Obstacles to Emancipatory Transformations: The Imperial Mode of Living

by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen

the imperial mode of living

Many necessary everyday items that are produced as commodities are tied to a range of activities that are invisible during their purchase, consumption and use: the origin of raw materials used in household appliances, medical devices or transport; water and energy infrastructures; the working conditions under which materials are extracted or textiles and food are produced; and the expenditure of energy required for them. ‘Cultural products’, such as print or digital media, are also part of this invisible economy. The invisibility of the social and ecological conditions is precisely what enables us to experience the buying and use of these products as a natural given. ‘Food from nowhere’ is what the agrarian sociologist Philip McMichael has called this strategy of obscuring the origins and production processes of foodstuffs, in which the spatio–temporal unlimited availability of the latter is normalized.[2] Examples include grapes from Chile offered in northern cafeterias in winter, tomatoes grown and picked by undocumented migrant workers in California for the North American market or by illegalized workers in Andalusia for the Northern European market, and shrimps for the global North that are farmed by destroying Thai or Ecuadorian mangrove forests. But it also includes the disastrous environmental conditions and cheap labour power of Romanian workers in German meat factories that ensure cheap meat in Germany and its neighbouring countries.

Our concept of the ‘imperial mode of living’ aims to render visible the norms of production, distribution and consumption built into the political, economic and cultural structures of everyday life for the populations of the global North and increasingly in the ‘emerging economies’ of the global South.[3] It does not only refer to material practices but also, and especially, to the structural conditions and guiding social principles and discourses that make these practices possible. To put it pointedly: the standards of a ‘good’ and ‘proper’ life are part of comprehensive societal relations, material and social infrastructures and an international order that is shaped by imperialist domination.[4]

In this respect, our concept of a ‘mode of living’ stands in the tradition of Antonio Gramsci and regulation theory, as we assume that a contradictory social form such as capitalism can only reproduce itself if it is embedded in everyday practices and common sense, thereby becoming, so to speak, ‘natural’. With the adjective ‘imperial’ we want to emphasize – now moving beyond Gramsci – the expanding global and ecological dimensions of this mode of living (again, also within the countries of the global North).

The imperial mode of living is an essential moment in the reproduction of capitalist societies. It establishes itself in discourses and world views, it manifests itself in practices and institutions, and it is the result of social conflicts in civil society and in the state. It is based on inequality, power and domination; it sometimes relies on violence; and at the same time it also generates these forces. It is not separate from the subjects. Indeed, it shapes subjects and their common sense, normalizes the latter and enables the capacity to act: as women and men, as individuals who maximize use and feel superior to others, as people striving for particular forms of the good life.[5]

This also means, however, that this mode of living is contested. There is a constant influx of alternative and subversive interpretations and practices, the integration of demands and alternative desires. In this respect, every mode of living always contains a contradictory simultaneity of subjugation and appropriation.[6]

The imperial mode of living links people’s everyday life with the partly globalizing societal structures. It intends to make visible the social and ecological prerequisites of the dominant norms of production, distribution and consumption, as well as the relations of power and domination behind them. And it clarifies how domination is normalized in neocolonial North–South relations, in class, gender and racialized relations, and in the everyday practices of consumption and production, to the point where domination is no longer perceived as such. The concept thus also implies the mode of production and takes into account the forms taken by capital and labour organizations in their relation to the norms of consumption.

Capitalist globalisation and the everyday

The concept of the imperial mode of living emphasizes that unsustainability is a very practical fact that is mostly lived unconsciously. But living ‘unconsciously’ does not mean that the imperial mode of living is not connected to multiple intentional strategies for its continuation. There can be no doubt that these strategies are pursued by dominant social forces: think of the investment in automobile and animal factories or coal-based power plants, of free trade policies and marketing slogans that encourage people to shop themselves to happiness; think of the fact that in climate policy, complex ecosystems such as rainforests are reduced to their function as CO2 sinks; or think of the construction of infrastructure projects such as ports, which first and foremost made the global trade of raw materials possible. But these myriad forms of intentional actions and the strategic decisions that precede them – such as government policy or business management – have a history that begins long before the moment of action and decision making, a history of which individuals do not need to be aware. The ‘truth of the interaction’, as Pierre Bourdieu puts it, ‘is never entirely contained in the interaction’.[7] Activities and decisions are embedded in a societal context that allows them to be seen as rational or normal, a context inscribed into the subjects who carry out or make these decisions. In order to understand these interactions and the history behind them, we must take account of the habitus, the ‘class culture turned into nature, that is, embodied’, as well as the internalized social relations of the subjects themselves.[8] The activities and decisions can then be seen as acts of ‘recognition’ and of ‘misrecognition’, as conscious actions that depend on a variety of unconscious preconditions.[9]

