Voluntaryist Vitriol: Anarchic Attacks Against Alcoholics Anonymous


Column by Alex R. Knight III.

Exclusive to STR

Times have changed considerably – at the very least, for myself – since I scribed my first piece even touching upon this subject for STR, a decade ago. As I’ve talked about here in both direct and allegorical terms, I’ve gone from being a chronic, practicing alcoholic, to a recovering one. And my active participation in Alcoholics Anonymous is the reason why.

Lately, due in large part to the publication of a book by psychiatrist Lance Dodes, The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind Twelve-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry, there has been a torrent of criticism against AA. Surprisingly (at least to me), much of that vitriol has emanated from those who consider themselves part of the libertarian anarchist/voluntaryist movement. I will attempt herein to run through most if not all of the major objections and motivations for attack on their part, in order to effectively address them. But first I think it is in order that I bring to the attention of the uninitiated a couple of points related to this rebuttal, in relation to AA itself.

First, AA’s position with regard to my desire to countermand the assertions of its critics would invariably be to simply let such matters go, to turn the other cheek and walk away. AA’s rationale being that involving one’s self in such conflict invariably intensifies anxiety, and thus, has the potential to result in a resumed regimen of drinking. This is generally sound thinking with respect to an abundance of alcoholics, and by penning this piece, I in no way mean to discredit or diminish the significance of this point.

Secondly, AA’s Tradition 11 (in addition to the 12 Steps there are 12 Traditions) states: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.”

Obviously, by way of seeing this piece through to publication, I have chosen to disregard this.

Which brings me to my first point of contention with AA’s “libertarian” critics: These positions, as with everything AA, are mere suggestions. There is no Jim Jones or David Koresh within AA to command anyone anything at any time. AA is not a “cult” of any kind. It is itself, in fact, as I have related here in the past as well, “A Fine and Functioning Anarchy” that I would think should be an object of voluntaryist praise, instead of the kind of dogged and persistent criticism it has engendered from so many dogmatists – as I intend to further illustrate. In fact, the sole aspect of AA’s program that might even be remotely construed as obligatory is Step 1, which simply reads: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

I would submit that the only manner in which such a statement might be construed as any kind of command or mandate is in the obvious fact that if one is not willing to concede the reality of one’s own condition as an alcoholic, then there’s really no point in seeking help in the first place. One might just as well continue drinking. Trying to dissect the semantics of such language really amounts to hollow nitpicking. Yet this is precisely what AA’s critics seem to both insist upon and revel in doing.

In this self-same vein, much ado has been made about the religiosity which permeates much of the 12 steps. There is, before the subject of AA is even visited, a substantial animus in “libertarian” quarters towards religion – and even mere spirituality – of any stripe whatsoever. This topic too, I have long-since attempted to address – largely to the deaf ears and blind eyes of the dogmatists.

It benefits us, in any discussion about AA, to be aware of the fact that its founders Dr. Bill and Dr. Bob created the organization in the 1930s. Since then – rightly or wrongly (a subject we will visit shortly) – AA have chosen to vary very little in terms of original language. The ostensible reason should be very clear: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

At any event, to impugn a culture steeped in Christian orthodoxy some 80 to 90 years ago, one might as well impugn everything about the era, including technology, clothing styles, lack of government bureaucracy – why not? If we’re going to try to put sneakers on an elephant in such a Monday morning quarterback capacity, why not go the whole hog? Yet again – even in the far more austere atmosphere of those Depression-era years -- AA’s position was as it is today: Your view of spirituality is your choice. No one at AA is jamming any kind of dogma down anyone’s throat. Many “libertarians” act as if this simply is not true, as if AA might as well be the Vatican. This is nothing but patent absurdity, and frankly, steeped in a reflexive reaction against anything whatsoever that might actually use the “G-word.” It’s foolishness, ignorance, immaturity, and truthfully, a denial of the very spirit of liberty which Voluntarism – in actuality – proposes.

Further, these same “libertarians” will argue that AA is not non-coercive . . . since many DUI courts and such mandate attendance as part of a convicted person’s sentencing.

