ON THE RELATION OF NETWORKS AND POWER:

STRATEGIC DILEMMAS OF ATTAC

By Elmar Altvater

[This article published in June 2005 on the Attac-Austria website is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.attac.at/1761.98.html. Elmar Altvater is an emeritus professor of political economics at the Free University of Berlin.]


On one side, attac is a rather successful educational movement in the example of Pierre Bourdieu who emphasized “economic literacy” as one of the most important challenges of the global justice movement. The criticism of neoliberalism in its different facets by attac and attac circles has not gained “sovereignty over the air” in academic discussions. However, it has offered intellectual and political resistance to the neoliberal ideology. Think tanks with enormous funds support this ideology. “Steady drops” can hollow out the stone. That the SPD chairperson Muntefering touched the harsh tobacco of capitalism criticism to collect points in the election campaign reflects the de-legitimation of the global financial markets and their excesses enraging many people. Attac has criticized these excesses for years.

Political influence does not keep pace with developments but falls considerably behind. This is clear in the gap between theoretical strength and institutionally secured positions at German universities. This gap also appears in the relative strength of non-parliamentary positions and in the weakness of global justice positions in the parliamentary realm. Perhaps this has to do with the political form of attac. The (social) forum movement and formation of networks on and between local, national and global planes make possible intensified communication between activists of different groups. However this communication and activist positions and demands are not converted in power politics. Campaigns are organized in the hope that the political public can be influenced and the campaign goals adopted sometime or other in the parliamentary arena or by the government. The relation of networks and power must be defined more exactly in the global justice public.

Power is exercised on different planes from local and national to European and global. Therefore a political initiative is hard to localize and make imperative since many planes and many actors are involved. Political initiative is multi-dimensional and resists simple approaches. In relation to Europe, this means for example: confrontation with the Lisbon strategy that completely follows the concept of positional logic in deregulated global competition, defense of a European social model against Anglo-Saxon shareholder capitalism and the conflict around the constitution that sets the future framework in which alternatives can be conceived and realized.

A second dilemma results from the motto that has accompanied attac since its inception: Another world is possible. This was directed explicitly against the famous and thoughtless assumption of the impossibility of alternatives at the “end of history.” In the understanding of neoconservative ideologists, the end of history means the eternity of the institutional system of capitalism, that is of formal (not social), procedural (not material) political democracy, market economy and pluralist society commanded by the large owners of capital and their media. In this institutional triangle, the capitalist formation of society will spread in all eternity. This is the end of history.

If another world is possible, the question is immediately raised whether this different world can be conceived within the institutional system of capitalist social formation or only beyond capitalism. If the pluralist society allows the difference and diversity of social subjects, how far can the market be regulated and complemented by political planning of the economy? Is a material, social democracy possible in political, social and economic space as economic democracy under institutional capitalist conditions as Joseph Schumpeter envisioned more than fifty years ago?

The dialectic of reform and revolution should be discussed again. This task is certainly on today’s agenda. Re-reading Rosa Luxemburg could be helpful. However the question is more drastic than a century ago. The following problems will be on the agenda in the next years and decades: The fossil energy regime comes to an end, firstly on account of the greater scarcity in oil and secondly on account of the consequences of the burning of fossil energy for the world climate. The effects on transportation systems, consumption patterns, gender and generation relations, international relations and on war and peace will certainly be enormous even if no exact predictions are possible. The question about growth or shriveling will also be raised when the fuel of the industrial model is no longer as abundant as in the past 200 years of capitalist history since the industrial revolution. Perhaps the question about an alternative to capitalism will arise through these natural limits even by those who speak of the end of history or implicitly of the eternity of capitalism. Preparing str4ategically for this is vital. Is a post-fossil regime compatible with the capitalist mode of production?

Another question aims at the plundering character of modern capitalism that is discussed under the term global “expropriation economy.” Because of the mechanism of the global financial markets, high profits had to be posted (Ackermann wanted to gain 25% for the shareholders of Deutsche Bank while dismissing hundreds of employees). As a result, the substance of societies is tapped to benefit financial institutions. The global financial markets, e.g. derivatives and other financial innovations, the concept of shareholder value, offer the mechanisms of this plundering or expropriation the hedge- and private equity funds maximizing profits for their clientele of owners of financial assets at the expense of labor. A very good reason for regulation on the global plane exists that goes far beyond the necessity of immediate crisis resolution (Asian crisis).

Beginnings of a “solidarian economy” have formed in niches and at the edges of the capitalist economy, based on very different experiences and with very different claims. The (German) economic advisory board analyzed the potentials in the solidarian economy to give strategic weight to this field. The question how far a political project can arise out of the beginnings of a solidarian economy is central. This project refers to different planes and includes the role of supra-nation-state and nation-state regulation. The question is also to what extent a counter-project is developing against the extraordinary aggressiveness of neoconservatism.

What does all this mean for attac’s advisory board? First of all, themes for theoretical work and strategy development result from this analytical approach. The wheel obviously doesn’t always have to be reinvented. There is already much expertise inside and outside the advisory board that is available. A reader on solidarian economy in cooperation with attac France and attac Austria, Switzerland and Italy could help in the strategy debate.