Returning Minimalism to Its Roots

“Minimalism champions living with less, but Marie’s tidying method encourages living with items you truly cherish,” says the site for Marie Kondo, the self-help guru you are probably familiar with, if only as a reader. For a few days last year, some viewers of her Netflix show took to social media to decry her plan for getting rid of unread books.

A helpful Twitter user clarified: “WHAT MARIE KONDO SAYS: Think about getting rid of books you aren’t going to read or reread. WHAT TWITTER HEARS: Let’s burn all books and slay the writers! Let the streets run red with their blood as our literary pyre’s smoke blocks out the sun….”

Kondo eventually felt the need to respond by saying she meant only that each person might think on what he or she values and act accordingly. Also, that if you do shed books they should be donated. And that she based her advice on the perils of humidity, which can ruin books, which just seems odd.

It is odder that many of the things that bring her joy, which are also for sale on her site, can be cheaply manufactured in poorer countries and hugely marked-up, such as a crudely-sharpened stick ($12), a taper candle ($48), a ladle ($96), and a small brass mirror ($150).

But minimalism takes many forms. Recently I encountered an article by Michelle C. Neely, Assistant Professor of English at Connecticut College, titled “Radical Minimalism: ‘Walden’ in the Capitalocene.”

The Capitalocene is a term used by Jason Moore, a sociologist who “argues for the centrality of historical thinking in coming to grips with capitalism’s planetary crises of the twenty-first century. Against the Anthropocene’s shallow historicization, [Moore] argue[s] for the Capitalocene, understood as a system of power, profit and re/production in the web of life.”

Michelle Neely recalls recent scholarship that reminds us that a “Revolutionary-era model of ‘patriot-consumers,’ whose duty as citizens was ‘tied to self-sacrifice and withdrawal from the marketplace’ was gradually eclipsed by ‘citizen-consumers’…. [T]he ascendency…was so complete by the close of the Civil War that most Americans now have trouble even recognizing the patriot-consumer model when they see it, outside of the narrow context of the Revolutionary War and pre-Revolutionary boycotts. […] Rather than a simple turn to the individual away from the collective, dietary and domestic frugality practices attempted to mediate a perceived conflict between individual, private desires and national, political goods such as the economic independence of farmers and other citizens.”

That is, not always doing what is good for General Motors might be good for the Republic. (One way to think about how far we have floated from the idea of frugal patriot-consumers is to look at revenue from gun and ammunition sales—$11 billion in the US in 2019—half of which is generated by only three percent of the population. Oddly, some of those people call themselves Three Percenters for an entirely different reason: supposedly in homage to rebelling colonists.)

Neely reads Walden in these terms and says Thoreau believed “the demands of capitalism are antithetical to both the demands of radical democracy and meaningful intellectual and personal independence; following the consumerist and acquisitive imperatives of capitalism means not only enslaving others, in the literal sense that buying the market products of slavery helps perpetuate the slave system, but also oneself, since an inability to manage one’s appetite, one’s ‘internal economy’ means being controlled by the external market economy.”

This is interesting, as it suggests how the modern libertarian urge for minimalist government and maximal independence, for example, has broken away from one of its philosophical roots.

Neely says there is a “fiction” in the idea that “lifestyle” minimalism is a new invention, or popular, because of “the despair of late capitalism.” Most of those movements are picking up on, without acknowledgement, Thoreau’s “Economy” chapter of Walden, and ideas that go even further back.

“What would it mean to recognize the homegrown minoritarian veins of anti-consumerism as having been there all along, as an integral part of U.S. culture?” she asks.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.