The Politics of Simplicity

This article is a republishing of the original, published HERE on Tikkun.org, 1996

 

The Politics of Simplicity

By Jerome M. Segal

The idea of simple living has always been part of the American psyche - sometimes central, sometimes peripheral. Today, it once again resonates strongly throughout our popular culture. Newspapers carry full-page features on personal downsizing, and books on how to live well with less sell hundreds of thousands of copies. A Nexus search for articles on simple living reveals more than fifty entries in just the last two months. Moreover, the interest comes from all parts of society, not just among people on the counter-cultural fringes. For instance, Working Woman, an upscale magazine for the career-minded, with a circulation of close to a million, devoted its entire December issue to how to create a simpler life. There's a Simple Living Network on the Internet, several newsletters, and a host of itinerant lecturers, taped courses, and workshops.

Advocates of simple living are expressing a value orientation that overlaps in important ways with that of the politics of meaning. They reject the idea that the good life is to be found in ever-higher levels of consumption. They argue strongly against rampant careerism and materialism. They opt for less money, less work, more time with friends and loved ones.

Yet, for all that, the simple living enthusiasm is largely apolitical. Much, though not all, of the literature is of a "how-to" variety, offering advice on how to live more rewardingly with less money. Enthusiasts view the attainment of a simpler, more meaningful life as an individual project, not as a matter of collective politics.

In some ways this is to be admired. Far too often, politics on the Left, in its emphasis on the necessity of transforming fundamental structures of the social order, has had a paralyzing effect, the implicit message being that without large-scale, structural change, people can't make significant progress toward a better life.

Nevertheless, the absence of a "politics of simple living" tends to render the simple living movement a solution for the few, irrelevant for the many. Articles about high-flying professional couples who have cut back from $100,000 incomes have limited relevance for the half of American families that live on less than $40,000 a year. Some simple living advocates even adopt an attitude of disdain toward those who are just getting by. For instance, Amy Dacyczyn, the publisher of the Tightwad Gazette Newsletter, writes in a New York Times op-ed of how she feeds her family of eight on $170 a month, and then goes on to talk about "whiners" who are unwilling to give up their expensive lifestyles.

An apolitical simple living movement has a lot of appeal to Americans. It is increasingly a place where those disaffected from our dominant ethos end up. Yet, insofar as it is apolitical, simple living risks being conservative in its political implications, focusing inordinately on the ability and responsibility of the individual for the quality of his/her life. If the simple living idea remains largely individualistic, it will not only be irrelevant to most Americans - in the end it will disappear under the influence of the dominant forces in American life. It is as a form of politics, a politics that is both personal and social, that simple living has enormous potential for deeply and lastingly transforming life in America.

Simple living is not some 1990s fad. Nor is it the product of "foreign" ideologies. David Shi's book, The Simple Life: Plain Thinking and High Living in American Culture (Oxford, 1985), is must reading for those seeking historical grounding. From the earliest days of the American experience, advocates of simple living have challenged consumerism and materialism, although simple living, or "plain living," as it was sometimes called, has meant different things to different groups.

Puritan simplicity focused on religious devotion, a lack of ostentation, and plenty of hard work. It was not a leisure expansion movement. Nor was simple living a matter of individual choice for Puritans; sumptuary laws restricted consumption display, and economic life was regulated to limit the role of greed in human affairs.

In the worldview of the Quakers, simple living was modified somewhat. The sumptuary laws, which to some extent were designed to prevent those in the lower classes from affecting the manners of those above them, came to apply to all members of the community, and John Woolman, a leading Quaker in the mid-1700s, decried excessively lengthy workdays, and cautioned employers not to work others too hard. Indeed, Woolman made a powerful analytic connection in arguing that the institution of slavery emerged from a wrongheaded pursuit of a life of ease and luxury. Here, perhaps, we find the origins of a radical politics of plain living - the belief that if people adopted the simple life, all of society would be transformed.

