"In Latin America‘ civilization ’means destruction"

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Ulrich Brand is co-author of the bestseller "Imperial Way of Life and Work." The professor of political science at the University of Vienna explains the naturalness in the colonial behavior of the northern countries and talks about the civilizational crisis in the southern countries. And it highlights why it is not so easy to break with imperial life.

With Ulrich Brand * spoke Romano Paganini, Quito, Ecuador

Two transatlantic flights a year: Ulrich Brand does not want to board a plane more than that. To slow down, but also for political reasons, since flying, and the consumption of raw materials that it implies, is part of his criticism. Together with Markus Wissen from the University of Economics and Law in Berlin he wrote the book "Imperial Way of Life and Work"; the authors are still looking for a Spanish-speaking editorial to publish it in Spanish. But Ulrich Brand, Professor of International Politics at the University of Vienna (Austria) belongs to the pragmatic wing of critics of capitalism. He emphasizes again and again that reality should be captured in its contradictions. "If not, you put too much weight on your shoulders and you go crazy like some people in the '68 movement." A few months ago the 51-year-old man was in Ecuador, among other things to present the book“Exits from the capitalist labyrinth. Decrease and post-extractivism "that he wrote with the Ecuadorian politician and economist Alberto Acosta.

One day before his return to Europe I met him atThe Quipus, a three-star accommodation in the center of Quito. Ulrich Brand, tall and dressed in a lumberjack shirt, sits at one of the wooden tables in the living room and puts a leaf on it. It will help you record the thoughts of your interlocutor.

Ulrich Brand, if we look here in your hotel lounge: Where do you find reflections of imperial life?

I don't see anything here. Obviously, we are in a colonial-style hotel where only upper-middle-class people can stay, since the night costs between forty and sixty dollars ...

… So for most Ecuadorians it is a lot of money.

Yes, but the magnitude of imperial life only manifests itself when we go out into the streets. The number of cars is tremendous! It is the fifth time that I have been in Quito and individual traffic increased once again, especially SUVs (sport utility vehicle). The imperial is also noticeable when one goes to the market. Many products such as apples or shrimp come from neighboring countries, household appliances and even some textiles from Asia.

You flew a plane from Europe to Latin America, teach at the University of Vienna and get paid in Euros. I live in Ecuador, they pay me for this interview in Swiss Francs and because of the low costs of living here I see a lot of benefit. Could it be that imperial life permeated our daily lives deeply?

Obviously, we can't just get out of imperial life like that, because it's a structure. I live in Vienna and life in Vienna simply because of its infrastructure consumes many resources. Nor do I have to travel to Latin America to become aware of the problems here. I could read everything from there. But the two weeks in Ecuador do something with me. If I travel at least once a year, it's better than just talking to my colleagues. This way I know the realities better and I can feel everyday life.

Then he assumes the internal contradiction related to the imperial life that he criticizes.

I have an open contradiction! Through my work I could fly even more: to South Africa, to China, to India. But he said that two transatlantic flights a year are enough. So I can dedicate myself to my scientific work in Vienna in a concentrated way, I can participate in political processes, I limit my ecological footprint and I don't get into stress. Because for me internal tranquility also plays a role.

"You need a political imposition, not a moral one."
- Ulrich Brand, professor of political science at the University of Vienna, here during the presentation of a book in Quito, Ecuador.

He mentioned the structure of imperial life. What does that mean?

The structure of imperial life creates social conditions from which one cannot normally get out like that. Of course we can work and consume with a little more responsibility, but that alone does not change the general conditions much. Imperial life - more precisely it should be called the imperial forms of production and life - also means colonial. That in Ecuador is more visible than in Germany. Colonial structures are between three and four hundred years old. With the book we want to show the relationships between colonialism, the dynamics of globalization and the different phases of capitalism, that is, of the order that governs our societies to this day.

Can you give us an example?

