Gender is an important topic in contemporary gambling studies, not only given the underestimation of female gambling. Excess and utility, on the contrary, are not, or to be more precise, have been subsumed and then concealed by psychiatric and economic language, the former (excess) being referred to as a problem, compulsive, or pathological gambling, and the latter (utility) reduced to the behavior of the economic gambler, a person who plays with the rational intent of making a profit.
Excess is, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘an amount that is more than acceptable, expected, or reasonable.’ An extent or amount which is immoderate and extreme, which goes beyond what is socially prescribed and results in what is proscribed or explicitly forbidden by shared values of a certain society, if not by formal norms. When used as a noun, it is synonymous with extra. Excess cannot be referred to without implying a connection to the extreme.
A better understanding of the notion of excess requires a brief consideration of what is usually understood to be its opposite, namely utility. After being recast in Darwinian evolutionism as the idea of survival utilities and in Marx’s emphasis on useful labor as the mainspring of the human condition, the principle of utility remains of crucial importance in contemporary thought. Utilitarianism is a theory which considers the best action to be the one that is best able to maximize utility.
It is based on Bentham’s notion of utility as ‘that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness’. According to research, even while criticizing utilitarian theory, did not break with the idea of slavery to utility and rationality as forces driving human action.
The principle of utility has not been radically challenged in contemporary mainstream sociology either, creating a juxtaposition between utility and excess where the latter notion is seen as a negative phenomenon to be contained. No example is more appropriate than the German sociologist Beck’s analysis of excess in terms of calculation of risk and security. In coining the term ‘risk society’ he referred to dangers created by globalization such as radioactivity, pollution, and unemployment, issues capable of generating concern in people from all classes, and, consequently, strategies to insulate oneself from these risks.
The contemporary age offers a variety of examples of the rise of excess. These are not confined to cases of extremism inspired by religion or ideology but instead are embodied in the everyday behavior of people. They include political populism which leads to the election of excessive leaders such as Donald Trump or an excessive and ultra-conservative reaction to socio-political problems (voting for Brexit or supporting xenophobic and anti-European parties).
The excessive power of Internet oligopolies such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google should also be mentioned, with their collection and ownership of an excess of data, a more apt term instead of the polite scientific language which calls the enormous amounts involved Big Data.
Today’s art market and the art auction world, providing an arena in which huge sums of money can be blatantly consumed, offer another apt illustration of hyperbolic exaggeration.
‘At times it has appeared,’ researcher notes, ‘that excess, rather than utility, has become the dynamic of contemporary social transformation, that the endless pursuit of utility has driven society into excess’. If we limit our argument to the examples listed above, it is no surprise that the supporters of Trump, Brexit, and Marine Le Pen view the output of their favorite as rational definitions of economic and social issues.
Due to the lack of concern shown by users when they provide information about themselves while pursuing personal utilities, including the construction and maintenance of social networks of friends and creating an appealing online persona to promote their own activities and skills, Facebook is allowed to act as ‘the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind’. This is why ‘utility and excess must not be conceived as binary oppositions, as mutually exclusive’.
Gambling is an apt terrain for an investigation of the controversial relationship between utility and excess. On the one hand, gambling is a phenomenon characterized by many nuances ranging from excess in problem and pathological gambling to recreational activity, a socially acceptable behavior.
On the other hand, it highlights a moral definition of excess whereby gamblers who have ‘lost control’ are labeled as pathological, yet the term used by the state when increasing the possibility to gamble, through more games, more gaming sites, and an increased frequency of extractions, is legalization.
Gambling, then, reveals that excess is declared or not depending on the agent who exceeds. I term this the social hierarchy of excess gambling. Losing is a noble action when performed by wealthy classes as a form of ostentatious expenditure through games of skill that assume that players are skilled, while it is ignoble when associated with lower socio-economic groups addicted to ‘games of chance.’
According to the researcher’s vision of excess, the modern calculation of utility is not able to provide a full sense of existing as a human being. The market economy acts as the ideological framework legitimating utility as a principle of social action; manifestations of excess are discouraged, if not explicitly limited.
