A Fine and Functioning Anarchy

Column by Alex R. Knight III.

Exclusive to STR


Those of you who may perchance recall (or might care to read for the first time) my second piece ever published here at STR, “Anarchism and Alcohol,” are in for a bit of a converse experience.
A recent acquaintance of mine – I’ll call him Larry, for purposes of anonymity (the further relevance of which shall become clear shortly) – related a story just earlier at the time of this writing, in which a friend of his referred to a certain venerable organization as a prime example of the title of this essay: a fine and functioning anarchy. That organization happens to be Alcoholics Anonymous – a private, non-profit group of voluntarily participating individuals who all share the common and simply understood (though not always simply achieved) goal of sobriety. That is, for those individuals who have arrived at the personal conclusion that they are problem drinkers to stop consuming alcoholic beverages altogether.
Larry, being a member himself, related certain characteristics of A.A. within a rather unusual context: Albeit that the most recent U.S. Census was now conducted over two years ago, it seems that the government bureau directed to administer that asinine decennial ritual randomly selected Larry’s household as a sample demographic of the area in which he resides. Accordingly, they have been telephoning him on a routine basis with an ever-expanding list of questions – a practice which, according to Larry’s own testimony, has become borderline “harassment.” (Note: This also brings to mind another prior STR piece of mine, from which Larry and others might benefit in the future, “Don’t Answer the Census”). At any event, the U.S. Census Bureau-crat on the other end of the line most recently asked Larry whether he was involved in anything that might be classified or construed as “volunteerism.” Evidently, the Bureau-crat in question, under the preposterous auspice of protecting privacy (were he really concerned about that, he would not be phoning Larry in the first place – nor, for that matter, would the Bureau-crat have the employer he does), did not ask Larry to identify by name any organizations which might be categorized as falling within the purview of such activity. Rather, he inquired strictly about the nature of any such volunteerism – if in fact any did exist in Larry’s daily affairs. When Larry replied, with some understandable degree of hesitance, in the affirmative, the Bureau-crat then proceeded to regale him with questions such as whether or not it was a community-based organization. Whether it accepted public funds. Whether it was comprised of any official leadership. And so on.
Most if not all of Larry’s responses were in the negative. For A.A. members are indeed volunteers – but wholly independent. There exist no “leaders” within A.A. membership. All funds are raised by internal voluntary contributions. No funding is either solicited, or accepted, outside of A.A. membership. Nor are there dues, fees, or any other mandatory financial obligations on the part of A.A. members, or requirements for membership other than a sincere desire to stop drinking and both achieve and maintain sobriety. A.A. also neither endorses nor opposes any and all causes, and intentionally and most stringently stays out of all controversial arenas such as politics, religion, and media exposure. In addition, all A.A. groups are autonomous and independent of one another – though members are free to attend meetings and participate as they freely choose within the overall A.A. milieu. In fact, A.A. actively shuns the concept of organization, as such, and shies entirely away from the concept of promoting poster-boys or prominent personalities in order to carry the message of sobriety to others. Rather, A.A. relies upon outside voluntary attraction. They are there to assist the alcoholic who decides to seek help on their own, without forcible coercion.
These revelations so befuddled the Bureau-crat to whom Larry was speaking, that he evidently felt obliged to reveal the organization’s identity. It perhaps comes as no surprise that A.A. was and is an organization so relatively unique and anarchistic in its structure (or relative lack thereof), that it does not fit within the bureaucratic framework of the U.S. Census Bureau’s categorization – a fact that, according to Larry, he pointed out to the Bureau-crat . . . who in turn stated that he ought to pass such information along to a supervisor. I’d like to think that might produce some kind of marginally beneficial result. However, jaded libertarian that I am, my reaction is almost a default cliché: “Good luck with that.”
When we reflect that A.A., part of the societal landscape since 1935, has had such an unprecedented level of success the world over in treating alcoholism by helping countless alcoholics achieve lasting sobriety, and has done so by actually denying leadership and organization – instead relying upon the goodwill, sincerity, insights, and expertise of individual members – it sheds some significant light on precisely why a violent and coercive institution such as government functions so poorly by comparison. Larry’s equally anonymous friend, all the evidence shows, is precisely correct: Anarchy can and does function just fine, where and when it is permitted to bloom.
And that’s a life lesson most anyone can learn, no matter where or who they are.  


