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Sober-Minded Socialism

The left could learn a thing or two from Alcoholics Anonymous.

When I was 7 years old, my mom took me to the Alcoholics Anonymous office on the second floor of a Chrysler dealership. She was picking up a coin for her sponsee (her protégé in the program). I was fascinated by the coin, because as a kid I had a crow’s brain. I loved collectable trinkets—pogs, my first communion medallion of St. Francis, Pokémon Cards, that kind of thing. An anonymous man opened the coin closet for us. He was in the program, one of the millions who worked the steps and got help through AA. He had his own coin somewhere—maybe on his desk, or in the cup holder of his minivan, helping him measure his sober time. The coins represent years in a war against a seemingly insurmountable, inhuman, hegemonic force—they help the animal part of your brain put the one-day-at-a-time part of recovery in the palm of your hand, embodying the solidarity you share with your fellow alcoholics.

On the floor in the closet, two knee-high boxes held red and silver coins. Silver for 24 hours; red meant one month. Next shelf up, the one-year box was full of bronze doubloons. The more sober time, the heavier the coin. My mother had explained to me that these weren’t collectables like keychains—they were tokens for fighting the everyday battles inside an alcoholic’s mind. I’m telling you this with the permission of my mother and father, because Fight Club ripped off the twelfth tradition in Alcoholics Anonymous: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever-reminding us to place principles over personalities.”

The Chrysler plant has since shut down. It was bulldozed, and so was the dealership. This leveling was poetic in a sense. AA is flat in structure, completely horizontal. Really, AA is a collection of soviets all the way across; egalitarian round-table groups. The organization is so nonhierarchical Murray Bookchin would blush. Its success is remarkable given the enemy: it’s easy to get sober, it’s fucking hard to stay sober.

AA’s answer to this is in its psychology—understanding the disease, putting principles over personalities, and the hard one: giving up control to a power greater than yourself.

The Disease

Under Nazi rule in Vichy France, the existentialist writer Albert Camus wrote a novel about a busy town, full of busy people, planning for individually busy futures. When a plague washes across the land, many deny the disease’s existence rather than face its power. 

At first, a few rats in the street. Then people begin to drop dead. The plague creates isolation for both sick and non-sick. Everyone waits for it to pass, alone, atomized, left with their own thoughts about this invisible thing beyond human control. The plague has its own agenda which erases the future: “how hard it must be to live only with what one knows and what one remembers, cut off from what one hopes for!”

At the beginning of the 2020 pandemic, a video of suburban recycling bins packed with empty liquor bottles circulated online. Based on 2019 data, a lot more Americans died from drug overdoses during the pandemic—more than 81,000 last year according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The bins were set out for regular pickup in front of each subdivision home, but they contained a bar’s worth of empties. The video was edited to suggest each house was throwing a little end-of-world party—to celebrate the unemployment check, the new home office, or (more grimly) the apocalypse, since this virus could be worse than anyone says. It could scramble the supply chain and destabilize society. Or you could be back in the office by July. Who knows—could be vacation, extinction, or something in between. If you’d read Camus’ book, it was not hard to see the similarities. 

But let’s be clear: alcohol is not the plague. AA does not believe that alcohol is The Disease. AA is not the mujahadeen of sobriety, waging war against distilleries. 1930s European fascism might be the literary metaphor Camus draws with the plague, but at its heart, the plague is a spiritual deadening.“They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.” The same is true of addiction—and capitalism.

Growing up with the AA clichés, I was always afraid of becoming an alcoholic. It was The Disease; an illness that is sometimes passed down through genes, but not always. “An allergy of the body, an obsession of the mind,” says Alcoholics Anonymous, the founding text of AA, called “The Big Book” by those in-the-know. People can become alcoholics right away on the first drink, or they can be born into conditions which almost guarantee addiction, or they can develop it over time. But how one comes to be an alcoholic is irrelevant. One way or another, the first step in getting better is to admit you have a problem, and try to understand it.

Long before COVID, the British philosopher Mark Fisher wrote about spiritual deadening in Capitalist Realism, Is There No Alternative? As he put it, “The pandemic of mental anguish that afflicts our time cannot be properly understood, or healed, if viewed as a private problem suffered by damaged individuals.” 

