Philosophy Weekend: Outside of Society

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"Outside of society!" shouts Patti Smith in one of her best songs, Rock and Roll Nigger. The phrase expresses not a reality but rather only a dream for many of us. For a small few, it's an actual choice.

I've never lived off the grid, but I've always been drawn to the idea. The impulse to withdraw from modern suburbia and reinvent society in capsule form has a long intellectual history; it was a driving force of the French Enlightenment, New England Transcendentalism (Louisa May Alcott spent part of her childhood in her father's commune) and the 1960s hippie revolution. During that golden age, Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters lived in a cabin in Palo Alto, Timothy Leary held court at Millbrook, New York, while Allen Ginsberg's poetic entourage gathered around Cherry Valley, New York. But Charlie Manson was also building his own society at Spahn Movie Ranch outside of Los Angeles during these years. Many of the most well-known off-the-grid communes since the end of the 1960s have similarly been disaster stories: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple in Guyana, David Koresh and the Branch Dravidians in Waco, the lonely Unabomber in his Lincoln, Montana cabin.

Some of the original hippie communes, though, did not fail, and managed to evolve. My older and younger sisters both experimented with communal societies at different points in their lives, and I once visited my younger sister for a weekend while she lived on the edge -- half in, half out -- of a rural commune in northwestern Vermont that sustained about 75 regulars and many more visitors. The informal commune -- people lived in separate shacks, but spent their days together -- had existed quietly and successfully for years. I hope it's still there.

I've been puzzling over the meaning of the American Tea Party movement lately. I strongly disagree with almost all of their positions, and yet I'm attracted to their separatism, to the fierce notions of sociological idealism that fire them up. Of course, the Tea Party's anti-Federal government attitude has many sides; at their worst, they are a hapless throwback to the Confederate States of America, and in their outrage they are easy prey for wealthy corporations who've somehow gotten them to believe that, while government is bad, unregulated capitalism and militarism is good. I fear the Tea Party has already been co-opted by corporate big spenders to help push their anti-regulation agendas in the name of "freedom". (And I still think Barack Obama is a great President, and I think I'll write a little more about that next weekend.)

But there are many faces to the Tea Party, and the movement has a few smart people. I've had great conversations with enthusiastic "new conservatives" who don't fall for the corporate-financed messaging that pervades Fox News and conservative talk radio, but see promise in the idea of a smaller federal government. These independent thinkers seem to me like Tea Party hippies. They're idealistic and privately religious, they're okay with gay marriage and marijuana legalization and a woman's right to choose, and they strongly believe that they and their families and neighbor's families can do a better job of running their lives without the United States of America mucking it all up. They just want to be free. Who can argue with that?

Of course, it's not just Tea Partiers, Patti Smith, Transcendentalists and hippies who yearn to live outside of society. Influential Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, a real-life character who finances companies like Facebook, is trying to build alternative societies on our oceans. It's called Seasteading. Slate recently mocked the idea, and while I'm not sure I agree with Slate's point of view, I do find it hard to take seriously a venture whose models (one is pictured at the top of this page) look like Lego sets.

Still, I can't help being fascinated, and I see no reason to criticize this venture. Give it a try, what do we have to lose? I'm glad Peter Thiel's organization posted a firm rebuttal to Slate, and I hope Seasteading.org will go far with their idea. Maybe someday I'll get to visit one of these futuristic ocean pods.

I'll never really make it off the grid myself, though. Hell, I'm a web developer -- I help build the grid. Still, the fact that we all have the choice, even just on a theoretical level, to withdraw from our familiar worlds and "reboot" our ideas about civilization gives me hope. How about you -- have you ever lived outside of society, or wished you could?

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Specters of Socialism. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: KRS-One Speaks.
7 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Outside of Society"

by hepcat on

Interesting post, Levi.

It resonates particularly well with me because I’ve been living, in a sense, ‘off the grid’ since 2003 when I packed up and shipped out to Asia. I’ve lived in a few countries here but have spent the most time by far in the ‘socialist republic’ of Vietnam where I teach English. Not one thing precipitated my move, but rather a long, gnarled tapestry of circumstance and grievances with the direction of American government and society that seems to me irredeemable.

Expats here are not under any pretensions of reinventing a new society, instead most of us are comfortable having withdrawn our tax money from a militaristic oligarchy. This is one reason hippie communes have never made sense to me—unless they’re totally self-sufficient, and I don’t know any that are, they pay tax which, ironically, supports the society they choose not to be a part of.

Why I chose Vietnam has nothing to do with the government, which is a corrupt, elitist dictatorship straight out of Animal Farm, and I do not pay taxes to them either, fortunately. The society here would drive most liberal minded people mad. All media is run by the government, and in a country where people don’t speak English, it means they have total control over access to information. If you don’t believe a mass of people can be brainwashed, come here, where all news is good and history is cleaned of mistakes. For instance, no one here knows who Stalin is, nor would they care—they’re raised not to ask questions, which is perfect for an economic dragon that benefits the rich and helps the poor stay poor. Yet they are happy, at least according to a global happiness survey. I can’t help but think an American administration would kill for that kind of hoodwinking power. The funny thing is, this ‘socialist’ state has bought so completely into the American ideals of unrestrained capitalism and get rich quick mindset that they do damn near anything to get a passport to the land of plenty.

