by Ran Prieur
...Unlike many outsiders and "radicals," I never had to go through a stage where I realized that our whole society is insane -- I've known that as long as I can remember. But even being already mentally outside the system, I found it extremely challenging to get out physically.
...Getting free of the system is more complex than we've been led to believe. Here as in so many places, our thinking has been warped by all-or-nothingism, by the Hollywood myth of the sudden overwhelming victory: Quit your corporate job this minute, sell all your possessions, and hop a freight train to a straw bale house in the mountains where you'll grow all your own food and run with the wolves! In reality, between the extremes there's a whole dropout universe, and no need to hurry.
In my case, as I understood what I had to go through to make money, I stopped spending it. I learned to make my meals from scratch, and then from cheaper scratch, making my own sourdough bread and tortillas. I stopped buying music and books (exceptions in exceptional cases) and got in the habit of using the library. When I crashed my car, I kept the insurance money and walked, and then got an old road bike. I took a road trip by hitchhiking, but it was too physically taxing and I got sick. Like many novice radicals, I got puritanical and pushed myself too hard, and finally eased off. I temporarily owned another car and lived in it for a couple months of a long road trip. In the Clinton economic bubble, I got a job that was much easier and better paying than my previous jobs, and built up savings that I'm still living on.
The main thing I was doing during those years was de-institutionalizing myself, learning to navigate the hours of the day and the thoughts in my head with no teacher or boss telling me what to do. I had to learn to relax without getting lethargic, to never put off washing the dishes, to balance the needs of the present and the future, to have spontaneous fun but avoid addiction, to be intuitive, to notice other people, to make big and small decisions. I went through mild depression and severe fatigue and embarrassing obsessions and strange diets and simplistic new age thinking. It's a long and ugly road, and most of us have to walk it, or something like it, to begin to be free.
A friend says, "This world makes it easy to toe the line, and easy to totally fuck up, and really hard to not do either one." But this hard skill, not quitting your job or moving to the woods or reducing consumption or doing art all day, is the essence of dropping out. When people rush it, and try to take shortcuts, they slide into addiction or debt or depression or shattered utopian communities, and then go back to toeing the line.
The path is different for everyone. Maybe you're already intuitive and decisive and know how to have fun, but you don't know how to manage money or stay grounded. Maybe you're using wealth or position or charm to keep from having to relate to people as equals, or you're keeping constantly busy to avoid facing something lurking in the stillness. Whatever weaknesses keep you dependent on the system, you have to take care of them before you break away from the system, just as you have to learn to swim before you escape a ship. How? By going out and back, a little farther each time, with persistence and patience, until you reach the skill and distance that feels right.
...Some of the happiest people I know have dropped out only a short distance. They still live in the city and have jobs and pay rent, but they've done something more mentally difficult -- and mentally liberating -- than moving to some isolated farm. They have become permanently content with no-responsibility slack jobs, low-status, modest-paying, easy jobs that they don't have to think about at home or even half the time when they're at work. Yes, these jobs are getting scarce, but they're still a thousand times more plentiful than the kind of job that miserable people cannot give up longing for -- where you make a living doing something so personally meaningful that you would do it for free.
"Do what you love and the money will follow" is an irresponsible lie, a denial of the deep opposition between money and love. The real rule is: "If you're doing what you love, you won't care if you never make a cent from it, because that's what love means -- but you still need money!" So what I recommend, as the second element of dropping out, is coldly severing your love from your income. One part of your life is to make only as much money as you need with as little stress as possible, and a separate part, the important part, is to do just exactly what you love with zero pressure to make money. And if you're lucky, you'll eventually make money anyway.
But how much money do you "need"? And what if the only jobs available are low-paying and so exhausting that you barely have the energy to go home and collapse into bed? These questions lead to my own level of dropping out, which is to reduce expenses to the point that you shift your whole identity from the high-budget to the low-budget universe.
In a temperate climate, you have only five physical needs: food, water, clothing, shelter, and fuel. (If you're a raw-foodist and don't mind the cold, you don't even need fuel!) Everything else that costs money is a luxury or a manufactured need. Manufactured needs have fancy names: entertainment, transportation, education, employment, housing, "health care." In every case these are creations of, and enablers of, an alienating and dominating system, a world of lost wholeness.
If you love your normal activities, you don't need to tack on "entertainment." If you aren't forced to travel many miles a day, you don't need "transportation." If you are permitted to learn on your own, you don't need "education." If you can meet all your physical needs through the direct action of yourself and your friends, you don't need to go do someone else's work all day. If you're permitted to merely occupy physical space and build something to keep the wind and rain out, you don't need to pay someone to "provide" it. Expensive health care is especially insidious: not only is our toxic and stressful society the primary cause of sickness, but the enormous expenses that have been added in the last hundred years are mostly profit-making scams that cause and prolong sickness far more than they heal it.
