I’ve been seeing reviews of The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations around lately, because the Tea Party is using this book, and specifically, the Starfish model, as its organizing principle. The quote that keeps popping up is this:
The title is based on the contrasting biology of spiders, which die when their heads are chopped off, and starfish, which can multiply when any given part is severed — a trait the book’s authors posit is shared by decentralized entities ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous to Al Qaeda to Wikipedia. — Politico
It’s always fascinated me how easy it is to find analogies in nature, for just about any phenomenon. The rhizome and the taproot work well here, too. And I’ve always likened Alcoholics Anonymous to a multi-level marketing outfit, which seem to me to spread like rhizomes. Also, I can definitely see Brendan Koerner’s analogy to an open source program, though it might be more accurate to compare it to a computer virus. I don’t think he could have actually said that, though. AA has it built into its structure to develop both symbiotic and parasitic relationships with outside entities, insinuating itself into every facet of public life in such a way as to maintain its integrity (and by “integrity,” I’m talking mechanics, not character). See, for instance, Bill Wilson’s own vision. Here, he is discussing the reason why AA needs to be receptive to outside agencies, and it is mostly because “most of the work and the money will have to come from elsewhere.”
More than anything, the answer to the problem of alcoholism seems to be in education – education in schoolrooms, in medical colleges, among clergymen and employers, in families, and in the public at large. From cradle to grave, the drunk and the potential alcoholic will have to be completely surrounded by a true and deep understanding and by a continuous barrage of information: the facts about his illness, its symptoms, its grim seriousness.
Now who is going to do all this education? Obviously, it is both a community job and a job for specialists. Individually, we A.A.’s can help, but A.A. as such cannot, and should not, get directly into this field. Therefore, we must rely on other agencies, on outside friends and their willingness to supply great amounts of money and effort – money and effort which will steer the alcoholic toward treatment as never before. – Bill W. “Let’s Be Friendly with Our Friends: Friends on the Alcoholism Front”
This is a brilliant model if you are interested mainly in self-preservation and self-perpetuation. But it’s not a good model for more complex entities, with brains, who participate in evolution, in the light of day. It’s a good model for systems that want to spread underground, but not so much for, say, an oak tree.
The recent reviews of this book are timely for us here, because we’ve been wrestling a bit with a paradox, which is that Alcoholics Anonymous is not a monolithic entity, by careful design, but is also, obviously, the foundation of a multi-billion dollar addictions treatment industry. The subject comes up often enough, and AA members are always quick to remind us that AA doesn’t make any money, and isn’t responsible for what the addictions treatment industry does – or what the courts do, or what addictions counselors do, even what AA members do and what they ignore. Furthermore, if there are AA members who straddle the fence (two-hatters, see MA’s post on the Knickerbocker Paradox) between AA and other entities, they cannot act in their capacity as AA members. Even within the structure of an AA group, an AA member has no official agency, and cannot speak for AA. Saying, “I don’t speak for AA,” seems to be a point of pride for people who know that’s exactly what they’re doing.
The buck never stops. There is no brain. But, this lack of accountability is just a technicality – it’s the design – and it’s just stunning that a movement, whose core principle is “rigorous honesty” would embrace such technicalities, allowing it to carry on without the weight of conscience. It allows for flippant dismissals, such as the single despicably flippant response to this post on the Friends of Bill forum: Is AA My Safe Space?
At the risk of careening off into the absurd on greased wheels, I’m going to indulge another analogy:
Together, the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions are kind of a perpetual motion machine. It’s easy to dismiss Bill Wilson as all kinds of defective character – philandering, doped-up, megalomaniac, whatever… but the man was visionary when he constructed this machine.
Alcoholics Anonymous operates by mining and refining a motherlode of raw material (alcoholics) that fuels its mining and refining operation. The 12 Traditions function to maintain the integrity of the system, while insinuating itself and placing cogs in every facet of public life where this raw material can be mined. The 12 Traditions allow AA to develop symbiotic relationships with other entities who have found a cash cow in AA (addictions treatment, see Engish Rose’s post, for example). And, they allow AA to foster parasitic relationships with outside entities, who are looking to recycle this raw material (courts). Regardless of the nature of the relationship, the perpetual motion machine of Alcoholics Anonymous will not be compromised by the entities it attaches itself to – no friction! And, as Wilson says in the above quote, the entities with which it co-operates will be the ones to make the commitments and take the responsibility. By implication, these entities will also take the fall if anything goes wrong, leaving AA unscathed. And most importantly, they’re the one’s with the money. AA will remain intact, uncommitted, and unaccountable.
For spiritual reasons, of course.
Looking at the Traditions as a business model, I believe, brings them into sharper focus:
Tradition 6.) Problems of money, property, and authority may easily divert us from our primary spiritual aim. We think, therefore, that any considerable property of genuine use to A.A. should be separately incorporated and managed, thus dividing the material from the spiritual. An A.A. group, as such, should never go into business. Secondary aids to A.A., such as clubs or hospitals which require much property or administration, ought to be incorporated and so set apart that, if necessary, they can be freely discarded by the groups. Hence such facilities ought not to use the A.A. name. Their management should be the sole responsibility of those people who financially support them. For clubs, A.A. managers are usually preferred. But hospitals, as well as other places of recuperation, ought to be well outside A.A.- and medically supervised. While an A.A. group may cooperate with anyone, such cooperation ought never go so far as affiliation or endorsement, actual or implied. An A.A. group can bind itself to no one.
