Is minimalism a bourgeois pursuit?

View over the lakes

I don’t spend much time on my blog talking about my day job.

This is for a number of reasons. Some are out of concern for you, the reader: it would be a bit off-topic and I don’t want to bore you.

But mainly it’s for my own personal reasons. I like to ‘leave work at work’ for my own sanity, I don’t hugely want people I know professionally reading my most intimate thoughts about struggling with debt or stress, and I also worry that I might land myself in trouble with my employers by saying something horrendously inappropriate. Which I most definitely would.

So I won’t go into reams of detail about how I pay my bills but suffice to say, I spend much of my working life in an area of the UK with some pretty deep-seated problems with poverty, and sometimes come across issues like homelessness, unemployment and the housing of refugees.

I also spent my wasted youth on the periphery of the local queer activist scene, and while I never felt I fully fitted in with its ‘smash the system’ aims, I guess some of it rubbed off on me.

All this means there is sometimes an aspect of minimalism which makes me a little uncomfortable.

I’ll put it this way: maybe I’m spending a little too much of my time thinking about how to get just the right number of things to achieve maximum happiness.

Yes, I know, so much of the thought behind minimalism is commendable.

You’re taking a step back from a world obsessed with buying crap, made out of diminishing resources, by exploited workers, to turn profits for huge corporations.

You’re instead focusing on aligning your spending with your values.

You’re carving out space in your life for pursuits which might help others, or feed your soul, rather than taking part in a fruitless contest to see who can amass the most toys.

But it is an inescapable fact that being in a position of having ‘too much’, and realising that paring down might make you happier, is a very privileged place to be.

The act of minimising, decluttering, simplifying, call it what you will, is both commendable and undeniably solipsistic at the same time.

In my experience, people facing very serious struggles with poverty or disadvantage have more pressing concerns: Where can my family live, now the landlord is turfing us out? How can I afford to get my children birthday presents when I’m out of a job?  How can I learn how computers work when I’ve never been able to buy one? Where can I get clothes for a job interview when I’ve got no money? How do I settle in a new country when I’ve had to leave all my worldly possessions in a war zone?

In this context, concerns about how best to carefully construct a chic capsule wardrobe, how to reduce the time you’re spending online or how to tactfully decline gifts can appear to border on the obscene.

But what do we do about this? Throw up our hands and decry it all as bourgeois bullshit, then reach for the credit card again?

If this isn’t the answer (hint: it isn’t), then what is?

It’s an issue I’m still grappling with.

While I try to make my lower-middle-class existence less stressful, less cash-strapped and less wasteful, how can I continue to build in to my daily life consideration for – and action to help – those who don’t have this luxury?


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11 thoughts on “Is minimalism a bourgeois pursuit?

  1. I don’t think it’s minimalism that’s the problem, but the minimalist community echochamber online that has rebranded what used to be one pillar of the simple living movement (living with less stuff and consuming less) and tied it up with a very high end aesthetic. If minimalism hasn’t freed up time and energy, or if that energy is being poured into the endless and highly solopsistic pursuit of the perfect minimalist apartment/laptop/wardrobes/coffee ‘experience’, then yes, it’s a bourgeois pursuit. The simple answer is to use some of the time and energy freed up by a minimalist lifestyle to help fix some of the brokeness in the world, without feeling the need to evangelise minimalism to people who have much bigger fish to fry.

    Incidentally, I came to minimalism as the adult child of a working class, mentally unstable single parent who was a bona fide hoarder – I saw on a daily basis just how much of a liability having too much stuff can be. I also recognise that (even as a working class) Brit, I am in the top 5% in the whole world in terms of lifestyle footprint. ‘Live simply so others can simply live’ is somethimg I strive for.

    Sorry for the long screed! I am really enjoying your archives.

    1. The simple answer is to use some of the time and energy freed up by a minimalist lifestyle to help fix some of the brokeness in the world, without feeling the need to evangelise minimalism to people who have much bigger fish to fry.

      I thought this said it wonderfully. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  2. Wmstchic says:

    I agree with Aurora. Minimalism has, in itself, become a competition to some. I even find myself comparing myself to some of the extreme minimalists I read about. Why can’t I only have 100 things! Here is what I know – there is no magic, perfect “minimalism”, everyone has different needs and tolerances. Just being aware of excess leads us to be more responsible consumers. I’ve always believed that in addition to the freedom from material responsibility and the ability to reduce debt provides us with time to “give back”. The act of being minimal gives us the time and resources to help others. I believe it is Joshua Fields Millburn that noted in “Everything That Remains” that he had actual TIME to volunteer and seek out opportunities to be a responsible member of his community. I certainly know for myself that spending less time in stores or browsing online has given me time that I previously thought I didn’t have. Someone like Colin Wright might walk into my home and laugh at my level of minimalism compared to his life style BUT it IS my minimalism and being more aware of my impact on the world via consumerism I think is not just a privileged pursuit but one that helps us be more aware of the world around us. As always, I LOVE your posts – thanks for another thought provoking piece.

