Psychedelic Fascism: Too Big To Fail?
as goes MAPS so goes all our efforts to unf*ck the world
Welp, I resisted jotting down a hot take after the MAPS psychedelic science conference in Denver because everyone was doing it, and I was more interested in geeking out on Peter Turchin’s new book on elite overproduction last week. (CLICK HERE to catch up on that humdinger)
But that conference encapsulated so many themes of interest and relevance to all of us going forward that it still seemed worth taking a crack at.
Because even if you don’t identify with or care much about the “psychedelic renaissance” that’s getting so much ink and hype lately, it does stand in as a fairly clear test case of any utopian social movement dedicated to scaling solutions to our collective challenges.
And as goes MAPS, so goes most of our do-gooder efforts to unf*ck the world.
Specifically, how do we create coherent movements to undo the worst excesses of Late Stage Capitalism and Colonialism when the relentless ratchets of perverse market incentives and infiltration by sociopaths seem to doom our best efforts?
All of this (and more!) was on full display at the Denver Convention Center.
So, two updates/insights from watching a couple of friends’ talks at the event, and then on to the heart of the matter.
First keynote I heard was Andrew Huberman’s interview with Genevieve Jurvetson.
Genevieve did a great job asking thoughtful questions and then getting out of the way to let Andrew respond. (NOT the case for some other fireside chats that turned into dueling poetry slams!).
Andrew struck what must have been quite a delicate balance for him to tread–vulnerable and honest about his own experiences with psychedelic therapy, while maintaining his professional “brand” (and Stanford tenure).
A few years ago when he was a guest speaker at one of our FGP events, he was looking at some of our slides like the Ten Suggestions and said “I’m really glad you’re saying these things. I can’t right now, but man, they really need to be out there.”
On that stage in Denver though, Andrew was finally comfortable saying some of those things himself.
Beyond self-deprecating personal stories, one hilarious takeaway was this:
“People always ask me if breathwork can substitute for MDMA and other psychedelics, and as a scientist who runs a respiration lab, I’d really like to be able to answer in the affirmative, but for anyone who’s had a proper MDMA experience and then compares that to breathwork (screws up his face and tilts it to the side), I mean, come on, they’re not even close!”
He went on to clarify that the only exceptions to this would be super intense over-breathing for sustained periods–breathing so intense it could induce “pinking out” where you get tunnel vision and color distortion–that might even cause retinal damage due to the intense pressures.
This tracks with our buddy Dr. Dave Rabin (psychiatrist and founder of Apollo Vagal nerve bands and also a speaker at the event) who said “you really have to go hard on any breathwork protocol to get anywhere near the kinds of results we’re getting with PTSD and moderate dose ketamine therapies.”
All of which is to say, those weak sauce breathwork/sound bath situations with the “just breath in and out at the pace that feels good for you with your hand on your tummy, hmmmmmmm” are total wastes of time.
They devolve into virtue signaling contests–who can claim the most profound and healing “downloads” as the bigdumbhat crowd try to outdo each other.
Next up, ran into Whole Food’s John Mackey in the speakers’ lounge right before he was about to go onstage.
Hadn’t seen him IRL since the Beforetimes so it was nice to catch up.
I shared with him that I had a slide in my talk telling the tale of his forced sale to Amazon as a cautionary tale for the psychedelic entrepreneurs in the mix.
Not many folks know the backstory on this one and it bears retelling.
John was strong-armed behind the scenes to give up control of his iconic grocery company because Jana Funds (an 8% shareholder who could force board decisions) was claiming that all the good stuff John had baked into the WF model, like employee education, profit sharing, team building, farmer support programs etc. were actually “inefficiencies.”
Due to the wonderful Friedman Doctrine of maximizing shareholder profits at all costs, those efforts technically amounted to mismanagement of the fiduciary responsibilities of the CEO.
So it was a textbook “frying pan/fire” situation, and to escape the clutches of Jana, John took a leap with Bezos and his OneClick Anaconda.
Amazon has slowly but surely wrung the life and joy out of all things Whole and Foodie.
Now I had used John’s example as a wakeup call to psychedelic entrepreneurs who thought they could blithely take on venture capital, or go toe to toe with Big Pharma or Big Health Care and come out unbent in their mission.
