I often refer to myself as a “recovering alcoholic.” It’s not that this is a completely inaccurate term, and because of common usage, it’s the quickest way I can communicate to others something about myself: I used to drink, and now (*knock on wood*), I don’t.
But in another, much more important sense, there is no such thing as a recovering alcoholic.
All addictions are fundamentally the same. They all come from that same dark place inside of us. That dark place just manifests itself differently in different people. For some people, it’s alcohol. For another, it’s tobacco or some other chemical. For others, it’s gambling, or food, or beating your kids or your wife, or kicking your dog. Or sex.
I suppose others may have different experiences, but in my experience, once that dark place is inside you, it’s there forever. I have tried and largely been successful (*knocks on wood*) to deal with the most physically toxic manifestations of my own personal dark place. But it still comes out in other forms.
While I have not had a drink or used any chemicals in over seven years, I still struggle with comfort eating. You might look at me and say, “Well, Eric, you’re painfully thin — so what difference does it make?”
If you take nothing else away from this essay, you should probably take this point: If a thing controls you, and you don’t control it, then no matter what it is, you’re an addict.
As I’m writing this essay, I’m drinking a cup of black coffee. I drink coffee every day — no cream, no sugar. And it’s watery coffee to boot. My doctor knows I drink coffee, and he approves.
But the coffee controls me. I don’t control it. I’m still a wet (non-recovering) alcoholic; my addiction has just changed forms.
But I’m honest with myself about it. Whatever my failings are, and they are myriad, self-honesty and self-awareness have never been my problems. I don’t have the ability to turn them off. Even when I was at the height of my drinking and smoking, I was always very honest with myself about what I was doing. But that awareness, in and of itself, does not enable anyone to make changes.
The tagline of this website — which is ostensibly about politics and not malt liquor — contains the words “necessary and sufficient.” In some ways, my life is about a constant search for sufficient conditions to guarantee all manner of things. But sufficient conditions (for anything) are rare and elusive. The best we can generally come up with in life is a whole bunch of necessary conditions for something, then we follow those.
That’s definitely not valueless. If you’re an alcoholic and you wish to have any hope of stopping drinking, you absolutely must be able to first admit to yourself that you have a problem. If you don’t have that, then I can only imagine one fantastical scenario in which you are able to stop drinking: You are the sole survivor of a plane crash in which 150 other people die and you walk away (you’re not rolled away in a wheelchair and hooked up to a ventilator for the rest of your days).
I can imagine someone in that situation completely unrealistic situation having a religious epiphany of sorts, and stopping drinking as a result, all without ever developing any self-awareness as to their problem. But if you’re relying on that to get you (or someone you know) to stop drinking, you’re probably going to be waiting a while.
And where does the dark place come from in the first place? In my experience, both in my own life (certainly) and in what I’ve seen in others, it comes from parental abuse. Before I say anything further, I do want to emphasize the crucial role of the defining institutions of society as well. I’m going to talk about both, because they are both operative.
Before the women’s movement became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic party back in the 70s, it had a saying: “The personal is political.” Any real, honest left would still be repeating this today, because nothing has changed and, in fact, everything has gotten worse in the last 50 years (exactly as we would expect in a private-enterprise market economy like the United States).
What “the personal is political” means is that each of us feels pain, and we internalize that pain and blame ourselves for it. We think our pain is our own fault, the result of our own failings and failures. What we don’t see is the effect of our dominant social institutions on our own behaviors and personalities. We live in a society that is systemically classist, racist, sexist, and authoritarian. Institutions like corporations (workplaces), the government, the media, universities, churches, and families themselves structurally have classism, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism built into them.
This unavoidably and inextricably damages us psychologically. What early, pre-Democratic-party-whore feminists meant when they said “the personal is political” is that we are not personally to blame for situations — the bad institutions of society are. Our personal issues are actually political in nature.
What these feminists were really getting at is the notion of social responsibility. I completely concur with the notion of personal responsibility. I also believe in other forms of responsibility, and I will get to those in a moment. But first, some anecdata.
