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Time Needs Radicalism and Radicalism Needs Time

"Those said to be dead are living longer. In eastern Europe, the political left is redeveloping.. The capitalism that fills the vacuum is in no way the final wisdom.. History is not ended as Francis Fukuyama gloated in 1989.. Futur5es is inthe plural tense.. Hope is first lost in the apparent lack of alternatives to capitalism.."
Time Needs Radicalism and Radicalism Needs Time

by Elmar Altvater

[This article originally written in June 1998 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.glasnost.de. Elmar Altvater is a professor of political economics at the Free University of Berlin.]

The judgment of possible subjects and perspectives is still awaited after the historical breach of 1989. In the meantime, those said to be dead are living longer. In eastern Europe, the political left is re-developing. The intelligentsia works out the errors of the past, above all the reaons for the "fixation of so-called state socialism on equalizing development... which led to the collapse of the system and to a new capitalist evolution" (Tamas Krausz). In many countries in the West and probably soon in Germany, the conservative epoch ended and social democracy returned to power. This is still not "the leftist project" or a return of the "social democratic century". Today the question "What's left?" could be answered: at least social democracy is left. Should we thank God?

In the political South of the globe - the term "Third world" has lost its unequivocalness -, the realization grows that "low wages and the freedom to pollute the environment" (Eduardo Galeano) are hardly proper means for stimulating development and catching up with the rich industrial countries.

Thus the capitalism "which fills the vacuum opened up by that implosion", as Adolf Muschg emphasizes, is in no way the final wisdom. History is not ended, as Francis Fukuyama gloated in 1989 after the victory in the Cold War, but must be shared or reconfigured in the future. What should be the principles? What should be the perspective? Reflection about a leftist project is by no means incidental.

Three projects could be mentioned. First, the errors of the past must be "ruthlessly" criticized as Marx and Engels wrote in the "Communist Manifesto". Second, the capitalism that has globalized in almost every regard must be soberly analyzed. Third, a leftist project can only exist if ideas accrue from utopian thinking. A view back and a sharp analysis of present conditions are essential. Then one can gaze into the distant futures. Futures is in the plural tense. Who can dare today to foreseee or anticipate the possible ramifications on the paths into the future?

One decisive error of the left has already been identified. In its large majority, entirely following the leninist idea, socialism is conceived as nothing but the "electrification of the whole country", the building of a socialist society as equalizing industrialization. An "assembly line" (Robin Murray) emerges, less efficient than the western assembly line and with a less differentiated offer of consumer goods. The socialist alternative was seen as superior "hardware", to symbolize it in computer language. People were much too little worried about "software". In the "systerm competition", what was central was the hardware on which the program (industrialization) largely identical in the East and the West could run faster. The West-hardware conquered. Today we know: the program must be changed by including environmental interests.

Aesthetics and beauty must be given more attention in urban planning, everyday life and politics. The disregard of social initiatives when they were not projected top-down from the party to society reduced political involvement to participation in mass rallies. The larger the mass, the greater the power of the powerful, as Elias Canetti analyzed in his 1960 essay "Mass and Power". This is a fallacy of the powerful who can only imagine society as compact hardware and not as a fine-spun, very dynamic, self-regulating network of initiatives. When these initiatives are killed off, "material interests" or "socialist pursuit of gain" cannot regain the dynamic.

The joyfulness of the victors after 1989 is understandable but completely out of place. Alfred Hrdlicka declared: "Capitalism has failed. When children in South America live on garbage, that is not an advertisement of freedom". With a panorama of the misery in the world, only a superficial part of reality is grasped. The crisis of the economically globalized world lies much deeper.

Hope is lost first in the apparent lack of alternatives to capitalism. The optimism implicit in Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz' philosophical deduction that the present world is the best of all possible worlds can be viewed with more scorn and sarcasm than in the 18th century in Voltaire's "Candide". If the "best of all possible worlds" should be realized, it will be through the reflective praxis of people, through a discursive process of "collective exploration" as the Italian socialist Lelio Basso wrote in the 60s and 70s. The many practical initiatives in the world are reason enough to come out of the fatalism of lack of alternatives.

Second, a contrast opens up which never existed before in the present cflarity: the contrast between work and financial assets. There is less and less (capitalistically exploitable) work in the world, a host of a billion unemployed and greater and greater financial assets hungering after interests or growth. Jean Ziegler calls this expansive business "bank banditry" in a "casino capitalism". The managers of enormous financial assets in the form of stock packages, pensions, insurance funds, loans and derivatives from loans use globalization to invest their assets here and there for the greatest possible exploitation. After they suck dry an "emerging market" like Dracula, they flee the unprofitable and unstable terrain and plunge it into a deep monetary and financial crisis.