The researcher’s attention focuses in particular on unproductive and profitless expenditure. In his influential essay, The Notion of Expenditure, the French intellectual sees utility as theorized by classical approaches to be something to be aimed at because it provides pleasure, ‘but only in a moderate form since violent pleasure is seen as pathological’. If this material pleasure is reduced to acquisition and conservation of goods, its role is that of a concession instead of a diversion. It is tolerated when productive, or at least when it does not conflict with productive and utilitarian needs.
is identified as the opposite of any rational consumption, and consequently denied and stigmatized. But, as ‘human activity is not entirely reducible to processes of production and conservation’, unproductive expenditure remains a part of the behavior of any social agent.
The researcher’s list of ‘useless’ activities includes ‘luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activity (i.e., deflected from genital finality)’. Unproductivity, in these examples, lies in the lack of ends and the enormity and irrationality of the loss. As to gambling, cited early by the author, ‘the loss of insane sums of money is set in motion in the form of wagers’, so that gamblers are led to losses disproportionate to their possessions.
What they betray is the utilitarian faith in the principle of balanced accounts. This faith claims to compensate for expenditure with an acquisition. Excess gamblers destroy and do not create any capital, winning is merely a result of either accidental or statistically unlikely action whose expected consequence is losing. The win is the apparent utilitarian goal of a process where the economic rationale is achieved only from the perspective of the cashier, in line with the refrain ‘the house always wins,’ and not from that of the bettor. Fighting a perpetual battle to balance previous losses, ‘players can never retire from the game’ and are ‘at the mercy of a need for limitless loss’.
There is no doubt that unproductive expenditure may be viewed as functional if, in a sociological framework, it is interpreted as an ostentatious form of leisure class consumption. This is the type of gambling accurately described by Dostoyevsky in The Gambler, where the money wasted by the aristocracy and wealthy classes is a means of displaying their fortune.
However, the rise of gambling in recent decades has mainly affected the middle and lower socio-economic groups, where the Veblenian-flavoured ostentatious loss is replaced by a different form of profitless expenditure. Such an excess represents, for these consumers of the entertainment industry, both a trap and a symbolic revolt. Many scholars and journalists denounce gambling as a trap because they claim that lower socio-economic groups are ‘deceived’ by a coalition between the State and commercial concessionaires.
This alliance has created a marketable to exploit the citizen’s desire for social and economic redemption through the chance of a better life paid for by a scratch card or a coin inserted into a gaming machine. Actually, the word ‘deception’ risks becoming misleading here as it implies that these groups neither recognize nor understand the mendacity that lies at the base of the gaming industry, and the promise of a state of well-being that cannot be attained. It would be more correct to state that it is an ideological trap where gamblers continue to lose money and to take pleasure in it precisely because they know exactly the system works. As the researcher points out, ‘knowledge has very limited power to unsettle ideology’ and its efficiency in material and everyday practices.
Gambling, in its extreme, compulsive, and pathological forms, is also a revolt, it enhances a rebellion because it represents a direct challenge to the value of money and to the rational principles of the homo oeconomicus.
Places of Excess
Excess gambling in the form of the researcher’s non-productive expenditure takes place behind closed or partially closed doors (gambling halls, hidden corners of public bars). This spatial separation may support the idea that excess has disappeared from public space – or at least that the designers of those spaces try to confine excess to a more private sphere.
The word ‘designer’ is used here, in the broad sense and includes those social agents who contribute to the establishment of both the structural features and the social meaning of the space.
This means not only the gaming industry professionals responsible for the architecture of the rooms, the creation of gambling environments where both light and sounds are studied to lock the gambler in a timeless bubble, the design of the machines and the elaboration of the game schemes able to create a compulsive relationship between the individual and the machine, but also legislators who design regulations inspired by the protection of public health (for example, the placement of video lotteries in an area inaccessible to minors and separate from the non-gambling public, or the use of opaque glass to obscure the ‘dangerous’ behavior from public view).
Within the public space of a bar or a store, a private zone is created for compulsive games like slot machines, while what is perceived as ‘recreational gambling’ may take place openly. The designers seem to be concerned that the privacy and habits of certain categories of gamblers are protected from scrutiny and that the public role of a person does not include the exhibition of addiction to machines. The boundary between the public and private realms, progressively removed over the last century, is artificially rebuilt by the gambling industry through the architecture of the space.
