Minimalism: It’s Not About “Playing At Being Poor”
We’re long over-due another lengthy post about the relationship between people and possessions, so make yourself comfortable…! Because I want to talk to you about minimalism.
I love the idea of living more with less, however a recent article in the Guardian argues that minimalism is nothing more than privileged posturing; an attempt to prove your moral superiority by taking on the ‘virtue of poverty’ without actually being poor.
It’s a great article. It’s intelligently written, it’s well-structured and it brings to light the superficial nature of ‘Instagram Minimalism’. But, to me, it presents quite a narrow view of minimalism and misses the true essence of the movement.
Don’t get me wrong, I completely agree that minimalism arises from privilege. It absolutely does. Minimalism is all about trying to rid yourself of excesses so, by definition, minimalism comes from having more than you need. Which is a privilege.
However, to suggest that living with less is an insult to the poor is misguided. Having loads and loads of stuff is just as much of an insult. It’s true that “the only people who can ‘practice’ minimalism… are people upon whom it isn’t forced by financial or logistical circumstances”, but you can’t tell me that brazen overconsumption is somehow less insulting. If minimalism is saying “look at me, look at all the things I’ve refused to buy”, mass-consumerism is still saying “look at me, look at all the sparkly new things I’ve bought”.
Neither makes inequalities any easier to stomach.
In the NY Times, Kyle Chayka argues that the minimalism movement is led by people who “gleefully ditch their possessions as if to disavow the advantages by which they obtained them“. But it’s not about disavowing advantages; it’s just that you can’t know what you don’t know. In other words, you need to have had the opportunity to buy too much stuff in order to come to the realisation that it doesn’t actually make you happy. Like Jim Carrey once said, “everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of, so they can see it’s not the answer.”
Having said that, minimalism has also arisen as a response to the ongoing housing crisis and rising living costs. In the Guardian article, Chelsea Fagan expresses her disdain for “chic van-living” but, in reality, things like the Tiny House Movement and the rise of van-dwelling has more to do with people not being able to afford housing or not wanting to spend their entire lives in debt than it has to do with taking on “the desirable aesthetics and morality of poverty”.
And whilst it’s still a privilege to choose not to be in debt, it’s still not about ‘playing at being poor’. It’s just about exploring alternatives.
For many, it’s about realising that relationships and experiences matter more than things.
And for me, valuing relationships isn’t just about spending more time with friends and family; it includes the relationships we have with the world around us and the people who live alongside us in our communities. Being minimalist, to me, is about recognising that I have more than I need, when other people in my own community don’t have enough. It’s also about recognising that by consuming too much, I’m having a negative impact on the environment. And in doing so, I’m compelled to consider how I could do things differently.
In the Guardian article, Chelsea recognises that “yes, there is a very strong capitalist-critical argument to be made about buying in more intentional and ethical ways, but… very few of these minimalist troubadours ever really take things to an economic or class-based argument. It’s about reducing for personal enlightenment and pompous blog posts, it’s not about arguing for a more equitable society in which people consume proportionate to their needs.”
However, I do think this potentially misses the fact that there can be a relationship between personal enlightenment and a more equitable society. From personal experience, when I was fully-subscribed to the ideals of excessive consumerism, I was so absorbed in my own pursuit of money and stuff that I didn’t even stop to consider the inequalities that existed on my own doorstep or the impact I was having on the environment. Similarly, someone once told me that they felt so discontented and unfulfilled in their own life (due to trying to keep up with the Joneses), that they were too busy worrying about their own happiness to want to help others.
So, yes, the concepts of minimalism and slow-living might seem self-indulgent, but by exploring what really matters in life, you can open yourself up to caring more about other people and their experience of inequality.
So although Chelsea Fagan may have hit the nail on the head when it comes to minimalist-chic, the minimalism she describes isn’t something I recognise. Yes, I am privileged, but minimalism to me is about more than just white walls and expensive dining tables. And it certainly isn’t about taking on the virtues of poverty. It’s about voluntary simplicity – minimising consumption, being environmentally responsible and contributing more to our own communities.
What is there to hate about that?