Anyone under 30 has lived through significant changes in mental health theory. Growing up, many still believed queerness was a sexual perversion, or “paraphalia.” Such views might have fallen out of fashion, but other misunderstandings about mental health have persisted. Capitalist Realism argued that the widespread depression in the U.K. and U.S. is not a matter of individual dysfunction: “It is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill?”

Treatment is big business—there is a lot of profit to be made from the decline of public spending on mental health. The obvious evil of Big Pharma pill-pushing sometimes obscures the less blatantly noxious scourge of Big Recovery, which preys on poor people who don’t have the money for expensive treatment centers and private therapists. Because of the Affordable Care Act’s reliance on subsidizing insurance companies, private recovery is now a $35 billion industry. Hard sells, deceptive marketing, and fraudulent billing costs lure the most vulnerable into unaccountable recovery centers (many in Florida). Meanwhile, AA is free and open to everyone. You still need a ride to get to a meeting, and you have to take time out of work, which deters many, but money is less of a determinant than it is elsewhere.

In AA, addiction is The Disease, but very little of recovery involves dumping liquor bottles down the sink or having your crack dealers organize an intervention to get you sober because you’re such a good guy, as Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO, would have us believe. Most of the AA program involves group therapy meetings and talking in-person with another recovering addict, your sponsor. The goal of getting sober is for you to clean up individually, but AA stresses sobriety as a calling to help others: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these [twelve] steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” You are getting sober so you can help the next new addict get sober.

In this way, the program is an upward-moving structure. Its processes are based on time, and a delicate balance between the individual ego and the collective good. In other words, AA has a proven method for atomized, hopeless, individuals to get help through solidarity.

Capitalism is good at creating anxieties relievable by purchase, and Americans are some of the world’s top abusers and consumers. “The pandemic apparently drove a lot of people to drink the hard stuff,” a Bloomberg article observed, hinting at the millions who slipped across the line between functional alcoholism and full addiction. A lot of late-capitalist stress can be patched up through our anesthetic economy, but the crisis are piling up. Humans are pumping enough carbon into the atmosphere to guarantee catastrophes down the line, and much of the American safety net seems to be a Mental Health Awareness Day Courtesy of Raytheon. Many on the left fear neoliberal half-measure solutions—which pay a crumb and tell you it’s a cake—because they’re not enough to withstand the next horror that comes after Trumpism. This is not to bum anyone out, but to recognize what building socialism is up against, in the same way that an addict must be fully honest about their situation before progress can be made. Luckily, “The Left” is pretty good at diagnosis, but this produces a lot of hopelessness.

Many enter AA believing they are doomed. “I felt I was dying. I wanted to die, and at the same time I wanted to live,” one member said. But individual efforts are not enough. The program’s solution is to “let go and let God”—an idea I’m familiar with because of my Catholic education. Maybe that’s why it sounds sinister. A decade of Jesus lessons led me to an insufferable period in college where I watched a lot of Christopher Hitchens YouTube videos. “Surrender to God” still sounds gross, and with good reason, because it’s a red flag that you’re being drafted into a cult. Plus, America’s God is one who demands allegiance followed by your credit card information, and in college I would have explained how euphoric I am in this moment to be enlightened by my own individual intelligence, having not fallen for a rudimentary grift. But now, I am not sure.

Principles Over Personalities

An anonymous person my parents knew started working the steps, got excited, and purchased the vanity plate “IMSOBER.” Because staying sober is hard, that car was often parked outside a crack house.

There was also someone in the program who wrapped their Saab around a streetlight, totally hammered in the middle of the day with a “MYHP” (My Higher Power) vanity plate and AA bumper sticker, out there for everyone to see. The contradictions come with the territory of recovery. “You get lots of different personalities in a room,” my dad has said of a usual meeting. “Some are loud, big egos, lots of energy, mentally ill, and that’s part of it… you might not personally like anyone at the meeting, but you’re there for the group. You need the group.” Individuals can come and go, but you’re there to drink from a common well. 

Half of the Twelve Steps are about giving up your personal desires for a common good: principles over personalities. Your desire to shout your individual sobriety from the rooftops might come from an honest place, but it can embarrass the group, or worse, someone Out There struggling might see that wrecked Saab and decide AA is just a sanctimonious cult, a bunch of hypocrites who can’t even help themselves. You’ve not only done damage to yourself, but you may have extinguished someone else’s hope.