This is the low-budget universe: I ride around the city on an old cheap road bike, in street clothes, often hauling food I've just pulled out of a dumpster. Sometimes I'll be on a trail where I'll invariably be passed by people on thousand dollar bikes in racing outfits. Why are they riding around if they're not carrying anything? And why are they in such a hurry?
...How do you get out of this? One step at a time! Move or change jobs so you don't need a car, and then sell the damn thing. Get a bicycle and learn to fix it yourself -- it's not even 1% as difficult and expensive as fixing a car. Reduce your possessions and you'll find that the fewer you have, the more you appreciate each one. Get your clothing at thrift stores on sale days -- I spend less than $20 a year on clothes. Give up sweetened drinks -- filtered water is less than 50 cents a gallon and much better for you. If you have an expensive addiction, pull yourself out of it or at least trade it for a cheap one.
Probably the most valuable skill you can learn is cooking. For a fraction of the cost of white-sugar-white-starch-hydrogenated-oil restaurant meals, you can make your own meals out of high quality healthful ingredients, and if you're a good cook, they'll taste good. I eat better than anyone I know on $100 a month: butter, nuts, dates, whole wheat flour, brown rice, olive oil, all organic, and bee pollen for extra vitamins. From natural food store dumpsters I get better bread, produce, meat, and eggs than Safeway even sells, but if this is impossible in your city, or you'd just prefer not to, you can still eat beautifully on $200.
The foundation of all this is to cultivate intense awareness of money. It doesn't grow on trees but you have millions of years of biological memory of a world where what you want does grow on trees, so you need to constantly remind yourself that whatever you're thinking of buying will cost you an hour, ten hours, 100 hours of dreary humiliating labor. Your expenses are your chains. Reducing them is not about punishing yourself or avoiding guilt -- it's about getting free.
If you continue to reduce expenses, eventually you'll come to the proverbial elephant in the parlor, the single giant expense that consumes 50-80% of a frugal person's money, enough to buy a small extravagant luxury every day. Of course, it's rent, or for you advanced slaves, mortgage. The only reason you can't just go find a vacant space and live there, the only reason another entity can be said to "own" it and require a huge monthly payment from whoever lives there, is to maintain a society of domination, to continually and massively redistribute influence (symbolized by money) from the powerless to the powerful, so the powerless are reduced to groveling for the alleged privilege of wage labor, doing what the powerful tell them in exchange for tokens which they turn around and pass back toward the powerful every month and think it's natural. Rent is theft and slavery, and mortgage is just as bad, based not only on the myth of "owning" space but also on the contrived custom of "interest," simply a command to give money (influence) to whoever has it and take it from whoever lacks it.
Fortunately there are still a lot of ways to dodge rent/mortgage other than refusing to pay or leave and being killed by the police. For surprisingly little money you can buy remote or depleted land and build a house on it. (see Mortgage Free! by Rob Roy, and also Finding and Buying Your Place in the Country by Les Scher) If you don't mind starting over with strangers, you can join an existing dropout community. (See the Communities Directory) You can live in a van, camp in the woods, or look for a caretaker or apartment manager job. If you're charming, you can find a partner or spouse who will "support" you by permitting you to sleep and cook someplace without asking for money. And if you're bold or desperate, most cities have abandoned houses or buildings where you can squat. Mainly all you need are neighbors oblivious to your coming and going, a two-burner propane camp stove, some water jugs and candles, and a system for disposing of your bodily waste. If the "owners" come, they'll probably just ask you to leave, and in some places there are still archaic laws from compassionate times, making it legally difficult for them to evict you.
...To drop out is to become who you are. Do not feel guilty about using strengths and advantages that others do not have. That guilt is a holdover from the world of selfish competition, where your "success" means the failure or deprivation of someone else. In the dropout universe, your freedom feeds the freedom of others -- it's as if we've all been tied up, and the most agile and loosely tied people get out first, and then help the rest.
But what if they don't? What about people who are outside the system but still hyper-selfish? These people are not what I call "dropouts" but what I call "idiots." The view of this world as a war of all against all, where your purpose in life is to accumulate "wealth," zero-sum advantages and scarce resources for an exclusive "self," is the view of the elite. The only reason to think that way is if you are one of the handful of people in a position to win. For everyone else, the value system that makes sense is that you are here to help, to serve the greatest good that you can perceive. Yet in America, rich and poor alike are raised with robber baron consciousness, to turn us against each other, to keep us exploiting those below us instead of resisting our own exploiters, to keep all the arrows going the right way in the life-depleting machine...
