books lifestyle

Guest post: Seven billion escapologists

Robert Wringham is the editor of the New Escapologist. Last year he republished an essay of mine on the Citizen’s Income, and today I’m returning the favour. Robert is currently crowdfunding his new book, Escape Everything, all about how to escape from drudgery, consumerism and despair. This excerpt is from the afterword, which ponders the question of whether ‘escaping’ is something everyone can do, and how society could encourage us all to live simpler, freer lives.

Seven Billion Escapologists, or What if Everyone Did This?

At the heart of Escape Everything is a simple truth: we are free.

We have minds capable of decision-making and imagination. We have arms and legs or prosthetic equivalents allowing us to act. As if this weren’t enough, we occupy a moment in history in which—however it may seem to the contrary—we are free to walk away from obligations without fear of very serious reprimand.

We are each in possession of an independent will and, so long as it’s morally upheld, we can act upon it.

One possible objection to a life of freedom is that if everyone acted as Escapologists do, it would all somehow fall apart; that our consumer economy must be served and for this a slave caste is both necessary and right.

It’s nonsense. It’s an objection based on the assumption that to be free is to freeload, which hopefully this book has shown is not the case. It’s an outwardly projected version of the very fear that keeps so many people punching the clock. It sides with the bourgeois terror of instability over the more bohemian values of integrity, equity, adventure, and personhood.

For all my mockery of it however, the objection contains a useful question. It may seem old-fashioned, but asking “what if everyone did this?” is a good ethical yardstick. It can help to differentiate between an act selfish deviance and an act of rather more useful dissent. Asking “what if everyone did this?” leads to statements like these:

If everyone were to drop litter, our cities would become messy. Therefore littering is an act of selfish deviance.

If everyone were to boycott the Daily Mail, it would cease to be printed. There would be less celebrity stalking and right-wing vitriol in the world and we’d all be better off for it. Therefore boycotting the Mail is an act of useful dissent.

So what if everyone lived like an Escapologist? Needless to say, we’d have to find a new word. One wouldn’t be an “Escapologist” if the status quo was perfectly conducive to your way of living: one would be perfectly happy to be sealed inside the box. But beyond that, we can make the following statements:

If we were all minimalists instead of conspicuous consumers, there would be less demand on our natural resources and we’d have a smaller, less berserk economy. We’d be less likely to harm the only planet we’ll ever have, and the super-rich would have fewer ways to exploit us.

If we were all cottage industrialists instead of employees, we’d be a liberated people, able to reconnect with labour in a meaningful way. Bureaucracy would all but shrivel away.

If we all rejected the culture of “bigger, faster, more violent”, we’d create a culture of “smaller, slower, gentler”. Our current economic, environmental and existential problems are not the result of small, slow or gentle.

I’ve not annexed those statements with therefores because my stance is probably clear. Put your free mind to good use and decide for yourself: would these acts be ones of selfish deviance or useful dissent? If you answer in favour of the latter, we can agree that the Escapologist’s position is a morally-upheld one, perhaps one that could lead to a better world.

How can society best cater for a world of Escapologists?

This book has been about individual actions: what you can do to facilitate your escape from an oppressive environment. Nothing in this book has required you to join a movement or a political party or a club: it has simply suggested a retreat into your own imagination so that you might choose how you would like to live, and to take the appropriate steps.

This, I think, is part of Escapology’s beauty. Big issues and the big ideas are heavy weights to lift. It is difficult to fight social injustice when you have no special skills at changing minds, grappling with bureaucracy or appealing to the powerful. If you can’t do those things, you can at least change yourself. You can, as the maxim goes, be the change you want to see and perhaps affect social change through example.

But there’s a possible objection from the political left hanging in the balance: that freedom is a privilege available only to the wealthy. Hopefully, this book has shown that escape is not the preserve of the super-rich but within reach of anyone of modest means. But what of the poor—the food bank beneficiaries, the government austerity casualties—who struggle to escape poverty let alone the rat race and whose numbers increase with every day of neoliberal reign? For these people and for the conformist majority, we need a more compassionate society, one with adequate opportunity for everyone to live freely.

Is it not the task of society—perhaps the very point of society—to provide the circumstances in which everyone has this chance at a life spent making independent decisions and acting upon them? I believe this to be the case.

Current society—our prevailing attitudes to work, education and consumption—does not encourage liberty, which is why we call ourselves Escapologists: we are the ones who seek to unshackle ourselves and to erupt, unscathed, from The Trap.

Escapology then, is an indictment. We should not be in a situation, especially at this late point in history, in which we feel obliged to escape. We should not feel trapped. We should not have to expend our energy going against the grain when the grain could flow in a sensible direction and encourage individual liberty.

Society must change if everyone, including the current poor, is to be given this chance. What follows are three suggestions—open and in brief—for societal change to help us to maximise liberty:

Curb insatiability. We need to call off the “race to the bottom,” described in Chapter 2, that comes with conspicuous consumption. We can do this as individuals, as discussed in Chapter 10, but society must also encourage this if the majority are to be freed from it. We could encourage this by levying consumption taxes on non-essential goods, by relaxing income taxes especially for low-income households, and by relaxing taxes or providing tax-breaks on what I describe as “antiproducts”.

