2007 - 2021

‘The Imperial Mode of Living’: Interview with Markus Wissen

A provocative new book has caused a stir in Germany by arguing that our way of life in the global north is imperialist because it is sustained by a level of resource extraction which is ecologically out-of-reach for the majority of the world’s population. Ben Wray spoke to co-author Markus Wissen to find out more.

Are we living beyond our planetary means? ‘The Imperial Mode of Living: Everyday Life and the Ecological Crisis of Capitalism’, by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, answers strongly in the affirmative, but the ‘we’ who Brand and Wissen refer too is not the whole world per se, but the rich countries of the global north in particular.

The authors argue that not only can this way of living not be sustained over the long term due to the mounting ecological crises before us, climate breakdown being just one, but that our mode of life is inherently imperialistic, because it’s based on an exploitation of human and natural resources in the global south which could never be achieved by the whole world.

‘The Imperial Mode of Living’ was first released in German in 2017 and caused a national debate which continues to this day. It was published in English by Verso this year. Ben Wray spoke to co-author Markus Wissen, professor of social sciences with a focus on social-ecological transformation at the Institute for International Political Economy Berlin, to discuss the following:

01:16: What is the imperial mode of living?
02:28 Is this the return of the idea of a ‘labour aristocracy’ in the global north?
07:27: Why is the imperial mode of living exclusive?
10:47: Why can we not live in the same way in a zero-carbon economy?
18:24: Why we need to politicise consumption
30:14: The pandemic and the imperial mode of living
34:43: The German election and the imperial mode of living

Bella Caledonia · ‘The Imperial Mode of Living’: Interview with Markus Wissen

AN ABBREVIATED TEXT VERSION OF THIS INTERVIEW IS ALSO AVAILABLE BELOW

Bella Caledonia: What is the imperial mode of living?

Markus Wissen: The imperial mode of living can be described as patterns of consumption and production that rely on a disproportionate excess of ecosystems and labour resources on the global scale.

The imperial mode of living is exclusive; it cannot be generalised [to the whole world]. It means producing a social and ecological impact in one part of the world that transfuses to another part of the world, or to future generations, as is the case with climate change.

So the imperial mode of living is very exclusive; it produces a social and ecological impact and externalises that impact across space and time.

BC: Around a century ago Marxists would talk about a ‘labour aristocracy’ in the global north, who benefited from the super-exploitation of workers in the global south, including in colonies, and were able to enjoy a better standard of living as a result. That idea of the labour aristocracy went out of fashion, but is that the same sort of concept you are developing with the imperial mode of living?

MW: We wouldn’t use the term ‘labour aristocracy’. It is a term that is also used to blame certain sections of the working class in the global north. This is not our intention. The imperial mode of living is not a moral category from which we would like to blame the working class of the global north. It is an analytical category, of which we try to understand how certain non-sustainable modes of living and producing are re-produced in the global north, but also increasingly in the global south as well, because the global south is something that is quite heterogenous now

Of course workers in the global north benefit to a certain extent from the resources that can be drawn from the global south, such as ecological sinks like the rainforests, resources of which can be used in the north. Nevertheless, this is not something that is intended by the working class, it is that the working class is socialised into this mode of producing and living. They do not have another choice. They cannot all the time ask ‘where do the resources come from which form the parts we use to build cars in our automotive factories?’, ‘what are the environmental and social histories of the products that we purchase in order to re-produce our lives and the lives of our families?’ – that is not possible.

So that’s why we are very careful with such concepts as labour aristocracy.

BC: What is the specific reason that the imperial mode of living is exclusive, why can it not spread to the whole of the global south?

MW: [The reason] is the ecological restrictions. If you look for example at the environmental footprint of people from the global north, their contribution to ecological crisis phenomena like climate change, you will see that consumption and production patterns that underlie this footprint are not sustainable.