Appendix 1: Having Kids
For very young people there are also two universes. Squatting over a tub of warm water is a much cheaper and healthier way to give birth than lying on your back in a harsh hospital room where the high priest will take the infant away from the mother to teach it alienation, and inject it with toxic vaccinations to make it stupid and sick so it will grow into a docile worker who pumps money back into the medical system -- and don't forget the surface goal, that vaccinations enable human beings to live at the socially and ecologically destructive densities that make infectious disease a "problem."
Then you can buy a stroller and a crib (more alienation practice) and expensive baby food, or do like most nature-based peoples and carry your baby against your body and breast-feed it for the first three to four years (reference) (reference). You can send it to day care (practice for later institutions) so you can go to your job that pays only slightly more than day care costs, or you can raise the kid yourself. And the idea that a kid needs a "nice" upper-middle-class-style physical environment is worse than false. A "dirty" environment strengthens the immune system, and if I were a toddler again, I'd much rather live in a cool abandoned house or junkyard or shack in the woods than in a sterile room with a television where I wasn't allowed to touch anything.
...And the big problem is that, while the financial requirements for having kids are completely artificial, the mental/emotional requirements are real and more difficult than we can imagine if we haven't tried it. To "raise the kid yourself" must be something like three full-time jobs that you can't quit. The mother needs at least one other person capable of taking care of all her needs so she can devote complete attention to the child, and ideally she needs a whole "tribe." Babies are super-adaptable -- it's the mother who needs a level of comfort and stability that's hard to achieve without money -- and a level of emotional health that's hard to achieve with money. Otherwise the baby will adapt itself for compatibility with a hostile, empty, stressed-out hell-world...
How to Drop Out: criticism and response
Health care is not a manufactured need but a necessity.
Good health care is a necessity, but the industrial medicine that we've been trained to call "health care" does more harm than good at enormous expense. A good book on the subject is Medical Nemesis by Ivan Illich. Another good book is The Health Of Nations by Leonard Sagan, which presents evidence that modern improvements in health and life expectancy have not been caused by "advanced" medicine or even by better sanitation, but by social and psychological factors. In industrialized nations, infant mortality increases with the number of doctors!
What if you get hit by a car? I hope the doctors and nurses haven't dropped out.
I hope they have! Because then we will learn to care for each other cheaply and autonomously instead of submitting to a profit-driven elite with a monopoly on healing.
We are in a terrible, difficult position. If I get hit by a car, I will end up tens of thousands of dollars in debt for services that our ancestors gave each other for free. If I don't pay it, maybe they will put me in prison, and if I try to escape they will shoot me. So be it! I'll take that chance, rather than sell myself into slavery. How pathetic are we? We are descended from risk-takers and adventurers, we fantasize about people in heroic life and death struggles, and here we are, cringing through a life of meaningless toil and the best justification we can come up with is that if we quit our jobs we won't have health insurance!
We should be furious that the medical system was ever permitted to cost so much. We should sympathize with people who want to live outside the system and lack basic health care, instead of sympathizing with that system and suggesting that people are fools for not utterly submitting to it.
Isn't living with somebody without paying them anything called "mooching"?
Yes it is called that, because we live in a slave culture with a slave language! Our ancestors "owned" only small personal items, but now we think we can "own" information and physical space. This idea is a social construction that serves to concentrate power: if I already have power (represented as "property"), those with less power/property have to give me more. If I "own" a space, you have to pay me just to live there, and if you don't, you are taking advantage of me. We have it backwards! It is the alleged "owner" who is mooching, benefiting from the legal right to deny someone their natural right to occupy space in this world, to build a shelter and gather food and live in a cooperative community. (Not that rent-chargers are bad people. Many of them have been forced into a situation where they have to charge rent so they can make payments to still more powerful people. Wake up -- you're in hell!)
Dropping out is elitist because not everyone can do it.
People who make this criticism are failing to grasp the basic situation. This society is a prison. If we're all in prison, and you have a chance to escape, do you refuse on the grounds that not everyone can escape? If you find yourself in an unusually thin-walled cell with good digging tools, you have a moral obligation to escape -- and then to come back and help others escape...
What you're suggesting is parasitism.
Civilization/empire is the real parasite, taking from nature without giving back, killing the Earth. If we weaken it or undermine it, we are anti-parasites. But I think motivation matters. It's tolerable to destroy a bad system out of selfishness, or revenge, but it's much better to destroy it out of love of the alternatives, to be motivated by a positive vision.