In the 19th century, heavy industry received its raw material such as wood, coal or iron minerals, mostly from Europe. That changed at the beginning of the 20th century when oil became the main energy source. Colonial structures facilitated that process. After the world wars, the increase in production and mass consumption made possible the expansion of capitalism. Consumption stereotypes, until now reserved for the upper class, began to manifest themselves until they reached the lower classes of society.

In other words: What was once reserved for the kings, presidents and exponents of the industry, today is accessible by the great mass.

Exactly. Just access to cheap workers and resources outside Europe makes imperial life possible. Because if we were not the ones who would have to see how to get to metals, machines and food. That could be, for example, through a non-imperial trade and with much higher prices. By the processes of globalization with high technology, the international production of cheap food and clothing deepens the imperial life. She has already gotten more and more into the middle class of the southern countries. In Latin America that happened in the '50s and' 60s, nowadays it happens in countries like India or China. There is an incredible force there regarding the consumption of resources and the dynamics of capitalism.

Could it be that the inhabitants of industrial countries lack consciousness? Apparently their way of life is closely related to exploitation and slavery in southern countries and they themselves are responsible.

Clear. Marx already said that in the merchandise we buy, the ecological or social conditions of production are not seen. But if China produces our cell phones or the miners in Colombia extract the coal, by hand, for the European market, that has to do with our consumption behavior. It may be that there is a certain “not-knowing”, but in countries like Germany, Austria or Switzerland there is generally enough information. That is why one can speak calmly of cynicism and conscious ignorance.

“I don't have the feeling that people need to be made aware of mobility and the environment.
More important, it seems to me, is to create infrastructure so that within Europe we can move without airplanes.

So the report from the Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in Wuppertal / Germany is not surprising, that you also quote in your book. Well-educated middle-class people with a heightened awareness of the environment - so says the report - are also the people who consume the most. How do you explain that?

Environmental awareness can play a role, but it does not mean that, per se, people act accordingly. If people earn between three and four thousand clean Euros a month, perhaps on weekends they go to the farmer's market and buy organic products. But they also take the plane two to three times a year to go on vacation.

In other words, a superficial understanding of caring for the environment.

There is a difference between objective reasons and subjective desires. If you live with your children in the countryside, but you work in the city and do not have good connections to public transport, you do need a car. But if you fly two to three times a year to vacation - which you could actually give up on - it's something else. Because from Vienna, for example, you could easily go on vacation to Croatia by bus or train.

Could it be that this paradox is related to the invisibility of our consumption of raw materials?

Many just do it naturally. However, I don't have the feeling that people need to be made aware of mobility and the environment. More important, it seems to me, is to create infrastructures, so that within Europe we can move without airplanes. Because in the end it is a question of an attractive, safe and economical offer.

But building new train lines, for example, also requires raw materials.

We need an initial investment with a greater impact, both economic and raw material, yes. But in the long term, individual traffic and flights can be reduced. Nowadays flights are so cheap that very few people travel by train. This creates unsustainable situations, such as the connection of the night train between Berlin and Vienna, which recently closed. In the end the wagons were in such a miserable state that even I, who travel a lot with the train at night, could not sleep anymore.

In the West the new train connections are seen as part of the energy change - a keyword post-fossil era -. Do you see in this change a possibility to break with imperial life?

Yes and no. Because there is a danger in the implementation of technologies with renewable energies, such as wind or solar panels, using other raw materials without changing the economic structures of exploitation and power. Since the 1980s there has been a dissent within the elites where progressive forces say that something like sustainability is needed. But in the end they continue to argue for capitalism. Therefore the discourse for sustainable development is marginal, as are ambitious policies. The electric car has been talked about for years, but the internal combustion engine is not questioned. For me that changed with the crisis of 2007/2008, at least partially. At that time, certain groups realized that they would come out as winners of the crisis, if they focused more and more on green. The term is bornGreen Economy,that is, the green economy, which aims even more at the capitalist economy and marginalizes social issues.

