an interview with Milton Lewis


This article was first published in “New perspectives on ‘addiction’,” special issue of Dulwich Centre Newsletter, 1997, nos 2&3, pp. 35-37.

Milton Lewis is the author of A Rum State: Alcohol and State Policy in Australia 1788-1988 (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1992).

Contact Milton at:

Australian Research Council
Senior Research Fellow
Department of Public Health
The University of Sydney, NSW 2006

The question that has fascinated me all my life is how to explore and understand the politics of the personal, the meanings of our own lives, in relation to the broader histories of our culture. In trying to understand alcohol in our lives, for example, what difference does it make to know of the place of alcohol in Australia? Exploring social history has always been an important way of giving meaning to my life. In order to find ways of working with the problems of alcohol, I believe it is interesting to try to understand Australia’s social histories in relation to alcohol. Like most Australian men of my generation, I grew up with an understanding that alcohol and cigarettes were a ritual of manhood and subsequently went through my student days and into my early adulthood drinking heavily. It wasn’t until I began the research project that culminated in A Rum State that I became particularly interested in issues of alcohol in Australia or understood more about the origins of our drinking tradition

Anglo-Celtic baggage

It’s clear that heavy drinking was an established cultural norm transported to Australia along with other Anglo-Celtic cultural baggage. At the time of colonisation of Australia, it was the norm in Europe to drink heavily. It was the time of the gin epidemics which were devastating communities in Britain. Alcohol in Europe had long served as a food and source of nutrition as the diets of the time were very restricted and there wasn’t a lot else to choose from. In some 19th century cities alcohol was also seen as a real alternative to water, or to anything that was water-based, because of problems of pollution. All these different factors led to traditions of heavy drinking being brought to Australia on the first fleets. Once in Australia, these heavy drinking traditions contributed significantly to the destruction of Indigenous culture. At the same time heavy drinking became enshrined within various rituals of male solidarity. Two long- established drinking practices – ‘shouting’, in which each person in turn buys a round of drinks for the whole group; and ‘work and bust’, which was a prolonged drunken spree following a long period of hard work in the bush – both seem to have further promoted heavy drinking. Other factors were also at play. For a time spirits were used in barter and convicts were part-paid in rum. In this way rum became a currency of the colony – hence the term ‘a rum state’. It’s clear that heavy drinking has had a central place in Australian social life from the time of the first fleet.
Over the years there have been many different social meanings of alcohol. In Australia and elsewhere wine, brandy, beer and stout have been seen as good dietary supplements for invalids. Alcohol was once seen as a good healthy food. When I was young, nursing mothers were still being encouraged to drink stout because there was a popular belief that it would help with the production of breast milk. Historically alcohol has been used as a beverage, a food, a medicine and a psychoactive drug. It has been consumed as a sacrament, a toast, a fortifier, a sedative, a thirst-quencher, and a symbol of sophistication.

Changes over time

It’s clear that over time there have been various changes in the meanings of alcohol and its place in Australian culture. If you look at curves of consumption both here in Australia and in most other western countries you see that historically there have been traditions of very heavy drinking right across the classes. This seems to have changed somewhat. Although we still deplore the levels of alcohol consumption in our society, compared to earlier times these levels have significantly declined. I think this sort of information makes a difference to how we understand approaches to alcohol use. For example, knowing that in the bigger picture alcohol consumption levels are falling might enable us to explore what factors we think have enabled this decline. Another change has been in the pattern of drinking. Some forms of heavy binge-drinking survive to this day, but that was once the dominant pattern of drinking. In Australian culture there has been a change since the 1960s with the introduction of a wine culture and a move to integrate alcohol with food. To drink in moderation, with food, as part of a pleasurable activity that doesn’t necessarily have the purpose of getting drunk, is a new trend. It may seem pretty basic but this development does seem to have happened with some degree of significance over the last 150 years.
Still further changes can be seen in the different ways in which ‘alcoholism’ has been viewed over the years. To some extent ‘alcoholism’ was once seen primarily as a crime to be punished. With the advent of medical knowledges, an alternative view was proposed with ‘alcoholism’ to be viewed as an illness to be treated. The rise of medical knowledges can be explored clearly in the case of attitudes to alcohol. It was certainly not the only area in which there was a movement away from the use of the law and criminalisation towards the use of medical knowledges to try to control social phenomena. Medicine began to take on this role in various ways in relation to many social problems in the 19th and early 20th century. Alcohol is simply one example. I think in some ways there were positive aspects to this development because there was a determination to move away from punishing to trying to help. And although that help may have been patronising or problematic in itself, still to my mind in some ways it was an advance. There was hope of overcoming the revolving door of people getting caught up in prison. There was hope of change. I’m not sure, however, if any treatment models have lived up to this promise. Too often in practice the effects of the rise of medical knowledges have not been so  positive. Certainly for the poor who couldn’t afford private treatment and who were defined as drunk and disorderly – they found themselves in a system where they got both. They were taken into a prison-like environment where they were given ‘treatment’. This in many ways discredited the early treatment movement. The law would commit people under the Inebriate Legislation to treatment in very similar ways to the old ‘lunacy’ legislation. More recently, though, there has been a movement within treatment circles away from compulsion, although its remnants remain in many drug and alcohol programs. This movement away from compulsion has been, I believe, quite fantastic and has translated into educational and therapeutic approaches that value much more strongly the person’s autonomy. Ways of working are being developed that try to engage co-operatively and in partnership.