By contrast, I think Americans are brainwashed into buying the notion that democracy has safety valves for social change that prevent revolutions—a true democracy, I think, would, but we are so far removed from democracy in my opinion. Our government is controlled by rich white people, lawmakers who are bought and sold by corporations. Our government is rigged so that if you want the power to change it, you need to be rich, and if you’re rich, you’d never want to change it, at least not that much. It’s a vicious circle, and the only real change I believe will come from outside. Even the economic meltdown, the only bubbles that burst were the housing and stock markets, certainly not anyones’ belief in the system.

Anyway, sorry for the scattershot rant! My feelings on the matter evidently prohibited a focused response.

by markbromberg on

I think many Tea Partiers aspire to live off the grid and admire greatly those who attempt it -- many turn the examples of Waco and Ruby Ridge into heroic stands against a Federal government they find intrusive. But these self-styled rugged individuals are blind to the role of big business which keeps them in what is considerable luxury compared to the rest of the world: not just the highways that connect the vast stretches of America, but the communications systems, water supplies -- and even the current health care system, as evidenced by the cry of some Tea Partiers for the government to "get its hands off their Medicare."

The politicized idea of self-sufficiency bears little resemblance to what would happen if these goals were achieved. Levi's comparison to the Confederacy is apt -- like the Reconstruction and the era of carpet-baggers which followed the end of the Civil War, a Tea Party-America would be open to all kinds of big-business manipulation under the guise of "Freedom."

As hepcat pointed out above, "Our government is controlled by rich white people, lawmakers who are bought and sold by corporations. Our government is rigged so that if you want the power to change it, you need to be rich, and if you’re rich, you’d never want to change it." The attractions of the Tea Party are unrealistic ones, but that doesn't lessen the considerable impact that its followers hope and wish for -- without considering further any of the dangers.

by mtmynd on

That little known group, the 2%'ers, that control the majority of the wealth of the country... it is those folks who probably are living 'off the grid' more than the rest of us 98%'ers who can't help but have a certain level of envy towards the 'uber-wealthy' who live lives of such tremendous privacy (if they choose, and I believe the majority do), that anyone of us would never recognize them on the streets. The Mars family comes to mind. Several years ago I googled the Mars family and was surprised how little is really known about this family other than the name Mars in the candy world.

When one has the power to live off the grid, does not their wealth have a great deal to aiding them in realizing their dream to live their lives separate from the society within which we all are somehow connected?

This is not to say that what we conceive of as 'freedom' is unattainable. True freedom frees one from even the burden of wealth which requires an enormous amount of control and concern over that accumulated wealth, despite what we may think. To those folks, every dime counts... much like the old Disney character 'Uncle Scrooge' whose accumulated wealth was always kept in check.

Freedom, true freedom, comes from within. When our own concerns, our own desires and wants are reduced to no thing, that is a tremendous boon to our personal freedom. People who have attained that freedom are seldom, if ever, bothered by the mundane world we are captive to. Their freedom transcends all the concerns of our modern day existence with it's job security, mortgage payments, health concerns, daily bills, taxes of all types... all the trivial concerns that forever prevent that singular freedom from being realized.

It may sound like another Utopian dream, but quite possibly should we as individuals continue our evolutionary path, that day may arrive when we transcend this nonsense we call life and realize that all of it is merely living a lie... a lie we convince ourselves is necessary to our well-being.

One of the most interesting communes is the Fort Hill commune in Boston, founded by the controversial folk musician and sometime Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band member Mel Lyman. Lyman, who is now dead, was the ediitor of the Avatar, and a sort of messianic figure in the Boston subculture. As far as I know, the Fort Hill commune exists to this day, and Jim Kweskin may or may not be a member.

Good post, Levi. I've likewise been fascinated by groups who live "outside of society." Punks, hippies, dropouts, iconoclasts -- in the end, they come crawling back. The need for some stability later in life tends to cripple the initial impulse. The French tend to be better at sticking to their separatist guns than us. Guy Debord, Jean-Luc Godard -- the latter having snubbed the Academy for an honorary Oscar. I guess the real question to consider here, and it does seem as if you're exploring this spectrum by talking to a few Tea Party people, is whether one can ever be completely "outside of society." Do you somehow earn your right to be an iconoclast by giving the people what they want? And if that's the case, then is that an honest approach to your principles? Conversely, do you thumb your noses at the apparent freaks because they refuse to play the game? In short, where is the happy medium? You've written of Buddhism as a principle that can unite all these pesky remainders. But when naked opportunism remains the fuel for how we must pay our rent (thank you, capitalism! thank you, recession!), can anyone really be an outsider? Are iconoclasts greater poseurs than those who oscillate between?

Hepcat, I'm sure most governments WOULD kill for that kind of hoodwinking power.

I agree with Ed Champion about these so-called off-the-grid people. If they were really off-the-grid we'd have never heard of them. There's nothing wrong with wanting to connect.

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