To have contact with gambling as a real phenomenon, we must first access gambling sites. With this in mind, I conducted a three-month ethnography in 23 Milanese locations where gambling took place to learn about the world of gamblers by observing their activities, and to assess to what extent space can enhance excessive behavior.
Despite the popular image of the bright nightlife in Las Vegas, the contemporary gambling industry generates its main profits not in casinos but through a ubiquitous and capillary urban network of shops and corners where gambling has become a daily activity rather than an occasional and adventurous escape. This example naturally excludes the new online gaming industry – a world that is not investigated in this essay, but that is a prominent part of contemporary gambling.
This landscape is a product of the progressive legalization of gambling in most European states over the last 30 years. Its evolution in Italy may be divided into three-phase. The first involved a drawn-out childhood period from 1946 with the launch of schedina, a popular prognostic game based on football matches, followed in the mid-80s by a restricted gambling industry and a clear distinction between gambling venues such as casinos and racecourses, and places of daily contact, bars, and tobacconists for example, with little or no presence of games.
The second phase may be termed the unruly adolescence. This period of maturation was characterized by legalization and the progressive introduction of new games, including slot machines, video lotteries, and online products, until the beginning of the 2010s. The Italian normative model which emerged from this process is characterized by a strong presence of the State as a regulator, even if gambling is actually managed by private concessionaries within a competitive and government-licensed market. This is in effect a perfect example of the neoliberal alliance between the State and private companies, where the search for a mutual benefit has shaped legislation that other European countries are imitating.
This is the premise of the third and more adult phase, whose maturity is visible both in the economic structure of gambling (a flourishing industry supported by a State interested in maximizing fiscal revenues) and in the growing awareness of its social costs. The available data on incidence reveals that more than half (54%) of the general population aged 15-74 gamble at least once a year, while problem gamblers in Italy are estimated at between 1.3% and 3.8% of the population (767,000 to 2,296,000 adults), and pathological gamblers vary from 0.5% to 2.2% (302,000 to 1,329000 persons).
Anti-gambling organizations and local administrations are pressuring for a public debate on (and against) gambling, and the first restrictive law was presented by the Health Ministry in 2012, accompanied by regional laws approved by 16 out of 21 Italian local authorities (19 regions and two autonomous provinces) and aimed at combating the proliferation of gambling sites.
Gambling has become an everyday presence in Italy, especially after the legalization policies promoted by both center-left and center-right governments in the 1990s and in the 2000s, thanks to (or because of) two types of venues. Bars and tobacconists (BTs) are of the first type. Accessible to any member of the public, they are the most visible proof that gambling has become a ubiquitous phenomenon within consumer culture. The second are specialized outlets (SOs), such as Bingo halls, slot rooms, and betting rooms, and are locations devoted exclusively to gambling and forbidden to minors.
SOs do not contradict the trend towards the ubiquity and normalization of gambling as mainstream entertainment, since they are widely spread throughout both urban and rural areas. Far from being radically isolated from everyday reality, as casinos or racecourse are, they paradoxically make an escape from routine part of the daily experience. BTs licensed for the sale of games represent a hybrid environment in which the supply of food, beverages, and tobacco is found side-by-side with a range of lotteries, scratch cards, and bets.
Upon entering a BT, I often noted that the visual elements related to gambling (ads, walls full of scratch cards, corners with slot machines, etc.) were more prominently displayed than other goods and services sold by the shop. ‘It is only later that one understands that the site is also a tobacco store’, I wrote in one of my field notes.
It is true that SOs are recognizable from outside as sites for gambling, but at the same time, it is not possible externally to know the details of what is happening inside. Dark glass facades and solid walls prevent citizens from seeing gamblers and their activities.
This ‘protection’ means that passers-by are spared the sight of the actual gambling practices. However, such concealment creates an ideal environment for the excessive behavior of whoever is inside the premises.
The differences between BFs and SOs may also be highlighted in the following five juxtapositions:
BT disorder vs. SO maniacal order and cleanness
The former has an atmosphere of familiarity due to the coexistence of games, cafeteria, and tobacco products, together with a sensory hyper-stimulation through screens and loudspeakers tuned to a radio or sound source. In the latter, the space is extensive and has been organized in order to avoid overlapping or confusion between rooms dedicated to gambling and the refreshments areas.
