My submission to the Sociometry Fair 2000 was a full-size, dented garbage can with a large dollar sign in a circle and crossbar spray-painted on it. Attached to the can was the following essay:
What would it mean to you right now if you lost all access to money? Imagine a bank error has reduced all your monetary assets to zero, and just when you ran out of cash. What would your situation be? How would you get home? You may have traveled to come here. Could you make it back again? Do you have enough food?
This *IS* agent has taken an interest in the sociometric perspective on your situation. Your individual task is to interact with a group we are very accustomed to, THE ECONOMY. BUT, you must do so without making any monetary transactions. If you are at all like this agent, you may feel a sense of panic come with a true understanding of your predicament. Don’t worry, you can survive. And you will learn, perhaps for the first time, what THE ECONOMY really is, from an important perspective.
Think about the objects you have with you right now. If you have cash, that’s off limits. Most likely you’ll find the usefulness of the things you are carrying is diminished in your new situation, while some simple objects that you don’t usually carry could be of great help. This agent has attempted to use his experience to gather some potentially useful objects that you see around this exhibit. He has made no monetary transactions to acquire these objects. You are invited to exchange one of the non-cash objects you are carrying for one of the potentially useful objects here.
Did you make a swap? If so, congrats on making a moneyless transaction with THE ECONOMY. In this case, you, as an individual, have interacted with THE ECONOMY via this agent, who acted as your point of contact with the entire group. Who knows how he acquired those objects? THE ECONOMY, you may notice, functions through vast, mysterious, independent transactions. The individuals who take part in any one transaction usually have no interest or knowledge of the related transactions preceding it, or many of those that may follow.
You may still feel unprepared to deal with THE ECONOMY for any length of time without relying on money. This agent knows about that feeling. What follows are some of his observations from his own attempts to get by without resorting to money. They may give you some ideas about possible courses of action.
When was the last time you went for days without making any monetary transactions? The only time I could think of myself was on extended backpack trip. And that was because I was isolated from THE ECONOMY. Whenever I had a chance I spent money.
In 1999 and early 2000 I had the perfect opportunity. This time I was on an extended bike tour, in daily contact with THE ECONOMY. I planned to be out for months, so I had multiple opportunities to see how long I could make it without using money. I had the basic materials for survival: a tent, a stove, some tools, a bike for transportation. I had no commitments to hinder me. How hard could it be to abstain from monetary transactions?
I tried many times, and the longest I made it was one week without money. I was amazed at the difficulty my goal presented. The use of money is such a lifelong, ingrained behavior that a supreme effort was required to alter it. I could only sustain it for relatively short periods of time. Still, the experiences I had taught me many things.
THE PANIC INSTINCT
The philosopher comic Robert Anton Wilson observed that much of human behavior can be illuminated by thinking of human beings as domesticated primates. Primates have a deep, bio-survival instinct that manifests itself in violent panic behavior when the creature’s survival is threatened. Particularly if the primate’s source or food or physical safety is withdrawn, the panic behavior manifests. Human beings also display the behavior, but in a large part food and shelter have been replaced by money as the focus of our bio-survival dependence, especially in mainstream American culture. Almost without fail, if you withdraw an American’s source of money, the panic behavior will manifest. I myself felt a deep terror traveling in the world whenever I voluntarily gave up my access to money. This phenomenon prompted Robert Anton Wilson to refer to money as “bio-survival tickets.”
Ultimately I could not fully control the panic caused by the bio-survival instinct. Like a junky, I would eventually find myself going to whatever lengths necessary to reestablish my access to money. In the short term, however, by constantly reminding myself that the panic was not caused by my own knowledge or experience, I was able to ignore the instinct and explore alternatives to monetary interactions with THE ECONOMY.
This seems to be the first monetary alternative people think of. In my own experience, riding a bike along through the small towns and backroads of America without money, I was never tempted to barter. There’s a reason bartering economies tend to fail. There’s also a reason why you don’t see many homeless Americans with little or no money attempting to barter. First, you have to have something of value to barter, and second you have to find someone who wants it. It’s not practical. The other alternatives are much easier and more flexible.
My most pressing need was food. I suppose I could have begged for food, but I lacked some of the talents that I thought were needed to make this option really work. The idea is to somehow convince people in THE ECONOMY to relinquish their possessions without any apparent return. You have to find a motive in people to produce such behavior. Predominating Christian values are a good place to start. Many people have read or been told that they should be charitable towards the suffering poor. To capitalize on this, you would want to exaggerate as much as possible the role of the virtuous, suffering, but nonetheless pious beggar. You could make sure your clothes are ragged and dirty, pretend to have a horrible disease or disability, and appear far, far more pathetic and needy than the people you are begging from. If there are more experienced beggars competing in the area, don’t even try to do outdo them. Find some less worked turf. Don’t forget to use generic, pious language like “God bless,” “Amen” and the like.
