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Stuart Jeffries, "Jacques Attali's Capital Ideas"

"Capital Ideas:

Jacques Attali, Banker and Champion of Marx"

Stuart Jeffries, London 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 profligacy.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 talented.

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 people."

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 mobile.

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 causes

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 humanity

["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.]