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The Life and Work of Antonio Escohotado, A Legacy of Freedom

“When people discover the source of joy it is to investigate and learn a thing not known, they will realize that even orgasm will be a joke compared to the permanence, solidity and security that gives for a human being the ability to know.”

[Leer en español]

Freedom has lost a champion. On Sunday morning, professor and philosopher Antonio Escohotado died surrounded by his family. Escohotado — author of polemic works such as Historia General de las Drogas or Los Enemigos del Comercio — became not only a reference of Hispanic liberalism but also for Spanish academia.

Escohotado’s life is as impressive as his work. The son of intellectuals who edited a fascist newspaper during Francoist Spain. Antonio was later sent to the embassy in Brazil, where he spent the first years of his childhood.

His life in Brazil contrasted with his return to Franco’s Spain, which he found bland, gray and enslaving. This nonconformism made him flirt with the left in his adolescence; years later Escohotado described himself as “redder than a bullfighter’s muleta.”

During his early adult years, Escohotado served as a civil servant at the Instituto de Crédito Oficial, and at the same time began teaching philosophy. In 1968, he published his first work Marcuse: Utopia and Reason.

In the late 60s, Escohotado made arrangements to join the Viet Cong, however, his revolutionary dreams would be interrupted by a chronic hepatitis illness that dissuaded him from continuing his risky adventure.

During this period, he got close to drugs together with a group of young people — Carlos Moya Valgañón, Fernando Savater, Mariano Antolín and Leopoldo María Panero — with whom he began to experiment with LSD.

In the early 1970s, Escohotado published Alucinógenos y el mundo habitual (Hallucinogens and the usual world) with the help of the founder of Alianza Editorial, José Ortega Spottorno. After his first incursion into drug research, in 1972, he published his doctoral thesis La filosofía moral del Joven Hegel (The Moral Philosophy of the Young Hegel).

Antonio Escohotado’s years in Ibiza

From here on, Escohotado decided to retire without luxuries and was sustained by the income obtained from translations. He then decided to move to Ibiza, where he would begin one of the most decisive stages of his life.

This is how the young Antonio lived, in a humble way and extremely collectivist community, where he was able to experiment with all the hallucinogens he wanted and attend the occasional orgiastic party.

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Antonio Escohotado, on the right, during his instance in Ibiza. (La Emboscadura)

The time in Ibiza was extremely productive for Escohotado. He translated numerous works into Spanish such as Hobbes’ Leviathan and Newton’s Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica, and published his first text on metaphysics — with the help of LSD, he says.

Together with his mother, he renovated an old farmhouse to turn it into a music center, which would later become the legendary Amnesia disco. Unfortunately, Escohotado would never get to enjoy the fruits of the dance club, as he sold his share in the 80s, “I’m an idiot”, he would confess years later in an interview.

His fondness for drugs led him to numerous fights with the police, and even with the mafia that began to emerge in the 70s in Ibiza. In 1983, he would be arrested by the police, in an episode that he would call an “evil imbroglio.” He was sentenced to prison for facilitating a cocaine transaction.

Escohotado always claimed to have been the victim of a trap, and that one of the subjects involved in the “transaction” was an undercover police officer, and the other a person he had met a few days earlier.

Escohotado and drugs

Accused of being the leader of a “hippie mafia”, Antonio was locked up with a Marseille mafia boss, accused by Interpol of drug trafficking and at least three murders. Pressures to extract information from the authorities and his profiling by the mafia led him to leave Ibiza for good, but only after his three months of pre-trial detention elapsed.

Five years after his arrest came the trial of Antonio Escohotado: he was sentenced to two years in prison. He had no choice but to dedicate himself to work on what would be his first magnum opus, the General History of Drugs, a book that would be published in three volumes and later re-edited in a unique version of 1,600 pages.

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Antonio Escohotado in prison. (Cáñamo Magazine)

Escohotado’s work reviews man’s relationship with drugs, which are understood as “certain substances [that] allow man to give the ordinary sensations of life and his way of wanting and thinking an unusual form.”

In his journey through the history of mankind, Escohotado reminds us that the relationship of human beings with drugs goes from the ancient pagan rituals of antiquity to a state monopoly such as the Royal Dutch and East India Companies.

It confronts us with the fact that figures such as Wagner, Goya, Bismark or Goethe took or injected morphine and consumed laudanum during their work sessions. The war against drugs for Escohotado is nothing but an experiment to try to end an ancient relationship between mankind and a series of substances that allow him to alter his perception of reality.

Escohotado, in his work, also made a detailed study on the posology of multiple drugs (from marijuana to heroin and LSD), using his personal experience as part of the research.

His critical stance on prohibition cost him several insults, both on Spanish and international public television. Escohotado was extremely vocal against the war on drugs at a time when it was almost heretical to criticize prohibition rather than controversial.

This was the time when Nancy Reagan came out sympathizing with addicts, celebrities appeared in ads paid for by the U.S. government repeating the cliché “Winners Don’t Use Drugs”; while in Europe the Cosa Nostra was bleeding Italy dry, and in Mexico and Colombia the infamous drug cartels were beginning to take shape. Undoubtedly, the eighties were not a good time to advocate for the legalization of drugs.

