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The class politics of minimalism, and how a pandemic has flipped the narrative

By October 24, 2020No Comments

Kate Demolder, on how the mantra of ‘less is more’ still obeys the rules of middle-class consumerism – but has COVID-19 made a mockery of the concept of a life less cluttered? 


When Kanye and Kim Kardashian West shared images of the muted dystopia of their newly-renovated Los Angeles home with Architectural Digest back in February, a new dawn for minimalism reigned. Cavernous, crypt-like and markedly not child-friendly – despite the couple’s insistence of the contrary – the gargantuan superhome had all the trappings of a lunar cavity and all the design features of a “futuristic Belgian monastery”. Jesus wept. Of course, Kardashian West, as she is wont to do, had simply ridden the wave of the most recent zeitgeist – the KonMari method – to completion, only for her to unceremoniously and ironically, over-minimalise her home.

As a concept, minimalism is cyclical in nature and less to do with ‘owning less’ than with ‘having more’. Hailed as an antidote to the objets d’art extravagance of Victorian times, the shift from accumulation to consumption is understood to have taken place at the turn of the 20th century – a period historians attribute to seismic shifts in the layperson’s relationship with materialism. Prior to this, most possessions were either made at home or bought directly from an independent source, but as manufacturing, transportation and the economy of stuff began to centralise, the appetite for consumerism began to grow. 

To its advocates, decluttering, or “minimalism” is about more than just maximising space. “By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth and contribution,” say Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, hosts of The Minimalists podcast. 

As an art form – also known as ABC art given its apparent childlike simplicity – minimalism first surfaced in a 1913 composition by Russian painter Kasimir Malevish of a black square on a white ground. It was seen as a stripped-down bohemian approach to aesthetics, partly about forging a more authentic encounter between the self and the world. A century later, we’ve kept the aesthetics but abandoned the ideas that drove them. 

Reduced to a visual brand, minimalism has emerged from the chrysalis of the post-recession West – by showcasing less, you can demonstrate that you can do more. However, simple living and an eggshell-on-eggshell lifestyle are not the same thing. Minimalism is a virtue only when it’s a choice. Owning an abundance may sound like a problem of affluence, but civilisation’s clutter tends to accumulate in the homes of the working class, for whom the strains of financial stability and the predatory possibility of decimation are omnipresent. This, of course, is why a cluttered home is both common and unseemly. You’re not supposed to disclose that everything could go wrong. 

Cut to 2020, and the deletion of daily life feels eerily similar to the featureless prisms of Apple products or the ecru denuded mausoleum of the Kardashian West home. The architectural blankness of austerity has trickled down through the cracks only for an elected quarantine to begin before that of a government-sanctioned one – resplendent with stressful advice. Throw out everything you don’t need. Only keep things that spark joy. Wear just thirty items of clothing for three months. Digitise your photos. Never buy anything on sale. These commandments were subsequently upended by way of COVID-19, as Hale Acun Aydin, founder of The Turkish Way is Minimalism movement says: “It doesn’t matter how many shoes we have now, we’re only using one pair to go to the supermarket.”

In a 1990 essay by Anna Chave called Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power, Chave wrote: “What disturbs viewers most about Minimalist art may be what disturbs them about their own lives and times, as the visage it projects is the society’s blankest, steeliest face; the impersonal face of technology, industry, and commerce; the unyielding face of the father: a face that is usually far more attractively masked.” The concept of streamlining is not a new one, especially to those structurally linked to the rat race, however with the jagged rise of technology comes a desire to cut the fat. But what to trim when abundance isn’t plentiful?

The notion of survival is now, of course, something even the upper classes are having to consider. “I’m not the one who threw out everything that didn’t spark joy, Robert,” rebukes a figure in a recent New Yorker cartoon. “Enjoy spending the next few months rolling and unrolling your seven T-shirts.” But the concept of minimising your wares sounds a little off-kilter for those living in poverty.

Western economy asks its residents to cycle new things in and out of their homes on a constant basis, and for decades, the process has looked like a perpetual-motion machine to all but those who hadn’t had the privilege to live a middle- or upper-class life. When coronavirus hit, it became clear that the process was created only for those who can afford to start anew every time. Ridding yourself of everything that isn’t exactly what you want in that moment is its own kind of privilege – which is exactly why the set for anti-capitalist film Parasite is all sharp edges and uncluttered fresh pine. 

