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The Imperial Core of the Climate Crisis

Ulrich Brand
Markus Wissen

Climate change can’t be tackled through personal responsibility – but any fight against it will pose difficult questions about the degree to which our society is built on environmental destruction.

The imperial mode of living is increasingly difficult to reproduce because the exclusiveness on which it depends becomes threatened. (Getty Images)

Interview by
Adrienne Buller

When it comes to laying blame for the climate crisis, we tend to hear sweeping binaries. Individual action is vital or pointless; China must take the most action or it’s unfairly scapegoated; one hundred corporations are responsible for seventy-one percent of all industrial emissions or it’s us, the public, who are responsible for creating that demand.

The true picture is murkier. Yet understanding who is driving this crisis—and who has the capacity to alter its course—is vital. It’s the only way to secure a future in which we not only stabilise the climate, but do so in a way that resolves the dynamics driving it in the first place.

In their new book The Imperial Mode of Living, Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen propose a resolution to these questions, by asking how the ecological crisis is structurally imbricated in our everyday lives. Their framework connects the lifestyle of the global upper and middle classes to the exploitation of others, elsewhere, that enables it.

Markus and Ulrich sat down with Adrienne Buller to discuss their book and the prospects for ‘revolutionary reformism’ in a post-pandemic world.


What is the ‘Imperial Mode of Living’, and how does it contribute to our understanding of power and injustice in the climate crisis?


Our intention is to develop a category of hegemony that helps to understand why people behave in a certain way, which reproduces the causes of the socio-ecological crisis.

This isn’t meant to blame individuals for consumption. Rather, it’s about showing, with a more structural category, how consumption and other practices relate to social relations. Understanding that is necessary to grasp how the ecological crisis is produced and reproduced.

We call it the Imperial Mode of Living—the term includes relations of production—because we think that this term helps us to understand how a violent international order works. We know how imperialism works, more or less—but to understand it, it does not suffice to look at international institutions, military factors, and inter-state power relations.

All this is very important, but we also need to understand how certain forms of domination and the exercise of power are reproduced in everyday life, in countless structured acts of producing and consuming. Imperialism, in a way, is normalised, in such that its violent character is rendered invisible in the centres of capitalism which benefit from it.


We started to develop the concept more implicitly around 2007-2008 amidst the financial and economic crisis, asking why—despite a certain politicisation of the ecological crisis and a recognition of the North-South divide—crisis policies were so oriented at stabilising the existing economy.


You’ve touched on the need to erode the dichotomy between Global North and South, in understanding climate politics and environmental issues. The Imperial Mode of Living explicitly acknowledges that there are, increasingly, emerging elite classes in Global South countries whose interests are aligned with this framework.

But here is a key contradiction, in that as those kinds of classes expand throughout the world, it becomes increasingly difficult for this order to reproduce itself. You write:

‘It is less and less effective to externalise the negative preconditions and consequences of the imperial mode of living from the centres of capitalism, because the emerging economies themselves use externalisation policies to safeguard the imperial mode and make social compromises possible.’

Could you explain how we can see this at work today?


It’s interesting that you say the framework is helpful for breaking up this North-South dichotomy, because we have often been accused of reproducing it. Critics have said that we present a simplified version of dependency theory. But that’s obviously not our intention. As you say, we would like to concentrate our readers’ attention on what is happening on a world scale, what is happening within—not just between—societies, and what kind of development dynamics can be observed.

One important dynamic is, indeed, that the imperial mode of living is increasingly difficult to reproduce because the exclusiveness on which it depends becomes threatened.  The social compromise between capital and labour that transpired in the post-war decades in many Global North countries was dependent on the exclusive access to a non-capitalist or to a less developed capitalist sphere, to which social and ecological costs would be transferred, and from which resources could be imported.

Importantly, this is in large part through exporting these costs to an ‘elsewhere’, but it also relies on deeply entrenched gender relations within societies in the Global North, with the male worker performing wage work, and women mainly in the household doing unpaid reproductive work.

