I was recently asked by a friend, “Must capitalism and minimalism conflict with one another? Is this a never ending struggle between the two?” And that is the question I will humbly address in this post.
You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
First, something you should know: Capitalism has made our lives better in so many ways. If we see a need, we can fill it. If we have a need, we can satisfy it. Since the means of production and distribution are privately owned, there will always be creative, innovative people who make sure you have what you want.
And because the exchange of these goods takes place in an open market, you will get the most competitive price available.
The beauty of capitalism is that each exchange makes both parties better off. I get what I want (a product or service) and you get what you want (money.) In turn, I can do the same thing and use the money I make to buy more stuff I need. A perfect, give and take.
Even better, the free market ensures that we can get and sell these goods quickly, and at a fair price. And since each party benefits from a transaction, every exchange makes makes us (on a whole) better off. That’s why capitalism is so good at creating wealth.
We’re created a monster (the kind that bites)
The problem, of course, is that the system has taken on a life of its own. We’re so freakin’ good at what we do that millions of people are walking around with more stuff than they could possibly know what to do with.
We’re so convinced that buying that next gadget, or car, or beach home will make us happy that we leverage our current happiness by working overtime to save up enough money to make the purchase. 2 months later – we’re bored with the latest toy and a little bit emptier inside.
Not knowing what to do, we turn on the stupid box (that’s a T.V) and allow ourselves to be brainwashed by a million really enticing ads. “Hunny, I think I know what we need… let’s buy a Bowflex. Maybe if I get super fit like the guy on this commercial I’ll be able to pull myself out of this funk.”
2 months later- you know the story.
Pushing back against mediocre systems
So, to answer the question: Capitalism and Minimalism can coexist, but there is a certain amount of tension that we have to live with. And it might take a bit of pushing back on our part.
Capitalism, in practice, is a system that demands growth. Stagnant is not a word you will hear economists using to describe a healthy economy. In order to grow, one of two things must happen 1.) we add more people to the mix or 2.) we each make more and spend more money.
But, we don’t need more stuff, we need less. The planet doesn’t have much more to offer, it’s already strained. The only way to bring capitalism and the minimalist mindset in line is by seeking the tension.
For example, read this quote by Wendell Berry:
“We need to confront honestly the issue of scale. Bigness has a charm and a drama that are seductive, especially to politicians and financiers; but bigness promotes greed, indifference, and damage, and often bigness is not necessary. You may need a large corporation to run an airline or to manufacture cars, but you don’t need a large corporation to raise a chicken or a hog. You don’t need a large corporation to process local food or local timber and market it locally.”Wendell Berry
Like Mr. Berry, I think small, local businesses are the sign of a healthy community. Each person (or family or group of friends) has something to offer the others. And because the enterprise is small, each person can play an important role and have a stake in the way the company is run and stand for values beyond the profit motive.
Free market capitalism is really good at producing and distributing goods that have a price tag. That’s what it was meant to do.
But what if we value something else? Like jobs that make a difference, or promoting a better way of living, or spending less so we focus on what matters. Well, capitalism doesn’t necessarily promote these things, and often, without trying, it opposes them.
Marketing genius, Seth Godin, writes about pushing back. He says we need to call-out professors who expect and produce mediocre students by challenging them to ask for more.
Tension allows us to adhere to values we believe in despite opposition. The same thing needs to happen if we think capitalism, on its own, isn’t producing the kind of world we want to live in.
To get started, here are 5 simple (but powerful) ways you can push back against capitalism:
1.) Be responsible. Buy stuff from companies that treat their employees like humans, and give them the types of jobs that humans deserve.
2.) Support small businesses and start-ups. Smaller companies are more responsive, better for the environment, and more rooted in their communities.
3.) Buy less. But when you do spend money, spend it on things that really add value to your life. In doing so, you’ll be supporting people who make a difference.
4.) Give stuff away. Make something beautiful and give it away. Let’s give the free market a whole new meaning.
5.) Pay more. Spend more for stuff, but only when it makes sense. If a company is really doing a good thing, environmentally, creatively, socially – reward them. The market often doesn’t do this on its own.
Here’s the lowdown —>
The minimalist lifestyle and capitalism are not in constant conflict. The goal of minimalism is to help us live better, fuller lives and capitalism has given us the tools and opportunities to achieve that end.
Unfortunately, the capitalistic system is so good at what it does that we (in the Western world) now have far more that we could ever use. We keep accumulating more and more stuff and all it does is distract us from the things that really matter.
- We need to find a balance.
- We need to use the system to do work that adds value to our lives.
- We need to stop buying everything.
- We need stop doing jobs that don’t matter.
- People matter.
- Art matters. (And it comes in many forms)
- The future of the human race matters.
- And its our call…
Do we let the system shape us or do we push back and choose to live a different way?
James has come to writing and blog writing in particular, late in life. When not working as a systems analyst for an American Telco, he spends his time honing his writing skills on our blog and commuting between Houston and Dar es Salam to the family home in Mikocheni.