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New Left Review I/188, July-August 1991

Robert Brenner and Mark Glick

The Regulation Approach: Theory and History

In the past two decades the French (or Paris) School of Economic Regulation has developed an ambitious historical-economic theory which has already had a major impact on efforts to understand the current malaise of the capitalist system and the accompanying economic transformations. [1] This article does not pretend to provide an inventory of the large and disparate family of perspectives that are today styled ‘regulationist’ by their proponents, let alone to review the myriad works of an empirical or theoretical nature that claim in some way to be inspired by one or another version of ‘Regulation Theory’. Our aim is rather to evaluate, as systematically as possible, one quite distinct and coherent perspective, which has as its founding statement M. Aglietta, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation. The us Experience (orig. pub. 1976), London 1979, and which is continued today, perhaps most prominently, in the works of Robert Boyer and Alain Lipietz, as well as Benjamin Coriat, J. Mistral and others. We have made every effort, therefore, to present the ideas of these authors as fully and coherently as possible. For a superb introduction to this strand of Regulation Theory, to which we are much indebted, see Mike Davis’s extended review article, ‘“Fordism” in Crisis: a Review of Michel Aglietta’s Régulation et crises: L’expérience des États Unis’, in Review (Binghampton), ii, Fall 1978. The authors wish to express their appreciation to Gerard Dumenil and Dominique Levy for their helpful comments and their release of data. Mark Glick wishes to acknowledge that his contribution to this project relies strongly on earlier research with Dumenil and Levy. We are also especially grateful to Dick Walker for reading and commenting extensively on two successive drafts, and for allowing us to make use of and refer to several of his papers in advance of publication. We would like to thank further Perry Anderson, Mike Davis, Diane Elson and Mike Parker for reading various drafts and offering valuable suggestions and criticisms. On the face of it, the School’s favourable reception is not difficult to explain. The Theory of Regulation responds to the belief, widespread today, that orthodox economics has failed to interpret satisfactorily actual patterns of development, past or contemporary, and that, in particular, its tendency to economic determinism prevents it from taking into account in systematic fashion the powerful ways in which historically developed class relations, institutional forms and, more generally, political action have shaped the evolution of capitalist economies. For their part, then, the Regulationists explicitly seek to go beyond the ahistorical verities of neoclassical economics. Their relationship to Marxist approaches is less clear. Yet it would seem that their original intention was to grasp how networks of institutional forms, during the successive epochs in which they held sway, have affected the expression of—or actually modified—the underlying tendencies or laws of capital accumulation as these have been analysed in the Marxist tradition. [2] Aglietta’s founding statement of the theory of regulation attempts to present it on systematically Marxist foundations. Lipietz has more or less followed in this tradition. Boyer, on the other hand, in his very useful summary of the Regulationists’ main theses—‘Technical Change and the Theory of “Regulation”’, in G. Dosi et al., eds., Technical Change and Economic Theory, London 1988—aims for ‘a new theoretical framework which would combine a critique of Marxian orthodoxy and an extension of Kaleckian and Keynesian macroeconomic ideas, in order to rejuvenate a variant of early institutional or historical theory’ (p. 70). Still, Boyer elsewhere says: ‘Making use of long-term or medium-term history to enrich and elaborate Marxian intuitions: such is the goal of Regulationist approaches.’ La Théorie de la Régulation: Une Analyse Critique, Paris 1986, p. 41 (our translation).

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