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Columns on STR: 153

Alex R. Knight III is the author of numerous horror, science-fiction, and fantasy tales.  He has also written and published poetry, non-fiction articles, reviews, and essays for a variety of venues.  He currently lives and writes in rural southern Vermont where he holds a B.A. in Literature & Writing from Union Institute & University.  Alex's Amazon page can be found here, and his work may also be found at both Smashwords and Barnes & Noble.  His MeWe group can be found here.


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Hello All:  Reprinted below is a copy of the response to this column sent to me by "Larry."  As you'll see, he has graciously provided me with permission to reproduce it here.  It does, I believe, provide some additional illumination.  ~ Alex

Hi Alex:

I've been on a tear recently, but this morning finally found time to read your article in the Strike blog. I thought I'd share my thoughts on it with you.

Your perspective is animated and passionate, though I'm thinking that your take on the census experience and the general thrust of your piece were surprisingly different from my own, which I wasn't quite expecting. I understand that as a libertarian, your approach was aimed more to finding fault with the bureaucracy and intrusiveness of the Census, than my take which was about the unique nature of 12 Step organizations, and the possibility that the Census might be well served by creating a new category for them in their surveys on volunteerism.

In your retelling of my story, you made it seem that I was trying to avoid revealing AA's identity as the organization with which I am affiliated in order to protect my anonymity, but that the Bureau-crat somewhat forcibly wheedled it out of me. In truth, I was more than eager to disclose facts about AA and my personal involvement with it.

As for my feeling of being "harassed", I said that in more of a light-hearted fashion than you might have realized. Like my ex-wife, the particular Census representative whose mandate it is to call me monthly for six months, seems to have a knack for calling at the most inopportune times: I'm asleep, just out the door, up on a ladder or have raw chicken juice all over my hands. And while I don't particularly enjoy hearing from them, deep down I understand that responding to the Census is one of those "rights" or "duties" of citizenship (as it stands now), just like jury duty.

You also never mentioned the salient point that within AA, I had volunteered for a special function: signing up for answering calls on the AA Hotline. With the hotline, there is always the possibility that by taking out a few minutes to talk with another alcoholic who still suffers, we may have actually saved a human life. The man from the census said that this clearly came under the heading of counseling, and I concur.

Personally, I do not think that AA itself or that simply being a member of AA is in itself a form of volunteerism (it is really more in the realm of spiritual group therapy, self-help and co-counseling), though it is noteworthy that AA considers simple attendance at meetings to be a form of Twelfth Step work because, as you may have heard members say occasionally, "You can have a meeting without me, but I can't have a meeting without all of you." It's like the restaurant that's open for business, but is empty: many passersby think, "Not a soul in there -- the food's probably no good." Thus, at least one other alcoholic must always attend any given meeting as an assurance to any possible desperate newcomer, that the hand of AA is always there to help ("always open for business, and the coffee's always fresh".)

What I found interesting about my conversation with the Census, was that although 12-Step organizations don't seem to fit into any of the Census's existing criteria for describing organizations with which one might volunteer, they in fact perform many of the same beneficial functions: individuals, their families, and by extension whole communities are helped when rescued from the myriad forms of destruction alcohol addiction can cause. And, although AA officially states that it is not created for these purposes, members do often find food, clothing, shelter, work and even financial assistance through networking within the fellowship. So I also answered "yes" to many of the questions asked about the nature of our work, and the "no" answers were mainly responses to questions about the exact nature of our organization.

As a result, the guy from the Census and I did conclude that 12 Step organizations probably ought to have their own category in the Census's surveys on volunteerism. If this were to occur, it would, without actively promoting them (as they have chosen not to do), give 12 Step groups some presence at the Federal level and some well-deserved recognition of the useful good they do for society. In effect, this could be seen as yet another form of "spreading the message", and as such, part of Twelfth Step work.

And (even though, as you say, "Good luck with that"), I felt that I had at least enlightened one bureaucrat which is better than none. Hey, one bureaucrat at a time....

Regards, "Larry"

P.S.: Without meaning to appear presumptuous, I give you full permission should you want to publish my response.