The first thing you should know about The Minimalists is that they’re huggers. “Can I grab a hug?” self-appointed minimalism expert Joshua Fields Millburn asks in one scene. Sometimes he skips the consent part altogether and just tells people he’s “a hugger.” It’s sort of the slimier cousin of the Free Hugs campaigns that plagued the late aughties/early ’10s, but these hugs aren’t free; they’re part of the package that Millburn and his cohort Ryan Nicodemus are selling. The rest of the package is… minimalism.
I started watching the Minimalism documentary on Netflix last night and was about one hug away from turning it off when Joshua walked into the middle of a salt flat and started reading a woe-is-me college entrance essay about being sad in Ikea, and I decided to stick around for the cringe factor, since it was clear that – pardon the pun – I’d be getting very little else from the documentary. That’s the thing about minimalism – there isn’t much to say about it.
The irony of the film is that it hinges on the presumption that most Americans are living either in a never-ending state of purchase-induced mania, or in quiet desperation amid a mountain of empty Amazon boxes set against a backdrop of Times Square ads. If you were a person whose entire conceptualization of American culture were one you’d gleaned from, say, Netflix, you might very well assume that most Americans have enough disposable income to have such problems. But even the most superficial investigation into the microeconomics of the typical American household would lead you to an entirely different planet than that which The Minimalists purport to inhabit – one where people are indeed more concerned with putting food on the table, paying off medical or student loan debt, and/or making rent than they are with buying new televisions or having storage space.
For people whose financial woes are very real (that is to say, not the white liberal Silicon Valley types who are [exclusively] featured in the documentary), a quick lesson in minimalism – a bit of a Marie Kondo – might be a very good jumping off point for tightening the pursestrings. But Millburn and Nicodemus can’t exactly sell books, tickets, or Patreon subscriptions to poor people, can they? So their target demographic is people who are fortunate to be able to, for instance, travel around the world as “digital nomads” or live in nice but sparsely decorated homes in good school districts in the Southwestern suburbs.
At the risk of repetition, how much can one really say about minimalism? Either you can’t buy very many things, or you choose not to. If you choose not to, there isn’t much pontificating you can do on the matter of minimalism without sounding like, pardon me, a sanctimonious fuckwit. I’ve purged my life of Stuff on multiple occasions, but not because my stuff was making me unhappy, because my life sucked and I wanted a new one. And the privilege of having that choice – to pack up and move to another country and live off of my savings for a while – exists fully because my parents weren’t always rich, and when I was a kid I watched them make frugal choices so that they could pay for me to screw around a little in around in my twenties without worrying about paying bills or racking up debt.
So maybe the big takeaway from the documentary isn’t that having less shit makes us happier, but that having more economic freedom does. One would think that a film about having less stuff might attempt to address how poor people live, both in America and elsewhere, but that would of course put into stark relief the fact that the Minimalists are literally selling Very Little as if it’s a brand and not the default. They’re selling ideas, but one wonders if they’re selling the equal and opposite ethos of that which they decry – one borne of a profound emptiness.