Frugal Living is Counter-Cultural

What if we all decided to follow the advice of just about every spiritual tradition, as well as some secular humanist traditions? What if we all agreed to live frugally, acquiring only what we need to live a life of meaning and service to humanity?

All hell would break loose. Capitalism would implode. A capitalist economy absolutely requires consumption growth — what you already have is not enough. In fact capitalism requires accelerating consumption growth for its very stability. No frugality permitted here, except on the fringes where it doesn’t count.

What about socialism? Nope, sorry. Socialist regimes discovered they had no defence against corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency. So they had to hand key sectors back to the private sector — before western sabotage could grind them to a halt and before public discontent could go viral and turf them out. Even then it didn’t always work.

So now right and left have merged into variations on the mixed-economy model. And now both are stuck with the growth obsession that the capitalist sector enforces with an iron first. Frugality be damned — but, buy, buy — to save your country.

So what’s a poor mystic to do who wants to ignore the drumbeat of obsessive consumption — who wants to follow his or her calling to live moderately and to serve — in communion with others of sane beliefs? There’s no dumping the mandarins — they have critical mass. What do we do within the system we can’t escape in order to live in a different manner?

Do we retreat to the fringes, where non-conformity may be tolerated? Do we retreat into colonies to isolate ourselves from demonic forces? Both have been tried, with mixed success. What about building our own sub-communities in the belly of the beast and trying to grow them? That’s what the early Christians did with some success until capitalism turned into an all-consuming revolution.

It’s useful to look at how some of the colonies tried it. Many found that they could hold it together if they kept the community small enough. Allocation of rewards and responsibilities was made workable (1) with traditional roles to provide stable structure and (2) by running trade on a face-to-face basis to keep it a true community. Money was sometimes useful if it never became impersonal trade with strangers, except for some trade with outside society. If they built capital, like a brewery, it was jointly owned or not owned at all, and it just integrated itself into their sharing economy. No capitalism there.

A few colonies and monasteries managed to hang on to that integrity even when they scaled up to considerable size. But many of those failed, as did many small ones, when the pressures of making it all work became too great, and they took on too many compromises attempting to stay afloat.

Some Mennonites build pseudo-colonies — self-contained communities, but not fully partitioned off from the broader society — with mixed success. Engaged in trade with the outside economy and not fully insulated from its consumerism and social pathologies, they sometimes struggle to hang onto their dream by the fingernails — ravaged by compromises — but not without good success in many cases. Likewise, the Catholic-influenced Mondragon Co-op in Spain has thrived for many decades now. Its doable, and we’re thankful to those who took up the call.

But what about us? Those of us who live in the maelstrom and want to build something that is not soul-destroying right here where we are? All we’ve really got to work with is a sense of community. But that is very much alive — in the part of our culture that has not been decimated by consumerism — and in the heart of compassion that is buried somewhere inside all children of God. Like, its really there. We’re hard-wired for community, underneath it all.

So my emphasis has been on building community in our neighborhoods, in our service organizations, in our churches. That includes building relationships with small and medium sized business enterprises (SMEs) that are seeking a good life for their children too. Support independent coffee shops and restaurants, which can become communities in themselves. Go wherever people of good will get together to build a wholesome life together — flying in the face of the culture of greed.

Some have seen my favourite expression of that sentiment. Start creating little pockets of grace — wherever you are — and eventually grow a tiny culture of caring into an invincible force.

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