After all, if one of the more principled and irascible CEOs out there, with boatloads of fuck you money and little concern for taking a contrarian stance, got rolled by a minority investor, what hope would there be for anyone else dipping their toes into commercial markets while still trying to do good?
Speaking of rolling, John’s talk was effectively his public “coming out” as a psychonaut after years of discretion on the topic.
First he shared about his early hippie-ish days in Austin back when Whole Foods was puckishly named Safe(er)Way. While on a stout dose of acid he accosted his UT philosophy professor on the creek path.
The prof was a confirmed existentialist, but when John asked him “but are you happy?” He responded “no, I’m miserable.” Which sent John off questing for a more satisfying answer to life, the universe and everything.
The real kicker came in ‘83 when he tried (then still legal) MDMA and realized the meaning of life all came down to love. (not an especially original insight when juiced to the gills on dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, but there you go).
What was far more original, was that he actually did something about it!
Over the next decade, he implemented all of the team building, positive regard, and employee empowerment programs that, pre hostile takeover, made Whole Foods a compellingly different and better place to work.
The entire culture of his organization was inspired by his formative trip.
And it was all undone by activist investors with the legal power to claim that those efforts were robbing shareholders of their just, gluten free desserts.
Let that be a lesson to us all.
8% of shares beat 100% Love.
The Heart of the Matter
As I was leaving John’s talk, I got a text from a buddy Jules Evans saying “come to Rick Doblin’s (founder of MAPS) fireside chat with (Compass Pathways) founder Christian Angermayer, it’s gonna be a beat down.
For those folks not familiar with Compass or Angermayer (who’s co-investor is Sith Edge Lord Peter Thiel), consider them the Halliburton or Blackwater of the psychedelic movement.
They’re running the entire Arch-Capitalist playbook, like attempting to patent natural molecules and therapeutic practices (including the “use of soothing colors,” comfortable furnishings, reassuring touch, and vibey music!).
They’ve lured away PhD researchers from non-profits with higher pay, and tempted board members of psychedelic organizations with patent promises and kickbacks.
They’ve eviscerated many public-good organizations and sown ongoing mistrust among former allies and colleagues.
In short, they kinda suck.
I mean, sure Angermayer and Co have all got their Damascene conversion stories down pat, but let’s be real.
Saul was a douchebag tax collector, and…
newly minted “blinded by the light” Paul was also a douchebag.
He just swapped grubbing money for someone else’s empire for building his own.
It’s like the former coke-head Wall Street bro who has his come-to-Jesus story about his ayahuasca trip waaayyyy back in 2018.
He will weepily confess his lizard-brained former ways, and testify of his newfound vision from Mother Aya to serve Mother Gaia by (unsurprisingly) opening a ketamine clinic/pharma VC fund.
But really, all that’s changed are the size of his pupils.
(from constricted little pin pricks from the norepinephrine of the cocaine binge, to the big-as-saucers dilation of the serotonergic psychedelic trip)
Back to the conference update:
So I opened up my app and took a look at the talk description. I saw no sign of an impending beat down by Doblin. In fact, the endless thumbscroll blurb looked like PR boilerplate straight from the bowels of Compass itself.
I texted back to Jules as I made my way down the halls “this smells more like a fluffer sesh than a beatdown, but I’ll try to pop in.”
Now, I didn’t catch the beginning, and I didn’t stay until the end.
But given the chummy tone when I did enter, I doubt that things had been more combative or adversarial before I got there.
And given Rick’s benign response to an absolute howler of a soundbite by Angermayer, I’m pretty sure I got the gist.
Angermayer: “so, as you may or may not realize, robots and AI will take all of your jobs in the next ten years. (excitedly squirming in his seat). Personally, I think it will be even sooner, jah? And at that point, what I envision is governments using the neuroplasticity [of psychedelics] to retrain 60 and 70 year olds into new skills, jah?.”
(I’m not caricaturing Germans here, he really did keep saying “jah” like Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes. Which isn’t the best association to conjure when you’re espousing fascist mind-control strategies)
What the WHAT???
So basically, he was advocating for a totalitarian hyper capitalist state that robs everyone of livelihoods, professions, and meaningful work.
And the role of psychedelics? Little more than Huxley’s Brave New World drug soma to drug/retrain our elders into new skills that the Borg has deemed “valuable!”
