“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?