With the emergence of new global powers such as China developing along a capitalist path, the preconditions of the imperial mode of living are eroding. To the extent that these powers develop in a capitalist way, they become increasingly dependent on an external sphere, which up to now was available for more or less exclusive use by the Global North.

A significant part of the tensions that we can come to observe on a world scale—most saliently, between the US and China—can be explained from this ecological point of view. There are also economic-military-political reasons, but they are closely interrelated with the ecological ones. So, if we want to fully understand the tensions between the superpowers, we have to take ecological aspects—including the competition for resources and ecosystem sinks—into account.


The hegemonic way of living is dependent on an, in principle, unlimited appropriation of resources and labour capacity in the Global South—and of spheres within the Global North. We use the concept of an ‘elsewhere’ which could just as equally be a slaughterhouse in Britain, or harvest workers coming from Eastern Europe to do agricultural labour in Germany. The upper and middle classes of the capitalist centres are often very interested in the maintenance of an ‘elsewhere’ in their own countries.

Moreover, we argue against that methodological nationalism which looks at the world as the sum of nation states. Instead, we try to identify and understand the similarities and differences in structures between and within different states.


This takes us to an oft-uncomfortable question that many of us in the ‘climate movement’ are confronted with, particularly in the Global North—this idea of ‘running out of elsewheres’ to be consumed and exploited.

We’ve mentioned the ongoing ascent of a growing middle class in new or burgeoning capitalist centres outside of Europe and North America. We often end up uncomfortably faced with the problematic argument that there is some tension between this ascent to a comfortable, secure life in countries throughout the world, and what people often term ‘planetary boundaries’.

So, in the context of dwindling ‘elsewheres’, can everyone achieve the kind of lifestyle that we have?


We are currently finishing off an article by 28 authors from 14 countries criticising the ‘planetary boundary’ metaphor and its assumptions. Analytically, we would take aim at the idea of natural ‘planetary boundaries’ and say that this is not about humanity in general—it’s about classes, patriarchal gender relations, racism, and inequality. It’s about capitalist dynamics.

Undoubtedly, we need a massive reduction of material throughput—the use of resources, the use of energy, etc.—in production and distribution processes, and thus also in the provisioning system, in automobility, in industrialised food, and so on.

The enormous challenge ahead is to do things radically differently, to have an entirely different provisioning system for mobility, for food, for a good living—with less resources, but also with less domination. And with less capital accumulation, which is often forgotten in the sustainability debate.

So in the paper we talk about capitalism and very concrete radical alternatives that already exist around the world. And about different world views and strategies—for instance, in the Global North, the de-growth perspective, but not in the sense of just having less, but in the sense of a system counter to global capitalism.


This would imply having fewer cars—a must from a socio-ecological point of view. But that’s not everything. With respect to the ‘alternative futures’, we distinguish between three paths.

The first is the authoritarian stabilisation of the imperial mode of living. This is the project of the right-wing forces worldwide that have grown in recent years. Donald Trump may be a prototype for this politics—’America First’ and the stabilisation of the imperial mode of living, very exclusively in time and space for a certain part of the world. That means keeping refugees out, fighting the rise of China and others.

But parts of the traditional growth-oriented social democracy is located here: it has other discourses and is less aggressive but also mainly defends the imperial mode of living with a romantic eye on the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’ after World War II.

The other key strategy that seems to be gaining strength in Europe at the moment is an ‘ecological modernisation’ of the imperial mode of living, through electromobility, through renewable energies, etc. This is, for instance, the politics of the EU’s European Green Deal. This is not an attempt to overcome the imperial mode; but it is also different from stabilising it through authoritarianism, though it surely also has authoritarian aspects, like what happens in the Mediterranean and at the borders of the EU.

The third alternative future is what we call a solidaristic mode of living, genuinely overcoming the imperial mode: overcoming capitalism, thinking of completely different forms of production and consumption, overcoming an orientation toward exchange-value and competition in favour of a use-value orientation, towards need. Thinking about the economy from the perspective of vital infrastructure provision, including care—of the provision of all that on which a good life depends. This would be a solidaristic mode of living, which we cannot have without a radical democratisation of society.