The concepts of the green economy are not new. How do you interpret them?

For me, the green economy is a manifestation from a sector of the elites, who know very well that something is totally wrong. With green, companies are expected to be happy with green profits, unions with green jobs, and consumers with green products. The strategy of the green economy questions the perversion of imperial life, but does not question it itself. That is why I would take it seriously and criticize it immediately, because the origin of raw materials is still invisible. The forms of production, the thought of benefit and the life that is led accordingly are also maintained. They can't get out of that.

Sounds a bit like a cult ...

Management seeks to move up quickly, obtain recognition and benefits. If you look at the numbers of Daimler, the German car manufacturer: although in 2017 he generated huge profits per car sold, manager Dieter complained that his salary and the bonus were limited to ten million euros. At the press conference he mentions something about the latest monkey testing scandal, and that someone from lower management is taking responsibility. But in the first instance he is the star and allows himself to be celebrated as the “Car Manager of the year”. Why? Because Daimler has generated huge profits for its shareholders. It is a logic that is confirmed every two by three in different economic forums. Small and medium-sized companies and the public sector seem much more open to change. There the managers have much more margin than in companies like Volkswagen or Daimler.

What is this fact due to?

They feel more committed to employees and society. They also have much less pressure to win and therefore can take risks easier. Bank DZ for example, the central bank of thousands of cooperative banks throughout Germany, built a building a few years ago right next to the train station in Frankfurt. He decided to finance all his employees a ticket for public transport. Consequently, most arrive to work by bus or train.

Those are private initiatives, but in reality something would have to be moved at the state level. Why is imperial life not on the political agenda?

Because the State is anchored in the capitalist economy and is deeply dependent on it. In regions like Latin America, the State lives off concessions and customs, for example, by the extraction and export of raw materials. In Europe, it mostly charges taxes and contributions. This material base, which today is produced according to capitalist principles, and by which society nourishes the State, is the basis of our well-being. I think that is the main problem.

"Well being" doesn't sound so bad.

But at whose expense? only Germany and Austria have a relatively high average income and a good public sector for education and health, because the economy is doing very well. But at the cost of countries like Greece, at the cost of humans and nature, which are exploited in other countries. That is why we must ask ourselves: What are the mechanisms of change, so that the State becomes less dependent on capitalist expansion?

"For me, an important condition for there to be a responsible politics is the politicization of imperial life itself, that is, to talk about its historical appearance, the interests and the power relations behind it"

Do you have proposals?

The State could be financed through taxes on private wealth. In addition, it would be necessary to see in detail for what and for whom today you spend your money. But of course: there politics would have to interfere with hegemonic interests. For me, an important condition for there to be a responsible politics is the politicization of imperial life itself, that is, to talk about its historical appearance, the interests and the power relations behind it. Because also in European countries we have enormous inequalities, which continue to be maintained through the consumption of status and a fixation on economic growth. Some say that nothing can be done, but that is not true. I always say: "Don't let yourself be incapacitated!"

Well, one gets a bit paralyzed, if you look at the world with the glasses of imperial life from which - we mentioned it at the beginning - you can't just get out like that.

Today politicization passes more through ecological issues and rules than through discourse:You are the fucking exploiters of the south!A political imposition is needed, not a moral one. This is, for example, a radical reduction in car traffic in northern cities. Obviously that implies a change in the automotive industry in general. Another issue is the installation of social and environmental standards in southern countries.

Social and environmental standards in southern countries. How do you imagine that?

For example supporting the struggles of workers in China. There is enough of that today, but the information does not arrive. Workers in China are not fighting for a zero kilometer car, but simply to be able to live more or less dignified. If later they win double or triple the Chinese T-shirts can no longer cost only 1.99 Euros. The International Labor Organization has its social standards of work. And we in the north - it doesn't matter if you are an activist, journalist or politician - we have to generate public interest for these issues.

