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The Future as Possibility: Elmar Altvater

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By Mischa Suter

[This essay commemorating Elmar Altvater published in the leftist Swiss Wochenzeitung 8/28/2008 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.woz.ch/artikel/2008/nr35/wirtschaft/16753.html.]

Elmar Altvater is the dean of Marxist economics. He analyzes the whirlpool of the financial markets, globalization and the possibilities of the solidarity economy.

For over forty years, Altvater has written books and faced the same problem again and again. "The last chapters of a book are always hard," Altvater says about the challenge of formulating a social perspective after identifying conditions. This problem is striking in many social-critical articles. Vague generalities, easy proposals and demands follow radical analyses. For most authors, there is a bifurcation between investigation and instruction for conduct, Altvater says. Altvater is the most important German-speaking Marxist economist today. The pensioned professor for political economy lives in an apartment building in Spandau near Berlin, an ordinary urban area with chicken snacks and corner pubs that have disappeared elsewhere in Berlin. The problems of the last chapters are not an accident but an essential characteristic of concrete utopia. "Our analysis of capitalism or society occurs in the time period between past and present. The future cannot be simply extrapolated. We must see the future as possibility." The often reserved and dispassionate conversation partner now speaks spiritedly. "This possibility is given by the society in which we live. We want to abolish something with capitalism. That abolishing happens under conditions given by capitalism." Another commentator once remarked in vicious stock market slang, the future is "the present plus more options." Thus an eternal present overwhelms the future that already appears. On the other hand, Altvater says, defending the future as a project is vital.


The economist who celebrated his seventieth birthday on August 24, 2008 has emphasized this throughout his long research life. In many massive books, Altvater analyzed the effect of the world market on countries of the third world and the connection between financial markets and destruction of the environment. "I have never drawn clear lines between the economy, politics and social analysis. Rule is exercised worldwide with economic means. Economic relations and hierarchies of power are connected. This is the arena investigated in Altvater's field, international political economy. Altvater grew up in the Ruhr area, in Kamen, a small town only known for its motorway described on radio traffic jam reports. His father was a miner in the coalmine. Working as a truck driver coordinator financed his study of economics in Munich. Grants did not really exist in the 1950s. Whoever came from the Ruhr discovered class society in elementary school. The leftist student from a proletarian background was politically marginalized at the university. He borrowed "Das Kapital" by Karl Marx and read it alone. Of the 20,000 students at the University of Munich, eleven were members of the German socialist student alliance. This changed when students came into movement in the middle of the 1960s. In 1968 Altvater wrote his dissertation about environmental problems in the Soviet Union and worked as an assistant at the University of Erlangen-Nurnberg. He began offering seminars on reading "Das Kapital." This was an immense success and Altvater received a professorship at the Free University (FU) in West Berlin in the fall of 1970. "We read `Das Kapital' as an emancipating project. We wanted to know how society functions and how we function in it." Altvater still probes Marx' chief work as a "collective effort." Several years ago he published "Kapital.doc," a reader with a CD-ROM.

The term "collective research" ("ricerca collectiva") comes from Italian socialist Lelio Basso and describes the interplay between social movement, political praxis and theoretical reflection on this praxis. Altvater's studies are collective investigations. Many texts arose as communal projects. With his partner, the political researcher Birgit Mahnkopf, professor of European social policy in Berlin, Altvater wrote books like "Limits of Globalization" ("Grenzen der Globalisierung") that appeared in its 7th edition in 2007. The studies focus on the cycles of movements, first the union movement and then the new social movements that multiplied since the 1970s. Later environmental policy and solidarity with the third world were top priorities in discussions. In the 1990s, global justice movements like Attac and the World Social Forums were the center of attention. In 2007 Altvater joined the German Left party (Die Linke). Altvater emphasized political developments in the journal Prokla edited. The first edition in 1971 was titled "Problems of the Class Structure." Five years later the journal changed its name to "Prokla. Journal for Political Economy and Socialist Policy" and in 1992 changed its subtitle to "Journal for Critical Social Science." The perspectives became blurred. The movement project with a scholarly claim became a scholarly journal with a political claim. Thematically the priorities also shifted. In the 1970s Prokla studies were mainly interested in the economic development of Germany. In union discussions, Altvater and other authors proposed ways beyond Keynesianism, the state-interventionist strategy of unions. "The dynamic and contradictions of the economic development in Germany cannot be understood without including the development in Europe," we noticed. Beyond Europe, the debt crisis of the third world in the 1980s expanded the research horizon. The research facilities in Brazil helped in this expansion. The collapse of command socialism in real time in Berlin caused an immense deregulation of the market mechanisms. With all criticism of command socialism, what does the upheaval in Eastern Europe from the primacy of politics and the state to the primacy of the economy mean for the left? What does it mean for those urging a radically different future than the "end of history" proclaimed in a deafening way? The essay "The Future of the Market" published in 1991 pursued these questions. Studying the crass tendencies of unbridled markets was all the more necessary after system competition was replaced by location competition. In the 1990s, the globalized economy of the world society needed to be explored. Globalization creates a "globe of compact-space and compact-time" as Mahnkopf and Altvater wrote in their standard work "Limits of Globalization" with low transportation- and communication costs and even falling transportation costs thanks to free trade agreements. The clearest expression and driving force of this development are the financial markets where the future is most strikingly hired by the present. Financial markets are basically unstable. Their liberalization in the 1970s intensified this instability. With the future uncertain, the financial sector lifts up this uncertainty. "The financial sector is not severed from the real economy but makes claims on the real economy," Altvater said in a conversation. "A profit in the financial sector of twenty-percent either represents a purely inflationary bubble - worthless paper - or a demand that this twenty percent be also gained by the real economy. Tremendous growth pressures with fatal ecological effects result from the financial markets." From the historic bird's eye view, capitalism only reached its growth dynamic because it relied completely on fossil energy. This made the outer limit of crude oil into an inner limit of capitalist development. Another world is not only possible; it is also necessary because we must change the world," Altvater said in his farewell address at FU Berlin in 2006 "if we want the world to survive."


