Is Minimalism Classist? The Class Politics of Decluttering

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“For people who are not so well off, the idea of opting to have even less is not really an option.”

– Stephanie Land

I recently discussed whether minimalism is sexist. Now the question arises, “is minimalism classist?”

Yesterday, I read a New York Times op-ed piece, The Class Politics of Decluttering, by Stephanie Land. She says that for her, and, she imagines, “for millions of other working-class Americans who struggle to get by, minimalism’s principles don’t sit well either.”

Of course, people frequently argue that minimalism is only for the super-rich, especially after extremely wealthy people tout themselves as minimalists. You might remember millionaire Graham Hill’s piece in the New York Times, Living With Less. A Lot Less, a few years back.

I think this allegation is easily refuted, since the minimalist movement seems most popular among middle class and upper-middle class families. As Land says, minimalism’s “fan base is clustered in the well-off middle class.”

After all, the middle class and upper middle class can usually afford (even if on credit) to buy lots of stuff, but not the space to store it all neatly. A kitchen gadget addiction isn’t really a problem if you have a 1,000 square foot kitchen. In a middle class household, though, buying a hot-dog cooker may mean losing the last small bit of counter space.

“More significantly, getting rid of things requires the having of things. If minimalism is a kind of voluntary thing-poverty, then real poverty is involuntary minimalism.”

– Tracey Moore, in Minimalism Is the New Luxury Hotness

But what about Land’s argument that, “minimalism is a virtue only when it’s a choice”? I believe this  has more merit, and I mentioned this briefly in my discussion of Jerome Segal’s book, Graceful Simplicity.

Unlike most books about minimalism, Segal’s book discusses some of the practical and economic problems inherent in choosing simplicity, some of which do apply to the middle class. For instance, better school districts are generally in more expensive places to live, and less expensive housing is often in unsafe neighborhoods.

The problems multiply for those living in poverty. Owning only one set of sheets isn’t a realistic option if every load of wash requires a long bus ride to the laundromat. Saving something “just in case” is a lot more important when you can’t afford to replace the item.

You may not have good enough credit to rent rarely used items. Perhaps you don’t even have a rental company near your home. And then there’s time. People juggling two or three jobs often barely have time to sleep, much less declutter and meditate.

Of course, some people living in poverty are minimalists – but it’s not possible for everyone. At best, it’s much more difficult than it would be with a bit more cash.

“We seldom consider how much of our lives we must render in return for some object we barely want, seldom need, buy only because it was put before us.”

– Ferenc Máté

All this being said, I don’t believe this means those of us in the middle class ought to keep all the stuff we no longer use. Nor do I think we should refrain from making more time in our schedules for family and relaxation.

So what can we do to address the classist elements of minimalism?

  • Help make minimalism an option for more people by working for better public transportation, good schools in all neighborhoods, affordable health care, or whatever issues you see as the biggest problems in your area.
  • Avoid belittling those who have lots of stuff or wait in long lines for Black Friday sales. Be considerate of and kind to others, even if you disagree with their choices. (In fact, this advice applies to a lot more than arguments about minimalism and consumerism).

What do you think? Is minimalism classist? Should minimalists do something differently?

2 thoughts on “Is Minimalism Classist? The Class Politics of Decluttering

  1. Minimalism is partly about valuing what you have. That used bike my parents bought and had repainted to give to me for Christmas had a lot of value for me as it expanded my world. Sewing a ruffle to the bottom of a favorite dress that has become a tad short has value to the the child who loves that dress. Restuffing a favorite toy has value to the child who has trouble sleeping without it. Buying a new bike, dress, or stuffed animal would not have made their owners happier.

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.