When I began attending AA meetings I was led to believe that AA was a source of mutual support and encouragement for people who had been addicted to alcohol and shared a common goal of abstinence. I hoped we could help one another rebuild self-esteem shattered by years of destructive drinking. I was disappointed to find instead that there was a pervasive emphasis on individual powerlessness, not only with regard to alcohol, but in all areas of life. Fatalistic defeatism seemed to be an article of faith to AA members. It was expressed in stock sayings, which were repeated at meetings like mantras: “I’m powerless over people, places and things” and ” I know I’m in trouble when I start thinking I can run my own life” were just two of these sayings that I heard counless times.
It was evident that those voicing these self-sabotaging sentiments were repeating some kind of received wisdom. Their source became clear over time. They derived from AA literature, and in particular from the writings of AA’s co-founder “Bill W”. I tried hard to ignore these disempowering messages and only listen to the minority of people who honestly expressed their own thoughts and feelings in their own words. In practice, however, the format and tone of the meetings paid such reverence to the morbidly sanctimonious writings of Bill W that those who did not parrot his words were forced into the position of AA heretics, who were at best barely tolerated, and were commonly treated with overt condescension and contempt.
I later discovered that this creed of powerlessness, as I call it, was derived from a now forgotten religious movement in which the founders of AA were involved. It was started early in the twentieth century by the Rev Frank N D Buchman, and over time went under the different names of “First Century Christian Fellowship”, “The Oxford Group Movement” and “Moral Rearmament”. Buchman aroused hostility amongst leading Christians who considered his ideas heretical and occultist. He also became notorious for his far right political sympathies, and especially his widely publicised praise of Adolf Hitler in a newspaper interview. Nowhere in AA’s main text, “Alcoholics Anonymous” or “The Big Book”, is this debt to Buchman acknowledged, probably because of his notoriety at the time when it was written.
A creed of individual powerlessness has obvious attractions for those drawn towards fascist ideas, and it certainly gained Buchman plenty of financial support from weathy businessmen of extreme right-wing political persusion, who welcomed the preaching of a “spiritual” message which told the underdog he must not question his place in the world. However, this creed of powerlessness has wider and graver implications than those of narrow class politics.
If this kind of ideology had gained universal acceptance historically (as Buchman insisted it must) then it would have prevented all advances in human freedom, including the abolition of slavery and child labour and the emancipation of women. When applied to people already suffering from damaged self-esteem and psychological problems, it imposes a particularly insidious kind of learnt helplessness. When framed as a “spiritual” solution to a potentially life-threatening problem such as addiction, it constitutes a form of oppression and disempowerment which I think is best described as spiritual fascism.