The misery in Latin America described by Hrdlicka has a backside: the well-being of those involved in the financial assets striving worldwide for the highest profits. These are also small investors including workers and employees, no longer only the capitalists who exploit workers in the production process. They are seen sometimes in the train station studying the price quotations. By working on the computer, their small businesses aggregate into massive businesses with the fund managers.

Whoever depends only on work to gain an income is very bad off in times of globalization. First, the number of jobs has been lower than the number of those seeking work for a long time. Second, competition on the labor market is used to lower standards: wage cuts, reductions of social benefits, deterioration of working conditions. The statement of Johan Galtung that "the globalization of workers... has not occurred" is not the whole truth. Even if migration is limited by immigration laws and asylum restrictions, workers in different regions of the world are played off against each other through the high mobility of capital.

A "location battle" is waged. Not only in Germany, false arguments for lowering standards become a political threat. In times of globalization, capital has an "exit option" since it can "flee" the location. Employees are left only with their "voice". They must raise their voices against the exactions demanded of them. Unions are more important than ever.

Third, economic globalization has contributed to the globalization of environmental destruction. This is well-known since the publications of the Club of Rome. In the 80s, the Brundtlandt commission proclaimed the optimistic message that an ecologically sustainable economy is possible. The 1992 conference of Rio de Janeiro underlined this in a series of declarations and protocols which have created a new political field since this event with global climate- and environmental policy and the participation of non-governmental organizations.

Little has been achieved. The output of greenhouse gases is not lower despite full-bodied declarations. The diversity of species "is at an end" (Wolfgang Engelhardt), as many ecologists deplore, and an evolutionary atrocity can no longer be excluded. This could be a direct consequence of the fatal capitalist logic that only those natural things are interesting which can be commercialized. "Worthless things" will be stamped out like weeds. That "weeds" are central for the evolution of the species doesn't matter. The horizon of entrepeneurial thinking does not extend beyond an investment period of capital. This is much too short considering the sluggishness of natural processes.

The gibberish of the German president to quickly face the challenges of globalization with a "jolt" is an undisguised summons to the destruction of nature that is not yet recognized. Acceleration in time and expansion in space reduce time and speace to zero and eliminate nature as an obstacle of economic commercialization in the global competition.

If one takes together the error analysis of the realized socialist project and the analysis of globalized capitalism, several markers of a leftist project could be discerned. Equality and freedom are in a contradictory tension, it has often been emphasized. Identifying socialism with the principle of equality and capitalism with the principle of freedom is simplistic but not entirely wrong. Is it not conceivable that people can realize a high degree of freedom in the observance of their rights and their duties and nevertheless gain material equality (not leveling or egalitarianism) of living conditions?

If this equality should not be built on a low level, a certain wealth is a presupposition. How should wealth be measured? In exclusively monetary terms or can non-monetarily measured conditions be considered for the "quality of life"? These questions point to the absurdity of capitalist calculation deeply anchored in our thinking that all living conditions must be expressed in money. In an ecologically sustainable world, this kind of "monetarism" will have to be dismissed.

Is this possible under the pressure to achieve a monetary income and satisfy one's own needs and the needs of the family? Certainly not. What is crucial is reflecting about the uncoupling of work and income and about the needs that can be satisfied through direct personal services without monetary mediation. Ideas from the women's movement could be taken up here.

The central idea of a leftist project after the experiences of command socialism and considering the threatened crises of globalized capitalism is not faster and faster in catching up and overtaking in system competition but slower, spatially limited and regionally interwoven as envsioned by Johan Galtung, Samir Amin, Luciana Castellina and others. To get to the root of the ecological crisis, the burning of fossil sources of energy must be radically reduced. If this radicalism should not be impossible, time must be allowed for its realization. It will take generations until the ingrained habits or ways of life poured out in city concrete change.

At some time or other, we must begin. It is no accident that Alfred Hrdlicka, Johan Galtung or Gosta von Uxkuell urge a conversion to more spirituality, holistic thinking and the discovery that the rationalistically dismembered must be reunited by synthetic thinking. This sounds idealistic and the idealism reproach has been very harsh since Marx. Nevertheless a process is initiated through which the fatal monetarization and short-term materialism are revoked. Hopefully we will have this time. This is not certain. Unfortunately catastrophe cannot be excluded. However no leftist project for catastrophe is developed but rather a project for avoiding catastrophe.

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Aesthetics...yes! 10.Jan.2004 17:23


Sick and tired of suburban sprawl and boring/banal selection of landscaping plants. Let's spice things up in the art and aesthetic sector!