Defining the “imperial mode of living”

This excerpt is reproduced with thanks from The Imperial Mode of Living by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen. Translation by Zachary Murphy King. It goes with a People & Nature review, here.

Defining the concept

The core idea of the concept is that everyday life in the capitalist centres is essentially made possible by shaping social relations and society–nature relations elsewhere, i.e. by means of (in principle) unlimited access to labour power, natural resources and sinks – ecosystems (such as rainforests and oceans in the case of CO2) that absorb more of a particular substance than they emit into their environment – on a global scale.[1]

The capitalist centres fundamentally depend on the the way in which societies elsewhere and their relation to nature are organised so that the transfer of the products of (often cheap) labour and elements of nature from the global South to the economies of the global North is guaranteed. Conversely, the imperial mode of living in the global North structures societies in other places in a decisively hierarchical way. We choose the vague expression “elsewhere” quite consciously. Many necessary everyday items 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 these materials are extracted or textiles and food are produced; and the expenditure of energy required for these. “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 of foodstuffs, in which the spatio–temporal unlimited availability of the latter is normalised.[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 illegalised 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 neighbouring countries.

Picking tomatoes in Mozambique. Photo by Bram Berkelmans / Wikimedia commons

The concept of the “imperial mode of living” points towards 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.[3] And it works, increasingly, in the countries with “emerging economies” of the global South, as well. However, we mean not only material practices but also, and especially, 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, which often consists of the imperial mode of living, are shaped by everyday life, even when they are a part of comprehensive societal relations, and especially of material and social infrastructures.[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 emphasise – 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 cements 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, normalises it and enables their capacity to act: as women and men, as individuals who maximise use and feel superior to others, as people striving for particular forms of the good life.[5]

The adoption of the hegemonic worldview coincides with the constitution of the subject. By orienting and directing myself, I subjectify myself. Integrating hegemonic views of the world into common sense is not simply a matter of being forced into it, it is a form of self-activity, precisely because hegemony is not the same as coercion and is based on consensus.[6]

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.[7]

The imperial mode of living links people’s everyday life with the partly globalising 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 normalised in neocolonial North–South relations; in class, gender and racialised relations; and in the everyday practices of consumption and production, to the point where these are 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 organisations in their relation to the norms of consumption.

Our concept differs from two concepts that are semantically and, to a certain extent, theoretically similar: the conduct of everyday life  and lifestyle. The well-developed sociological idea of the conduct of everyday life refers to the way in which individuals integrate the many forms of everyday challenges into a reasonably coherent conception of their own lives. It “denotes an arrangement and the relationship between the different practical activities that a person carries out on a daily basis in various areas of life”.[8] What is considered important with respect to a particular pattern in the conduct of everyday life is the access to material, cultural and social resources and the actual potential for using them.[9] These resources are distributed unequally and are therefore sources of resentment and criticism. This is where the concepts of the conduct of everyday life and mode of living intersect.

At the same time, “the conduct of everyday life” leaves social conditions in the shadows: the conditions that occur largely behind the backs of the actors and as a result of strategic activity shaped by power. This is why our concept of a mode of living can better take into account the modes of production and distribution of the conditions of particular ways of conducting everyday life – in both material and cultural terms. Questions of crisis awareness and dominant or alternative mechanisms are also given greater attention. Finally, while the concept of the conduct of everyday life aims to understand how people manage the impositions of neoliberal labour processes and the pressures to consume, and how they assimilate them into a vision of their own lives, the idea of the imperial mode of living asks how the conduct of everyday life functions under neoliberal conditions just because its socially and ecologically destructive consequences can be externalised.

The point of demarcation from the concept of lifestyle occurs insofar as the latter is used in the debate over individualisation and includes a moment of freedom of choice that abstracts from class structures, gender and racialised relations, as well as from the organisation of capitalist societies as nation states.[10] By contrast, “mode of living” emphasises asymmetries embedded in social structures, without denying any freedom of choice to the individual. If the lifestyle concept is used in the tradition of Pierre Bourdieu, it comes closer to our idea of the mode of living. This is so because that tradition entails a conception of unequal social relations that are physically manifested in preferences of taste. In the fine “distinctions” of taste and the behaviours resulting from these, social inequality is reproduced, the body of the individual is embedded in it and thus becomes, so to speak, “nature”.[11] This is where we come in, albeit by emphasising the imperial preconditions of these patterns of behaviour.

