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Post-Extractivism: Debates and Practices

Expanding Extractivisms: Extractivisms as Modes of Extraction Sustaining Imperial Modes of Living

L'expansion des extractivismes : les extractivismes en tant que modes d’extraction soutenant des modes de vie impériaux
Expandiendo los extractivismos como sostén de formas de vida imperiales
Erik Post


The rapacious planetary extraction of energy and materials and associated socioecological violence have culminated in overlapping ecological, social, and political crises. With the advent of global initiatives that seek to address these crises and signs of post-pandemic recovery programmes deepening extraction, ‘extractivisms’ are at a critical juncture. Discussions over extractivisms, their relation to capitalism, and implications for creating alternative post-extractivist futures have proliferated in recent years. As a result, definitions have multiplied and expanded, which has led to ambiguity and prompted calls to better define and conceptualise extractivisms. This chapter contributes to this exercise in three ways: First, it details a genealogy of extractivisms that originates in Latin American scholarship, expands to ‘global extractivisms’, and culminates in conceptual expansions that progressively divorce the concept from the extraction of energy and materials. Second, it addresses how Marxian thought has theorised the relationship between capitalism and the biophysical world and analyses four recent interventions to clarify why extractivisms are pivotal to but cannot be equated with capitalism. Third, the chapter synthesises insights from these discussions to argue that extractivisms are best conceived of as particular ‘modes of extraction’ that provide the energetic and material basis for ‘imperial modes of living’. It concludes with reflections on how more sustainable and peaceful futures must be premised on transitions to ‘post-extractivisms’ and ‘post-imperial solidarity modes of living’.

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Authors' notes

Conflict of interest and funding. No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

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The paper benefited from Philippe Le Billon’s generous and constructive comments as well as from the incisive questions and suggestions raised by colleagues who participated in the January 2022 Workshop on the Lives and Afterlives of Extraction hosted by the Geneva Graduate Institute. I also wish to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their engagement with my ideas and their excellent suggestions. Thanks to Matthew Archer, Asanda Benya and Ndongo Sylla, as well as the editorial teams at the Geneva Graduate Institute and Brill for their support. Lastly, I wish to express my gratitude to Filipe Calvão for his encouragement.

1. Introduction

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1The harnessing of energy and materials for human purposes from the web of life (Moore, 2015)—extraction—increased markedly in the latter half of the twentieth century. The United Nations (UN) International Resource Panel’s most recent Global Resources Outlook (International Resource Panel, 2019, 39) documents that from ‘1970 to 2017, annual global extraction of materials grew from 27.1 billion tons to 92.1 billion tons […] [while] material demand per capita grew from 7.4 tons in 1970 to 12.2 tons per capita in 2017’. Post-pandemic recovery programmes and high commodity prices in part also due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine are likely to further spur extraction (Benites and Bebbington, 2020; Le Billon et al., 2021; World Bank Group, 2022). Most of this extraction is achieved through modes of renewable and non-renewable resource extraction that Gudynas (2009, 188) coined as forms of ‘extractivism’, referring to ‘activities that remove great quantities of natural resources that are not then processed (or are but only in a limited fashion) and that leave a country as exports’.1 Extractivisms have been able to expand and deepen to such an extent that they ‘have become the main driving force of ecological change on a continental scale’ (Gudynas, 2021, 20). Extractivisms are also associated with multidimensional forms of violence (Glaab and Stuvøy, 2021; Navas, Mingorria and Aguilar-González, 2018; Post, 2022), which unevenly drive and exacerbate overlapping planetary social and political crises. UN Special Rapporteur Achiume (Achiume, 2019, 3), for example, penned a report on how ‘global extractivism’ causes ‘poverty and underdevelopment’ as well as ‘dependency and inequality’. This inequality is vividly illustrated by the fact that inhabitants of ‘the wealthiest countries consume, on average, ten times as many materials as [those of] the poorest countries’ (Schandl et al., 2018, 836; see figure 1).

Figure Per capita material footprint of consumption by seven world regions 1970–2019 in tonnes. Created with data from the UNEP and IRP Global Material Flows

Figure Per capita material footprint of consumption by seven world regions 1970–2019 in tonnes. Created with data from the UNEP and IRP Global Material Flows

Sources: Authors, based on data from the UNEP and IRP Global Material Flows, database:​global-material-flows-database/​ (accessed on 20 December 2022).

2Recognition of extractivisms’ profound socioecological implications has given rise to a critical conjuncture in the context of which the concept, its relation to global capitalism, and pathways to alternative futures are hotly debated. In tandem, definitions and conceptual frameworks of extractivisms have multiplied, leading to an analytical muddiness that makes it ‘essential to clarify the concept of extractivism’ (Gudynas, 2021, 4; also see, Nygren, Kröger and Gills, 2022; Shapiro and McNeish, 2021; Szeman and Wenzel, 2021). This involves theorising the relationship between extractivisms and capitalism since ‘extractive logics […] seem to be spreading to other realms of capitalist activity, prompting claims that capitalism has entered a new stage of extractivism’ (Mezzadra and Neilson, 2019, 38). As a result, ‘understanding the wide variety of dynamics that are connected to extraction seems to be more pertinent than ever before’ (D’Angelo and Pijpers, 2022, 3).