In 1977, social scientists Duane Elgin and Arnold Mitchell observed that, for several years, “the popular press has paid occasional attention to stories of people returning to the simple life.” Both believed that this modicum of articles reflected a social movement – henceforth dubbed “voluntary simplicity” (VS) – that could bring about a “major transformation of traditional American values.” Estimating the “maximum plausible growth of VS,” they wrote that as many as one third of all Americans might be converted to the simple life by the year 2000.

This, of course, didn’t happen. But, following the banking collapse of 2008, a light was shone on easy acquisition, showcasing it as foolhardy and ruinous. For the first time since the sixties, it became newly desirable to rely on less. As we enter a new kind of recession, it’s tempting to liken the new minimalism to a sort of cultural aftershock by way of banking crises – but what’s interesting is that this new format has become increasingly aspirational. At time of writing, the #minimalism hashtag pulls up more than 20 million posts on Instagram, many of them portraying the muted ivory tones of a renovated kitchen. 

What most of those evangelising about it won’t acknowledge is that minimalism may be forced upon people by circumstances, or that poverty and upheaval makes glib possessions seem like a collateral rather than a burden. The audiences they target are tacitly affluent – how could Marie Kondo make a mark if you didn’t have access to Netflix, or The Minimalists podcast if you don’t have a smartphone? Millburn and Nicodemus frequently describe their past lives as “spiritually empty”, despite making six-figure incomes, while Kondo’s online store suggests to throw out all of your possessions but purchase her $139 metal and leather magazine stand.

The pursuit of minimalism can only be sought by those who don’t have to fear about what unforeseen wants or needs may lie ahead. What most people pursuing the pared down lifestyle made popular by Instagram seem to forget or midunderstand, is that not having exactly what they wanted at any given time just isn’t an option for most. Minimalism assumes a lack of concern for future finances, disciplined spending and a good deal of time – factors those living in financially murky waters just don’t possess. A different lifestyle is optimal when choice is all around you – It’s easy to choose the better thing when all options are available. It’s the same psychology that allows the middle class to feel no shame shopping in Oxfam, much to their lower class counterparts’ chagrin. 

“A wealthy person minimising is making a lifestyle choice,” says Sasha Abramsky, a fellow at advocacy group DEMOS and author of The American Way of Poverty, How the Other Half Still Lives. Poor people, he said, “don’t have that option in the first place.

“It makes all of these assumptions about equal environments that don’t hold. As long as the big-picture inequalities remain, a conversation about minimalism … is going to end up blaming poor people when they stay poor.”

According to the aforementioned self-help minimalists, keeping expenditure low and purchases to a minimum can help to create a calmer, clearer life. This familiar practice allows most to come to the conclusion that overproduction, consumption and disposal has led to there being too much stuff, not only in your home, but in the world. For those who agree with that statement – as this writer does – you are unknowingly agreeing with German philosopher Karl Marx, who in 1848 published “The Communist Manifesto” with Friedrish Engels. Comparing a “society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange” to “the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells,” they maintained that there was “too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce” – hence, suggesting yo-yo capitalism which brings forth the periodic “destruction of a mass of productive forces”. Insert Marie Kondo here.

Millburn and Nicodemus frequently write about the joy that comes from choosing to earn less, even if they avoid the narrative around the far more common situation of having less money against your will. But they also liken their new lifestyle to a means of escape – a vision shaped by the logic of social media. Born out of the new norm (the world’s ability to peer into our homes) the self must be constantly improving, by methodically eradicating all flaws, given that the cultivation of ‘self’ is entirely dictated by others. This neatly aligns both concepts of minimalism; that of ideas and things. The former suggesting that the removal of excess is the realisation that the world is more troubled – leading to a need to intervene and create more wonder. The latter suggesting that ridding yourself of things means removing strife.

As paring back now stands steadfast in every life – albeit, reluctantly – people are, hearteningly, reclaiming mess in response. Households are posting cartoon drawings in their windows and distantly dancing in the street. Prioritising honest-to-goodness care over aerodynamic sheen, they know that one of the joys of good health is the ability to make a mess.

Photos by Philipp Berndt and Samantha Gades on Unsplash