Oxfam produces very interesting and informative reports on global carbon emissions and the very uneven distribution of global carbon emissions, and the very uneven distribution of responsibilities for the ecological crisis. You can see that the higher the income, the higher the wealth of the people, the higher their ecological footprint. You can see this on a world scale but you can also see it on a social scale. Rich people in the global north have a much higher environmental footprint than people in the global south, but also than poor people and the working class in the global north itself.

[READ: Floods and ‘Fit for 55’ – is Europe waking up to the reality of climate breakdown?]

So if standards of living that are very environmentally intensive are generalised [to the whole world] then of course the ecological crisis will be aggravated in a way that it cannot be contained anymore. We are already in a state where the ecological crisis is about to get out of control. Look at this summer – it is a dystopia what we have seen so far; the fires in many parts of the world, the floods in Germany and Belgium.

This has been produced by resource and emission intensive production and consumption patterns of rather a small part of the world’s population. And if these patterns are generalised, the crisis phenomenon will be even worse, so that the ecological crisis cannot be managed at all.

BC: Is the imperial mode of living intrinsic to a fossil fuel economy? I.e. you couldn’t sustain these living standards following a rapid renewables transition. Why wouldn’t it be possible to have the same standard of living but within a zero-carbon economy?

MW: Fossil fuels have certain features which make them highly comfortable with the capitalist mode of production. The mass use of fossil fuels dates back to the beginning of the capitalist mode of production and the beginning of industrial capitalism in the late 18th and early 19th century. This would be one reason: there is a strong compatibility between fossil fuels and capitalism.

Secondly, although renewable energies produce energy that is more or less CO2 neutral – and are therefore a very important means to decarbonise society – you have to construct the infrastructures for producing electricity from renewable energies. Building up the infrastructure means using resources and producing emissions. If you do so on a very large scale, for example if you aim to replace all the fossil energy resources with renewable energies, you will use up many resources, such as metallic resources – rare earth metals, copper – and of course you will produce a lot of emissions in the production of the infrastructures for renewable energy provision.

If one really thinks that it is possible to replace our current energy system which is based on fossil fuels one-to-one with a renewable energy system, this will not be possible and sustainable in environmentally sensitive ways. It will not be possible because of the sheer size of infrastructure which would be needed to do this replacement. I think this [problem] is not discussed enough in concepts like the European Green Deal. We cannot simply change the energy basis of society without questioning its political economy.

BC: Are you therefore an advocate of ‘de-growth’ approaches to a zero-carbon future?

MW: What we do in the last chapter of our book is talk about a “solidary mode of living”, this is something that is opposed to the imperial mode of living, and part of this is the de-growth movement. We consider this to be quite important for two reasons. The first is that the concepts are quite interesting. De-growth is not simply about reducing growth, shrinking the economy, it is about reducing through-put: reducing the resources we use in the economy, reducing the environmental impact on the economy. This is an idea that is very important, we consider it to be crucial to overcome the imperial mode of living.

Another aspect is that the de-growth movement is on the one hand an academic movement but it is also a political movement, and as such it has managed to condense certain important contradictions – socio-ecological contradictions of the capitalist society – into a very clear message that helps to mobilise people. It is clear for many people that endless growth is not possible on an earth that is characterised by limited resources and by limited capacities to absorb emissions. This is quite clear and [easily] understandable.

BC: I think the reason many people on the left and in the climate movement – and I’d include myself in this – shy away from talking about consumption is, first, because we want to keep the focus on capital and political transformation, and away from individual solutions. 

And secondly, because many people are living in poverty in the global north and thus don’t have enough of certain types of things, rather than too much, so there’s the class dimension which the de-growth concept doesn’t necessarily integrate easily; it’s not necessarily obvious to someone that you are not talking about de-growth of all types of economic activity. Andreas Malm [author and climate activist] for instance writes that we should focus on the consumption of the super-rich, luxury consumption – SUVs, yachts – rather than those on low-incomes. 