Instate a Citizen’s Income. Citizen’s Income is a guaranteed sum of money, given by the State, to every citizen. It would be enough to fund our basic subsistence needs. In other words, the government would give each of us something in the region £75-100 per week: just about enough to live on.

It would be funded by consumption taxes on luxury goods; green taxes on corporations who use or contaminate our shared natural resources; and by savings incurred by dismantling the expensive bureaucratic systems that maintain and police current welfare and pension systems.

By giving this basic income to every citizen—regardless of age, physical ability, education, or wealth—we’d abolish poverty and make work less essential. Most people would still want to work in order to increase their quality of life, but it would be a choice rather than, as it currently stands, an unpleasant obligation. Frugal Escapologists would be able to discount work altogether; people who’d like to work part-time would be better equipped to do so; risk-averse people who’d like to start a business or become artists would finally have a safety net allowing them to do so; and—so long as housing remains affordable in relation to Citizen’s Income—nobody would have to go hungry or sleep in a shop doorway again.

Since everyone, regardless of their circumstances, would be in receipt of Citizen’s Income, nobody would be made to feel like a scrounger or a freeloader or the recipient of charity. We’d be less obliged to tolerate unpleasant working environments since we’d be better empowered to walk away from them. We could spend our unemployed time doing useful or pleasant things for ourselves or for society instead of flipping patties in fast food outlets or watching the red hand of the office clock tick away our days. It would make shelter an inalienable human right and all but eradicate the necessity for what David Graeber calls bullshit jobs. At last, the prevailing culture of our society would serve liberty instead of restrict it.It may sound idealistic but the idea has notable supporters from the political left and right alike. Pilots have been conducted in Germany, Norway and Canada, there’s much public discussion about it in Switzerland, and it’s one of the key policies of the Scottish Green Party.

To keep appraised of opportunities to join a campaign to support Citizen’s Income, keep an eye on the website citizensincome.org. Do your best to support a campaign whenever you become aware of one. It really could save all of our skins.

Reform education. As it stands, education prepares students and children in one way or another for the workplace. Indeed, to prepare young people for employment is seen as admirable.

But society’s problems go deeper than the need to serve an employer or to endure whole days of sitting in uncomfortable chairs, scribbling on pieces of paper or jabbing at touchscreens. How about teaching history and geography properly in order to convey a sense of scale and perspective, to show that western consumer economy is not the only way of living? How about encouraging a love of books and ideas instead of looking for vacuous “themes” in Shakespeare and Barry Hines? How about teaching the essentials of personal finance and household management instead of the retarded “design and technology” subjects? How about teaching the benefits of personal health and fitness instead of forcing kids to play demeaning and competitive team sports? And, needless to say, comparative religion should be the only form of religious study in schools. If we must have schools, perhaps we can use them to produce critical thinkers, habitual readers and compassionate lovers of liberty instead of competitive, money-grubbing, mediocre employees? Why aspire to a future of indentured servitude? Why raise yet another generation to face the choice between mindless submission or radical escape?

After escaping as individuals, we can campaign for a society that discourages insatiability, rewards all citizens with the funds required for basic shelter, and offers a more suitable education to children and students. I don’t think any of these suggestions are too radical or utopian to instate: humans have already accomplished far greater feats than these. We’ve got people in outer space; we’ve got museums and libraries filled with publically-accessible works of art and literature; it’s even starting to look like we’ve discovered the elusive Higgs Boson! These are phenomenal accomplishments, testaments to human imagination, patience and will. We can instate the minor but all-important changes suggested above if we want to and if we put our minds to it.

Until then, there’s Escapology. If we’re not strong enough to dismantle The Trap, we are at least be clever and daring enough to escape it.

If you’d like to read the rest of Escape Everything, support it with a pre-order here.

2 comments

  1. “How about teaching the essentials of personal finance and household management instead of the retarded “design and technology” subjects? How about teaching the benefits of personal health and fitness instead of forcing kids to play demeaning and competitive team sports?”

    I guess someone didn’t like PE and DT at school. Ending competitive sports is like being in Lambeth in the 1980’s with the loony left.

    I’ve volunteered in several schools and most kids enjoy competitive sports. They don’t feel forced (you try and stop then playing at break time) and certainly don’t feel demeaned by it.

    Now some children don’t enjoy it, I didn’t much, but I don’t want to project my issues on society because I didn’t like PE.

    1. Fair point, DevonChap. I’ll have refine the idea a bit.

      You’re right to spot that I didn’t care for PE at school, but I actually enjoyed DT. The essay really does come from a more rational position than that, but I’ve clearly clouded the issue and betrayed a personal experience by channeling emotion into that that description of PE!

      I’ve singled out DT as an example of an attempt to prepare children for the workforce. It doesn’t do a very good job of it (how can it?) and I question that workforce preparation should even be part of an educational remit.

      In the case of PE, I suppose I struggle to understand why something like rugger or tennis is on a school curriculum of all places. Maybe it encourages leadership or cooperation or competition or stoicism, but that all feels suspiciously post-hoc for something that’s just fun or traditional or in some some other way appealing.

      I didn’t say any of that in the piece though, did I?

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