That brings me to my next question, on the possible tensions between that aim, and then the Green New Deal—a rallying cry of green politics popularised on the Left around the world. There are many GNDs of varying shades, but I’m specifically referring to a kind of green Keynesianism, which doesn’t necessarily need to reconcile the very tensions we’ve just described, nor contend with the basic structures of capitalism.

There are ever more examples of this—for instance, Joe Biden’s massive infrastructure plan, which in many ways is unprecedented, but in other ways is perfectly continuous with the existing economic mode. The same goes for the UK, where the Tories have co-opted the language of the ‘green industrial revolution’. And then there’s the European Green Deal which is, effectively, an enormous mechanism for de-risking private finance to profit from green transition.

My question, then, is twofold. First, how is a Gramscian framework and particularly the idea of ‘passive revolution‘ useful for understanding these trends? Second, do you believe that the very idea of a ‘Green New Deal‘ is irreconcilable with a truly solidaristic mode of living, given its inherent basis in the politics and economics of growth, job creation, infrastructural investment, etc.?


We would argue that a progressive Green New Deal, in the current conjuncture, makes sense—to have massive state investment, to revalorise the public sector, a greening of infrastructure and research and development. But we come from the tradition of ‘radical reformism’ or ‘revolutionary Realpolitik’ à la Rosa Luxemburg.

Simply put, that means considering the power relations, the discourses, of the given juncture, and asking: what are possible entry points for a post-capitalist mode of production and living? This would be, at the top level, one criterion for the viability of a GND. But remaining limited to an ecological modernisation framework is not enough.

The second point is that a GND must be internationalist. The thinking, even of an Ocasio-Cortez, a Sanders, or a Corbyn remains, broadly, on the national scale. Against this, we would ask: what preconditions enable even this progressive vision to be realised? Does it rely on untenable lithium and copper demands from South America, and on the super-exploitation of workers in the Global South? This is what we aim to highlight.

I want to stress the importance of conflicts from below. The strategies that drive change often come from above—from capital, when it is in crisis. But for us, the conflicts that arise from social movements are key to politicising the imperial mode of living.


We should distinguish between GND proposals from the 2008-2009 financial crisis and more recent ones. Proposals back then were much more technocratic, while recent versions are more movement-oriented.

Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal is based on the idea of climate justice. In contrast, the earlier proposals were more about reshaping government policy in a Keynesian sense: strengthening the economic capacities of the state after three decades of neoliberalism, re-regulating the financial markets, creating green demand.

The current proposals are more progressive, although they also have blind spots, for instance regarding the capitalist growth imperative. They are the result of a climate-justice movement that has gained strength worldwide in recent years.

So what’s the potential of current GND proposals? Are there opportunities to transcend their limitations?

This is where we would use the term ‘radical reformist potential’. There are important elements that could be entry points into a socio-ecological transformation which transcends the imperial mode of living, for instance the democratisation instead of a mere ‘greening’ of mobility and the energy system, or thinking and organising the economy from the perspective of care work and social infrastructures.

If GND proposals can be shaped in these ways, then there are potential entry points into radical reforms, which can be used by social movements and other radical political forces to drive these proposals beyond their own limitations.


You tell us that capitalist crises tend to be resolved with a frantic effort to entrench the imperial mode of living. So what contours do you see emerging from the current crisis, and the ways in which governments are responding to it? Do you think that prophecy may be coming true? Or do you see some ‘entry points’ for radical reform, for instance with developments in Latin America?


I was much more optimistic one year ago than I am now—when the crisis broke out, when we had the first lockdown, and everything had to shut down except the really necessary things. In that moment there was a new definition of the so-called ‘systemic importance’ that defined the big banks in 2008-2009. During the Covid crisis nobody talked about the banks as the systemically important ‘too big to fail’ actors, but rather people working in the health sector, those working in supermarkets or food production. I found this very encouraging. But now things have changed.

I would distinguish between three different possibilities: we could be confronted with a new wave of austerity off the back of the debts accumulated debts during the crisis.

Another development is an insecurity among the elites. When the crisis broke out, a colleague said that this sort of crisis is the executive’s moment and that it would strengthen the ruling parties—in Germany for example, the Christian Democrats had a lot of acceptance at the start of the crisis.