The small spaces of a BT (with overlapping areas) vs. the expansive spaces of a SO
The spatial organization in BTs requires consumers to interpret where the different closely placed services (gambling, food, tobacco) are, while SOs offers the freedom to circulate, inviting people to follow the shorter route to reach a specific product or service.
<h5>BT naturalness vs. SO artificiality. The chaos in bars appears synonymous with a natural and spontaneous environment. The artificial lighting, cautious design, and consistency with the brand image of the particular gambling concessionaire make an SO a space-separated completely from the flow of everyday life.
BT noise vs. SO silence
An analysis of auditory stimuli underlines the contrast between the raised voices and normal, day-to-day confusion of BTs and the aseptic extra-ordinary dimension of SOs. Here, sounds such as coins won in the slot machines sometimes interrupt the silence, but the background noises of city life are far away.
BT mobility vs. SO stability:
BTs are dynamic sites with consumers entering and leaving non-stop, while gamblers in an SO stay longer, move less, and remain focused on one activity at a time. This description is a necessary premise in order to clarify the spatial landscapes offered to gamblers and to make some assumptions on how the spaces of gambling may favor excess and profitless expenditure.
This seems to be possible in at least three ways. Firstly, BTs as highly diffused stores make gambling ubiquitous. They allow an everyday excess made of seemingly limited bets, whereby the regular monthly sum may be a considerable amount. For example, I observed during my research that it was common for many retirees to spend more than €30 on scratch cards every morning.
Secondly, SOs are constructed behind walls where playing is possible without the activity being visible from the outside. Social stigma is reduced and the passing of time is not perceived in these artificial places. They become ideal places for cultivating excess and are even more captivating when devoted to highly compulsive games such as slot machines and video lotteries. The third aspect is a transverse dimension to both categories. The adolescence of gambling noted above was characterized, among other features, by the diffusion of games with a higher payout frequency.
Lotto extractions take place three times a week instead of weekly, 10eLotto extractions occur every five minutes, and scratch cards and slot machines can be played at any time for an instantaneous win. In short, the games introduced or modified in the last 30 years have produced a shorter interval between purchase and win/loss, and subsequently between the first purchase and the next.
Dependency, in the form of a compulsion to gamble, is facilitated both by the availability of everyday opportunities to gamble and by the contexts capable of creating a kind of space-time bubble, a player’s isolation from the flow of daily life. This is particularly evident in the case of slot machines which are in an isolated location in the marginal areas of BTs and along the walls in SOs combined with structural features offering visual stimulation and the sound of coins falling during wins, capable of creating a completely immersive experience.
During my visit to a video lottery terminal site, a 65-year-old man sitting in front of a machine and holding a glass full of coins said ‘Call me at 11 o’clock, as I should go home to have lunch.’ His request to the shop owner demonstrated an awareness of his incapacity to maintain control, and the possibility of losing temporal cognition.
Biographies of Excess
If we assume that the observation of gambling sites is able to provide elements to understand how space can act as a facilitator of excess, then in-depth interviews with pathological gamblers may better illuminate players’ reasons and practices. Adrenaline is the most oft-cited word used to describe the relationship between a gambler and games, and it is linked to both well-being, excitement, and obsession.
If I don’t play I don’t feel well [laughs], it makes me feel good […] The competition, the adrenaline rush when I see the results in front of me.
As far as I am concerned, that is the reason to bet.
I liked playing because it was a challenge.
This adrenaline rush is surprisingly not linked to a state of full enjoyment. The emotions observed in gambling sites, both positive and negative, are always moderate and controlled. ‘When you win you feel satisfied, but not euphoric’, and when one loses there is a disappointment, not despair.
I have no happy memories of those afternoons in the bar because I always left upset because whether you win or always lose, you are never happy.
When I lost I felt a little bored, I wanted to change my life. I was so nervous and melancholic when I went home.
In any interviewee’s account, there is a moment where a behavior which appeared under control was subject to a progressive increase in frequency and number of bets, leading to a lack of control and separation from reality.
