Broken Minimalism: Elitist?

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Minimalism is fairly popular at the moment. People want to seem streamlined and simple. But not everyone is sure that minimalism is as perfect as it seems. A simple Google search for “problem with minimalism” brings up a host of articles about why minimalism isn’t the answer to everything.

A great example is the following essay that was written by Charles Lloyd in response to a widely-read New York Times piece by Graham Hill. I quote the full essay here for ease of reference.

Via Anne Galloway on Twitter, I just saw Living With Less. A Lot Less, an opinion piece in the New York Times.

I run into some version of this essay by some moneybags twig-bishop about once a year, and it bugs me every time.

Wealth is not a number of dollars. It is not a number of material possessions. It’s having options and the ability to take on risk.

If you see someone on the street dressed like a middle-class person (say, in clean jeans and a striped shirt), how do you know whether they’re lower middle class or upper middle class? I think one of the best indicators is how much they’re carrying.

Lately I’ve been mostly on the lower end of middle class (although I’m kind of unusual along a couple axes). I think about this when I have to deal with my backpack, which is considered déclassé in places like art museums. My backpack has my three-year-old laptop. Because it’s three years old, the battery doesn’t last long and I also carry my power supply. It has my paper and pens, in case I want to write or draw, which is rarely. It has a cable to charge my old phone. It has gum and sometimes a snack. Sunscreen and a water bottle in summer. A raincoat and gloves in winter. Maybe a book in case I get bored.

If I were rich, I would carry a MacBook Air, an iPad mini as a reader, and my wallet. My wallet would serve as everything else that’s in my backpack now. Go out on the street and look, and I bet you’ll see that the richer people are carrying less.

As with carrying, so with owning in general. Poor people don’t have clutter because they’re too dumb to see the virtue of living simply; they have it to reduce risk.

When rich people present the idea that they’ve learned to live lightly as a paradoxical insight, they have the idea of wealth backwards. You can only have that kind of lightness through wealth.

If you buy food in bulk, you need a big fridge. If you can’t afford to replace all the appliances in your house, you need several junk drawers. If you can’t afford car repairs, you might need a half-gutted second car of a similar model up on blocks, where certain people will make fun of it and call you trailer trash.

Please, if you are rich, stop explaining the idea of freedom from stuff as if it’s a trick that even you have somehow mastered.

The only way to own very little and be safe is to be rich.

That’s a criticism that should be taken seriously, not just shrugged off. Is minimalism really the wealthy, elitist, self-centered obsession that he paints a picture of?

I’d like to suggest that there are some insights here, but so many inaccuracies that his conclusion is invalid.

To begin, Lloyd’s alternative definition of wealth is interesting; not one that I’d thought of before. It’s true, in many ways, but it is also facilitated by the “number of dollars” that a person has.

His contrast of “lower middle class” versus “rich” is weak, though. It’s essentially a straw-man argument, setting up an easy target for himself that doesn’t accurately represent the argument.

If he is carrying his laptop in X situation, why wouldn’t a rich person also be carrying their laptop in X situation? Would he stop carrying his pens and papers if he became rich? He seems to indicate so, since they certainly won’t fit in a wallet. Why is he carrying his phone charger? Presumably to charge his phone. So why wouldn’t a rich person be carrying a phone charger as well? And then I see that he would carry water or gum or snacks or sunscreen or a raincoat or gloves if he became rich. I wasn’t aware that being rich required having so little sense. *sarcasm*

I can see very few reasons for a rich person to be carrying so much less than a poor person in any given situation. What they are carrying may be much higher quality, smaller, and lighter, but it won’t disappear.

Lloyd’s next point is quite an assumption. “As with carrying, so with owning in general.” That can’t be assumed, because it’s closely parallel to what we’re discussing. And the rest of the point is highly suspect. “Poor people don’t have clutter because they’re too dumb to see the virtue of living simply; they have it to reduce risk.”

Let’s assume that Lloyd was describing himself as a poor person in the earlier paragraph. So he needs to carry his phone charger to reduce risk? My approach is just to charge my phone at home, and it has nothing to do with wealth. He needs to carry gum and snacks to reduce risk? Risk of what?

Here Lloyd comes to the crux of his argument and it’s totally empty.

When rich people present the idea that they’ve learned to live lightly as a paradoxical insight, they have the idea of wealth backwards. You can only have that kind of lightness through wealth.

He simply reiterates his conclusion and concludes that therefore it’s true. All of his examples are poor. I buy food in bulk, but have a perfectly normally sized refrigerator. I have several appliances, but no junk drawer, because I take care of the appliances or do without them. And I don’t have a car at all; quite a viable option, in the city at least.

In addition, his examples have very little to do with minimalism. A small refrigerator has zero relevance on minimalism. A car up on blocks doesn’t mean that you can’t be a minimalist. It’s there for a purpose, not “just in case.”

But his conclusion is very interesting. He doesn’t attack minimalists, he attacks rich people. Lloyd doesn’t have a problem with minimalism, he has a problem with rich people.

The whole essay is well-constructed English-wise, but the logic is very flimsy. However, pointing out his logical weaknesses doesn’t really rebut the criticism. I can prove him wrong with my personal example.

I am becoming minimalist, but I am not rich. I am a university student, working a full-time co-op job over the summer. I cannot afford a car and I cannot replace appliances when they break. I’m renting a cheap townhouse, because I can’t afford nicer housing. I have a three-year-old phone because I don’t have money sitting around to buy a new one. I don’t carry everything I own with me; I prepare beforehand. I don’t have the highest quality items that are tiny and white (read, I don’t have a Mac). My laptop is a beast, but it’s powerful and it does what I want it to do. And I don’t have clutter because I want to minimize risk. I have clutter because I have been too lazy to get rid of it. That’s why I’m here.

Being rich is not the only way to own very little.

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