Matt Forney
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I Was Robot by Ernest Mann

i-was-robot-ernest-mannOne of the joys of reading and learning about the past is discovering that many of the problems we’re dealing with today have been around for longer than we thought, and learning how our forerunners dealt with them. Enter Ernest Mann, a writer who is completely unknown to the manosphere (and the world at large), but deserves to be more widely read. Mann saw the problems of expanding government, environmental degradation and wage slavery and proposed the Priceless Economic System as a way of ending them. The PES was simple; eliminate currency and have everyone work for free, only at jobs they enjoyed doing, and live more simply, without television, pop music or the other myriad shiny things the elite use to keep us poor, dumb and content.

Unlike the leftists though, Mann didn’t call for wealth redistribution from the safety of his Gulfstream Five; he lived by example.

In 1969, at the age of 42, Ernest Mann decided he’d had enough of the rat race and checked out. He sold most of his worldly possessions and spent the rest of his life advocating for the PES, living in unfinished basements and rustic wood cabins in his native Minnesota. To push his radical ideas, Mann created the Little Free Press newsletter, which he intermittently published until his grandson murdered him in 1996. Nearly two decades later, my friend and Mann pen pal Trevor Blake has brought his work back into print with I Was Robot, a compilation of the best of the Little Free Press.

If you have any interest in minimalism and breaking free of the corporate consumerist hamster wheel, you need to pick this one up.

Ernest Mann saw the thin red line that connected all ideologies—communism, libertarianism, anarchism—and why it made them all ineffective when it came to solving the problems of humanity: they were all obsessed with money. That’s all ideology is, really: determining which group of thugs gets to own all the money, whether it’s the plutocrats, the royal family, the church, the government, the poor. Mann had a simple counterpoint: the problem was money itself, and the idea of working for it and buying useless shit with it. He sums up his life philosophy in one iconic catchphrase:

If you take pay, you must obey!

That’s the truth of it right there: if you work for a paycheck, you are somebody’s bitch. When your boss tells you to jump, you ask him how high. When the HR ditz demands your Facebook password, you fork it over so she can rifle through your private photos. If she decides she doesn’t like something you’ve said online, regardless of how effective an employee you are or how qualified you are for the job, she can and will show you the door. You learn that the only way to make a middle-class living is to put your brain on a leash and be as bland and compliant as you possibly can.

Meanwhile, you waste the 14-16 hours of your day that aren’t spent making some dick-clitted bittergrrl rich on meaningless diversions. Everything from pop music to video games to our high fructose corn syrup-laden food is deliberately designed to get you hooked on them like crack, to program you into buying more, more, MORE! And how do you afford to keep buying the latest installment of Assassin’s Creed or shoving sugary bon-bons into your mouth?

You work!

You slave away even more so you can have the newest, shiniest iTurd or replace the $50 espresso machine that was deliberately designed to break a year after you bought it. And yet, no matter how long or hard you work, it’s never enough. There’s never a point where you can kick back, stop angling for a promotion and just enjoy your life; you’ve got to keep working until the house is paid off and the kids move out, and maybe not even then. You’re not allowed to take your foot off the pedal until you’re 65 or so, when your brain is lapsing into senility and your body is frail and weak; in other words, when the system no longer has any use for you.

Ernest Mann saw all this nearly half a century ago and decided to fuck that noise:

I was an enlistee in WW II, but I protested the Korean War and when the Vietnam War came along and threatened to take my two sons, that made me blow my cork. I quit the real estate business. I sold my 13 rental properties to my tenants for one to a hundred dollars down and payments less than their rent. I even sold the duplex we lived in.

My wife and I took off in an old used pick-up truck with a camper. Our youngest kid was 16. We told her she could come with us, stay with a relative and finish school or go on her own. She has been on her own for 10 years now. She learned more about living than her friends did who finished school. My wife and I traveled the U.S.A. for a year just getting unwound.

I Was Robot reads like a mashup of Max Stirner and Jerry Rubin, as filtered through the voice of a revivalist preacher. Mann was an individualist above all else, who spurned politics and activism as wastes of time. He advocated for the Priceless Economic System in a manner as simple as how he lived, by fixing himself before he sought to heal the world:

Freedom started in my own mind. When I discovered the fact that I was an individual and that I could be in control of myself if I chose to be, I found ways to reject the control that society had conditioned into me. I started making my own decisions based on what is best for the individual. I now attempt to make my own individual self happy.

Where do you start? Stop loading your biocomputer (brain) with the mental junk food dispensed by the TV and the radio. Stop eating sugary food and medicating with cheap cigarettes and booze. Stop wasting your money on “labor-saving devices” that mysteriously require you to work longer hours than your “backwards” ancestors to afford and replace them. And when you’ve adopted the PES, tell two friends about it, then have them each tell two of their friends, going on and on:

There are a little over 4 1/2 billion people on this planet. How could we reach all of them? Sound impossible? Too big a job? You and I don’t need to inform them all. All I need to do is to inform and convince just 2 people so thoroughly that they EACH inform 2 more people to do the same. That is simple enough isn’t it? The People’s Grapevine, i.e., the geometric progression of numbers then takes over (see diagram in “Changes” chapter). Would you believe that 31 doublings would reach the whole world population? Try it! It’s like a chain letter, only with no money to send. Just one hell of a lot of work to convince 2 people so well that they carry on and do the same.

Calling Mann a pioneer would be an understatement: he was actually the first person to refer to the elite as the “1%.” Unlike the hipsters at Zuccotti Park who ripped him off two decades later though, Mann came up with that number via mathematics: calculating that 98.6% of Americans made less than $50,000 a year. And also unlike those hipsters, Mann didn’t “occupy” anything beyond his own mind. To him, protests were just another way that the elite (which he humorously personifies as the “Warbucks family” in a series of satirical essays midway through the book) drained our energy and distracted us from the real issues. If you really want to strike a blow against the 1%, you don’t camp out in a park and chant hackneyed slogans.

You live life for yourself and your loved ones, without wasting your time and effort on things that don’t benefit you or make you happy.

The biggest problem with I Was Robot is that it feels somewhat haphazard and repetitive. As Trevor points out in his introduction, the articles are not organized in chronological order, but arranged so that the book “comment[s] on itself as it grows.” Mann rehashes many of the same points over and over, and his relentlessly cheerful attitude wore on me after a while.

That said, like that other relentlessly cheerful minimalist from Minnesota, Ernest Mann’s work has great potential to convince people of the glories of simple living and the PES. Mann feared that if our absurd, money-centric modern economy wasn’t dismantled, World War III would turn the planet into an uninhabitable wasteland. According to him, war, pollution and the other ills of the human condition were caused by the desire for profit.

No profit, no motivation to wreck our little spaceship called Earth.

Whether you agree with Mann or not, or you’re just interested in the philosophy of minimalism and anti-consumerism, I Was Robot is a must-read.

Click here to buy I Was Robot.

Read Next: OVO 20: Juven(a/i)lia by Trevor Blake

  • Pat Hannagan

    To push his radical ideas, Mann created the Little Free Press newsletter, which he intermittently published until his grandson murdered him in 1996.

    That line made me laugh out loud. Still chuckling now.

    Thank you.

  • Cameron

    ‘…many of the problems we’re dealing with today have been around for longer than we thought…’

    Ain’t that the truth.

    I sometimes get the feeling we’re all just fighting the Spanish Civil War (Marxists vs. Traditionalists) over, and over, and over again.

    Fine post.

  • Simon

  • imposs