Tradition 7.) The A.A. groups themselves ought to be fully supported by the voluntary contributions of their own members. We think that each group should soon achieve this ideal; that any public solicitation of funds using the name of Alcoholics Anonymous is highly dangerous, whether by groups, clubs, hospitals, or other outside agencies; that acceptance of large gifts from any source, or of contributions carrying any obligation whatever, is unwise. Then too, we view with much concern those A.A. treasuries which continue, beyond prudent reserves, to accumulate funds for no stated A.A. purpose. Experience has often warned us that nothing can so surely destroy our spiritual heritage as futile disputes over property, money, and authority.
Tradition 8.) Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional. We define professionalism as the occupation of counseling alcoholics for fees or hire. But we may employ alcoholics where they are going to perform those services for which we may otherwise have to engage nonalcoholics. Such special services may be well recompensed. But our usual A.A. “12th Step” work is never to be paid for.
Now, the other element of this model, The 12 Steps, takes this raw material and refines it. In other words, Wilson’s program takes chaos and creates order. Alcoholics become members, and spiritual evangelists, who organize themselves into groups. Groups organize into intergroups… I think what Wilson did with the 12 Steps is amazing:
- He found a vast and perpetual audience of vulnerable, broken, and thus, receptive, people, for whose attention no one else was vying.
- He tapped their most fundamental emotions: fear of isolation; fear of death.
- He made AA an simple, fundamental choice between life and death.
- He ratcheted this fear up by adding superstition into the mix – which also adds the element of unaccountability and absolution.
- He made what seems like an unholy mess into simple black and white.
- He provided a bite-sized formula, a “simple program.”
- He quelled those fundamental fears by incorporating community and purpose – meaning of life – into his program.
- He provided mortar for this foundation in the form of confession – a human bonding agent – which generates an even deeper feeling personal investment.
- He made evangelism part of this formula.
It’s been a long time since I studied the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, but I remember learning about how, whenever the Romans would conquer new people, it would add their gods to its pantheon. The practice kept everyone placated. It wasn’t until the Christians joined the family that things got complicated, because their monotheistic, One True God religion didn’t allow for any compromise — and they were obligated to spread the Good News. My sense is that the 12-Steps are non-denominational on purpose – not because AA is not a religious organization, but because this practice of incorporating all religious beliefs just allows for another layer of disentanglement. It’s another safeguard against friction. (It’s also interesting that Christian AA members have branched off to create their own AA groups).
I cannot think of anything else (except religion) going on, at the time of AA’s founding, in this country, that could have provided Wilson with the framework that has made Alcoholics Anonymous so successful – and, of course, by successful I mean successful as an organization, not as a successful program for curing alcoholism. AA has been wildly successful at perpetuating itself, but not so much at fulfilling its promises. The reason, of course, is that perpetuation is the point.
As long as I’m on a roll with the analogies: Alcoholics Anonymous is like the Burger King of all religions. They say you can have it your way, but you can’t go to Burger King and get a Big Mac. And you can’t work the Steps with a Higher Power that doesn’t take backsies on self-will and character defects. In other words, if you’re working the program, you are fodder for this machine. The machine is designed to process you, clean you up, and put you to work perpetuating itself, either inside or outside The Rooms. Even if you, yourself, are a perpetual relapse machine, you’ll do – as you keep cycling through the rooms, through the courts, through rehab, and back around again. If you eventually “get it,” fine. If you don’t, also fine.
As Wilson’s own words, and as the Traditions themselves, make clear, Alcoholics Anonymous has – and has always had – every intention of being the foundation of all alcoholism-related ventures. AA means to thoroughly inform and infiltrate hospitals, rehabs, courts, schools and families. Its stated intention to do so, coupled with its refusal to become entangled in any of these entities, serves to both reinforce its reputation as a strictly altruistic entity among its members and the public, and, more importantly, to prevent itself from getting mired in accountability.
If you don’t believe that Alcoholics Anonymous actively pursues relationships with outside entities, you should have a peek at the pamphlets it has made available on its own website. Here’s a random sample:
There’s “If You Are A Professional…” which starts: “Cooperation with the professional community is an objective of A.A., and has been since our beginnings. We are always seeking to strengthen and expand our communications with you, and we welcome your comments and suggestions.”
The pamphlet, “AA as a Resource for the Heath Care Professional,” opens by explaining to doctors that one of the symptoms of the incurable illness is “denial.” It authoritatively offers all kinds of groundless “facts” about the nature of alcoholics, and advice on how to refer people to AA and how to counter objections. And it points out that “the health care professional who works closely with Alcoholics Anonymous in his or her community is in a key position to provide leadership, education and support in an area which will pay great dividends in the quality of care and rates of recovery of alcoholics.”
