Social Contract, Classical Liberalism, and the Ideology of Individualism in AA

Sorta part 2

I previously wrote that Alcoholics Anonymous can be understood on the model of classic liberal social contract theory, as a society composed by the free act of individual persons. An obvious problem with a social contract is that if it is a democratic society, the majority has a tendency to rule as a tyranny. The effect of that on dissenters is usually some combination of exclusion and oppression. That is all too familiar to secular, agnostic, atheist/non-believing, and simply non-Christian persons; to LGBTQA, trans, and gender-non-binary persons; and sometimes to political dissenters (for instance, socialists or anarchists).

Underlying the obvious problems of exclusion and oppression is another issue, which has to do with AA’s foundation within and legitimation by classical liberal ideology. That ideology presupposes a mythic metaphysical hero called “man” or “person,” who is by “nature” the bearer of inalienable rights and possessor of absolute liberty. According to classic liberalism, this “individual person” is the ultimate source of authority and legitimacy of any kind of civil society or governing state. That no such person existed, and that no one has this “nature,” did not deter the theorists of Natural Rights, and the myth of the “individual” has been the central figure in the secular religion of liberal states ever since.

This is not the place to develop more fully the critique of the individual as homo oeconomicus, but I do want to elaborate on the effect of this ideology in AA. I don’t think it needs to be argued that AA is legitimated by a classical liberal ideology. It was formed in a society formed by that same ideology, by mostly educated, white men of business and professional class.

The “individual” appears throughout the text of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is he who drinks alcoholically, it is he who must seek help for himself, because it is he who has come to live outside or on the very fringes of his society. As we know, Alcoholics Anonymous tells him that he is not to blame for his alcoholism: he has a disease. The treatment for the disease prescribed in Alcoholics Anonymous is to own up to the problem, take stock of his past wrongs, make amends wherever he can, go and sin no more, or at least make amends whenever he does, etc.

In the cliché catch-phrases of AA meetings, we also know that this treatment is “an inside job,” and that every alcoholic must work on himself on an everyday basis, in order to retain his reprieve from alcohol. When the alcoholic reviews his life, ineluctably he finds that he is the source of his problems, and that he can’t change the way of the world, only his attitude.

If alcoholism is a disease, its etiology according to AA points to one cause: the individual himself. If his moral blame for alcoholism is (supposedly) relieved by this diagnosis, his causal responsibility is assigned, however vaguely and inconsistently to psychological, genetic, physiological, or other traits ascribed to the individual himself. Why are the individual’s traits causally responsible for the disease of alcoholism? What is the causal link between those so-called traits and the disease itself? There are no clear answers.

There are no clear answers because the questions almost never come up. The causation is presumed, since, after all, it is common sense that every individual has an individual psyche, an individual genetic code, an individual physiology, and so on. We know this to be true because we are all individuals. So basic to this conceptualization of human life, so unquestionable as ways of understanding the world, liberalism and the religion of individualism go unnoticed—which is the way ideology best functions.

We fail to notice that every one of us is the product of our society and culture, as well as of our parents’ genes. We fail to notice that our upbringing took place also in a particular society and culture, and not in the hermetic vacuum of the “privacy” of the “family.”

We fail to notice that the economic system of consumer capitalism requires us to be, above all, consumers of the products of industry, and that our basic moral duty in this society is to consume, as much as we can for as long as we can. You didn’t need my ideological analysis to tell you that our participation as consumers under capitalism looks exactly like, and for some of us is, an addiction. But the ideology of liberalism and individualism convinces us that we are the cause of our addictions, that addiction is not also produced by our society and culture. I have never heard anyone in a meeting share that they were just spectacularly superior consumers. Our addictive, excessive consumption made us saints and martyrs of consumer capitalism.

Whose disease is this?

P.S. I am aware that Russell Brand says that capitalism is a factor in creating addiction. But he remains committed to the individualist ideology (and treatment). As for “individual responsibility,” it will at last be necessary to describe how we actually do things, rather than presumptively ascribe and prescribe “responsibility.”

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