  3. Chistine says:

    There is privilege in getting to choose minimalism, and I often see push back when it gets brought up. Buying higher quality items so they last longer, and the $20 dollars/20 minutes guideline are both examples of a level of financial security. So is having items with resale value that aren’t essential. I have this financial security, and I’m grateful for it.

    I grew up on a farm in a somewhat poor area. By certain measures my family was poor (By other measures we weren’t poor at all. My family situation is a bit hard to categorize). My family have always been pack rats, and it makes perfect sense. Keeping spare parts to fix things and keeping all sorts of tools and materials in order to make things are good strategies for living cheaply. The style of minimalism that I have living in town would have been unaffordable for my parents when I was growing up.

  4. I like this post, and I like Aurora’s response to it too. One thing to consider, though, is that if we’re in the middle class, MOST of our pursuits are going to be “bourgeois,” because “bourgeois” just means middle class. Even something as simple as eating healthier can be bourgeois, because lower-income people can’t afford kale smoothies, or even very much fresh produce at all, oftentimes. Artistic pursuits are bourgeois, even having a blog really, because leisure and time (and Internet access) are middle- to upper-class commodities in many ways.

    So my answer to your post’s title would be, “Definitely yes.” But I don’t think that makes the pursuit of minimalism bad or tainted in itself. Just like with anything, its goodness or badness depends largely on what we’re bringing to the table– the condition of our hearts while we’re pursuing it. And that varies from individual to individual, from moment to moment. Sometimes minimalism is good for me, sometimes it’s not. Is it opening my heart or constricting it? Being human is complicated.

  5. AGS says:

    I appreciate what you wrote in this. I don’t think it’s bourgeois if you approach minimalism simply as removing unneeded items so you can focus on what matters. This is something you can do at all economic levels, and extends to far more than the number of hand towels you own. A couple years ago, my husband and I started reducing outside obligations so we could be home more with our family. It started as one night a week, and now we are all home as a family almost every evening. This has been very healthy for us. We’ve slowly reduced possessions, too, but the big one is time.

    That said, I’ve felt a whiff of elitism – and even moral superiority – when I read about about how they are a family of four and “only” need 2,300 square feet of space. Or how they just downsized, and “only” need 1,200 square feet of space now it’s just the two of them. We are a very frugal family of 5, and I would love to have more space. It’s not in the cards now, and we’ve reconciled ourselves to that, and are content. But I often think how nice it would be to have more than one bathroom – it’s so tiresome for all of us to be scrambling at the same time some days. We know that our parents grew up with far less, so we do not complain. . . but if I hear one more down-sizer talk about how they only need that much space now they are a couple, and that’s the space we are living in as a family of 5. . . well. . . we aren’t poor, but we choose to live frugally, and are also working to give more of our income away to charity, and family/friends in need. I have just about stopped reading “minimalist” blogs. . . because so many people are choosing minimalism when it’s convenient – they are single, or kids are out of the house, or whatever. Or perhaps these are families that have so much money they don’t need to manage hand-me-downs from one child to the next. I would never get rid of usable items, because brother/sisters will use them.

  6. Grace says:

    I have also struggled with this question myself. As Tara said, there is nothing inherently wrong with being bourgeois. However, it is the privilege of choice. We shouldn’t have to be apologetic for having choices, but sensitive that not everyone has that same privilege. We also need to be grateful. Many of us are trying to be good stewards with the privilege of choice through the minimalist movement. Cognizance of those choices is important. We may choose to have a smaller family, live in a smaller home, be vegan, work less hours, retire early, work at a more meaningful job… What ever your choice is acknowledge it. However, do not judge others

  7. thanks for sharing. minimalism frees your heart and your wallet to open to new opportunities. the opportunities can be self-centered, such as exercising more, which isn’t bad, it’s just more me-time, or the opportunities can be reaching outward. Opportunities to serve through a local church or service organization can enrich other people’s lives. it’s not necessarily an either/or decision. Minimalism can focus on time and priorities. you can focus on things that matter more rather than the mundane daily requirements. Inspiration to give your time and talent to others is a wholly worthwhile endeavor. Thanks again for sharing. Joe Wong. http://www.joechoosehappiness.wordpress.com

  8. LaughingLady says:

    Like so many others here have already said, it’s really all in the “WHY” of the pursuit of minimalism. It CAN be very self-centered and self-serving and CAN be all about having the latest look and following the latest trend. But it can also be about freeing up time, money, and other resources to help others instead, whether donating more money to charities, investing more time in your family, and even just spending more time with the neighbours, which benefits the community in incalculable ways.

    People used to connect IN PERSON and cared for each other routinely, and they generally seem to have been far happier than most “modern, civilized” societies. They KNEW their community intimately, they concerned themselves with the goings-on, and they sprang into action when they saw a need, whether physical, financial, emotional, or spiritual. So even if we’re just slowing down and cutting back to make more time for face-to-face time with the people around us, that’s just good for everyone.

    (I had to look up the definition of solipsistic… thank you for expanding my vocabulary! 🙂

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