It's impossible to totally separate yourself from the system (so there's no point in trying).
Since we can't be perfect, might as well not do anything: a common fallacy used by people in despair.
Isn't it hypocritical, or contradictory, to use the resources of a society you despise?
Hell no! What's wrong with taking advantage of something you despise? If you were in a prison camp in a totalitarian regime, would it be hypocritical or contradictory to steal food from the guards? To find ways to avoid forced labor but still eat? If you're Frodo in Mordor, do you refuse to disguise yourself in an orc's uniform because orcs are bad?...
Hey, you preach about separating from the system, but you're on the internet!
See the swallow metaphor above. The reason to avoid connections to the system is to maintain autonomy, not to avoid guilt. So I'll use any by-product or resource I can, as long as there few or no strings attached. I'll especially use a resource like the internet, a powerful tool to find allies and to transform human consciousness. As William Kotke says, not only is it OK to use the resources of the present system to build the next one, ideally all its resources would be used that way.
For me, the point of dropping out is not just to selfishly escape while others are still suffering. The point is to get myself in a position from which I can fight better and build the foundation for a society where everyone's free. This world is full of people with the skills and knowledge to build paradise, but they can't even begin, because they would lose their jobs. The less money you need, the more powerful you become.
What if everybody dropped out? Who would you scavenge off of?
The question is moot. In practice, everyone is not going to drop out. Most people will cling on to their unsustainable habits to the very end. I'm not the utopian dictator who gets to tell everyone what to do. But I do want to increase the number of dropouts, because there are not enough of us right now, and the more there are, the better we can help each other out and the faster we can build the healthy societies of the future.
In those societies, there will be no need to scavenge, because there will be no police to stop us from digging up the pavement and planting fruit trees. Our needs are very simple. When we are freed from shuffling data in the authority structure, and manufacturing attention-wasting gadgets, and laboring to provide excess to the elite, we can turn our attention to giving each other what's really necessary: shelter, water, food, fuel, and human caring.
That kind of cooperative, sharing society seems impossible given our history.
But not our pre-history! Read some anthropology or some anti-civilization authors like Daniel Quinn or Derrick Jensen. For the last million years, minus the last few thousand, our ancestors have lived in tribes that were mostly peaceful and free. The nasty tribes were the minority, and even warlike tribes had rituals to minimize injury and death, and even hierarchical tribes took care of everyone. Living in balance with each other and the Earth is the human norm, and I don't think we have to strip ourselves down to stone age technology to do it, just choose our physical and cultural tools more wisely.
We need modern advances in agriculture and medicine to maintain our population. Without them, a bunch of us will die.
Indigenous people are much healthier than industrialized people. The technologies of the moment sicken and kill us more than they help us. Our population is so high not because industrial methods are more efficient -- they're actually much less efficient. Our population got so high because we've been cheating, stealing from the Earth and the future, depleting soil, turning forests to farms to deserts, and burning oil -- industrial agriculture is almost completely dependent on fossil fuels. It all started just a few thousand years ago, when we went out of balance with other life and began intensive agriculture, storing surpluses, having too many kids, and conquering the neighbors to get more land to exploit. What we call "growth" is just a big pyramid scheme that's about to crash.
So you advocate lowering the human population. What's your evil plan?
I'm just the messenger. The system that maintains our high population is radically unsustainable. In theory, we could feed this many people with a sustainable system, or ramp down our population with voluntary birth control, but neither is going to happen. In practice, our numbers will rise a bit more, and then a few billion of us will die in famines or plagues or wars or ecological catastrophes, and the people who are adaptable and know how to live in balance will tend to survive, and then the trick is to keep our descendants from making the same mistakes.
Won't it just degenerate into gang war, with warlords and armed men raping and pillaging?
In some places, yes. In parts of Africa it's like that already. But in the more emotionally healthy regions, I expect a largely peaceful transition into local cooperative economies.
Sure, with butterflies and dancing children. Face it -- human nature is selfish, the universe is brutal and amoral, people in the past had worse lives than us, and they'll have worse lives in the future if the present system fails. There's not going to be some magical utopia.
If you spent your life savings buying a car for $10,000, you don't want to hear that people who came the next day (or the previous day) got a better car for $500. In fact, if you have a choice, you won't let them! It's too disturbing to think you got such a bad deal relative to other people. But that is the case! You have been born into the most neurotic, stressful, soulless time in history. Stone age people lived much better than us, and if we can learn from our experiments and failures, our descendants can live better still.
I don't think the whole world will be paradise, because some people enjoy living in hell and dragging others down with them. But even when they're at the peak of their power, as they are now, we can make little happy spaces, and keep moving from one to another and having a good time...