When I was in first year at university, it seemed that there were two films that everyone was buzzing about: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fight Club. The two films are controversial, edgy, and they signify a coming of age for many students. One of the main themes of Fight Club is anti-consumerism, which leads to violent, radical activist behaviour in the latter stages of the film. Throughout the film, the narrator is told to free himself from his possessions, because it is in fact his possessions which control him. This is an “awakening” of sorts to many students, who now recognize the evils of advertising, mass media, and consumerism. A major lifestyle movement that has been gaining steam in the past decade is minimalism, which is also largely anti-consumerist and anti-possession.
Minimalism preaches to rid yourself of all but your most necessary possessions and living space. This means selling all of your DVDs, getting rid of most of your clothes, downsizing your home, and generally clearing your life of unnecessary clutter. Some of the more extreme proponents of the minimalism movement advocate for you to trim down your belongings to a mere 100 things, which is certainly no easy task for many of us today. I do agree that minimalism is useful for certain aspects of your life, and that as North Americans, we do accumulate a number of things that we simply do not need anymore. Technology is to thank for much of this, as we can now have entire libraries and DVD collections on a few devices in our home. However, as trendy as minimalism may be in today’s world, it simply does not work for the vast majority of us.
At its core, minimalism is just another countercultural lifestyle choice that provides its followers with social status leveraging against the status quo. The premise of essentially every countercultural movement is the motivation to be cooler than the mainstream, and minimalism is no different. The trend with design technology has mirrored this cultural taste, and most of our popular items today are very minimalist in their design. While technology and its design has advanced tremendously in the past decade, the price of most items has remained relatively stable, or has increased slightly.
A minimalist lifestyle reduces spending in the sense of clutter, but it increases spending in the sense of technology to offset the items lost. Getting rid of all of your CDs, DVDs, and books will likely require you to acquire a Netflix account, pay for a relatively good internet package to download movies or music, and purchase a Kindle or an iPad to store and read your discarded books on. This can be a rather expensive upgrade. Essentially, minimalism is not so much a rebellion against consumerism as it is a by-product of the evolution of technology. Think of any vision of an ideal future you may have seen in any science fiction movie. The design template was predominantly minimalist, with a low amount of visually stimulating colour and very simplistic overtones. The advanced technology allowed a more simplistic, streamlined way of life, much like what modern minimalism advocates for.
The actual lifestyle impact of minimalism is, on the surface, very promising. Less stuff means more space, more space means a more fluid and simplistic lifestyle and more time to focus on the tasks at hand instead of constant cleaning and organizing. But, another aspect of minimalism is to reduce the size of your living space to cut out unnecessary space from your life. This is all well and good when you’re young, as you don’t have the need for as much stuff because your day-to-day life simply doesn’t dictate it. But the vast majority of the population isn’t young, and space is required to raise a family in a healthy environment. Additionally, a large part of North American culture is entertaining guests, whether it be for a birthday party, family reunion, or your child’s sleepover. While you can rent out a public space for a birthday party or a family reunion, or simply avoid having your child have a sleepover, this can be potentially damaging to your reputation and to the event itself.
If your home is not big enough to entertain guests such that you have to rent a public space, it ruins the intimacy of hosting the event, not to mention it costs a lot more. You might also run into unforeseen rules, regulations, and other annoyances along the way. In short, minimalism can often lead to awkward social situations if your social circle are not minimalists themselves. This is not to say that minimalism is wrong, but that it will never reach mainstream society because of how the North American family model has historically been constructed.
To quote the Great Gatsby: “I love big parties, they’re so intimate”.
This is why I believe that the minimalist movement is cultivating a secular crop of lonely people, unless your other friends also happen to be minimalist. If you physically do not have the space to entertain, or to even share it comfortably with one significant other, you’re limiting your development as a human. A small space is tight, enclosed, and unwelcoming. Look at most examples of minimalist living and you’ll find that the design and layout of most of these spaces evoke a very cold and lifeless atmosphere. Minimalism is also for people who do not need to interact with many people during their daily routine. For this constant face-to-face contact, you would need more clothes, means of travel, possibly a space to entertain at some point, and other possessions that sync with this lifestyle that minimalism doesn’t allow for. Dependence on technology, discarding mementoes and other priceless memorabilia, and ascribing to a strict regimen of little to no possessions can shut you out from some truly great experiences.
