Surveying Utopia: Raul Zelik and Elmar Altvater (2012)
Raul Zelik and Elmar Altvater discuss the nature of utopia, economics, how growth and work became fetishes, how what is rational in micro-economics can become irrational in macro-economics, time prosperity, how the financial crisis shows the self-destructiveness of capitalism and how Marx recognized the contradictions in capitalism. Alternatives are possible and necessary. Viva Occupy!

Elmar Altvater: Utopia is not only a non-place, “a land that is not yet.” No, it is a full-blown contradiction. The concept of measuring must break down in the utopian. Therefore utopias have such a bad reputation. Progress seems to go from utopia to science. That was Friedrich Engels’ perspective. Wanting to measure utopia is itself a presumptuous utopian undertaking. This is shifting a little. A “new surveying of the world” is suddenly not entirely utopian any more. It has become the theme of realpolitik. The necessary new surveying is the activity of those think tanks that are paid for their scholarly advice to politics.

Political consultation is not our goal. The utopia that is central here has to do with another measurement – that appears in a text by Heinrich Heine from 1835. There we read:

“We have surveyed the land, weighed the natural forces, calculated the means of industry and behold we discover that this earth is big enough to offer adequate space to build the huts of their happiness, that this earth can feed all of us reasonably well if we all work and don’t want to live at the expense of others and that we don’t need to expel the poorer class to heaven.”

We people – the nine billion that we will soon be – could all have a reasonably bright life but must do something for that and simultaneously refrain from many things. We must reorganize the earth and spruce it up ecologically so to speak. Nature was ruthlessly exploited in the few centuries since the fossil and industrial revolution. We must prevent climate catastrophe and ensure that the intensifying battle for raw materials does not result in a bloodbath. We must prevent financial- and economic crises further aggravating the social oppositions.

In an interview, the English historian Eric Hobsbawm recently voiced the fear that the crises of capitalism could lead to a great and extremely bloody war. I hope these were only the fantasies of an old man who lived through two world wars and the “age of the extreme.” However I fear Hobsbawm could be right with his scenario.

Thus the standards for a utopian project are clear: enable people on earth to live reasonably well and not banish them to Paradise any more.

Raul Zelik: What is central is not only “bread,” the basic provision of people, but something that could be described generally and concisely with the term happier life, a life in which communication, work and social relations have another rank and substance.

Elmar Altvater: Right. Utopias can be presumptuous and not do justice to reality. We should be aware of this double meaning. One cannot simply escape the danger. Obviously we can be presumptuous when we speak about something that does not exist or does not yet exist.

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