Vonu: A Strategy for Self-Liberation
© 2018 Shane Radliff
In 1968, a frustrated man named Tom Marshall ventured into the woods along with his wife to conduct a living experiment. Was it possible, he wondered, to create a life for one’s self largely immune to coercion? Disappearing into the wilderness, he would occasionally send in articles under the name of El Ray or Rayo reporting his results and detailing the growth of his thinking, until he dropped off the radar entirely in 1974. And yet, there are those who know of his works, and it is thanks to them (the Vonu Podcast) that I was able to read their introduction to Rayo’s thinking, and to consider two collections of his extant articles.
“Vonu” leapt out to me as alien, a word I’d never seen the likes of before — and yet the core ideas aren’t so strange. Rayo coined vonu as an abbreviation of “Voluntary Not Vulnerable”, to describe the life that he and his ‘freemate’ wanted to create for themselves. He scorned political activism, which he dismissed as ‘crusading’, on the grounds that states were inherently unstable, that they all tilted toward coercion in the end and would corrupt those who attempted to play by their rules. His approach instead was to become ungovernable: to disappear, except when he needed to interact with society for income and supplies.
The author, Shane Radliff, here provide a precise of Rayo’s living philosophy, and then attempt to update its application to our modern day life. Although Rayo thought living in camper-trucks, vans, and busses had some promise, the focus of his research was on wilderness living, and to the like-minded he offered training in creating concealed shelters and basic survival skills. Radliff examines wilderness-dwelling’s prospects in the 21st century, but settlement patterns and technology are such that they believe van living is more practical and adaptable. Both Rayo and his updaters also ponder the possibility of cooperative vonuism, perhaps even scaling up to the size of a small city, but these are merely speculative. Radcliff appears to be far more optimistic about the future prospects than Rayo, who declared that most people are content to be serfs, so long as conditions are comfortable.
Vonuism is not a political philosophy: it is instead anti-political, shunning collective action and collective thinking. Although Rayo was in connection with many in the 1960s who shared his contempt for coercion (the agorists and Objectivists, for instance), he regarded any political action as crusading utopianism; Rayo himself scorned anything that smacked of mysticism, dismissing even the golden rule. He practiced the non-aggression principle not as a ideal, but as a pragmatic measure: aggressive behavior tends to provoke aggressive behavior in return.
Although I had never encountered Vonu proper before finding Samuel Konkin’s making a dismissive reference to Rayo over the weekend, I have seen shades of its aims before, from various flavors of worldviews: hippies, eco-primitivists, and survivalists, the latter most of all. Jack Spirko, a permaculture guide and practicioner who has also hosted a survival podcast for nigh on twenty years, has a worldview that is very to Vonu. To Spirko, preparedness and liberty run hand in hand. The more systematically dependent one is on outside help, the less liberty one has. He advocates for off-grid homesteads, multiple streams of independent income, and constantly improving one’s resilience and ability to adapt and overcome adversity and challenges, just as Rayo does. The critical difference between Spirko’s libertarian survivalism and Rayo’s vonu is that Spirko generally emphasizes that however prepared an individual is, allies are still crucial for sharing information and working together to overcome larger problems.
This is a fascinating rabbit hole to explore, and I’m halfway through reading Rayo’s extant works. I anticipate finishing early next week and will offer some follow-up thoughts on those. Although I understand the attraction of Rayo’s way, I don’t know that I’m so disaffected with society that I’d start doing a nonviolent Ted Kaczynski impression. (I’m really curious if Kaczynski ever read Rayo during the sixties when he was at Harvard/Uni. Michigan and becoming hostile toward the Machine-society.) After 2020, though, I’m definitely considering that Rayo wasn’t on to something after all.