A war economy at the service of an economy of life
Jacques AttaliWriter, president of the Positive Planet Foundation, president of the of Attali et Associés, Honorary member of the French Conseil d’Etat
Revue européenne du droit, Summer 2022, n°4
By Jacques Attali, writer, president of the Positive Planet Foundation, president of the of Attali et Associés, Honorary member of the Conseil d’Etat
Among all the threats that weigh today on our communities, we can name at least seven, in decreasing order of probability, without any chronological order, nor hierarchy of seriousness.
A climate crisis: it is not a risk, it is a certainty: in three years, humanity will have reached a point of no return and will no longer be able to control the dynamics of the evolution of the planet’s temperature. And the same will soon be true for a large number of other aspects of life on Earth, whose very specific conditions of existence are now being widely undermined. It is therefore vital for all the world’s leaders to take, separately as well as jointly, major, radical and revolutionary initiatives to ensure that our planet is still habitable in thirty years’ time.
A world famine: here again, world famine is not a mere possibility, but an announced catastrophe, which has begun in certain regions of Africa and Asia, and which has recently become much worse, in particular because of the war in Ukraine, which, irrespective of what happens with weapons, will deprive humanity of a very important part of its food supply, and of its fertilisers, for at least two years. If nothing is done, this famine will lead to the death of millions of people on all continents and will provoke huge population movements, which no populist barrier to entry will be able to hold back if we do not take the lead in helping these populations to develop autonomous means to feed themselves.
A shortage of strategic raw materials: some raw materials (such as graphite, lithium, titanium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and magnets) are becoming increasingly scarce; they are being consumed more and more, and they are particularly vital for the industries of the future. For example, batteries (on the use of which are based many hopes of mitigating climate change) and wind turbines depend on materials that are only widely available in one or two countries with unpredictable political behaviour, such as China (for magnets) and Russia (for titanium): for the moment there is no alternative. What will happen then when a large part of the production lines for batteries, computers, solar panels, wind turbines and vehicles of all kinds is interrupted worldwide due to a blockage? What is being done to prepare for this? To break this deadly dependence?
A nuclear war with Russia: the current horrendous, monstrous conflict, in which an army deports, tortures, rapes, kills and denies the very existence of a brotherly and neighbouring people, is probably just beginning. It could, as it escalates, lead democracies to increasingly support this martyred people, not only through weapons supplies, but also by becoming more and more clearly involved in the conflict. Especially if, in a few weeks’ time, it should worsen by Russia using chemical weapons on Ukrainian territory or bombing chemical or nuclear plants, or even using tactical or strategic nuclear bombs. Such a scenario, however crazy, is perfectly plausible. In particular, one could fear that, as victory in Ukraine becomes out of reach, Russia decides to widen the battlefield to some other neighbouring countries in Europe. And that would be World War III: the real first thermonuclear war. Humanity would not survive it. What to do to prevent it?
A new global pandemic: no expert excludes (and some even consider it very likely) that a new variant of this or another virus will one day attack humanity on a massive scale again. In fact, the one that is still attacking us today is far from being defeated. Will we be ready to make the best use of science to protect ourselves from a new epidemic tsunami? Will we be able to defend ourselves by uniting and preserving democracy, where it exists?
A global financial crisis: for the past fifteen years, we have not solved any crisis, be it economic, social, financial, health or ecological: all we have done is to increase the burden of expenditure necessary to keep our societies in working order, by rolling forward a ball of ever larger debts. The consequences have been foreseeable for a long time: a return of major inflation, aggravated by the preceding events; increasingly high levels of public and private debt, bearing ever higher interest, until the most indebted nations, cities, companies and households become insolvent. We will then have to close schools and hospitals and halt essential policies aiming to mitigate global warming. Does anyone prefer this scenario? What is being done to prepare for it, or better still, to avoid it?
A global political crisis could then arise from a realisation of the inability of leaders to tame these problems, to save the world. Leaders would be swept away; a very dark period would begin. Again, what is being done to improve global governance before this crisis begins?
What is democracy threatened by?
If such crises materialise, they will primarily affect democracies.
The first reason is that one can growing demands for protection, autonomy, isolation, authority, and consideration of long-term threats, which no current democratic government can assume without undermining its very essence. We can already see democracies in Poland, Hungary, India, Indonesia and Ethiopia falling into what is modestly called “illiberalism”: it is the antechamber to totalitarianism.