Excuse me for reminding you, but the struggles of the Chinese workers do not matter to almost anyone in Europe.

So we have to generate interest. How many were interested in the Arab Spring in 2011? Obviously, that was physically closer to Europe, but beyond the social distance that revolution received a lot of sympathy. A friend of mine, who knows the situation there well, told me, early on, that the Muslim brothers were going to take power. But first there were struggles for self-determination and for a better life. And there we come to imperial life. Because the dire living conditions in countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, but also in China, Bangladesh or Indonesia, are related to consumer stereotypes in northern countries. If we recognize that people in Tunisia are fighting for a better life, we have to discuss the price of tomatoes in supermarkets.

Specifically: If the prices of tomatoes in Europe go up, will the living conditions of the tomato pickers in Tunisia be improved?

We are not talking about five Euros per kilo, but only two Euros twenty, instead of two Euros. Obviously we would have to fight for higher salaries in Tunisia itself, but we support these processes, if we do not live by the motto “Geiz ist geil” (1).

But in the end most of the money remains with the owner of the farm, the intermediary or in the supermarket chains.

That is part of the problem, yes. But the European Union (EU) could establish rules to improve the living conditions of producers there.

What could the EU do concretely?

For example, only allow the sale of tomatoes produced under acceptable social and ecological conditions and that people earned more than X. A few years ago I was in Almería (2), in that plastic desert in southern Spain, where during the winter large parts of our vegetables are produced. People earn 30 Euros per day. And what does agriculture do? It expands to Morocco because there you only earn 10 Euros or less. That does not work! The EU generates quality rules for the importation of food and prohibits the importation of others, which for example are fumigated with certain pesticides. So you can also establish rules that determine that such a product was produced under certain working standards.

At the political level, as critics emphasize, not much can be done for the mutual dependencies between the state and industry. How do you see the possibilities for change within civil society?

We take the approach of the movement that appeals to growth, hence the most radical ideas within civil society are born. If these proposals do not include the prevailing production methods and relations, it is left in a niche. In other words: they are not applicable for a majority. In the German-speaking countries you can live very well in these niches, I meet people from the environmental movement and the repair cafes (3) and everything seems possible. But that's not the point. The niches are important, but in the end it is about changing the prevailing structures.

Why is it so important to you?

Rules are needed to affirm progressive achievements. Otherwise, we would not have had the feminist movement, we would not have an egalitarian policy, we would not have had the environmental movement and food standards would still be low. And if Rachel Carson (4) had not written her book "Silent Spring", certain pesticides would still be applied. Or we go back to the 19th century, to the beginnings of the struggles of workers and unions, which in some countries have generated the social state. The State is a field of struggle, which, after tough disputes, fixes social and ecological achievements. But due to the close relations between the state and capital, these disputes are very asymmetric. That is why progressive initiatives have to come out of civil society.

In a civil society that is in "multiple crises", as you write in your book. Wouldn't it be more accurate to speak of a civilizational crisis?

In Latin America I speak of a civilizational crisis, because here the brutality, cynicism, and intolerance of western imperial life - increasingly with actors from China as well - are seen in everyday life. Civilization here means destruction. On the other hand, in Europe we have the contradiction that the imperial also has a stabilizing factor. Compared to southern countries, the people there have more capacity to act. And it is not that we are all suffering, on the contrary: we live quite well and many can afford ignorance in front of the world. At the endmultiple crises Ycivilizational crisis they are the same, but in semantics there is a difference.

That is to say?

If I speak of a civilizational crisis, it is something existential. And in most central European societies that is not the case. Imagine, you are a professor in Bamberg (5) or Munich, you read our book, and now Brand comes to visit and speaks in his talk about a civilizational crisis. Where is the relationship with you? Maybe you are a little afraid of the future and you care a little about your children and about society and the environment. But from there to a civilizational crisis there is a lot to do.

That depends on the reading ...

