Imagine, if you will, a British trade union branch that votes to oppose expansion of the local airport. After their meeting, some members head for the pub.
“That was a good decision. It’s not working class people flying in those planes”, says Tom.
“But working class people do fly”, says Richard. “My neighbour is a working class person. He goes to Portugal twice a year with his whole family. And he drives a BMW. We’ll never protect the environment if people like that don’t wake up.”
Harriet chips in. “Your neighbour is an exception. Most working class people will be lucky to get one holiday abroad during the year. And we’ll never win them to the cause of transition away from fossil fuels by asking them to make personal sacrifices. Why should they?”
For crying out loud, comrades. You haven’t even got the beer in yet, and you’re recycling stereotypes. You’re talking about individuals “waking up”, or about whether “we” (who?!) will ask them to sacrifice.
At this point in the conversation – and believe me, I have sat through similar ones – I would be hoping for someone to remind us that it just isn’t that simple, to talk about the social and economic structures that underlie consumption … and to suggest that maybe it’s “our” thinking that needs to shift, towards better understanding these structures and the way they shape workers’ lives in rich countries.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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).