Thus purchasing a car is unquestionably a conscious action. If it is understood, however, merely as an act of rational choice that follows from an individual cost–benefit analysis, then a crucial dimension is missed, namely that the act of purchasing essentially results from infrastructural and institutional conditions as well as from dominant imaginations which have been habitually internalized. A road system built to the detriment of public transport, government incentives for buying and driving personal vehicles, dominant images of masculinity and representations of individual freedom, value chains that allow for the cheap acquisition of resources and labour from elsewhere,[10] lax emission standards, the competition for social status via automobiles – all these and other factors, existing beyond the individual, and which the individual is not required to know, influence the decision to make a purchase. These conditions lend the decision its ‘rationality’, allow it to appear as normal and erase the preconditions that constitute domination, including its structural and sometimes overt violence.

The category of habitus, by mediating between conscious action and its unconscious preconditions, also allows the levels of everyday activity to be linked to those of societal structures. The following interrelations are important here: capitalism reaches its economic and social productivity in the centres – and increasingly in the ‘emerging economies’ – by virtue of the fact that labour power and nature are first valorized and monetized elsewhere and values and matter are then transferred to the centres. Through this mechanism, the various living conditions are linked with one another by the global exchange of commodities – and not only in terms of end products, but also in terms of intermediary and primary products such as raw materials. ‘[A] tractor or railway engine would simply not be feasible were it not for the uneven ways in which human time and natural space are priced in global society.’[11] Marx had already pointed out that cheap materials were essential for capitalist development, particularly due to, on the one hand, the accompanying transfer of value to the capitalist centres and, on the other, the importance of the falling price of raw materials as a ‘counteracting tendency’ to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.[12]

These market-mediated forms of wealth transfer are accompanied by forms of dispossession that are achieved politically, legally or by force, as in the privatization of the commons or public property. The dispossessions crucially result from pressure applied by companies in the global North. Often, they go hand in hand with displacement, impoverishment and destruction of nature.

The designation of CO2 sinks – or rather the reduction of ecosystems to their ability to absorb CO2 – sometimes contains elements of dispossession and market-oriented exchange. When, for example, a piece of land extensively used by small farmers in the global South is declared ‘uncultivated land’ and the established right of customary use is transformed into a formalized legal system that marginalizes the previous users, then this is an act of dispossession. If the same piece of land is sold to an energy company from the global North, which sets up a eucalyptus plantation for the sake of CO2 absorption, thereby fulfilling a part of its duties to reduce CO2 emissions, then it is integrated into the international emissions trading system.[13] This is thus a market-mediated process. Land previously used by the local community is subjected to an eco-capitalist logic of exchange through a process of dispossession, privatization and integration into the global market. The previous users are marginalized, and the ecological complexity of the land is reduced to a highly questionable form of climate protection in the interest of stabilizing the global North’s ecologically destructive norms of production and consumption. The powerful metaphor of the ‘ecological footprint’ is,[14] in a way, the expression of this ecologically unequal exchange, as the country- or social-group-specific ‘footprints’ are extremely different from one another and make clear that some countries live at the ecological expense of others.

The appropriation of natural resources and labour power (especially in the global South), as well as the disproportionate use of sinks located predominantly in the global South, therefore take the form of market-mediated exchanges and/or legal, political and forced dispossessions. In social, economic and ecological terms, these processes are highly unequal and are shaped by power and domination. Not all people or groups can rely equally on labour power and resources ‘elsewhere’, particularly in other parts of the world (but also within their respective societies). Rather, this access varies according to different lines of inequality: class, gender, race, map especially closely onto lines of neocolonial North–South relations. The imperial aspect of this inequality is expressed in the monumental and generally destructive access to the labour power of other humans and nature.[15]

The analytical and political use value of the concept

With this term we want, first, to make visible the forces that facilitate the everyday life of production and consumption of people in the global North, as well as of a growing number of people in the global South, without necessarily passing the threshold of conscious perception or crossing into critical reflection. Our aim is to understand how normality is produced precisely by masking the destruction in which it is rooted. In other words, the term imperial mode of living helps to understand the practices of everyday life and the social and international relations of power that undergird them, generating and maintaining domination over human beings and nature.