3In this chapter, I propose that extractivisms are ‘modes of extraction’—the historical strategic relations facilitating the extraction of energy and materials (Bunker, 1985)that provide the material basis for what Brand and Wissen (2021, 39) term the ‘imperial mode of living’ (IML): the practices built into political, economic, and cultural structures of everyday life that rely on ‘unlimited access to labour power, natural resources and sinks’. In mobilising this concept, I follow Hanaček and co-authors’ (2020, 9) suggestion to develop ‘more integrated, regional and global understandings of economic interdependencies and relations’. To do so, I first survey a genealogy of the concept of extractivisms. Second, I discuss how Marxian thought has theorised the relationship between capitalism and the biophysical world and analyse four recent interventions that elucidate why extractivisms are pivotal to, but not coterminous with, capitalism. Third, I discuss the concept of modes of extraction and argue that those coupled with imperial modes of living constitute extractivisms. I conclude with reflections on the ramifications for post-extractive transitions to more sustainable and peaceful futures premised on post-imperial solidarity modes of living, and highlight future research avenues.

2. From Latin American to Global Extractivisms and Conceptual Expansions

2.1 Latin America and the Commodities Consensus

4Although the term ‘extractivism’ has a longer genealogy (see, for example, Moran, 1982, 25), discussions of ‘extractivismo proliferated during the early twenty-first century in Latin American academia and political life as the consequences of the expansion of energetic and material extractive frontiers initiated in the 1990s became apparent (Acosta et al., 2011; Delgado Ramos, 2013; Schuldt et al., 2009). Gudynas’s (2009, 188) definition provided in the introduction to this chapter is the most well known definition proposed in these discussions. It entails that the extractive activities must meet three conditions: (i) a high volume and intensity of extraction, (ii) little to no processing, and (iii) exportation of a majority of the resources. Extractivisms can operate through non-renewable and renewable resources—the former, for example, including when pearls, timber, guano, rubber, seafood or agricultural products are extracted at volumes that exceed regeneration capacities. Gudynas pluralises extractivisms to indicate this variability and notes that particular forms create distinct impacts that include population displacement, ecological degradation, and the commodification of social life and the environment. In the aggregate, extractivisms’ socioecological transformations are highly destructive, in their most extreme forms wholly preventing socioecological systems from sustaining life (Gudynas, 2021).

5This literature builds on the insight of dependency theory that former colonies remained ‘trapped’ in continued resource extraction and exportation after being forced into it under colonial unequal exchange relations (Cardoso and Faletto, 1998). Svampa (2019, 7), for example, writes that ‘since the time of the conquest (1492), Latin American territories have been subject to […] a mode of accumulation […] characterised by the export of raw materials and by a scheme of subordinate insertion in the world economy’. Since the legitimacy of ‘modern’ Latin American independent states was and continues to be premised on achieving economic growth to promote progress, modernisation and development, extractivisms became ‘development models’ rearticulated under successive imperial and neo-colonial regimes (Alimonda, 2011; 2015; Brand, Dietz and Lang, 2016). Following a waning of resource exports’ centrality to Latin American economies after the 1960s (Ocampo, 2017), extractivisms returned with a vengeance in the 1990s. Neo-liberal reforms following the Latin American debt crisis opened Latin American extractive sectors to increased private and foreign participation, while Chinese industrialisation created a commodities super-cycle and hampered Latin American industrialisation (Acquatella, Bello and Berríos, 2019; Stallings, 2020). In response, Latin American governments expanded and deepened extractivisms, causing a ‘re-primarization’ of Latin American economies that Svampa (2013, 30; emphasis in the original) refers to as a ‘shift from the Washington Consensus [...] to the Commodities Consensus’.

6While emphasising the continuity between historical and contemporary forms of extractivisms, these accounts highlight the particularities of so-called neo-extractivism: the development model implemented by various Latin American left-wing and ‘post–neo-liberal’ ‘pink tide’ governments in the early twenty-first century. Neo-extractivism’s defining feature is the reassertion of the state in regulating extractive activities and capturing resource rents to transform dependent economies and fund social programmes. Rather than transforming economies, however, neo-extractivism deepened dependence on international commodity markets, foreign finance and transnational corporations (Bebbington and Bebbington, 2013; Burchardt and Dietz, 2014; Petras and Veltmeyer, 2014). With due respect to Ferguson (2015), ‘post–neo-liberal’ social programmes created ‘compensatory’ states that deploy conditional cash transfers for political legitimacy and to avert more radical proposals for economic redistribution and multidimensional well-being (Andreucci and Radhuber, 2017; Gudynas, 2012; Tilzey, 2019). These programmes also imply ‘the incorporation of other worlds into the world defined by development’ (Bebbington et al., 2018, 15), buttressing teleological narratives of progress, modernity and development (Lang and Mokrani, 2013; Marston and Perreault, 2017).

7Regardless of the particularities of neo-extractivisms, Carbonnier, Campodónico and Tezanos Vázquez (2017, 14) conclude that they ‘do not seem to have translated into radically different outcomes’ when compared with ‘conventional’ extractivisms. Arsel, Hogenboom and Pellegrini (2016, 881) explain that both types of Latin American regime operate under an ‘extractive imperative’, according to which extractivisms ‘enjoy teleological primacy […] [and have] taken over the logic of other state activities’. In teasing out the similarities and differences between (neo-)extractivisms, this literature focuses almost exclusively on Latin America. Yet some scholars writing in the Latin American tradition note that extractivisms ‘began to be structured with the conquest and colonisation of the Americas, Africa and Asia’ and became ‘a constant in the economic, social and political life of many countries in the global South’ (Acosta, 2013, 6263).

