Utopia in Les Landes

WHEN THE NEW YORK STOCK MARKET CRASHED in October 1929, Charles Bedaux concluded that the principles he had used successfully on the shop floor should be applied to the economy as a whole. This conception was not another money-making scheme by an immigrant huckster. It was, he insisted, the only way to save mankind from cyclical crashes, mass unemployment and war. The efficiency engineer for industry conceived an efficiency theory for society. To replace the political and economic ideologies of his time–communism, capitalism, fascism and Nazism–he devised his own ‘ism’, ‘equivalism’. Although Bedaux himself never clearly formulated or wrote down the basis of his theory, he defined equivalism as ‘capitalism in communism’. He described it to his son, Charles Emile, as ‘Distribution of products pro-rata of the contribution of each, while assuring a decent living from the cradle to the grave.’ (Charles Emile, having graduated in engineering from Yale University, had come to France in 1939 to work for his father.) The bank failures that followed the Great Crash convinced Bedaux that money was fraud, not unlike Proudhon’s anarchist concept of property as theft. Bedaux asserted that history offered no examples of a stable currency. Underwriting money with gold and other precious metals had not prevented devaluations that deprived working people of the wealth they had earned. Even gold coins were debased, he said, by rulers who mixed them with alloy or clipped their size. His solution was to make the medium of exchange a unit of human energy–calibrated as the Bex, a slightly more sophisticated ‘B’ unit for measuring assembly line work that added a factor for mental labour. Under equivalism, no one would earn less than sixty Bex per hour–the minimum for a worker and his family to maintain an average living. With no more dollars, pounds or francs, producers and consumers would exchange goods and services measured in units of work. Bedaux would eliminate the ‘parasite’ class of landlords, speculators, agents and traders, who produced nothing, took most of the wealth and were a drag on economic efficiency.

In 1939, Bedaux had proposed that Germany, short of gold reserves, be the first state to back its currency with the Bex. He met Joachim von Ribbentrop at his Salzburg villa, with Joseph von Ledebur and Otto Abetz, in August 1939. Ribbentrop accepted Bedaux’s claim that human energy was a more reliable monetary medium than the gold used by the democracies of the West. He hinted that Germany might adopt some version of the Bex to back the Reichsmark. While the two men waxed on about economics, a secretary interrupted their conversation with an urgent message. Ribbentrop read it and exclaimed, in one of history’s understatements, ‘This may change everything!’ The interview ended abruptly.

Bedaux went from Salzburg to Berlin to see Hjalmar Schacht, whom he had met in 1937 as minister of economic affairs and head of the Reichsbank. Hitler had since dismissed Schacht for criticizing Kristallnacht , the night of 10 November 1938, when thousands of Jewish synagogues, shops and houses were destroyed and Jews viciously attacked in Germany. Schacht declined Bedaux’s invitation to lunch and suggested instead that they meet for dinner in a well-known Berlin restaurant. At dinner, Bedaux told Schacht of his discussions with Ribbentrop on backing the Reichsmark with the Bex. Schacht gave Bedaux a sobering response: ‘Monsieur, are you an engineer, an economist or a fool? If von Ribbentrop could lay hands on the gold you Americans have in Fort Knox, Germany’s money would rest on that gold and not on your silly unit of human energy.’ As Schacht continued what became a tirade, Berlin’s chief of police entered the restaurant and arrested him. It turned out the regime had forbidden him to speak to foreigners and to appear in public. By the time Schacht was released from house arrest three days later, Bedaux was back in France. There, he read why Ribbentrop had left him without explanation. He had flown to Moscow to sign the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact, whose secret provisions called for dividing Poland between the Nazi and Soviet dictatorships.

On 1 September, as Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland, Bedaux told his engineers in Lyons, ‘This war will not be like the others, whole populations will be exterminated. And when it is over the same social problems will still be there, the very ones that these horrible criminals had exploited to push people to kill each other.’ His goal, he said, was to preserve something from the conflagration to rebuild the post-war world.