Capitalism criticism happens with a practical intention out of a serious full-blown necessity. To that end, a conception of possible worlds is a conception of possible worlds is necessary. Author Robert Musil writes of the "sense of possibility" that is roused out of reality. This is the problem of the last chapter of books. Individuals do analyses but the future can only speak, Altvater says, "when one develops utopias and offers more than analyses. That can only happen collectively." Participating in the revolutionary process of social change, an inconspicuous process that is only infrequently a theme of books. People can resist their unacceptable situation. This impulse goes beyond the today. On journeys to Afghanistan after the great crisis of 2001, the factory occupations, the "fabricas recuperaidas," impressed Altvater. The re-appropriation born out of distress expands to a movement. "New spaces are conquered and no longer function according to the principles of exploitation - one uses something to make something and does not sell something for money." These small beginnings should not be romanticized. Unlike the individually organized principle of the market, experiments at solidarity economy presuppose a collective subject. This subject can arise in the interior of society from the conditions and their contradictions, developments and behavioral potentials. The dynamic of the collective subject is open."


By Gerhard Klas

[This book review was published in: SoZ-Sozialistische Zeitung, May 2007 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web.]

Unlike the "American way of life," the "European way of life" joins the principles of competition and free trade with solidarity and social protection from globalization. This is the standard language of many European Union politicians and their megaphones in the media. Elmar Altvater and Birgit Mahnkopf do not retain much of this version in their concise analysis. The European Union and its large nation states are active creators of globalization but the internal and external effects are disastrous.

The wage rate (the share of wages in the national income) has fallen everywhere in the EU in the last years. Social achievements were cut in the name of competition, so-called personal responsibility and privatization. The aggressive trade policy of the European commission defined by the lobby organizations of mammoth corporations ruins the economy of many so-called developing countries. Altvater and Mahnkopf prove this with copious figures, facts and examples.

The two authors do not only criticize neoliberal capitalism. They also grapple with its crisis. This has an inner and an outer dimension. The inner crisis is manifest in the rejection of the constitution draft by France and the Netherlands since the majority of citizens in Europe still treasure the social- and solidarity systems and refuse to sacrifice them to the neoliberal guidelines of the EU-draft.

The outer dimension of the crisis is connected with the dependence of the capitalist development model on fossil sources of energy. These fossil resources are finite, as Elmar Altvater explained in his last book, and subject to a competition that is also fought out militarily when the trade policy breaks down.

As a trouble spot of the imminent future, the authors point to the oil resources in Central Asia that the US, the EU, China, India and Russia seek to exploit. All these states have drastically increased their spending for armaments in the last years. The military security of oil resources has long been an official element of security strategies in the EU and the US.

Reading this book is unsettling. However Altvater and Mahnkopf did not want to hopelessly abandon their readers to conditions. They belong to the minority of scholars in Germany who work for global justice movements like the Attac network. Their book urges a radical change of course that from the authors' perspective should not stop with the social democratic policy of the 1970s. Like neoliberalism, this policy sought permanent economic growth and surplus production. Politics must break with this course given the finiteness of resources and climate change. A radical change to a strong public sector, the decentralized supply of solar energy, a new structure of the world of work and biological and regional agriculture must be realized. The authors do not discuss how this should be achieved in the globalized world. While weak, the chapter about alternatives to the EU is a pleasant departure from the mostly apologetic literature on the European Union. Our authors do not repeat the social and development policy rhetoric of official politics but offer a sober analysis of the economic conditions and provide important arguments for criticizing the European Union.

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