In the mid-1700s, republican simplicity emerged. Its ideal was not the simple life of Jesus, an image that inspired many Christian advocates of plain living, but the classical writers Cicero, Tacitus, and Plutarch. Central figures of the revolutionary period, in particular Samuel Adams, were deeply concerned about the relationship between our political health and the individual pursuit of luxury. The rebirth of democracy in the world brought with it an interest in the Greek and Roman experiments, and why they disappeared. There was a concern (as there is today) with the virtue of office-holders. Genuine democracy seemed incompatible with too great a preoccupation with getting rich. There was great fear of the corrupting influences of unbridled commercialism. When the colonists boycotted British goods, it was not just a tactic of the independence movement; they viewed Britain as The Great Satan, exporting the corruptions of capitalism.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson corresponded about what were the bounds of the possible with respect to building a non-materialist society. Jefferson emphasized civic virtue and looked to public policy, in particular state-supported schools and values education. Adams viewed this as unrealistically "undertaking to build a new universe." He himself feared economic growth, and argued for preventing both extreme poverty and extravagant riches.

In the mid-1800s, the transcendentalist writers such as Emerson and Thoreau envisioned a new form of simple living. While the Puritans saw the virtues in opposition to the passions, the transcendentalists had a different vision. On one end of the spectrum, this period prefigured the 1960s, with communes, vegetarianism, nudism, and concern for animal rights. The advocates of transcendental simplicity reversed the Puritan emphasis on work. For Thoreau, one of the chief reasons for lowering consumption levels was that it allowed for greater leisure to do the better things in life - not religious or civic engagement, but the life of the mind, of art, literature, poetry, philosophy, and an almost reverential engagement with nature. In the main, the project of transforming society was put aside in favor of the experiential and experimental communities seeking the simple life for themselves.

Interest in simple living was harder to find in the post-Civil War period, but it re-emerged strong toward the turn of the century. There was a reaction against materialism, individualism, and the hectic pace of urban life. In those days, it was the Ladies Home Journal that led the charge against the dominant materialist ethos. Under a crusading editor, Edward Bok, the magazine served as a guide for those in the middle class seeking simplicity; by 1910, it had a circulation of close to 2 million, making it the largest selling magazine in the world. In this period there emerged a movement of aesthetic simplicity, centered around designers William Morris and Gustav Stickley, and giving rise to so-called "mission" furniture, much sought by antique dealers today.

One dimension of the renewed interest in simple living was a country life movement concerned with using modern technology to improve life for the small farmer and to keep young people on the farm. Later, in 1933, the Department of the Interior created a Division of Subsistence Homesteads to resettle the urban and rural poor in planned communities based on "handicrafts, community activities, closer relationships, and cooperative enterprises." About 100 such communities were established, most of them failing in their grand design to replace individualism with "mutualism."

After World War II, as after the First, the Civil War, and the Revolution, there was a surge in consumption, and simple living receded into the background. But again, in the 1960s, there was a critique of the affluent lifestyle and a renewed interest in plain living. In the 1970s, with the energy crisis, the focus on plain living merged with a growing concern with the environment. The notion of "voluntary simplicity" emerged; the Whole Earth Catalogue, a how-to guide to a simpler, environmentally conscious life, sold briskly, and President Jimmy Carter invited E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, to the White House.

In his now-infamous "malaise" speech, Carter criticized the country, decrying that "we worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns." He called for a new cohesive, spiritually rich Commonwealth. The speech, viewed by most Americans as overly moralistic and pessimistic, caused Carter's popularity to plummet. Then came the Reagan and Bush years, during which acquisitiveness and material success, rather than simplicity, were the ideal. And now, in the Clinton era, there is a revival of interest in simple living.

At the heart of the various historical manifestations of the American impulse toward simple living is a rejection of consumptionism. But there has been considerable diversity with respect to the human good and the place of work, religion, civic engagement, nature, literature and the arts among these different visions. It is also the case that a concern with simple living was at some points largely apolitical, and at other times at the heart of a broader political and social vision. And just as one might argue that there is no single politics of meaning, so too there is no single politics of simple living. In the hands of the Puritans, it was almost totalitarian in its scope. At other points, it bordered on the libertarian.

