etatism. statism

In 2002, I asked Merriam-Webster the following question. Thomas Pitoniak replied as follows.

Q: How do etatism and statism differ?

A: “Statism” is defined in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th edition) as “concentration of economic controls and planning in the hands of a highly centralized government.” It is a broader term than “etatism,” which is a synonym of “state socialism,” since “statism” could refer to a highly regulated economy that does not share the specific characteristics of state socialism. “State socialism” means “an economic system with limited socialist characteristics introduced by usually gradual political action.”

Commentators toward the right of the political spectrum often do employ “statism” as a rough synonym, not just for “state socialism,” but “socialism” itself. The demon, then, in such a case, is obviously a state stranglehold on free enterprise. For example, in 1977 then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said:

the tide is beginning to turn against collectivism, socialism, statism, dirigisme, whatever you call it . . . It is becoming increasingly obvious to many people who were intellectual socialists that socialism has failed to fulfill its promises, both in its more extreme forms in the Communist world and in its compromise versions (quoted in the London Daily Telegraph, March 23, 2002).

Perhaps “compromise versions” itself alludes to state socialism.

However, the conservative commentator George Will uses the word more typically, not as a mere synonym of “socialism” or “state socialism,” here:

Such praise is not much heard in Sweden nowadays, and anyway Sweden is clearly a capitalist society, albeit one suffocating beneath statism (quoted in the Springfield Union-News [Massachusetts], June 11, 1990).

“Etatism” has perhaps the most complicated history of these terms, and in researching this response and in particular looking over some of our older evidence (and I mean old, going back more than 100 years), it seems to me that this entry may deserve some revision in the future, or at least serious consideration for such.

There are two main reasons for this. One is some evidence of occasional use to simply mean “statism,” and the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, bears this out even though they do not cover the most prominent use of “etatism,” and that is in regard to Turkey.

Ataturk (Mustafa Kemal) used “etatism” as one of the “six pillars” of the new Turkish constitution in 1937. The pillars were republicanism, nationalism, populism, etatism (listed, significantly, as “statism” in Encyclopaedia Britannica), secularism, and revolution (or reformism). (It is worth noting that the Economist, in its August 23-29, 1986 issue, said those pillars “are so nebulous that every Turkish political party has been able to pay lip service to them.”

Ataturk overhauled Turkey from the top down, and may well have been drawing on “etatism” in the sense of “state socialism,” since that also involved action by the state, not engendered in the proletariat. (State socialism has been traced by some to the “socialism of the chair” associated with German intellectuals in the 1870s and later who advocated bettering the lives of the working class through discrete adjustments [such as through legislation, insurance, labor reforms, etc.] rather than revolution or radical change.)

But what is clear is that the “etatism” that evolved under Ataturk in Turkey was its own species, specifically, it seems narrower in being confined primarily to the nationalization of industry. This looks like one pillar that was subsequently remodeled, especially after 1950, and the term “etatism” appears to have survived in regard to Turkey as a descriptor of its own distinct economy, not state socialism per se.

So there are at least three meanings of “etatism” that have been attested to various degrees: statism (in the sense we include in the Collegiate), state socialism, and perhaps most prominent, the economic system marked by nationalization of enterprise under Ataturk in Turkey and subsequently modified to reduce state control. This does not mean all three of these meanings are equally deserving of coverage, but I do thank you for bringing this issue up.

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