MW: When we talk about the imperial mode of living, we do not talk about lifestyles, we do not talk about the responsible consumer being the most important point of departure for an ecological transformation. We would criticise such concepts, because they simply exclude capitalist society.

We do take consumption seriously of course, for instance we talk about luxury consumption. SUVs is an expression of luxury consumption – they are quite expensive, at least the bigger ones, and nobody who has a normal job can afford to buy such a big car.

But we also focus on the infrastructures of consumption, because for many people consumption decisions are not simply voluntary decisions that could also be taken in a different way. They are more or less forced decisions because of the specific institutions and infrastructures that people are embedded in.

[READ: Europe is covered in greenwash]

If you live in the countryside where public transport has been demolished, where the health infrastructures, educational infrastructures, cultural infrastructures have been demolished by neoliberal capitalism and its liberalisation policies, people do not have another choice but to travel by car. So the infrastructures are very important, they are social not individual, they have to be constructed by society in order to enable people to conduct a life that is not ecologically destructive. That is a social issue.

But we do not simply focus on consumption, we also focus on production because we are fully aware that certain patterns of consumption are not understandable without first understanding developments in capitalist production. Look at SUVs for example. 20 or 30 years ago almost no one was driving SUVs; today it is a mass phenomenon. Why has this happened? Because there is something like an SUV. If this car were never produced, there would not have been a need for it.

Capitalism is a need-generating system of production. It lives from producing ever more ecologically and socially destructive social needs. So we cannot understand consumption patterns without taking into account strategies of capital – in this case the car companies – which are based on competition between individual car companies. Capitalist competition is the driving force of the capitalist mode of production.

BC: In the book you talk about ‘radical reformism’: how do you politicise a radical politics of everyday life?

MW: I think we can distinguish different strategies. First, one could talk about pushing back or containing the imperial mode of living. If you look at the movement against coal in Germany, it is trying to contain and push back the imperial mode of living.

The second form of integrating these ideas of everyday life into strategies is to think about alternative patterns of providing and using the infrastructures of everyday life. The idea of infrastructure is very crucial to our concept. If you look for example at mobility, there are different movements and developments that one can observe. I live in Berlin, and I can observe that ever more people go by bike and that means in a car-centred city like Berlin, and many other cities, there is a conflict. There are initiatives in Berlin and other cities that are politicising the car-centred infrastructure system. Politicising the fact that cities have been re-structured for decades to the benefit of cars and car owners. This has to be reversed, not only for climate and ecological reasons, but because of social reasons – to make cities liveable again – and to support people with little money who cannot afford to buy a car and are dependent on good and accessible public transport, to the benefit of children who can use the streets, and so on.

So we can see various strategic politicisations of the socio-ecological question but we can also see changes in the everyday practices. Erik Olin-Wright in his book ‘Envisioning Real Utopias’ considers the interaction between these movements as crucial to social reforms: changing everyday practice of people on the one hand (more people going by bike), and politicising certain infrastructures, institutions and social constellations that prevent people from – in this case – going by bike safely. In this interaction, radical reforms are implemented or pursued in everyday life and political initiatives, and therefore have the chance to become stronger and really to shape the future development of cities.

BC: How have you observed the response to the pandemic in terms of challenging the imperial mode of living?

MW: I was quite optimistic at the beginning of the pandemic, because it showed us that it was possible to shrink certain economic activities down without risking social re-production. What it showed is what is really socially relevant: health, housing, caring activities.

It was a completely different notion of systemic relevance than for example in the financial crisis of 2008, when everyone said that banks are systemically relevant, they are too big to fail, and that we have to do everything to prevent banks from failing. In the pandemic nobody talked about banks and their systemic relevance, everyone talked about social infrastructures: nurses, health workers, transport workers, as those who are really systemically relevant. The pandemic showed what is really necessary for social re-production.