It is important to distinguish poverty from simple living. The difference is not just a matter of the level of provision. Nor is it merely a question of whether or not the lifestyle is chosen. In conceptualizing the simple life, I favor the term "graceful simplicity." It combines two notions. Life is graceful in that it is unharried, and free from dominant fear and stress; the individual is cultivated and appreciative, rather than covetous. Life is simple in that the level of consumption is modest, and the human good is found largely in the simple pleasures of friends and family, a good book, a walk in the woods.

I envision a politics of simple living that is liberal in its core orientation, in the sense that it does not prescribe any particular view of wherein a meaningful life is to be found. Rather, it is defined by what it eschews - the pursuit of ever higher levels of income and consumption. It argues for creating an economic environment which is supportive of multiple forms of simple living. In this it builds on the individualist or communalist thrust of the contemporary interest in simple living which says that the real work of creating a meaningful life has to be done by people themselves, with their friends and in communities of shared values. At the same time, it views our national economic and social policies as playing a vital role in creating the background environment within which such projects will either succeed or fail.

A politics of graceful simplicity focuses on time, money, and work. It seeks a society in which ordinary people have:

* a high level of leisure time;

* the ability to satisfy core economic needs at low levels of personal income;

* economic security and dignified work.

Each of these desiderata is relatively concrete. They are the central features of an economic environment that supports simple living. The basic objective is to put the economic realm in its proper (i.e., limited) place and to make room for the rest of life. Each of these features of economic life can be achieved, or at least attempted, through a wide variety of policies and programs. A politics of simplicity should be defined by its commitment to achieving these broad goals, not by the specific programs that might be employed. We should be open and experimental about the means of getting there.

Even if our economic life were leisured, secure, and not excessively dependent upon high income levels, this would not be sufficient for the good, or happy, or meaningful life. It is not a matter of adding objectives. No set of social conditions ever can be sufficient; to every life there is an enormous personal dimension. Living well is an art that individuals and families must learn for themselves. Yet, there is all the difference in the world between a socio-economic order which is friendly and supportive of the human good, and one that undermines it at every turn. Identifying, and acting upon, these differences comprise the essence of public policy.

For most working Americans today, time is always too scarce to enjoy life fully. Between the demands of work and home - and, ironically, of "leisure time" itself most of us feel harassed and harried. Historically, reduction in work hours signified economic progress. During much of the nineteenth century and in the early decades of the twentieth century, workers, who often put in thirteen- or fourteen-hour days, struggled first to achieve the ten-hour, and then the eight-hour day. In the 1930s, there was talk of a thirty-hour week, but for over half a century, reducing work hours has receded as a social concern.

In the last few decades, as married women in large numbers entered the labor force, the family did not have as an option two twenty-five-hour jobs. The choice was between one or two forty-hour jobs, and many families chose two. Households shifting from one person to two people working outside the home experienced an enormous increase in tune pressure.

Since the 1950s, per-capita consumption in the United States has more than doubled, while for many, leisure has declined or remained stagnant. Without ever choosing, we have made the wrong choice; at least some of the productivity growth that enabled higher incomes and consumption should have gone instead to expanding leisure.

Isolated individuals cannot easily choose leisure rather than income growth. When, bucking the dominant trend, a family chooses time rather than income, it not only foregoes consumption, but finds that, relative to others, its economic standing declines. Such a decline is more profound than simply not keeping up with the upwardly mobile Joneses; it is a matter of slipping out of the socioeconomic community that has provided one's sense of place.

Our society needs to address decisions about altering the shape of work collectively. Just as we have legislation on the forty-hour week, so too we should have public debates to consider three-day weekends, reduced daily hours, and guaranteed extended vacations. On one level, expanding leisure time is the easiest policy change to make. In principle, one piece of legislation could dramatically transform life in America.