AA is also a phenomenon of history. Many of the founding ideas come from a dilemma in turn-of-the-century medicine: doctors didn’t know how to help alcoholics. Chapter 1 of The Big Book is Bill’s Story. Bill W. is the co-founder of AA. His autobiographical short memoir of getting sober ranges from his time as a soldier in World War I, to escapades in the 1920s stock market, to repeated hospitalizations for alcoholism culminating in the final and most serious stint in which Bill was diagnosed with delirium tremens. He’d either lose his mind, or die, or both if he kept drinking. He’s a very good writer: “Trembling, I stepped from the hospital a broken man. Fear sobered me for a bit. Then came the insidious insanity of that first drink, and on Armistice Day 1934, I was off again.” 

Luckily, one of Bill’s old school friends comes to see him one night. Bill drinks gin alone at his kitchen table, satisfied that there is enough liquor hidden all over the house to get him thoroughly blasted. He offers his friend a drink, but his old schoolmate is sober. He’d “got religion,” and that makes Bill cringe.

As more and more of his generation were, Bill was a skeptic. But his friend asserted that “God had done for him what he could not do for himself. His human will had failed,” against a powerful inhuman force. Here the American Evangelical warrior-Jesus would step up to dictate the terms of your allegiance, and run the numbers on your financial salvation, but Bill’s friend “suggested what then seemed a novel idea, he said, ‘Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?’”  

A Higher Power

“It’s a moment,” Adam Curtis, the English documentary filmmaker, said of contemporary existence in an interview with The New Yorker. “The way we live now is the product of hyper-individualism. . . . And it’s now become a sort of giant baroque thing, which you meet on Instagram and you meet on TikTok and you meet in my films.”

Curtis’ documentary, Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2020), interprets the last century as individualism overrunning society. The World War era marked the death of the old-century collectivisms. Nationalism died with the rise of global finance capital, and this new century became centered on homo economicus—isolated, free-to-consume individuals. 

AA’s psychology is based entirely around the void this individualism creates. The first of the twelve traditions reads, “Each member of Alcoholics Anonymous is but a small part of a great whole. A.A. must continue to live or most of us will surely die.” A lack of purpose can generate a lot of antisocial behavior, and this becomes a compounding cycle. The program is fundamentally humanist, and takes for granted that people draw meaning from other people. Helping other people, treating others as they would want to be treated, sacrificing for the common good, is the only way to stop the cycle. Principles over personalities; not rational agents, not supply and demand.

Around page 270 of Infinite Jest, the late novelist David Foster Wallace lets a pretty annoying character named Geoffrey Day go off about the banality of the AA lingo I’ve been using so far: “So then at forty-six years of age I came here to learn to live by clichés,” Day complains at a meeting in Ennet House—a fictionalized Boston recovery home like the one where Wallace got sober. “To turn my will and life over to the care of clichés. One day at a time. Easy does it. First things first. Courage is fear that has said its prayers. Ask for help. Thy will not mine be done. It works if you work it. Grow or go. Keep coming back.’”

One day at a time—Geoffrey Day is a pain in the ass, but framed as “an invaluable teacher of patience and tolerance” for a more important character in the novel. Day is a scholar, a teacher, an intellectual wino who spouts off about thinking circles around his addiction: “I cultivate [gratitude] assiduously. I do special gratitude exercises at night up there in the room. Gratitude-Ups, you could call them.” Day wants to think himself out of his addiction, but everyone in AA knows that their own best thinking landed him in recovery. He’s the kind of person who will share the correct posts online, and say all the right things, but nothing will get better. He’s not surrendered to something greater than himself, so eventually he turns his hate on the platitudes, and then he’ll turn on the people trying to help him get better. Day sees no point in living, laughing, or loving—he prefers his thinking be as encyclopedic as Infinite Jest, but still, he’s not doing the real world work. He’s trying to post his way out of his problems. “One of the exercises is being grateful that life is so much easier now,” he says, six days into his stay at Ennet House. “I used to think in long compound sentences with subordinate clauses and even the odd polysyllable. Now I find I needn’t.” 

