The Commodification of Minimalism
Ever notice how everything looks and feels kind of “minimalist” these days?
Between the recent rise of deconstructed corporate logos to Instagram-worthy interior spaces, hipster-chic clothing, Apple tech products, and the empty white pages of the mobile-friendly web, it seems the minimalist aesthetic is, ironically, everywhere.
And if social media is anything to go by, it seems like everybody who is somebody is in on the whole thing too. All the cool kids are either living out of their neutral-colored backpacks as “digital nomads”, spending their day “living among nature” in the woods, or wading through big, empty, beautiful houses overlooking the streets below.
It’s enough to inspire an urgent desire to spring clean your home or throw out your most treasured possessions.
It’s enough to make you envious.
Speaking as someone who could be considered a minimalist by some accounts, I’d like to think that most of this minimalist uptake is a net positive. Perhaps the required antidote for the consumer culture wreaking havoc on our lives and climate.
But is today’s minimalism really a rejection of all that “stuff” making us miserable and the planet sick? Or is it just consumerism of a different kind? A new product for the privileged to play with and for the rest of us to pine after?
The rise of new minimalism
What are we talking about when we talk about minimalism? Another irony concerning minimalism is that it can refer to many things, from different philosophies and practices to architectural and art styles to various forms of asceticism.
Sometimes minimalism is framed as a reaction to consumerism. Other times it’s more about objects — where we keep them, how they affect our moods, and whether they “spark joy.” On other occasions, minimalism is presented as a kind of productivity hack, as if it were a secret barrier between the ultra-rich and the disorganized masses.
In any case, it’s important to note that these ideas aren’t anything new. Indeed, minimalism, as a philosophy, goes back some 2,500 years.
But minimalism as we know it today? The kind that gets talked about in Medium articles and shows up under #minimalism on Instagram? That all started much more recently, in the 2010s.
This current movement, which some refer to as “new minimalism,” had many forerunners. But few were quite as influential as the aptly named “Minimalists,” Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus.
Since launching their website in 2010, Joshua and Ryan seemed to take the world by storm with their message of living more meaningfully by living with less. They’ve given Ted Talks, continue to host a hugely popular podcast, released not one but two Netflix documentaries, run courses, and have several published books to their name, including the New York Times bestseller Love People, Use Things (2021).
A career that rose almost adjacent to the Minimalists was that of ‘professional tidier’ Marie Kondo, whose ‘KonMari’ method has graced homes worldwide in the form of books and a Netflix reality TV show. And in 2019, she would also launch an online store offering various “meaningful objects” on the heels of her success telling people to throw things out.
Neither the minimalists nor Kondo are without their critics. Some note the fortunes the Minimalists have made while they were criticizing profit-driven corporations. Others point out the irony (there’s that word again) of Marie’s online store. And it is difficult for anyone not to question whether there is anything minimalist about flooding the world with an endless stream of content, including books you can buy now on Amazon for $14.
The Minimalists, for their part, appear steadfast in their mission, noting in their book, Love People, Use Things, that it is not about having less, but “on making room for more — time, peace, creativity, experiences, contentment, freedom.”
But whatever you think about them or the movement they’ve largely inspired, it’s hard not to argue with the basic principles behind their messages. Even now, minimalism feels like the answer to so many ills, from the fast-fashion epidemic to throwaway tech and our perpetual state of distraction in the online world.
However, what can’t be denied, is that the likes of the Minimalists and Marie Kondo did far more than teach people how to ‘declutter’. Intentionally or not, they taught people that being a minimalist could be a lucrative career.
Sensationalist content and minimalist FOMO
For today’s minimalist content creator, it’s not enough to just give away those ugly sweaters their grandma knitted and maybe not take out a massive loan on a supercar. Oh no. The average creator now needs a podcast, an online course, an Instagram account, downloadable PDFs, a YouTube channel, a Medium account, a documentary series, and, of course, a book, to tell you about their simplified lives.
And if you don’t believe me, head to Amazon, type the word “minimalism,” and have yourself a good long scroll through everyone’s favorite dystopian bookstore. I assure you, you won’t even believe the sheer amount of stuff telling you to stop buying stuff through the site that has made buying stuff so damn fun and easy.
It almost begs the question: are all these minimalists happy because they’re minimalists? Or are they more excited to tell us about their incredible new lifestyle (for a fee)?
That aside, the problem that all the now thousands of minimalist creators eventually run into is that, for all the different types of media out there, there are only so many ways you can say “declutter your room” and get people to listen, no matter how guppy and life-changing you make it out to be.
The fact is, no matter what “niche” you are in, in the online world, it is sensationalism, not substance, that catches people’s eyes. And you don’t have to look far to find that in the minimalism community.
Since the mid-2010s, there has been a near-endless wave of over-the-top minimalist content, from 100-item challenge blogs to videos of white guys traveling the world with ten items in their backpack (with one item always being a pristine Macbook, of course) to all those pictures of large, high-end interior spaces filled with nothing but plants (so many plants!) and capsule wardrobes.
And whether the subject is van-living or extreme forms of frugalism, the implicit point with this type of content is always the same: “Here’s how you should be living — how you wish you could be living. Here’s how you could live if you’d only listen to me.”
The rise of this “alluring” content hasn’t gone unnoticed by those within the minimalist community either. Indeed, some of minimalism’s harshest critics, are former or current minimalists. Among them is the Messy Minimalist, who noted how the message behind minimalism had undoubtedly changed:
“Minimalism was no longer about simplifying your life, it was becoming very much widely known as this aesthetic minimalism — it was how trendy and clean and bright and airy your home was.”