2.2 Global Extractivisms

8Following the popularisation of the concept in Latin America, ‘extractivism’ increasingly featured in analyses of similar phenomena in Africa and central and Southeast Asia (Ayelazuno, 2014; Dietz and Engels, 2017; Lahiri-Dutt, 2018). Beyond the so-called global South, North American scholarship explored how ‘racial extractivism’ perpetuates ‘forms of violent white settler colonialism […] to continue exploiting the natural environment while attempting to erase Indigenous forms of legal jurisdiction, government and ultimately life’ (Preston, 2017, 356–370). While Preston develops racial extractivism through an analysis of the Canadian tar sands (also, see Westman, Joly and Gross, 2020), similar dynamics in Canada are observed concerning land banks (Scobie, Finau and Hallenbeck, 2021), the Mackenzie Valley pipeline (Coulthard, 2010), and iron ore extraction (Nachet, Beckett and MacNeil, 2021), and the transborder Keystone XL pipeline (Coulthard, 2014; Curley and Lister, 2020), as well as concerning (slave) plantations (Bauerly, 2017; Benson, 2012; Haraway, 2016), Louisiana’s Cancer Alley (Davies, 2022) and hydrocarbon, coal and uranium mining in Navajo territories in the United States (Curley, 2019).

9These resonances across regions and temporalities lead UN rapporteur Achiume (2019, 6–7) to use the term ‘global extractivism’, noting that it ‘cannot properly be understood without reference to its colonial origins […] first in the Americas and then in Asia and Africa’. Global extractivism is the most spatially and temporally expansive conception of this ‘development model’, covering the longue durée on the planetary scale. The capaciousness of global and racial extractivisms can be contrasted with scholars who maintain the planetary spatial scope but apply narrower temporal and conceptual terms. For example, Adaman, Arsel and Akbulut (2019, 518–519; emphasis mine) define extractivism as a ‘new regime of accumulation’ and the ‘dominant economic model’ undergirding the ‘neoliberal developmentalism’ of populist leaders.

2.3 Conceptual Expansions

10Recent literature has also sought to expand extractivisms conceptually. Chagnon, Hagolani-Albov and Hokkanen (2021, 176–180; also, see Calvão, 2019; Calvão and Archer, 2021) examine how ‘digital and data extractivism […] intersect with natural resource and financial extractivisms in their underlying logic and processes’, noting that ‘digital infrastructures depend on natural resource extraction, while at the same time natural resource extraction is increasingly driven by the digital’. Le Billon (2021, 220; also, see Hope, 2020) identifies an extraction–conservation nexus to indicate how ‘logics of conservation and extraction […] are in many ways coming together’. Del Bene, Scheidel and Temper (2018) coin ‘renewables extractivism’ to capture how renewable energy infrastructures are entangled with (neo-)extractivisms. Voskoboynik and Andreucci (2021, 16; emphasis in the original) describe the discursive strategy through which ‘extraction and valorisation of mineral resources is rendered not only compatible with “sustainable development,” but necessary to it’ as ‘green extractivism’ (also, see Blair et al. in this volume). Dunlap and Arce (2021, 180) deploy ‘green extractivism’ to refer to how renewable energy infrastructures appropriate and distribute value similarly to conventional extractivisms while causing comparable socioecological destruction (also, see Pressend in this volume). Conservation, renewables, and green extractivisms can be subsumed under the category ‘eco-extractivism’ deployed by Núñez, Benwell and Aliste (2020, 3) to describe ‘the accumulation of land justified in terms of environmental protection or environmentally friendly projects […] undertaken by large investors whose other investments are in extractive industries’. Bruna (2022, 142) drops the connotation of extractive industries by defining ‘green extractivism’ generally as ‘a vehicle for the appropriation of nature through the implementation of land-based projects funded through climate change policies’.

11Further divorcing extractivisms from the physical extraction of energy and materials, several approaches point to how ‘extractive logics’ appropriate value from social worlds. Grosfoguel (2016, 132) develops ‘cognitive and epistemic extractivism’ to describe ‘a mentality that […] seeks to extract ideas like it extracts raw materials in order to colonise them by subsuming them within the parameters of Western culture and epistemology’. This is underpinned by an ‘ontological extractivism’, denoting ‘a way of being and being in the world that appropriates from others without consent and without thinking or worrying’ (Grosfoguel, 2016, 138). Other examples concern so-called urban extractivism (Duplat, 2017) and financial extractivism (Gago and Mezzadra, 2017). The ‘emergence of global extractivism as a way of organizing life’ and the proliferation of critical research lead Chagnon and co-authors (2022) to define it as an ‘organizing concept’ that arranges and synthesizes a body of knowledge.

12This mushrooming of definitions of extractivisms risks diminishing the terms’ analytical purchase and obscures both the important qualitative differences between modes of appropriation and their unifying element: being interrelated with capitalism. The next section addresses how Marxian thought has theorised this interrelationship and whether the seeming ubiquity of extractivisms and extractivist logics entails a novel world historical system of extractivism.

3. Extractivisms, Capitalism, and Civilisation

13According to Marx (1990, 198), capitalist production operates akin to a ‘social metabolism’ (Stoffwechsel), transforming energy and materials through a ‘metabolic interaction’ (Foster, 1999). Labour acts as ‘the point of contact […] where biophysical resources pass into the circuits of social metabolism’ (Malm, 2016, 19). Under capitalist social relations only human labour is considered as generating economic value. A labour theory of value therefore ‘defines value as socially necessary labour-time’ alienated from the socioecological conditions required for its existence and reproduction (Huber, 2018, 149). Under capitalist production, huge swaths of the web of life are thus not valued while other ways of valuing, such as aesthetic, social, cultural, or ecological, are marginalised (Martinez-Alier, 2002; Martinez-Alier et al., 2010; Moore, 2017; 2018). Capital thus ‘produces’ specific natures (Smith, 2008), which is why so-called natural resources can ‘only be defined in relationship to the mode of production which seeks to make use of them’ (Harvey, 1974, 265).