At the risk of submerging into inanities here, is broccoli tyrannical and coercive when your mother threatens you with punishment if you fail or refuse to eat it? Your mother’s actions in such a case may well be tyrannical and coercive (as is most clearly the case with government courts) . . . but the broccoli itself? This is not only Philistine – it’s beyond absurdity. In short, get real.

Let’s cut straight to the meat and potatoes here: While it should in no way whatsoever – given that AA is itself a 100% voluntary organization – have any bearing on whether a person can or cannot, or should or should not, attend based on their own personal decision-making, it is still a valid point of interest (as when considering any product or service) to ascertain the efficacy of AA as a program of recovery from systematic alcohol abuse.

Dodes contends in his book that AA averages a 5-10% rate of success, with a corresponding 90-95% rate of recidivism. But he doesn’t end there. He then further contends that, according the the NPR article, “. . . it's harmful to the 90 percent who don't do well. And it's harmful for several important reasons. One of them is that everyone believes that AA is the right treatment. AA is never wrong, according to AA. If you fail in AA, it's you that's failed.”

Let’s address both of these incredibly audacious claims independently.

Dodes allegedly gleans his 5-10% figure directly from AA themselves. Yet, an even cursory glance at another source reveals an entirely different set of statistics. It is perhaps also worthy of note that the source of these counter-numbers extends from a service seeking to profit from enrolling those in alcoholism recovery in a paid rehabilitation plan. They have little or nothing to gain from steering potential clients towards a free, non-profit organization. Yet even then, the assessment of AA tells a very different story.

The link is above, but I will here again (for both clarity and longevity’s sake) provide the most relevant sections:

“AA success statistics are often hard to gauge because of different variables, but statistics released in 2007 by AA reported on the success of AA members and the length of sobriety.

“31 percent of members were sober for less than a year’s time.

“24 percent were sober for between one and five years.

“12 percent were sober for between five and 10 years.

“33 percent were sober for 10 or more years.

“These statistics do not show a failure rate, but they indicate how AA members do succeed in long-term sobriety. The average sobriety time of members that were surveyed was eight years. (Note: The above link, updated in 2014, seems to indicate 10 years).

“Along with these statistics are the numbers that show how important involvement in AA is to the members who continue with the program. One of the mottos of AA is ‘It works if you work it,’ and you will find, if you are considering Alcoholics Anonymous, this is true for most. There are individuals who find strength and hope with AA, and statistics support this sentiment.

“About 63 percent of members continued recovery after initial treatment with AA. Approximately 85 percent were members of a home group, or a regularly attended group.

“The average number of attended meetings per week was 2.5.

“About 79 percent of members have a sponsor, or a fellow member who provides individual support.

“About 74 percent of members reported that AA was an important part of their recovery.”

“What Defines Success in Alcoholics Anonymous?

“Another reason it is hard to represent findings in a study on AA success rates is that is it hard to define what ‘success’ actually means. In the Big Book, AA’s main piece of literature, AA states its approximate success rate is 50 percent, plus 25 percent. This means that 50 percent of members remain sober, 25 percent of members relapse but come back, and 25 percent fail to use AA effectively and do not remain sober.

“Overall, AA is something that offers support, direction and comfort for those striving to remain sober. You may find that AA is something that you do find successful, as you define it. Part of that success, even defined statistically by AA, supports its motto, ‘Keep coming back.’ That seems like the first steps of successfully sobriety, continuing to work for it.”