In the wake of the financial crises of 2008 and the years of austerity that followed, where everyone was desperate to escape their busy, debt-ridden lives, this aesthetic minimalism inspired and continues to inspire the very kind of FOMO it was supposed to tackle. The only difference is that, instead of products, minimalism sells us lifestyles, be it “digital nomad”, “influencer”, or some kind of Thoreau-wannabe.
But the reality is that for many, these perfect minimalist lifestyles were no more obtainable than Ferraris and mansions, and just as hollow.
The privilege of having less
“Today, people still buy products mostly for their function, nonmaterialistic reasons remains secondary. But that is changing. In 25 years, what people buy will be mostly stories, legends, emotion, and lifestyle” — Jensen, W (1996) The Dream Society
Ever notice how many minimalist origin stories always tell the same tale? It’s always some middle-class entrepreneur with a six-figure bank account who wakes up one day and realizes that stuff doesn’t make them happy. And so, as if stricken by divine intervention, they seek out a more “meaningful” way of living.
Effortlessly and without anxiety, these heroes cast aside their stuff, downsize their homes, and live out their days in bliss as a minimalist. And now, because they’re good people, they’re here to tell us how to do the same.
It may all seem commendable enough. Yet such stories often ignore that choosing to live a life of simplicity over luxury means having that option in the first place. Or, as Chelsea Fagan notes in the Guardian,
“The implication of this kind of minimalism is obvious, and yet it somehow never seems to get addressed: the only people who can “practice” minimalism in any meaningful way are people upon whom it isn’t forced by financial or logistical circumstances.”
This isn’t to say that there is not something admirable about swapping a life of riches for a more humble one. The problem is that minimalists rarely address this privilege.
Few mention the upfront investment needed to build a capsule wardrobe. No one talks about the vast sums of money required to sidestep planning laws and build a tiny home (that’s actually livable, and not the nightmare many have found such houses to be). And no one mentions that pursuing the “van life” means having a decent amount of savings or a job that lets you work from wherever you choose.
More to the point, no one mentions that minimalism isn’t so liberating when it’s forced upon you. After all, you can’t declutter a room you can’t afford to furnish, you can’t reduce your food consumption when you struggle to put meals on the table, and you can’t give possessions away when you cannot afford the luxury of assuming you won’t need them again.
Furthermore, for all the talk of greedy corporations and consumerism, it is people, not capitalism, who are always presented as the problem in minimalist literature.
Sure, there may be some abstract ideas about living within one’s means or helping the environment. But rarely do these creators discuss inequality or consumer culture on a structural level. Indeed, the new minimalism offers not a challenge to cultural trends, but is in fact, shaped entirely by market logic, with minimalists churning out books, courses and content to fulfill the increasing demands of unhappy consumers.
As Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker, states, minimalism is “oddly dominated by a logic of accumulation.” At worse, it is presented as a self-help technique to ensure more of this accumulation (in the way of experiences, time, and buying power). At best, today’s minimalism has become a walled-off luxury based on individualist salvation.
“Your bedroom might be cleaner, but the world stays bad.” — Kyle Chayka: art critic and author of ‘The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism’
In either case, minimalism remains, like the Apple computers and American lawns that appropriated its style, a class signifier and a form of conspicuous consumerism. And a philosophy that still makes stuff the entire focus of your life (for who else counts their possessions but a minimalist?).
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Like every movement that gains popularity, minimalism is seeing a push-back of late, often in the form of so-called “maximalists.” But the reality is that, despite all I’ve just said, we need minimalism more than ever. Indeed, in the face of the climate crises and the increasing global wealth gap, we’ve still much to learn from, at least some, minimalist advocates and thinkers.
We just need to know when to stop listening.
The truth is, you don’t need to buy a bunch of books, watch hundreds of videos or listen religiously to a podcast to live more simply. You also don’t need a remote job, a place in the sun, or to reduce your belongings to a certain number of items to find happiness.
What we do need, is to consider minimalism more in the context of a community of practices. That is, as opposed to the quasi-religious and highly individualistic preaching digital media currently subject us to.
Yes, as I can attest to myself, minimalism can be liberating on a personal level, even for those of us from more humble backgrounds (and don’t think I’m not aware of my own privileges as a white, British man). I’m not here to pull people down for speaking about their lifestyles and making a buck in the process. Also, I realize some minimalists are addressing the issues I’ve mentioned here and are genuinely invested in addressing the bigger issues at play. I don’t mean to use broad strokes to paint an entire community. But right now, large sections of that community are being drowned out by a ridiculous barrage of hyper-realist content that seems to be missing the whole point.
Real change requires something far less self-centered, and more significant than tidying your room and saving up for your tiny house because a YouTuber convinced you that only a complete change of lifestyle will make you happy. Instead, we need a minimalism that addresses privilege and circumstance - a form of minimalism that teaches us to savor what we have right now, rather than inspiring more envy and desire.
In the digital age, perhaps the most vital form of minimalism is not the kind we apply to our materialistic objects, but all the “stuff” we consume online and all the hollow dreams they inspire. Because in reality, content is just as liable to make us feel like we’re missing out as any object ever did.
Maybe it’s not a declutter we need, but a detox.
Further sources and reading
- Have We Got Minimalism All Wrong? by Beverley D’Silva
- The empty promises of Marie Kondo and the craze for minimalism by Kyle Chayka
- The Problem With Minimalism by Brett and Kate McKay
Written by Mike Grindle
Republished here on 6th September, 2023
Original version published for Counter Arts at https://medium.com/counter-arts
This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Please note that quotations and images are not included in this license.
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