I remember when I started, I was at the Cascina Gobba [tube station], where the machines are. I had stopped for a coffee […] I paid €5 and they gave me €4 change. There was someone playing the machines and I heard ti-ti-ti-ti-ti and all these coins fell out. I said to myself “Why not? What the Hell do I care, it’s only €4.” I put the money in, and a Bonus came up. I didn’t even know what it was. It gave me €200! I said “This is better than working”, if this happens every day […] I went to the bar and cashed the €200 Bonus.
I put it into my pocket, went home, and felt satisfied with myself. The next day I left home and went again because I take the metro there every day. I saw the machine and changed €50 […] when I had finished I had won €200 plus what I had
in my pocket, another €150. At that point, I said to myself “Tomorrow I am coming earlier. I will give up work and come here.” That is how I started, coming every second day, and then I went somewhere else, and in the end, a huge hole had formed.
Similar stories mark the decline into excess gambling, an evolution that goes hand-in-hand with an alienation of the player who becomes totally immersed in a parallel universe.
I played the slots, I couldn’t even tolerate someone standing behind me.
I lived in another world and when I got home at night I was half-mad, I didn’t eat.
I lost all my friends, especially in the end when I went out only to play.
A player is alone […] When you enter the world of gambling nothing else exists, you don’t feel hungry, thirsty, you don’t go to the toilet, don’t drink, don’t smoke… At that point you no longer exist, you’re inside a shell. You play and that’s all.
The dimension of excess appears to function as a separate realm, at least at the beginning of the pathological phase. Evidence can be found in the interviewee’s accounts describing the clear separation between every day and professional life, and the time devoted to gambling.
I went to work as normal, [but as soon as] I left work I had my routine appointment.
I am a man people respect, I have 35 people who work for me and in 15 years I have never been accused of anything. But when I leave work I become another person.
A man who plays games of chance is a man with three personalities— his work persona, which is respected by his clients, [as well as] the man who gambles, […] and then there is the man who enters his home in the evening and has to account [to his family] for what he has done during the day.
However, in any story of excess gambling there comes a time when it is no longer possible to conceal the addiction, and the consequences for work and family begin to appear. The deterioration in family relationships ranges from the quality of everyday life (‘When you gamble online you become one with the PC, with your smartphone, the TV, and therefore you have no time for your children nor your wife, to separation from loved ones (the wife asks for a divorce, the children no longer speak to their father), not to mention lies and theft (‘I asked my mother for her ATM card to collect her pension and I stole the money,’ admitted a gambler.
Similarly, another gambler said ‘I was a signatory on my mother’s bank account, I took her money without telling her. Later I confessed because I was disgusted with myself.’) These gamblers suffered from feelings of complete failure and often regretted wasting their lives.
I threw away everything I have ever achieved as a man, as a carpenter, the faith everyone around me had in me. Perhaps I only imagine it, but I think that people now look at me very differently, I destroyed myself, I gambled away the chance to be a good father, which is what hurts most, I gambled away my chance to be a good husband.
The economic consequences are devastating. Every interviewed, without exception, reported debts of thousands of euro, mainly with banks and financial companies, together with an accumulation of other debts with private individuals (‘I get between 30 to 40 phone calls a day, from people who want money from me,’ Loss of business is another frequent issue in interviewees’ accounts.
We had a bar and we had to close because of the debts.
I am self-employed, I had a car transport business with my brother…
The problem began with the financial crisis in 2008, up until then gambling was just a pastime. [I told myself] I was playing to recover the money. […] It came to the point where my brother noticed that I was taking money that was not mine…it was the company’s money.
Excess gambling may also lead to health and psychological problems.
I was under so much stress that I had 2 heart attacks.
I also tried to kill myself, I was riding my motorbike and I closed my eyes.
For the purposes of this study, a gamblers’ relationship with money is of particular interest. Every interviewee remembered their fall into excess as strongly associated with a lack of control over money and its value. The inner logic of excess gambling lies exactly here— money is no longer perceived and used as money.
