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Capitalism Can Be Cured

by Elmar Altvater Wednesday, Jun. 13, 2012 at 3:30 AM

"The Occupy movement protests worldwide against the power of banks. The Indignados in Spain demonstrate against the system that gives them this crisis and high unemployment. No saying has been criticized more vigorously than Margaret Thatcher's `there is no alternative'."


Interview with Elmar Altvater

Our economic system is mired in crisis. The planet dies. It is high time to devise something new, capitalism critic Elmar Altvater says.

[This interview published in: ZEIT Online 11/25/2011 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.zeit.de/wirtschaft/2011-11/interview-altvater-kapitalismus/komplettansicht?print=true.
Elmar Altvater is an emeritus professor of political economy and author of many books and articles on globalization and alternative economics. Is there an alternative to our capitalist system? Altvater is a retired professor and untiring critic of capitalism.]

ZEIT Online: You are 73 years old and have spent your life criticizing capitalism. At the end, do you have more friends or enemies?

Elmar Altvater: I have few friends and few enemies.

ZEIT Online: Have you lost friends?

Altvater: One always loses friends when one enters into alliances. When I joined the Left party (Die Linke), many turned away from me. Sometimes I am not invited to dinner parties. But my enemies are also few. With age, one simply becomes less dangerous for rivals.

ZEIT Online: Since your student days, you have been a persistent critic of capitalism. On the other hand, some of your compatriots at that time have made their peace with the system, Joschka Fischer for example.

Altvater: Fischer is a merciless opportunist. It is a wonder that he is so popular in Germany.

ZEIT Online: Have you remained faithful?

Altvater: I have always tried to be authentic. I have constantly examined and changed my positions. I have always emphasized thinking radically and going to the root of the problem.

ZEIT Online: The FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung newspaper) editor Frank Schirrmacher asks whether or not the left may be right. But he also writes: leftist social criticism “ran itself into the ground.” How did you personally experience the years before the crisis?

Altvater: I expected nothing else. As a political scientist, I was accustomed to being marginalized. I was the confused colorful bird to whom people were friendly at congresses and sometimes affirmed. But research projects, for example, were blocked when hard money and power were involved.

ZEIT Online: You were regarded as a political diehard.

Altvater: I was called “grandpa” or a “traditional Marxist.” Such terms leave me cold. That funds for research projects were withheld affected me. I could not research as I wanted. In the meantime, this has changed, thanks be to God.

ZEIT Online: Does it give you great satisfaction that conservatives like Frank Schirrmacher admit the assumptions of leftists were not completely wrong?

Altvater: Why shouldn’t that give me great satisfaction? Obviously that is a confirmation. On the other hand, that isn’t so important to me. I already knew that my analysis of the financial crisis was better than the analysis of neoliberal economists.

ZEIT Online: You have written many books in which you criticized capitalism. Capitalism is more alive than ever. You must be frustrated.

Altvater: That doesn’t frustrate me. Rosa Luxemburg once said: capitalism will collapse when the sun falls to the earth, which is never. Capitalism is an extremely stable social system. Otherwise it wouldn’t have existed for 400 to 500 years. However that doesn’t mean that it will survive for many years.

ZEIT Online: You prophesy its end.

Altvater: Capitalism as we know it comes to an end. The western capitalist system is dynamic and flexible. It has created and satisfied many needs and has made many people rich even if the price was and is an increasing inequality. But the system rests on the exploitation of fossil fuels – and fossil fuels are now running low. Destruction of the environment is so great that life cannot go on this way. The crises that could arise are much more threatening than the financial crisis we are now experiencing.

ZEIT Online: Isn’t the financial crisis alarming?

Altvater: The financial crisis is ominous and ensures instability. The best idea would be regulating the financial markets and limiting the power of the financial industry by prohibiting certain financial businesses. But the crucial difference is that the crises in the money system can be repaired. Enormous sums are destroyed but they can be replaced. The destruction of nature that occurs with our present form of capitalism is irretrievable.

ZEIT Online: How would y8ou explain to the billions of people in India and China that the capitalism that makes them rich is not a good invention?