I was watching an episode of Cops many years ago. This episode was shot in Las Vegas. The police were arresting an 18-year-old young woman for prostitution. They were actually being gentle with her, probably because she was white, blond, and good-looking. She had hit bottom and she knew she needed help. She asked the cops what she could do. She was asking for help.
The cops said, Can you go back to your family? Can they do something?
She said, No, that won’t work. I need another option.
The cops said, Well, can you go back anyway? There’s really nothing any of us can do.
While I am an enormous believer in personal responsibility (a fact to which I will return momentarily), the fact is that when right-wing types bleat about it, they’re not serious and just looking for an excuse to gut social welfare problems so that “those people” don’t get any free shit.
This girl was asking for help. What more could she do? She was, in fact, absolutely exercising personal responsibility. She knew her limitations and weaknesses and was asking for help which she knew she needed in overcoming them. What the fuck more can she be expected to do?
But in the United States, there is no help available even to people who know they need it. I myself had a similar experience at one point when I sought help from the system (though no police were involved). I knew I needed help and I asked for it. I got none.
Social responsibility is a very real thing, and it is non-existent in the United States. Social responsibility means, at a minimum, social-democratic welfare programs. No, church charity doesn’t cut it. Charity is just a way for one group of people to exercise power over another. Real social responsibility means actual, functioning, well-funded government programs.
Our money is emblazoned with “In God we trust.” But this does not belong on our currency, and I’m being serious. Now, I have been an atheist since 1990, but my argument against under God being stamped on our bills and coins has nothing to do with the First Amendment.
If you’re a personal-responsibility-touting theist, how can you fail to understand the concept of the Least of These? Having “In God we trust” on our money is a privilege, not a right. Do you seriously think Jesus Christ is going to return and have no issues with us abiding a society where a young woman can ask for needed assistance and not receive it? Are you going to tell me next whom Jesus would deny help to?
We haven’t earned the right to act as though we give a shit about God as long as we pretend the poor are undeserving and should be grateful for the crumbs we deign to allow to fall to them from our ample plates. The U.S. is anything but a Christian nation, and it is on that basis that we should remove under God from our money immediately.
That is not to say, however, that personal responsibility isn’t real. Ultimately, all the social responsibility in the world can’t get anyone to quit drinking. Literally, every single person on the planet can want to help you stop drinking, and they can devote limitless material resources to the project of getting you to quit. But ultimately, only you can keep from putting that bottle to your lips.
I say this as someone who has put quite a few bottles to his lips. Until you look in the mirror and start the process of understanding that you are responsible for that act, you will never be able to stop.
Personal and social responsibility are not mutually exclusive. They should work together. A society which structurally and institutionally does not help its own is a society that is making it a hundred times harder on someone who really does want to stop. What we do collectively matters. But only what we do personally can actually get us to stop.
And as long as I’m discussing the topic of responsibility and working in references to an Almighty in which I do not actually believe, if there is a God, then there is also Divine responsibility. Religious types act like there is no responsibility but personal responsibility. But to riff off of fundamentalist themes, if God created us, then he (sorry, I’m not capitalizing pronouns) is responsible for what he created.
So God made a bunch of sentient beings and dropped them into systems he knew would be hierarchical. When you do this, you know you are going to end up with some people abusing others. If there’s a God, then God has to be at least as smart as I am. Just because most religious people (or any people) don’t understand the influence of institutional structure on human behavior, I do.
If I understand it, then God understands it. God didn’t create people giving them the free will to not create suffering. He dropped them into a system that he 100% knew, or should have known, was going to create suffering. Zimbardo had to end the Stanford Prison Experiment early because of the abuse its subjects began perpetrating on one another. This is knowable and predictable, it’s not a by-product of free-willed humans refusing to accept the Lord’s love, or some horse shit.
At best, this makes God an accomplice — the getaway driver for a large collection of killers. At worst, it makes him the worst mass murderer in history. Of course, the simplest explanation is that there is in fact no Divine responsibility because there is in fact no God. However, if there is a God, then I can’t wait to have an actual conversation with him in front of every person who has ever lived, and I’m being serious about that. Sure, he could consign me to the fires of Hell for getting mouthy with him (what would happen if you told your boss off in front of the other employees?), but that would just be an admission of weakness on his part, and proof positive that I was smarter than him, which again should be logically impossible.