Note that while these statistics would seem to indicate a substantial degree of recidivism – even some which is permanent, rather than temporary – under no circumstances does it square in any capacity with 90-95%. Moreover, the claims made by Dodes that AA have positioned themselves in such a way as to suggest that they are the one and only, begin all and end all antidote to alcoholism, are entirely outrageous, and without merit. It would seem that – not unlike his “libertarian” critic counterparts (and I do not here mean to suggest that Dodes considers himself to be libertarian in any capacity) – Dodes has conflated the practice of government courts routinely sentencing DUI and other alcohol-related convictions to AA on the basis of widespread availability and veneration with AA themselves making a claim of both monopoly and universal infallibility. And this is quite clearly a false claim. Period. One need only look at the language above, and at the appropriate link (“We welcome opportunities to cooperate with others who are providing help to alcoholics,” “The survey also provides information about A.A. to the professional community and to the general public as part of A.A.’s purpose . . . .”, “About 74 percent of members reported that AA was an important part of their recovery.”) to ascertain this. Clearly, AA recognizes that alternative recovery programs may work better depending on the individual, either by themselves, or in conjunction with AA. At no time, and nowhere, is the foolish claim made that AA is the sole alcohol recovery program, by which a failure to get sober means certain doom to the attendee, irrespective of further help or treatment elsewhere.

In summation, I will hereby go on record as saying that the only possible motivation for Dodes’s position is to carve out a name for himself in academia by positioning himself as a “pioneer” in “exposing” AA and 12-step alcohol recovery, all the while selling books, collecting royalties, and getting paid for speaking engagements.

In a separate but similar vein, many “libertarians” or “voluntaryists” have shown that they are just as susceptible to their own instinctive dogmas as the government apologists they criticize. To these particular partisans, venerability automatically equates to sham. Spirituality equals prostration before authority. Mere suggestions somehow become Hitlerian orders. Voluntary unity with others in the name of self-improvement may as well be apostasy. And all the while, they drink the Kool-Aid of easily disprovable facts and figures as ammunition for their heated cause, which is a cause of absolute intolerance for personal choice, and a salivating desire to burn and destroy anything which even slightly defies their narrowly-conceived definitions of what is acceptable and what isn’t.

Be damned with such self-righteous, malinformed, arrogant tripe. By all means, we should keep an open mind towards new science, improved methods, and alternative approaches to all forms of addiction recovery. And in fact – counter to what Dodes and his adherents would like us to believe -- AA already seeks to do that, both intra-organizationally, and with others. But this is not really, by all evidence, what such critics seek to accomplish. They are interested only in ideological retribution for perceived heresies.

Which makes their assaults – those of self-styled “voluntaryists” -- the most hypocritical of all.

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Alex R. Knight III's picture
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.


Jim Davies's picture

I take it, Alex, that you are one of the 33% who have been sober these ten years, so congrats are clearly due.  It's hard for me as one who can handle and enjoy moderate drinking to appreciate the grip it can get over some folk, but obviously it's powerful and any who can break that grip are surely the stronger for it.
To criticise AA when it's producing better results than any other method (yes?) seems a waste of time and may even hurt people by deterring some who need it from taking part. I'm sorry to read that even anarchists are doing that.
Who, though? - if I understand your article correctly, Mr Dodes did a poor job but you say he is not one of them. So who are these libertarians who have echoed him, and are they proposing any improvement on AA?

Alex R. Knight III's picture

I'll not name names -- they know who they are and are presumably free to comment here if they so choose.  But there are an entire cadre of "voluntaryists" on Facebook who have taken the position(s) described.  No, they haven't pointed to any specific AA alternatives, but have rather only chosen to hurl stones -- again, as described.

Jim Davies's picture

It may be very gentlemanly of you not to "name names", but the article is headed "Voluntaryist Vitriol" and without citing specific examples I suggest it has not substantiated that theme. If someone has published a false and damaging view, why not call him out - as you did Mr Dodes?

Samarami's picture
    "...What Defines Success in Alcoholics Anonymous?..."

Answer: I have not taken a drink of alcohol today.

It's really that simple. I truly hope you haven't (that is, if you call yourself an AA member and have the desire to stop drinking). Because I truly care about you -- even though we've never met or attended the same meetings. But whether you do or do not drink does not affect "the success of AA". My abstaining from alcohol today does.

