I’m back where I often find myself: awake past midnight, sorting my clothes into keep, debate, and donate piles, and making furious lists of absolute must-haves. In the middle of a pandemic, I’m besotted with the macabre and I don’t want anyone having to go through my things if I were to die. I go through this cycle often: I clear out everything I deem unnecessary, trash objects I’ll miss later, fall lax, and then buy beautiful things that weigh me down. Decluttering is a high-stakes, insurmountable task that I began obsessing over when I returned to the United States as a teenager newish to this country’s culture of spending. I spent one of my paychecks on 10 pairs of shoes “on sale” for $10 each. Buying those shoes definitely induced a sense of euphoria—until a friend burst my bubble. “Why would you do that?” she asked. “You could have gotten one really good pair of shoes for $100.” I donated the entire lot of shoes because I couldn’t walk in any of them. Though I’d arrived at college with just two suitcases, I left with a truckload just a few years later.
I realized I’d accumulated too much when I moved from a two-bedroom apartment in Connecticut to a room in a family friend’s New York City home. I had boxes and boxes of kitchen items, enough furniture to comfortably fill my old apartment, clothes my mother had given me, and tchotchkes from travels. I was struggling to downsize since everything in my apartment served some sort of “purpose,” so I turned to the internet for answers: I read blog posts extolling the good of a clutter-free life and tried Oprah Winfrey’s closet hanger experiment, turning clothes around after using them to see if I’d actually wear them again over the course of six months. (The Oprah experiment failed because I didn’t have the closet space to deploy the method.)
As I tried to fix my life to match my political values, I realized that mass consumption wasn’t a problem that could be solved through having fewer items. Affect implies emotion; while “sparking joy” could be a useful way to organize my life, it also led to another question: What makes me happy, and why the hell was it so stressful to answer this question when it came to my belongings? Buying one expensive shirt and hoping it doesn’t rip or soil seemed antithetical to the values that brought me to minimalism: I wanted to spend less money on fewer items—and be less attached to them. I wasn’t interested in the optics of minimalism; I didn’t want to care about material goods.
In 2014, I found myself at a “mansion party” thrown by a rap producer in the garden district of Austin, Texas, with strangers dressed in business casual attire. We were crowded in completely white rooms with no photographs, while an agitated white man walked around, nervously fixing all the monochromatic furniture pushed to the side by wayward partiers. “He’s the owner,” someone whispered. We located the white stairs overlooking a valley hugging the four-floor building, which was home to the single, nervous man. We were told we’d be able to see the best view of our lives. We walked past a room with ceiling-to-floor glass windows, a single perfect circle of a bed, and one bean bag chair. The home was très chic in its stark emptiness.
As a lifestyle, minimalism does away with ornamentation in its pursuit of the essential; it is practiced through material austerity. I knew I shouldn’t feel attached to a rocking chair, even if it was beautiful, handmade, and perfectly balanced, and that—as William Morris preached in his famous quote—I should “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” The gospel of minimalism, as preached by bloggers, chat rooms, and Facebook groups, is growing more nebulous as the movement of capitalist austerity—austerity as choice and aesthetic—picks up steam. Minimalism was an aesthetically and morally attractive alternative to my Black Friday–at–2 a.m. kick: it helped me get rid of extraneous items, made cleaning and moving easier, and purported to have a lower impact on the environment.
When I moved, I donated two van-loads of items to Goodwill, and my favorite furniture to my friends. But I’d also fallen into the trap of thinking my personal choices were some form of praxis. And what about those who’ve never been able to choose minimalism because it is thrust upon them? Spareness is the lot of have-nots; minimalism is only aesthetic when it’s a choice. Minimalism critiques extravagance without condemning the wealth itself, making it a doctrine of the rich, for the rich. It’s the “classiest” version of inconspicuous consumption, one that at its core houses sanctimonious self-abnegation.
The actual definition of minimalism remains murky: As The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism (2020) author Kyle Chayka notes in a 2016 New York Times magazine article titled “The Oppressive Gospel of ‘Minimalism,” literally anything can be considered minimalist. “The nearly four million images tagged #minimalism on Instagram include white sneakers, clouds, the works of Mondrian, neon signs, crumbling brick walls and grassy fields,” Chayka writes. “So long as it’s stylishly austere, it seems, it’s minimalist.”
Is minimalism a number, like the French capsule wardrobe of the ’70s promoted? Is minimalism a look? Is minimalism achieved by replacing everything with nicer, more beautiful things? An Indian outfit would never be considered aesthetically minimalist—too busy, only usable for special occasions. I have one entire suitcase of saris and salwars I can’t and probably won’t get rid of. My silks and chiffons are reminders of my fractured selves, kept in holding patterns in anticipation of the next Navratri festival or moderately formal desi gathering. I have as many suitcases of clothes as I have selves. Am I too Indian, too bicultural to be minimalist?
The Privilege of Minimalism
When I first began writing this essay, Marie Kondo’s popular Netflix show, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, hadn’t been released, but her wildly successful 2014 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, had spread the gospel of her patented method for downsizing: only keep items that spark joy. Kondo also sells $89 boxes to house assorted goods, including your reduced number of socks. (Kidding: All socks spark joy.) Tidying Up with Marie Kondo offered an all-too-familiar look at how people gravitate toward external measures to find meaning in the chaos of their lives; for instance, in one episode, a white man’s frustration with his South Asian wife’s collection of scarves seems subtly cruel as she privately confesses how disconnected she feels from her culture.