Another approach is to be so repulsive and annoying that people will give up something to make you go away. The most artful and difficult tactic, though, is to establish rapport with someone so that they can briefly identify with you, and then make your status as the victim of unavoidable suffering apparent. I’ve seen beggars with this talent eating frequently at nice restaurants.
I am better at being the victim of this method than the benefactor. But you can learn how it works this way too. The crucial step is the first, picking your victim. Thinking of them as “the sucker” may help desensitize you and let you work up the required contempt for them. The most successful cons prey upon two qualities, greed and trust. Choose your sucker accordingly.
Now, you don’t want the sucker to be thinking logically or clearly while you con them. To help induce a state of confusion, speak quickly and perhaps in a difficult-to-understand accent. In general, you create a desperate situation that you are supposedly in, and explain it in a jumbled, out-of-sequence, very worried and helpless way. You make yourself the helpless victim to appeal to the sucker’s trust. You also want to pretend that except for your current predicament you are very wealthy. This is how you appeal to the sucker’s greed, implying that if they help you now they will likely profit greatly in the future.
From here you play the sucker’s responses, exaggerating the parts of your story they respond to best and promising anything at all to get them to give you what you want. If it’s just food or shelter you’re after, you shouldn’t have to get too extreme. Remember that whatever you offer them, you don’t want it to sound too good to be true (even though it is). Also remember to leave yourself an out in your story so you can conveniently disappear when you have what you want.
What more straightforward way is there to eat than to go where the food is, run away with it, and eat it! No farces or lies to worry about. And in this country they don’t even cut off your hand if you get caught. In fact, shoplifting seems to be a popular pastime, even a craft here. An amateur such as myself can’t hope to add much to the cultural knowledge base. So I left this option to those with a gift for it.
If there was one thing about my traveling that I found offensive, it was the fact that when you are amidst THE ECONOMY, it costs money just to sleep. With the exception of our National Forests, you soon realize that every scrap of land you encounter is owned by some group that either doesn’t want you on it all, or demands exorbitant rent for a small patch of ground for your tent for one night. I found no moneyless solution to this problem except to trespass. There is still a lot of land in this country, even in urban areas, where a person can simply disappear for a night. One hobo I talked to called it, “folding myself into the seams of society.” You simply find an overgrown piece of property, make sure no one sees you enter it, and tuck yourself in. I was never discovered, and as I left no trace of my presence, I don’t think anyone will ever know where I passed my nights in privacy.
I should mention one part of the country where I was not in this predicament. In Montana and North Dakota, virtually every small town had a town park where visitors were invited to camp either for free, or for a voluntary donation. It actually made me feel cared for, and eliminated a large part of the uncertainty from each day. I have a warm spot for these two states now as a result.
Here we’re getting into an area where I have some talent. We all have ancestors, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc. If we guess that couples have an average of 2.5 kids, you should have over a hundred direct blood-relatives from your eight great-grandparents out there somewhere. I went to the trouble of doing a little research, and found names and addresses of over thirty families related to me along my route. When you put them all together, that’s a valuable resource, and no one felt bad about it afterwards.
I found I only had to give them a little notice, and these people would enthusiastically put me up and feed me for a few days. They liked the feeling that I would go to the trouble of finding them and stopping for a visit. In fact, in addition to staying alive and fed, you can learn a lot about yourself by visiting your extended family.
Leeching works with friends too, but remember that your family will always be your family no matter what. Not so with friends. Use a little more tact when hoisting yourself on a friend or aquaintance.
This became one of my favorite alternatives, because there’s a certain independence associated with it. When living without money, it’s hard to avoid the stark truth that you are entirely dependent on the group of people that comprise THE ECONOMY. Interacting directly with these people in ways they aren’t used to can be tiring, annoying, frustrating, and scary. But scavenging relies solely upon the wastefulness of THE ECONOMY. Dumpster diving may not sound romantic, but it will give you a whole new perspective of the parts of your usual transactions with THE ECONOMY that are swept out of view. The fact is, with a little effort, you can live quite well off a small fraction of THE ECONOMY’s waste.
If you are leading a moneyless lifestyle, even just for short periods, it’s likely that you are doing something unusual and interesting to other people. Craft some stories about your experiences. I found on my bike trip that I could approach a group of people just about anywhere, and soon have them listening to my tales. Often people stopped to talk to me. And much of the time they would happily feed me and even put up for a night, just because of the way my stories made them feel. Most people, even people who seem to have it made, feel trapped in their lives. They can’t imagine living without money, or the freedom that can go with it. You can live this way for them, they can enjoy your experiences vicariously, and it is well worth the expense of hosting you to them. Some of the people I talked to later thanked me with disarming sincerity. One elderly woman said to me, “You have no idea what it means to us. No idea.”
It’s one thing to talk or read about living without money, but I promise you won’t really understand until you try it. There is a whole side of the dollar there that you cannot see until you do. See if you can go one day with making any monetary transactions. Or a week, for a real ride. It’s one way to wake up, step back, and see from a totally alien perspective what a strange and wonderful sort of domesticated primate you really are.