I come to STR for the very same reason that I attend AA. It can be lonely "...out thar in radio land..." Few understand. Here's the fact:

    1) AA: Only an esoteric few of us comprehend the affliction and the angst that accompany the knowledge that we simply cannot have a drink of alcohol without consigning ourselves to a world of drunken debauchery. Many "shmexperts" will come forth to argue over that. That's why (or one of several primary reasons why) we remain anonymous and don't advertise our "program-of-recovery". Let the shmexperts bicker and argue with each other and leave us in peace. If it turns out your psychological and physiological situation is anything like mine, you have enough on your plate without pulling them into the foray.

    2) Anarchy: Once again, I'll let John Hasnas (2nd paragraph of his essay) do the talking:

      Anarchy refers to a society without a central political authority. But it is also used to refer to disorder or chaos. This constitutes a textbook example of Orwellian newspeak in which assigning the same name to two different concepts effectively narrows the range of thought. For if lack of government is identified with the lack of order, no one will ask whether lack of government actually results in a lack of order. And this uninquisitive mental attitude is absolutely essential to the case for the state. For if people were ever to seriously question whether government is really productive of order, popular support for government would almost instantly collapse.

    I'll refrain from boring you with my take on "anarchist theorists". Suffice it to say that none of us has experienced freedom from the white man since before the first Europeans set foot on the eastern shore of this continent. It might be a while before we do.

You might think this a peculiar analogy -- "non sequitur". It's not. I've been involved with AA for over 50 years. Looking back, I recognized that AA was indeed, for me, "home". I didn't know exactly why at the time -- it took some years to come to analyze it for it's real worth. This was even prior to the 1964 US presidential debacle with which I was heavily involved. My hero of the moment, Barry Goldwater, got his butt trounced by a criminal named Lyndon Johnson. That involvement, and its results, sent me out on a long, debilitating bender. And it landed me in lengthy lockup in the white man's prison system. A marvelous learning experience.

AA is the most libertarian collection of individuals in town. I abstain from the term "movement". It's our way of life.

But AA as an organization is vulnerable to parasites -- and attacks. As you mention in your essay, Alex, AA's "position" (there can actually be no such thing) is to leave the parasites -- as well as attackers -- be, and to go on with our business of helping each other stay sober. It's the only thing we can do when you think about it. We have no authorities (you used the names Jim Jones or David Koresh) -- or even spokespeople. We are truly anarchist by nature. You can't speak for me, and I can't speak for you.

    "Our leaders are but trusted servants. They do not govern"

Dr Bob is quoted with what has become an AA motto, or declaration of sorts:

    "...wherever, whenever someone reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA to always be there. For that, I am responsible".

So, we end up with members forming groups in and about jails, rehab facilities, etc. -- wherever problem drinkers are hoping to become set free from the insanity that got them there. And out into a cold, unthinking, unresponsive, misunderstanding "society". And, like Hasnas' outline of anarchy quoted above, things get turned around in the heads of nonmembers (and a few newer members as well). Outsiders and newbie's will tend to associate Alcoholics Anonymous (the "movement") with the host(s), rather than to see each of the members as individuals who are there to help. There are no AA officials to countermand that Orwellian twisted thought process.

And, due to the apparent success of AA, those rehab and government officials (often professing AA members themselves) will sling their lassos around AA with abandon, to make it appear that it's "...I got you, Babe...". That tends to inflame criticism of AA in the heads of the ill-informed and the uninformed. And the naysayers.

There is an abundance of AA naysayers on the web -- perhaps as many as libertarian and/or anarchist naysayers.

When you think about it, a local "judge" has every bit as much "right" (please let's not get back into that "rights" silliness) to send his or her victims down to Catholic Catechism as she does to send them to AA meetings. But the difference between the Catholic Church (or any church) and AA is anarchy. The priests and the bishops and the boards of directors wouldn't stand still for it. On the other hand, they might welcome it with open arms. But most members of AA acting as chairmen simply sign the attendance sheets and go on staying sober.

AA is not without controversy -- lots and lots of it. I've attended business meetings where the issue of the signing of attendance papers has come up. Some (governmentalist types) insist "we" should always wait until the meeting is almost over to sign. That's to make certain the parolee doesn't slip out before the l-rd's prayer. Others declare "we" shouldn't sign them at all. Then they generally take a "group conscience" vote.