However from this insight there has not resulted in much of a political movement. I hoped that the left would be able to politicise this, but I think the left so far has not succeeded. But nevertheless I wouldn’t give up this idea of the importance of socially re-productive activities, such as caring activities, that has been shown in the pandemic. This is a lasting everyday experience for many people, and I hope it will be possible for the left to strengthen this idea.

BC: There’s a German election just one month away. What would be your assessment of the German parties in the context of the imperial mode of living – do you see any parties which are thinking along similar lines to you?

MW: If you look at the German party system, you can distinguish between three basic strategies with regards to the imperial mode of living. On the one hand, there is the extreme right, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has experienced a rise in recent years. In the last election they won about 12 percent of votes, they will get a bit less in this election – at least the polls say that – but they are still too strong.

AfD stands for an authoritarian stabilisation of the imperial mode of living by negating the reality of the human-made ecological crisis, by intensifying the socio-ecological impact and shifting it to other parts of the world and to future generations, and by re-framing socio-ecological issues in racist and nationalist terms.

Then we have the parties in the centre. One could mention four parties: the Christian-democratic party [CDU/CSU], the social-democratic party [SPD], the liberals [FDP] and the greens. They differ from each other of course, but nevertheless I would roughly assign them to a project that can be called the ecological modernisation of the imperial mode of living.

[READ: ‘The German Greens can win – but can they end business-as-usual climate politics?’]

They all recognise the ecological crisis and they cannot but recognise it. The climate crisis in particular figures very prominently in all the electoral programmes of these four parties. Some stress more market instruments, others stress more the role of the state, but they are all in line with what has been called ecological modernisation. This has been formulated in its most comprehensive sense by the European Commission in its ‘European Green Deal’. It’s about ecologically modernising the imperial mode of living by making the economy more ecologically efficient, reducing the resource use through market instruments, but not fundamentally questioning the prevailing production and consumption methods.

And then there is a third strand that is represented by the Left Party, which is unfortunately quite weak at the moment. They can expect 6-7 percent at the election, according to the polls, which is not much. It stands for, at least in part, an overcoming of the imperial mode of living through politicising the production and consumption patterns at the heart of this mode of living.

The Left Party criticises capitalism, it does not only address the problem of the energy system, it does not only address the problem of efficiency, it also addresses the political economy which is at the heart of the energy system, it also raises question of sufficiency, i.e. the amount of resources which are used.

You can take mobility as an example [of these three political strands]. For the extreme right, mobility is not a problem at all. They are in favour of the internal combustion engine because this is what characterises the strength of German industry. Among the labour force of the car companies they try to install themselves as the defender of the internal combustion engine to gain their votes.

In the middle, the ecological modernisation [strand] is in favour of electrical mobility, partially through shifting transport streams from the car to the railway system.

The left position would mean not only changing the engines by which cars are driven, not only shifting transport from cars to a more sustainable transport system like railways, public transport and so on. It would mean problematising the amount of transport which we currently have, problematising the amount of goods that are transported, problematising the production patterns that are at the heart of these mobility patterns, and problematising the capitalist mode of production. This is the most important way to challenge the imperial mode of living and its socio-ecological structures.

We have to raise the question of capitalist ownership of big companies and talk about economic democracy. We have to talk about dismantling the big car companies and putting them under democratic control in order to safeguard jobs, in order to shift jobs from car production to an environmentally friendly transport system, enhancing our capacity to produce trains, trams, buses, bikes, and to produce the infrastructure which these means of transport are based on.

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  1. Alex McCulloch says:

    Very interesting and well articulated statement on the need to cease over consumption and destructive ( ecologically and socially) production. More thought needs to be given to articulating and (ironically) “selling” the alternative. It is clear what needs to stop / be taken away in terms of mobility but what the alternative can be , with its associated health and leisure benefits needs described in a positive , attaractive way so people can be excited by a new future for themselves alongside taking responsibility to understand and endorse a new political direction to drive equality and regenerate the planet.

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