But is it a Movement?

A couple weeks ago I was listening to Gaby Dunn’s interview with Vicki Robin on Bad with Money. I always like hearing Vicki Robin talk about the origins of FI, but this time I got a little fixated on Vicki’s question of whether the FIRE community constitutes a movement, and her explanation of why she believes that the answer is no.

It’s an interesting question and a fair, if kind of disappointing, answer.

I’ve always referred to the FIRE community as a movement in my conversations with others, particularly those in the community, based on the fact that there seems to be a large and growing number of people engaging in similar activities with a similar goal, and to some extent, alongside one another (at least online, but increasingly in person).

However, Vicki’s insistence that FIRE isn’t a social movement stuck with me.

What is a movement, anyway?

By sociology standards, a movement requires more than multiple people doing the same thing at the same time. An oversimplified example: people can move in concert with one another and create a stampede or become a mob. That’s clearly not a movement because it’s just a reflexive reaction to an outside impetus. It doesn’t indicate that anything is shared among the movers other than the desire to stay alive. It lacks shared principles or well defined goals.

People can also do the same thing at the same time while holding shared beliefs and still not make up a movement. Christmas shopping is a good example. Millions of people across the world who share a belief system or a culture closely related to that belief system go shopping at the same time, wrap presents at the same time, give presents at the same time, and stop celebrating the gift giving holiday at the same time, all for the same reasons. There might even be a toy that everyone is after or a day that most people shop, and a shared goal for their actions. People even deliberately get together to do it, and then enjoy the fruits of their labor in person, but even a shared action with shared goals and beliefs does not make a movement.

I think that there are other factors worth discussing, but for now, the distinguishing factor that Vicki highlights in Gaby’s show is that in order to constitute a social movement the concerted action needs to pose a challenge to some element of an existing power structure, and FIRE does not. In her view, that makes the “movement” more of a trend.

Trend vs. Movement

It’s hard to deny that there’s been an uptick in interest in FIRE itself, as well as many of the components integral to FIRE, like frugality, reducing consumption, and minimizing the length of one’s working life. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t see an article about this stuff, even in the mainstreamiest of mainstream media. In that way FIRE certainly seems on trend, and certainly the fixation with it seems faddish, even if there aren’t quite enough converts for that yet.

Less FIRE-specific, but certainly related, there is also a lot of focus on “millennial” habits that point to cultural shifts that are certainly conducive to working towards FIRE. Notable among these are an interest in experiences over things, preferences for walkable communities, and a distaste for the unnecessary consumption inherent in environmental atrocities like McMansions.

While I hope these preferences succeed in decreasing our consumption and making our communities more sustainable for the long term, it is quite possible that they will be short-lived trends, and one day the pendulum could swing back the other way towards 90 minute commutes, fake foam columns, and gas guzzling cars. (There’s also the chance that socio-economic forces will continue these trends for the long term whether we choose them or not but that’s another story.)

When I first listened to Gaby and Vicki talking about this, I was conflating fads and trends, so my reaction was pretty strong disagreement and maybe a little defensiveness. Fads are fleeting, flippant, and fickle. That’s not how I see people’s relationships to FI and it’s not representative of the work it takes to get there. FI doesn’t seem like something momentary or aesthetic, especially when it requires a lifetime commitment.

So I did what I often do when I am feeling annoyed by something and mulled it over for many hours over several days while listening to Bad with Money a bunch more times. Finally I decided, probably unsurprisingly, that Vicki was right.

BUT I REALLY WANT A MOVEMENT!

Most understandings of social movements are predicated on a threat or at least pressure exerted on larger structures of power, and that’s something that the FIRE community lacks. But I think there’s something equally important that keeps it from being a movement: the lack of focus on a collective sense of well being. Despite the camaraderie I feel with my FIRE friends, we are all individuals working on our own goals, towards our own concepts of freedom, and the community itself is not really concerned with the collective.

Sure, I think we all want our loved ones to join us for a lot of reasons. For one, because when you are going against the grain things can get lonely. Even more, I think that as we begin to really believe that there could be a day when we have the freedom to spend our time the way we want to without being beholden to a job we don’t love to buy things we don’t need, we really want to share that with people we care about. But even if we could get all our best friends to travel hack a plane ticket to the mythical FI commune, if we’re only concerned with the liberation of the people closest to us, I’m not sure we can call ourselves a movement.

To me, FIRE is so important, at least partly, because it has the potential to be the precursor so the cultural shift we need to actually save the planet by radically reducing our consumption. It can also be part of a cultural shift away from feeling that what makes us most “worthy” is working, and only for money. If we can figure out a way to work only when we need to and come together to help each other need fewer things by growing our communities, we can give each other space to develop other talents besides showing up to work on time and being a good employee. And when we all have time to devote to the things that are most important to us, it seems like we could form a pretty unstoppable movement.

But are we one now? What do you think?


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