I looked around the room to see if anyone else was registering the implications. I was shocked there wasn’t a mobbing of the stage or a mass walkout.
Instead, most folks just nodded along, mirroring Rick’s acquiescence and equanimity.
But if this is the Brave New World we’re heading into, we should fight like hell before it engulfs us.
I mean, at what point did we cede the future of civilization to utter dickhead Asperger tech bros with zero connection to
b) the feminine?
As good ol’ Wendell Berry once said, “so long as they don’t go cheap for power, please women more than men.”
I mean, what council of grandmothers would ever sign off on this delusional dystopian shit?
And how is it that folks like Compass not only aren’t being actively ostracized, but instead are being given prime seating at the table?
Oh yeah, fuck tons of money.
Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen once gave a famous commencement address where he spoke of his old roommate Jeff Skilling’s slide into Enron infamy.
He cautioned how when it comes to incremental erosion of ethical principles, if you don’t want to slip, don’t go where it’s slippery.
To illustrate, he told the story of when he was at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, how he had helped lead their basketball team to the conference championships.
Only problem was the final game was on a Sunday and he was a devout Mormon.
His teammates tried to persuade him from all angles, including the “do it for the team” and the “it’s only this one time.”
But Clay stood firm.
His point? If you give up on the decisions you can readily rationalize, there will always be more to rationalize. Once you remove the hard and fast guardrails of right and wrong, you can slip up pretty quickly.
So while Rick Doblin has caught a fair (and also unfair) amount of heat for “crossing the aisle” with Republicans like Texas governor Rick Perry, or taking donations from the Mercer family (who bankrolled Steve Bannon and Trump), or enrolling police and military in MDMA PTSD trials, I think those are a more defensible part of a “Big Tent” strategy than this strange accommodation of Compass and their ilk.
Here’s an artist's rendition of Clayton Christensen’s moral principle of “if you don’t want to slip, don’t go where it’s slippery.”
(For those of you keeping score at home, Team Psychedelic Renaissance is in the yellow and red jersey).
(Do not be fooled by the apparent steez, they are not breakdancing).
Lastly, I want to share a pretty disturbing/revealing update I heard from a colleague at lunch.
I won’t be going into identifiable specifics for a couple of reasons–one, it’s not my tale to tell and two, we should be more interested in the pattern and precedent than the lurid details.
Sat down to lunch with a colleague I deeply respect from one of the top three psychedelic research institutions on the planet. She pulled up a stool, but after a half-hearted attempt at pleasantries, looked utterly drawn.
“How are you actually doing?” another friend asked.
“Ah, well, not so great actually. I think I’m leaving University X.”
“Wait, what? Why???”
Long and tragic story a good bit shortened–
She’d recently taken over as lead researcher from one of the icons in the field, and since their entire department, and all of its internal habits had formed around that OG trailblazer, our colleague had sent out a departmental email clarifying the changes in management.
Except one particularly hyper-sensitive post-doc took it to be a thinly veiled letter about them and ran it up the HR flagpole claiming all the usual things about safe spaces, triggers and imagined slights.
Due process ensued, and HR concluded quite reasonably that our friend was only doing her managerial job.
No harm, no foul.
Except it didn’t end there. Additional contortions and gyrations of wokeness-run-amok devolved into a Maoist struggle session.
All within the halls of a department devoted to the mind-expanding potential of a special class of compounds.
It got to the point where this increasingly distracted and distraught researcher approached her iconic mentor to ask for help, support, or defense.
Anything really to stop the insanity and restore her reputation so she could get back in the lab.
The icon responded something to the effect of, “you know I believe, perhaps even more than you do, that psychedelics stand a real chance of saving the world. And while this may be an unfair trampling of your name, the bigger movement is too important to risk getting caught up in your current review process.”
In effect, channeling consigliere Robert Duvall in Godfather II when he visits old Frankie Five Angels in prison and reminds him of how disgraced Roman patricians could slit their wrists in the bathtub and so preserve their families’ fortunes.
(watch here if you don’t remember the classic scene Don't worry about anything Frankie five angels - Godfather 2
They were asking her to slit her wrists, to fall on the sword, to not make a fuss, because the bigger movement was too important to fail.
After decades of ground breaking research and service building a world-class department (long before studying psychedelics was a wise career move of any kind!) she was effectively cast out, east of Eden.
