Money is a power that we have given disproportionate influence in our lives. One of the ways that some people -- Pagans and others -- try to deal with that is through voluntary poverty, avoiding the stuff entirely, or as much as possible. It's a choice that is controversial and poorly understood, and its impact isn't entirely clear. As part of my money ministry, I'm trying to wrap my head around the many ways we can relate to it, including its rejection.
One thing that has become apparent to me is that there are limits on how much one can change through voluntary poverty or other money-avoidance schemes, such as simplicity and joining an intentional community which doesn't use it internally. That limit is explained nicely by Lynne Twist in her book, The Soul of Money. In the first chapter, Twist tells the tale of Chumpi Washikiat, a member of the Achuar people of the Amazon, who has been designated by his community to go out into the world and learn about money. He moved into the author's home in the United States to do so. Twist writes,
"His education about money was more on the level of inhaling. Everywhere he went, the language and meaning of money filled the air, from billboards, advertisements, and commercials, to price cards on muffins at the local bakery. In conversations with other students he learned about their hopes, dreams, and prospects for life after graduation, or as they put it, 'life in the real world' -- the money world. He began to see how it is in America: that virtually everything in our lives and every choice we make -- the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in, the schools we attend, the word we do, the futures we dream, whether we marry or not, or have children or not, even matters of love -- everything is influenced by this thing called money."
It's difficult to unthink a thought. Once we have thought of money, even if we stop using it, it has fundamentally changed how we think about the world. The same is true of language, in fact: On RadioLab that I heard a story about a group of people who did not learn language until adulthood, yet did communicate with one another. After they were taught a language, over time they forgot how they formed and shared ideas without it. As an idea and shaper of ideas, money is every bit as powerful as language in this regard. Those who stop using it will continue to think as if they did, and as someone who has always had the idea of money in my life, I am sorely pressed to imagine the alternatives.
Comments on previous posts about this topic have made it clear that feelings are strong on this subject. There's been a number of people who have criticized money, but even more who condemn those who choose voluntary poverty, mostly for being a drain on resources intended for those who did not choose to be poor, but are anyway. Missing was any voice of the voluntary poor, so I went looking for them. I was lucky enough to find one who was willing to speak with me about it. E is a Pagan who prefers to remain anonymous, and since I do not even know eir gender, I will refer to em using Spivak pronouns. (These gender-free pronoun alternatives have become popular with people whose genders don't fit into our binary categorization, but in truth, they are intended for people of all genders, even the boring "male" and "female" ones.) E also is not fond of capital letters, and had occasional spelling and grammatical errors in our Facebook conversation which I have corrected for the sake of clarity.
My unnamed source is an initiate of a Gardnerian lineage of British Traditional Wicca. E is what I think is the stereotypical Pagan who is voluntarily poor, in that e has an education which allows em to earn money performing skilled labor, but mostly chooses not to. That is not always the case, however; as e told me, "at the moment, I am indoors, because .. polar vortex. I like not having my fingers and toes freeze off, so I have a small gig doing software dev so I can pay for a roof and some bread in the meantime. Nothing Fancy. I'm still broke all the time, but I'm not freezing."
Software development could earn em a heckuva lot more in a year than I have ever been able to make, so why only do it when necessary? For this particular Pagan, it's to avoid buying into a system that is fundamentally broken. (And if you didn't notice that I used a money metaphor just then, you're probably as blind to money's omnipresent influence as any of us.)
"It's not monetary exchange itself which I find distasteful," e wrote. "Most specifically it's the commoditization of human needs and suffering which occurs when we devolve into too much reliance upon the concept (because it is only a concept) of private property.
"Now that's not to say private property is verboten, just that for my own part, I do strongly feel that as far as social agreements go, they are there to safeguard against unnecessary suffering first and foremost. [It is] forcing unbalanced and hierarchical relationships on people by intervening between them and their source of survival (land, water, air, seeds/food, etc.). It ends up serving the precise opposite role.
"So I don't believe in land ownership beyond what a single person can reasonably use for growing/harvesting food for themselves and dependents. As to how to avoid difficulties like 'the tragedy of the commons,' I don't feel there's any greater likelihood of that if the produce on the land is also not commoditized, nor otherwise associated with hierarchical social constructs (social status) as opposed to [using it] for its intended purpose of ensuring the survival of living people/ecology.
"I'd leave off by simply pointing out that the chief hurdle in the way of realizing a world free of such abuses of power and ecological resources, is the ignorance (as in 'to ignore') of the people with respect to the harm it causes, nor what its original raison d'être was to start with."
I asked about the most common accusation leveled at the voluntary poor in comments to my other posts: "So what do you say in response to people who say that you, by your choice of poverty, are taking from the mouths of people who did NOT make that choice?"
E replied, "Is my not working taking any more from them than their support of a system which prevents me from living off the land in a self sufficient manner? Which is ultimately more destructive? I know my answer. Who entitles the government to determine that I naturally have any lesser rights to the earth upon which we depend for our lives, than any other person, such as the queen, or some other landlord? The fact is that the state (as supported by its electorate) impinge[s] on my freedom through the threat of force (police). I have no right to opt-out of decisions made on my behalf. And this we call 'freedom™.'"
E went on to explain the freedom in eir view consists of "the right to dissent. It also means freedom from aggression. Limit either of those two (provided one's action don't contradict either) and you are no longer living in a free society. Some others may have Stockholm syndrome and love to lick the boots of the master. I don't.
"Also," e pointed out, "I've paid plenty of taxes (or rather have had plenty of my labor extorted by threat of force). I'd have to collect social assistance for practically the rest of my lifetime before I could ever be even close to being considered as sponging off anyone else's work." In addition, e contributes to eir community in non-monetary ways. "I volunteer. I teach what I know. I probably make more personal effort to help people in that situation than anyone who'd make such a statement. Moreover, I'm actually in a position to understand what poor people experience. Instead of judging from a high horse, I am directly friend to friend face to face with them on a regular basis. When it comes to things like making space for homeless people to find shelter, or to plant food crops, it's not me who's standing in the way. It's all the property owners who are concerned for appearances of having homeless people in their neighborhood. I don't take such people's criticism seriously because they're almost always hypocrites."
Those last points remind me of what Alley Valkyrie told me about the trap of poverty, and makes me indeed wonder who causes more harm to the poor, those who choose to live among them, or those who choose to live above them.