“An essential political read for our times. Spelling out the brutal contradictions of the ‘imperial mode of living’ and its ‘green economy,’ Brand and Wissen invite the reader to consider a ‘solidary mode of living.’ Here, sociability and sustainability can be joined, and hopefully celebrate the rich plurality of global cultures.”
– Ariel Salleh
Economic imperialism is not just constantly reproduced through capitalist commodity production and distribution and their intrinsic relationship to highly unequal power relations and to imperatives such as growth, competitiveness and development. We argue in our new book The Imperial Mode of Living that economic imperialism also works because its violent character is largely rendered invisible in the everyday practices of imperialist societies. Production and consumption patterns depend upon the import of underpriced commodities as well as on human and natural resources, not exclusively but particularly from the dependent countries of the world economy. Wage earners are forced into these patterns because of their subaltern status in capitalist societies. They often depend on car-centered transport systems, fossil-fuel based energy infrastructures or jobs in environmentally destructive industries and thus are structurally involved in the reproduction of imperialist relations. At the same time, they might benefit from the latter and from the transfer of undervalued goods and services from the countries of the global South. Production and consumption patterns in capitalist core countries are thus enabled by economic imperialism, which itself is normalized through the everyday practices of those who are exploited and suppressed. And these everyday dimensions of imperialism are secured politically at various spatial scales, from the local to international.
We propose the term “imperial mode of living” in order to better understand this constellation. We do not intend to moralize the everyday life of the subaltern classes but want to understand how capitalism reproduces itself through daily work, leisure, reproduction – and why despite the deepening of the social-ecological crisis radical alternatives are so difficult to formulate and to pursue. A crucial reference for us is the concept of hegemony. Antonio Gramsci wrote almost one hundred years ago: “Obviously, the fact of hegemony presupposes that the interests and tendencies of those groups over whom hegemony is exercised have been taken into account and that a certain equilibrium is established.”
Capitalism needs an outside and global dependencies
Our basic assumption is that the deeply rooted patterns of production and consumption, which predominate above all in the early industrialized capitalist societies, presuppose the disproportionate access to nature and labor power on a global scale. Developed capitalism is characterized by the fact that it requires a less developed or non-capitalist geographical and social ‘outside’, from which it obtains raw materials and intermediate products, to which it shifts social and ecological costs, and in which it appropriates both paid labor and unpaid care services. The concept of the imperial mode of living sheds light on these dominant interdependencies both between the global South and the global North and within the societies concerned. Above all, it aims to show and explain how domination, power and violence are normalized in neo-colonial North-South relations, in class and gender relations, and by racialized relations in the practices of consumption and production, so that they are no longer perceived as such. The term is not intended to make the social contradictions within the global North and the global South disappear in favor of a seemingly superimposed imperialist North-South divide. Instead, the upper (and middle) classes of the global South have to be understood as important forces of the imperial mode of living. Not only do they tend to adopt, and benefit from, Northern patterns of consumption but as the dominant forces of their societies they also organize the extraction of resources or foster resource-intensive patterns of industrial development.
In the global North, the infrastructures of everyday life in areas such as food, transport, electricity, heat or telecommunication to a large extent rely on material flows from elsewhere, on the workers who extract the respective resources and on the ecological sinks on a global scale that absorb emissions produced through the operation of infrastructural systems. Workers in the global North draw on the latter not just because they consider them as components of a good life, but because they depend on them. Mostly, it is not an individual choice that makes workers purchase cheap ‘food from nowhere’, drive a car or light their homes with electricity that is generated by burning fossil fuels. Rather, they have to do so in order to nourish their families, to get to work or because the utility does not offer renewable alternatives. Thus, they are forced into the imperial mode of living simply because the latter is materialized and institutionalized in many of the life-sustaining systems of the global North.
Imperial Mode of Living, Class and Forced Migration
Of course, capitalists are also forced by competition to socially and ecologically destructive practices – at least there is a strong incentive to do so which is due to the structural tendency of the capitalist mode of production to generate ‘negative externalities’. Yet they assume a dominant position in this process. Workers who process raw materials extracted elsewhere in the production process, who use fossil-fuel based infrastructures (energy supply, automobility) or who produce mass consumer goods at high energy and material costs mostly do so because they lack alternatives, i.e. because they have nothing else to sell but their own labor power. The buyers of this labor power equally benefit from its exploitation as well as from the exploitation of nature and labor power elsewhere in the world. In other words, workers participate in the imperial mode of living and reproduce it as subalterns. In addition, as consumers they benefit materially from this mode of living to a much lesser extent. Due to the quantity and the way of their consumption, they also produce and externalize lower socio-ecological costs than the middle and upper classes.
The guiding principles, policies and everyday practices dominating in the global North, their diffusion into the global South and the demands for participation, which for many can only be realized through flight or migration, show that the imperial mode of living is still an attractive possibility and promise. However, the aggravation of crisis phenomena such as climate change and the increasing conflicts around the world over CO2-sinks and fossil, metallic and agricultural raw materials leave little room for doubt that the promise can only be fulfilled in an ever more exclusionary and exclusive manner. This applies not only in geographical terms, i.e. in the North-South relationship, but also in social terms, i.e. within the global North itself. The more the eco-imperial tensions that result from the generalization of the non-generalizable intensify, the more the ecological upheavals in the centers will also become apparent in economic and social terms.
With our concept we also shed light on the need why we urgently need radical and emancipatory social-ecological transformation what we call in the last chapter of the book the realization of a “solidary mode of living”.
Set image: WestConnex motorway, Sydney