With the term “imperial mode of living” we want to explain, second, how and why this sense of normality is produced in a time when problems and crises are accumulating, intensifying and overlapping in so many different areas: social reproduction, ecology, the economy, finance, geopolitics, European integration, democracy, etc. In this regard, the imperial mode of living seems central to us. It is a paradox located in the very centre of multiple crisis phenomena: this mode of living affects and exacerbates worldwide crises such as climate change, the destruction of ecosystems, social polarization, widespread impoverishment, the destruction of local economies and geopolitical tensions which seemed until recently to have been overcome with the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, this mode of living creates these crisis phenomena. At the same time, however, it stabilizes social relations in the countries where its benefits are concentrated. Thus, it would have been vastly more difficult after the deep economic crisis of 2007 to ensure the reproduction of the lower social classes of the global North without the cheap food produced elsewhere at such high cost to humans and nature. This is not meant at all to downplay the social inequality that was accelerated in the global North by this crisis.[16]

Third, we would like to show how contemporary crises and conflicts are a manifestation of the contradictions at the heart of the imperial mode of living. That so many problems are intensifying today can be attributed to the fact that this mode of living is in the process of succeeding even at the cost of self-destruction. By its nature, it implies disproportionate access to natural and human resources on a global scale – in other words: an ‘elsewhere’. It also demands that others abstain from their own proportional share. The less these others are prepared to accept this situation, or the more they themselves depend on access to an ‘elsewhere’, to external resources and the imposition of costs on this external world, i.e. the more advanced capitalism spreads globally, the sooner the imperial mode of living will undermine the very conditions of its existence.

And this is exactly the situation we find ourselves in today. As emerging countries such as China, India and Brazil develop as capitalist economies and their local middle and upper classes adopt the ‘northern’ images and practices of the ‘good life’ as their own, so these countries’ demand for resources and their need to externalize costs, such as CO2 emissions, grows. Consequently, they become the global North’s competitors, not only in economic but also in ecological terms. The results are eco-imperial tensions that crystallize in global climate and energy politics, for example. Additionally, fewer and fewer people in the global South will be prepared to risk their own lives for the sake of the North’s imperial mode of living. The current movements of refugees and migrants should also be seen in this light. They furthermore emphasize the unbroken attraction that the imperial mode of living possesses among those who until now have not been able to participate in it: refugees seek security and a better life, which is more easily accomplished under the conditions of the mode of living in the centres of capitalism than anywhere else.

This also explains why the repressive and violent sides of the imperial mode of living – such as conflicts over raw materials and the rejection of refugees – appear so clearly nowadays. The imperial mode of living is based on exclusivity; it can sustain itself only as long as an ‘outside’ on which to impose its costs is available. But this ‘outside’ is shrinking as more and more societies access it and fewer people are willing or able to bear the costs of externalization processes. The imperial mode of living is thus becoming a victim of its own appeal and universalization.

All that remains for the centres of capitalism is to try to stabilize their mode of living through isolation and exclusion. The forces that execute this policy, ranging from social democrats to liberals and conservatives, generate precisely what they take to be their enemy: authoritarianism, racism and nationalism. That reactionary forces are on the rise in many places is also due to their ability to present themselves as the better guarantors of the exclusivity of the imperial mode of living, an exclusivity that is now under threat. And, by contrast to their bourgeois establishment competitors, the authoritarian, racist and nationalist groups can both offer to consign their supporters to a subordinate position and, at the same time, free them from their post-democratic passivity. Nora Räthzel has aptly termed this mechanism ‘rebellious self-subjugation’, referring to the racism that emerged in Germany in the early 1990s. People are enabled ‘to establish themselves as agents in circumstances that are beyond their control.’[17]

How to formulate alternatives?

If this diagnosis is correct, then – fourth – demands for an alternative would have to be phrased more radically than has been the case hitherto in the mainstream socio-ecological debate. It is, then, no longer enough to push for a ‘green revolution’ or a new ‘social contract’[18] and, despite all the strong rhetoric, to leave the political economy of the problem as well as the imperial mode of living itself untouched. Nor will it be enough to hope, implicitly or explicitly, that official politics will finally draw the correct conclusions from the irrefutable and scientifically ever more exactly proven fact of an ecological crisis – this only disregards the reality that the supposedly governing body of the ‘state’ is in no way a potential challenger to the imperial mode of living, but, rather, an essential aspect of safeguarding it institutionally.

