Peter Sloterdijk was unfortunate in writing about the existential problem of luxury in modern social life, especially given the Eurozone crisis that would occur as a direct consequence of the global financial crisis just a few years after the Spheres trilogy’s publication. As a result, Sloterdijk’s vision of human beings as “pampered” creatures, however nuanced and multifaceted in writing, hardly chimed with the times. His Spheres trilogy – massive, difficult and occasionally brilliant – lacked the popular appeal of his 1983 breakout hit ‘Critique of Cynical Reason’, which afforded German liberals and right-wingers alike enjoyable and lazy misreadings of Marxism and Critical Theory just as neoliberalism emerged as the dominant ideology of the western world (according to Sloterdijk, “ideology” is a term apparently devoid of meaning because we’re all too ironic to be ideological these days).
Sometimes Sloterdijk’s theoretical contributions have also been undercut by his own lack of self-awareness: his notorious public altercations with Jurgen Habermas were prompted by his own inappropriate and disingenuous use of Nazi-associated eugenicist terminology to an audience of predominantly Jewish professors. His defence from critics was to claim that Habermas’ charges of “fascism” against him were based on misreading his work, as if Sloterdijk was incapable of using different terms, or supposedly unaware of the obvious offence of the connotations, and to call Habermas a “fascist” for shutting down debate: truly, a man ahead of his time on that front. Sloterdijk has also defended openly racist comments from a former finance minister, and his suggestion that taxation ought to be replaced with rewarding the rich’s charity with social recognition is a farcical proposal in which Victorian-Age elitism meets half-baked Nozickian libertarianism.
Nevertheless, the English translation of Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy has brought his more long-form and sustained theoretical projects back into academic vogue, and it is my contention is that his work can be ironically marshalled to explain not only his own blindspots, but the political and social blindspots in the Global North more generally.
Recall Sloterdijk’s understanding of societies as a general immunology. The technical production of immunities, understood as the process by which society protects itself from the contingencies that undermine its integrity and continuity in the metaphorically immunological sense, is what Sloterdijk terms living in spheres, the creation of those dimensions in which human beings are contained. Sloterdijk defines spheres as ‘immune-systematically effective space creations for ecstatic beings that are operated upon by the outside’[i]. Sloterdijk argues that ‘solidarity’ is the forgotten secret of the historical world, that ‘the power to belong together, which is experienced in exemplary fashion by select couples…can be extended to communes, teams, project groups, and perhaps even entire peoples’[ii].
Spheres are finely tuned, precarious and delicate spaces for human existence that Sloterdijk likens to heating and air conditioning systems insofar as they exist to produce a reliable source of comfort that can be completely taken for granted without comparison (think of the occasional shock at the temperature change when you step outside having spent a day indoors). These human comforting systems are self-created, but they are always given, handed-down conditions, hence the tangible sense of intergenerational social continuity.
For Sloterdijk, we are always immersed in spheres, even if (western) cultures have learned to overlook, deny or exclude them. Spherology can be understood as a genealogical undertaking focused on the transcultural phenomenon of spatial metaphors used to psychologically orientate subjectivity in relation to its immediate world. These spheric constructions produce shared common sense and psychological dispositions that grow within us habitually, manifesting as second natures – we are sponges to the languages we hear, the systems of ritual and meaning we are ingratiated into, those things which are given importance and those things taken for granted[iii]. Humans live in a restless field of containers that produce collective psychological effects; imagine people moving through different concentric circles throughout their day, a shifting, dynamic topology guided by the movements through free association, but with a structural dimension that holds certain circles in place even in the absence of those individuals that conventionally compose them, through the reproduction of expectations as they are materialised in the world in cultural objects and locations.
The advantage of Sloterdijk’s theory is that its acknowledgement of solidarity in the prefigurative stage of human collectives does not require an essentialist notion of “national spirit” nor does it provide normative justification of nationalist or communitarian politics. A “people” in any meaningful sense is a morphological fiction that provides the illusion of comfort and security amongst the familiar, because at this stage of human social development, there is no consistent cultural and political synthesis between hundreds of thousands of people across a shared land so much as ties that bind those immediate families and houses together, and a broader perception of a kinship that induces obligations elsewhere, even though we have never been or may never venture over “there”. The world in this context is understood as that which is contained by a form or a known boundary.
Recall Sloterdijk’s description of contemporary societies in his foam metaphor. Foams are described as ‘agglomerations of bubbles’ insofar as the ‘term stands for systems or aggregates of spheric neighbourhoods in which each individual “cell” constitutes a self-augmenting context…an intimate space of meaning whose tension is maintained by dyadic and pluripolar resonances, or a “household” that vibrates with its own individual animation’[iv] experienced by and within itself. The foam metaphor undermines the suggestion that societies can be understood as organic totalities of homogenous continuity, per the foundational fantasies constructed by traditional communities. Instead, societies are only comprehensible as ‘restless and asymmetrical associations of pluralities of space and processes whose cells can neither be truly united nor truly separate’[v]. The internal coherence or unity of a given social field is always an ideological construction: the “we”-ness at the macrospheric level, unlike the “we”-ness found at the microspheric level between dyadic couples, is a fantasy that operates to suppress the ‘fluid, hybrid, permeable and promiscuous constitution’[vi] of societies.