14Wolf (2010, 75) refers to modes of production (MoPs) as historical ‘set[s] of social relations through which labour is deployed to wrest energy from nature by means of tools, skills, organisation, and knowledge’. These combine relations and forces of production, the latter including the ‘resources’ that form ‘the means and objects of labour’ (Jessop, 1990, 289–290). Graeber (2006, 61–63) notes that conceptualisation of MoPs is ‘theoretically quite undeveloped’ and that ‘the “forces of production” are rarely much invoked’. Yet the forces of production co-determine the historical forms that MoPs take. In thermodynamic terms, no growth can feed upon itself, which is why expanded production, characteristic of the capitalist MoP, requires continued extraction of energy and material (Leff, 2021). Luxemburg (2003, 379) theorises that capitalist crisis tendencies manifest when ‘the development of the productive forces is arrested’. These tendencies must be counteracted by expansion into an ‘outside’, or elsewhere, of non-capitalist social formations and biophysical environments. This explains why Arrighi and Silver’s (1999, 28) four world-historical ‘cycles of accumulation’ occasioned a progressive ‘increase in the collective power over third parties or nature by the entire system’s dominant group’.

15Building on these precepts, Harvey (2003, 145) argues that the ascent of the US to global hegemon initiated a neo-liberal world system plagued by crises of over-accumulation that cause capital to increasingly engage in ‘accumulation by dispossession’ and the continuous appropriation of ‘assets’ at low or zero cost, including ‘colonial, neo-colonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources)’. From this perspective, extractivisms are instantiations of accumulation by dispossession. Harvey’s (2003, 153) assertion that accumulation by dispossession had ‘become the dominant form of accumulation’ portends recent arguments that extractivisms define contemporary capitalism. A brief discussion of four interventions that agree upon the increasing centrality of extractivisms to capitalism but disagree on whether extractivisms and capitalism have become coextensive will elucidate the utility of the concept of modes of extraction (MoEs) as distinct from MoPs and modes of appropriation (MoAs).

3.1 Extractivisms as Pivotal to, but Not Coterminous with, Capitalism

16In a recent discussion paper, Ye et al. (2020, 158–169) hypothesise that extractivism as a ‘development model […] characterised by accumulation by dispossession’ has become the ‘new, and increasingly favoured, modus operandi of capital’ in ‘an organised, and internally coherent, system for ongoing value extraction’. This new economic system has ten defining features: (1) it creates monopolies over the resources that are (to be) extracted, (2) relying on ‘infrastructural elements’ that (3) are linked in ‘chains’ and controlled by ‘operational centres’ with monopoly control over vital links; (4) through this control, operational centres appropriate value and accumulate wealth shared between actors in the centres, which (5) are characterised by a close intertwinement between state and private groups; (6) this creates and deepens inequalities that are themselves co-constitutive of extractivism, (7) even if the resulting wealth occasionally funds development or distributive policies; (8) in terms of production in sensu stricto, extractivism represents production without the reproduction of the required material resources; (9) this generates ‘windfall profits’ and ‘boom–bust cycles’ that (10) ultimately result in barrenness. The centralising effect of these dynamics gives rise to emergent centres, even if these defy meta-geographical categories of core–periphery and global North/South. Whereas this, the first of our four interventions is highly generative, its conclusion that capitalism has entered a new stage of extractivism is refuted by the other three interventions.

17Arboleda concurs, in The Planetary Mine (2020, 25), that the planetary geography of Chilean copper extraction exemplifies ‘a more advanced stage of the same system of capitalist domination’, yet rejects equating this with extractivisms. Defining an entire economic system based on a singular (extractivist) logic ‘can obfuscate the equally relevant function of labour exploitation, impersonal compulsions, fetishisation, and all those economic processes’ not tied to extractivisms that remain crucial to capital accumulation on a global scale (Arboleda, 2020, 245–248). Arboleda posits that the determining logic of extractivisms is the ‘production of relative surplus value at the world scale (Arboleda, 2020, 6; emphasis in the original). Concrete extractivisms are expressions of the universal content of capital in its historically and geographically specific forms that

yields a new territoriality of extraction whose immanent content cannot be fully elucidated by the loci classici of state-centric concepts of political economy […] [but is] also objectified in those unspectacular, nearly imperceptible practices and habits that constantly weave together the fabric of everyday life in the twenty-first-century city: sending an email, driving to work, ordering groceries through the internet. (Arboleda, 2020,13)

18Connecting the scales of planetary relations and everyday life is a fertile approach to theorising the relationship between capitalism and the operations that appropriate value from capital’s outsides.

19This is Mezzadra and Neilson’s central concern in The Politics of Operations (2019, 164), in which they interrogate how ‘aggregate capital’ extracts value from its ‘multiple outsides’, ‘[w]hether this outside takes the form of mineral deposits, land, biological materials, or social cooperation’. Operations in extraction, logistics and finance have become entangled ‘and thus emerge as distinctive criteria of capitalism in its present global formation’ while overall ‘the composition and logics of aggregate capital are increasingly marked by the prevalence and pivotal status of extractive operations’ (Mezzadra and Neilson, 2019, 163; emphasis in the original). Extractive operations in finance appropriate wealth to be produced in the future through social cooperation, including the gendered and racialized forms of sociality ‘produced’ by the self-, un-, and underemployed and those engaged in social reproductive labour. Operations in logistics extract value by coordinating the connection and valorisation of the ‘relative spatial positioning’ of production processes, leveraging ‘a kind of drawing power over diverse labour regimes and meshes of social cooperation’ (Mezzadra and Neilson, 2019, 164). Nevertheless, Mezzadra and Neilson are ‘hesitant to argue that extractivism constitutes a new paradigm of capitalism’ (2019, 38–39). Like Arboleda, they propose that capitalism emerges from ‘the articulation of extractive operations with other operations of capital, which involve heterogeneous forms of labour and exploitation’ (Mezzadra and Neilson, 2017, 197). The heterogeneity and planetary scope of these articulations render ‘the geography of contemporary capitalism far more complex than suggested by such binaries as global North and global South or centre and periphery’, indicating a need to attend to how capital ‘hits the ground’ (Mezzadra and Neilson, 2017, 7). Besides affirming the importance of the ‘aggregate’ world capitalist market scale, the interpenetration of extraction, finance and logistics in extracting value from capital’s multiple outsides demonstrates the need to trace the concrete socioecological relations through which capital ‘hits the ground’.

