Stephan Lessenich: Externalization Society


The Externalization Society: Living Beyond the Means of Others


Stephan Lessenich

University of Munich, Germany



With the rise of neoliberalism in the advanced capitalist societies since the 1970s, it has become commonplace for politicians, economists, and employer’s representatives to urge people not to ‘live beyond their means.’ Be it labor unions struggling for higher wages, pensioners claiming their legitimate right to retirement or low-income households not economizing as much as the better-off would like them to – they all are regularly reminded that the times of plenty are over and confronted with the accusation of not having become aware of the signs of the times.

To be sure, as sociologists we are all fed up with the ever same neoliberal discourse of market autonomy and self-responsibility, of consumer choice and – never change a winning story – the good old metaphor of the ‘invisible hand.’ But in a certain sense, the neoliberal narrative is right – though without knowing (or wanting to know) it. Because it is pretty true: The times of plenty are over and we still do not seem to have realized it. And what is even truer: Neoliberals do not want to realize it in the first place.

To put it in a nutshell: The model of socioeconomic development of the advanced capitalist economies in the Global North is – surprise, surprise – not sustainable. It rests on a dynamic of growth and accumulation that, after the unusual post-WWII ‘golden age’ decades of North Atlantic prosperity, is slowly but inexorably coming to an end. It rests on the systematic exploitation and overuse of natural resources, on the regardless pollution of air and water and the unrestrained congestion of biological and ecological sinks. And it rests on the principle of practicing a way of live, a mode of producing and consuming, that is all but generalizable: The Global North can live, produce, and consume as it does because others do not – and cannot – do so.

The advanced political economies of the Global North – formerly known and celebrated as the ‘Western world’ – are externalization societies. Externalization societies live off the wealth and the resources, the labor forces of and the life chances in other societies. People living in externalization societies are – on average and in comparative terms – better off just because people in other parts of the world are worse off.

What neoliberals seem not to know but definitely should know: ‘We’, the relatively well-off majorities in the capitalist societies of Europe, North America, and Oceania, do not ‘live beyond our means.’ The bitter truth is: We live beyond the means of others, of all those ‘who labor and are heavy laden’ in the subordinated economies of the Global South. Think only of the global constellation of extractivism and waste tourism: natural resources are snatched from the land, making use of pre- or early-industrial forms of labor exploitation and leaving behind a devastated territory (not to speak of the social community), which is then again used to deploy and store the often hazardous waste produced by those who ruined the land (or in whose name and for whose sake it was ruined) in the first place.

We may say that the externalization society is a future we do not – or should not – want. But to be honest: The externalization society is not our future. It is our present. And, even more so, it is the present of those we are deliberately bereaving of their future.


Lessenich foto-loStephan Lessenich is currently the President of the German Sociological Association (DGS) and a Co-Director of the Research Program on “Post-Growth Societies” funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) at the University of Jena. His latest English publication is Sociology – Capitalism – Critique (Verso 2015), co-authored with Klaus Doerre and Hartmut Rosa.


Banner Image: Searching for recyclables in a slum in Lima, Peru (Editor).

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