I always say, "I don't care what you guys vote. I'm still going to make my standard announcement at the beginning of any meeting I chair: 'Anybody with "papers" should have them signed immediately by the guy or gal sitting next to you. Then, you are free to either leave or stay. You're certainly more than welcome to stay, but you do need to understand that whoever sent you here had no authority to do that. I'll not refuse to sign or cause you any difficulty serving time'."

And a fun time was had by all. Sam

KenK's picture

Bottom line for Alex. If AA helps you not drink, and you're good with that, then fuck em'. The unnamed critics, that this. You owe those guys nada.

Alex R. Knight III's picture

Sam, I had figured you would weigh in on this one -- and by no means did you disappoint.  :-)  Thank you.
Ken, you are so correct.  That said, I felt personally compelled to offer them rebuttal, and have -- without any sense of obligation towards them whatsoever.  Thank you, as well.  :-)

jonnyh's picture

Thanks much Alex from a fellow libertarian anarchist who also started getting what he needed from the 12 steps 25 years ago at the end of this month.

I too was convinced that the program works, after much struggle, by a second chance at life after two decades of drug- and alcohol-fueled adventures with jails, institutions, and near death experiences.

While it was a "nudge from the judge" that motivated my first attendance at meetings, my experience with 12-step programs around the world since then has shown them to be the most anarchic organizations imaginable.

There are no rules, no rulers, and no one to tell you what to do in 12-step recovery. If some people decide they should order others around, they are usually disregarded and ridiculed by those who know better.

AA certainly doesn't work for everyone, and only a dogmatic few would claim otherwise.

And it could never work if it was forced on others. Just like government, attempting to control others by force is a long-term impossibility.

But dogmatic types exist everywhere, including among those who say they believe in freedom.

Funny they don't see the contradiction in claiming to know the one true way to be a libertarian anarchist/voluntaryist.

Stay lucky,


Samarami's picture

Jonny, it's nice to see your comment. And you're so right.

In my comment above I started out by claiming to propose the "answer" to Alex's query, "...What Defines Success in Alcoholics Anonymous?..." But my answer left the heavy side of the puzzle out. Old timers in AA insist one MUST go much further than to say, "I have not had a drink of alcohol today". The genuine answer is: "I have not found it NECESSARY to take a drink today".

Because the Big Book never once admonishes the problem drinker to try not to drink. From stem to stern it provides ways of thinking and ways of living that make it UNNECESSARY to take a drink. But in addressing whether and how to stop drinking it insists one must first identify the problem: are you, or are you not (an alcoholic)???

Then, in the first part of Chapter 3 (end of p31 and start of p32 of the above referenced online publication):

      We do not like to pronounce any individual as alco-
      holic, but you can quickly diagnose yourself. Step
      over to the nearest barroom and try some controlled
      drinking. Try to drink and stop abruptly. Try it
      more than once. It will not take long for you to de-
      cide, if you are honest with yourself about it. It may
      be worth a bad case of jitters if you get a full knowl-
      edge of your condition.

The "program" addresses how we should treat our neighbors, friends, coworkers, family members, etc. It's all about feeling OK about ourselves and our relationships with others. How to get along in a not-too-friendly world without finding it necessary to drink alcohol.

So to the analogy with anarchy. Most who will ever read this understand that if everybody -- EVERYBODY -- would stop voting (and "stay stopped") our "problem" would soon be solved. That, along with ceasing to submit confessions to the white man ("file returns -- voluntarily" ha ha) outlining all resources and earnings. That, of course, is a greater hill to climb, because "we" have already given the beast his head in that regard. Reining him in brings forth the only "jurisdiction" in town (outside of family governance) -- loaded firearms in the hands of dangerous criminals. Our friend, Jim Davies, can illuminate a late mutual friend, Irwin Schiff's plight dealing with state gangsters -- and what happens when one attempts to publish and teach truth in an unfree world.