Screw this crap.
I said I was going to talk about where the dark place comes from. I said it comes from parental abuse. I also said I believe in personal responsibility. I also said that if you remember nothing else from this essay, remember that if you’re not in control of a thing, then you’re an addict. I’d like to revise that, and suggest another point you should remember: Fault and responsibility are not the same thing.
My mother was viciously and violently abusive, but she never laid a hand on me. The abuse she inflicted on me was, in my opinion and experience, the most pernicious kind there is: emotional abuse. Physical and sexual abuse are the ones that get all the headlines, but emotional abuse is the most common. It’s the one you can literally see when you go to the grocery store.
My mother was such an effective abuser that I could not see it until I was in my 30s. When people first become aware of abuse that has been inflicted on them, they invariably and not unjustifiably become very angry (they were likely already very angry before — certainly, I have no small amount of experience with the emotion). They not uncommonly will confront their abuser if they can.
What we victims of abuse are really looking for is an apology. We want our abusers to accept responsibility for what they have done. Generally, we are angry when we confront them because we are at the beginning of the cycle of dealing with the fallout from what was done to us. This anger gets used against us by our abusers, though.
Our abusers will tell us that they are not responsible for our poor life choices, or whatever. And in a strict sense, our abusers are right. By the point that we are actually confronting our abusers, the damage is done and in fact our abusers are no longer responsible for what happens to us. We are responsible for ourselves whether we like it or not, because as I said above, no one — not least of which our abusers — can keep that bottle from our lips but us.
But our abusers are still at fault for what they did to us. Like with the concepts of sex and gender, where sex should really mean the biological quality of having either XX or XY chromosomes and gender should really mean the sociological quality of a biological male or female seeing themselves as socially a man or a woman, yet we constantly conflate sex and gender in our everyday conversations — so too do we conflate fault and responsibility.
It’s not my fault that I have demons, but it is my responsibility.
It’s my mother’s fault that I have demons (and to a lesser extent my father’s and everyone else in my family, but the actual details aren’t really important here). It’s in-bounds for me to confront her on that score. I have, and you can guess the results. Abusers almost universally will never accept responsibility for their abuse.
Prospects for change
Why am I discussing any of this on a site that is ostensibly about leaving capitalism and all forms of socialism in the dustbin of history and replacing them with something called participatory economics? First, let me introduce the concept of learned helplessness.
Psychologists once performed an experiment with dogs. They would put a dog in a box divided into two halves. The box was constructed so that the dog could jump from one half into the other and back, but the dog could not escape the box. The floor of the box was electrified and the current could be turned on or off in each half.
The experimenter would electrify the box, and the dog would jump to the other side. But this side of the box would be electrified too. So the dog would hop back and forth seeking to escape the current. Eventually, the dog would realize its situation was hopeless and it would give up, accepting its fate to lie on an electrified grid from which there was no escape.
The dog had been inculcated with learned helplessness.
Understanding alcoholism as I have defined it, we are truly a nation of Adult Children of Alcoholics. It’s not uncommon to hear people say, “Everyone has issues.” We are all born as butterflies, but for most of us, our parents damage our wings to some extent or another (or even pull them off outright).
The resulting difficulties in our flying (or even its impossibility for us) would be bad enough as we seek to negotiate our way through life, but it is made worse by the fact that we live in a society whose defining institutions work against us, making us have to fly through wind turbines with one wing, or walk across hot coals to get where we are trying to go.
Addicts have a higher rate of learned helplessness than non-addicts. The U.S. population, and really the population of the entire world, has been (and continues to be) put through a training and indoctrination program designed to imbue them with learned helplessness. This is true whatever is their relationship with alcohol. Elite populations in any society are always extremely concerned about keeping their control over the rabble, and preferably enhancing and increasing it.
If you take a baby elephant and tie it to a post with a rope that it cannot break, when it grows up, you can keep it tied to the same post even with the same rope, which by this point the elephant can easily break. But its learned helplessness will prevent it from realizing this.