Expanding leisure time, for example through the introduction of a shorter work week, would have important implications that bear on the other two goals of a simple living movement. Provided that the costs of hiring people to work overtime were high, it would result in the creation of more jobs, thus improving economic security. A decision to expand leisure, however, would result in lower levels of income and consumption. The politics of leisure expansion requires that people be prepared to give up actual or potential income in exchange for more time. Surveys indicate that relatively few people are prepared to reduce their current income for more leisure, though quite a substantial number say they would willingly forego future gains in income in exchange for more leisure.

Why aren't more people willing to trade off some income for more leisure? The primary reason is that most people feel pressed at their current levels of income. Much of the literature on simple living seeks to convince people that the tightness of their budgets is illusory: If they thought more deeply about money and what it buys, they would see that they can cut back without much pain, and that whatever they would lose, it would be more than made up by what they would gain. There is much truth to this argument; if curling up with a good book became the dominant pleasure in American life, it would transform the society. At the same time, as I argued in a previous article in these pages ("Money and Our Economic Life," TIKKUN, November/December 1995), the financial pressure Americans feel comes from real causes. We need to confront the cost of living in America: Why does it cost so much to meet core needs? And what can be done about it?

The central social objective of a politics of simple living is a society in which fundamental human needs can be met at modest levels of income. For most Americans, their fundamental needs for safe neighborhoods, good education, transportation, economic security, and health care are either unmet, or can only be met when isolated households achieve high levels of income.

Except for the poor, the answer is not higher levels of personal income, but rather a search for solutions that do not rely upon individual income to meet all needs. Through shifts in public policy priorities, we can craft a society in which we do not need two cars to get to work, or a house in the suburbs to ensure our family's safety, or private schools to educate our children, or an IRA or a 401(k) to have economic security.

A politics of simple living brings to these familiar areas of policy interest a fuller perception of the problem and a new criterion for solutions. It is not just that people have needs which are not being met; our general approach to meeting needs has depended upon increasing personal incomes, which keeps us wedded to the income focus of American life.

Simple living offers a particular lens through which to approach areas of policy and social concern. It asks, "Will what's happening here result in a society in which we will need more or less personal income to meet central human needs?" For instance, how does the economic and social collapse of our cities affect the financial demands on those lucky enough to flee to private schools, safe neighborhoods, and two car garages? This approach identifies the connections between our social and our economic life, and focuses attention on what has to be done so that modest income allows a family to support a decent life. It is not hostile to the expansion of the public sector, yet it does not view government as the only agent in achieving this goal.

Along with expanding leisure and reducing need-required income, the achievement of graceful simplicity requires change in our notions of income security and employment. There is nothing graceful about a life dominated by fear of losing income, or trapped in work devoid of dignity. To make lives of graceful simplicity possible, we need an economy in which our economic rights are enhanced. Most fundamentally, this includes a right to a job with income sufficient to meet core economic needs. A graceful simplicity movement should not be dogmatic about specific programs for achieving that end. For instance, such a movement should be open-minded and experimental about such issues as raising the minimal wage, or expanding the earned-income-tax credit, or public-sector employment, or empowerment zones.

We are an aging society, and most of us will live longer than our parents. Across America, corporations are cutting back in their commitment to worker pensions, and the Social Security system is headed toward fundamental crisis as the baby boomers reach so-called "retirement age." If the response to a growing insecurity among middle-aged people about their future remains the "every man for himself, and woman too" approach of IRAs and 401(k)s, we will stay mired in the need to earn more.

A politics of plain living rejects that approach, and looks for new answers. Perhaps if we had radically shorter hours and different kinds of work, few would want to retire at all. This kind of politics turns the debate in new directions.

Dignity at work means many things. Some work lives are beneath human dignity, yet people of great dignity endure them to support their loved ones. In part, dignity has to do with power relations between worker and boss, and between men and women. But the issue of human dignity also has to do with the kind of work we are asked to perform. The problem is not that a specific task may be arduous, mechanical, or repetitive; the issue of human dignity is engaged when an entire work life is composed of such tasks. A work life that denies our individuality, our creativity, our moral and aesthetic sensibility is one that denies our dignity as human beings.