20Lastly, Dunlap and Jakobsen propose a different reason why capitalism and extractivisms ought not to be equated, even if the latter are ‘taking on planetary significance.’ In The Violent Technologies of Extraction (2020, Chapter 1, 1–12), they develop the notion of ‘total extractivism’ to describe ‘the imperative driving the global capitalist economy, centred on the deployment of violent technologies aiming at integrating and reconfiguring the earth and absorbing its inhabitants, meanwhile normalising its logics, apparatuses and subjectivities, as it violently colonises and pacifies various natures.’ They diverge from Ye et al.’s analysis on three grounds. First, rather than concentration and centralisation, they point to the decentralised nature of infrastructural, logistical and financial systems in facilitating contemporary value extraction, concurring with Arboleda and Mezzadra and Neilson. Second, echoing research on extractive ‘leftover’ and ‘residue’ economies (Jaramillo, 2020; Pijpers et al., 2021) and eco-extractivisms, they argue that barren landscapes represent not extractivisms’ endpoints, but opportunities for novel extractivisms to emerge. Third, and most significantly, Dunlap and Jakobsen (2020, Chapter 2, 13–41) trace total extractivism’s imperative beyond the capitalist historical horizon to roots in the creation of complex social formations through power, which is ‘much older than capitalism or colonialism, but civilisation itself’. While driven by strategies for capital accumulation, total extractivism is ultimately about reproducing the hierarchical social formations of ‘civilisation’. Because non-capitalist civilisational social formations can still be premised on hierarchies that integrate, reconfigure and absorb human and non-human worlds into civilisational metabolisms, Dunlap and Jakobsen caution against conflating post-capitalisms with post-extractivisms. Thus, they advocate for ‘abolishing the myth of human supremacy’ and other hierarchical relations underpinning civilisational reproduction (2020, Chapter 6, 119–131).

21In the next section, I argue that extractivisms are ‘modes of extraction’ that sustain the ‘imperial mode of living’. This provides a way out of the cacophonous proliferation of definitions and approaches, increasing analytical rigour and specifying extractivisms’ relationship with capitalism while incorporating issues highlighted by these four interventions and raised in attempts to conceptually expand extractivisms.

4. Extractivisms as Modes of Extraction Sustaining Imperial Modes of Living

4.1 Modes of Extraction

22In Underdeveloping the Amazon: Extraction, Unequal Exchange, and the Failure of the Modern State (1985), Bunker argued that the rapacious extraction of energy and materials from the Brazilian Amazon organised through a series of ‘modes of extractions’ (MoEs) caused the region’s ‘development of underdevelopment’. MoEs describe the ‘systemic connections’ between the extraction of energy and materials and ‘class structures, the organisation of labour, systems of exchange and property, the activities of the state, the distribution of populations, the development of physical infrastructures, and the kinds of informations, beliefs, and ideologies which shape social organisation and behaviour’ (Bunker, 1985, 23). MoEs are not categorical units that sort specific systemic connections into one bucket or another, they render visible the strategic relationships that shape the terms under which energy and materials are extracted. MoEs thus fill the blind spot in analyses of MoPs identified by Graeber, by describing a set of relationships that ‘produce’ a component of the ‘forces of production’, ensuring the ‘metabolic interaction’ underpinning the ‘development of the forces of production’. In line with Arboleda and Mezzadra’s and Neilson’s reservations, MoEs are not paradigmatic for world-historical systems tout court since they dialectically couple with MoPs, forming mutually dependent relations.

23Gudynas (2016, 96, translation by author) has proposed a similar move, deploying ‘modes of appropriation’ (MoAs) to refer to ‘the distinct types of organisation and dynamics that characterise the extraction of natural resources’. However, Marxian scholarship conventionally describes MoAs as the entire ensemble of relations that are the ‘extra-economic preconditions’ for a specific MoP (Jessop, 1990, 290). Covering all ‘extra-economic preconditions’, MoAs is thus an expansive notion, including among other things the institution of private property and a host of modalities of ‘accumulation by extra-economic means’ (Glassman, 2006). The latter include the ways in which capital appropriates value from social cooperation, such as the gendered and racialised labour of social reproduction (Federici, 2014; Mies, 2014), as well as from affective interactions and cultural artefacts (Hardt and Negri, 2000; Post and Calvão, 2020). They also comprise the commodification of ecological processes into so-called ecosystem services beyond the strict extraction of energy and materials, such as ecotourism or biodiversity capitalisation and offsetting schemes (Fletcher et al., 2019). This expansiveness obfuscates important differences between these modalities.

24By excluding the appropriations not implicated in the extraction of energy and materials, the notion of MoEs enables greater analytical precision while being expansive enough to incorporate elements of other MoAs when relevant. In its broad spatio-temporal applicability, MoEs enables comparative research on the heterogeneous historical and contemporary sets of relations organising energy and material extraction. As stressed by Arboleda and Mezzadra and Neilson, these relations are not geographically restricted to the location where extraction occurs. In describing articulations of planetary interconnections rather than clearly delineated local phenomena, MoEs escapes the regional particularism of most Latin American accounts of (neo-)extractivisms without losing sight of the spatio-temporal specificity of such relations. Moreover, MoEs are not exclusively limited to coupling with capitalist MoPs, dovetailing with Dunlap and Jakobsen’s concerns.

