The internet has caught the Kon-Mari virus. While the book was already a huge best-seller, nothing is really big these days until it hits Netflix, and the TV series of the Mari Kondo getting people to carefully curate their possessions has got everyone talking, and her name has become a verb: kon-mari. Is it reactionary garbage? While Kondo’s brand of de-hoarding is super specific and not even necessarily minimalist, its certainly caught up in the same trends of #minimalism, tiny houses, and getting rid of all your material possessions so you can put them in a backpack, travel the world and work on your laptop trends. Is this stuff actually a bunch of reactionary nonsense? Is it the aesthetic of the condominium industry? Can poor and working class people afford to get rid of their stuff?
I grew up working class. My parents were hoarders; we would have qualified to be on the TV show. It was held in check when we lived in a small apartment or in a co-op townhouse, but things got out of control when they managed to buy a house. There was a room we called “the mould room” in the basement. Once we caught my little brother playing with a dead mouse as a toy. When the bank foreclosed (partly because of poor maintenance like the nearly 1 metre hole in the upstairs ceiling that was under a similarly gaping hole in the roof, where a family of raccoons lived) it had to be extreme cleaned and stripped to the framework. My parents were loving and gave us a great education in many topics from classical music to wilderness survival, but their dysfunctional relationship with stuff blighted our lives and we lived in constant fear that children’s aid would take us away. In my adult life I’ve held off hoarding mostly by being constantly forced to move and not being able to bring my possessions with me.
I’ve given a lot of thought about what it means to be “White Trash” and I think a lot of that is the dysfunctional relationship to stuff that comes from the loss of ethnicity and culture and full absorption into the culture of capitalism. How poor and working class people came to have too much crappy stuff instead of too little. Even more organized, middle class families that I knew spent so much time and resources on having large houses, several SUVs, a garage full of sports equipment they rarely used that they felt poor and were maxed out every month. This dysfunctional relationship to stuff has become one of the features that married people to capitalism and made it impossible to escape their shitty jobs, making our living spaces uncomfortable and even more cramped than they have to be.
I was working installing solar panels on a roof in the bitter cold- the roof was incredibly slippery and also covered in ice and snow so it was a tough as well as dangerous job. People were kneeling on cardboard in puddles of ice water to wire up panels that had accidentally had live electricity. It was the roof of an expensive private school and they were ironically rehearsing the musical version of that great revolutionary story, Les Miserables. As we slaved away on the roof I could hear the rich kids loudly singing “Look down, look down, you’ll always be a slave”. If the ruling class can co-opt Victor Hugo they can co-opt anything. On my lunch break, having failed once again to pack a lunch, I drove to the nearest bougie area and picked up a book, ignoring the weird reaction in the bookstore to my high-vis construction outfit. The book was the life changing magic of tidying up, and I feel that it actually did change my life.
Anyone who knows me knows that a) I’m not into cleaning b) wherever I live is a mess and c) I don't do self-help. I justify this theoretically by telling myself that cleaning is anti-feminist. Kondo challenged all my beliefs about stuff, and cleaning and my living space. It is also a fun book because its autobiographical and humorous, and also because Kondo has made an art form out of cleaning and getting rid of stuff while keeping the stuff you really want. This is not just about chucking stuff, it is about appreciating the stuff that you have and valuing it. Which makes sense- I worked hard to buy the few things that I have (or to carry home good stuff I found on the curb) and I should take better care of it.
I also realized that contrary to the idea that poor people can’t afford to throw out stuff, poor people in cities often can’t afford to keep too much stuff. We live in small spaces. If I can’t find my water bottle in a hurry before work I have to spend money buying bottled water, or worse buy a second water bottle. If I can’t find an important paper I might fall behind on paperwork that I need to file for something important and lose money. I don’t have time to clean and organize after working two jobs and taking care of my kid, which is another reason i need less stuff. I think that women do spend too much time cleaning and living up to impossible standards- but I realize that having my stuff actually organized means less laundry, less organizing and less cleaning.
I think in some senses the whole minimalism/kon-mari/tiny house aesthetic is another one in a series of capitalist co-options of originally radical cultural projects. The whole silicon valley disruption thing in a sense has something very 1990s Adbusters or crimthinc about it, perhaps showing the limits of those projects. The first people to only own one pair of really cool pants were punks- the capitalist version is trying to sell you one pair of very high-quality expensive pants. Here in Toronto anarchists used to run free stores where people would trade clothes or random junk- now we have Bunz where you can barter things or sell them for BTZ, the bunz cryptocurrency. Couchsurfing was a free website where you could randomly crash at stranger’s houses around the world- but were prohibited from trading money for it. A clear precursor to AirBnB. These were cool cultural projects connected to a very 90s radical ideology now co-opted to make money- but who expected anything different? But just as these cultural trends were appropriated by capitalism, they can can be re-appropriated by progressives. And in some cases its easier than others.
Marie Kondo’s cultural project does not come out of a leftist political project. She was a Shinto “shrine maiden” as a part-time job for a few years, and her aesthetic and her philosophy are deeply based in Japenese religion and cultural values. This is the basis behind how, at the beginning of the show before starting to discard things, she kneels with the family and says a few words, and also behind thanking objects for their service when they are discarded. This is to say that however embedded in capitalism the Kondo phenomenon happens to be, the practical values promoted by Kondo cannot be reduced to capitalism as such, indeed they are distinct. In the 1990s and 2000s there *was* a counter cultural project of despising TV and the mainstream media, not having material possessions and living in a squat or backpacking around, dumpster diving instead of working ‘for the man’, and “buy nothing” day. Some of this was grounded theoretically like with Crimethinc’s basically anarchist framework and that was part of what gave these surface cultural projects a deeper appeal, some of it was not deeply thought out. Now many of those cultural aspects have been appropriated by the mainstream or even, in the case of blaming the media for things, the far-right.
Just because these cultural products get appropriated, or come from an entirely different philosophical background, doesn’t mean they can’t be (re)appropriated by the radical Left. Les Miserables might be rehearsing at bourgeois all boy’s schools and my co-workers on the roof don’t recognize the music, but Hugo’s searing portrayal of poverty and desperate revolution remain an inspiration to workers across the centuries. Just because Che Guevara t-shirts get popular and red stars appear on craft beer doesn’t mean they don’t still mean something, and that they can’t still be taken back. Kon-mari appeals to the desire for fulfillment in what even Millennials now call “late capitalism”, a liberation from all our needless knick-knacks. We desire a sense of simplicity, and sometimes this is a need for working class people, as in my experience, this has a concrete material impact. Kon-mari, and #minimalism and tiny houses- they might be marketed and sold as part of the culture of capitalism, but there’s no reason that can’t be part of improving the lives of large numbers of people. If the revolutionary left wants to actually attract masses of people we can’t abandon our cultural products (including the product of getting rid of other cultural products) merely because they become popular and occasionally misused, and indeed we should be searching for cultural trends which can be re-deployed as in alignment with our political ideas whether or not they originate with us.
Megan Kinch is a construction electrician and recovering grad student. She wrote her first article as part of the Alternative Media Centre during the Toronto G20 protests in 2010, and covered the Quebec student strike of 2012. She currently writes on labour and feminism. Her writing has been published in Briarpatch magazine, BentQ, and the West End Phoenix. She is a single mom living in post-industrial sections of Toronto.