But today, things look quite different. The ruling elites don’t have a clear answer on how to treat and how to get out of the crisis. They face the consequences of the neoliberal policies that they have pursued for such a long time and that now turn out to have weakened society’s capacity to cope with crises.

The third possibility is that many people have come to realise how deeply they rely on care work, on social and technical infrastructure that really constitutes the preconditions for a good life and is fundamental for physical and social reproduction. This is a lasting legacy—which could be used by the Left. But it would have to be strengthened and politicised. I’m left wondering why it’s been so difficult to politicise this.


I found a possible glimmer of hope in the book when you cite Michel Foucault on the prospects for something different—he calls it ‘the art of being not quite so governed.’ It seems that one of the great successes of the neoliberal project, understood as an effort to insulate the economic from the democratic, has been to create a neoliberal subjectivity—that is, a lack of faith in the capacities of collective action and of the state; if things don’t work, then that’s because the state is incapable, and so everything is best left to governance by insular units.

But the government responses to the pandemic—as much as we might criticise them—have been on such a scale and had such immediate impact that they’ve shot some holes through these ideas. Which has been comforting, I suppose. And maybe through these breaks with our prevailing consensus we can learn how to be ‘less governed’ by the ideology of neoliberalism.

My last question—which I think we would be remiss to neglect in a conversation about imperialism—is based on a quote from Lenin: ‘Imperialism is the epoch of finance capital monopolies, which introduce everywhere the striving for domination, not for freedom.’

Lenin considered imperialism to be the highest form of capitalism, particularly related to financial monopoly power. But your book suggests that there’s quite a significant element of freedom, or the pursuit thereof, within the Imperial Mode. Could you expand on that?


We differ from Lenin in two key respects. The first point comes down to hegemony theory. A specific form of freedom is an inherent component of imperialism. People in the capitalist centres—to significantly varying degrees and dependent on their class position—have the freedom to produce and consume at the expense of others. This is considered an important part of freedom in a liberal, capitalist democracy.

Yet this ‘freedom’ inherently produces, legitimises, and stabilises imperialism. It is necessarily an unfreedom to those who are excluded from the imperial mode of living. But freedom for some is, therefore, a necessary element of the reproduction of an imperialist world order.

The second point here would be, quite honestly, that we align more with Luxemburg than with Lenin. She stresses much more the issue of the external sphere on which capitalism depends. If we only had an economic imperialism, I would be more in line with Lenin, because he said there might be an ‘equalisation’ in the sense that former colonies arise as new capitalist powers and compete with the established ones—as we can observe today.

With Luxemburg, we can better explain the relationship between capitalist and non-capitalist spheres. And this is really important in ecological as well as economic terms. The external spheres on which capitalism depends both economically and ecologically are shrinking right now—and the result is eco-imperial tensions and an environmental crisis that threatens humankind.


The imperial mode of living is a relationship of violence, of power, of domination. But it’s often perceived through the lens of freedom, in the sphere of consumption especially. We’d criticise this negative understanding of freedom, of, ‘Just let me live and do whatever I want (and can pay for)—just give me as an individual or as capital or whoever the maximum space of action, the maximum space of decision.’

We are advocating a positive freedom. That isn’t moralising—it means the freedom to live your life, but not at the cost of others and not at the cost of nature.

Our colleague Uta von Winterfeld often says: ‘Sufficiency is not so much the question—what is enough? Sufficiency means that I don’t have to live at the cost of nature and at the cost of others.’ But this brings us back to the foundations of the imperial mode of living. Ultimately, subjectivity and related action is a question of the societal conditions that enable you to or prevent you from living differently, in a meaningful and solidaristic way.

Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen’s The Imperial Mode of Living: Everyday Life and the Ecological Crisis of Capitalism is translated by Zachary King and published by Verso.

About the Author

Ulrich Brand is a researcher at the University of Vienna.

Markus Wissen is a researcher at the Berlin School of Economics and Law.

About the Interviewer

Adrienne Buller is a senior research fellow at Common Wealth and policy director at Labour for a Green New Deal.