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Life Lies of the Islands of Prosperity
by Stephan Lessenich
Thursday Feb 18th, 2021 3:26 PM
The embarrassing secret of the 'Western' model of society and development is that it only works under very specific political and economic, ecological and social conditions. Preconditions that lie essentially outside this model and are hidden or made invisible by the social actors of its glorifying preservation. 'Our' prosperity, 'our' democracy & 'our' peace are based on poverty & disenfranchisement.
By Stephan Lessenich
[This article published in May 2017 is translated from the German on the Internet, Lebenslügen der Wohlstandsinseln « Zeitschrift LuXemburg (]

With the recent crisis phenomena of this society, especially the crisis of the European migration regime, the life lies of the prosperity capitalist mode of socialization have come to light. Or say: If the social and sociopolitical phenomenon publicly apostrophized as the "refugee crisis" can be credited with a positive effect, it is the opening of a window of opportunity that makes it possible to gain clarity about the life lies of this society.

Three convictions have decisively shaped the social self-image of the Federal Republic - in both its Bonn and Berlin guises. One was the idea that 'our prosperity' resulted from our own work, the hard work of German hands, from economic productivity, entrepreneurial innovation and the regulatory sense of the 'social market economy'. On the other hand, there was the interpretation - which grew only slowly and was superficially anchored in post-fascist Germany - that 'our democracy' was an institutional achievement that could and should serve as a model of orientation and a standard of value for other, politically less civilized societies, both within and outside Europe. After all, following the extermination excesses of National Socialism in this country, it was agreed that the slogan "Never again war!" and the normative outlawing of violence were the founding consensus of German postwar society.

'Our prosperity,' 'our democracy,' 'never again war': what seems like a German miracle turns out, on closer inspection, to be an extremely deceptive narrative. A social feel-good narrative that effectively misappropriates the structural and functional preconditions of national prosperity peace democracies, in Germany as in the other capitalist centers of the world. It is a narrative that numerous political actors from the right, but sometimes also from the left, try to renew and perpetuate.
The many-voiced, paradoxically progress-reactionary Make America/Germany/la France etc. great again, which can be heard from these circles, is unmistakably aimed at keeping alive the life lies of prosperity capitalism, which is shaped differently from country to country. In case of doubt at the expense of the lives of others.
The embarrassing secret of the 'Western' model of society and development is that it only works under very specific political and economic, ecological and social conditions. Preconditions that lie essentially outside this model and are hidden or made invisible by the social actors of its glorifying preservation. 'Our' prosperity, 'our' democracy and 'our' peace are based on poverty, disenfranchisement and violence. In this country, but above all elsewhere.

'Our' prosperity, the welfare capitalist value creation and redistribution model of the Federal Republic of Germany, is based on the exploitation of labor and nature beyond Germany's national borders and on the outsourcing of ecological and social costs to the natural and social spaces there. The modes of production and consumption, working and living conditions that have prevailed here for some time are only conceivable, livable and sustainable because majorities of the population in the less privileged societies, in the poverty regions and 'threshold countries' of global capitalism live and work under conditions that are considered unacceptable in this country. The affluent capitalist world externalizes the costs of its development model - and relies on others to pay the price.

To be sure: 'Our' wealth is extremely unequally distributed. In Germany in particular, wealth ownership is particularly polarized by European standards. Inequality of income and life chances has increased sharply in the past decade; opportunities for educational success are closely tied to the social position of the household of origin. Yet the class structure of German society and its dynamics are embedded in the structure and dynamics of inequality relations worldwide-which complicates class analysis and questions of class politics in affluent capitalism. And more so than many political actors from the left seem to be aware of or like.

For globally, the inequality structure of the Federal Republic is at the top of the material wealth distribution. German society reproduces itself at a level of consumption that must be considered downright insane. Even the oppressed and underprivileged, the hardscrabble and burdened of this society are - in their unquestionably dependent, dominated social position - integrated into a production and reproduction context based on the exploitation of foreign resources and the outsourcing of costs to third parties. A context of which they are not directly aware, which they cannot influence individually - but which, whether they (want to) admit it or not, puts them in an indirect position of domination. And in one way or another, it makes them partisans of the exploitative and externalizing model of society in which and from which they live - in doubt more bad than good, but often quite good.

This, in turn, has a lot to do with the logic of 'our' democracy, which has established and legitimized itself as a growth democracy since the Second World War at the latest. In Germany, more than in other Western industrial societies, approval of democratic norms and institutions is linked to the constellation of economic prosperity that characterized the long postwar period in Europe. The supposed economic miracle of West Germany after 1945, the 'elevator effect' of a steady upgrade of the social inequality structure and the 'social peace' between capital and labor made possible by positive-sum games stand behind the much-vaunted stability of a democratic order whose acceptance depends on the continued political guarantee of economic 'progress'. It is hard to imagine what would happen to democracy in Germany if it were confronted with economic crises such as those that Greek society has been experiencing for almost a decade.