Whether to win Medicare for all, end U.S. imperialism or stop U.S. wars against Russia and China, or address environmental devastation, any effective left is going to have to address people’s feelings of powerlessness against the ruling-class and the ubiquitousness and perniciousness of the system over which elites rule and from which elites derive their power.
In the psychologists’ experiments with dogs, they discovered that learned helplessness can be unlearned: If you unelectrify the half of the box on which the dog is not sitting, and then help the animal to that side from its position in the shocked half from which it has been trained to think it cannot escape, it will eventually learn that the other half of the box is no longer electrified and that it can indeed win by hopping to the other side.
For political movements, I believe that overcoming this learned helplessness requires the threat of a good example. People need to see that another world really is possible by actually seeing that other world and, like Doubting Thomases, being able to actually touch it. I believe the left itself must become that threat.
Capitalism and all forms of socialism are systems that are intrinsically classist, racist, sexist, and authoritarian. There is no way to have any society whose economic activity is organized around capitalism or any form of socialism that can fail to be classist, racist, sexist, or hierarchical. At an intuitive level, people correctly understand this.
If nothing better is possible, why bother to fight to change anything? If I’m the dog and I know (or “know”) that the other side of the box will shock me, there’s no point in attempting to escape my current predicament. People in society operate by the same logic. It’s not unreasonable logic, and attacking people for being too stupid, lazy, or apathetic to try to escape is both immoral and poor strategy if one truly wishes to win, say, Medicare for all.
To become that threat of a good example, I believe the left must grapple with the implications of pareconish theory. I don’t expect this to ever happen, mind you, because I believe classism is too deeply ingrained in our societies and cultures to ever be uprooted. But I would be happy to be proven wrong.
Regardless, as a matter of pure theory, I believe my approach represents a sufficient condition to achieve radical social change — an actual sufficient condition, not just a necessary one.
Sun Tzu writes: “The victorious army wins first and then goes to war, while the defeated army goes to war first and then seeks to win.” The left has flailed about for decades and managed to win precisely squat. It has no theory, no vision, no strategy. All it can do is engage is meaningless tactics with no larger goals in mind. Then it feels sorry for itself and wonders why it can’t win anything and no one cares about it.
What I’m proposing is an approach designed to facilitate offense. I’m proposing a strategy that would allow the left to finally impose its will on the ruling class, as opposed to the other way around, which is now and has basically always been our default position: They dictate terms, and we respond. I’m proposing a way to dictate terms to them — terms that they will never be able to accept that will force them to finally concede on national health care in the United States (and whatever else we wish to force them to submit to).
And as for all the alcoholics out there like me? Even if the left succeeds in replacing capitalism and all forms of socialism with a pareconish system, we will still ultimately be responsible for getting a handle on our own drinking. But the job should be much easier, or least not be made so much artificially harder.
Everyone on the left knows how much mental illness there is in this country. Much, if not most, of the left has its own mental-health issues it must contend with daily. I think it should be incumbent upon us to realize that we all have a vested interest in seeing the defining institutions of our society replaced with better institutions.
Economically, that must mean the final end to the capitalist system as well as all forms of socialism. We have seen in both best-case theory as well as worst-case practice that capitalism and all forms of socialism are structurally debilitating to the human condition. If the left can’t grapple honestly with the implications of pareconish theory, then while it may be satisfying to say that such a left won’t deserve to win anything (and it won’t), it’s also true that it will be everyone else (as well as the left itself) that pays the cost.
It’s immoral for the left to not have a critique of capitalism and all forms of socialism, particularly when pareconish theory has been around for over thirty years, and still the left refuses to take it up. One of the things alcoholism has taught me is that, “No one is coming to save your ass.”
Well, capitalism taught me that too. But the point is that no one is coming to pull the left’s chestnuts out of the fire. If you want Medicare for all (or whatever), Left, you’re going to have to do it yourself. No one is going to do it for you. You will never be able to back into it. You’re not going to get it by accident.
To quote Hobson (John Gielgud) to Linda Marolla (Liza Minelli) in the 1981 film Arthur: “Young woman, this is a tie you cannot steal. This is a tie I’m afraid you’re going to have to work for.”
Unfortunately, the left has yet to start.