I was lucky to speak with Matt Christman of Chapo Trap House about this—for the last year, Christman has been on Twitch publicly thinking out the post-Bernie moment, settling on no prescriptive conclusions, but discussing the spiritual crisis. “There needs to be an understanding of politics, and political engagement, that goes beyond personal satisfaction,” Christman said. Something will come next, and it needs to include, as Christman says, “a motivation that transcends the particular.”  

We are all liberal subjects no matter what you call yourself on “The Left,” Christman points out. “All these definitions of self are already caught up in this sterile landscape. We don’t have a “Left” of any kind. It’s an affect and a subculture.” There are groups within that subculture, like the DSA, a late-capitalist AA meeting where like-minded people share their stories and build solidarity, but ultimately what the Cushvlog streams gesture at is something yet to be born. The structure of AA might be something to learn from, but “addiction is easily identifiable as the cause of misery in an individual’s life,” Christman said. “Unfortunately, there is not a similar phenomenon in politics.” 

The question of how to challenge capitalism is so vast that even knowing what capitalism is doesn’t help you change it. As Capitalist Realism argues, this unsustainable system creates the feeling that it’s impossible to imagine a coherent alternative, and so we identify crisis after crisis, but never consider another way of living. The crisis that drives AA is that people hit rock bottom, and they know it’s because of their addiction, and that is ultimately under their control; control they’ve ceded to The Disease, but control the individual can muster to get to a meeting.

Officially, AA has no opinion on politics, alcohol reform, or sectarian religion. “The Alcoholics Anonymous groups oppose no one,” as the tenth tradition says, but individual members do have their own politics.  I spoke to a young person in the program (a relative rarity) who noted all the older AA ladies who helped get them sober.  This person drove nuns to meetings, and watched the steps work for house-less people, and noted the Trump-ish conservative AA groups in the county. The program is overwhelmingly White, male, and retired, but working the steps cuts across identity and helps all kinds of people.

Christman notes that whatever unnamed, future leftist movement arises, it will have to be born of the working class. The problem remains that the exterior compulsion in capitalism is something that you cannot negotiate with, or challenge. “This is the paradox,” Christman said. “If you really do take seriously the idea that it’s your responsibility to meaningfully challenge capitalism, you will be taken down a road of neurosis. Because, as one person, you really don’t have that ability. So, you have to simultaneously accept your powerlessness over these impersonal forces, and then, from that position, move forward in trying to challenge them anyway. And that requires an internal catalyst that overwrites your self interest and replaces it with something else. And I don’t know if that can be programmed or systematized.” I agree with Christman—I’m not sure if you can program twelve steps toward achieving socialism, or how the historical phenomena we are talking around will emerge. It could be slapstick, through a complicated, circumstantial, accident. I don’t know, and Matt Christman doesn’t claim to have the answers either, but this also isn’t the beginning of a Posadist cult. His streams are a conversation in as much as a Twitch stream can be—talking around the parameters of an unnamed thing, putting some of it into words. One way or another, it’ll have to be bigger than the Bernie Sanders movement.

Finding a basis for fulfilling action will require sustained and repeated contact with other people, “and we’ve never had less of that in existence,” Christman said. But there is plenty of grill-pilled optimism: “People call me a doomer sometimes. But that’s what I really do believe: it’s never too late. Because the difference between this world and radically changed one comes down to our ability to imagine it, and move towards it, and if enough people do that, there’s really nothing to stop it.” It seemed to be going that way with the Sanders campaign. In hindsight, it was at worst not big enough, and at best, it was the first shift toward a different system of thought. Not a campaign, not a movement, but a drastic change in the story people tell themselves about their lives, and their world. “We’ve been trained to only respond to the reward matrix of capitalism, and that’s breaking down,” Christman said. “What’s going to replace it is the question. But we can’t know how people are going to respond to it, but that uncertainty is where hope lives, and where humanity is.”

“Do you believe in God, doctor?” one of Camus’ characters asks in The Plague. “No,” the doctor responds, “but what does that really mean? I’m fumbling in the dark, struggling to make something out. But I’ve long ceased finding that original.”