Second, everything is falling into place, as has long been expected, for the largest global companies to become independent of the States, and in particular the democracies, from which they originate. Tomorrow, the market will be increasingly global, while democracy, where it exists or will still exist, will remain local. This will make the so-called authority of the States, including the most powerful ones, increasingly derisory. This was easily foreseeable: companies are, by nature, borderless (geographically and in terms of their scope of action), whereas nations are defined by borders and States cannot easily change their scope of action 1 . Thus, we are increasingly seeing very large companies, in particular the large platforms (known as ‘Big Tech’), escape the rules set by democratic States. The latter still have the means to control them, as the Chinese leaders have done with their companies, the ‘BATX’. But very shortly these global companies will escape from the reach of the States, which will only be able to ensure the rule of law, at best, within their territory, leaving vast and numerous spaces where it can be bypassed. These companies will only be accountable to their shareholders for the messages they promote, and the products they put on the market. They will then organise a generalised hyper-surveillance of workers and consumers for their own needs, by controlling the behaviour of their employees, their customers, their investors: they will find benefits in this market servitude, which will promise, as always, a longer life, with much less pain and much more love.
Finally, there is nothing more dangerous than a globalised market without a corresponding global rule of law. It will engender the reign of absolute short-termism, of corruption, of the commodification of all social relations, the halting of all efforts against crises, where the latter can generate profits. It will be the continuation of the evolution that began with the emergence of the market economy, something like ten thousand years ago, which transforms all services exchanged between humans into mass-produced goods, including the humans themselves. And it is this artificialization that destroys nature, disrupts its laws, instils in each human being thousands of prostheses, to avoid illness, pain, insecurity, ignorance. To distract her. To make ger forget that she is mortal.
If humanity does not destroy itself first through war, environmental disruption, or some other crisis that lies in the future, we will witness the total artificialisation of life; humanity will become an artefact produced by artefacts, a collection of reproducible objects. It will not be able to survive. And yet, it will die from fear of death…
What else is Europe specifically threatened by?
In this maelstrom, Europe today is a relative haven of peace and happiness. It is a continent of immense diversity, united by a love of democracy, a temperate climate, considerable resources, one of the richest regions in the world, if not the richest and most powerful. It enjoys political freedoms unknown anywhere else, the most advanced democracies, some of the best hospitals in the world, outstanding researchers, leading companies in all fields, and unique cultural activities. And it is in Europe that we are experimenting, with considerable success, despite the difficulties, with what could one day be a world governance system that is respectful of the diversity of peoples and nations.
For all these reasons, no one outside of this continent has an interest in its success; and its very survival is threatened.
By its economic and geopolitical competitors, who will want to take all its treasures, steal all its markets and deny it any means of power. We will witness the main European companies being bought up by investment funds or competitors from elsewhere. We will see non-European powers, enemies in other respects, agreeing to prevent the Union from acquiring the real means of industrial, political and military power and sovereignty.
By those who will not be able to tolerate that the success of a democratic model gives ideas to their own citizens, pushing them to rebel, and to their vassals, pushing them to escape their orbit. This is what is already happening today in Ukraine, whose adherence to European values is intolerable for Russia, which is losing its cradle of identity, and which cannot tolerate the prospect of a democratic society on its doorstep, holding out to its inhabitants the prospect of economic success and political freedom unknown in Russia since its foundation.
In total, almost all countries outside the Union, from China to the United States, from Russia to Great Britain, cannot tolerate the prospect of its success and will do everything to oppose it, to destroy it. In every possible way.
There is a great danger that, in the great maelstrom of the world, Europe will end up being subjected to foreign laws, set in Washington, New York, California or Shanghai, and will end up dissolving into a great global market, where it will no longer have a say, of which it will be no more than a museum, and from which all young people in search of success and freedom will leave.
In such a Europe, France would also lose the last shreds of its sovereignty and would continue to unravel, forced to adopt the language, culture, legal system, values and procedures of Anglo-Saxon communitarianism.
For all these reasons, and precisely because these threats are multiplying, the European project has never been more important. If this small democratic flame were to be extinguished, there would be little hope for democracy on the planet: the flame could not be passed to the American caricature. Moreover, if Europe fails, how can we hope to achieve one day on a global scale what we could not achieve with one-twentieth of the world’s total population?