The first French official Bedaux converted to equivalism was Maréchal Philippe Pétain. When Bedaux saw him at Vichy in October 1940 about the Kenadsa mines, Pétain seemed unexpectedly responsive to Bedaux’s theory. Bedaux recalled, ‘He understood nothing whatever about equivalism, but he gave me a very good lecture on it. He takes your words and he amplifies very well without understanding. ’ Bedaux asked for authorization to experiment on the town of Roquefort in the Department of Les Landes. It was a town Bedaux visited before the war, when he advised its paper mill, the Société des Papeteries de Roquefort. Pétain agreed that Bedaux could proceed, but only with the inhabitants’ consent. Bedaux told him he already had it.

Roquefort lay inland from the Atlantic coast between Spain and Bordeaux, about ninety miles north of Bayonne. The Franco-German demarcation line between Occupied and Unoccupied France cut through the town. Bedaux said it had ‘a complete cycle in a small sphere’, where 2,200 inhabitants worked in forestry, agriculture, sheep herding and small industry. There were also artisans and a few artists. Bedaux and his engineers went to Roquefort in March 1941. The engineers lived in the village, and Bedaux rented a comfortable villa nearby in Lencouacq.

Bedaux undertook the project with his usual thoroughness, assigning efficiency experts to study all aspects of Roquefort’s production and consumption. They examined income distribution, trade, labour efficiency and housing. They replaced woodsmen’s shacks with modern dwellings. Bedaux himself worked at the paper mill, which was selling mainly to the German occupier. One day, when he and chief engineer Marcel Grolleau argued about the running of the plant, Bedaux shouted abuse at him. Grolleau quit. Bedaux returned to Candé at the weekend and called Grolleau to apologize. They resumed work at Roquefort, but Bedaux left the project’s minutiae to Grolleau and the other engineers.

Grolleau, an experienced Touraine forestier before he met Bedaux, chopped swathes through the pine forests to create firebreaks. The wood supplied the mill, and he replenished it with fast-growing leucanea pines. The Bedaux model accomplished some of its objectives. Roquefort achieved full employment, the paper mill was working to capacity, the forest became sustainable and the town supplied its own fuel. Practical methods of running the factory and forest maintenance may have had more impact than equivalist theory.

Observers that the Germans sent to Roquefort made no criticisms of Bedaux’s methods, but they complained Vichy had made a mistake in assigning the venture to an American. American citizenship, until now an asset in Nazi-occupied France, was about to become a liability.

Charles Bedaux worked most of August on France’s planned Trans-Sahara railway, an old imperial goal that by the beginning of the war extended a mere 40 miles from the Algerian port of Nemours to the Moroccan border. Bedaux connected the line to another stretch that had been built in 1931 for manganese mines in the desert at Boufra. His efforts throughout the late summer to patch together a Sahara rail network achieved little. There were difficulties as well at the Kenadsa mines, where he failed to increase coal production. He went to Algiers and paid another visit to Robert Murphy at the US Consulate.

Bedaux was becoming one of Murphy’s more useful sources on French politics. Murphy reported to Washington that Bedaux told him that Admiral Jean-François Darlan, whom Pétain had promoted to vice-premier in February, was ‘sold lock, stock and barrel to the Germans, that his policy has been based on a belief in the ultimate German victory, but that at present he is extremely uneasy that he may be backing the wrong horse … He said that of French public men today General Weygand impressed him as about the only prominent one who had character to keep his word.’ Bedaux also thought that his friend Pierre Laval would not soon return to office under Pétain. While receiving political intelligence and analysis from Bedaux, Murphy did not reciprocate with American support for schemes in Vichy-controlled territories that might be useful to Germany.

On 29 September 1941, Bedaux saw Robert Murphy again in Algeria. This time, Murphy asked him to meet him at ‘the little nine-hole golf course near Algiers, a perfect place for security-proof discussions’. Like Abetz in Paris, Murphy may have been avoiding the bugging devices that the war had introduced to most diplomatic missions. Murphy warned Bedaux that his work at Kenadsa might be curtailed, explaining that by January 1942 ‘the roster of participants in the war, and the situation in North Africa, will have changed’. On the same day, the American Embassy in Vichy cabled the secretary of state about Bedaux, who ‘let it be known that he is cooperating on friendly terms with the Nazis in developing the trans-Saharan railway. His particular interest pertains to the neighborhood of Colomb-Béchar, which is a mining center. Several months ago, he stated rather boastfully that he was closely connected with Abetz and other Nazis in the Paris region, and he also stated that in his opinion (and with some satisfaction) that the war would be won by Germany.’

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