Kondo is just one of many “gurus” who have built empires of varying sizes from supposedly anticonsumerist “simple living.” Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who cohost The Minimalists podcast, boast about “helping 20 million people live meaningful lives with less” through their website, books, and 2016 documentary, Minimalism. People turn to these gurus for various reasons, but the advice meted out is often prescriptive, even evangelical. In their view, it’s possible to curate an even more meaningful life by paying for motivational talks, courses, and merchandise. But prescription without a grand moral universe and community support is religion at its least nurturing.
The tiny house movement—featured in multiple HGTV shows and several Netflix documentaries—is the perfect example of this. The movement began in Japan as a response to the rapid increase of working-class families living in increasingly cramped cities. The United Nations projects that 68 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, so surviving on less has become a necessity as the cost of living continues to increase. Amid skyrocketing housing prices, Seattle, for instance, became one of at least 10 cities to create a village of tiny houses for unhoused people at a cost of $2,200 per unit. Tiny houses are supposedly cheap to build, easy to plonk down, and a good alternative to McMansions that are expensive to heat and cool. But as a 2017 study published in Family & Consumer Sciences notes, tiny houses are often depicted as “premier, high-end, and luxury” onscreen, in shows such as Tiny House, Big Living. According to researchers Jasmine Ford and Lilia Gomez-Lanier, this depiction of tiny houses “automatically connotes a diametrically opposed construction between privilege/wealth and poverty—which feeds the consumerist narrative of the haves versus the have-nots [and the desire to belong to the former], rather than opposing it.”
I understand the allure; I would adore a tricked-out tiny home on the white sands of the Mangalore coast, where I could be at “one with nature” but also divorced from the struggle around me. While tiny houses are cheaper to build compared with regular-size homes, they can still cost upward of $10,000—an unfeasible sum for many. (My friend spent more than a year and $20,000 building one. It’s no easy task.) Researchers also find that many tiny-house owners use them as guest houses, rentals, and vacation homes, which, as the aforementioned study notes, “turn the tiny home into an extra material convenience rather than a sincere consequence of a simplified lifestyle.”
Minimalism as a Replacement for Culture
Connecting to Eastern culture is a salient throughline for many newfound methods of “simple living.” Yoga, turmeric lattes, and mindfulness apps are staples of this yearning for cultural guidance. This yearning often comes from a real cultural crisis—a need to find some roots from which to grow. If a trend within minimalism has Japanese connections, whether it is tatami mats or cute organizing boxes, it accrues even more credibility than one with U.S. origins. An admiration of Japanese aesthetic power, judging by the high cultural cachet of Japanese food, arts and entertainment, and spirituality, is complicated and enhanced by the United States’s fluctuating relationship to Japan in the 20th century (one of “friction, resentment and mutual recrimination” marked by violence against country and people).
But the crusade against clutter is not so easily embraced by some in the United States, such as refugees or immigrants. Writer Arielle Bernstein’s family responded to the trauma of global anti-Semitism and immigration by clinging harder to objects. “Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust. For a refugee, that trust has not yet been earned,” she wrote in a 2016 article for The Atlantic. Organizing an immigrant life is not as simple as throwing stuff away. That stuff was, as Bernstein describes her family’s relationship to material objects, “confirmation they survived.”
Humans in certain pockets of the world are accumulating more than ever before, but to object to the visuals of hoarding versus hidden extravagance grounds minimalism as yet another banal preoccupation. Chayka wonders if we have a hangover from prior excess and if minimalism is the “salutary tonic”—or a coping mechanism for “recession-induced austerity.” It is, as I discovered mid-act, praxis with no philosophy. A zero-waste Instagram influencer travels the world on fuel-guzzling flights to raise awareness about how poor people in the Philippines dispose of diapers. Homeowners stage their subtly lavish houses for likes on Facebook. I live alone, in a country where I often feel unwelcome, fretting about the number of black shirts I own.
While minimalism may masquerade as a reaction to capitalism, current practices and values have turned it into the rebellious offspring of capitalism.
Retreating to the simple life is an emerging response to the injustices perpetrated by exploitative industry and our anxiety about climate change: Yes, into the wild we go, in our own version of neoliberal frontierism. However, so-called acts of resistance limited to the individual are self-involved. A minimalist who hashtags their beautiful living room on Instagram mounts the most feeble resistance ever; they’re the protestors who’d rather be at brunch or the self-identified environmentalists who wag their metal straw in your face while making a point about your bad consumption habits. Inconveniences that could be declared chosen annoyances might soothe a foggy sense of outrage: Through minimalism, we feel as if we have done something rather than just verbally expressing discontent. Our lives are no longer consumed. We are no longer sick. We’re leading meaningful lives.
The staunchest critics of hoarding—and those who conflate sentimentality with mental illness—seek to further individualize the self. By wholly situating the locus of identity and meaning in the physical body, the minimalist rapaciously applies simplified, plagiarized Buddhist philosophies that heed against attachment and place them in the physical world. The body is all we have, and all attachments outside of it are bad. First community, then tribe, and then family, and then house: The capitalist who applies spirituality to their life comes for it all. This is not to say that everyone should dismiss minimalism as a practice. We don’t need so much stuff. It’s helped me tame that spending impulse, while more elaborate theories have helped me address why I have certain desires.
Having two closets full of clothes still keeps me up at night. While minimalism may masquerade as a reaction to capitalism, current practices and values have turned it into the rebellious offspring of capitalism—fixing ourselves with what we can purchase, downsize, and signal virtue about our spending and donating habits. In its current iteration, minimalism simply wants us to fit our lives into beautiful little boxes of ticky-tacky with muted tones and pleasing edges.