Let me begin by stating that I have never lived without money. Ok, once, briefly, and not on purpose.
When the book Into the Wild was first published in 1996, I read it with fascination. It was a true story, about a young man who ventured into the Alaskan wilderness to live a solitary life similar to the one portrayed in Jack London’s Call of the Wild (1902). Of course, literature is not reality.
Chris, the subject of the book, came from a wealthy family, went to a private college, but then abandoned it all and went on the road. He hitchhiked across the country… and ultimately ended up in Alaska. There, he died of starvation in the backwoods. Why? He lacked knowledge about what he was doing. Again, literature is not reality.
Today, there are many television programs that portray similar stories of individuals heading out into the Alaska wilderness to escape other people. Only they are not guided by romanticized novels.
They do share with Chris the idea of rugged individualism and a colonizer’s frontier mentality. This toxic idea that we can survive alone, solo, with nobody’s help.
Rugged individual is a toxic idea.
It is what ultimately led to Chris’s death in the book. It has lead to many peoples’ deaths in Arctic wilderness. Over 2000 people go missing in Alaska’s wilderness each year! They actually had to remove the bus Chris died in because so many people were themselves dying on their tourist adventures to it. Contributing to the popularity of this tourist adventure glorifying some ill-prepared kid’s death was the film adaptation of Into the Wild made in 2007.
Anyway, the notion of money comes up in the book on several occassions. It seems Chris is embarrassed of his privilege and never found an outlet for his self-actualization. The book is framed to try to offer an explanation of why Chris goes on this adventure.
He comes from an affluent family, as previously mentioned. He seems to be ashamed of his privileges. I do not find this explanation compelling. I never did. Yet, I admired how he took his inheritance and started giving it away. He was trying to rid himself of something. Note that this question of shame about privilege is my interpretation and I do not recall reading that explicitly in the book.
My hypothesis is validated by the jobs he worked as he hitchhiked across the country. He did difficult jobs, jobs people do not want nor enjoy. Jobs privileged people think they are too good for. I admire Chris for this quality. He was exploring himself by putting himself in a difficult situation. I can relate.
Of course, I’d never seek out work as a difficult situation. I’d find other situations that I find difficult. This is important, because so much of our lives revolve around money. So for Chris to work for pay in hard jobs tells you something about his background but also his financial need.
Money is necessary for survival in our current political economic system so I understand the need to work. You cannot just go off the grid as Chris was trying to do. Bullets cost money and shooting things with a gun in Alaska can save your life, just ask Sue Aikens who seems to have guns hidden everywhere in her extremely rural Alaskan camp.
Back to Chris and the Into the Wild story. Chris has a contradictory relationship with money. On the one hand, it is necessary. On the other hand, money is the medium of interaction that is soul crushing (we are required to work to acquire money and we need it to acquire life necessities in turn, seems like a waste of efforts but I digress). He recognized that.
When Chris thinks he is close to death while hitchhiking in the desert, he burns his money. In this sense, Chris was a bit of an anarchist. I’m not sure that quality is ever recognized in the book or if he was even aware that his political leanings were toward anarchy.
To anyone reading this, if you are not familiar with anarchy then you might be using a dictionary definition about chaos. No, that is not what anarchy is as a political position. Anarchy has however been demonized in the public mind. In fact, many governments carry out politically motivated murders of people who identify as anarchists (including the United States government). Anyway…
Anarchy and rugged individualism do not coincide in a strict sense. But political confusion is common enough that we can reconcile these ideas in our minds. If Chris was unaware of his anarchist tendencies, it is just as possible that he was unaware of the lie of rugged individualism.
Rugged individualism is an idea that emerged with ideas of frontiers. The last frontier was said to close in 1890, but Alaska remains and wilderness areas are protected by the government. Even so, there is plenty of opportunity to play last frontiersmen in Alaska. This romanticized idea of rugged individualism often leaves out some important points. Thoreau after all was cared for by his mother, even while “isolated” at Walden Pond.
Rugged individualism does not reflect reality. People need each other. Sure, it is to varying degrees but ultimately people need each other. Mogley from the Jungle Book even demonstrates that through his family of animal friends. He was not eating those animals, they were his friends and family. Turns out that story has a different moral! We are one.
We exist in one ecological system and thrive because of our interdependence!
We can achieve greatness together. Or, we can sustain ourselves solo… for a time. I admire the idea of living without money. Self-sufficiency in a community sounds like great work. Making the rules up as you go, trusting the people around you unconditionally, determining boundaries as a community.
These qualities are possible but even in a collective money is a necessity. At least for now, until we can learn to collaborate and fully utilize our diverse skill sets to realize a communal economy, bypassing money and markets. That would be living the dream!