Understanding alcohol

A view of social history exposes the many and varied ways in which problems with alcohol have been understood within Australian culture. Medical/biological approaches see ‘alcoholism’ as a biological malfunction, as a physical problem. Within psychological perspectives it’s often seen as a ‘malfunctioning psyche’. From some sociological perspectives excesses of alcohol are seen as a problem of ‘deviance’. There has of course also been a religious view of alcohol that has stated that alcohol in and of itself is a bad thing – ‘the demon drink’ if you like. The Temperance Movement, based on these ideas, has pushed at different times for abolitionist laws and regulations. All of these perspectives have been pushed quite strongly at different times in Australia.
There are still other ways of understanding Australia’s alcoholic history, however, including perspectives of gender and culture. The effects that men’s alcohol use has had on women over Australia’s history, the links between alcohol use and masculinity, the histories of women taking action against excessive alcohol usage, the use of alcohol as a tool of colonisation, and Indigenous Australian resistance, all give very different pictures of our history. Whichever perspective you work from brings different possibilities.

At the time I was commissioned to put together A Rum State (in the early 1990s) it seemed to me that the vast majority of research and thinking about alcohol in Australia was being done at the level of the individual or the family, and that very little thought was being given to the broader culture. In other places this was not the case. There are traditions of thought in Finland, for example, perhaps also to a lesser extent in Canada and elsewhere, of endeavouring to understand the problems of alcohol at all levels in the society. There is a determination in Finland to use interventions to try to reduce total consumption of alcohol within the country as well as to work with individuals. The focus is on the use or uses of alcohol in the society rather than just on ‘abuses’. That’s certainly a little unusual. It was my hope that exploring the place of alcohol in Australia’s history would enable different ways of thinking. Recently the use of interventions to reduce total consumption has begun to occur here in Australia.

New conversations

It seems that one of the tasks of our lifetime is to try to find ways of talking respectfully across cultures, and it seems to me that these conversations will have to be conscious of the meanings of our respective cultural histories. The histories of alcohol in Australia in relation to Indigenous Australians have very different meanings again to those we have discussed. It seems to me that the work of Indigenous Australians is bringing to life perspectives on history that have been oppressed. It would be my hope that in exploring the social histories of alcohol, or other issues for that matter, we will open possibilities for constructive conversations across cultures. I’m not sure what sort of a difference it might make either to people trying to change their relationship with alcohol, or to people who are trying to assist this process, to know of the social histories of alcohol in Australia. My hope is that, through exploring the different ways in which alcohol has been understood over time in Australia, by looking at the social, cultural history of alcohol in this country, we might be offered a bigger picture, a broader context for conversations about alcohol. I’d like to think that, for some people who are trying to change their relationship with alcohol, a knowledge of the social histories might help to bring about a recognition that alcohol use isn’t about some sort of personal failing – that in all sorts of ways it’s a broader social issue with histories and a broader context. I can honestly say, however, that I really don’t know to what uses social histories can be put in relation to working on the problems in our own lives. I don’t know if learning more about the place of alcohol in the history of Australia affected my own drinking patterns. More than anything, the process for me threw up a lot of questions. Different individuals will make different usages of the same histories depending on what they bring from their personal backgrounds. I’d really like to learn more about what use social histories can be put to in relation to understanding our lives in different ways, and orientating ourselves differently to the problems in our lives.

Copyright © Dulwich Centre Publications 1997

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