Even as we’re on track to be legalizing Adam (the original name for MDMA) to the world…
Which, combined with Rick Doblin’s tacit endorsement-via-uncritical-platforming of Angermayer and Compass Pathways, really makes you wonder if Too Big To Fail now, practically guarantees an even more spectacular failure later.
Just a little further downstream, with a whole lot more momentum and consequences.
Enron again, but with rainbows this time.
To be fair, and/or clear: the old guard Boomer pioneers of this movement must feel like they are so close to the Promised Land that anything that stands between them and realizing their mission needs to be reduced, sidestepped or eliminated.
They might not have much time left, and the “fierce urgency of now” is ringing in their ears to get it done in their lifetimes.
So getting tangled up in university politics that might trigger ugly, public cancel campaigns in the culture wars? Best to suppress, or let the unlucky few caught in the snares chew their own legs off to escape.
Or taking on compromised capital and shifting from non-profit status to public benefit corporations and “conventional” pharma company investment models?
“Well, we’re all realists,” they might argue, “and the potential good for all those suffering veterans (to say nothing of solving climate change and rescuing democracy) is so great that we need that corporate investment to scale.
So we can do so much more good.”
Now keep in mind, that icon I described earlier is a genuine, good hearted human being who means as well as they can. Their talk at the conference was standing room only as the throngs gathered to pay their respects.
And I believe that Rick’s a genuinely good guy who, despite the critiques from the sidelines, has done his best to herd all the psychedelic Cheshire Cats across the goal line in a way that few could’ve pulled off.
But fuck me.
If all of that psychedelic insight and compassion accrued over decades hasn’t stiffened that department head’s spine enough to be willing to stand up for a colleague they’d mentored for years,
or for the broader movement to stiff arm a twat like Angermayer and his dystopian vision for a trippy transhumanist tech-bro future…
Then what good are all those mind expanding drugs in the first place?
The nearer our destination, it seems, the more we’re (trip) sliding away…
Taken to its inevitable and logical conclusion, that “Too Big To Fail” rationalization ends up in Psychedelic Fascism.
After all, if the Ends, are literally saving the world, then the means, any means, turn out to be justifiable.
Collateral damage in an infinitely defensible project of ushering in Heaven on Earth.
And the more that we experience Hell on Earth, whether in boiling oceans, cooking heat domes, violent conflicts or desperate refugees, the more tempting whispers of Heaven are gonna sound.
And the less patient with anyone, and the less accountable to ourselves, we’re all gonna get.
We can see it in the AI arms race where even the legitimately concerned “White Hats” are still building their LLMs as fast as possible under the creaky argument that “the only way to stop a bad guy with an AI chat bot is with a good guy and an AI chat bot.”
Which seems perilously close to the gain of function argument that undid us in Wuhan. We’ve got to tolerate (and even cultivate!) a little evil to deliver us from it in the end.
Or consider Effective Altruists who can justify turning their back on suffering humanity to invest in space colonies because of all the future trillions of lives they’re going to save.
One death’s a tragedy, a billion’s a statistic. Who needs Stalin to explain these things to us, when we’ve got our very own Sam Bankman Fried?
Same goes with geo-engineering efforts like cloud seeding. “Sure,” the billionaires and scientists getting into this stuff might argue, “it’s risky AF! But…if we don’t do it, the risks could be even worse. There’s just too much at stake to not try.”
But the key difference between those three tech-utopian examples I’ve just mentioned and psychedelic renaissance, is that…
Actually, scratch that. Was gonna say, “the key difference is that none of the others claim an expanded awareness as part of their validation quite like the psychedelic movement.”
But then I realized, they all do!
AI researchers genuflect at the altar of Supreme Silicon Intelligence that can (hopefully) help us mend our ways and deliver us from Evil.
Effective Altruists believe their own MENSA applications and trust that galaxy brains will deliver us to universal peace. It’s all just math that muggles would never understand anyways.
And geo-engineers hold that a planetary perspective can justify global tinkering. It’s all just an engineering problem to be solved.
And that’s actually even more frightening.
Violent means have violent ends.
Shakespeare (via Westworld) taught us that much.
Seems we could all do with a bit more humility and a lot less utility in our thinking.
Clayton Christensen must be rolling over in his ice skates.
Thanks for reading Homegrown Humans Newsletter! Share If You Dig It