AA’s guidelines for “Cooperating with Court, D.W.I. And Similar Programs” is especially interesting in the way it runs roughshod over the Traditions and the misgivings members may have about violating them:
The sole purpose of this Twelfth Step work, then and now, was to carry A.A.’s message to the still-suffering alcoholic. To fulfill that purpose, A.A.s have learned how to share A.A. Information within court systems.
Probation and parole officers, as well as judges, often require people involved in alcohol-related offenses to attend A.A. Meetings. Some A.A. Members find it difficult to accept this “outside” policy in light of our Third Tradition, “The only requirement for A.A. Membership is a desire to stop drinking.” Perhaps it is helpful to remember that our Traditions apply to us, and aren’t affected by the regulations established by outside institutions – we cooperate without affiliating. By adhering to all Twelve Traditions, many groups welcome each newcomer regardless of how they got to the meeting.
From page 89 of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous: “Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail… You can help when no one else can… because of your own drinking experience you can be uniquely useful to other alcoholics. So cooperate; never criticize. To be helpful is our only aim.”
Therefore, as long as carrying the message helps those of us already in A.A. Maintain our own sobriety, this kind of message carrying is a success.
This whole pamphlet is well worth a read, because it blatantly plays AA members for fools. It is the epitome of convoluted rationalization, and makes a mockery of rigorous honesty. This pamphlet cites the very Traditions it violates to support its violation of every single one of them. In short, it is an exercise in bald-faced cynicism. Just reading through the above excerpt should set bells off in your head. For instance, why does it help to remember that “our Traditions apply to us” when considering that you’re seeking to facilitate coerced attendance? Does that mean that, as an AA member, you are in AA by choice, but you have no obligation to anyone else’s ability to choose? And if people are coerced, that’s none of your beezwax? Even if you are directly responsible for this coercion, by violating the Tradition of attraction, not promotion? And, if you can’t get right with all this, maybe you should just consider that your 12th Step work is so important to your own sobriety that it should trump any pesky pangs of conscience you may have? If altruistic reasons won’t work on you, then maybe selfish ones will?
Maybe, the question is more like, “Why would AA engage in this type of blatant manipulation?” Occam’s Razor dictates that the answer has more to do with AA’s self-interest than with the sobriety of its members. The courts are a the motherlode.
I could go on quoting from AA’s own literature, and Bill Wilson’s own words, to demonstrate how AA has a vested, and stated, and, indeed, desperate interest in the addictions treatment industry, and how its very well-being and survival depends upon it. Simply put, AA is designed very precisely to spread and thrive, underground, via its relationships (or “cooperation”) with outside, public entities. That AA members feel righteous about the fact that AA doesn’t profit from, nor lend its name to, any outside entities is tragic, because it allows them to play their role as fodder for this juggernaut, with a clear conscience.
At the top of this heap, there are a handful of people making a lot of money and wielding a great deal of influence in schools, hospitals, courtrooms, media, and treatment centers. At the top, you’ll find AA members holding the highest positions at treatment facilities, and you’ll find clergy members holding the highest positions in AA. In the middle, you’ll find all kinds of people making money hand over fist, promoting the 12 Steps (not as AA members, mind you, just supporters of the 12 Steps: technicalities might not be meaningful, but they’re important). You’ll also find public servants, medical professionals and counselors doing the best they can with the conventional wisdom and training available to them. And at the bottom, you’ll find millions of still suffering alcoholics cycling in and out of AA, rehab, drug court, AA, prison, AA, rehab, AA, drug court… And you’ll find members being abused in meetings as a matter of course, because there’s no accountability at this level, and because AA members are not responsible for the fact that their 12th Step work involves offering AA as an option to the courts. In fact, accountability is discouraged (“Find another meeting.” “Find another sponsor.” “It’s your own fault if you trust the people in your Group Of Drunks.”). Self-censorship, which is the most effective form of censorship, is encouraged here, (“Look at your part.” “Take the cotton out of your ears and stuff it in your mouth.” “Clean your side of the street.” “Don’t think; don’t drink; and go to meetings,” “Stinkin’ Drinkin’ Thinkin’” “Anger is one letter away from danger!”).
It all seems like an enormous clusterfuck — a whirlwind of crazy, incompetence, shocking disregard, sadism, willful ignorance, and doublespeak. But the whole mess transforms into an elegant design, when you look at AA as an efficient, primitive-type organism, whose purpose and survival is, simply, to spread underground, feeding off the visible landscape.
What I wanted to do here was to make it clear that AA exists because of its relationships to the outside entities that it “cooperates” with; and it does cooperate very aggressively. This is my answer to all the hairsplitting that goes into separating AA from the treatment industry. In short, AA exists because of, not in spite of, it. It depends on it, and has supported and driven its growth from the beginning. It seems very clear to me that this is how AA has functioned and thrived. And it’s no accident that trying to pin down AA is like trying to pin down sand, but it’s easy enough to get a handle on the big picture, and demonstrate how AA and the whole 12 Step treatment industry are “co-dependent.” AA really does mean it when it suggests that your sobriety is incidental.