Ironically, experiences are what a lot of the appeal of minimalism is based on. In lieu of adding to your collection of possessions, the minimalist approach is to spend your money elsewhere. Learning new skills, travelling, and living outside the confines of your own home (hence why size doesn’t really matter) are key traits of a minimalist lifestyle. Traveling has definitely become one of the de facto ways to gain independence and discover yourself today, but a life of constant travel is quite expensive and unpredictable, which many people simply cannot afford to do. I definitely encourage shaping your life through experiences, and building lasting memories with them, but the fundamental flaw with this philosophy is that it states that experiences cannot be created through possessions and consumerism. I would argue that many possessions can provide you with experiences, and that one simply needs to be a smarter consumer instead of largely abstaining from purchasing.
In a previous article, I spoke of my theory that buying your clothes second-hand at thrift stores or online makes you more attached to them and increases your satisfaction with your purchase because you had to live out more of an experience to locate and procure them. My theory of experiential consumerism can be applied to almost every purchase you make in the future. I equate it to this: if the purchase you are making will provide your life with a direct, tangible benefit, then it counts as an experiential purchase, and you should buy it. This could be a cookbook, a computer, a bike – anything that you will use to great benefit of your own life.
What you should aim to approach with a more minimalist mindset are the things that you do not place high value in. I’m not the biggest fan of electronics and TV in particular, so I have the bare essentials as far as technology goes: a computer, a cell phone, and a small TV, but that’s all I have any use for. If you place more value on technology, by all means, spend away on it, as your high sense of value that is invested in your experiences that you gain from electronics will be rewarding.
I place a high value in books and my clothes, and my bookshelf is full of titles new and old, and my closet follows a similar pattern. I gain a great deal of personal value when I read a new book and learn something, or when I purchase an item of clothing to emulate a certain style or aesthetic that I find interesting. All of these are experiential purchases, and the value that they give me is worth the purchase ten-fold. Don’t be afraid to spend money on things you’re passionate about; it’s not consumerism if you’re consciously aware and happy with what you’re buying.
The narrator in Fight Club placed a high value in furniture from IKEA, but the difference here is that he placed a high value in the furniture, not IKEA the company. This is why when he purchased everything in his apartment from IKEA, he was in a delusional state of happiness. His purchases did not reflect his high valuation of interior design and an attractive apartment. The narrator purchased unoriginal, cheaply made furniture that anyone could have, and this furniture was not produced with longevity in mind. This is also why many experiential purchases will be higher quality purchases: a long product life will produce more experiences for the consumer, and this attachment will produce more satisfaction and happiness with the product. If the narrator had have searched high and low for antique furniture or other rare, quality pieces, he would likely have been a lot more upset when his entire apartment went up in flames, because he attached an experience to his purchase.
I believe that Fight Club’s core message about how we let our possessions own us was correct, but to discard all possessions in favour of a life of squalor and violence was quite frankly delusional in nature. Our possessions only own us as long as we let them. We don’t have to throw everything away and squat in a dilapidated house while plotting our revenge against the system; we can make conscious decisions to make more of our purchases experiential ones. For many people, minimalism is a radical notion, and this is why it will simply never catch on to the desires of its proponents. Like all forms of counterculture, the strength of minimalism lies in its exclusivity. Minimalism has some good merits, but to subscribe to the entire ideology is not sustainable for most people.
As long as there is democracy, there will be competition for status. Counterculture exists for those on the cutting edge of status leveraging, and when an aspiring minimalist discards all of their possessions, they are merely trying to be cooler than the other guy, which is counterproductive. As the old adage goes: “The harder you try to be cool, the less cool you actually become.” The reality is, many of our possessions are what define our status and help us find a place in society. As sad is this grim truth is, it will continue to persist as long as our egalitarian society yields the premise of success and fortune no matter what the situation you’re born into.
What’s ironic is that while minimalists abstain from possessions because they’re a constant measure of status, minimalism itself is a status-seeking lifestyle. At its core, minimalism is keeping ahead of the Joneses by abstaining from needless purchases, so in terms of social morals, minimalists are no better than the possession driven mainstreamers they seek to distinguish themselves from.
In this sense of almost inescapable status laddering, we must tailor our consumption to mirror our values, and force ourselves to forego purchases that are not experiential in nature. If we purchase things because we value them and disregard purchases that are thoughtless and largely driven by consumer hysteria, we will start to see a great deal of change. Tailor your purchases to your values, and stop making unnecessary purchases of things that you do not value.
I definitely encourage you to clear out some unnecessary things, as we are all guilty of having too much clutter in our homes. However, minimalism will not make you spend less money; rather, it will make you spend your money differently because you’re more actively thinking about what you’re doing doing with it. And this is the one philosophy of minimalism that I believe should be applied to your life whether you ascribe to this lifestyle or not. The bottom line is: we need to think about why we’re purchasing things, stop trying to impress each other, and instead focus on impressing ourselves.