I have no idea what sparked this interest in me, but looking up what a materialistic person is, it seems that I’m one; at least I have most of Minimalism Made Simple’s 17 signs that you’re a materialistic person. But so what? What’s so bad about enjoying having nice things? For that matter, what’s so great about “minimalism”, anyway? Why has minimalism as a lifestyle and aesthetic been pushed on us so much over the past decade or so, and materialism subject to so much stigma by experts and the general public alike for decades?
Well, a big reason is: people are poor! It’s no coincidence that minimalism became “trendy” right after the 2008 crash decimated people’s incomes and, especially, their access to consumer credit. Compared to confronting reality, i.e. that your life sucks now, it’s always more comforting to tell yourself that downsizing your lifestyle and not being allowed to have anything nice anymore is for your own good; it’s for the best that you don’t have any possessions, so you should learn to love living like a pauper. What is “you will own nothing and be happy” if not minimalism?
It’s also very convenient for the ruling class to push minimalism on people, since it pushes responsibility for systemic problems, inflicted by them, onto the common individual, and also gives them a ready-made excuse for whenever anybody asks them about the ever-rising tide of mass poverty: it’s the commoners’ fault for over-consuming, and if they could just take our virtuous advice and be good little serfs who don’t want to ever really have anything there would be no problem with anybody’s personal finances.
Notice also how the minimalist design aesthetic might be simpler, but you know what else it is? Cheaper. If you want to make a place as ornately decorated as a Baroque church that tends to be very expensive, but if all you want is an unadorned box with a bit of paint on it that’s as cheap as you can make a space. Not coincidentally a huge amount of recent construction, from apartments to houses to even corporate offices, have this stripped-down white box look; “minimalism is good” makes the people who have to embrace such built environments feel much better than “we’re poor and can’t afford anything better”.
Karl Marx famously said in 1843 religion was the opium of the people; well, Adamas Nemesis says in 2022 that minimalism is the opium of the people. Well, middle-class people. I’ve noticed a curious fact ever since I became aware of the “minimalist” trend; while anybody can embrace the aesthetic and lifestyle (and should do so if they like it!), it’s only ever preached to poor people as the solution to their personal financial problems. So many websites and media outlets, when covering what people should do if they have a tough time making ends meet, suggest “become minimalist!”.
I’ve noticed also that the people who preach this line the most at poor people tend to be middle-class, usually smarmy mass-affluent professional types who make six figures and who already have (or had) all the nice things they wanted in life. A lot of them don’t even seem to want a lot of material possessions in the first place, which is fine for them, but it also means that for them minimalism entails no real sacrifice. Yet they preach sacrifice as the path to (ironically enough) material prosperity for the poor, as well as even tying it into spiritual enlightenment and religious faith. Even a cursory examination reveals close links between the minimalist movement and characters like Dave Ramsey, whose grift is blaming the individual for systemic problems and preaching self-deprivation as virtue (for other people, of course), all wrapped up in a neat little bow of Christianity or, in many cases, Eastern or New Age spirituality.
Behind all this the essence is to inure yourself to being a serf who isn’t allowed to ever have anything nice, or really to have anything at all, hence the emphasis on letting go of material possessions and the desire for them. Well, the truth is my material possessions that I actually like, the few nice things I can afford to buy and keep, make me a lot happier than if I didn’t have them, especially when other people envy what I have and compliment me for it. It really pumps me up and makes me feel better. I only wish I could have a lot more in light of the sneak previews I’ve gotten of a life where I can always be surrounded by beautiful things and beautiful people that I enjoy.
For that you need money, though, lots of money, so it’s more comforting to many people to embrace the doctrine of sour grapes and say what the rich have isn’t really worth striving for. Well, I don’t know if I’m just different from most people or just able to see through it better, but the truth is: it is worth striving for.
That’s not to say you should go out and spend all your money on things you don’t even really want. Indeed, I myself almost fit the profile of a frugal materialist, someone who’s materialistic but relatively unwilling to part with his money, in large measure because I’m very picky. The more you save now the more nicer things you can enjoy later, so it’s a question of striking the right balance for yourself between spending and saving.
I’m all for saving and investing money, which adopting a “minimalist” lifestyle can certainly help with, but for most people the emphasis really needs to be on making money. Even for modest dwellings in cheap cities $1000 a month in rent is commonplace; you need to be making $20 an hour to afford that if you’re working 40 hours a week 50 weeks a year, more than what a great many jobs pay (unskilled labor pays $10 an hour or so in cheap areas, which even there is a joke). $2000 a month gets you into a cheap city comfortably, or barely into an expensive city, and to afford that you need to be making $40 an hour, $80,000 a year. That’s more than the median household income in the United States, and, even more horrifyingly, it’s the sort of salaries offered by some of the best entry-level jobs in the country according to CNBC. There’s no escape for the cheap; if you want to comfortably qualify to rent even a minimalistic abode in any city of your choice, you kinda have to be earning six figures.
For most people clearly the financial problem is not earning enough money. My advice? Try to upgrade your career to a higher-earning track and in any case shovel what disposable income you do have into a leveraged stock portfolio so it can keep earning as much as possible after you make it; that’s a better use of your willpower than swearing off those $4 lattes, and the only way as an individual to even have a chance at truly beating the systemic forces rigged against you.
So minimalism is neither the superior lifestyle nor the path to prosperity, which shouldn’t be such a surprise. While most people could certainly stand to be more intentional about the things and experiences they purchase, spending more on what makes them happy and less on what makes them not-so-happy (for instance, the vast majority of married couples should probably spend a lot more on outsourcing housework), it’s telling that we have to be indoctrinated and guilt-tripped out of “being materialistic” at every turn. Probably because the truth is simple and obvious: nice fashionable things are good for you, having them is good for you, they really do make you happier and more fulfilled in life, and that’s why you desire to have them.
Maybe take all this with a grain of salt, if, unlike me, you’re not the kind of person who walks through shopping malls for fun, feels nourished by beautiful things and beautiful people that look expensive, appreciates gift-giving more than any other “love language”, and loves to daydream about how much money you’ll have in a few years and what you’ll do with it. I even have a fond and rather vivid childhood memory of seeing hotshot TVs at Circuit City playing the speeder chase from “Attack of the Clones” when it was a new release.
Really showing my age with that one, aren’t I? Or is it my spiritual kinship with the zoomers? Rumor has it Generation Z hate minimalism. I can only hope that, like the “Age of Austerity” before it, the jig is up for “minimalism”…