Tom Hodgkinson’s Freedom Manifesto

I’ve just finished reading (skimming, really), Tom Hodgkinson’s The Freedom Manifesto (a.k.a. How to be Free).

I seem to have a soft spot for eccentrically reactionary radicals. For a while, I was eagerly reading up on the anarcho-primitivists, who thought civilization was a bad idea and that mankind had taken a wrong turn when we started messing around with things like cities, agriculture, and literacy. And you may remember when I reviewed Bill Kauffman’s Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists, which had a soft spot for the American isolationist, regionalist, anti-cosmopolitan tendencies of the early 20th century.

Hodgkinson is an English punk rock radical who finds his model for human society in a romantically-evoked version of medieval Europe that has since been destroyed by the Protestant reformation’s war against the assimilated paganism of the Catholic church, by capitalism’s assault on guilds and crafts, and by the victory of Puritanism over joy and nature.

Hodgkinson is the co-founder and editor of The Idler, which hopes to defend the point of view of the Grasshopper who was unfairly maligned in Aesop’s pro-ant propaganda.

His book is a series of exhortations intended to inspire the reader to stop being the conforming, clock-watching, urban, employed, worried, lonely, rude, guilty, accumulating consumer, and instead to go back to the land, slack off, indulge simple pleasures, stop worrying about the future, stop feeling guilty, take up the ukulele, and start cashing in on the pleasures of being a roustabout bon vivant.

It’s full of quotes on this theme from the likes of William Blake, Guy Debord, E.F. Schumacher, Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Aquinas, Pyotr Kropotkin, William Godwin, Leo Tolstoy, Robert Burton, Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, and Penny Rimbaud. You know, Penny Rimbaud of Crass. (To give the kids of today some context, Hodgkinson notes that Tolstoy “was the late-nineteenth-century equivalent of Crass” — Crass being the late-twentieth-century equivalent of, I dunno, Chumbawumba or something.) Obligatory tax resistance pullquote follows:

It is perfectly possible to create an uncomplicated, job-free life. Artists Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher started Crass, the anarchist punk band of the eighties. Forty years ago they rented a tumbledown house just outside London and renovated it and filled the garden with flowers, fruit, vegetables, sheds and arbours for quiet repose. Thanks to an open-house policy, which has ensured a steady flow of helpful residents and guests, they have been able to develop the house and grounds to a high standard with very little money. People power replaced cash. They keep things simple, they don’t need jobs, and that gives them acres and acres of free mind-space to follow their own paths through life, to think, read, write, talk, drink, make art. Their income is virtually nothing, but they do exactly what they want and this, it seems to me, is a tremendous achievement. It proves that money and freedom are by no means synonymous. Gee said to me, “I don’t think I’ve ever paid tax. How much do you need to earn? £5,000 a year? I don’t earn anything like that.” And a more bill-free and liberated household I have never seen.

The book didn’t do much for me, but I’m already a believer in what I think is the most evident and important message of the book: take responsibility for your life; make an honest and necessarily radical reassessment of your priorities that will certainly involve unlearning the ones you have absorbed from a childhood overdose of public school, media, and commercial propaganda; and start living creatively according to what you uncover in this way. Or, as Hodgkinson puts it:

Don’t bother setting up free republics or moving to a country which offers more liberties. Simply declare yourself to be an independent state. Do not involve and coerce others. This is the only way we will effect a proper revolution. Once each of us recognizes our own freedom and our own responsibility, then the chains that bind us will fall away.

And that excerpt comes from his chapter on cultivating good manners and avoiding rudeness — perhaps not what you’d expect to find in an anti-puritan punk rocker’s book about thumbing your nose at workaday living.

If you can deal with the fact that it’s Brit-centric (a mental search-and-replace that swaps “john” for “loo” and “WalMart” for “Tesco’s” will probably do the trick) and that it includes a heaping helping of bollocks, and if you’re unable to work up the gumption to get you out of your cubicle and back to living, this might be the kick-in-the-pants you need.

