This post will form a rough critique of The Guardian’s “I gave it all up” series, which puts a spotlight on people who chose to quit their life and “start over again”. From the series’ homepage: “From the lawyer who became a human cannonball, to the pharmacy manager who went to live on a desert island, five risk-takers share their stories”. I don’t mean to single out The Guardian as solely worthy of critique – similar stories crop up all the time in minimalist, travel and simple living circles, as well as other mainstream publications like Time – but the emphasis implied by the dedication of an entire series offers a pretty suitable target. Effectively, I want to be able to move past the series alone in order to critique the archetype in general.
Here’s how these articles usually run: “I worked as X for £Y, but gave it up for Z and here is what it has taught me” where X is a corporate job, Y is more than you earn and Z is something that appears, on the face of it, simple, marketable and liberating. In the case of the most recent Guardian article, Z is cycling around the world with a dog.
In order to get my teeth into this I’m going to reference Louis Malle’s masterpiece My Dinner with Andre: a film about two men making conversation over a meal. If you haven’t seen it, which I highly recommend doing something about, the two characters are Wally, a struggling playwright, and Andre, a successful mover in avant-garde theatre who gave it up to travel the world. For the purposes of this critique, Andre represents the people behind “I gave it up” and Wally represents the masses who find themselves reading it.
I must begin, as everything seems to, with money. These stories rely on a background of money – after all, for the narrative to work there must be an “it” to give up, to free yourself from, and in our neoliberal, free market world the “it” can only be financial privilege, as well as the social status and maximalist lifestyle it entails. The individual can claim to be releasing themselves from the corporate world in a way that mimics “beginning again”, but that really couldn’t be further from it. Whether they like it or not, they’re rich. Both in the sense of having capital and in having the skills to create capital if they have to. Need to buy a state of the art, custom bike and fund yourself for the foreseeable future? No problem. Everything went wrong and you’ve lost everything? Don’t worry, you have the contacts, friends and experience to crawl back to 9-5 safety with minimum effort.
Not so for the poor. For one, the woman with no money faces a whole array of problems. Everything requires money, which means submitting to wage-slavery in order to fund whatever sum is required up front for the project. All this while avoiding the exhausting and positively labyrinthine range of challenges that come with engaging the careerist lifestyle in view of eventually leaving it. The poor also lack the taken-for-granted financial and social security of those for whom money has ceased to be such a pressing concern. They will be chastised for being irresponsible where the rich were hailed as inspiring, because without financial privilege it is “not their place” to take risks.
All this points to one thing, the “I gave it up” fantasy is only viable for the wealthy, for whom the risk is negligible and opportunities readily available. I’m not talking about the risk to any current career, which these articles often take to count as tangible risk to the self, but the much more pressing risk of personal danger, hunger and social exclusion, which the rich rarely have to consider.
In the opening monologue of My Dinner With Andre, Wally bemoans “when I was ten years old, I was rich, I was an aristocrat. Riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now, I’m 36, and all I think about is money.”
The relevance of this quote, as far as I see it, is the wildly different circumstances in which the rich and the poor find themselves in regard to self-indulgent, “I gave it up”-esque fantasies. It is not only that the poor lack the practical means of following through with such an ambitious project, but the motivation and freedom of thought necessary to plan it. As Wally meets up with Andre, the two men – who used to be so similar – are diametrically opposed by their recent financial circumstance. As a wealthy, free individual, Andre is full of big ideas about the proper way to live and transcending the flawed society in which we find ourselves. His not-so-subtle jabs at Wally’s comparatively mundane life ignore the fact his thoughts can only come from a place of supreme privilege. Wally is poor, so has to do what is necessary in order to survive. His poverty has ground down the big ideas of youth to the painfully limited ones of financial anxiety – not through choice, as Andre would imply, but by necessity. In his position transcendent ramblings can have little application.