The reference to growth dynamics, however, does not fully capture the stabilization mechanism of democratic relations in capitalist societies. In the words of Timothy Mitchell, Western democracy must be described as a "carbon democracy" - and this is the only way to get to the bottom of its dark side. For the historically unprecedented level of economic value creation in the advanced industrial nations, on the basis of which the democratization of social conditions, including the social advancement of broad strata of the population, became materially possible in the first place, was related to the specific energy regime enforced in these countries by powerful interests. The devastating ecological effects were initially also evident in the Western industrial regions themselves, but could be outsourced step by step to distant parts of the world where the rich capitalist societies both extracted fossil fuels and used carbon sinks. Four-fifths of the greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere from 1750 to 1900 were emitted in Western Europe and North America, and a quarter of global CO2 emissions since 1850 are attributable to the United States.
'Fossilist' capitalism increasingly used the non-Western world to fuel its growth machinery, satisfy its hunger for resources, and deposit its emissions. At home, petroleum-lubricated industrial capitalism grew into the parallel political world of carbon democracy. At the latest after the Second World War, a society had emerged here that was dependent in almost every respect on the oil rigs, pipelines and oil tankers: in its prosperity, in its everyday practices - and precisely also in its system of social sharing and participation. The legitimate interests of job- and wage-dependents in a better and perhaps even good life, in political participation and social voice, in social advancement and personal dignity, hung on a system of economic production and material reproduction that was itself tied to the fossilist regime of resource exploitation and energy consumption. Thus, all parties in the industrial capitalist social game and distributional conflict - capital and labor, producers and consumers - were ultimately committed, for better or worse, to the fossilist growth model, albeit in a very unequal way. Those who wanted to participate in rising prosperity through political elections or co-determination in the workplace had to be interested, nolens volens, in a continuation of the existing model of production and reproduction. Just like those who, in order to secure their political rule, had committed themselves in their election programs and government projects to stabilizing and increasing economic prosperity.

Looking at the social history of the Federal Republic, we can say that we have made 'our peace' with industrial capitalism and carbon democracy, with the wealth of some and the poverty of others. Our' prosperity has become dear to us. 'Our' democracy has secured social peace by redistributing, at least to some extent, the ever-increasing value product socially through socio-political intervention - more so in social-democratic and social-liberal times, increasingly less so in the neo-liberal age. The costs of our 'imperial way of life' (Brand/Wissen 2017) have been externalized. And 'our' peace is also based on the fact that war takes place elsewhere: as 'drug war' in Mexico and the Philippines, as 'ethno-religious conflict' in Nigeria or Pakistan, as 'civil war' in Syria and Libya.

The democratic-capitalist societies of the 'West' are pacified societies. They have institutionalized class conflict in the form of collective bargaining and the right to strike, they have monopolized physical violence in constitutional authorities and thus banished it from the everyday life of their citizens. The majority of the world's population can only dream of such conditions. The strife that has disappeared from the rich societies has been exported to the poorer societies and has permeated social life there. Resource conflicts and class struggles, gang wars and state terrorism in large parts of the 'underdeveloped' world are not homemade phenomena. They are related to the economic competition strategies and political governance models that are commonplace in the world of 'highly developed' wealth capitalism. Peace to palaces, war to huts - this is the motto of global capitalism, which is repeated internally in the dependent economies of the Global South in a way that is as blunt as it is uncompassionate.

But now, it seems, the violence of social relations is returning to the prosperous and well-ordered centers of global capitalism. And it returns not only in the form of war refugees and economic migrants who seek existential protection or 'only' their personal happiness in the rich societies. It also returns as violence in the social struggle that takes place in these same rich nations with the 'social problem' of war refugees and economic migration. It returns in the form of military closure of Europe and police control of illegalized immigration, in political strategies of exclusion of legal rights, and in practices of latent or aggressive, institutional and everyday racism. And the latter not only in 'extreme', economically marginalized segments of the native population, but far into the middle of society. Their life lies can be clearly seen in precisely those reactions from the middle of the prosperity capitalist society. Our prosperity' endangered, 'our democracy' abused, 'our peace' broken: Those who have to experience such shocks to what has become self-evident can lose their composure. They then attack those who tear the veil of complacency off their supposedly perfect world and call for those who will restore the good old prosperity-peace democracy. And be it with a 'strong hand' and authoritarian ideology.

For the left, this cannot be a political option. The left reaction to the exposure of the prosperity capitalist self-justification narrative can only be to recognize 'our' prosperity, 'our' democracy and 'our' peace for what they are: not achievements borrowed from our children, but from countless of our global fellow citizens. Prosperity, democracy and peace in Germany, Europe and the other 'developed' parts of the world are a consequence of poverty, autocracy and war in other parts of the world.

The social generalization of the right to prosperity, democracy and peace has always been a core demand of progressive political projects in the nation-state context - and must remain so in the future. For the extension of this right, beyond the centers of the capitalist world to its peripheries, stands and falls with its fulfillment in the center itself. In order to ensure that growing life chances in the Global South do not structurally come at the expense of the less well-off in the North, radical redistribution policies from top to bottom are needed in the rich societies of this world. Only then will the idea of transnational solidarity become a practice that can be supported by majorities of the population in this country as well.

But 'socialism in one country' was yesterday. Even the mere idea of a formal and material entitlement remaining within national borders and limited to the 'natives' is absurd in the age of globalization. As a political program, a purely national social agenda today proves to be reactionary: a reverence for the life lies of this society and a backward-looking escape from social reality.

Stephan Lessenich (*1965) is Professor of Comparative Social and Cultural Analysis at the Institute of Sociology, Friedrich Schiller University, Jena, Germany.
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