Gamblers are far beyond over-spending in an unproductive manner. The sums they spend/invest in gambling are undeniably disproportionate to their incomes. Moreover, a return to gambling after a significant loss does not serve the purpose of only recovering money, but rather that of rebalancing the account with the ‘fates’. The rational part of the gambler perfectly knows he has no statistical chance of winning against the bank, but his need for excess keeps his gambling.
[I understood I had gone too far] when I ran out of money! [laughs] Because when you are at it you don’t notice how much money you are spending, not even when it is €150 a day… Money has no value for you. There is no specific moment [when you understand you have lost control]. When you are immersed in it, it is as if you have been caught by an avalanche and you can’t fight your way out.
I remember one day that I had gone to finish up a job, and they paid me €1,000. On the way home I found a gambling hall, I won €900 with €30… I then went to the video lotteries and I lost everything… proof that I had lost all control. And then I had to pay a supplier and borrow the money to pay him.
I spent more than half of my salary.
I have had winnings of €3,000, 4,000 5,000, and in three days I had nothing left… if I had €100 in my pocket I wasted €100, if I had €1,000 in my pocket I would have wasted €1,000.
You never get the money back; you keep falling till you hit rock bottom. The biographies I collected illustrate a recurring process where economic problems, once discovered by family members, lead to a familiar crisis.
In parallel, the gambler is no longer able to hide his addiction from colleagues or employers, because the excess gambling begins to affect his performance in the workplace. Family and work complications make it obvious to the gambler that he has lost the control he thought he had over his gambling, and that a therapeutic pathway is needed to recover his social relationships.
What I have described in few lines is a process that develops over many years, a period during which the gambler becomes familiar with excess through the negation of the value of the money he has spent in an unproductive manner. This is an implicit negation of the utilitarian values which characterize a productive and capitalist society, one where profitless activities are regarded as dysfunctional for individuals and society as a whole.
Both excess and excessive gambling are cultural constructs where the definition is largely indebted to an epistemology of disease and disorder as used in psychiatry. In fact, the term ‘pathological gambler’ was introduced by the American Psychiatric Association in its 1980 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-III, followed by two successive editions, DSM-IV and DSM-V), and is connoted by the presence of a set of ‘symptoms’ and measured through diagnostic tools.
Excess is an activity which may also have a further significance for our purposes. In the researcher’s interpretation, the excess is the result of the proliferation of the ideology of utility, a kind of reaction to the sovereignty of functional obligations.
Ours is a society founded on proliferation, on growth which continues even though it cannot be measured against any clear goals. An excrescential society whose development is uncontrollable, occurring without regard for self-definition, where the accumulation of effects goes hand in hand with the disappearance of causes. The upshot is gross systemic congestion and malfunction caused by hypertelia – by an excess of functional imperatives, by a sort of saturation.
In biology, hypertely is an extreme overdevelopment of an organ which then becomes disadvantageous and damaging to the animal concerned, an exaggerated degree of growth not explainable by the utility. the researcher coined hypertelia to describe the excessive degree of consumption and production not based on utility and observed within contemporary societies, where our needs and the objects we purchase to meet them are no longer related through their usefulness.
The paradox of excess gambling is grounded in its two-fold nature of entertainment and of reaction to utilitarianism. Gambling expanded within liberalized markets and became a mainstream leisure activity for consumers. It is also a response or backlash to the hypertelic profit and utilitarian mentality. Whereas the utilitarian ideology prescribes useful and profitable activities, to invest money despite the evident statistical probability of loss is an act of resistance to the values of utilitarian and capitalistic society.
Gambling may therefore be seen as a perfect example of the ‘insubordinate function of free expenditure’, as well as a form of sovereignty of the Self over social constraints. This sovereignty, which ‘constitutes the region formally exempt from self-interested intrigues to which the oppressed subject refers as to an empty but pure satisfaction’, reveals the unwillingness to submit oneself to the household economy through a feeling of superiority, a moment where instead of serving life, life serves the individual.
Curiously, excess gambling particularly demonstrates its potential as a tool of sovereignty in the most recent advertisement campaigns promoted by Italian gambling concessionaries, where the used keywords are ‘safety’ and ‘responsibility’ – an attempt by the industry to distance itself from the negative image of gambling.