25In Meso-American polities conquered by the Aztec Triple Alliance, for example, the imperial elite appointed ‘a supervisor called a calpixqui’ who ‘collected wealth goods in the form of tribute’, often retooling existing MoEs to supply the ‘state treasuries’ in the imperial centre with ‘cacao, cotton, natural rubber, paper; specific minerals […] and products that come from specific habitats’ (Hirth, 2016, 49–50). Auguring the agricultural MoEs deployed in Latin America by the Spanish empire, the ‘feudal conquest by the Aragon Crown in 1229’ of Mallorca created manorial cavalleries for extraction of ‘payment of tithes and feudal rents in kind’ (Tello et al., 2018, 486–489). The extraction of agricultural goods cultivated by Indigenous slavery in the early Portuguese colonial regime in Brazil was likewise organised through a non-capitalist system of seigneury imported from Portugal (De Carvalho, 2015). Banaji (1977, 18) writes that even in the seventeenth century ‘capitalist slave plantations’ in the Caribbean were ultimately linked to the MoP of ‘feudal estates in Poland through a complicated network of basically mercantile and financial interests’. More recently, MoEs have been coupled with the Soviet MoP, such as the early and appalling ‘forcible extraction of grain from the countryside’ (Kagarlitsky, 2008, 257), cotton cultivation through forced labour around the Aral Sea (Spoor, 1998) and mining in Soviet republics such as Kyrgyzstan (Ocaklı et al., 2021).

26Beyond historical diversity, MoEs can also coexist and interpenetrate. As suggested by one of the reviewers of this chapter, the various modes of artisanal and small-scale mining exemplify this heterogeneity, including through ‘different configurations that form around’ the ‘interface’ of small- and large-scale mining (Kemp and Owen, 2019, 1094; also, see Mujere, 2023; Verbrugge and Geenen, 2019). A sketch of the multiple MoEs organising metals mining in the contemporary Amazon further illustrates this. These range from localised traditional forms of mining that are mostly executed by individuals or family groups and rely predominantly on intensive human labour and low capital costs, to small-scale mining operations run by licit and illicit entrepreneurs with access to more capital and employing labour through debt peonage and other forms of forced labour as well as waged or product payment, to cooperative and semi-cooperative organisations that can have access to significant capital and exhibit internal wage subordination while often operating in cooperation with state-owned enterprises, to the state-owned mining enterprises that operate in a manner akin to that of the large-scale private mining multinationals also present in the region. People can also variously engage in distinct MoEs at different moments. Amazonian smallholder communities, for example, maintain ‘different combinations of agriculturalist and extractivist activities’, shifting between both to ensure sustenance and sufficient cash (J. A. Fraser et al., 2018, 1383).

27Importantly, not all MoEs are synonymous with extractivisms. Instead, I propose to use the term extractivisms to describe MoEs that are coupled with imperial modes of living.

4.2 Sustaining Imperial Modes of Living

28Similar to later arguments about ‘ecologically unequal exchange’ and ‘ecological debt’ (Dorninger et al., 2021; Martinez-Alier, 2002), Bunker (1985, 22) insists that ‘modern’ social formations ‘can only emerge in regions where industrial modes of production derive large amounts of energy and matter from subordinate modes of extraction [...] [that] create unequal exchange’. In thermodynamic terms, the extraction of energy and materials from regions creates entropic peripheries if no equivalent amount of energy and/or materials is returned (Leff, 2021). As detailed in section 2 of this chapter, such subordination is associated with political, economic and social inequalities. Following Arboleda, Mezzadra and Neilson, and Dunlap and Jakobsen, these dynamics cannot be captured in meta-geographical categories of interstate, centre/periphery and global North/South dynamics. Instead, these asymmetric socioecological relations cut across nations, incorporating and excluding population strata according to class, gender and race inequalities. This generates emergent and relational supra- and subnational centre–periphery dynamics that sustain the social metabolism of ‘the imperial mode of living’.

29Brand and Wissen (2021, 39–40, emphasis in the original) conceive of ‘the imperial mode of living’ (in the singular) to describe how ‘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’. The adjective ‘imperial’ denotes that the IML is ‘based on exclusivity’ and can be sustained ‘only as long as an “outside”’—which can be geographically near or far—exists to extract from and externalise socioecological destruction towards (Brand and Wissen, 2021, 7). The IML thus ‘presupposes an imperialist world order […] [and] creates asymmetric interdependencies between various places and territories […] in a way in which the mechanisms of reproduction in one part pose severe restrictions for the practices of a majority of people in other parts’ (Brand and Wissen, 2022, 76). Whereas the concepts of ‘global labour arbitrage’, ‘labour aristocracy’ and ‘super-exploitation’ describe the IML’s organising effect on labour processes (Cope, 2019; Marini, 1991; Smith, 2016), I propose that extractivisms denote the IML’s organising effect on the socioecological relations that ensure access to energy and materials.

30In line with Arboleda’s, Mezzadra and Neilson’s, and Dunlap and Jakobsen’s joint attention to the scales of planetary relationships and everyday life, the IML ‘points towards the norms of production, distribution, and consumption built into the political, economic, and cultural structures of everyday life for the populations of the global North […] [and] increasingly in the countries with “emerging” economies of the global South’ (Brand and Wissen, 2021, 41). In contrast to Dunlap and Jakobsen, Brand and Wissen (2021, 42) propose that the IML represents ‘an essential moment in the reproduction of [a] capitalist society’ whose norms have their origins in Eurocentric conceptions of progress, modernity and development that emerged with the colonial encounter and capitalist world market. While ‘initially limited to furnishing the upper classes with luxury goods’ (Brand and Wissen, 2021, 83), the IML progressively incorporated larger bourgeois strata of the global population, becoming entrenched in the nineteenth century through discourses of progress, modernity and development. Historically, populations that resisted being enrolled in the MoEs, MoAs and MoPs undergirding the IML were ruthlessly oppressed and violently dominated. Successful socio-economic struggles have often culminated in the (re)integration of peoples into an extended and consolidated IML. In this way, ever-larger sections of the global population have been persuasively enticed with imperial privileges. This progressive incorporation of populations into the IML constitutes a ‘kind of compromise between the interests of those in power and the demands and desires of their subalterns’ (Brand and Wissen, 2021, 70).

