Minimalism has its critics, and they have something important to say.
Last week, I wrote a post on minimalism as a philosophy of work. In it, I argued that by getting uber-clear on how you define success, you can begin to prune your work life of things that don’t deserve the space — like excess email, low-value meetings, and those opportunities that take you further, yes, but further down the wrong path. There is so much potential in this idea!
That said, it is foolish to embrace anything as substantive as a philosophy without putting it through the paces. In fact, strong critical thinking is paramount for all aspects your of work. This is a meta concept: minimalism applied to minimalism itself. Carry forward only genuinely valuable ideas, and confidently prune whatever bullshit is bogging them down.
In particular, we should hear out critics who worry that minimalism is ultimately a philosophy of luxury. As Kyle Chayka writes in The New York Times Magazine, "Often driven by technology, this optimization is expensive and exclusively branded by and for the elite."
He goes on to conclude:
There’s an arrogance to today’s minimalism that presumes it provides an answer rather than, as originally intended, a question: What other perspectives are possible when you look at the world in a different way? The fetishized austerity and performative asceticism of minimalism is a kind of ongoing cultural sickness. We misinterpret material renunciation, austere aesthetics and blank, emptied spaces as symbols of capitalist absolution, when these trends really just provide us with further ways to serve our impulse to consume more, not less.
This criticism hurts. However, that sting is important because it calls us to attention. Chayka and other critics of minimalism insist that we ask the uncomfortable question, is minimalism a luxury devised by elites, for elites?
Anyone practicing minimalism should be fully aware that his or her ability to do so hinges on a baseline of economic security, and good fortune plays no small part in that circumstance. Therefore, it is both a privilege and a responsibility to cast a contemplative gaze on your work. Keep this tension front and center, because it is real, very real. In fact, for the most vulnerable in our society, that tension has literal life-and-death urgency. So, yes, take this critique to heart.
It is never okay to employ any philosophy - minimalist or otherwise - to calcify inequalities or hide in silence from the demands of justice. Ultimately, the antidote to minimalism's elitism lies in our responsibility to do good with what we have. In professional contexts, this means that beyond subsistence, work should enhance the common good. It should break down injustice and replace it with a more peaceful society that benefits everyone. As you make space by removing clutter, I hope you will assign some of your newfound capacity to that ideal.