March 27, 2005

Liberalism is the new communism

Political rhetoric can be very confusing. Americans are used to hearing from right-wing politicians that liberalism is like communism, and the most recent right-winger to put this idea forward was Jacques Chirac, at a European summit meeting in Brussels last Tuesday. But he wasn't talking about the ideas of the Americans for Democratic Action -- he was warning about the dangers of free markets.

According to an article in The Times, the context seems to be the upcoming French referendum on the European Constitution, where the polls say the verdict might be "non". One of the issues is apparently worry about economic effects of competition for jobs, and in particular the consequences of the so-called "Services Directive", which French politicians are therefore vying with one another to oppose. As The Times explains:

This directive would allow anyone employed in a huge range of professions — from architects to plumbers — to operate anywhere in the EU without hindrance. It is such a logical element of a single market that was supposed to have been secured more than a decade ago that it is astonishing that it has not been introduced already. Every authoritative estimate of its economic impact is that it would increase net employment and enhance the rate of growth in Europe. It is, as Americans would put it, a “no-brainer”.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a severe shortage of brainpower at the highest level in France. Even though more jobs will be created than lost, the prospect of any redundancies means the directive has been attacked by the Socialist Party and the trade unions. Not to be outdone, M Chirac has jumped on the bandwagon, seized the wheel, and chose a dinner on Tuesday to condemn liberal market principles as “the new communism of our age”.

In European lingo, as I understand it, liberalism means (roughly) "free market economics", in the classical tradition of David Hume, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, J.S. Mill and so on. It's opposed on the left by socialism/communism, and on the right by Bonapartism and fascism. Chirac's party, the Rassemblement pour la Republique (RPR), is a right-wing party, opposed in principle by the Socialists and other leftists, and apparently in trouble on several fronts.

A Reuters story, presented on the site of the left-wing paper Libération, offers essentially the same perspective as The Times:

On a affirmé de sources diplomatiques britanniques que Jacques Chirac avait stigmatisé mardi soir devant ses pairs européens l'ultralibéralisme, "ce nouveau communisme".

Le Premier ministre irlandais, Bertie Ahern, a rapporté que le président français s'était présenté comme "socialiste" lors des discussions du sommet.

"J'ai souligné fortement que la croissance économique et la cohésion sociale allaient de pair dans le projet européen. C'est ce qui fait la force, l'originalité du projet européen", a expliqué Jacques Chirac.

L'ancien contempteur de la "fracture sociale" a ainsi esquissé l'argumentaire élyséen dans la campagne référendaire.

We have confirmed from British diplomatic sources that on Tuesday evening Jacques Chirac stigmatized ultra-liberalism, in front of his European peers, as "this new communism". [...]

The Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, reported that the French president presented himself as a "socialist" at the time of the summit discussions.

"I have forcefully emphasized that economic growth and social cohesion go together in the European project. That is what makes the force, the originality of the European project," explained Jacques Chirac.

The one who was formerly scornful of the "social divide" has thus sketched the Elysee's sales pitch in the referendum campaign.

The business about "bruits du couloir" refers to this press conference, in which Chirac was asked

QUESTION - Monsieur le Président, si le néo-libéralisme est le nouveau communisme, qui est donc Tony BLAIR, qui mène ce néo-libéralisme ?

Question - Mr. President, if neo-liberalism is the new communism, then who is Tony Blair, who leads this neo-liberalism?

and answered with 700 words of ergodic poli-babble, beginning

LE PRESIDENT - Je ne sais pas exactement ce à quoi vous faites allusion, mais je vais quand même vous répondre : je veux simplement vous mettre en garde contre les bruits de couloir, c'est une règle générale.

The President - I don't know exactly what you're alluding to, but I will respond anyhow: I simply want to put you on guard against corridor chit-chat, as a general principle.

The issue of dirigisme ("interventionism", i.e. central planning by the state) is apparently one of the issues on which left and right can agree, at least in France.

Radio France Internationale, quoting Le Figaro, suggests that Chirac's opposition to the Services Directive is, shall we say, subtle:

Jacques Chirac a « critiqué cette directive sans exiger son retrait » : [...] la position française apparaît « si peu lisible qu'elle perd de sa crédibilité ».

Jacques Chirac has "criticized this directive without requiring it to be withdrawn": the French position seems "so unreadable that it loses its credibility".

Please don't think I'm picking on the French, by the way. I happened to notice this little episode because I've been reading the French-language press to keep tabs on the France v. Google story. I have extra time to do this because the American news media have now become "all Terri Schiavo, all the time". It's always refreshing to learn about the pandering of some other country's politicians.

Oh, and one last linguistic note -- the snowclone "X is the new communism" (in English) get 2,280 hits in English, for values of X including (in page-rank order) Islam, Frenchness, capitalism, ultra-liberalism, libertarianism (these last three referring to Chirac's mot), trashy-chic fashion, terror, terrorism, and organized crime.

I'm not quite sure how to generalize Chirac's expression in French: there are 798 pages about {"nouveau communisme"}, but most of them seem to be actually about new or renewed communism. We can find things like

L'argent est le nouveau "Dieu"
Le marron est le nouveau noir.

but the pattern doesn't seem to have the currency that it does in English, and "ce nouveau|nouvelle" doesn't seem to turn up analogous uses.


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 27, 2005 12:01 AM