David Brooks writes about the “movement” “organization” thingy sometimes jokingly refered to as “Anarchy (in) Action”:
Each member of an A.A. group is distinct. Each group is distinct. Each moment is distinct. There is simply no way for social scientists to reduce this kind of complexity into equations and formula that can be replicated one place after another. (…)
In a world in which gurus try to carefully design and impose their ideas, Wilson surrendered control. He wrote down the famous steps and foundations, but A.A. allows each local group to form, adapt and innovate. There is less quality control. Some groups and leaders are great; some are terrible. But it also means that A.A. is decentralized, innovative and dynamic.
A.A. illustrates that even in an age of scientific advance, it is still ancient insights into human nature that work best. Wilson built a remarkable organization on a nighttime spiritual epiphany.
At a time when fraternal orders and churches with strict hierarchies dominated American social life, Wilson opted for something revolutionary: deliberate organizational chaos. He permitted each group to set its own rules, as long as they didn’t conflict with the traditions or the steps.
Charging a fee was forbidden, as was the use of the AA brand to endorse anything that might generate revenue.
“If you look at this on paper, it seems like it could never work,” White says. “It’s basically anarchy.” But this loose structure actually helped AA flourish. Not only could anyone start an AA group at any time, but they could tailor each meeting to suit regional or local tastes. And by condemning itself to poverty*, AA maintained a posture of moral legitimacy.
Nor did AA try to stop the proliferation of steps-centered addiction groups from adopting the Anonymous name: Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous. No money ever changed hands—the [12 S]teps essentially served as open source code that anyone was free to build upon, adding whatever features they wished.
As dependence grows, alcoholics also lose the ability to properly regulate their behavior. This regulation is the responsibility of the prefrontal cortex, which is charged with keeping the rest of the brain apprised of the consequences of harmful actions.
But mind-altering substances slowly rob the cortex of so-called synaptic plasticity, which makes it harder for neurons to communicate with one another.
While it’s on the mend, AA functions as a temporary replacement—a prefrontal cortex made up of a cast of fellow drunks in a church basement, rather than neurons and synapses.
* Question: Is there a limit to how much an A.A. member can contribute to [the General Service Office] Answer: Yes. That limit is $2,000 a year.
Question: Can people leave money to G.S.O. in their wills? Answer: Bequests in wills are acceptable only from A.A. members, with a maximum of $2,000 from any one person, and only on a onetime basis—not in perpetuity.
Question: Can a non-A.A. member make a memorial contribution to G.S.O. in honor of an A.A. member who has passed away? Answer: Though G.S.O. deeply appreciates these offers, we return checks—whether they are in memoriam or otherwise—to all non A.A.s. A.A. does not accept contributions from nonmembers. When we receive a memorial contribution at G.S.O., we return the check with a letter letting the individual know of our tradition of self support.