The important aspect of understanding the social field through this structure is that it reveals the world-forming aspect of each individual symbolic unit alongside one another, that are then ‘drawn into an interactive network based on the principle of co-isolation’[vii]. Each bubble is a singular entity at once separate or isolated from other bubbles yet connected to its neighbours through shared membranes, implying co-fragility. In other words, if one foam bubble bursts, the neighbouring bubbles will be affected by the reverberations. Due to the dynamic, interlinking and overlapping movements of these bubbles and those individuals that comprise and reconstitute these spaces, societies are often topologically misarticulated as private citizens in private dwellings that leave these domains to enter into a wide, expansive and open public sphere, but in practice, individuals only consistently interact within spaces that ‘arise in shared waves of imitation’[viii].
Sloterdijk contends that ‘in media terms, foam cell “society” is a murky medium with a certain conductivity for information’[ix] insofar as every point in the foam is aware of those bubbles it borders and due to the translucent nature of foam, has a blurred but general vision of where they are in relation to others more broadly, but a bird’s eye view remains unavailable to “being-in-spheres”. I contend that we may use Sloterdijk’s social topology to explain the global North’s indifferent and ineffectual political reaction to the socio-economic conditions described by Ulrich Brand & Markus Wissen as “the imperial mode of living”.
In their 2021 book, ‘The Imperial Mode of Living: Everyday Life and the Ecological Crisis of Capitalism’, the authors explore the extent to which everyday practices of consumption in the global North rely on the exploitation of resources and labour from “somewhere else”, hiding the broader paradox at the heart of the expansion of western standards of living across the world: the more globally accessible its standard of living becomes, the more economically exploitative and ecologically unsustainable it is for those not privy to its comforts.
Brand & Wissen provide the reader with four purposes of the book: firstly, ‘to make visible the forces that facilitate the everyday life of production and consumption of people in the global North, as well as of a growing number of people in the global South, without necessarily passing the threshold of conscious perception or crossing into critical reflection’ to show how ‘normality is produced precisely by masking the destruction in which it is rooted’[x]. Secondly, ‘how and why this sense of normality is produced in a time when problems and crises are accumulating, intensifying and overlapping in so many different areas’ and investigate the paradox of the IML, how it affects and exacerbates worldwide crises such as climate breakdown, global inequality and geopolitical tensions whilst somehow stabilising ‘social relations in the countries where its benefits are concentrated’[xi]. Thirdly, to show the way in which an economic system reliant on a burden being held “elsewhere” is incompatible with any rise in universal living standards: as the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries become competitors with the global North, fewer and fewer people in the global South will be prepared to risk their own lives for the sake of maintaining the global North’s living standards. Fourthly, such an economic diagnosis calls for a political intervention: ‘the ecological crisis must be recognised for what it is: a clear indication that the global North’s norms of production and consumption, which evolved with capitalism and have now become universal, can be maintained in their ecologically modernised form only at the cost of ever more violence, ecological destruction and human suffering, and, at that, in an ever-smaller part of the world’[xii].
The vague language of sustainable transformation hides all manner of geopolitical and economic vested interests, serving to water down any substantive proposals. The entire debate too often leads to the perspective of ‘the education of princes’, that ‘instead of starting a fight with the elites to take away their privileges and limit their power, these elites must be convinced of the right thing to do’[xiii]. The authors introduce the contention 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) …on a global scale’[xiv]. “Elsewhere” is used flippantly with intention: we don’t care where our underwear was made, nor our morning coffee: we don’t pay attention to where the materials that went into our computers came from, as long as it’s here and it’s working, and we’ve got a decent Wi-Fi connection. In many respects, our western spheric solidarity ends at the social border, and in a globalised world, where our shared interconnectedness means that through economic processes we are all imbricated in the lives of one another directly or indirectly, it poses epistemic, ecological and political problems. If the world ends at a given boundary, it would explain the structural absence of care and responsibility those in the self-contained “First World”/“Global North”/“Western World” feel for the rest that they exploit, whilst espousing “global agendas” and “cosmopolitan values”.
The authors contend that ‘a fundamental part of the dominant Western world view was the idea that ‘society’ could increasingly be emancipated from ‘nature’, or from the constraints of nature, through technological and scientific innovations’[xv], a problematic notion to which Sloterdijk also objects. As Brand & Wissen convincingly argue, the western world did not emancipate itself from nature; rather, they externalised the ‘consequences of extremely destructive society-nature relations’[xvi]. Furthermore, the incredibly costly mode of living in the global North tended to require nondemocratic actors in the global South, with the former lobbying and supporting conservative and authoritarian political actors to ensure there is no clamour for the improvement of working conditions, nationalisations of key industries, or any other pesky disruptions to the flow of resources upward. The IML ‘promotes a specific relationship between the state and population – ‘citizenship through consumption’ – which promises greater opportunities for consumption in exchange for acceptance of the existing political and economic order’[xvii]. The authors contend that green capitalism will ‘neither effectively manage the ecological crisis nor reduce inequality, let alone create good living conditions for all; instead, it will generate and externalise new socio-ecological costs’[xviii].