Consumers find it difficult to trust current marketing trends which present ‘a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol’ and gamblers do not believe in gambling without risk, nor the ‘decaffeinated’ representations offered by advertising.
On the contrary, they are eager to experience passion through excess and risk where individual forces are liberated in a state of excitation, rational laws of calculation are substituted by pseudo-rationality, unproductive values are created. Though it may seem a paradox, one true within the realm of intellectual argument and not linked with the reality of gambler behavior, gambling functions as a liberation from the constraints of a market economy, where individuals are dominated.
Pathological gamblers fail as citizens because they are not able to grasp the chances of personal growth offered by society, as husbands and parents because they cannot take care of their families, as consumers because they are unable to enjoy gambling as merely a form of pleasure and entertainment just as the commercial industry of gambling invites them to do. However, in extreme gambling, where the money is no longer money, a new sphere of action is created, excitation is freed and the illogical becomes logical.
The rational choice model underlying utilitarianism states that individual actions are the consequences of a motive. In line with this, excess gambling is irrational and, which is the same, immoral, both for an industrial society where it stands as an example of unproductive activity, and a post-industrial consumerist one where the dysfunctional gambler fails as a consumer. The difference lies in the attitude toward recreational gambling, which is tolerated in the latter but not in the former. Despite this, one might argue that excessive gambler is the ultimate consumer.
As the only thing a gambler does is consume, their behavior is in fact harmful to consumer society because they overspend rapidly to the point of bankruptcy, while the ideal consumer maintains an ability to spend over time.
A seductive image of a process to describe excess gambling is that of creative destruction, not in the economic sense of a process of industrial mutation that revolutionizes the economic structure from within, but as a desire to remove what came before in order to set up what will come next. Such a tension of opposing experiences, destructive and creative is typical of modernism and seems to act as the perversion of excessive gambling. An extreme behavior destroys wealth, through endless losses, to create the illusion of a world ruled by non-utility laws.
The interviewees illustrate this well when their debts have caused the failure of a family company or they have brought about their own destruction through non-stop slot machine gaming.
An approach oriented to viewing excessive gambling as an act of sovereignty also leads to a reconsideration of the notion of utility. Players appear to derive a form of pleasure while immersed in the act of gambling, despite the evidence of economic losses. This activity is deemed useless if the utility is measured in terms of the (catastrophic) consequences of the gambler’s behavior, but has usefulness if we take into consideration the utility of the whole process.
Gambling, in fact, may provide social rewards, such as prestige, in specific contexts where the excessive player measures themselves with other gamblers and, in the researcher’s dramaturgical terms, attempts to favorably impress others by demonstrating skill.
Masculine gambling, when excessive, creates an extreme loser, one who is devoted to an expenditure so profitless and useless that money has no longer meaning as such, it is merely a medium to experience excess. Gambling has been often read as a mechanism of social domination and a tool for mass distraction and a relief valve for subordinate classes. What if a further function of gambling is a form of resilient consumption in which socially oppressed or marginalized
individuals and groups may experience freedom, breaking the social constraints linked to utilitarian values by denying them through an extremely unproductive expenditure?
Following the researcher lexicon once again, such a function may be viewed in terms of a (momentary) recovery of sovereignty, where a compulsive, addictive, profitless, exaggerated (in short, excessive) session of gambling acts as a means to control the forces to which gamblers are submitted. Marginalized victims of neoliberal capitalism, economic failures unable to attain the material success they desire, they regain sovereignty through the destruction of economic capital.
If money is, from a Marxist standpoint, the ultimate foundation of any social relationship and the goal of any productive activity, its destruction serves the double purpose of dismantling one’s network ties and of denying capitalistic values, as clearly testified by the interviewees’ biographies collected in this essay. Here lies the contradictory nature of gambling – the compulsive loss of control as defined under the psychiatric approach becomes, in the topsy-turvy world of gamblers, a way to take control by challenging the rules to which they feel subjugated in the utilitarian realm.
When conceptualizing gambling as submission, guilt, and anxiety, the interviewees are expressing a retreat from an exceptional state of sovereignty and, through medical and psychological care, they are regaining a condition of ‘normality’ where their past behavior can only appear inappropriate. Rebellion and sovereignty are now in the past.