I was pleased today to hear voices of people in their twenties participating in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Varied in ideology, they agree on the ugly maldistribution of income in the United States which becomes more extreme year by year. The absurd thing is that no one could possibly actually use an income bigger than – what? -- maybe a million dollars a year. The financial district tycoons are sinkholes of money that is never enjoyed by anyone. In fact, there is a case to be made that greater pleasure accompanied less wealth. Not so very long ago, this case was compelling to many.
American society is so powered by the dynamo of addictive consumerism that people are apt to consider acquisitiveness an innate human trait. Yet we all know many people who have ignored the pursuit of wealth, devoting themselves instead primarily to art, politics, religion, or, most commonly, family.
Furthermore in many cultures having more than one’s neighbors is discouraged. Though they may be quite stratified, tribal societies generally are highly communal in economics. The hunters share their catch; if the chief has more cassavas in his storehouse, he is expected to give some to needy neighbors. Mechanisms such as the financing of fiestas in Guatemalan villages and the potlatch system of the Northwest Coast natives discourage the accumulation of wealth. As Chief O’waxalagalis of the Kwakiutl told Boas “It is a strict law that bids us distribute our property among our friends and neighbors. It is a good law.” Even in modern Japan not only is the distribution of wealth far more egalitarian than in America; the well-fixed try to build homes that are not ostentatious as it is considered bad form to flaunt one’s advantage. Rather the opposite of the conspicuous consumption which Veblen described among the newly rich in the West, but which now characterizes the aspirations at least of the greater part of the population world-wide.
The idea of voluntary poverty is particularly associated with spirituality. From the shramanas of ancient India through many subsequent religious practitioners the shedding of possessions is considered a gateway to growth. To the Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains desire for worldly goods leads to rebirth as a preta, a hungry ghost, with a “mouth the size of a needle’s eye and a stomach the size of a mountain.” Lao Dz says that when people come to desire things hard to obtain, they become thieves. Christian monasticism often, though not always, involved voluntary poverty. Less theocentric thinkers, as well, from Diogenes and Epicurus to Thoreau and the members of the British Fellowship of the New Life, have considered poverty a characteristic of the good life rather than its enemy.
The notion of literary bohemia, whatever roots is had (among the Goliards, for instance) had become a fixed idea by the time of Romanticism. In the US the tradition of the artist “on the road,” bumming around, precedes Kerouac. Among the best-known were Vachel Lindsay (who made his way across the country trading poetry pamphlets for board and room) and Jack London (whose book is called simply The Road). Orwell could never have portrayed social conditions as an outside observer as he did in Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. For him there could be no substitute to actually sleeping is the doss-house. For Henry Miller scrounging and scraping indicated the authenticity of his values. His years of poverty could never be offset by his late success.
I don’t seek here, though, to provide a history of the idea and the practice, rather I wish only to present a sort of apologia or explanation at any rate for one significant thread of my own life.
I was hardly alone in my rebellion against American bourgeois values. To many of my generation, the social and the spiritual motives seemed entirely harmonious. Growing up in the suburbs I could participate in the attitude expressed in the 1962 Port Huron Statement, the founding position paper of SDS. The document begins. “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” That “discomfort” is later expressed as “emptiness of life” and as “anxieties.” The authors found that “Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today.” For many, the route toward replacing the cash nexus with more satisfying human relations includes resigning from competition in amassing heaps of goods.
Though every human could easily be given more than sufficient food and shelter, it is impossible for everyone to consume as much energy as an American, even an American on welfare. Everyone cannot eat meat or fish in great quantities daily. Economic democracy worldwide will mean a lowering of consumption for those who have been greedy Gargantuas. One who realizes these simple facts will naturally feel it is in better taste to live simply.
Determined to declass myself, even in high school, I preferred old and unfashionable clothing. I considered Chicago’s “bad neighborhoods” to be by far the most fascinating. In college I slept on a mattress on the floor and learned how to survive on next to nothing while engrossed in studies with no vocational aim whatsoever.
My own conviction in the late sixties was that we were indeed in a post-industrial economy, that all the work needed to produce enough to support a good life for every human on earth would require only an inconsequential amount of labor from each. The human species could then devote itself to the pursuit of artistic and intellectual pursuits, considered broadly enough to include, I suppose, the drama of NASCAR and connoisseurship of snow globes. In other words, the prophetic motto of Rabelais’ Abbey of Theleme would finally be realized: “Do as thou wouldst.”
Most people’s jobs are, after all, unproductive in this basic sense. For instance, if everyone were entitled to medical care and health staff were simply salaried by government, all the people making out bills, all the insurance workers, the great majority of workers in the health care industry, would be unnecessary. If there were no advertising of unnecessary model changes and automobiles were available at a single lot in every geographical area, the great majority of workers in that industry would be superfluous. I often said that America was a land of such wealth, money was sloshing around and it would never be difficult to get enough to get by.
All this is only to explain why I so stubbornly bought clothes only in thrift stores, made all food (including bread and yoghurt – using dried milk) at home, and went for years without a car or a telephone. I used to like to say that I spent money only on luxuries, not on necessities, and we were little limited by our budget (spending weeks in Mexico, for instance, while living on a fraction of what the government considered poverty).
The case for the wisdom of these choices seemed overwhelming. It is clearly advantageous to buy second-hand clothes from the point of view of cost, but to rely on that alone would be mean. I also felt any object made by people represented the hours of labor that had been invested in its manufacture, involving large numbers of cooperating people. To discard it when it remains usable is not simply wasteful but in addition disrespectful to the workers. Most persuasive, though, for an aesthete, selecting clothes at the Salvation Army allowed the purchaser to display not his wallet but his taste, discerning the best choices in the mountains of junk. Every individual would then appear in a unique ensemble expressing individual value judgments rather than those programmed by large corporations.
The same principle applies to other habits. I continue to believe that the traveler will have a better experience patronizing a market vendor or a little hole-in-the-wall spot as opposed to a large, “touristic” restaurant or, worse yet, the one in the Hilton. Here one not only saves money, but one consumes the true national favorites in a setting much more conducive to conversing with fellow diners or staff.
Is not such a coincidence of advantage entirely convincing? Though some chose voluntary poverty to cultivate humility in an ascetic spirit, others found it encouraged and enlivened the senses and, even more significantly, separated those who sought to really living in an alternative fashion on a daily basis and to build a new culture from those for whom to be hip was a fashion alone.
I must confess the past tense in some of this prose arises from the fact that, a decade or so before retirement, it seemed prudent (and I have generally valued responsibility and care) to accumulate some resource against the formidable challenges of aging in America. Accordingly, for a decade or so, we both worked at more or less middle class (if underpaid) jobs, retaining some but not all of what had for decades been a rather intense frugality. We now find ourselves in retirement, in a home bigger than we need, putting out a small fraction of the trash that every neighbor seems to produce, and deriving some comfort from the news that young Americans are continuing to call attention to the pernicious effect of concentrated wealth in that epicenter of economic injustice, New York City’s financial district.