It may well be, as some have argued, that the continued introduction of new technologies will have a cleansing effect, eliminating repetitive, mechanical, or formulaic jobs. If so, it will offer half the solution. The other half lies in the creation of millions of meaningful jobs.

How do we, as a society, find ways of liberating people from income pressures, creating meaningful work, yet dealing successfully with the problems of unsafe neighborhoods, inadequate education, and inadequate housing? In an article last year in TIKKUN ("High Tech Populism," May/June 1995), Jeremy Rifkin put forward an intriguing suggestion that can be used to these ends. The government would issue income vouchers to individuals seeking jobs in the non-profit sector. These would be redeemed by the non-profits to cover the costs of training and placement in community-building jobs. Indeed, non-profit-sector employment could be dramatically increased with an even simpler policy change increasing the deduction for charitable giving to, say, 150 percent of the value, or changing it from a tax deduction that lowers taxable income to a tax credit that directly reduces the tax bill. Thus, the politics of simple living might suggest opposition to the flat tax, which would cut rates and eliminate deductions. An argument can be made for keeping tax rates the same or even raising them, and crafting credits and deductions to sustain lives of graceful simplicity. At the same time, unburdening ourselves from an approach to taxation that makes us bookkeepers of our own lives has a powerful appeal.

A simple living movement should not pretend to have all the answers, and indeed there is a danger of being prematurely programmatic. Graceful simplicity is essentially a vision that redefines what counts as personal and social progress in economic matters. It is an alternative to undue focus on growth, income, and consumption. Within that vision, there may emerge a multiplicity of policy agendas. Too much focus on how to get there, rather than on changing the consensus on where we want to go, runs the risk of reducing the goal to a shopping list of programs. What we need in America today is not primarily a new set of programs, but a rethinking of the fundamentals of economic life.

Let us assume that a politics of simplicity was successful, that we had a society in which leisure was ample, needs could be met with limited personal income, and jobs and income were secure. What difference would it make? I believe it would transform our social world. True, some people would watch more TV, but more important, it would lead to an outpouring of interest and energy for the things that really matter to people - enjoying their friends and family, the arts, learning, religion, political engagement, and volunteer work.

In a world in which there was an abundance of truly secure jobs that paid $20,000 for twenty-five hours of work, and in which this was sufficient to meet our needs, the place of employment would recede in our lives. The question, "What do you do?" would fade as a way of asking what you did for a living. Rather, it would be used to ask someone about the range of their activities. For some, being a musician or a writer or a political activist might coincide with producing a modest income; for others, these identities might be avocational, as they make their living working three days a week driving a bus.

A change of this sort would diffuse throughout our society, affecting schooling and childhood itself. Getting on the fight track, deciding what you want to do (i.e., your "career path") would no longer dictate educational priorities to the extent that they do in the current system. We know this is so, because things were different just thirty years ago when many of us were young and there was a buoyant job market for college graduates. In its own way, this would be an opportunity society: not the opportunity to get rich, but an abundance of opportunities to pursue life's experiences, and to do so without fear that if a wrong choice is made, there is no getting back on the train.

Is it possible to bring this about? A few years ago, the agenda proposed here, focusing on leisure, health, education, housing, and income security would not have seemed impossibly ambitious. Yes, it might (though not necessarily) mean a larger public sector; it might mean more rather than less taxes; it might mean new social programs, new efforts to make government work. But nothing proposed here is beyond what people in Congress were thinking about in the 1970s. The original form of the Humphrey-Hawkins Act contained an enforceable fight to a job; this was stripped from the legislation when it passed in 1978. Former Congressman Donald Fraser of Minnesota (for whom I worked years ago) offered legislation to create job sabbaticals.

Today, we face a crisis in public finance and a general disbelief in the ability of government programs to deliver on their promises. If what we are talking about is returning to the unfinished liberal agenda, it is indeed unlikely that we will see it happen anytime soon.

