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Capitalism and Nature: Elmar Altvater

by Bernhard Leubolt Thursday, Mar. 26, 2009 at 3:24 AM

The capitalist formation of society is characterized by growth fetishism, the notion that boundless growth is socially necessary. Capitalism is historical. "If its beginning is certain, its end is also certain."


A Review of Elmar Altvater’s “The End of Capitalism: A Radical criticism of Capitalism”

By Bernhard Leubolt

[This book review published 3/22/2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.gbw-wien.at/?art_id=129.]

“The End of Capitalism” by the renowned German professor of political economy Elmar Altvater focuses on the question of ecological sustainability. He describes the development of capitalism as dependent on the “Trinity” of European rationality materialized in modern industry, “fossil fuels that are its fuel and the capitalist formation of society with its dynamic stimulated by profit and competition.” (p.72)

The capitalist formation of society is characterized by growth fetishism, the notion that boundless growth is socially necessary.


With its maxim “time is money,” European rationality sets the philosophical foundation for this fetishism. Individual avarice and greed, not the hedonist principle of enjoying life collectively are its characteristics. This maxim is realized practically by the private appropriation of resources.

Developing from Marx’ Capital, Altvater defines four different forms of private appropriation: 1. Commodification of nature based on the privatization of public property, the violent historical expulsion of farmers who had to work on the expropriated land or in cities as wage earners, 2. Absolute surplus production by lengthening the working day or lowering wages, 3. Relative surplus production through increased productivity that had positive effects on the standard of living of wage earners in the Fordist welfare state while contributing decisively to destruction of the environment, and 4.Geopolitics and the new imperialism where the limits of growth within a nation state are overcome by expropriating other states, the wealth transfer from the periphery to the center.


Industrialization based on the exploitation of fossil fuels makes possible the centralization necessary for capitalism, for example development of metropolitan areas and the high mobility of goods and people necessary for the formation of the “world market” (as long as people have the necessary financial resources). According to Altvater, “fossilism” sets the foundation for the financial markets and is marked by the informalization and deregulation of labor. The crisis tendencies of capitalism are unmistakable. Thus the current military conflicts turn around the control of fossil sources of energy – either around crude oil as in Iraq or control of pipelines as in Afghanistan. Financial crises and precariousness of working persons occur alongside the imperialist wars. The natural limits of growth will be reached soon. Altvater estimates the availability of fossil fuels at a maximum 40 years so that profitability and efficiency of production will rapidly fall.


Building on these crisis tendencies, an “outward push of extreme intensity together with a credible alternative” (p.13) could bring about the collapse of capitalism, Altvater writes referring to the French historian Ferdinand Braudel. Altvater sees such alternatives in a “solar revolution” and a solidarity economy. “Political alternatives are not invented in academic or political circles. They arise in and out of the political, social and economic praxis of people in social movements” (p.178), he remarks. A critical analysis of the state and concrete political alternatives is cut short. The focus of the book lies in the critical analysis of capitalism in conjunction with the emphasis on the environment-based limits of growth. Altvater shows convincingly “that capitalism is historical. If it’s beginning is certain, its end is also certain” (p.23).

Altvater’s book can give us the joyful hope of being part of a movement that witnesses the end of real existing capitalism and can begin building a more just and sustainable world.
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