I do not mean to dismiss the choice of the Andres in this world completely. I think it is a great thing to leave the damaging corporate world behind and focus on what makes you happy, but these examples cannot be taken as rules to follow. They can only ever be exceptions, which taints whatever endearing optimism is contained in these stories with a kind of underhand narcissism, like gap-year blogs of the fortunate and few. Go chase your dreams, but be aware that most of us cannot follow.
This is a sentiment echoed in the daily life of the Guardian’s most recent subject. The small amount he requires to live is raised by his blog, sponsorship and through “selling his story” to The Guardian et al. There’s no mention of how he plans to be able to tackle significant, unforeseen financial hurdles like vet fees, but I’ve already discussed why this might be so will not parrot on further. I have read some of his blog, however, and something else becomes clear.
Funding this lifestyle through media fascination underlies the fact that what we’re looking at is a spectacle instead of an example to follow. Its continuation relies on our interest in a life we cannot lead. Were it the fact that this life were readily available and feasible to us, his funding would not exist. If anything, the presence of this media interest further distances us from viewing an alternative way of life as possible because it is made to seem like some kind of notable achievement worthy of, effectively, free money. If everyone could do it, who would care and who would give money?
This also introduces the further point that whatever idyllic picture is painted of this life always seems to dodge the realities of emails, social media management and the constant treatment of a lifestyle as an exhibit. After all, it would ruin the narrative to admit that this particular kind of escapism from corporate drudgery is one that keeps one foot in the door of marketability; that one must wake up with “how will I enjoy today?” as a second thought, where “how will I sell today?” is the first. This is a lifestyle that is not only self-defeating in its aims, but one made sustainable through the fickle interest of others – viable for just a select few people lest the interest and money is diluted, and hardly a rewarding or stable pursuit in itself.
As a result, we – as the readers – are discouraged from “giving it all up” because the model that is offered to us is, firstly, unsustainable because every successive person to mirror it reduces the revenue of those who currently do it and, secondly, self-defeating because the world of self-marketing, complete with stat-gazing and Facebook likes, is just as ghastly as the one we all want to leave. If anything, it reveals that such people have barely “given it all up” at all – they have given up their old job, sure, but the problem must have extended further or they would simply have moved jobs instead of claiming to begin again. As it is, their continued interaction with (and dependence on) a world of people trapped in what they wanted to leave behind suggests they are far from transcending it, as is implied.
Again, this isn’t so much of a problem if you have enough money already, but not all of us can be Andre.
What would be much more worthwhile is an account from one of the Wallys of this world, who somehow managed to create a rewarding, simple life for themselves within the limitations imposed on them as the non-aristocratic tier of society. The fledglings of an idea begins to make itself known in the film: “I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant,” Wally splutters “I think it would just blow your brains out!” Paired with Andre’s insistence that we must concentrate on every moment of life as we live it, we get to a compromise between the two men that hints at making the most of all that is available to you. One that ignores the drudgery of Wally’s day-to-day without submitting to the forced fantasy and desperate fabrication of the Andres who would misrepresent the great “I gave it up” narrative in order to justify an indefinite gap year funded by media interest.
A sustainable, rewarding lifestyle is a much more personal, difficult to recognise change than these articles would suggest, and one this blog will look to explore over the coming weeks. Most importantly, the matter should not be a financial one or one that would frame freedom as a kind of holiday, because this confines it to the financially privileged or those who would rely on the charity of others. We have to start from the ground up, which means questioning how we view the world and what we want from it instead of leaping to an escape that reveals itself as another form of what we would leave behind.
As it is, the “I gave it up” series only amounts to shallow entertainment that ends up being harmful to anyone wanting to live a simple, happier lifestyle. It is interesting for the same reasons we are interested in MTV’s Cribs: the lavish presentation of a lifestyle we cannot hope to emulate; only made possible by money we do not have. As far as these articles are concerned, freedom is for them, and not for you.
In other words, they lie.