Perhaps one of the most sincere responses to his many critics was his controversial 1988 article, a letter to the mother of a drug addict, which begins as follows: “My dear lady, I understand and sincerely share the feeling of helplessness that drives you to form protest groups and demonstrate in the streets asking for solutions to an issue that gets worse every day.”

In this letter, Escohotado does the unthinkable: he openly defends heroin. But not the heroin provided by the dealer on the corner or in the square, that, as he explains to the generic mother in his article: “most likely your son does not even know heroin, but a crude form of morphine.”

The most dangerous thing about the war on drugs, apart from its arbitrariness and cost in lives, was the spawn that came out of it. Escohotado explains that prohibition made suppliers engineer to maximize their profits, so the market was filled with cut heroin, cocaine became crack, and in general drugs became more dangerous for their users.

The 1990s and intellectual maturity

During the 1990s, Escohotado began to write the works that would lead him to his intellectual maturity. In Caos y orden, Escohotado studies social relations with scientific progress and how modern scientific discoveries are the rethinking of ideas from the past, such as Mandelbrot’s fractal geometry, which is a rethinking of traditional Euclidean geometry.

The work of Caos y orden is especially important, as it is the first in which Antonio Escohotado would come to study spontaneous order, and how society forms institutions and coordination systems without any central figure to supervise it.

Escohotado also writes sociological works such as El espíritu de la comedia, where he analyzes the power relations of the executive in modern democracies and which won him the Anagrama prize for best essay in 1992.

In these years, Escohotado is in the most active moment of his career, as he publishes a book every year, has an opinion column that is a success in the newspaper El País and organizes seminars on pharmacology attended by figures such as the psychologist Thomas Szas, the pharmacologist Albert Hoffman and the philosopher Ernst Jünger.

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From right: Jacobo Siruela, Antonio Escohotado, Albert Hofmann and Ernst Jünger. (La Emoscadura)

This period of intellectual maturity caused Escohotado to abandon his leftist ideas, and he began to openly defend the system of liberal democracy, which earned him several criticisms, the loss of several friends and the qualification of “neoliberal.”

At the beginning of the millennium, he decided to take a sabbatical year in the antipodes sponsored by the Catholic University of Bangkok, where he wrote a hybrid between a personal diary, Austrian economic theory and working notes entitled 60 weeks in the tropics.

The Enemies of Commerce

The experience in the tropics, together with his study of the causes and determinants of poverty, led Escohotado to produce his second great work, a history of communism, which he titled Los Enemigos del Comercio (The Enemies of Commerce).

This work is a moral defense of property and a study of how the communist spirit, the enemy of commerce and private property, has existed for millennia in the hearts of humans. With this work Escohotado disproves the precept that all private property is theft and commerce is its instrument.

The Enemies of Commerce is a work that is divided into three parts. The first investigates the origins of communism from its most primitive genesis in the Old Testament and in the suspicion of the profit motive shared by the Roman and Greek patrician classes. From these remote epochs, Escohotado analyzes the relationship between the human being and private property up to the French Revolution.

The 90s saw the intellectual resurgence of Antonio Escohotado. (Image: EFE)

The second volume analyzes the evolution of modern social relations and property, from the development of large corporations, the rise of labor unions, workers’ movements, the development of copyright and private property are studied by Escohotado, who covers a period that extends from the French Revolution to the revolutions in Russia and Germany.

Finally, the third volume analyzes the evolution of communism from its establishment in Soviet Russia to its dissolution. In the conclusion of Los Enemigos del Comercio, Escohotado not only analyzes the evolution of communism throughout the 20th century, but also the response of the West, and the contrast between the stagnation in the east of the iron curtain and the opulence of liberal democracies.

The dissemination of liberal values, and the denunciation of the evils of communism and its modern variants were Escohotado’s cause during his last years, a mission that earned him numerous accolades but also much criticism.

Legacy and last days of Antonio Escohotado

Few intellectuals have had an impact among such diverse groups in the Hispanic world. From liberals, anti-prohibitionists, to the occasional leftist have found reference in the works of Antonio Escohotado.

An addict to knowledge, Professor Escohotado dedicated up to 14 hours of work daily to his works. He never stopped studying or thinking about the world around him. During his last days, Professor Escohotado remained active, and 4 days before his death he published La Forja de la Gloria: Breve historia del Real Madrid contada por un filósofo apasionado al fútbol (The Forge of Glory: A brief history of Real Madrid told by a philosopher with a passion for soccer).

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From left to right: Antonio Escohotado, writer Mario Vargas Llosa, and journalist Jorge Bustos. (Image: EFE)

In 2020, ill, Escohotado decided to return to Ibiza, to say goodbye to the island that welcomed him in his youth. He was waiting for death, years before he would confess: “Sincerely I’m looking forward to dying, I love all my people, I have a lot of affection for everything, life has been very good to me.”

Like Socrates when he received the hemlock, Antonio Escohotado’s last wish was to die surrounded by his people. On November 21, 2021, Antonio Escohotado would take his last breath at 7:30 a.m. tucked in the company of his loved ones.

The wreath that adorned his coffin bore the word that accompanied him throughout his life and marked the spirit of his work, his addictions, his passion and his relationships: Libertad.

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