The persistent idea that atomized individuals of the 21st century can, alone, solve the problems of late capitalism, is absurd. I can never use a plastic straw again, and when it’s allowed, I can bring my reusable bag to the grocery store every single time, but that won’t matter if Chevron is free to delete giant tracts of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador, collapsing ecosystems standing in the way of a self-inflicted Armageddon, and then lock up the American attorney Steven Donzinger in his home as punishment. On a more hopeful note, Donzinger did win his Lago Agrio oil field case against Chevron, a huge victory for his clients—over 30,000 farmers and Indigenous people from Ecuador. Still, every consumer solution to the climate crisis involves me, alone, making ethical purchasing decisions, hoping that’s enough to stop some of it, and that’s an absurd way to live.

“When it actually arrives, capitalism brings with it a massive desacralization of culture,” Mark Fisher noted. It’s “a system which is no longer governed by any transcendent Law; on the contrary, it dismantles all such codes, only to re-install them on an ad hoc basis. The limits of capitalism are not fixed by fiat, but defined (and redefined) pragmatically and improvisationally. This makes capitalism very much like the Thing in John Carpenter’s film of the same name: a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact.” This is something the human brain was not built to think about. But in the past, religion helped us consider these existentially threatening problems through stories and bits of wisdom. “Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.”

I am not in the program, nor am I Christian, but I prefer Cornel West’s type of trudging: “To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely—to step in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep on stepping because the something that sustains you, no empire can give you, and no empire can take away.” This is the kind of armor I find I need when thinking about melting permafrost. It is not an excuse to do nothing, or pray, or think happy thoughts; it’s a confidence that a right path exists. There is a way toward right action, through empathy, toward liberation. 

The second half of the twelve steps are all about self-evaluation, “taking your inventory.” In that examination, the Big Book says to list the people who you carry resentments against, and note how these relationships affect you. Fear is a big factor: “We reviewed our fears thoroughly. We put them on paper, even though we had no resentment in connection with them. We asked ourselves why we had them. Wasn’t it because self-reliance failed us?” I know I am most pessimistic when I’m fearful, and at the heart of this fear is a fight or flight response, but there’s no way to run from or punch these problems—my individual power over them has to be offered up to something bigger than me.

AA doesn’t lead with the God part. “In the prize ring,” The Big Book says, “this would be called leading with the chin. Why lay ourselves open to being branded fanatics or religious bores? We may kill a future opportunity to carry a beneficial message.” Even if this essay doesn’t convince someone to go to a meeting (or, in another context, join DSA) I’ve tried to put into words some of my best thinking about these problems that keep me up at night. While socialism is not a higher power, the spirit of it can be; justice can be; sharing so everyone has enough can be. 

Building socialism is building something human, and you can’t surrender control to a political organization, or a leader, or any human construction, since that will have human flaws built in. To surrender to something with humans in charge is to make your higher power a cult. While AA is very human, with plenty of flaws, the universalism of the AA higher power is the binding agent holding it all together, making it work because it fills that spiritual void, even if you’re a strict materialist. This higher power is both religious and not—your higher power can be Time, History, Science, Math, The People. Your higher power can be an old bearded white man in the sky, Allah, or chance. Or, your higher power could extend no farther than your group, no further than the AA meeting itself. AA respects the ego enough to let it imagine its own religious-spiritual universe. The only catch is that your higher power is benevolent: it must be the slightest move toward life rather than death. One instead of zero. Your higher power may never speak to you, but this higher power must love you.

Again, AA balances the ego and the group. The group must agree there is something beyond themselves and their individual egos, because that way, forgiveness is possible. This a lesson the left would be wise to learn. If every online leftist is out to promote their personal brand, there’s no hope for socialism. If every activist must be a selfless zealot, expending huge amounts of energy to fix the world by themselves, then there’s no hope. Building socialism must deliver something immediate and human—even if it’s only conversation, and being in the same room with other socialists. 

So what can you do when things feel so hopeless, and every lever of power seems far out of reach? “I’ve been focused on being present,” Christman said. “The thing I emphasize to people is that you have to live every day, you can’t know what’s going to happen, and as much as it might feel that time is being wasted, if you’re practicing a habit of presence and empathy, you are doing what you need to do. Because you’ll be better able to recognize possibilities when they come.” Progress not perfection, nothing changes if nothing changes, one day at a time.

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