We should urgently remind ourselves that history is tragic; that it obeys laws that can be grasped, that many events over the next five years will be part of these trends, will threaten the standard of living, the well-being and the public freedoms in democratic States; and that, in order to confront them, we will have to choose leaders who are aware of this reading of history and of the importance of constant cooperation between all those who will be seated, for some time, in Europe, in the cockpit of the plane flying us towards our future.
A strategic concept: the life society
We could then discuss a succession of measures to be taken to try to avoid these predictable disasters. This would be meaningless and pointless if we do not first define a clear strategic concept and an effective method for carrying out these battles.
The strategic framework cannot be liberalism, which would only lead to leaving our future in the hands of the deadly laws of the market. Nor can it be social democracy, which is still limited to thinking about the best ways to protect the victims of capitalism’s hard laws. Nor can it emerge from an absolute rejection of capitalism, a rejection that could in theory be justified by the urgency of halting the process of artificialisation of life. Nor can it be born of a negation of democratic principles, on the pretext that they only protect short-term interests. Both the market and democracy are still irreplaceable processes.
The market is the least tragic way to manage the scarcity of private goods and democracy the least totalitarian way to manage the scarcity of public goods. But to prevent the market from overtaking democracy, clear boundaries must be drawn between what can and cannot be traded, it must be made clear which market activities are to be encouraged and which are to be banned, and a way must be found to give a say to future generations, largely forgotten by current decision-making mechanisms.
Electoral procedures in market democracies should be constrained by regulatory mechanisms that protect the interests of future generations. For this purpose, a part of the living world must be made untouchable, and productive activities must be redirected to that which is most useful to future generations.
For such a society to function, it must first preserve and develop non-market activities (sharing, sports, artistic and political activities, the practice of living together, learning, conversation, transmission), which clearly increase the well-being of future generations.
The market must then be reoriented towards the production of goods and jobs in sectors that, in one way or another, have the defence of life as their mission: health, food, hygiene, education, research, innovation, sustainable energy, information, culture, art, democracy, defence, security, logistics, trade, sustainable finance. These sectors form what I call the ‘life economy’. Until very recently, they were mainly made up of services, and therefore did not carry the potential for growth – which implies an increase in productivity resulting from the industrialisation of a service. Recently, they have also been made up of industries capable of innovating and constantly improving their capacity to fulfil their mission.
It is also necessary to convert the other sectors, constituting the ‘economy of death’, which today, in all countries, represent the bulk of market production: no small task, since it will be necessary to change all activities that require the use of fossil fuels (the oil and gas industry, the automobile industry, chemicals, plastics, fashion, tourism) or artificial sugars and other drugs (a large part of our food supply).
Finally, the wealth thus produced should be fairly distributed: this is essentially the role of the tax policy, which can only be truly effective if it is implemented worldwide.
All of this together will form a ‘life society’.
How to act? A war economy at the service of the life society
During the recent crises, each of us, personally or collectively, has felt the urgency of taking back control of our lives, of becoming sovereign again. In particular France and Europe have felt how dependent they are on the rest of the world, in essential areas: on the United States for defence, on Russia for energy, on China for rare earths and so many other things.
We should not be under any illusions: no mortal being can, by nature, be sovereign, since it does not control the essential, i.e. the date of its death. And even within the limited temporality of our lives, no one living in even the most democratic society can be fully sovereign, since he or she must take into account the sovereignty of others. This is true of the individual, the family, the commune, the nation, the world, and even of humanity as a whole. And nature itself, of which man is not the sovereign, is not sovereign either, since its evolution is determined by cosmological constraints. So, what is left for us, other than try, throughout our lives and history, to tear down the walls of our prison?
Many obstacles have stood in the way of this great historical movement. Religious, ideological, and political systems have done everything to prevent this from happening. Even today, a very large number of people, especially women, have no control over their own lives.
To achieve this, we must build a society of life, transforming our industrial apparatus into a war economy, to foster the means of the economy of life and reorient the sectors of the economy of death in a forced march.
For example, it is an open secret that our armies, like those of all other European countries, will soon be sorely lacking in ammunition and weaponry; especially if they continue, to their credit, to find and provide the means to defend and counterattack to those who, in Ukraine, are resisting the advance of dictatorship on our behalf. At the present rate, our forces will soon be, if they are not already, in no condition to exert a dissuasive influence, let alone engage in offensives if misfortune were to require it. It would therefore be urgent, very urgent, to put the industrial companies of the defence sector to work; to make them produce weapons and ammunition 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, ‘whatever it takes’. By reinforcing the industry through the reconversion, temporary or definitive, of companies, or at least of factories perfectly adaptable to these new needs: for example, the entire automobile industry could produce armaments.
