The Scandal of Wealth vs the Scandal of Poverty

The Scandal of Wealth vs the Scandal of Poverty September 24, 2014

Jacques Attali is one of, perhaps the most fascinating French intellectual alive, one of our few polymaths left, with enormously wide-ranging interests. Attali is an economist and a futurist with a keen interest in the history of ideas.

While tooling around on YouTube, I found out that Attali gave a speech (in French) outlining his thesis on the origins of capitalism. As Attali tells it, as soon as you had organization, the state created the market to get its wealth (shades of Polanyi) but controlled it, and in particular controlled it through the religious.

And Attali lays out the following dichotomy, which I find fascinating. In the early societies, the big scandal in social life was wealth. The big scandal was that some people were wealthy. According to Attali, who is Jewish, the first peoples to flip that around were the Jews: according to the Hebrew Bible, the true social scandal is not wealth, it’s poverty. If the true scandal is poverty, and not wealth, then it is fine for people to get rich, as long as they make a virtuous use of their wealth.

According to Attali, historic Christianity shifted back to the scandal of wealth, and only the Protestant Reformation recovered the scandal of poverty, paving the way to a Judeo-Christian understanding that led to the birth of modern capitalism.

I’m not sure (genuinely) what the picture about historic Christianity is, but I do find the dichotomy between the scandal of wealth and the scandal of poverty fascinating. (There are also obvious implications in regard to René Girard’s mimetic theory.)

What does the Jesus of the Gospels say? It seems obvious to me that he is a lot more concerned with the scandal of poverty than the scandal of wealth. I can think of only two Gospel passages concerning wealth: the story of the rich young man, and the story of the poor Lazarus (and the can arguably seem to fall under “unvirtuous use of money” rather than “scandal of wealth” itself). Meanwhile, Jesus condemns poverty over and over and over again.

This post is not an argument for or against anything, just a pointer to what I think is a very interesting idea.


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