chapter  11
Drunken antics: The gin craze, binge drinking and the political economy of moral regulation
ByChas Critcher
Pages 19

Moral panic analysis is back in fashion. In just the last few years, we have seen a magisterial review (Garland 2008), a theoretical incursion by new recruits (Rohloff and Wright 2010) and a case study of British press reaction to East European immigrants (Mawby and Gisby 2009). My own recent contribution (Critcher 2009) sought to explore the implications of contextualizing moral panics as extreme instances of more routinized practices of moral regulation, a concept developed by Canadian sociologists, notably Hunt (1999) and Hier (2002). In that article, I used a wide range of illustrative examples in a necessarily superficial way. In this chapter, I explore and extend some of the new ideas being suggested in current debates through an empirically based case study of alcohol regulation. The case of alcohol regulation was intentionally sought out. I was conscious that

my previous work (Critcher 2003) had failed to acknowledge that, as Hunt (1999) points out, the three most long-established targets of moral regulation have been sex, gambling and drink. A remedy for this deficiency was to examine what in Britain has been a sustained furore over the last seven or eight years concerning a problem characterized as ‘binge drinking’. This was an obvious test case for exploring the relationship between moral panic and moral regulation. The case study might confirm that moral regulation is a continuum, with moral panics at one end and ethical self-formation at the other, as I had earlier suggested. Additionally such a case study might reveal new insights about the wider processes involved. Our understanding of moralization processes is currently limited by the geographical

and historical restrictions of the moral panic literature. Debates about a whole range of contemporary phenomena, from the role of the mass media to technologies of governance under neo-liberalism, can benefit from comparison with previous historical periods only when these factors were different in kind or absent altogether. To

supplement the case study of twenty-first-century binge drinking, I wanted another case study from the past when alcohol consumption emerged as a social problem and an attempt was made to mount a moral panic about it. This was easy to find in the ‘gin craze’ of early eighteenth-century England. The three hundred years separating the two episodes became an advantage, since neither was affected by the temperance campaigns of the nineteenth century. When I first set out to research the welldocumented literature, I had no idea to what extent or in what ways the two might be compared. Nor could I anticipate how they might contribute to elaborating the relationship between moral panics and moral regulation. This chapter reports the outcome of this process. It opens with two similarly

structured narrative accounts of the gin craze and then of binge drinking. Next, I follow three slightly different ways of comparing the two: a naïve reading of their similarities and differences, an assessment of their status as moral panics and an analysis of their significance to the process of moral regulation. The conclusion develops a series of observations about the political economy of the moral regulation of pleasure under liberal modes of governance.