Ok, let me preface this with a disclaimer. First off, I’m not living completely without money or private possessions and I don’t claim to be. Since I started living like this I’ve earned and used money. While I would love to find a way to get things like phone credit and public transport without money, I haven’t found it yet. I’m trying to free myself from the shackles of money, not enslave myself to another ideology.
Secondly, this is a personal statement, not a political manifesto. I don’t think everyone should live like this (ok, maybe I do, but I don’t want to force people to), what I’m doing here is outlining why I’ve chosen to live like this, since it’s a conversation I’ve had so many times with so many different people.
Anyway, now that’s out of the way, let’s start with the bible. I know a lot of you probably don’t view the bible as something that should be used as a basis for decisions in life, but I do, and it’s where this story starts. So, in the words of Jesus, from Luke 12:
22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? 26Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Now this is not the place for analysing whether this should be taken literally (or why so few Christians choose to do so). But this, and other passages in the bible where the same idea is repeated (Luke 9, Luke 18, Acts 4) always fascinated me. I looked at these and imagined the freedom of living the way Jesus talks about.
The problem is that these ideas are just theoretical while everybody you know is living a completely different way. So it was very influential for me to meet, in the last couple of years, people who despite maybe getting the idea from different places were living out similar ideals. I realised that, by dumpster-diving food and squatting for shelter, you could live pretty comfortably off the excess of our wasteful society. After that the idea of living without money began to entice me more and more.
But aside from all this spiritual stuff, what are my practical reasons for living without money? The first one is pretty simple. To defeat greed. Some may consider this a simplistic view of things, but it seems to me that most of the world’s problems come from this single vice. We want to own more and control more, at the expense of others. We might be destroying the earth, killing each other and letting half the world starve while the rest of us die of obesity, but that’s just the way it goes in our world of wealth and power.
Well I don’t think that’s the way it needs to go. And I don’t think those at the top of the pyramid benefit from greed, let alone those at the bottom. Now giving up money and possessions won’t defeat greed completely – if only it was that easy to defeat the selfish urges that are in all of our hearts – but the truth is, that when you have consciously rejected accumulated wealth, it’s actually very hard to be greedy. Because the alternative resources of this lifestyle – time, skills, friendship – it doesn’t make sense to hoard.
The second reason is a little more contentious. Some will disagree. But here goes… Living without money is to be free from the tyranny of material wealth. Now those living in absolute poverty in the majority world probably wouldn’t claim that they are free from wealth. But I could certainly make a case that they are imprisoned by someone else’s wealth.
And in our context, the freedom that comes from rejecting money is amazing. I can go wherever I want, and this year I have seen and spent time in a fair chunk of the country. More than that, each day I am free to do the things I actually want to do, rather than have someone tell me what I have to do because of the power dynamics of wealth.
See, we think that having money makes us free to buy stuff and do the things we want to do, but the truth is we are always answering to people who control us by no other means than money – we have to pay rent to our landlord, we have to work for our boss, we have to pay off our loan for that expensive thing the advertisers told us we needed so much.
Why do they hold this authority over us? Is it natural law? Is it for some greater good? No, it’s for no other reason than that they control the capital. We have to sell our labour to make money, but once we earn that money, we pay it back to the same people, because they own the property we rent and the products we buy.
A lot of people say to me “I like my work.” But that is based on a flawed assumption that without money there is no work. Without money we can still work (I do, and I quite like my work too), but we can reject the power dynamics of capitalism. We work because the work itself is good and necessary, not because we are enslaved in a system of private wealth.
The reasons are getting more abstract here, but my third reason is that one form of currency (like money) reduces us all to the lowest common denominator. Most economists will say that capitalism is based on specialisation, that the most effective way of production is for people to just do the thing they are good at, and trade the excess. But the system we live in is based much more on mass production and the commodification of labour than individual talents and abilities.
Imagine a world where we produced what we need communally. Each person would be valued for their individual gifts and skills, rather than just their worth in dollars and cents. Things would be valued for their actual usefulness, not just some arbitrary monetary worth. Maybe it’s just a dream, but I like to think that everyone has something to contribute to society, whether it makes money or not.
A lot of people ask me what my alternative is. “Is it bartering?” No. My alternative, actually, is sharing. Take only what you need, share what you have. There is easily enough to go around for everybody. It’s a combination of the Marxist idea of “from each according to his (or her, you sexist jerk Marx) ability to each according to his/her need”, and the Christian idea (not actually held by many Christians) that everything belongs to God so to claim anything as “private property” is extremely presumptuous. This idea is not that radical, we teach sharing to our kids but it gets lost somewhere along the way.
Many people are very quick to respond to all this with “that’s great, but the whole world couldn’t live like that.” I’m not so sure about that. While it may be true that I’m kind of freeloading off society, I’m also not trying to make money off anybody else, claiming that things are “mine” at the expense of others, or trying to take more than I need. Take out these factors and the world starts to look very different. Maybe we wouldn’t all have to spend our lives doing unfulfilling work just to make enough money to live.
I guess the other common criticism is that the ideal of sharing is great but it could never actually work in practice. But this view in itself is a problem. We can’t control what everybody does. We can’t actually change the whole world, and whether it would be a good thing for one person or one group of people to change the world to fit their beliefs is extremely questionable. But what we can do is take control of our own lives, and be responsible for our own choices.
The idea that no change we make personally can have any effect on the wider world is not only disempowering, it’s not even true. The truth is that the only changes we can hope to see will be the result of individual people making personal changes.
So what is my conclusion? Do I think everyone should give up their money and possessions? Well as much as I can’t recommend this lifestyle highly enough, I don’t actually think that. What I do hope is that people reading this can let their imagination win out over their fear, not just accept the rules we have been given, and get active in trying to create the kind of world we would prefer to live in.