14 July 2014

Old Waves, New Waves, Permanent Waves



A couple of years ago I wrote a blog article about the strained relationship between radical politics and drug dependency. On that occasion I was looking at the challenge that social movements such as Occupy face when people experiencing problematic drug use and people engaged in social protests end up sharing the same created spaces – or what Hakim Bey called “Temporary Autonomous Zones.”

I was reminded of this blog on reading Alistair Sinclair’s excellent article in Drink and Drug News entitled “Catching the Wave.” Locating his discourse firmly from the perspective that the “personal is political,” Sinclair argues “while we have been encouraged to focus on the ‘canaries in the mine,’ those who are the first visible casualties of a sick society, fixing them and returning them to a productive life, we have been discouraged, interestingly from looking at the mine itself.”
Whilst agreeing wholeheartedly with Sinclair here, a bit that I find fascinating is the line “we have been discouraged…from looking at the mine itself.” Discouraged by whom, and why?

I originally looked TAZs in the context of radical politics. Since then it has been interesting to observe the new TAZs of the Recovery Movement emerge. The Recovery Walks, Festivals, Alcohol Free Bars are each examples of temporary spaces creating their own rules, norms and dialogues outside of the societal mainstream. In this respect they represent a radical, grass-roots derived response to substance dependency.
From the point of radical politics there is a great deal here to admire – the gathering of groups of people who find common cause and who, with minimal reliance on external agencies, have grown their own communities.

Here though, lies the first challenge. As Bey noted when talking of Temporary Autonomous Zones, as the initial rush of creativity is lost, a TAZ can stultify, and deteriorate to a structured system that stifles creativity. Those who make the path by walking it risk creating a new highway that all follow and from which only the brave or the foolhardy deviate.
There are however, bigger challenges. Perhaps these are why, as Sinclair notes, we are discouraged from looking at the mine itself.

Sinclair’s article talks with the passion of a fin de si├Ęcle theorist of how we are “staring in to an abyss and facing the ‘challenges of modernity.’” Radical talk indeed. Almost revolutionary. How well does such radicalism sit alongside 12 step traditions?

Given the AA tradition that “Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues,” there is a clear tension between internal personal audit and a process of external fault finding. An addict is sick, and must acknowledge this if they are to recover. But does the same model that encourages this introspection actively discourage acknowledgement of the sick society?

This sense of being unable or unwilling to look at the mine rather than just treating the canaries is reinforced by other articles of faith. The Serenity Prayer for example, the acceptance of things that can’t be changed, throws up the sharp question is a failing society something that should be accepted with serenity. Likewise, the invocation to “sweep off our side of the street,” discourages a more radical approach which seeks to challenge the causes. "His faults are not discussed. We stick to our own.” 

It would of course be wrong to elide all recovery communites and these aspects of AA tradition. Sinclair’s article takes a far wider view of recovery and is not rooted in a Fellowship paradigm. But at present much of UK recovery does draw on Fellowship traditions and as such it is firmly located within an apolitical nexus.

While the spaces that the recovery community create may themselves be apolitical, they are unavoidably located within a wider political context. The political idealism which has driven much of what is now labeled ‘recovery’ has very definite views of canaries and mines and recovery. Once recovered, a canary should very much get itself back down the mine, and become a hard-working canary, especially if it wants any more millet.

So very far from critically looking at the society that creates the sickness, the political paymasters are disinterested in healing a sick society rooted in inequality. They want the sick well so that they can go back to being efficient healthy cogs in the machine, but with an adjusted mind-set that allows them to cope with the machine better, in gratitude and humility.

I have no doubt that Sinclair’s right about our sick society and the need for communitarian responses. At present we risk a combination of temporary autonomous zones ossifying in to permanent ones, an ideological bedrock that eschews controversy, and paymasters who are more interested in human function than the human condition.

While some aspects of emergent recovery communities are deeply radical in spirit and execution, and while some individuals do speak loudly about the wider issue of our sick society, the fear is that the lack of radicalism will leave people in the same mine as they were ever in.