In 2011, a Japanese woman changed the world by helping people organize their closets. Marie Kondo, now known for her KonMari method, published her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, in thirty countries. More recently, she featured in two Netflix shows where she helped American households discern which of their material possessions “spark joy” and what they could do with the rest. Her clients would let her into each and every corner of their houses which were overflowing with things and were left with a profound sense of relief by the time she had concluded her counsel. It might seem too much of a “first world problem” to merit serious consideration, but clearly more and more people are overwhelmed with the amount of stuff they own.
While Kondo’s approach was limited to organizing one’s stuff, the protagonists of Netflix’s The Minimalists: Less Is Now (2021) go into why our societies are becoming increasingly consumerist and why minimalism is their motto. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, childhood friends who grew up poor, had wanted nothing more than to be able to afford things they didn’t have—a good house, luxury cars, designer clothes, savvy electronics, and the like. By their 30s, they had acquired everything but the feeling of satisfaction that they were after. Minimalism became their way of taking back control of their lives. Their motto wasn’t to live in less, they say, but to make room for more. That is, to take the focus away from material consumption to creativity, relationships, community, and more. Much like Kondo, their approach too proved to be wildly successful. They started out with a blog, The Minimalists, but now also have a book, podcast, a Netflix show, interviews, and, of course, an online course where they help people declutter their lives. Ironically, the course, Simplify Everything, purports to give you as many as 135 decluttering solutions to 45 clutter problem areas.
Living in a culture saturated by marketing
However, while the duo have indeed made a virtue (and a business) out of the very problem they seek to avoid, they offer compelling insights into America and the modern world’s increasingly consumerist tendencies. For starters, it’s worth noting that with the advertising industry’s shift to online platforms, Amazon remains America’s top-most advertiser, and the ad-industry made over $300 billion in revenue in 2021. By contrast, most of the ads in the 1950s US played on TV and the industry generated about $40 million.
According to the documentary, this has led to a crisis of attention in which each advertiser is constantly pulling in a potential consumer not only by bombarding them with their ads but also by manipulating their insecurities and aspirations to goad them into making the purchase. Between online shopping, credit card purchases, and same day deliveries, the feedback loop has never been more instant and gratifying for a consumer.
Before the American consumer realizes, he or she has lived a lifetime of unchecked consumerism, with the average household hoarding up to 300,000 items. It’s no wonder, then, that in the last few years many have turned to saviors such as Kondo, Millburn, and Nicodemus to help manage this pathology. So, when their houses are decluttered and emptied out of stuff they didn’t even remember they had, it feels like they have been given a new lease of life. The newly freed space, both literal and metaphorical, gives them a renewed sense of hope about their life.
What the minimalists leave out
Where Kondo teaches people to value what they have and keep only what they value, the Minimalists want to help people in turning their focus away from buying stuff to make themselves feel better. In both cases, the idea is to live more mindfully. However, what neither addresses is why large swathes of people find all of this difficult to do in the first place. While it’s tempting to paint consumerism as the evil which must be resisted with a missionary zeal, it is worth asking if getting rid of one’s stuff in a Netflix show is all it takes to take back control of one’s life. After all, there is a reason why instant gratification is the flavor of the present times.
For one, putting in the work in your relationships, profession, and community takes far more time and effort—with no guarantees for positive results and a near certainty of disappointment and failed expectations. This is why these seemingly different aspects of life, whether online or offline, are all alike rife with constant anxiety. Not only does the modern consumer want quicker promotions at work, they also want their LinkedIn posts to go viral. Not only do they want the picture perfect relationship, they want the most Instagram worthy shot of their time together too. Not only do they want their communities to accept their identity, they seek to become Twitter activists by opining on every other controversy.
In other words, it is not only our attitude towards our material possessions that suffers from compulsiveness, but our entire lives. While the anti-consumerist narrative may feel meaningful to those who feel suffocated by the amount of stuff they own, it would be worth our while to be cautious to not let it become just another fad in our attempt to feel good about our lives as quickly as possible. Minimalism as an approach to life only works if we understand that, ultimately, fulfillment doesn’t lie in more, but in making do with less once we have fulfilled our basic needs in every aspect of our lives.
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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