Minimalism: An Ideology of Privilege

“I live here, but I mostly just sit in the corner without touching anything.” (Source: Materialicous (ironic?))

Getting rid of junk stresses me out — not because I have trouble letting go of my belongings — because I have to pick up each individual item and figure out what unfortunate corner of the planet will have to house it next. Sell it? Trash it? Donate it? No. INCINERATE IT! (Just kidding. I sort the best I can but lean heavily on the dumpster lest I breathe in the noxious fumes of melting synthetic substances.)

Yeah, I’m lazy. That’s a given. Lifting objects from shelves to trash piles makes my arms sore. BUT even more depressing than that is remembering how I begged my mom to pull $300 out of my bank account in 10th grade so I could buy a “Black Coach Hobo Bag with Pink Lining” per the Ebay search. If I ever have children — god forbid — I will refuse to ever let them buy anything with their own money. They’ll thank me.

I also suffer from Purge Things I Will Need Later syndrome. If I can’t find a place for something, I get frustrated and just throw it out. I have (actual) OCD, and any attempt to clean sends me into an “I want an empty room” frenzy. A year ago, this resulted in throwing away most of my possessions, removing every thing from my walls, and getting rid of any modicum of color in my room in favor of varying shades of white and beige — a costly yet clinical adventure.

And isn’t aesthetic minimalism essentially that — all white everything? Owning only what one needs is aspirational but people who preach “minimalism” like — who else? — The Minimalists often paint what is essentially a matter of taste as a holier-than-thou spiritual detox.

I liken it to the time an assistant youth pastor at my old church called his daughter’s Girl’s Life magazines (all hail) “a worldly mess.” That became my friend group’s tagline for a bit. Anyway, it does often feel like my possessions — most of unknown origin — encroach on me from time to time as if I suddenly become viscerally aware of their numbers. My junk can crawl inside me and make me feel disgusting, but then I get rid of it, and I feel exactly the same.

It is not enough to simply chuck all one’s junk. Minimalism as it is advertised to us is also about cultivating a space in which it appears one could perform open-heart surgery. Oh, but there also have to be succulents and other markers of the faith. Much like the devout, minimalists are “in the world but not of it” and have their equivalent of crosses and paintings of Jesus in his Michael Bolton get-up (or vice versa?) on the walls. They baptize in bleach. It’s a high barrier to entry.

It goes without saying, then, that Minimalism: The Lifestyle is reserved for the privileged few like, again, The Minimalists. If you read their about pages, they not-so-subtly mention their previously earned wealth. (Also, one of their bios says “I’m a tad OCD,” so I’m already out.) On top of not actually but actually keeping count of their belongings — fewer than 288 for one — these guys also practice living without technology (more on that later). They do it because they can. They can spend time and money collecting experiences, forgoing vital forms of communication, and perfecting their ascetic daydream with expensive — but high-quality, am I right? — décor because they already have the means. And, much like lifestyle bloggers, they make money doing it.

Which is fine. But listen to this little blurb from the aforementioned about page: “That’s when I discovered minimalism. It was a beacon in the darkest of nights.” Replace “minimalism” with “god,” and you’ve got yourself a line for the sorry sucker who gets seated next you on an airplane.

Again, I’m not saying opposition to materialism is bad, but I distinguish between being frugal and/or economical and Minimalism: The Lifestyle. On a personal note, my brief venture into getting rid of stuff and buying expensive, high-quality, capital-c Classic stuff instead was less about feeling suffocated by my belongings than it was about feeling suffocated by my life’s then-current trajectory. At some point, I ran out of things to throw away or bleach. I could do neither of those to myself. (Well, I could but, uh … you know.)

And much like religion, there is an element of martyrdom-lite to the whole shebang, especially at the intersections of materialism, the environment, and technology.

A minimalist lifestyle that entails cutting off oneself from the world but also adhering to a certain aesthetic, however, does little else but advertise privilege. The people who have the means to voluntarily check-out do nothing but make themselves feel less guilty when they strive toward a Pinterest-worthy, enterprise-making life. (But anyone of whatever means who tries it is always running toward something just out of reach.) There’s nothing revolutionary about retreating into privilege. It’s not necessarily bad, but to paint it as anything other than what it is is simply disingenuous.

The environment isn’t going to benefit from people *Patrick Star voice* taking their shit and pushing it somewhere else, and technology isn’t evil. We can all tweak our lives to make them more sustainable, but military industrial complexes, agribusiness, and Big Petroleum make impacts with which we can’t compete on individual levels in regards to mitigation. Technological innovation is also a path to greater sustainability even though outdated technology can have the opposite effect (#cleancoal), but distancing oneself from technology is not the way forward. It’s the way inward.

In terms of materialism, not owning a lot is great especially when possessions are sustainably and justly sourced in terms of combatting the injustices of fast-fashion, but that ignores the politics of cost. Products that don’t harm people, animals, or the environment are not cheap, so when minimalism is lumped in with buying Fair Trade, it muddies the message. The morality bestowed on minimalism comes at a steep price. It’s an admirable aim, but it isn’t an inclusive one.

The not-so-shocking melding of mindfulness, wealth, “experiences,” and sparseness that is Minimalism: The Lifestyle is counterproductive to what I thought was the core tenet: not having a bunch of stuff. There’s so much to focus on that it’s as overwhelming as, well, having a bunch of stuff. If trashing shit is elevated to a religious level, it has already alienated many people. And when the people who espouse it are a combination of self-help gurus and lifestyle bloggers, it doesn’t offer too much in the way applicability.

At its best, minimalism frees-up privileged people to devote their time to worthwhile causes. At its worst, minimalism is a DIY Burning Man for disenchanted Silicon Valley-types and investment bankers. Either way, it isn’t a surefire way to self-actualize. No ideology ever is.