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Mark Sundeen

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The Other One Percent

Posted: 10/31/11 01:01 PM ET

In 2000, when today's financial debacle was just a worst-case scenario forecasted by quants, gold bugs, market regulators and other Chicken Littles, Daniel Suelo dropped his final thirty dollars in a phone booth and walked away. "Somebody has to take the first step to escape from servitude of money," he wrote at the time. "Digging a tunnel out of the prison, and then showing fellow prisoners that life outside the prison is abundant, without judging the fellow prisoners -- that is the challenge." Suelo has lived without money, debt or welfare for nearly twelve years now, and during this season's uprising his choices may seem prophetic.

Occupy Wall Street forces us to consider a world without mega-banks. Bank Transfer Day, on November 5, challenges us to forsake the convenience of those giants, to close our accounts en masse and transfer savings to local credit unions.

What if the movement were to succeed? What if Bank of America and CitiGroup went the way of Enron and Lehman Brothers? For decades we've tolerated Wall Street's increasing fees and fines and rates because its mortgages, IRAs, equity loans, mutual funds and credit cards increased our wealth, and made our lives easier, right? Can we even imagine a world without instant credit and a cash machine on every corner?

The mind races, because once we start quitting certain conveniences, we don't know where to stop. What if instead of merely buying less, we bought nothing? Instead of just boycotting a money system rigged for the wealthiest, what if we boycotted money altogether?

I've spent the last two years writing a book about Suelo, who lives according to what he calls the "gift economy," in which people give freely and receive freely. He lives primarily in a cave on public land, forages wild edibles, eats from dumpsters and is often given food and hospitality of friends and strangers. He is not a survivalist nor a hermit; rather, like a monk, he is supported by the generosity and excess of his community -- and the gifts of nature. "My philosophy is to use only what is freely given or discarded and what is already present and already running," he writes.

In his renunciation of profit, Suelo embodies one of Occupy's highest ideals. And the debate raised by Occupy about the extent to which the public may inhabit public spaces is one with which Suelo struggled daily, having been fined and evicted from public lands. "Our whole society is designed so that you have to have money," Suelo says. "It's illegal to live without it."

That said, Suelo's vision is too radical to offer much practical guidance. "I don't expect everybody to live in a cave and dumpster-dive," he says and, indeed, most of the 99% aren't interested in trying.

Perhaps what binds Suelo and Occupy Wall Street most closely is a belief that resistance must transcend specific policy demands. "It's not a fight against anything," Suelo wrote about Occupy in his blog. "It's a simple refusal to cooperate with what we know to be deceptive and destructive. We must get out of victim mentality and realize the power is in our hands to be free, not in the hands of the banks and corporations."

Citing Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Suelo believes that secular political activism lacks the power of religious movements. Indeed, while his quitting money qualifies as a prolonged act of civil disobedience and savvy bit of guerilla theater, its primary motivation was a life-long religious quest.

From his evangelical upbringing to his stay in a Thai monastery, Suelo studied religious figures from Jesus to Mohammed, Buddha to Krishna, and determined that the only way of truth was non-possession. He decided to try to live that way. "Basically," he wrote at the time, "the greatest sage is at the very bottom of the social scale -- a bum."

If in the process he inspires others to rethink their dependence on money, all the better. "I do implore everybody to take only what they know in their own hearts that they need," he says, "and give up excess to those who have less than they need."

Which brings us to the challenge facing Occupy: how to insist on material justice while espousing a philosophy of non-materialism? If the 99% say, "We want more!" then the 1% merely replies, "Funny you should mention it, because we want more, too!" and a moral cause becomes a fiduciary negotiation, numbers to be crunched in legislative subcommittee. How can we demand a larger, more fairly-sliced piece of the pie while simultaneously making peace with what we have?

Suelo takes the old-fashioned, some might say religious, belief that changing the world begins with changing one's own heart. He says, "It took me years to get beyond my antagonism against religion, which appears more destructive than constructive, until I saw at its core the paradox, the power of change, like a Trojan horse within the walls of commercial civilization."

Today that horse has been wheeled into the corridors of commerce. Its occupants have spilled into the streets. Now what?

Mark Sundeen's book about Suelo, The Man Who Quit Money, will be published by Riverhead in March. Learn more at facebook.com/themanwhoquitmoney.