Book Report/Review: The man who quit money. This is a book that is guaranteed to provoke extreme reactions. It tells the story of a man called Daniel Suelo whose philosophy can be summed up in the phrase “I know it is possible to live with zero money” (Sundeen, 2012, p. 4). This is not a tale of travel to distant lands where money is unknown, though in fact Suelo does travel over long distances to seek his fortune.
The author Mark Sundeen describes the much more controversial challenge of living in modern America without having a job, paying taxes, receiving welfare, or dealing with the capitalist economy in any formal way whatsoever. This book is remarkable for three main reasons: the narrative about Suelo’s origins and path to maturity, the notion of living without money, and the deeper issues that this book raises for society in general.
Daniel Suelo grows up in an average family. They have strong Christian beliefs and this means that he receives quite a traditional education. When his friend commits suicide, some of Suelo’s faith is shaken. This makes him withdraw from life and spend time thinking. The young Suelo is an idealist who struggles to fit in with the materialist society around him, and this sets him wandering in search of a lifestyle that suits his modest expectations.
He makes friends with all sorts of people, encounters many dangers, and is drawn increasingly to the edges of society where he makes friends with vegetarians, anarchists, and revolutionaries of all kinds. I found this aspect of the book very interesting as an exploration of how capitalism effects people both economically and morally.
The idea of doing without money crystallizes slowly. Working for food, or minimal wages in his youth was a common experience, and as he grew older Suelo’s decision to live entirely without money was formed. Eventually he settled in some caves in Utah, relying on nature’s bounty and the generosity of friends and strangers to live a life of “minimal consumption and maximum freedom” (Sundeen, 2012, p. 231).
This decision is, for Suelo, a solution to the many tensions that he struggled with, such as trying to balance his academic work with the need to pay for his house and other needs. I understand why Suelo made this decision, but at the same time I think it is an over-reaction to economic pressure and he brought upon himself huge risks which even threatened his life.
The story is entertaining in parts, although the book should perhaps have a warning about strong language, since there are quite frequent expletives throughout. My overall reaction to the book is that I think most readers will have ethical concerns about the freeloading nature of Suelo’s lifestyle.
He makes use of rejected items and spare food, arguing that it is better to use up what is otherwise wasted. The idea of running a website from a public library while resolutely refusing to pay taxes appears very like hypocrisy to me. If everyone took up this lifestyle, American society would soon collapse. The truth is, however, that most Americans are too attached to their material possessions to consider anything as radical as this suggestion.
The extreme nature of the choices in this book will divide opinion. It gives the reader plenty of food for thought about the nature of modern society, and the compromises that we all make as members of that society. Suela is right to be disillusioned with some aspects of capitalism, and although I can identify with his yearning for a lifestyle that is less predictable, and free from the drudgery of low wages, and long, repetitive workplace tasks, I am not sure that I share his desire to drift alone without firm links to a community.
There are a number of issues that make these choices for most people more complicated, such as the need to provide a secure home for children, or care for sick and elderly relatives. I cannot imagine making the same choices that Suela did, but it was interesting as a thought experiment to follow his adventures and perceive the world through his eyes.
Sundeen, Mark. The Man Who Quit Money. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012.