Anarchism for a Mainstream Audience

If anarchism is to get anywhere as a movement, it requires us to build the world we wish to see. To paraphrase the classic wobbly mantra, our goal is and should be to “build a new world within the shell of the old.” In order to do this we must actually create the structures which will meet the needs of our communities once the state and capitalism are out of the picture. This is the reasoning behind many anarchist projects. The Industrial Workers of the World acts as an alternative to statist business unions, Food Not Bombs acts as an alternative to soup kitchens and similar charities, groups like Common Ground and Occupy Sandy provide an alternative to government and corporate disaster services, free schools and unschooling are alternatives to state and corporate school regimes, and so on and so forth. Anarchists have started farms, collectively run businesses, community defense groups, domestic abuse shelters, libraries, alternative energy systems, and a myriad of other useful elements of the “new world.” One of the most famous of such institutions — and certainly one of the longest lasting — is surprisingly Alcoholics Anonymous.

Co-founded by Bill W., an avid reader of Kropotkin and other anarchist philosophers, AA was inspired by and built upon anarchist praxis. But praxis is the keyword as the group itself never so much as utters the word ‘anarchy’ in any of its writings nor did Bill W. or co-founder, Dr. Smith, when talking about the group. However, even a cursory glance at the Twelve Traditions with this knowledge in mind makes it very clear that it is at least in line with such principles. If it is not explicitly anarchist in intention, it is in practice:

  1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.

  2. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority – a loving God as He may express Himself in our Group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants – they do not govern.

  3. The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.

  4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.

  5. Each group has but one primary purpose – to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.

  6. An A.A. Group ought never endorse, finance or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.

  7. Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.

  8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centres may employ special workers.

  9. A.A., as such, ought never be organised; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.

  10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.

  11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.

  12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

As we can see ideas of solidarity, mutual aid, autonomy, non-hierarchical organizing, and apolitical, anti-authoritarian, and even anti-organizational tendencies are made essential to the very structure of the group. While some may have issues with the spiritual aspects of AA, it should be noted that God is defined in the vaguest possible sense and is open to individual interpretation and while Bill W. and Bob Smith sometimes used language most closely related to their life experiences such as referring to God as masculine they were careful to not promote any particular religious or spiritual vision. Much of the language has even been updated to be more gender neutral and the idea of God is even loosely interpreted enough as to include agnostics and atheists who are encouraged to see the support group itself and its mission as a “higher power” to turn to in times of weakness.

Tradition one stresses solidarity between members as they work towards common goals. Tradition two states that there is no authority amongst group members and that even those who facilitate or act in positions such as treasurer hold no governing power over the rest of the group. Instead decisions are made horizontally through consensus and direct democracy. Tradition three stresses radical inclusion. Four advocates complete autonomy of each individual group except when necessary. Five reiterates the group’s founding goal while six stresses the dangers of capitalism and affiliation with outside groups lest the original mission be tainted or its traditions be bastardized. Tradition seven urges for self-sufficiency while eight and nine dive into the anti-professional and anti-organizational tendencies within anarchism. The tenth stresses an apolitical approach to the group, as being an anarchist is not necessary to participate in the group and other such politics can be both distracting and divisive thus taking away from their central mission. It is simply set up along anarchist praxis as an example of how we can come together in solidarity to solve our own problems. The last two explain why anonymity is so important to the group as a whole and for individual members.

While clearly influenced by anarchist ideals and keeping within anarchist praxis, it is precisely because it was never an explicitly anarchist organization that it has achieved the level of societal acceptance that it has. It’s the Food Not Bombs of addiction support groups without all the political baggage and, like FNB, it also has inspired a number of other splinter groups, most famously Narcotics Anonymous. AA has even achieved such a level of public acceptance that it has actually successfully rerouted many would-be victims of the prison system into their group by working with the court system. Because of their involvement, many who would otherwise be sent to prison, an authoritarian rehab clinic, or a more hierarchical support group are instead ordered to attend Alcoholics Anonymous where they are given the tools to better themselves without need for external human authority. Yet despite its work with the court system, AA can operate completely separately and in most any political context, including anarchy. It is indeed a support group made with the ‘new world” in mind at least to some extent.

So what can we learn from all of this? Well a lot actually. As one of the longest running and most successful anarchistic structures in our society, AA can serve as a blueprint for other such “new world” structures. First and foremost these structures should serve a purpose and follow through on that purpose, a purpose that is useful now and in the “new world.” Autonomy should be at the heart of it all. But most importantly of all, anarchist praxis does not require an explicit promotion of anarchism itself and could in fact impede it instead, scaring off people who would otherwise be interested. This doesn’t mean that you must hide your anarchism, just that it does not need to be central to the structure’s mission for the structure to serve its purpose. Set it up along anarchist praxis but keep the mission about providing the good or service it formed to provide, letting the principles behind the group shine through by example. After all, Karl Hess didn’t run around forcing the ideas of anarchism down everyone’s throats while working on his experiments with neighborhood power, appropriate technology, and self-sufficiency. He followed through with his experiments and let them speak for themselves, benefiting everyone involved regardless of personal political beliefs while laying the foundation for the new world and cracking the shell of the old just a little bit.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory