Minimalism isn’t just a fetish

A friend shared an article titled “Minimalism Is Just Another Boring Product Wealthy People Can Buy” and there were a few things in it which bothered me. Now, to be clear up front, I have significant minimalist leanings, aesthetically, but my objections have nothing to do with an aesthetic defense (nominally, neither do the article’s original authors). The article did make some interesting points about a certain kind of pop minimalism, but I think it over-reaches and misses the mark on minimalism generally. I have two main objections.

The existence of a commercialized, co-opted version of a thing does not invalidate all forms of a thing.

The problem here is summed up nicely in this quote:

It’s a way of aping the connotations of simplicity and even, to a degree, asceticism, without actually having to give up those sweet, sweet class signifiers.

No. It isn’t.

In a sense, this part of my objection comes down to the word “just” in the title. Yes, there are people who fetishize minimalism and turn it into either a perch from which to obnoxiously moralize or a way to sell you things (or both). But that does not invalidate the whole idea, in the same way that the existence of “corporate feminism” doesn’t undermine the actual principles feminism is built on (let’s talk about Fearless Girl some time). Our capitalist society excels at turning everything into something to buy or sell, even the idea that not everything can be bought or sold.

So much of what the author describes as “minimalism” here isn’t something I (or, I think, most people) would recognize as such. Are there really lots of people tossing their makeup, replacing it with more “natural” looking makeup, and calling that minimalism? Because it isn’t, in anything beyond an entirely aesthetic sense (and even then I’m not sure). And if the aesthetic simply doesn’t appeal to the author, well that’s obviously fine, but then what are we talking about?

It’s not unreasonable to call minimalism an aesthetic, but really it’s more than that. It’s an assertion that less is more; having less stuff, buying less stuff, is the better choice.

The moral value of a choice is not entirely wrapped up in who has access to that choice.

This one’s more complicated. Take these two quotes together:

And, yes, there is a very strong capitalist-critical argument to be made about buying in more intentional and ethical ways, but color me shocked that very few of these minimalist troubadors 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.


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. …to frame it as in any way a moral choice is more than a little offensive.

Yes, it is objectively, trivially true that not everyone has equal access to the same set of choices, and yes, that includes some aspects of what the author describes as “minimalist” (although, problematically for her argument, she seems to simultaneously complain that minimalists “get all the gold coins of poverty”, which contradicts that, but let’s set that aside for the moment). But how is that relevant to the value of the minimalist choice when one does have access?

Here’s a concrete example of the same idea in a slightly different context. I’m currently in the process of buying a new car, and I’m lucky enough to have some flexibility around price. For me, given my situation, I consider it a moral imperative to consider things like fuel economy highly on my list of criteria. I only seriously considered plug-in hybrids (or, briefly, electric, although the infrastructure isn’t quite there for my needs and situation). Provided I can find things that fit my needs (there are several options), given my ability to spend a little extra and get something that’s better for the environment, it seems irresponsible not to do so.

Not everyone is in the same situation, obviously. The cars I’m looking at are likely going to cost me in the $25-30k range, and that isn’t a choice everyone has access to. If your budget is such that you’re going to suffer putting together $10k for a car, getting a plug-in hybrid is simply not an option for you today. It would be stupid for anyone to pass moral judgement on someone in that situation as though they have the same choices as someone with a different budget. But the fact that not everyone has that access does nothing to change the fact that there is a moral component to the choice.

None of this is to discount the systemic issues in who has access to that choice, or why we’ve arranged things such that the “better” choice is the less accessible one. There’s a lot of real issues there that we should be looking at. But, for the most part, those things are outside the scope of real people making daily choices about what to buy (or not).

Again, setting aside the fetishized version of minimalism the author’s largely reacting to, the same logic holds here. Yes, buying the more expensive but more durable example of what the “thing” in question is, so that you need fewer of them, isn’t an option for everyone. But why would that fact change the impact for people in a situation where it is? And, of course, in most cases (aside from the cartoonish caricatures the author makes up) minimalism is, in fact, accessible to a lot of people, especially given that it’s largely about simply not buying things at all. Minimalism doesn’t tell you to buy the $150 apple corer (or whatever) instead of the $30 one because it’ll last longer; minimalism says you can probably just use a knife.

And then we come down to the crux of the matter here: is buying and having less stuff a moral win? The original author dismisses “this idea that any ‘decluttering’ in your life is automatically a positive thing”, but that’s because she’s only seeing the faux-religious version of minimalism. No, certainly there’s no “automatic” positive here, but overally I’ll stand by the assertion that buying less stuff, all else being equal, tends to be a net win. You’ll produce less waste, generate less

Finally, that “gold coins of poverty” thing. Weird phrasing aside, it’s an implicit concession that there is some value there. Yes, that’s certainly complicated by the uneven distribution of choices available to people, but still: I don’t know why we ought to pretend that reduced consumption isn’t valuable regardless of whether it’s borne out of frugality or aesthetics.