised by the 20th century radical artists’ movement the Situationist International. In his ‘Theory of the Dérives’, Guy Debord writes that ‘In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.’ What is gained from such an activity is the awareness of how our urban geography is tailored to funnelling us towards ‘centers of attraction’, spaces of production, consumption and reproduction (such as the workplace, the pub and the home) by existing in that space removed from any immediate drive to do any of those three things. For most people, time spent in or moving through urban spaces is dominated by its utility, as a means either to get to another productive space or as a means of recreation. We rarely take the moment to really stop and look at what surrounds us and how it is all linked and funnelled together, and importantly the unifying logic behind the organisation of our modern lives (namely, the market). By decoupling our movement through this urban space from any immediate objective, we may similarly review urban space and what occupies it for what they really are: expressions of a market logic that leaves increasingly less space for activities that do not feed in some way back into the modern logic of consumption. Even outside of the clubbing and gig scene, it is increasingly hard to find spaces to inhabit without needing to spend money or act productively, the ongoing closure of youth clubs, community centers, squats, travellers camps and libraries, all of which are contemporary examples of the ongoing enclosure and commodification of our lives.
Although the drunk walk home is distinct from the dérive in several ways (Debord posits that “the last hours of the night are generally unsuitable for dérives” and that dérives on average last one day), I would argue that the drunk walk home still represents a liberationary activity. One benefit of the drunk walk home compared to the formal dérive is that one does not require an understanding of any high concepts to nevertheless experience a radical change in view of our modern urban geography and, in turn, our modern society and the ideology which is imparted upon us and passed off as ‘common sense’. It is a spontaneous activity that finds its value precisely in its spontaneity, which allows us to follow our hearts and noses to new and interesting places and ideas. It must also, however, be acknowledged that these drunk walks home are a luxury not available to many vulnerable members of society) – the idea of walking home alone at night is one that is almost totally out of the question to women, for the very real fear of vile sexist harassment and violence which continues to plague our streets, and while walking in groups lessens the risk of being attacked, it is still a prospect that is still incredibly daunting. Similarly, nighttime walking as a person of colour (in a group or solo) also carries the risk of harassment from police and the paranoid, who are much more likely to perceive as a threat people of colour walking at night. These are but a few examples of the ways people are excluded from the potential joys of the drunk walk home and extra cause to dedicate part of our energies to addressing the scourges of discrimination and inequality. The joy of the drunk walk home shares some characteristics with a phenomenon which, translated from the chinese ‘bàofùxìng áoyè, has been called “Revenge Late-night Procrastination”. Daphne K Lee describes this widespread phenomenon as when “people who don’t have much control over their daytime life refuse to sleep early in order to regain some sense of freedom during late-night hours”. This ultimately harmful practice, which leaves us exhausted and sleep-deprived, clearly shares much with the drunk walk home and partying in general. This freedom, whether to scroll into the early hours or to stumble into bed as the dawn breaks should not come at the cost of our wellbeing. We will always to some degree be beholden to our body clocks and our duties to keep society running, but considering the colossal stockpile of wealth and leisure enjoyed by the capitalist class, I’m sure we can all take a few more lie-ins. If the bloated corpse of Jeffery Bezos can be allowed to entertain the juvenile fantasy of taking a rocket to the edge of the atmosphere, then we should be allowed at least a few nights of celebration, relaxation and exploration.
“Our hands is wringin’, neighborhood is wakin’
Nostalgia Rx, discontinued 2020
We’ve got the power
More than surviving a marathon of anger”
Parquet Courts – Marathon of Anger
After over a year of isolation in the midst of a global pandemic, with no parties or celebration at all, many of us have been eager to get back out there and share in the joy of the party once again and rightly so. The pandemic and the lockdowns have been brutal and the isolation often unbearable; getting together to party is, for sure, one of the best ways to reconnect and remind ourselves of the joy of community, not to mention dancing all that pent up energy away. But we should not forget the sacrifices that were made through the pandemic or the very real struggles that are on their way. One thing the pandemic proved, through government inaction, incompetence and corruption which contributed to the loss of 140,000 lives in the UK alone, was the ease at which the establishment can ignore our wellbeing and the sanctity of our very lives in the name of protecting the economic interests of the few. No longer can we continue simply to soothe ourselves with hedonism and entertainment – we must now band together to take on the oppression which, though diverse in nature, unites us all. As a tool in our armory and a means of self care and celebration we should use the power of the party (in the hedonistic sense), but not let it overtake us. Marx once famously said ‘Religion is the opium of the masses’ but it is not as well known that he also stated that it was ‘the heart of a heartless world’. In a secular country such as the UK, I would propose that entertainment and hedonism have taken the place of religion as the opium of the masses but also the heart in a heartless world. Partying is a heart, a source of warmth that we should not give up but we should not, like opium, let dull the senses we need to preserve our hard won right to live, love and party.
Our collective dependency on hedonistic pursuits is in many ways a rational one in our time of turmoil, but will be a dead end if we are not careful. The reality we live in increasingly pushes us to escape but there will come a time, if unchallenged, when these challenges will overwhelm even that space too. Parties are too good a thing to let be overcome in this way, we must find a way to address reality in order to protect the liberation they provide and eliminate those gaps that exclude others from taking part in the celebration of life that is the party. If we dedicate a part of our energies to eliminating poverty, overwork, discrimination, we will find that parties take on a new value distinct from the hard but rewarding work of bettering the world, but can also work to ensure partying is open and free to all, not limited by the dangers of sexual harassment, inaccesibility or the high cost of commercialised pleasure. The old world of wage slavery and heartless competition is dying, a new world free from oppression and encapsulating the spirit of cooperation struggles to be born, lets make sure we’re not too hungover to see it through. By bettering the world, we can make not a better world but better parties, open and accessible to all, too.