[OPE-L] Jacques Attali on Marx

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Mon Feb 27 2006 - 11:04:11 EST

Guardian Unlimited Business | | Capital ideas

      Stuart Jeffries meets Jacques Attali, banker and champion of Marx

      Saturday February 25, 2006
      The Guardian

      Jacques Attali has changed. When he was the special economic adviser
to François Mitterrand in the 1980s, his name was a byword for pomp.
In the Elysée Palace, Mitterrand had the most coveted office, but
Attali had the best desk, one that had been designed for Napoleon.
Mitterrand may have been the French president, critics said, but
Attali - for all the brilliant banker's socialist credentials - had
the airs of an emperor. He is even Napoleonically short.

      That reputation followed Attali to London, where, in 1991, he became
the first president of the European Bank of Reconstruction and
Development and sparked controversy by lavishly marbling the halls
of its headquarters. Critics suggested that the £750,000 makeover
would have been better spent on the bank's founding purpose - namely
to ease former Soviet Bloc countries' transition to capitalism by
supplying small businesses with loans. Under Attali, though, the
EBRD got a reputation for being the bank that liked to to say "yes"
- to itself. He left early in 1993, trailing a reputation for
      Not only monetary profligacy, but literary profligacy too. He tells
me, proudly, that he has written 38 books, including mathematical,
economic, sociological and giddy futurological texts. He has also
written plays, biographies, memoirs, children's books, novels and
even a heart-rending lyric for the legendary French chanteuse
Barbara. All this while teaching at leading French universities or
chairing investment banks.

      There is, seemingly, nothing Attali cannot do. Better yet, he can do
several things at once. He says that it should have taken him 21
years to study for all the degrees and postgraduate qualifications
he has amassed, adding: "It only took me seven, because I did them
simultaneously." He is, and surely wants me to know, extravagantly

      Today, though, Attali greets me without extravagance at his modest
office in the drab Parisian suburb of Saint-Ouen. The office is
hardly fit for an emperor. Paint is flaking off the window frames.
His desk may well have come from a flat pack. The walls are notable
not for sumptuous marble but for a poster of an Oriental woman
chopping up meat on a butcher's block. It bears the slogan: "Help
them earn a living today for a future tomorrow." The poster is for
the organisation Attali founded in 1998 and still runs called PlaNet
Finance, an NGO whose stated aim is to "contribute to the
development of microfinance [ie small loans] to developing world
projects in order to fight poverty more efficiently".

      I'm in Attali's office to discuss his impressive new biography of
Karl Marx. Ironically, the banker once employed to help former
socialist economies adjust to capitalism is now trying to pull Marx
from history's rubbish bin. The book manages to be both unexpectedly
racy (spies, illegitimate children, blood on the barricades) and
controversial in arguing for the pertinence to the 21st century of
Marx's 19th-century economic theories. Today, as then, technology
promises to revolutionise production, inequalities in wealth and
income are immorally wide, and China threatens Anglo-Saxon economic
hegemony. "As today, no one knows whether markets are on the eve of
a wave of growth without precedent or about to suffer a paroxysm as
a result of their contradictions," Attali writes. Surely there are
differences? "They are similar," he insists. "Anarchists with bombs
were very similar to suicide bombers."

      That said, on page 501, he argues something apparently fatal to the
continued relevance of Marx's thought, namely that his notion of
class struggle between bourgeois and proletarian is obsolete. He
writes: "It is no longer possible to define social classes." But
Attali refuses to accept that this is fatal. He argues that Marx was
the first thinker of globalisation and that makes reading him
important today. His biography has been glowingly reviewed in France
and endorsed by the great British historian Eric Hobsbawm.

      Throughout the interview Attali checks his emails and takes mobile
phone calls. Such multitasking is undeniably a skill, though not yet
one celebrated in etiquette handbooks. He tells me he is very busy.
But he is also enacting his futurological theses. In Millennium, he
contended that modern society would be increasingly characterised by
nomadism, and presciently predicted that "nomad goods" (gadgets that
facilitate virtual travel) would be a feature of the new millennium.
His hero, Marx, may have been a real nomad, forced to up sticks from
a series of countries, but eventually he became stuck in London
because nobody else would have him. If only technology had evolved
faster, Marx might have nomadically explored cyberspace and his
mobile network before returning to answer his interlocutor's
questions, just as Attali does today.