Altvater: That is a hard question. I would tell them the economy doesn’t only consist of money circuits, that growth also increases the inequality of incomes and assets and that with our growth we consume nature that wont be available a second time. We pollute our rivers, poison our food cycles and expel carbon dioxide in the environment which will first disappear in 120 years. In 2010 the amount of expelled CO2 rose six percent. The CO2 increased and didn’t decline although its decline was internationally agreed with the Kyoto protocol. Some time or other, the system will be so full of pollutants that we will reach a tipping point. Maybe we have already reached that moment.

ZEIT Online: The question is whether this is a crisis of the market economy. If so, it would be useful. Take the shortage of gasoline. More people will accept the shortage when the price soars to ten Euros per liter (forty Euros per gallon) more than when the government reduces the fuel.

Altvater: I know those arguments. I would tell them one thing: market-based instruments do not help at this point. The emission trade has not functioned. There are too many people who use the market mechanism to increase their profit, partly with semi-legal means. Forget the market. The market isn’t the crafty idea through whose application private vices change into public virtues.

ZEIT Online: You urge a stronger state that prescribes what we should do and allow.

Altvater: Rules are inevitable. Whoever constantly complains that there is too much state should remember that we tolerate infinitely many prohibitions in road traffic. No one gets excited about this. The state has to regulate how much we may fly, how much CO2 we emit, which financial speculation we must accept and where we must say “stop.” The regulations must be democratically agreed. This is not an authoritarian way.

ZEIT Online: How do you explain that no one puts the system in question – even after the great crisis?

Altvater: That is a great question. What is now happening is very astonishing. On one hand, we have the Occupy-movement that protests worldwide against the power of banks, the Indignados in Spain who demonstrate against the system that gives them this crisis and a high unemployment. But when voting occurs, the conservatives dominate the government – as now in Spain. This is an obvious paradox. The only explanation is that people are afraid of experiments. Conservatives simply promise security in times of crisis.

ZEIT Online: Have we lost imagination for another system?

Altvater: Not necessarily. There will be designs of utopian society in the future. No saying has been criticized more vigorously than Margaret Thatcher’s sentence there is “no alternative” to the present system. We have probably become accustomed to capitalism without considering utopian or alternative thinking. Governementality is Foucault’s term for the acceptance of social structures by the ruled. The rulers and the ruled become accustomed to a system. But this also means conversely: capitalism can be cured.

ZEIT Online: What could then appear?

Altvater: No one can say today what the system will look like. But there are inspiring ideas. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the governments have anchored the principle of buen vivir (the good life) in their constitutions. This can be understood as an alternative concept to the model of the West and to the consumption habits that we know. Cooperatives that manage energy, real estate or other necessities arise everywhere in the world. There are even more radical ideas. Modern planners believe a centrally controlled economy could be organized with today’s computerization that would function better than in the sixties or seventies. I regard that as nonsense. The market will continue to play a role, even if a more limited role. Still these ideas are important. We must abandon the ideology of the unchangeability of the prevailing conditions that hold us captive.

ZEIT Online: You propagate “socialism of the 21st century.” That sounds ideological.

Altvater: The term comes originally from Latin America, not from Europe. Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez emphasizes it. It doesn’t matter to me what we call the alternative as long as we begin reflecting about it. The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently declared we will not be able to build any fossil power plants from 2017 if we want to reach the two-degree goal of maximum global warming. In other words, if we don’t want the avalanche to be at our feet, we must begin now to radically rethink and reorganize our life and work. We may not fritter away any time.

ZEIT Online: Do you have more hope for change or less today than in the past?

Altvater: As a young man, one always has great hope. With age, one becomes satiated with experience. Still I am hopeful when I analyze social conditions. The necessity was never greater and the chances for a change were never better than today.


Altvater, Elmar, “In the Towrope of the Financial Markets,” November 2010
Altvater, Elmar, "The Great Crash or the Century Crisis"
Hickel, Rudolf, "The Banks Must Serve the Real Economy"
Hummel, Heerke, "Bankers, Hear the Signals"
Konicz, Tomasz, "The Crisis Explained," December 2011
Lohoff, Ernest and Trenkle, Norbert, "The Great Devaluation"
Reuter,Norbert, "Stagnation as a Trend-Life with Satiated Markets and Stagnating Economies," 2009
Schutze, Ingo, "Capitalism Doesn't Need Democracy"
Schutze, Ingo, "Our Beautiful New Clothes"


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