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The Need for a Politics of Voluntary Simplicity

The Voluntary Simplicity Movement has been criticized, at times, for being ‘escapist’ or ‘apolitical,’ a criticism which, it cannot be denied, has some weight.[1] Leading sociologist on voluntary simplicity, Mary Grigsby, notes that participants in the Simplicity Movement ‘don’t generally talk about policy initiatives, instead focusing on the individual as the primary mechanism for change.’[2] While the individual may well be the primary mechanism for change, many in the Simplicity Movement do not seem to recognize that, if change is what is truly sought, much more attention must be dedicated to political engagement. That is to say, reformative efforts must not be limited to personal transformation, but must also employ ‘grass-roots’ or ‘bottom up’ forces to reshape ‘top-down’ politics. This is especially so given the many difficulties and forms of resistance people face when seeking to practise simplicity within political, legal, and economic structures that seem to be inherently opposed to reducing the levels and impacts of market consumption.[3] It would be wrong to suggest that voluntary simplicity is an impossible living strategy, but the pro-growth structures of advanced capitalist societies certainly make living simply much more difficult than it needs to be, and this is inhibiting the expansion and impact of the movement.[4] Accordingly, to the extent that the Simplicity Movement currently seeks to escape that structure rather than transform it, it properly deserves criticism. It should be noted, however, that this is not a criticism that touches on anything necessary or intrinsic to the movement. It just makes the point that historically the Simplicity Movement has been lacking in political consciousness. Fortunately, there are emerging signs of the movement’s politicization, although much more action is needed.[5]

In order to socially reconstruct political, legal, and economic structures, the Simplicity Movement will need to expand and organize at the social level, and this will require, to begin with, more individuals making personal commitments to live in opposition to the Western-style consumerist ideal and create for themselves, as far as possible, an alternative conception of the good life. Having increasing numbers of individuals confronting the dominant culture by re-imagining the good life is necessary for creating fertile conditions for a politics of simplicity, but it will not sufficient to bring about significant structural change in the absence of collective action. Politicizing the movement will need to involve ‘simple livers’ or ‘downshifters’ networking with others who are doing the same, so that when opportunities arise the movement can be quickly and efficiently mobilized to support or introduce policy initiatives that advance the movement’s aims.[6] This may, at times, need to involve linking up with other movements (e.g. Environmental Movement) when objectives coincide. But a large part of the problem at present is that the movement’s policy agenda is underdeveloped. As Grigsby notes, ‘the ideas of voluntary simplicity need to be developed to link their complaints and demands to clearly articulated and plausible policies that can be carried into existing political structures to bring about institutional change.’[7] This is a point which will have to be taken up in many future posts.

In my doctoral thesis I explored the politics of voluntary simplicity in some detail. See Samuel Alexander, ‘Property beyond Growth: Toward a Politics of Voluntary Simplicity’ (2011, forthcoming). For an electronic copy, please send an email to simplicitycollective at gmail.com.


[1] See Michael Maniates, ‘In Search of Consumptive Resistance: The Voluntary Simplicity Movement,’ in Thomas Princen et al (eds), Confronting Consumption (2002) 199.

[2] Mary Grigsby, Buying Time and Getting By: The Voluntary Simplicity Movement (2004) 12.

[3] As Michael Jacobson puts it, ‘Our country is set up to oppose voluntary simplicity.’ See Michael Jacobson, Marketing Madness (1995), as quoted in de Graaf et al, Affluenza, above n 5, 221.

[4] See Christer Sanne, ‘Willing Consumers—Or Locked-In? Policies for a Sustainable Consumption’ (2002) 2002(42) Ecological Economics 273.

[5] See The Simplicity Forum, <www.thesimplicityforum.org> at 10 October 2010 (a forum of leaders in the Simplicity Movement dedicated to organizing the ‘invisible constituency’ of simple livers and actively working towards ‘changing both the culture and the policies that drive overwork and overconsumption’) (emphasis added).  See also Mary Grigsby, ‘Extending the Movement,’ in Samuel Alexander (ed), Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture (2009) at 283 (outlining ways that the Simplicity Movement could extend into the mainstream and become a more significant oppositional force).

[6] Online networking provides a cheap and accessible tool for organizing collective action. See Hannah Lownsbrough, ‘The Progressive Potential of Online Organizing’ Renewal (2010) 18(3/4) 74.

[7] Grigsby, above n 2, 186. In my doctoral thesis I explored the politics of voluntary simplicity in some detail. See Samuel Alexander, ‘Property beyond Growth: Toward a Politics of Voluntary Simplicity’ (2011, forthcoming). For a copy, please send an email to simplicitycollective at gmail.com.

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