Brand & Wissen advocate a solidary mode of living, a form of politics and social cohesion that ‘must recognise the fundamental vulnerability of human and nonhuman life and create forms of living together that are not based on making the lives of many or even only a few people precarious, or that similarly endanger nature’[xix]. It is a politics that acknowledges and takes responsibility for the Anthropocene, targeted at those corporate actors and the political elites that launder their material interests as social necessity. Returning to the work of Sloterdijk, human beings are atmospheric designers, carving out spaces in the world through technics for the purpose of providing themselves with utility, luxury, accessibility to the resources and potential pleasures of the world without having to expend excessive effort: the aim is a “sheltered” life of “pampering”, and thus with this individual and collective social project, comes the epistemic limitations and challenges of different groups of disparate people taking different aspects of their spatial arrangements, technical configurations, cultural practices and everyday conveniences for granted, often whilst attempting to communicate a politics that adequately captures a shared commonality between all those individuals within a shared territory.
In our contemporary state of climate breakdown, systemic oppression and spiking income inequality, the dream of modern life described by pampering, the ‘shortening of the way to the result, bypassing intermediate steps involving work or alienation’[xx] obscures the processes of production and consumption, the asymmetrical power dynamics of capital accumulation, ideologically supported by the notion that the appropriate and intelligent application of technology provides the conditions for luxury, occluding from view the extent to which domination and exploitation are endemic to social reproduction. In other words, Sloterdijk provides a theoretic-situational explanation for western ecological and economic ignorance, in that reactionary politics corresponds to a feature of society itself, namely its propensity to flatten, generalise and “shelter” those within it from those problematic, uncomfortable or ethically dubious conditions and practices that undermine the settled state and collective goal of a pampered, luxuriated mode of living.
For all his self-described “megalomaniacal” thinking of “the whole”, Sloterdijk is also a product of European myopia: we think we are writing about the world, but our world ends at the boundaries of our mediated comprehension, and as such, Sloterdijk’s lack of awareness about economic issues pertaining to the imperial mode of living render him incapable of understanding systems of economic exploitation and domination when he considers political solutions to the ecological consequences of the western use and abuse of technology. To use an analogy from pop culture, Sloterdijk is a stormtrooper looking out the window of the Death Star canteen, writing theories about why Alderaan just exploded.
A charitable reading of Sloterdijk reveals that his own theory of society as foam (which in practical application bares a faint resemblance to the epistemic considerations of feminist standpoint theory, whether or not he would care to admit it) can be used to explain the political blindspot integral to the normalisation of the imperial mode of living. Europeans were handed down, through the intergenerational continuity of their societies, conditions of living they take for granted. The pampering of Europeans has been historically, and more importantly is still currently, predicated on the systematic exploitation of populations in the global South. It is through the global clamour (due to the growth of the middle-class in the global South) for a similar standard of living as found in the imperial core, that has led to such an unsustainable and inequitable system. The human is a pampering and pampered being, and for the good of those on the wrong end of an ecologically catastrophic and fundamentally unjust economic system, luxuriance must undergo democratisation.
So for those of us the other side of the line, living in the mountains of imperial foam, a radical humility is required in order to create the kind of solidary mode of living that Brand & Wissen advocate. Our social systems are admittedly fragile, but fundamentally exploitative: in order to prompt the political transformations required to ensure that those changes made by virtue of ecological necessity do not prompt the acceleration of underlying inequalities, the world must become a household of shared vibrations for all. In other words, the bubble needs bursting.
Jamie Ranger is a DPhil Candidate in Politics at St. Hugh’s College, University of Oxford.
[i] Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres, Vol. 1: Bubbles. (trans. W. Hoban, p.28.
[ii] ibid, p.44.
[iii] Sloterdijk, ibid, p.84.
[iv] ibid, p.52.
[v] ibid, p.54.
[vi] ibid, p.55.
[vii] ibid, p.56.
[viii] ibid, pp.56-57.
[ix] ibid, p.58.
[x] Ulrich Brand & Markus Wissen, ’The Imperial Mode of Living: Everyday Life and the Ecological Crisis of Capitalism’, (London: Verso, 2021) p.5.
[xi] Brand & Wissen, ibid.
[xii] Brand & Wissen, p.8.
[xiii] Brand & Wissen, p.25.
[xiv] Brand & Wissen, pp.40-41.
[xv] Brand & Wissen, pp.90-91.
[xvi] ibid, p.96.
[xvii] ibid, p.127.
[xviii] ibid, p.179.
[xix] ibid, p.199.
[xx] ibid, p.727.
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