VONU: A Strategy for Self-Liberation
By Shane Radliff
Liberty Under Attack Publications
This is inspired by the above book, and I’ll have more to say about that great new read later. But keep in mind that this is not exactly a book review.
Slip back in time roughly 50 years. Ayn Rand had shaken the foundations of the political world with Atlas Shrugged — and awakened a whole lot of intelligent, isolated young people. These young men and women knew they were neither “conservatives” nor “liberals,” but they hadn’t recognized there was a coherent philosophy behind their live-and-let live beliefs.
At the same time, anti-war activists and hippies were also shaking the world — in a seemingly very different way than Rand.
Meanwhile Richard Nixon torpedoed the remnants of the gold standard. And trust in public institutions began its long collapse. Suddenly Grandpa’s old certainties were no more.
Out of all this ferment, barely noticed at the time, grew what we now know as libertarianism. (Its birth was hilariously, thoughtfully, and accurately chronicled by Jerome Tuccille (father of freedomista writer J.D.) in his now-classic book, It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand.
And out of nascent libertarianism came … creative chaos.
This is where I come in. Or rather, where I didn’t come in, but stayed on the fringes — one lone kid absorbing it all from afar.
I had no idea there was a tremendous “scene” in Southern California focused around a place called Anarcho Village and graced by the likes of Samuel Edward Konkin III, Wendy McElroy, and my own later-to-be boyfriend and ex Charles Curley.
I was thrilled, but puzzled, by TV news reports on the Young Americans for Freedom national convention that busted apart in chaos (as later chronicled in Tuccille’s book). I saw the freedomista revolt bursting forth and was overjoyed, but I couldn’t imagine how it burst out of a group I thought of as a bunch of stodgy, warmongering old people in young people’s bodies.
I was far from the center of the action, even as I devoured everything I could learn about this “new” thing that had already been living so long in my soul.
All I knew in the late 60s and early 70s was what came to me in the form of newsletters, pamphlets, and thin little books. Harry Browne opened my eyes, as did Don and Barbie Stephens, early pioneers of the “retreat” movement (what we now call survivalism or hardcore preparedness). I doubt many of these tiny endeavors cracked the three-digit subscription ceiling. One may have gone above 1,000 readers. But they were big. In a way, they were the libertarian/ancap movement for some of us.
The most important of all, I realize in retrospect, were two people who reached me though humble, crudely printed newsletters and booklets.
One was Karl Hess, the towering, eccentric figure who swung from Barry Goldwater speechwriter to Castro-lookalike New Leftist to one of the truly great individualist philosophers and activists.
The other was simply called Rayo.
Rayo had a “real” name, but in those days I never knew it. And I’m sure that’s exactly how Rayo wanted it. Rayo had been part of the SoCal liberty scene, but he grew disillusioned with inaction and failures-of-action and took off for parts unknown — first as a traveling van camper, later as a squatter in the woods of extreme Northern California.
That wasn’t necessarily novel in those days. Some hippies, disabused of Aquarian notions after the Summer of Love gave way to the ugliness of Altamont, had headed “back to the land” — to farm communes or forest hidey-holes. Vans or homemade campers were becoming common. (I myself had an eye on an adorable, shingled hobbit-hut of a camper and the romantic lifestyle it seemed to promise.)
Rayo just took things farther and deeper. He was a freedom philosopher as well as a do-er. From his disillusionment and personal choices, he developed a system he awkwardly called VONU — for VOluntary Not vUlnerable (yeah, definitely awkward). The key to VONU was being as invisible to government as you could be and cooperating with as few of its rules as you had to to get by.
Van camping, for instance, could be good because the mobile life means you’re not always under the watchful eye of the same local other-people’s-business minders. On the other hand, to be done safely van camping requires a government permit to drive, vehicle registration, and insurance. Which is why Rayo and his life partner ultimately gave that up and took to the woods.
Somehow, from the road and from the most primitive forest conditions (in those way pre-Internet days), he managed for several years to produce a stream of publications. One was a little booklet called VONU: The Search for Personal Freedom, which you can now read for free here. Another was a newsletter called The Innovator, which was my greatest delight whenever it appeared in my mailbox.
Many years ago, I emptied and threw away the contents of an entire trunk full of early freedomista literature, including Rand’s newsletter The Objectivist, the short-lived magazine Nomos, the Hess-Rothbard newsletter The Libertarian (example here) and so many, many other books, magazines, and assorted treasures — including Rayo’s book and all my copies of The Innovator.
But I still recall some of those Innovator articles, even though much else from that time is a blur. Because they were different.
You see, the two things that set Karl Hess and the mysterious Rayo apart from all the rest was that they (in their quite different ways) advocated thinking far, far, far out of the box and they both went straight out and lived what they preached.
No freakin’ ivory tower philosophy for those two. You believe in freedom? You go out and put your beliefs to work in your own life. You don’t just sit on your arse and dream of Libertopia. You don’t just write books describing how things would work in some ideal society. You certainly don’t just sit and bitch about how you “can’t be free” because freedom isn’t being handed to you on a political platter. You get in there and DO freedom to the best of your ability. For yourself. Set an example. Try to introduce practical freedom in your neighborhood. Avoid the state.
Hess became a manual laborer, a tax-resister, and a creative entrepreneur (in a ghetto, yet!) as well as remaining a political philosopher and author. He pioneered community-level freedom and self-sufficiency. The IRS (in those days before it was defanged by law) literally took everything Hess owned and put a 100% lien on his future earnings. But that didn’t stop him.
Rayo? Well, ultimately he just … disappeared.
After several years of producing very practical, yet often wildly creative, publications, Rayo went completely off-grid and to this day no one has any idea what happened to him.
You can see how hugely these two influenced me. Although I made different choices than they did, they were my teachers. My first teacher in the realm of freedom was Rand. But Karl Hess and Rayo taught me more about the art of living and thinking as a free person.
I’m not as courageous or as radical as they. But they set me on the journey of my life.
Hess has been sadly neglected since his untimely death. Rayo has simply been obliterated by history. Of course some of his teachings still live on in the ideas of “going off-grid” and have even been advanced and built upon by later concepts like PT — being a Perpetual Traveler. But mostly, as freedomistas grew older, Rayo’s more uncomfortable and inconvenient ideas seemed … well, even more uncomfortable and inconvenient.
When, a week or two ago, I wanted to link to something about Rayo and his disappearance, I could find almost nothing.
Almost nothing. What I did find was a treasure. I found The Vonu Podcast — a very 21st-century venture by Shane Radliff and Kyle Rearden, a pair of wonderfully young men who are reviving and advancing VONU into a new age.
Finding their site (which is much more than podcast; definitely check it out) led me to Shane’s book.
Which happens to be terrific. Which inspired this venture into the idealistic, adventurous past. And which I’ll resume non-reviewing and reflecting upon in part II, scheduled for tomorrow.