This urgency is also justified for all the other sectors of the economy of life, to be developed; and for those of the economy of death, to be reconverted. For example, the tourism sector must become, as soon as possible, the sector of hospitality, in all the meanings of the word. And it will be exciting. This conversion must be done very quickly, taking into account the imminent crises that are mentioned above.
Moving to a war economy to promote the life society will require a real mobilisation of public opinion, and radical decisions: paying much more for work, and in particular overtime, in order to produce the tools necessary for the energy and agri-food transition at breakneck speed; granting unlimited subsidised loans to any industrialist who credibly embarks on production of this type or converts production lines from the economy of death. We are far from it.
More generally, the ‘whatever it takes’ should no longer concern demand but also and above all supply. And especially the supply of goods from all sectors of the life economy.
This requires preparation, organisation, recruitment, a liberalisation of practical and technical initiatives at all levels in the organisations, an administrative and above all political will, of all and at all times. This should also be a common project for all members of the European Union, calling on the continent to give itself the means of its sovereignty, which is a condition, as we can clearly see today, for the safeguarding of its way of life and its standard of living. This would not be easy, of course, especially at this moment in history, when Europe is facing a great moment of truth: will we have to go to war outside our borders? And how can we take such a decision together when only France, in the Union, has an army worthy of the name, without having the means to ensure the protection of its neighbours alone? How can we think of a European project when, in the face of all the emergencies, all we have had in Germany for the last fifteen years is a chancellor who was stubbornly convinced of her right to be the most economically powerful country in the region without having the slightest obligation to ensure her own defence? How can we think of a common project for the protection of that which unites us, when each one of us only thinks of taking shelter under the umbrella of a non-European army, whose guarantee of protection is increasingly illusory?
Some concrete proposals for a ‘European life society’
This is what needs to be changed and it will not be easy.
We must be able to give ourselves the means for a genuine policy for life. This would mean ensuring and financing jointly our common security and defence, in a holistic conception of a ‘European society of life’.
This implies a redirection of all national defence and security policies, health, education, agricultural and industrial policies of the Union according to this strategic concept; transforming the EIB, the largest public bank in the world, into the ‘Bank of the Life Economy’ and not only into a climate bank; and making people aware of the need to work together in a war economy, in order to achieve our sovereignty as soon as possible.
Many institutional reforms will follow from this strategic framework. First of all, the Union must be able to impose its own laws at home and elsewhere; it must have its own anti-corruption regulations; it must promote the use of its currency and European payment services; it must control foreign investments in the sectors of the life economy; it must put in place a carbon tax at its borders, at a credible level; it must reinforce the power of its Parliament; it must really elect those who lead it by universal suffrage, a condition for legitimate governance.
France will only be able to play a full and complete role in this transformation if it becomes an industrial power in the sectors of the economy of life, if it strengthens its military power and if it relies on the French-speaking world, which is the source of its identity.
This will not only be a matter for governments: Europeans are beginning to understand that the future depends on them much more than on their elected representatives; if the school system is doing badly, it is largely due to the parents, teachers and pupils, and not only to the budgets and programmes; if the health system is doing badly, it is not only because of the negligence of the ministries but also because of the lack of hygiene, the lack of sports practice, a disastrous diet, and waste of all kinds; if integration is going badly, it is not only because of the insufficient means of public policies, but also because the richest refuse to share their schools with the children of other social classes. If the country’s external deficit is so catastrophic, it is not only the fault of a non-existent industrial strategy or a suicidally prudent banking system, but also the fault of an entire country incapable of producing what it wants to consume; if our democracy is threatened, it is not only the fault of those who, at the top, do not respect it, but is also due to the fact that too few of us have the courage on a daily basis not to lower their eyes in front of those who threaten our democracy and to defend its core values and principles, including that of secularism.
All this defines a strategy: a society of life through an economy of war. The transformation would require continuous action, starting now and lasting at least twenty years. That is, the duration of four presidential terms.
Will they dare?
Jacques Attali, A war economy at the service of an economy of life, Aug 2022, 207-211.
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