Stuff versus systems: the tension in the USA

Who knew it was possible to get competitive about minimalism? There’s the challenge where you try to go three months with only 33 things to wear. There’s the woman who tried living with only 72 things. The man with only 72 things. The man who really ups the ante and only has 15 things.

It’s not-owning-things as a competitive sport. But when you look a little closer, these extravagant claims mostly rest on stretchy definitions of not-owning things.

I count my things as resellable items I would be pissed if someone took. Coffee cup? No. Jacket? Yes. iPhone and headphones? One thing.

I suppose it’s nice that he’s so relaxed about people wandering off with his coffee cups, but that’s not really a definition of owning stuff that I’ve ever heard outside the world of competitive minimalism.

I have over 30 jars of spices in my kitchen. They’re arranged on two spice racks. In other words, a small part of my kitchen contains nearly 35 things, which is nearly half of the total possessions of the two people who claim only to own 72 things. Compared to them I am a hoarder, a compulsive accumulator of things, a stuff-glutton.

But the thing is, all those spices have been used in the past year. Most of them have been used in the past six months. Should I jettison them in the cause of minimalism and then cook bland food for the rest of my life? Or should I cleverly declare that 30+ spices plus two spice racks actually counts as “one thing”, just like an iPhone and headphones? Or maybe I should claim I don’t really own the spices, because they’re not resellable. But the thing is…what would I actually gain from any of this? Real question: what do the people who do this gain from it?

Obviously, minimalists will talk about simplicity and about rejecting consumerism and about streamlining their lives to focus on what’s truly important. But minimalism is aspirational not just because it represents these choices, but because it correlates with privilege.

Tupperwolf said it better than I ever could:

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.

It’s really worth reading the whole thing. I linked to it in my post about the hidden baggage of people who are always travelling, and I’ll make the same point again that I made there: we need to stop using visuals to assess what impact someone’s life is having. If your living space is constantly immaculate and empty-looking, are you being responsible in how you get rid of things? Do you go the extra mile to work out what the council will recycle? Do you try to repair broken things? Do you ever store items for friends? Do you allow those friends to crash on your sofa?

See, I suspect not. I suspect the life of the competitive minimalist is environmentally destructive and emotionally cold, involving a lot of hopping on planes, eating restaurant and takeaway food, generating rubbish, never settling for long enough to become part of any community. Sorry, I mean “pursuing your world-traveling ambitions while still young enough to make a lot of mistakes and bounce back from them more or less intact’”.

But that’s not even my actual point here. My point here is that that kind of “lightness” and “independence” is heavily dependent on existing structures and networks. It’s dependent on civilisation. Your passport, your Oyster card, your credit card: all light objects that depend on strong invisible networks to be of any use whatsoever. It’s great that something fitting in your jeans pocket can (literally) open doors for you. Just don’t forget that when you blip a turnstile open with your Oyster card, you are benefiting from the ideas and hard work and goodwill of thousands of other people.

When we talk about complex supply chains, it’s often in the context of terrible hidden costs for things like iPhones. But making use of things that wouldn’t exist without complex systems isn’t necessarily bad. It can be morally neutral or morally the better choice. It’s just part of signing up for human civilisation. And the more you strive for possession-free simplicity in your own life, the more dependent you become on that civilisation.

The decision to have no permanent address depends on the existence of hotels, other people’s homes, B&Bs. It depends on you having money. It depends on people’s willingness to accept that money in exchange for accommodation. Likewise the decision to have no cooking utensils, or whatever.

I rummaged through the debris scattered around the cabin floor and the surrounding land, finding remnants of life in the cabin before the siege. I picked things up – cardboard boxes containing some empty spice bottles her mother used to keep, Elisheba’s baby chair.

“What are you doing?” said Rachel. “It’s just a bunch of junk.” She laughed. “All the things that used to be important to us were junk to other people,” she said. “The books and stuff. Now it’s junk to me and important to you.”

Jon Ronson’s book THEM sets up a tension between two American ways of living. Maybe it’s reasonable, educated people versus paranoid, racist gun nuts. Maybe it’s a secretive global elite versus courageous ordinary people. You could see the division as being about class, religion, level of education, politics. But maybe it’s also about stuff.

The backstory to that quote above: when Rachel was a child, her family lived in a mountain cabin, which ended up being the location of a siege in which her mother, brother and dog were killed.

There were US marshals and FBI snipers in gas masks and face paint and camouflage, local police, state police, the BATF, the Internal Revenue Service, the US Border Patrol, Highway Patrol from four states, City Police and the Forestry Service. They had tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

If all those supposedly separate authorities ganged up to collude in the senseless murder of your family members, how much would you believe in the power of networks, communication, goodwill, civilisation generally, to keep you safe? If you’d spent eight days trapped inside your home, would you be relaxed about relying on takeaways and meals out, or would you stock up on food? If the authorities had tricked your father into committing a crime and then tried to kill him, would you rely on the police for help in emergencies or would you buy a gun?

If you don’t believe you can rely on the things that many of us take for granted, you will stock up on food and water. You’ll ramp up the security of your home, maybe with cameras and alarms, maybe with a guard dog or weapons. You’ll drive a car instead of using public transport, and probably choose the kind of car that can be driven off-road. And you won’t throw out useful things just because they’re not useful to you right now – you’ll keep them just in case.

There’s a deep tension in American culture, and it’s being expressed through stuff. And the government knows it. Having over seven days’ worth of food in your home could make you a terrorist suspect. Buying flashlights could make you a terrorist suspect. So could owning guns and owning too much gold and silver.

In other words, being prepared for the worst makes you the threat. Opting for stuff over systems makes you the threat. Why? My only guess right now is that this civilisation we all depend on is a fragile thing, and it depends on the majority of people buying in to it. The same with respect for the authorities. So the US government wants to discourage people from behaving as if they can’t trust the state or their neighbours, in case it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Safety is an anti-gift.

But of course, in reality, only certain people will ever be prosecuted under the “too many groceries” law or the “well, flashlights are always useful in a power cut, let’s get some” law. We’re back to privilege again.

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2 Comments on “Stuff versus systems: the tension in the USA”


  1. […] blogged a while back about competitive minimalists and the privilege behind the concept of “living light”. My point was that to live with few possessions you need to engage with and benefit from existing […]


  2. […] Stuff versus systems: the tension in the USA  On the oddness of not-owning-things as a competitive sport. (July 2015) […]


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