Evidently this movement grew to such an extent that it attracted the serious attention of the holders of concentrated wealth and economic power at the top of the economic heap. For a number of op-ed pieces started coming out in major media outlets which warned Americans that frugality was a "threat to the economy" and a "threat to recovery." I won't give you an exhaustive list, but there were such pieces as, "Frugal Americans Hurt Economic Recovery" (courtesy of Fox News, of course!), "How Shopping Is Good for The Economy - And Your Soul" (I kid you not!), "Frugality Is Bad For The Economy," and "Consumers Turn Frugal, But Economy Could Wither." There was also another, sideways attempt to derail the frugality movement by re-defining what frugality actually means. Namely, it was an attempt to change the definition of frugality from "living only on that which you need" to "saving as much money as possible in your purchases - by taking advantage of coupons, promotions, sales, etc." Many supposed promoters of frugality thus switched from warning people to stop buying stuff they didn't need, to trying to get as much stuff as possible via coupons and other means. (For a present-day example of re-defining "simple living," you might try looking here.)
The fact that the owners of major media outlets felt the need to spend print space and air time trying to discourage frugality says something about the power of frugality as a threat to the current established economic order. And as I have recently been thinking over the details of this movement, I have been struck by certain observations. Firstly, that frugality, along with other social virtues, has been a particular threat to Western societies from the time of the Roman Empire. I think of the Christian Church from the first century to the third, and I see how the peaceful, nonviolent obedience to the commandments of Christ must have threatened such a cruel military empire as that which the Romans had built. Indeed, in his book Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority In the Second-Century Pagan World, author James Francis lays out this threat, and describes how the leaders and academics in charge of defending Roman values ridiculed such Christian virtues as asceticism, voluntary poverty, and communalism. (They also attacked non-Christian ascetics.) Of course, even a casual reading of the New Testament would reveal the roots of the radical values embodied by the proto-Church - as seen especially in the Lord's encounter with the rich young ruler, the Lord's denunciation of the Pharisees, the radicalism of Luke 14 and Luke 16, and the denunciation of the rich in James 5.
However, the Roman Empire succeeded in co-opting key elements of the Christian community, and one of the casualties of that co-opting was frugality and the rejection of materialism. (For a look into how this happened, you might try looking here.) Other virtues that died by the way were pacifism (the outright rejection of violence) and communalism. I don't have time to describe the entire arc of the ensuing battle between materialism and voluntary simplicity since those times, but I do want to focus on another period in the history of the Church in which the recovery of New Testament virtues threatened to shake an existing social order.
That period began with the conversion of Peter Waldo to Christianity during the mid to late 12th century. He founded a group within the Catholic Church who came to be known as the Waldenses or Waldensians, and they took the Scriptures seriously enough to actually try to live by the New Testament. Among the elements of their fundamentalism were the following:
- The priesthood of all believers
- The need to give the Scriptures to people in their common language instead of a language (Latin) which most people could not understand
- The need to live a life of voluntary simplicity, also known as voluntary poverty.
What has been described above is not confined only to societies that have been exposed to Christianity nor to people who act solely from Christian values. Frugality continues to be regarded as a terrifying threat to those who hold concentrated economic power in a society based on buying and selling. It is only fitting that in these days, frugality should be revived as a subversive virtue. I am glad to see that there are Christians who have been in the forefront of this revival, as seen in "Toward The Revival and Reform of The Subversive Virtue: Frugality," by James Nash. (One of the subsections of his paper is titled, "Frugality As Economic Subversion." (I like that!) There is also "Voluntary Simplicity and Voluntary Poverty: Alternatives To Consumer Culture" by Malgorzata Poks.
Frugality, or voluntary simplicity, or voluntary poverty - no matter what you call it, the widespread practice of such a way of living can shake a murderous, materialist society to its core. (See this, this, and this, for instance.) Therefore, it is an especially relevant way of living just now - in a world in which the majority of the world's people are now being ruled by greedy strongmen, including the regime of our 45th President. The mass adoption of frugality by a society can bring down dictators who rule that society and the wealthy corporations that put those dictators in power. And here's the good news: you don't have to sell everything and move to a gold-plated off-grid doomstead in Montana to live a frugal life. It can be done right where you are, if you know how to think strategically about your situation. In fact, the chances are good that over the next months and years, you will be forced to live such a life whether you want to or not.