But everybody won't. I remember early in my sobriety, I was in the midst of unbelievable lawsuits and parole violations, threats of further incarceration, etc., -- my AA sponsor (of soon to be 40 years) took me aside and admonished: "Sam -- don't TRY to make sense out of the world around you. IT-DOES-NOT-MAKE-SENSE. Just remember that, and you'll never need to drink again!" Sam

Samarami's picture

Alex, you got me on a roll here -- and I meant to address your reference in the paragraph you introduced with use of the phrase "...a culture steeped in Christian orthodoxy..." That, too, was an interesting hurdle for me to vault early on.

Not wishing to appear the clown of the rodeo, it was necessary to deal with the "g-d" thing (out-loud prayers, etc etc). But in reading some of the history of AA, I discovered that was one of the first obstacles that needed scarification in 1935, at the outset of AA. I was not alone. They finally came up with the "...g-d as you understand him..." routine.

There is a stark analogy to be made with some of the flak over religious beliefs and practices in "libertarian" circles -- in right here at STR. I won't attempt to go into detail at this time. Suffice it to say it is not necessary to, as you phrased it, impugn religious folks before they get their tether severed in anarchy. Because none of us knows for absolute certain (in spite of dogmatic religionists and dogmatic atheists) what causes and/or caused this pale blue dot to come about and spin as it does -- without missing a beat.

So I settled upon standing in the circle silently at the finale of AA meetings, trying not to look stupid, but refraining from piety. I used that as a time to count heads for the "hat ticket" once I took on the chairing of meetings.

I came to understand that I could live in a world where religiosity was accepted as normal without having to become abnormal myself. I tried some of the "agnostic AA" meetings. They left me cold. I also accepted an invitation once to a meeting at a church (lots of AA meetings are in churches due to space accommodations, availability, etc) that turned out an attempt to incorporate religiosity with AA. There was a "prayer circle", "bible study hour", etc. I never went back, and I heard it folded after a few meetings.

Lots of wisdom in the mantra, "...if it works, don't fix it..." As anybody who knows me understands, I've come to the place where I believe soundly that I can be free. Here. Today. Where I'm "at".

So can you.

But we need to try to abstain from beans. Sam

Samarami's picture


I need to "...try to abstain from beans..." Strike the "we".

What you do is your responsibility, not mine. Sam

Paul's picture

"the only possible motivation for Dodes’s position is to carve out a name for himself in academia by positioning himself as a “pioneer” in “exposing” AA and 12-step alcohol recovery, all the while selling books, collecting royalties, and getting paid for speaking engagements."

Maybe not the *only* possible motivation, but perhaps the most likely. So much for academia...

When people are free to speak their minds, inevitably some will be assholes about it.

This reminds me a bit of the whacking one sees libertarians administer over recycling, because it is not "economic", etc. Guess what, even in a completely free society, some people will recycle anyway, economic or not. If their own calculations suggest recycling is a good thing, then why is it anybody else's business? Yes, government injects coercion into recycling, but don't they do that with everything? That's not a hit against recycling.

I have noted the disutility of criticizing religion before:

Samarami's picture

"Disutility" is an excellent assessment.

And I'm pleased to see the link to your article of over 4 years back. Because I think it might have been that article (and the many comments thereto) that gave rise to my lament concerning lack of participation on so many of these forums of late. The essay was a good one; but it was that, along with the comments it elicited, that inspired me to rate it a "10". I was tempted to make a list of the many participants in that discussion ("pro" and "con") who seem to have totally disappeared. But decided against it for a couple of reasons.

To incorporate your remark from a separate recent thread:

    "...But I don't think we should draw the conclusion that people are losing interest in liberty. Overall I see it going the other way..."

Agreed. This thing is not going away. It's here to stay. And, hopefully, to grow exponentially.

As an observation on the side, I sort-of hope Trump "wins"; 'tho I could care less one way or another who acquires the title of grand wizard of the klan. But it might indicate finale to mass and docile acceptance of mainstream propaganda on the part of the unwashed masses. Like "Brexit", it might cause them critters to twist and turn some -- but probably not stop the stampede toward destruction.

It will no doubt take a drowning in their own phlegm to effect that. Sam