Conceptual levels: everyday practices and social structure

The concept of the imperial mode of living emphasises that “everyday practices like going on holiday, driving or walking, nutrition, water or energy consumption and other areas of everyday life are shaped primarily by habits, routines and rules of daily life”.[12] In determining the acceptance or rejection of everyday practices, immediate perceptions, affects and emotions, as well as guiding themes – such as the pre-eminence of consumerism, eating meat and private car ownership – are important. The reality of these practices presents obstacles to any alternatives. To put it pointedly: 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 about that – 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. Or think of the fact that in climate policy, complex ecosystems such as rainforests are reduced to their function as CO2 sinks; think of the construction of infrastructure projects such as ports, which first made the global trade of raw materials possible; or think of saving for the next car. 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”.[13] 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 decisions behind them, we must take account of the habitus, the “class culture turned into nature, that is, embodied”, as well as the internalised social relations of the subjects themselves.[14] 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.[15]

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 internalised.[16] 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,[17] 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 seem normal and erase the preconditions that justify and reproduce hegemony, including its structural and sometimes overt violence.[18]

The car as status symbol

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 countries” – by virtue of the fact that labour power and nature are first valorised and monetised 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.”[19] 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.[20]

These market-mediated forms of wealth transfer are accompanied by forms of dispossession that are achieved politically, legally or by force, as in the privatisation of the commons or public property. These 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 formalised legal system that marginalises the previous users, then this is an act of dispossession.[21] 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.[22]

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, privatisation and integration into the global market. The previous users are marginalised, and the ecological complexity of the land is reduced to a highly questionable form of climate protection in the interest of stabilising the global North’s ecologically destructive norms of production and consumption. The powerful metaphor of the “ecological footprint” is,[23] 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.

Reproduced from The Imperial Mode of Living, pages 39-48, with thanks, with the authors’ and translator’s permission.

Read People & Nature’s review of The Imperial Mode of Living

■ You can buy The Imperial Mode of Living here.


[1] The concepts of “resources” and “sinks” will be raised as problems later, as they already contain, terminologically, an instrumental understanding of nature, external to humanity and for its use. Actually, of course, natural phenomena are not resources or sinks per se, but have been used as such with respect to specific, historically variable social needs. Similar reservations could be expressed regarding the concept of the labour force. The separation of a person from her or his labour power is a particularly capitalist abstraction: in contrast to feudal lords, capitalist entrepreneurs, instead of having the entire person at their disposal, only have their labour power. That having been said, we will continue to use the terms because the questions that interest us would be difficult to discuss otherwise, and because it is precisely the terms’ critical–analytical use that can show its instrumental character and the social relations (with humans and nature) in capitalism that characterise power. We could also admit a temporal component in the concept of the imperial mode of living. For the everyday reproduction of our societies postpones many problems to a future date. This is clear in the case of emissions from burning fossil fuels that will change the climate system for a long time, or in the case of nuclear waste, whose dangers remain in force for thousands of years. However, this kind of temporal extension – into the future – is not primarily meant here.

[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: Gesellschaftstheorie als Subjekttheorie, Subjekttheorie als Gesellschaftstheorie”, in Iris Dzudzek, Caren Kunze and Joscha Wullweber (eds.), Diskurs und Hegemonie: Gesellschaftstheoretische Perspektiven, Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2012, p. 113; cf. Gramsci, Quaderni del carcere, Vol. 2,Quaderno 10, p. 1341.

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

[8] Angelika Diezinger, “Alltägliche Lebensführung: Die Eigenlogik alltäglichen Handelns”, in Ruth Becker and Beate Kortendiek (eds.), Handbuch Frauen- und Geschlechterforschung: Theorie, Methoden, Empirie, Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2008, p. 204.

[9] Ibid.

[10] On the topic of lifestyle, see the comprehensive discussion in Jörg Rossel and Gunnar Otte (eds.), Lebensstilforschung: Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, 51, special issue, 2011.

[11] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

[12] Michael Jonas, “Transition or Transformation? A Plea for the Praxeological Approach of Radical Socio-ecological Change”, in Michael Jonas and Beate Littig (eds.), Praxeological Political Analysis, London: Routledge, 2017, p. 120; cf. Michael Jonas and Beate Littig, “Sustainable Practice”, in James D. Wright (ed.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, Oxford: Elsevier, 2015, pp. 834–8.

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

[14] Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 190.

[15] Ibid., p. 319.

[16] Kramer, Konsumwelten des Alltags, p. 29.

[17] 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.

[18] Ruth Sonderegger, “Wie emanzipatorisch ist Habitus-Forschung? Zu Rancieres Kritik an Bourdieus Theorie des Habitus”, LiTheS: Zeitschrift für Literatur- und Theatersoziologie, 3, 2010, pp. 18–39.

[19] 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.

[20] 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.

[21] See, for example, Heuwieser’s study on Honduras: Magdalena Heuwieser, Grüner Kolonialismus in Honduras: Land Grabbing im Namen des Klimaschutzes und die Verteidigung der Commons, Vienna: Promedia Verlag, 2015.

[22] 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.

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

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