31Building on Gramsci’s approach to hegemony, Foucault’s understanding of critique and subjectivation, and Bourdieu’s notions of habitus and lifestyle, Brand and Wissen highlight the intimate link between everyday practices and subjectivity. The IML’s lived everyday practices co-produce subjects who internalise its norms, developing psycho-emotional attachments that make them desire enrolling or remaining in it. In addition, the IML provides ‘conditions for income-generating production, just as the acquisition of products (home appliances, industrialized food, cars, smartphones) makes everyday life easier’ by lowering the cost of social reproduction. These conditions also ‘broaden the spectrum of leisure activities and possible travel goals’ while creating a sense of security in crisis situations (Brand and Wissen, 2021, 53). For many, the IML thus entails ‘the opportunity to have a subjectively fulfilled […] [and] materially more comfortable life’ (Brand and Wissen, 2021, 117). The IML is not universally experienced in the same manner. Its hegemony is ‘secured through complex spatial strategies that reproduce highly uneven social structures’ stratified along class, gender, race and other dimensions (Brand and Wissen, 2022, 77).

32The IML only became hegemonic in the global North under Fordism through the ‘generalisation’ and ‘universalisation’ of ‘modern’ or ‘Western’ consumption norms. During this period, many middle classes in ‘non-Western’ societies came to adopt similar modes of living as those in the capitalist centres, constituting ‘a peripheral IML’ that equally relied on ‘access to cheap labour power and nature elsewhere for the production of commodities for the world market, as well as for internal use’ (Brand and Wissen, 2022, 80). From the 1970s onward, ‘neoliberal globalisation’ deepened the IML in the global North and expanded it to the planetary scale ‘due to the rise of emerging economies […] [where] it is becoming the dominant model of prosperity, even for those who have not yet been integrated into the imperial mode of living’ (Brand and Wissen, 2021, 114). Brand and Wissen point to OECD, UNDP and ILO statistics to indicate that around 1.9 billion people could be designated as living a middle-class life in 2010, often implying the IML. However, rather than classifying some absolute category of individuals as falling within or outside the IML, it is a relational concept describing emergent supra- and subnational centre–periphery dynamics that link victims and beneficiaries, contenders and collaborators. These ‘relations of dominance and subordination’ give rise to an ‘articulated hierarchy’ that cannot be abstractly deduced but that is historically specific and constructed as part of the analysis (Hall, 2018, 196–202).

33With due respect to Dunlap and Jakobsen, who trace extractivisms to ‘civilisation itself’, I prefer Brand and Wissen’s more restrictive temporal range from the colonial moment onwards for two reasons. First, while hierarchies and domination certainly existed before and will last beyond the capitalist horizon, the historical co-constitution of colonialism and the capitalist world market marks significant differences in the prevalent modes of living and MoEs. According to Fraser (2014), this inaugurated a novel ‘institutionalised social order’ that structurally differentiated a) production from social reproduction, b) humanity from ‘nature’, c) the political from the economic, d) public from private power, and e) the ‘domestic’ from the ‘inter-national’ in a Westphalian system of states. Concomitantly, an ‘epochal shift’ occurred ‘in what was valued […], from land productivity under conditions of seigneurial power to labour productivity under the hegemony of the modern world market’ (Moore, 2017, 610; emphasis in the original). Together, these changes occasioned a cascading series of technological inventions and a set of technics that unleashed spatio-temporal dynamics through which ‘everything moved faster – a lot faster’, including the extraction of materials and energy. I therefore concur with Durante Kröger and LaFluer (2021, 20–24), who locate the ontological roots of extractivisms in ancient Greek natural law and Roman property law, yet argue that ‘what differentiates the ancient deforestations and other extractions from the past 500 years of extractivism[s] is the scale, and the greater domination of certain mindsets, by the advancement of modern technology alongside political and military power’.

34Second, this more restricted temporal application does not normalise extractivisms as inherent to civilisation, which makes it difficult to conceive of alternative post-extractivist modes of living suited to large-scale social formations. While critical scholarship and praxis should strive toward the dissolution of all kinds of hierarchies between human and non-human beings, lumping together all historical forms of domination and inequality mythologises the past, obscuring more than it reveals (Graeber and Wengrow, 2021). I nevertheless acknowledge that imperial modes of living (in the plural) could be repurposed to analyse continuities and differences in the strategic relationships shaping everyday life and the extraction of materials and energy along Dunlap and Jakobsen’s civilisational time frame, which would be an interesting but separate research agenda. The coupling of an undisputedly imperial mode of living in the Aztec Triple Alliance with certain MoEs described above points in this direction. Future modes of living could also be structurally organised in non-capitalist ways without becoming less imperial.