      Poverty proves to be this interview's recurring theme, not just
because Attali is now professionally concerned with it but also
because he insists that this was what catalysed Marx's thought. More
importantly, Attali argues that Marx's concern for poverty can only
be understood in terms of his Jewish identity. "For Jews, the
scandal is poverty," says Attali, himself a Jew. "For Islam and
Christianity, wealth is a malediction and poverty a benediction. For
Jews, wealth is welcome and must be used to rebuild the world. He's
Jewish in that sense. If you read Das Kapital, nothing is written
against the wealth of Britain, but a lot against poverty."

      Attali's NGO is devoted to fighting poverty through small
initiatives. When will poverty become history? "Pauperisation is a
fact even though there is global growth," he says. "According to the
best forecasts, in 40 years' time, out of a global population of 9
billion, 4 billion will be living below the poverty line." The
answer to the question, then, is not soon - even though Attali
believes that the concentration of real economic power is
intolerably unequal. He says: "The real bourgeoisie running the
world is about 1,000 people. They are running capitalism." He
reconsiders: "Well, one might say it's 10,000, but no more than
that. In a world population of 6.5 billion, that is not very many

      Even though Marx was voted by Radio 4 listeners last year as the
most important philosopher, he is neglected. Attali's contention is
that, contrary to popular belief, Marx was not mistaken: capitalism
will fall and be replaced by a socialist system. The only question
is when. "For Marx the fall of the rate of profit will appear when
capitalism has exhausted its capacity for growth, which is not the
case," he says. "Socialism will come after this." But surely Marx
thought it would fall imminently? "No - two or three times in his
life he believed the revolution is going to be tomorrow, but
generally he believed it will be a long time before the revolution
will appear."

      But before the revolution, the US will collapse, he suggests. "It's
exactly like the Roman empire, which was skilful enough to organise
a long-term decay. Similarly, the US is able to understand that
industry is key and the level of innovation in things like iPods
shows that they have a capacity to survive. But the fact that they
also invest a lot in weapons, have a strong agriculture but are
exhausted in terms of debt - they need to be financed by the Chinese
- means that it will die. It will take a long time, though."

      Before I go, I ask what Marx's communist paradise will be like.
"People will be so freed from material contingency that they can do
what they want to. Communism is not about the state allocation of
scarce resources but the development of a society in which you can
do whatever you want. You could be a butcher in the morning, a
musician in the afternoon," he says. But surely the motor of wealth,
at least under capitalism, involved the division of labour? How
could communism work? Attali shrugs his shoulders. "This utopia is
the engine for Marx. And you can understand why: this man was living
in hell. He dreamed of a better world. There are a lot of parallels
between his understanding of communist paradise and the Messiah."

      In that neither is coming soon? Attali ignores the question. "That
is something fundamental about Jews - they are in love with the
future, Marx was in love with the future." Jacques Attali, no doubt,
is in love with the future. But he is more in love with virtual
nomadism. As I leave, he returns contentedly to his laptop and his

      Attali on poverty

      World poverty ... feeds on the mechanisms of the market and the
ideology of globalisation, organised around the value placed on
liberty, individual success, and egotism

      On international institutions

      They are too centralised, too bureaucratic, not in a situation to
take risks, and their very nature often prevents them from acting
either to compensate for the effects of poverty or to eliminate its

      On Marxism

      There is no such thing as Marxism. Marx said he was not a Marxist. I
certainly am not a Marxist

      On Marx and Judaism

      He inherits from Judaism the idea that poverty is intolerable and
that life is only valuable if it permits to ameliorate the fate of

      · Marx for the 21st Century with Jacques Attali, Eric Hobsbawm and
John Kampfner takes place on March 2 as part of Jewish Book Week.
Details: www.jewishbookweek.com. Karl Marx ou l'esprit du monde is
published by Fayard

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