For decades, the answer to all our collective self-doubt, anxiety, and existential sadness has been to buy, buy, buy. This was particularly evident during the Nineties and Noughties, which, in terms of business, were all about mass production, mass consumption and, inevitably, mass accumulation.
Companies targeted the general public with the message that without owning their latest fad – no matter how trivial it appeared – we wouldn’t be as productive, as beautiful, and, perhaps most frightening of all, as happy. And although material objects took up physical space, they certainly didn’t fill the metaphorical void.
It didn’t take long for artists to respond to the socio-economic ennui. Movies, in particular – from The Truman Show to, more strangely and recently, Disney’s Wall-E – critiqued mass consumption and consequent possession-hoarding. Literature, too – perhaps most famously Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, which was later adapted for film – studied the monstrous nature of hypercapitalism and the beasts it produces.
Despite being some of the most visually provocative commerce-related works to date (and despite anti-capitalist cinema becoming a genre in itself), they didn’t stop our needless purchase-making and endless consumption.
Aside from the self-proclaimed “minimalists”, that is. In a rally against the monopoly of McDonald’s, malls, and mass consumption, the reactionary lifestyle movement arose somewhat organically. A typical modern minimalist isn’t an artist with a penchant for sparse work, but instead somebody who, in an attempt to get back-to-basics, threw out unneeded wares and pared down to the absolute necessities. For their bodies: a few basic shirts and trousers, a basic pair of shoes. In their households: a dining table, some chairs, a fold-up bed. No excess. Minimalists professed that this alternative way of living made them feel happier, and by unshackling themselves and their homes of all the stuff they’d accumulated over the years, they consequently felt far freer. Maybe not free in the absolute sense of the word, but freer nonetheless.
Fast forward a few years to 2018 and minimalism has become something of an online trend, with people sharing tips on ways to declutter and downsize. It has become a lifestyle. We go on digital detoxes and follow the anti-clutter guru Marie Kondo. These changes go beyond the physical and into the digital world – old files, data, and the hundreds of undeleted emails you have are perceived to be just as burdensome as the unused blender stashed in the cupboard. It is mindfulness over matter.
Inevitably, commercial businesses are buying into the vogue of reduction, too: their message for consumers is to no longer to purchase and own wares, but to subscribe to and rent them instead. Ownership – of music, films, cars, and even office space – is, apparently, so last decade. And what you do own, you should “share”: put your flat on Airbnb, for example, or rent your car to Uber or Lyft.
“Flexibility”, “choice” and “ease” have become the tropes of modern marketing. The likes of Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, Apple, and Amazon proclaim that our lives could be simpler, smoother, if we trade ownership for non-permanence. And it’s not just entertainment-orientated businesses, either: even the way we travel has begun to fundamentally change. With London’s Santander bike programme, Uber taxis, and, in future, shared self-driving cars, the rent-on-demand and subscription model has superseded outright buying.
It’s not like we’re paying any less for the inadequacy: we’re still handing over a sizeable chunk of money every month to a small handful of wealthy, unaccountable businesses. Whoever we’re subscribing to and renting from haven’t struck gold so much as a goldmine: they earn more while handing over less.
The culture has shifted, in a subtle and violent way, from one of accumulating too much to one approaching a forced minimalism, which is just as expensive, competitive and decadent as before. Perhaps even the minimalists who appear on Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things (which is currently, and somewhat ironically, streaming on Netflix) wouldn’t agree with everybody being strong-armed into a way of life where we are progressively losing more and paying more for the privilege.
Thom James is a writer based in London.