Alcoholics Anonymous was established as a form of benign anarchy. Members have to want to help themselves—and one another.
While a great number of people see value in the mutual aid of Alcoholics Anonymous, many of them would be surprised to discover that the concept of mutual aid was popularized in the 20th century by the Russian anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) with his 1902 book Mutual Aid. And many AA participants might be shocked to discover that AA co-founder Bill W. esteemed the “gentle Russian prince” Kropotkin and saw value in nonviolent anarchism.
In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Bill W. pointed out how attractive the noncoercive nature and freedom of AA is for newcomers. “We cannot be compelled to do anything. In that sense this society is a benign anarchy. The word ‘anarchy’ has a bad meaning to most of us. . . . . But I think that the gentle Russian prince who so strongly advocated the idea felt that if men were granted absolute liberty and were compelled to obey no one in person, they would then voluntarily associate themselves in a common interest. Alcoholics Anonymous is an association of the benign sort the prince envisioned.”
Anarchist writer Logan Marie Glitterbomb points out that AA’s Twelve Traditions are replete with anarchist mutual-aid principles: stressing unity and solidarity; no governing leaders; and self-supporting and autonomous groups.
Anti-authoritarian [comedian] George Carlin embraced AA but added, “I can do without that Higher Power stuff.” Many anti-authoritarians agree, and Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age recounts AA founders’ consideration of not using the word “God” in AA’s “Twelve Traditions” and their “Twelve Steps.” They ultimately chose to use God but to make clear that the term was open to individual interpretation.
The beauty of a mutual-aid group is that while individuals may join for a specific goal—in AA, to stop drinking—the noncoercive nature of a mutual-aid group can be so satisfying that it becomes a vehicle to build community, including career contacts, friends, and lovers.
Mutual aid occurred in the slave abolitionist groups and among those involved with the Underground Railroad. Historian Henry Louis Gates reported that while the vast majority of runaway slaves were young males who absconded alone and then later received help, “The Underground Railroad and the abolition movement itself were perhaps the first instances in American history of a genuinely interracial coalition . . . predominantly run by free Northern African Americans . . . with the assistance of white abolitionists, many of whom were Quakers.” Scholars estimate the number of slaves who escaped range from 25,000 to 100,000. Beyond helping facilitate escape, the mutual aid of the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement also created fertile grounds for community.
Vital communities have also been created in mutual-aid workplaces, labor unions, and political activist groups. For U.S. anarchists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was certainly individual tragedy and political failure, however, historians Paul Avrich and Karen Avrich capture in Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman these anarchists’ rich community. In major U.S. cities, there existed a network of informal mutual assistance among anarchists to provide housing and other necessities.
Mutual-aid groups are a threat to authoritarians, and so authoritarians will attempt to co-opt them.
The mutual-aid groups with which I am most personally familiar with are those created by ex-psychiatric patients, for example, MindFreedom and the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community. These mutual-aid groups vary in funding, autonomy, decision-making, and the variety of mutual assistance offered. Members of these groups are routinely anti-authoritarians who have questioned and challenged the legitimacy of mainstream professional authorities and have resisted them, creating their own alternatives. Through these and other mutual-aid groups, former psychiatric patients—though often previously labeled by mental health professionals as socially unskilled— find friends and a close-knit community.
Mutual-aid groups are a threat to authoritarians, and so authoritarians will attempt to co-opt them, diverting them from their original role and adopting them for their own purposes. What makes AA attractive as a mutual-aid group is voluntary participation, but when court systems coerce people to attend meetings, the noncoercive culture is destroyed; and when hospitals use AA groups as part of a profit-making enterprise, this also subverts the essence of AA.
Similarly, the value of mutual aid among former psychiatric patients has been subverted by the co-opting of peer support. Such co-opting occurs when so-called “peer specialists”—ex-psychiatric patients hired in psychiatric hospitals or other institutions—are positioned at the bottom of the workplace hierarchy and used to persuade current patients to accept their treatments.
Authoritarians in power and their like-minded subordinates believe that hierarchy is the only way that human beings can be organized, and that without such hierarchy there is only chaos. And so, if authoritarians cannot eliminate mutual aid, they will attempt to co-opt it to maintain their own control. For this reason, anti-authoritarians should always be prepared for rejection by authoritarians of any true mutual aid. And if mutual-aid efforts prove successful, anti-authoritarians should always be watchful against authoritarian subversion or co-optation.
This excerpt from Resisting Illegitimate Authority: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Being an Anti-Authoritarian—Strategies, Tools, and Models by Bruce E. Levine is published with permission of the author and AK Press. This article originally appeared on YES! Magazine
Bruce E. Levine is a practicing clinical psychologist. He is the author of Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy, and several other books. According to the late Howard Zinn, “Bruce Levine condemns the cold, technological approach to mental health and, to our benefit, looks for deeper solutions.”