35Regardless of the IML and extractivisms’ precise historical origins, maintaining and deepening the IML and extractivisms has become a contemporary ‘imperative’ for governments as this functions as the societal pact stabilising the contradictions inherent in relying on in principle unlimited labour, resources, and sinks. The powerful psycho-emotional attachment of dominators and dominated alike to the IML in part explains this persistence in the face of overwhelming socioecological destruction. Nevertheless, the IML is not a total system of domination and is always challenged by alternative modes of living and counter-hegemonic subjectivities. In fact, the socioecological destruction of extractivisms provokes counter-hegemonic proposals and ‘insubordinate’ subjects that point to the possibility of transitioning to post-imperial solidarity modes of living. Let me conclude with brief reflections on such transitions and highlight relevant avenues for research.

5. Transitioning to Post-Imperial Solidarity Modes of Living

36Further universalising the imperial mode of living and the extractivisms on which it depends deepens the genocidal–ecocidal trajectory of overlapping planetary crises (Dunlap, this volume). As the United Nations Secretary-General (2021) stated at the twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties, ‘[e]ither we stop it — or it stops us […] Enough of brutalising biodiversity. Enough of killing ourselves with carbon. Enough of treating nature like a toilet. Enough of burning and drilling and mining our way deeper. We are digging our own graves.’ Despite this rhetoric, the UN’s flagship ‘plan of action’ Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (UNGA, 2015) insufficiently challenges the imperial mode of living. As illustrated by the renewables, green, and eco-extractivisms discussed in section 2 of this chapter, capitalist approaches to sustainable development perpetuate and deepen extractivisms (Remme et al., this volume). Given their increasing prominence at the current juncture, analysis of the entanglements between discourses of sustainability and so-called net-zero and nature-based solutions with extractivisms and their role in stabilising the imperial mode of living is a critical task. Further historical comparative research on extractivisms, imperial modes of living, and associated socioecological violence is also necessary if we are to further understand and challenge their intractability and perceived normality.

37Equally—if not more—urgent is research on transitions to post-imperial solidarity modes of living that are part of ‘a great transformation beyond the capitalist mode of production […] [with] very different forms of the societal appropriation of nature’ (Brand, Görg and Wissen, 2020, 166–170, emphasis in the original). The Global Tapestry of Alternatives, serving as ‘the global confluence of alternatives’, congregates many examples of modes of living that are striving towards ‘fundamental, systemic, radical transformation’ (Kothari, 2020, 247). The Post-Development Dictionary is a related survey of concrete and conceptual alternatives that propose ‘profound shifts in the spheres of [the] economy, politics, society, culture, and lived sexuality’ towards a ‘pluriversal world’ in which many worlds can be embraced and coexist in dignity and peace (Kothari et al., 2019, xxxv).

38One strain of these proposals concerns degrowth, defined as a ‘radical political and economic reorganization leading to drastically reduced resource and energy throughput’ (Kallis et al., 2018, 291; also, see Fitzpatrick, Parrique and Cosme (2022) and Mastini, Kallis and Hickel (2021), and Hamilton and Trölenberg in this volume). This reduction is not universal and must be accompanied by an increase in the material and energetic basis of other peoples’ modes of living to guarantee a dignified life for all (Hickel, 2021). The fact that some modes of extraction can provide the energetic and material bases for post-imperial solidarity modes of living is highly relevant in this respect. The so-called eco-territorial turn in Latin America highlights that many struggles by Indigenous communities for sovereignty and territorial well-being are not only against extractivisms but for alternative futures developed through Life projects that articulate with broader social and environmental struggles to create new counter-hegemonic subjectivities (Andreucci et al., 2017; Blaser, Feit and McRae, 2004; Escobar, 2008; Post, 2022; Svampa, 2019; also, see Prause, in this volume). Activists and scholars who are part of this eco-territorial turn have developed proposals for post-extractivist modes of living beyond Indigenous communities and territories (Acosta, 2014; 2017; Gudynas, 2011; 2017; 2021; Hollender, 2015; Lang and Mokrani, 2013). According to Riofrancos (2020, 168), these ‘represent the most important contributions of contemporary Latin American critical thought to leftist politics around the world’ since they inform and synergise with decolonial and transition efforts around the world (Brand, Boos and Brad, 2017; Escobar, 2015; Nourani Rinaldi, 2022). Analysing which modes of extraction can support post-imperial solidarity modes of living thus presents a vital research avenue. To avoid reproducing colonial patterns of knowledge production (Cusicanqui, 2010; Mignolo and Walsh, 2018), this research should be conducted in collaboration with communities realising post-imperial futures.

39Because of already-existing destruction and the prospect of post-pandemic recovery programmes deepening and expanding extractivisms, transition efforts cannot solely focus on post-imperial futures but must be accompanied by state-led efforts to address the cascading planetary crises. Analysis of extractivisms’ relationship with the state and the interstate geopolitical system is crucial for identifying promising levers for change. Activists, researchers and policymakers should adopt what Luxemburg (1903) termed ‘revolutionary Realpolitik’, setting and pursuing achievable goals through the most effective means while simultaneously striving to overcome the existing order. To reclaim a powerful rallying cry popularised by Luxemburg, the future is one of post-extractivisms or barbarism.

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Title Figure Per capita material footprint of consumption by seven world regions 1970–2019 in tonnes. Created with data from the UNEP and IRP Global Material Flows
Credits Sources: Authors, based on data from the UNEP and IRP Global Material Flows, database:​global-material-flows-database/​ (accessed on 20 December 2022).
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Erik Post, Expanding Extractivisms: Extractivisms as Modes of Extraction Sustaining Imperial Modes of LivingInternational Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 16 | 2023, Online since 12 June 2023, connection on 28 September 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Erik Post

Erik Post is a PhD candidate in geography at the University of British Columbia. His research explores the articulation of violence, geopolitics, and extractivism. He obtained his Master’s degree in International Affairs at the Geneva Graduate Institute. Prior to his PhD research, he worked for the European Commission, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Crisis Group, and the Belgian Network for Sustainable Development.

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