But the politics of simple living is not about government programs, let alone those aimed at discrete social problems. Rather, it is about a comprehensive paradigm shift in our understanding of how the economic realm relates to the human good. The conventional, consumeristic conception tells us that enjoying economic bounty largely constitutes the good life; that work is important primarily because it serves as a means to goods and services; that a person's standard of living is thus measured by their level of consumption; and that the performance of the economic realm as a whole is primarily measured by the expansion of the collective pie - that is, by economic growth.

The simple living paradigm holds that the primary role of the economy is to satisfy core needs; beyond meeting those needs, economic progress enhances the good life insofar as it eliminates toil and expands leisure time. A hectic society with high levels of consumption and long hours of empty work is a society that is confused about the human good.

How, then, do we understand the relationship between a politics of plain living and a politics of meaning? As two different terms for the same perspective? As partially overlapping philosophies that can make common cause but remain distinct?

Both outlooks are critical of excessive concern with getting and spending and social status. Both reject the idea that an individual's worth is linked to income and wealth. Both see a human emptiness and poverty in a life centered around getting ahead and "making it."

Yet, the politics of meaning is a much more ambitious and much more encompassing outlook than the politics of simple living. And, I would argue, perhaps for those very reasons, it has less potential for actually transforming American life.

The politics of meaning focuses on the creation of a loving and caring society. It seeks to find such concern on all levels, be it within individual relationships or corporate behavior. The politics of plain living that I have advocated leaves open certain central elements of what constitutes the good life. It envisions an economic life in which, with relatively limited hours of paid employment, individuals and families can meet their central economic needs. This reordering of priorities then opens a space in which, secure from economic anxiety, people might pursue the good life as best they can fund it, be it in relationships with friends and family, in service to others, in political struggle, in pursuit of knowledge, in the arts, in exploring a spiritual path.

As a form of politics, the politics of plain living is less expansive and less ambitious than a politics of meaning, which would assess social policy and practice, legislation and institutions by asking, "Does it produce human beings who are idealistic and caring, able to sustain loving and committed relationships?" The politics of simplicity keeps its eye on a few rather concrete socio-economic objectives. And, in doing so, it uses different language, and has, I believe, a very distinct appeal.

The focus is much more economic - on increasing leisure, limiting the growth of need-required income, and insuring income and employment security. This is not to say that the politics of plain living is at bottom about economic issues, or that it is a new check-list of liberal desiderata. Rather, it is about creating an economic environment that will enable, rather than undermine, people's ability to find lives that make sense.

If its agenda is more circumscribed and considerably less utopian than one that seeks a loving society, it nevertheless remains daunting, and is similarly subject to the charge that it goes well beyond what is realistic and possible. But, there is a difference. It may be implausible that we might be able to increase taxes so as to provide free higher education, or that we can devise government programs that will transform corporations into loving relaters. But they constitute different kinds of implausibility. The politics of simplicity has a far more circumscribed sense of what is politically viable.

The vocabulary and set of problems on which a politics of plain living centers are very concrete and relate directly to most people's daily struggles. As a political style, there is a marked difference between focusing on why it is that we experience a time famine, and why it is that we experience a meaning famine.

I am not arguing against a full-blown politics of meaning, but I believe that it will not resonate with tens of millions of Americans. Yet, most, if not all, of the policy agenda of a politics of plain living is compatible, or even integral, to a politics of meaning. And this affirmation of a plain living agenda can be expected also to appeal to people with a wide range of social outlooks. What we need today is to open the question, "What is an economy for?" We need a broad consensus in support of a new way of looking at the relationship between the human good and the economic realm. A politics of simplicity not only offers us that vantage point, but it resonates with much of the best in the American experience.

Jerome M. Segal is a research scholar at the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. He is currently at work on a book titled Graceful Simplicity.

Source Citation

Segal, Jerome M. 1996. The Politics of Simplicity. Tikkun 11(4): 20.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.