Samuel Hanson Cox left Quakerism behind for Presybterianism, and wrote a condemnation of Quakerism to encourage Friends to follow his lead: Quakerism Not Christianity: or, Reasons for Renouncing the Doctrine of Friends ().

The Quaker policy on militia fines got a thorough going-over in the course of the general denunciation:

We see the treason against God of one of the principles of Friends — that on which they refuse incorrigibly, either to bear arms in any case, or to pay the fines very properly levied against delinquents or exempts. They plead conscience! What right have they, I ask, to keep such a conscience? Is it conscience “resisting the ordinance of God?” And what respect deserves it from man? I answer, just as much as it gets from God. It is nothing better than a piece of will-worship, according to the inspiration of a man’s deluded feelings, ignorant or cowardly or perverse or indolent or perhaps compounded of all these, leading him religiously to have his own way at all events. Hear the word of God: “For, for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.” It was the military government of the Cæsars to which was the direct reference of the apostle at the time. But Friends say, we cannot pay militia fines; nor do any thing to uphold the military power. Ah! truly: — and why do you ever become adjuncts and allies and officers of such a civic dynasty? or vote for the ministers of such a power? What are you doing at the polls, but upholding that very power? What moral right have you there? to vote or be voted for? And yet all of you (generally) exercise the right of suffrage.…

Here, a footnote, in which Cox acknowledges that “Some are so conscientious or consistent that they never vote; viewing it as unlawful for them and for all men.”

…And you virtually appeal to the sword, whenever you sue a man, and invoke the armed interference of the law to coerce him to his duty! Have I no right here to suggest that casuistry is sometimes marvelously convinced, not by evidence but by influence; not by the Bible, but the — purse! If the government charged a pecuniary bonus or capitation tax for the privilege of voting, I presume there would be heard some new conscientious groaning against the military power — even by Friends! But it gives them influence in a cheap way; and hence they forget the dreadful horror they sometimes feel in doing any thing to uphold a military government. Without such a government, there is not a right, nor a possession, nor an endearment, they could call their own, one single day or night! And yet — others must do the fighting or pay for the war: they only enjoy the privileges; which blood and treasure other than their own, procured for them and still preserves. In the defense of the commonwealth, they refuse all responsibility: and just so — by proxy — do they support and diffuse christianity in the world! translate the scriptures, defend them, and so forth! The Father of his Country, in answer to an address of the society, congratulating him in their way on his accession to the presidency of the Union, gives a marked and just reproof of their unequal principles, “receiving benefits and rendering none,” to the power of the State. His words are very kind, dignified, and worthy of himself; commending their principles in reference to order and peace, “except their declining to share with others the burdens of the common defense He also very exemplarily assures them that “it is his wish and desire that the laws may always be as extensively accommodated to the conscientious scruples of all men, as a due regard to the protection and essential interests of the nation may justify and permit.” Thus nobly wrote Washington in . He had witnessed during the revolution some of their twistical proceedings; and taken several of their luminaries into his own custody, lest their “scruples” might incline rather too far toward royalty and England. In the last war () some became sudden converts to Quakerism; growing quite conscientious in the time of danger against such profane exposures of life — and either joined the Society, or pleaded a kindred exemption from military responsibilities. In the revolution, a number of courageous and patriotic men of the society, took the field; who were called, on their return, “Free Quakers,” being disowned by Friends. What a pity that their own good sense on some other subjects, can not be brought on this to act with equal light and love of evidence! “Render therefore to Cæsar, the things which are Cæsar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s.” Matthew 22:21, 1 Peter 2:13–17.

It’s too bad Cox didn’t take the scriptural arguments Quakers put forward for pacifism seriously enough to address. And it’s also too bad he only considered as an afterthought (as I think his footnote shows) that some Quakers did try to extend their convictions to their logical conclusions and renounce voting and reliance on the armed enforcement powers of government courts and constabulary.

Still, this is a good example of a typical knee-jerk opposition to the Quaker peace testimony and its tax-resistance ramifications, and some of its rhetoric has a good ring to it.