The questioning of civilization in post-colonial Ecuador is much more visible and notable than in Europe. Here for many people it is about existential questions. And also those who drive a zero kilometer car see the precarious vendors and beggars on the edge of the street.

In the last chapter of the book, he makes a plea for a life of solidarity and Good Living. Is it possible to live the Good Life within an imperial structure?

Good Living is a disputed term and in Europe it means F and F and P:Fleisch (meat),Fliegen (to fly) and - as feminist Crista Wichterich emphasizes - the cheap assistant ofPolonia to take care of the parents. Good Living is closely linked to my own consumption possibilities, which defines my status within society. And if I don't have enough money for that, I want it.

There is not much difference between Quito, Cologne, Salzburg or Zurich. Only here the assistant comes from the country itself.

Yes, but in Latin America there was a historical injection of Good Living, which was later welcomed by social movements and progressive governments of the continent and led to a revaluation of indigenous experiences. For ten years Good Living has been anchored in the constitution of Ecuador. For Europe that is quite an interesting fact.

In what sense?

Today Good Living is an issue in Europe, simply because it radically questions the supposed relationship between capitalist growth and well-being. It is about a harmonious relationship between humans and nature. Last year, for example, we were invited to an event in the city of Munich under the motto:Good Living, The right to live well. Our argument was not that Good Living equals BMW (6), of course. But the question was interesting: What can it mean to live well in a city, which among other things lives from BMW? We had the opportunity to politicize something that is in contrast to the FFP. The only danger is that the term is emptied and that it is romanticized as the sweet Good Living of the Andean countries.

The harmony between humans and nature is one of the central arguments to break with imperial life. Doesn't the return to the land seem essential to you, and therefore a decentralization of human life outside the cities, to raise awareness about the consumption of raw materials that marks our daily lives so much?

I wouldn't call it so conclusively. We need processes, so that humans become aware of where their food comes from and who weaves their clothes. We also have to relearn how to repair things instead of throwing them away and buying others. Good Living is not an objective but a process. Our task is to adapt the appeal of the term and put it in the context of central Europe. Good Living in Switzerland could mean: minimum wage, no relaxation of work standards, implementation of sustainability criteria and also the limitation of the power of banks and the chemical industry. A third of people, it is estimated, already have a socio-ecological ethic. But not everyone is interested in politics.

What do you mean by that?

That a relevant part of the young generation no longer eats meat. Simply because they feel ethically obligated or listen to their bodies' needs. Without having to create a political movement with it. Many times the creation of a life of solidarity is born without much show. In the end there are three steps: the change of the behavior of each one, political rules and the naturalness that is occurring within society.

"Imperiale Lebensweise - zur Ausbeutung von Mensch und Natur im globalen Kapitalismus" (14.95 Euro, Oekom-Verlag)


1) “Geiz ist geil” could be determined as “Greed is cool”. The German appliance chain Saturn used that slogan for its advertisements between 2002 and 2011, marking a consumer attitude for a whole generation. Similar slogans were also used in Holland „gierig maakt gelukkig“ (Greed makes you happy), in Belgium „Gierig is plezierig“ (Greed is fun), France „Plus radin, plus malin“ (More greedy, cleverer) and in Spain "Greed vitiates me".

2) Almería is a city in the southeast of Spain, famous for its extensive industrial production of fruit and vegetables made in greenhouses that is exported throughout Europe and also to African countries.

3) Repair-cafés, mostly organized by volunteers, are events where you can take your broken product and someone you know - a programmer, a mechanic etc. - teaches you repair. On the one hand you want to vindicate the fact of repairing something before throwing it away, on the other it is a social gathering.

4) Rachel Carson (1907-1964) was a marine biologist and writer. His book "Silent Spring" contributed to environmental awareness and continues to be a reference.

5) Bamberg is a small city in the north of the Bavaria province.

6) BMW (Bayerische Motoren Werke) is a car manufacturer based in Munich.

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