On December 14, Die Zeit published an interview with the 72-year-old political scientist Elmar Altvater. Here are edited excerpts:
Altvater: Capitalism, as we know it, is approaching its end. The system rests on the exploitation of fossil fuels, and the supply is waning. Also, the environment is being destroyed to such an extent that the system cannot continue in its present form. This creates crises which are far more threatening than the current financial crisis.
Question: You don’t think the financial crisis is serious?
Altvater: Of course I do. Huge sums of money are being lost. But they can be restored. The destruction of nature cannot be reversed.
Question: Then what are we to do?
Altvater: We will have to rely on regulation by the state, approved by free, democratic consent. Those who complain that this requires far too much interference from the state should be reminded that in matters of traffic control we all tolerate an infinity of prohibitions. Nobody gets very excited about that.
Question: How do you explain that there is so little questioning of the system?
Altvater: In some ways, there is. We have the Occupy Movement which protests around the globe against the power of the banks. And in Spain we have the Indignados who are demonstrating about unemployment. But as soon as there is an election they vote for the Conservatives – an obvious paradox. It can only be explained by the thought that in times of crisis people are afraid of experiments. Conservatives promise stability.
Question: Have we lost the capacity to imagine another system?
Altvater: Not really. Nothing has been more criticized than Margaret Thatcher’s statement that there simply are no alternatives. Capitalism has become a habit. We can get used to other habits.
Question: Such as?
Altvater: In Bolivia and Ecuador, the principle of buen vivir has been anchored in the constitution. This is a model very different from the market economy. Everywhere in the world cooperatives have sprung up, in the field of energy and real estate, and many others. There are people who believe a centralized economic system can be devised by powerful computers. I think that is nonsense. In some form, markets will undoubtedly survive. But we have to get rid of the idea that the system we have is unchangeable.
Question: Do you have more hope than you used to have?
Altvater: When I was young I was full of hope. With growing age I have become more analytical. But I do have hope. Never before has change been as necessary as it is today and never have the chances of success been greater.