Capitalist globalization and its associated economic, political, social, and ecological upheavals are primarily a strategy of imperialist states and capital. But it is also based on the ordinary, everyday life of many people in the global North. In order to clarify this situation, for which we must also acknowledge the presence of contemporary internationalism and global solidarity as pitted against the demands of capitalist globalization, Markus Wissen and I have proposed the concept of the “imperial mode of living”.
Ulrich Brand is a professor of international politics at the University of Vienna and for many years has been a member of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, where he serves as an academic trustee. He is a co-organizer of the international degrowth conference to be held in Vienna on the last weekend in May 2020 (www.degrowthvienna2020.org). With Markus Wissen, he is the co-author of the book Imperiale Lebensweise: Zur Ausbeutung von Mensch und Natur im globalen Kapitalismus (Imperialist Mode of Living: Exploiting Humanity and Nature in Global Capitalism, Munich: oekom, 2017), which is due to appear in five other languages in 2020. His earlier publications include Radikale Alternativen: Warum man den Kapitalismus nur mit vereinten Kräften überwinden kann (Radical Alternatives: Why Only United Forces can Overcome Capitalism), published in March 2018 (likewise by oekom) and co-authored with the Ecuadorian economist and politician Alberto Acosta, which deals with debates over post-growth in Europe and post-extractivism/“good living” (Buen Vivir) in Latin America. In June 2020, his new book Post-Wachstum und Gegen-Hegemonie. Klimastreiks, Krise der imperialen Lebensweise und Alternativen zur autoritären Globalisierung (Post-Growth and Counter-Hegemony: Climate Strikes, Crisis of the Imperial Mode of Living and Alternatives to Authoritarian Globalization) will appear through VSA-Verlag.
The imperial mode of living is made possible by the fact that companies and employees in the production process, the public sector, or people as everyday consumers can access cheap resources and cheap labour “elsewhere”—including within the societies of the Global North—and this access is often accompanied by suffering, exploitation, humiliation, and ecological destruction. For some, this creates agency and material prosperity, as well as a (politically fought for and desired) functioning public infrastructure and services. For others, it means a gradual destruction of their livelihoods and an intensification of their dependency on others.
The contradiction of the imperialist mode of producing and living consists on the one hand in the fact that many people partially benefit from it—for example when buying cheap products—and yet at the same time suffer when they have to sell their labour power under competitive conditions. On the other hand, the imperial mode of living generates constraints when you are compelled to both work and live and alternatives are hard to come by. Or when conspicuous consumption compels people to purchase of new products, even if they do not want them. As a rule, however—and this is a second contradiction—these compulsions are not subjectively perceived as such.
This way of life is closely connected to colonialism and capitalist development and, despite their many differences, has become prevalent in post-war capitalism in the societies of the Global North. Through the process of globalization over the past 30 years, it has become further entrenched by increased access to labour and resources from “elsewhere”, and by the process of digitalization, which involves high levels of resource consumption. People are systematically increasing their consumption of resources and high-tech devices, as well as t-shirts, cars, food, and other goods produced largely by underpaid labour in the Global South. Many people experience this subjectively as wealth. But neoliberal divisions in the Global North, the expansion of the low-wage sector, and increased use of resources also entrench the imperial mode of living.
The imperial mode of living does not mean that all people in the Global North live alike. Studies show that the size of a person’s ecological footprint depends not so much on their awareness about environmental issues, but first and foremost on their income. Those with a higher income can consume more and more products and services that are produced under socially and ecologically problematic conditions. And as noted above: the imperial mode of living—as it is lived in this country—is a status-oriented way of life that not only destroys the environment, but is both based on and exacerbates social inequality. The middle classes deliberately differentiate themselves from the lower classes by showing that they can afford a car and are able to consume a variety of other things due to their high incomes. As a result, people with less money are excluded even further, and they also feel excluded.
This mode of production and living clearly has global ecological limits. Even in the past, there have always been regions that have suffered ecological collapse under certain conditions. Today, however, the ecological threat has a global dimension. In a way, the imperial mode of living is “triumphing its way to death”. In times of crisis it also produces a third contradiction, which is quite the political conundrum: in the global North especially, this lifestyle has a stabilizing effect in times of crisis, because relatively cheap food is still shovelled into the metropoles via the world market. At the same time, political, social, economic, and ecological crises are exacerbated elsewhere, and with it, the causes of conflict and migration or flight.