Instead, the ecological crisis must be recognized for what it is: a clear indication that the global North’s norms of production and consumption, which evolved with capitalism and have now become universal, can be maintained even in their ecologically modernized form only at the cost of ever more violence, ecological destruction and human suffering, and, at that, in an ever-smaller part of the world. We now see an unprecedented accumulation of contradictions as a result of an authoritarian politics that is increasingly based on the exploitation of nature and on social inequality. The reproduction of society and its biophysical foundations can be guaranteed less and less by the capitalist growth imperative. We are living through a crisis of crisis management, a crisis of hegemony and the state.

Proceeding from this insight, the manifold existing alternatives must be surveyed for their possible generalization and connection, such as to increase their social efficacy: to what extent do movements for energy democracy, food sovereignty and a solidarity economy indicate a process of societalization that is democratic in a strong sense, i.e. grounded in the principle that all people have equal rights in decisions whose consequences affect them? This is, in our view, one of the central questions, because it points to a principle of social organization to which the imperial mode of living is diametrically opposed.

The concept “imperial mode of living” shall contribute to debates on historical and current economic imperialism by broadening the perspective. This does not deny the strategies of powerful actors to impose their interests on others and to promote the exploitation of nature. This remains decisive. However, the functioning of economic imperialism is related to broader and in many respect hegemonic societal relations, including societal relations to nature. This is not just analytically of utmost importance but also when we think of emancipatory strategies and struggles to promote social-ecological transformations and the creation of a solidary mode of living.

[1] Parts of this text are taken from our book The Imperial Mode of Living. Everyday Life and the Ecological Crisis of Capitalism, London: Verso, 2021.

[2] Philip McMichael, ‘The World Food Crisis in Historical Perspective’, Monthly Review, 61(3), 2009 (monthlyreview.org).

[3] John M. Hobson and Leonard Seabroke, ‘Everyday International Political Economy’, in Mark Blyth, Routledge Handbook of International Political Economy (IPE): IPE as a a Global Conversation, London and New York: Routledge, 2009, pp. 290–306.

[4] Dieter Kramer, Konsumwelten des Alltags und die Krise der Wachstumsgesellschaft, Marburg: Jonas Verlag, 2016, p. 29.

[5] Antonio Gramsci, Quaderni del carcere, Vol. 2, Turin: G. Einaudi, 1977, Quaderno 11, p. 1375.

[6] Gundula Ludwig, ‘Hegemonie, Diskurs, Geschlecht’, p. 114; cf. Friederike Habermann, Der Homo Oeconomicus und das Andere: Hegemonie, Identität und Emanzipation, Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlag, 2008.

[7] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977, p. 81.

[8] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 190.

[9] Ibid., p. 319.

[10] See the rich empirical material in Peter Dicken, Global Shift: Mapping the Changing Contours of the World Economy, New York and London: The Guilford Press, 2015.

[11] Alf Hornborg, ‘Uneven Development as a Result of the Unequal Exchange of Time and Space: Some Conceptual Issues’, Journal für Entwicklungspolitik, 26(4), 2010, p. 43.

[12] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 3, introduced by Ernest Mandel, London: Penguin Books, 1981, p. 339. See also an instructive reading of history around the ‘cheap thing’ in Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet, Oakland: University of California Press 2018.

[13] See Peter Newell and Matthew Paterson, Climate Capitalism: Global Warming and the Transformation of the Global Economy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 132–3.

[14] Mathis Wackernagel and Bert Beyers, Der Ecological Footprint: Die Welt neu vermessen, Hamburg: CEP Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 2010.

[15] For a more detailed account on four “mechanisms” that reproduce the imperial mode of living – valorization, accumulation and reproduction; hegemony and subjectivation; hierarchization; externalization -, see Brand/Wissen 2021, 49-64.

[16] Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016; Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

[17] Nora Räthzel, ‘Rebellierende Selbstunterwerfung: Ein Deutungsversuch über den alltäglichen Rassismus’, links, 12, 1991, p. 25.

[18] Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen (German Advisory Council on Global Change, WBGU), World in Transition: A Social Contract for Sustainability, Berlin: WBGU, 2011 (wbgu.de).

Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen teach and conduct their research at the University of Vienna and at the Berlin School of Economics and Law (HWR), respectively. They have worked together on scholarly and political projects since the 1990s, including BUKO (Federal Coordination on Internationalism), the Assoziation für kritische Gesellschaftsforschung (Association for Critical Social Research, AkG) and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. From 2008 to 2012 they worked together at the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna.

Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Weaponising Music

Away from the watchful monitoring of electronic and print media, across India’s dusty and sleepy towns a genre of popular culture is clandestinely seizing the public imagination. Acerbic lyrics laced…

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News