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This is the First Time I’ve Heard Tell of "The Real Economy"

Interview with Alain Rey, which appeared in l’Humanité on 21 October 2008.

Translated Monday 22 December 2008, by Henry Crapo

Linguist Alain Rey [1] decodes the terms, both new and rediscovered, used by "specialists" and the media to speak about the economic crisis.

These recent weeks we have dearly missed being able to hear the voice of the celebrated linguist Alain Rey, who could so well have picked apart and analyzed the words born of this crisis, as he used to do each morning on the radio station France Inter [2]. His subject was those neologisms used to manipulate the listener, to erase the logical paths to understanding, in the present instance, better to disguise the weighty consequences of an economic crisis that will, this time, be anything but virtual.

Huma: With the financial crisis, there emerges a stock market vocabulary, such as the "toxic assets", or the "subprimes". Linguist that you are, what do you think of this vocabulary?

Alain Rey: Yes, those are words that have passed from the technical vocabulary of the stock market, into public discourse. But no one really knows what they mean. The select few who do know, use these terms as a doctor might use medical terminology, to put the listener to sleep, to impress, or to produce their effect on some poor unlearned patient.

Huma: In particular, what do you think of the appearance of that strange expression "the real economy", used in opposition to a "financial and virtual economy" with which the ordinary citizen shouldn’t be overly concerned. As if there were two economies, disconnected from each other.

Alain Rey: You are right. I was shocked by the expression. And what interested me in this affair is that the term "financial crisis" is a very old expression, and completely normal because there have often been financial crises, most frequently associated with an economic crisis as in 1929, but this is the first time I’ve heard tell of "the real economy". This expression supposes, and this is rather monstrous, that the economy can’t be real in the world of finance. That there are thus two Capitalisms: a bad one that is in the process of collapsing, and a good one, which is "the real economy". The standard of living and buying power belong to the world of the real economy, because they represent realities of daily life far from the unreal world of finance. And this view is corroborated by more and more astronomical figures. When one speaks of 100,000 euros, we remain in a world that is still of human dimensions, even if we don’t ourselves possess such sums of money. When you speak of a million euros, we are more likely in the world of the rich, of the powerful, of soccer players, of Johnny Hallyday. Such figures can cause bitterness or admiration, but they remain real. But when one speaks of 27 billion, or 270 billion, or 2,700 billion dollars in a global economy, we are in a completely virtual sphere. There is no longer any human significance possible.

Yet, Capitalism is a single reality. It is fictitious to speak of a real economy. Marx had an expression that I often quote because I find it absolutely brilliant. For all material objects, all manufactured things, as well as the daily life and the landscapes, we are in a world of signs that represent, according to him, "hieroglyphics of human labor." All true value, he says, comes from work. But today, in this crisis, we see that true value no longer comes from work. Instead, it comes from sheer speculation. To speculate means to act on your imaginination, with no basis in reality, without any control. One lends on loans, and then one speaks of loans on borrowing. This is the contrary of good sense and personal experience. Wages, factory closings, standard of living, are all rather stable expressions because they relate to ordinary experience and to daily life.

Huma: The 1,700 billion euros injected by the European states are not virtual, and these are public funds ...

Alain Rey: Yes, and that money comes from states that are already in debt, and are going to have to face up to a recession, with its consequences for employment and thus consequences for taxes. Furthermore, the stock brokers are not wrong. The stock markets continue to fall because everyone knows that we are in for hard times. And Sarkozy, who announced to us that he would dig up economic growth with his bare teeth, now will have to eat his hat. It is no longer possible to convince people that there is a real economy that is doing all right, that the small and medium-sized companies, albeit in difficulty, will be able to continue thanks to the efforts of their wonderful businessmen owners. This is the thesis of the MEDEF [3], which assures us that the days of the golden parachute are over.

So they would have it that the real economy is based on and deals with understandable things, and that the rest is a bundle of technical stock market jargon and figures that signify nothing to the imagination. And one finds oneself in the same sort of universe as that of astronomers, except that astronomy doesn’t threaten to drop on our toes!

Translator’s notes:

[1Alain Rey (August 30, 1928 - ) is a French linguist, lexicographer and radio personality. He is the editor in chief at Dictionnaires Le Robert, the French dictionary publisher.
Rey’s dictionaries are known for their inclusiveness; they draw significantly more upon verlan (a French slang) and France’s regional languages than do rival publications.
Le langage ne sert pas uniquement à s’exprimer, il sert aussi à mentir, à influencer, à se faire valoir.
(Language serves not only the task of explanation, but also that of deception, persuasion and exploitation.)
— Alain Rey

[2Alain Rey used to hang around the newsroom of France Inter each morning between 8 and 9, and would jot down a few observations about what seemed to be the key word of the day. At 8h57 he would have the microphone, for his three minutes, "The Final Word", Le Mot de la fin. For this translator, that was often the intellectual high point of my day. A few sentences of analysis of one word, and the truth was laid bare. A collection of these paragraphs have appeared in print, under the title A mots découverts : Chroniques au fil de l’actualité , (In uncovered words: Chronicles on the news-wire). Alain Rey was removed from this time slot in September 2006, in a shake-up prior to the 2007 presidential elections, which also moved the Daniel Mermet’s politically influential program Là-bas si j’y suis out of its "prime time" slot at 5pm.

[3The MEDEF, the foremost business union in France. Guillaume Sarkozy, up-and-coming senior executive, renounced running for the top position of that union, in 2005, because he said he did not want to hinder his brother’s political career. He remains "second in line"... Please see the following article from l’Humanité (http://www.humanite.fr/2005-05-11_Politique_Le-MEDEF-cherche-un-chef)

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