The imperial mode of living is also predicated on the fact that its conditions and negative consequences are invisible or ignored. A few years ago, in an article in the Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard, the writer Ilija Trojanow referred to a study commissioned by 20 governments and carried out by the German registration agency for social and economic data. The study came to the following conclusion: if global average temperatures were to continue to rise at then-current rates, more than 100 million people would die by 2030 as a result of drought, drinking water shortages, crop failure, poverty, and illness. “100 million is no mere trifle”, says Trojanow. “100 million is more than the victims of the two World Wars combined. Don’t fret if you didn’t get the memo. It was withheld from you. The reason is not so much the detachment with which we are facing the apocalypse—Hollywood and other pop-culture industries have been getting us accustomed to its ubiquity for years—but rather in a subclause of the report that could easily be overlooked: ‘More than 90 percent of these deaths will be residents of developing countries.’ Oh right, it will affect others.”
Right-wing conservative and right-wing extremist policies in Europe and the USA can also be better understood through the concept of the “imperial mode of living”. In times of social division and uncertainty, they offer political promises to defend the interests of those who live in the capitalist centres by focusing primarily on migration, trade, and foreign policy. They seek to keep other regions of the world in their role as suppliers of cheap goods, and to turn away anyone seeking help. However, the imperial mode of living also illustrates how this way of life is becoming very dynamic, even among the populations of the Global South, through the rise of emerging countries such as China or Brazil. It makes the expansion of capitalism attractive to more and more people. Crucial for the reproduction of the imperial mode of living is a globally and internally unequal configuration in terms of class, gender, and race, but also generalized production and consumption patterns.
I visit Ecuador every now and then. I have seen how quickly the number of cars, particularly SUVs, increases in times of high oil prices—and thus possible wage increases and growing foreign exchange earnings. There, too, the imperial mode of living takes effect immediately.
At the same time, globalizing capitalism keeps many people living under catastrophic conditions. From a geopolitical perspective, economic globalization and the global expansion of the imperial mode of living increase the demand for natural resources in countries in the Global South. Competition for land, for example in Africa, is increasing. This reinforces—and here we have a fourth contradiction of the imperial mode of living—“eco-imperialist tensions”. In the globalization of the food industry, people are driven off their land, from which they could feed themselves, in order to make way for the cultivation of palm oil, sugar cane, or soy for global industries and consumption in the Global North. If, having been humiliated and disenfranchised in this manner, they take on jobs as plantation workers on their former land for little more than $2 a day, they are viewed as having been “released from poverty” in World Bank statistics. The bitter reality of life for more and more people is thus refuted by globalization apologists who seek to use statistics to make us believe that material poverty in the world has decreased.
Analysis of the current dynamics should motivate us to look for contradictions, modes of resistance, and alternatives to the imperial mode of living, and to foster them. Numerous stirring discussions at workshops and book launches have made it clear to me and my co-author Markus Wissen that the term “imperial mode of living” provokes discomfort in many people. Young people are participating in writing workshops on the subject of the imperial mode of living in order to better understand the world in order to be able to work collectively to change it. They are concerned about authoritarian trends in the political arena, increasing social polarization, and the enrichment of elites. Developing a form of global solidarity that is able to respond to these issues means understanding globalizing capitalism as a complex constellation of power relationships, in order to better be able to transform it. That seems difficult today, since the dominant discourse on globalization is to continue flying the flags of economic competitiveness and local or regional competition. The promise of “If we stick together locally, we will live better” is not far away from “America First!”
What could an alternative to the imperial mode of living look like? There is a wide range of resistance models and proposals for how social rights can be defended, for example, without doing so at the expense of others but rather through questioning the powerful and the relations of domination associated with them. The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung and its international partners are part of this tangible search for alternatives. Above all, however, a fundamental transformation of the dominant development model of the Global North is required. In the “Summer of Migration” in 2015, many people demonstrated that they were ready to leave their comfort zone. The conversion of the food system into ecological agriculture will require a different diet and a different, non-industrial, global production system.
It is also about showing that such developments cannot take place without conflicts and struggles. An important experience at the moment is the “Ende Gelände” movement’s campaign for Germany to phase out the mining of brown coal and its use for power generation. This must go hand in hand with an end to coal imports from Colombia and wherever coal extraction is socially and ecologically disastrous. There are many more such examples.
Finally: there is no such thing as global solidarity with “the” Global South. There is also a need to criticize the imperial mode of living of the upper and middle classes in the countries of the Global South itself. Because this way of life stabilizes dynamics of domination and serves to establish consensus—but at the expense of the poor and the natural world. A genuinely emancipatory critique that offers more than a chic green alternative presented in condescending tones by individuals and organizations from the Global North needs to be willing to address these issues as well.
Translated by Kate Davison & Joel Scott for Gegensatz Translation Collective